Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. The following sermon was preached at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by the Rev. Kara K. Root on June 19, 2016.
A week or so ago, I sat in a few lectures by a neuropsychologist (Tina Payne Bryson), who described how when we are healthy, we exist in a “river of well-being” that flows between the banks of chaos on the one side and rigidity on the other. Sometimes we can get trapped, stuck on the bank of rigidity or of chaos, marooned out of well-being.
It seems to me this is a perfect description of our world today. We are generally either stuck on the bank of chaos -- fear, reaction, mayhem, name calling, flailing, finger pointing, blaming and frantically trying to get our feet underneath us. Or we are stuck on the bank of rigidity -- trying to control others, setting stricter rules and higher walls and bigger boundaries. Naming enemies, organizing factions, eliminating adversaries. Judging who is safe and who is dangerous, who is right and who is wrong, who is with us and who is against us.
Last week, we talked about how easy it is to fall into factions -- and how Paul warns the Corinthians about this temptation. And they had the obvious pitfalls they were trying to avoid -- wealth, class, race. But in striving to avoid those, they cooked up some new ways to divide themselves -- Whose crew are you? Which leader do you follow? -- because dividing ourselves from one another is one of the oldest, strongest and surest ways sin rears its ugly head.
We all belong to God, and we all belong to each other.
All of us. All the humans. Without exception.
There is no more fundamental truth than this, nothing more real in all the world, actually. But oh, how we doubt it and disguise it and deny it. How we cover it up with layers of interpretation and competition and hedging our bets and building our coalitions and hiding our true selves.
Soon this hunger for belonging -- this absolutely core, unshakable reality that we yearn to feel because we know it in our depths as the truest thing and most real thing -- soon it becomes something we commodify. We dole it out in tiny amounts and sell to the highest bidder. We seek it relentlessly, addictively in harmful and dehumanizing ways. And we make it probationary, or provisional, shutting out some in order to welcome in others.
And this connection to God, this belonging to the very source of life, our identity, our purpose, our human-made-in-the-image-of-the-Creator core being -- we long so badly for it that we set up rules to mediate it, to say who has it and who doesn’t and how to earn it and who can dispense it and what can make you lose it or gain it. And oh, the chaos and the rigidity we can strand ourselves upon in our efforts to gain or earn what already defines us!
We forget -- in that deep, existential kind of forgetting -- that belonging to God and belonging to each other is something hidden before the foundation of the world, decreed before the ages for our glory, utterly true and unchanging.
So here Paul goes again.
There are two wisdoms, friends, he says.
There is the wisdom of this age. We’ve called it “the way of fear.” This wisdom tells us that might makes right. It says that salvation can be found in smart leaders, wise investments or the careful construction or dismantling of isms. It says we can be saved by weapons or by legislating against weapons, by this candidate or that party, this act of piety or that specific prayer, this way of seeing the world or that list of beliefs. It says that violence or moral rightness can force others to respect you or can earn you worth or a place at the table.
We put stock in that kind of wisdom; we pay money to it and educate our children in it and take it in through our televisions and computer screens and phones and radios, so many words: his words, her words, their words.
As we squint into the darkness, we hold up this worldly wisdom before us like the dingy beam of a dying flashlight, letting it guide us. And we’re killing each other. And we’re blaming each other. And we are finding more ways to divide into ever smaller and more homogenous camps, until there will be no belonging left and it will be just me against you -- all the “me’s” and all the “you’s” against all the other “me’s” and all the other “you’s.”
Despairing. Alone. Afraid.
But there is another wisdom.
Ancient and true. Secret and hidden. Decreed by God before the ages.
The wisdom that spoke the world into being with a single word, the wisdom that bound it all in harmony and order, a delight to its Creator, functioning in love and cooperation.
The wisdom of the Word made flesh when the Creator of all came to dwell among us. Stupidly. Weakly. Foolishly, to live without power and to die alongside us, on our behalf.
There is no worldly wisdom in this. It is “the deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” as the Narnians would say. It is unbreakable and strong, absurd and powerful, and it comes concealed in weakness, to stand with the weakest among us.
Paul was a Roman citizen from a prominent Jewish family, well-established, with an impressive pedigree. He studied under the most prominent rabbis of the day, and was fluent in classical literature, philosophy and ethics. Paul was educated in the wisdom of the world. He was a successful, powerful, influential figure, and a zealot. He knew how to speak the wisdom of the age, in the language of the rulers of the age.
But when he comes to the Corinthians, he chooses to leave all that behind. He sees it as a distraction, a shiny diversion that might keep people from seeing the real reality.
I did not come with all the methods and the political skills of lofty words or persuasion, he says. I came in weakness and fear, with much trembling. I wanted you to see God’s actions instead of focusing on my words. So that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
In other words, he says, I vowed to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Paul uses this language -- “Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” “the cross,” the “foolishness” of the cross -- again and again, as a kind of shorthand to refer to the whole of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. That is, that God came in this completely backward, upside-down way to share this life with us, taking all that separates us from God, even death itself, into God’s very being, and letting it destroy him.
And then, Jesus rose from the dead, and everything we thought was real about the power of death and division and destruction is exposed as utter fraud by the unquenchable light of the world, the wisdom hidden before the ages shining forth, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
It’s settled and final. We belong to God; we belong to each other. This is what Jesus trusted, and embodied, and died for and rose into and referred to again and again as “the kingdom of God.”
And yet …
And yet we choose sin. We choose self-protection and division and destruction and existential forgetting. We choose to tear others down and to fear, fear, fear that anything, everything, could tear us down.
And here is the free gift of salvation, friends. Right here: You belong to God. You belong to the rest of the people in this whole big world. And they belong to God. And they belong to you.
All that is needed is to say yes. Yes, I accept that. Yes, I receive that.
Which wisdom will you live by?
Which words will you listen to?
Which messages will you internalize and let direct your actions, your thoughts and words and habits?
You, sisters and brothers, you have the mind of Christ. That is to say, Jesus, who embodied completely belonging to God and to each other here on earth, whose Spirit actually inhabits us and makes us into his body here on earth so that we embody belonging to God and belonging to each other -- his mind is our mind now.
We can think this way. We can trust in this. We can see it around us. We can recognize it and understand, as Paul says, “the gifts of God bestowed on us.” We can point it out and celebrate it. We can hold it up in the midst of the worst kind of suffering and despair.
It should make us brave. Brave to face the truth. Brave to tell the truth. Brave to live the truth.
This sucks! This hurts so bad! It’s terrible, and I hate everything about it! And also, it’s not the end. It’s not the real, final and true word about all of this or all of us. And right here, in the midst of it, we keep belonging to God and we keep belonging to each other. Because that’s the real reality. And that will not change.
The neurobiologist lecturer I heard also talked about the usefulness of “storying” experiences as a way of helping people cope with trauma, whether big or small, by telling what happened -- saying it aloud, naming the feelings, recounting the events -- and then saying what happened next.
Every story ends with some kind of redemption. Even if it’s just, “and I survived” or, “and the community came around them in their loss” -- whatever it is, the story doesn’t end with the incident of trauma. That is not the final definer of a person or of reality.
I saw this in action that very day when my friend Theresa’s two-year-old, Eleanor, was on my sunny deck and walked barefoot onto a black mat. She pulled her foot back and with tears streaming down her face exclaimed, “That’s HOT! I burned my foot!"
“Oh, Eleanor!” I said, and I picked her up and hugged her. I asked her where it hurt, and I kissed it. We stood there feeling sad about it for a minute longer, and then she noticed a bird flying past and commented on it. After a moment, she turned her face to me and pointed to the mat and said, “Tell the story.”
Thankfully, I had been in the lecture and knew what she wanted.
“Ellie walked over to that mat, and she put her foot on it, and it was HOT. It hurt so much! Eleanor cried, and Aunty Kara picked her up and kissed the owie on her foot and asked her how she felt. Then we saw a bird flying right there.”
She nodded along. Her face pinched in sadness at the burning foot part and softened to a smile at the flying bird part.
She asked twice more for me to tell the story in the next few minutes, and twice more I recounted what had happened. And each time, I watched her body relax.
Yes. Yes, that is what happened. It’s real. It happened. It still stings, but it can’t hurt me any longer. You are holding it with me; I am not alone.
And I thought of all the times we tell each other, Oh, it’s OK! When it’s not OK.
Or we move on from the pain and try to avoid it.
I thought of the wisdom that says if you don’t talk about how bad it is, maybe they won’t notice they’re hurt.
Or the more pervasive move: Their charged emotion feels threatening, and it’s making me uncomfortable and afraid, so I will do whatever I can to silence, redirect or change it. Be it flailing in chaos or bringing the hammer of rigidity down, I will escape this.
But if we belong to each other and we belong to God, then there is nothing that happens to us that God doesn’t share. And sharing it with each other is how we experience that.
Pain? It’s uncomfortable. I will hold it with you and help you name it.
Stuckness? Fear? Addiction? Anger? Worry? Loss? We are in this together. I will help you tell the story of it, and you will help me remember that the story keeps going and doesn’t stop right here.
But I don’t get to just jump to the end because it’s making me uncomfortable. I have to go with you through the experience and see and bear with you, because that is where Jesus is. Bearing with us, already.
That is the wisdom of the Spirit -- that God doesn’t swoop in and sweep all of it off the table triumphantly; God sets a place for each person and sits down alongside us. God offers God’s very self to us, broken and given, so that we might be made whole.
None of the rulers of this age understand this.
And why should they? It makes no sense.
Its logic is love; its wisdom is spiritual. It is the mind of Christ.
Biblical scholar Mary Hinkle Shore describes spiritual wisdom as a pair of lenses at an eye exam, where, click-click-click, suddenly the fuzzy blur is sharp and clear, the chart in focus. You can see what was there all along, only obscured by the various lenses that eventually interpreted it for you.
She then manages to sum up the whole of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians when she explains: “The actions of those with the mind of Christ will be characterized by self-giving love. The leaders will act as servants (3:5). The strong will refrain from exercising their freedom at the expense of the weak (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). Love will prove greater than prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (13:8).”
And then she concludes: “To have the mind of Christ is to be able to imagine the new creation and participate in it before it has come into focus for others. And as God’s Spirit calls and equips the church for that imagining and participating, the new creation actually comes into focus for the world.”
Here’s the really good news about all this. It remains true whether you remember it or not. Whether you look for it or embody it or whether you’re stranded on the banks of rigidity or chaos, this fact remains. There is a real reality. There is a deeper wisdom. There is a truer truth: We belong to God; we belong to each other.
So this week, amid whatever chaos and bedlam or intolerant rigidity you may encounter outside or within, I invite you to stop, breathe and listen to the stories underneath. The ones that say, This sucks, and it hurts, and I feel alone and afraid.
Don’t turn away from those stories; take them in and bear them. Jesus is there. You belong to these people, and they belong to you.
Tell their stories to yourself, and add the parts that come next.
Our faith rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God, so watch for that power in the midst of the suffering parts and in the parts that come next -- the helpers, the sharers, the people embodying love and connection, hope and belonging, living the real reality right alongside and in the midst of whatever and everything.
Watch for the wisdom established before the foundation of the world -- the kingdom of God. It plays out mostly in weak, gentle and surprising ways, but it is steady, persistent, real. Underneath and behind and inside everything, this reality is the heartbeat that keeps the whole world alive:
We belong to God; we belong to each other.
We belong to God; we belong to each other.
We belong to God; we belong to each other.
Let it pulse through you.
Let it bring you back to life.