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"Finding Common Ground"

A Sermon based upon Matthew 5:20-26

This is the Sunday of our Annual Congregational Meeting – something that has happened here in Alpena for 157 years … and has been going on in America since the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 – that’s 400 years ago, come next year! WOW.

What we are doing here today – (1) receiving reports on the “state of our church”, (2) electing our officers, and (3) setting our budget for the New Year – are the basis for what were called “Town Hall Meetings” in colonial New England -- the very birthplace of our democracy -- and helped set the pattern for the rule of local law in America. (I hope you feel some pride of ownership of so many American values born from the Separatists who fled Europe.)

This annual gathering of our membership is much more than just a functional meeting required to do our business as a church. (!) It is that, of course, but its historical roots are much deeper -- intertwined with the concept of autonomous community leadership, which is our God-given right and which entails the intentional responsibility of us working together (in Jesus’ name, for God’s sake) to the best of our ability, trusting the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower us.

Last week I pointed out that our Congregational tradition casts a wide net of inclusion. As we say every Sunday: “whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That used to be the “American” way. It certainly is still part of being U.C.C!

In my little ditty of a song, I said: “You are welcome any day, if you want to come and pray, in the first church of Alpena, Michigan”… and “You know you’re in a special place that welcomes you!” Yes, welcoming all people, inclusion instead of exclusion, is our hallmark!

The historical marker that’s out on our front lawn notes that our founders in 1862 wanted a church that would be open to people of all faiths. Differences of beliefs, of doctrines, of ethnic origin, or of social class would not be given priority over “working together” as one community in faith and fellowship in Alpena. It was true then; it’s still true now!

As a result (as I said in my sermon last Sunday): we are all mixed up together, side-by-side, trying to get along in a “polarized” society.

In the United Church, there is no “one size fits all” set of beliefs. (!) We are a “non-creedal” church. In fact, that’s one thing that sets our kind of church apart from others! To be a “free” church -- not beholding to higher authorities, nor to mandated creeds -- is a big part of the reason those “Separatist” Pilgrims left the Anglican Church (and the Lutherans and Calvinist Reformed, and the Roman Catholic institutions) behind in Europe!

Now… we do work collegially with all other churches (at least, those who are willing to work with us!) -- collaborating with Methodists & Presbyterians & the Community of Christ; with First Baptist, and the LARC churches (Lutheran, Anglican Episcopal, & Roman Catholics). On this coming Wednesday we will celebrate the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” up at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

And (even though we are a non-creedal church), I did write a musical version of “the Apostle’s Creed” (which I sang for you this morning) because those words mean a lot to all those other churches and it expresses many things that I also believe.

So… as Congregationalists, we’re not “against” any other church, denomination, or religion -- as a matter of fact, we even get along with many a good atheist and “secular” humanitarian. The official motto of our United Church of Christ is Jesus’ prayer for the Church (in John 17:21): “That they may all be one!” We are a united and a uniting people.

Unlike other more narrowly-defined Christian denominations and independent Evangelical churches, we put a high value on maintaining harmony in the midst of our diversity. Our slogan from more than a Century ago is (as I said last Sunday): “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; and in all things, charity.” Love is 1st!

I wanted to follow up on those thoughts this morning by hearing a snippet of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”. First, his advice about getting past the tendency to be angry with people -- insulting them, and calling them “a fool” -- any & all of which makes a person liable to judgment (according to Jesus!). And, second, his example of reconciling with your adversary before you take each other to court!

In the first case, “God fearing” people thought they had done enough when they refrained from killing their adversary! (“Thou shalt not kill,” you know?) But according to Jesus, it’s not enough to think that you are okay in God’s eyes because you did not actually kill that person who makes you so angry; that one whom you enjoy insulting; that one whom you have (publicly) called a “fool”.

No... if Jesus is to be believed, it is holding such attitudes in your heart -- and expressing them though abusive language in public -- that puts you in the wrong. It’s not in the killing, but in the public disrespect, that the initial sin arises.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going on nowadays! Ad holmium attacks on opponents, rude language about adversaries, and personal insults seem to be “the new norm”!

Just last Saturday, for example, Rachel Marsden (a syndicated columnist in The Alpena News) wrote: “In Washington DC, partisan

politics takes precedence above anything else -- including pragmatic and constructive solutions to problems.

People will cross the street to avoid someone with the opposite ideology. This mind-set has diffused into American society. … Outside of Washington, it’s more common to find that someone can disagree with another person’s ideology while still respecting or appreciating that individual.”[1] The very next page, in an editorial from The Grand Haven Tribune, I read: “The shameful name-calling and political poking at each other is certainly distracting from the task at hand, and that’s running this country in the most efficient and safe manner as possible. It is truly shameful that grown men and women can’t do what they are elected (and highly paid) to do.”[2] Politicians give “politics” a bad reputation!

On the very next page in the newspaper, I read about “a group of five black men shouting vulgar insults while protesting centuries of oppression. Dozens of white Catholic high school students visiting Washington DC for a rally to end abortion. And Native Americans marching to end injustice for indigenous peoples across the globe who have seen their lands over-run by outside settlers.

The three groups met for just a few minutes Friday at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, an encounter captured in videos that went viral over the weekend – and again cast a spotlight on a polarized nation that doesn’t appear to agree on anything…

“It was an ugly encounter of spewed epithets,” wrote Jeffrey Collins of the Associated Press, “but one that nevertheless ended with no punches thrown or other violence.

Still, the videos were all over social media, again appearing to illustrate a nation of such deep divisions – racial, religious, and ideological – that no one was willing to listen to the others’ point of view.” -- Get that? No one was willing to listen to the other’s point of view!

In a follow-up article in last Wednesday’s paper, I read that the Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School (where the boys were from, who had laughed derisively at an older Native American who was drumming last Friday) temporarily closed down as a result from the fallout from the media images.

The President tweeted on Tuesday that the students from Covington Catholic High School “have become symbols of Fake News, and how evil it can be.”

However, Albert Running Wolf, a Native American from Fort Thomas (Kentucky) referred to Nathan Phillips (the Indian drummer who was accosted during the event) as “an honorable man” who was trying to be a peace-maker, but ended up being verbally attacked. He said that Phillips deserves an apology for what he endured: “It doesn’t matter what color they were; what political factions they were. It was disrespect – straightforward.”

For his part, Nathan Phillips offered to visit the boys’ school for a dialogue with them about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures. “Let’s create space for the teaching of tolerance to happen,” he said (according to the Cincinnati Enquirer). “I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”[3] That’s taking the high road. I say “Bravo!” to that sentiment.

On Saturday, The News’ Managing Editor Justin Hinkley wrote (in relation to users of their Facebook account):

“Cursing, name-calling, and hurled accusations serve no one, not even the people doing the cussing. Unverified accusations do not further the public’s understanding of how to make their community safer, healthier, or more prosperous. Name-calling does not help the public press its elected officials to further justice.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions,” he wrote, “and speech is free in this country. But we don’t want to be the place people go to freely drop “f-bombs” or put others down. So, please, keep it civil when you comment on our stories…”[4]

When a newspaper editor has to ask its own readers to clean up the content of what they are posting to the media’s Facebook page in a town like Alpena, we know that incivility is running rampant!

However, in the midst of all the rancor, I did fine one bit of good news last week in The Alpena News … it was my horoscope for last Thursday. I was working on today’ sermon when I read: “There’s nothing quite like the feeling of people banding together for a common cause. The sense of belonging can’t be beat. It doesn’t take away the risk, but there’s comfort in knowing the risk is shared.” (LIBRA, page 4-B, Jan. 24, 2019) We’re on the search to find common ground.

Jesus made the point, long ago, that hate begins in the heart before it moves to the mouth. (!) Thankfully, our church tradition follows Jesus’ value system, and names such behavior as “sin” – and agrees that it’s fundamentally damndable! It’s divisive; it is disrespectful. It’s wrong.

Jesus goes on to suggest that (quote): if you are offering your gift at the altar – that is, you’ve come to church to worship or to attend Bible Study – and there remember that your brother has something against you – that long-lingering “grudge” that you and your friend have nursed – leave your gift there before the altar (says Jesus), and go! First be reconciled to your brother (your sister, your friend, your competitor, your adversary!), and then come back and offer your gift. (unquote!) In other words: make things right with your neighbor, before pretending that things are all right with you and God!

Or, as a final example, Jesus recommends: Let’s say you are out on the street, and an old adversary – an enemy of yours – accosts you. “Make friends quickly with your accuser,” says Jesus, “while you are going with him to court! … Lest you be handed over to the judge, and from the judge to the bailiff … and you will be put into prison!” Jesus suggests that you should make the first move (especially if you are in the wrong!), and don’t waste a minute! Make things right with him. After all, if you know his track record, you’ll not only end up in court, but maybe in jail… and you won’t get out from that “legal system” without paying a stiff fine. (It’s better not even to go there! Reconcile with people who hold you in contempt.)

To reconcile, first, means admitting that we have a problem!

Jesus was ahead of his time in recommending that people make a “settlement” of their grievances out of court! In today’s “litigious” society, people are quick to sue; quick to demand “recompense” – compensation. To demand “justice” generally means: wanting to get “pay-back”, retaliation, or a financial plea-deal settlement.

How does one find “common ground” in a polarized society?

How do parties “reconcile” their differences in an “adversarial” system of lawsuits and counter-suits?

Whether it is about water rates in Alpena County, or collusion to “fix” an election, or denial of civil rights to a targeted minority group… it seems to me that our fragmented, partisan-driven advocates of one position or another “push” their special interest agenda on others – often speaking past one another in a shouting match, or using argumentation that lacks basic civility.

It feels like they just want to know (not the facts, nor the truth!) but “are you for us or against us? Are you with us or not? Are you one of “us”, or one of “them!”? It is tedious, if not infuriating!

As a church that values diversity of thought, clarity and civility in discussions, and polite decorum even if the topic at hand is divisive -- I am concerned that we have too often taken the short-cut of simply avoiding raising the real issues. It’s not so much that we “agree to disagree” (without being disagreeable), but we agree not to raise the question in the first place! No politics, no social issues, no criticism.

I want us to consider that the price we pay for maintaining “surface harmony” among our members -- when there are (in fact) deep fundamental disagreements between us -- may be high.

For example, we may miss out on forging ties of deeper, more meaningful “community” – which comes about by working through disagreements and antagonisms, rather than by ignoring them. (As I put it in the song: We’re a “c.o.m.m. unity!”)

The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all warned about “false peace” in which the civic leaders would proclaim “all is well” when, in fact, it was not. (!) “Woe to those who say “peace, peace” when there is no peace”; reminding us there is no peace without justice.[5]

We might also miss out on making a difference (as a church) to people around us. … These “tough issues” that polarize us in society arouse deep feelings, controversy, and conflict precisely because they deeply matter to many people.

Issues such as abortion, yes…

… but also: including homosexuals as fully respected human beings, active in our midst; pointing out political shenanigans in high places; naming economic immorality for what it is; addressing corruption in the press, and in business, and in government; confronting attitudes regarding how to secure our Southern Border versus humanitarian concerns for thousands of refugee families; and on & on! These issues arouse strong feelings because they matter!

The only way to avoid conflict is to never deal with anything that really matters to the human condition and to our body politic. (!)

Conflict is a “given” in our individual lives and in our life as a church in Northern Michigan. We cannot “wish away” strong differences and real disagreements. (!) And if we fail to learn how to deal with our differences (in ways that are not disagreeable!) we risk withering on the vine… and being of not much use to our community.

However… I believe that if we find ways to raise “tough issues” -- and thereby model healthy ways of dealing with a diversity of opinions -- we may discover that we have new interest in what our church is doing… and see its new relevance in current affairs… and find for ourselves a more lively faith. (!)

I believe that creativity can be kindled when different ideas bump up against each other, as we search for solutions to real public problems… trusting that God’s desire for the flourishing of life, as articulated & experienced through Jesus’ life, guides us into the light.

I think the issue is not that we have differing viewpoints in the church (that’s a good thing!)… but that what we see all around us is how tough issues divide people into competing camps – partisans who throw stones at each other instead of listening to one another. They don’t treat the opponent fairly, they don’t act respectfully, and they don’t seem to have any interest in looking together for some “common ground”. They are adversaries, above all else.

It’s what defines them -- almost like a “team sport” competition: “I’m Go Blue (U of M) come hell or high water.” Well, “I’m Spartan green & white (fight fight, fight!), M.S.U!” So, what… “I’m Ohio State, so there!”

In my experience (as a Minister for more than 35 years), the basic communication skill that is lacking – that could help us find common ground in situations of disagreement – is that (in responding to others) we should state what we agree with… before explaining where we disagree. Don’t call them “fools” or “liars”. Listen first, and then state points of agreement & respect, before getting in to the “other” side.

Can we be honest? Usually we listen not to discover points of agreement – common ground – but to find a “flaw” in their argument. We are quicker to say: “That’s where you are wrong!” than to say “This much I agree with.”

The search for common ground -- to reconcile with your adversary, your accuser -- means entering into discussion… with the hope of finding some “common ground” with those who are on the “other” side. It means that we must be as interested in what “binds us together” as we are in what separates us. It means we must be as eager to explore our mutual agreements as we are to express our passionate differences.

There are not a lot of “role models” in today’s bitterly polarized, team-like, tribal-like, partisan politics to encourage us. But that does not eliminate Jesus Christ as our guide in such matters. In the Gospels, we see he was quick to raise issues (and had a variety of ways to preach, and teach, to provoke a response). Some succeeded. Some didn’t. He died in the effort, but his Spirit remains!

I think it is do-able; it’s possible. Let’s make it work this year, in Alpena -- for God’s sake, in Jesus’ name. Amen? Amen.

[1] The Alpena News, Sat., Jan. 19, 2019, 6-A Commentary

[2] Ibid, page 7-A Commentary

[3] op cit., Wed. Jan. 23, 2019, page 6-A

[4] The Alpena News, Sat., Jan. 19, 2019, page 7-A Commentary

[5] Jeremiah 6:14 & 8:11, Ezekiel 13:10, Isaiah 32: 17

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