Paula Northwood November 10, 2019
Scripture Romans 12:9–18
I have been looking forward to this moment for the last few weeks. And the reason? Because you are here—each and every one of you. Whether you attend regularly or are a member who has been away for a while, or a curious visitor, it is wonderful to see you and you are welcome. The energy in this room is palpable. Yes, I know we are in the middle of a conflict, but here are some of my observations about what is good: We have a great deal in common. We love Plymouth Congregational Church. You would not be here if you did not care. We love each other, enough to be mad, disappointed and frustrated with each other. If we didn’t love each other, we would just walk away. We all agree that we love our Needlers, the women who made the embroideries. We appreciate their skill, the long hours, their commitment to beauty and the intention of their work. During this whole yearlong process, I have not heard one disparaging remark about the Needlers as people. Artists, musicians, chefs, authors and preachers (and others) know that when you put your work out into the world, it opens it to criticism. And that’s the difficult part, to separate your personal worth from your work.
Back to some more agreement: We agree on our desire to be more welcoming to our neighbors. We want people to come into our building and feel welcomed and safe. We also agree on our commitment to racial justice. Both the Leadership Council Embroidery Action Plan and the Alternate Plan include a myriad of ways that we will continue to dismantle our white privilege and racism and reach out to our neighbors with love. If you have read both plans, you will have noticed that much of the language of the Revised Plan was borrowed from the Leadership Council’s Plan, and that’s okay, because we can all agree on that. My friends, we agree on far more than we disagree!
The major disagreement, which we likely will be voting on later, is whether to display the embroidery called Churchmen in the New World on a regular basis. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a clear moral vision about how to approach this disagreement. The problem arises when those with whom you disagree are depicted as deficient, as bad people, even the enemy. And this has happened on both sides.
At the very least, we are going to have to find a way to agree to disagree and still love each other. At its best, our church community can draw us together; on the other hand, and to use a political word, partisanship or polarization drives us apart. A member of the church wrote to me about something I, too, had been thinking about. Our conflict here in the church seems to be a projection or microcosm of the current political situation where civility is lacking and polarization reigns. There is only one way we should be partisan, and that is in the manner of Jesus.
Jesus was partisan. He was partisan toward love. He was partisan for women and children, to sinners of all sorts, toward the ill and the mentally challenged, for enslaved people and poorly paid workers and soldiers, and to those oppressed. He was partisan for outsiders and outcasts and people without banquet invitations, toward those who broke the rules for the sake of others, toward peacemakers and the persecuted and heartbroken.
As we know, because of Jesus’ work in the world, he was executed as a traitor. When this happened, the whole world shifted for his followers, and they needed to make meaning out of it. Their whole identity depended on it. So, they did what people do: They argued. Sure, they were heartbroken, they cried and prayed, and then . . . they argued some more. This small nascent band of folks we now call Christians never fully agreed on everything.
But they agreed on some basics: that God, first and foremost, is a God of love. That as a child of God, Jesus is worth following. They agreed the church is oikos in Greek—it means the household of God where we practice loving kindness, forgiveness, generosity and hospitality to those around us. They were learning to love each other amid the incredible differences of people brought together who previously did not associate or even speak to one another. Earlier in this chapter from the letter to the Romans, Paul writes that the readers are to be “living sacrifices.” That’s an oxymoron to us, but what Paul means is that we are to no longer conform to the pattern of the world but, by the renewing of our minds, be transformed. We are to behave differently.
We stand on a threshold this morning; there is much at stake. You likely have come with your mind made up. For some, the vote is to stop the harm. We now understand how painful the images are for members of our family and our neighbors. Some see it as the censorship of art. Others see an overstepping of the leadership’s authority. For some it’s just a difference of how to teach about our past with respect to racial justice. That’s why it has been so contentious. We don’t even agree on all the surrounding issues. But we will be voting on only one . . . whether Churchmen in the New World will be displayed on a regular basis.
My main concern this morning is the moment after the votes are counted. How will we live as oikos, the household of God? This passage from Romans has great advice because it speaks to the partisan love of Jesus embodied in the church.
My invitation to you this morning is to lay down your weapons, your words that have been used to accuse, shame, blame and hurt each other. Lay down your burdens; some of you have been carrying grudges and hurts from five, ten, even fifty years ago that have surfaced in recent dialogue. Our text this morning implores us to live in harmony. The only way to harmony is through forgiveness. One of the greatest gifts we can offer each other is forgiveness. Can we forgive each other? Our health and wellbeing depend on it.
Let me be the first one to start by apologizing for any unkind words I have said. I don’t always get it right. I ask your forgiveness for any hurt I have caused. I have learned a great deal about intention versus impact. I have never intended to hurt anyone, and yet I have. I ask your forgiveness. Within the household of God and sacredness of this place, you can know that you are forgiven, you can go from this place with a lighter load trusting in the promises of God.
One final invitation for those of you who we have not seen for quite a while. Come back! We are not the same church we were even two years ago. Check us out. You will find that we are already doing many of the things suggested in both action plans. We have more options for worship . . . and more opportunities to get involved.
We have a new program called 100 Hands, where you can work with our neighbors on projects that support our neighborhood. We support a program called Families Moving Forward in which we house in our education wing homeless families for a couple of weeks. A few months ago, we housed three families: one Native American family, a Latinx family and an African American family. And we learned a great deal from these families. If you walk around the building, you will see more inclusion of non-white art and artists. If you pick up some of our materials, you will find that our current theater project has focused on stories from our Black, Latinx and Native American neighbors and friends with disabilities. This past year we have had more non-white preachers in our pulpit than perhaps ever before. We also have a new Radical Hospitality Committee, which is strategizing how to move beyond charity to equity. We aren’t perfect, and we don’t always get it right, but we are trying to do this work differently.
It is because we have already opened our building up to so many new programs that include non-white people that we were made aware of the hurtful images in the embroidery. That’s what changed my mind. Listening to the pain of non-white people—it broke my heart. The early church realized this—that out of a broken heart came new life. From sacrifice comes transformation—the renewing of our minds. Conflicts are messy and uncomfortable, but they crack open our hearts so that a deeper love for others can grow.
Let’s not walk away this morning threatening to leave the church because the vote did not go the way you hoped. Instead, let us walk away with a renewed commitment to God and this church and its values, a commitment to go deeper into our spiritual practices, a commitment to forgive the people who you feel have hurt you, a commitment to financially support the important work this church has begun (pledge cards can be found throughout the church). If we don’t work together to secure the future of this church, there will be no place to display any of our embroideries or any other works of art.
Hear these words again from Romans:
Let your love be genuine; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection. . . . Be ardent in spirit, serve God. Contribute to the needs of the church; extend hospitality to strangers. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another by offering forgiveness. So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
May it be so. Amen