(1 Corinthians 1: 10-18)
Steve, tell me – are you Team Jacob or Team Edward?
The one asking me this is named Sarah. Sarah is a member of my church. Six years earlier, when I first became Sarah’s pastor, she was this adorable five-year old kid who greeted me on my first Sunday with a drawing of Elmo and a big hug.
Now Sarah is 11, still adorable but in an 11-year old way – so pigtails, braces and a bundle of energy that is matched only by the level of intensity with which she is asking me this question; now for a second time:
Are you Team Jacob or Team Edward?
The year is 2009 and yes, I am quite aware of the whole Twilight phenomenon; the books and then blockbuster movies that hit the big screen just a few months before. It has saturated the collective cultural consciousness; it is everywhere. But as I stand there at the church door greeting people after Sunday worship, a movie about a teenage love triangle between a young woman, a werewolf, and a vampire happens to be the furthest thing from my mind.
So I say to her, and immediately regret saying, Team who?
I literally watch the light go out of Sarah’s eyes, and in its place this odd mix of horror and betrayal on her face, that her trusted pastor would not know where his pop culture allegiances lie. I see this and attempt to repair the damage by assuring her that oh yes, I know Twilight, haven’t seen it yet, haven’t read the book; but from what I can tell both seem like fine young me so I don’t know that I can really choose between the two….
I’ve now made it worse. It’s bad enough when you realize your pastor is not perfect – even harder when you’re 11. Rolling her eyes at me as only an 11-year can, she turns and leaves.
Next week I see Sarah and, trying to dig myself out of the hole, tell her I’ve thought about it and would probably be Team Edward because vampires get to live forever. She cuts me off in mid-sentence: Oh, I don’t care about that anymore. But tell me this – who’s your favorite guy in One Direction??
This time I’m smart: Who’s yours?
Teams. Pick our favorite, choose sides, decide where our allegiances lie: We all do it:
49ers or Chiefs?
Tarheels or Blue Devils?
Democrat or Republican?
Backstreet Boys or N’Sync?
Protestant or Catholic?
Beach or mountains?
Sweet or salty?
We ask questions like this so we can learn something about another person – and yes, kind of size them up a bit. A way of peeling back the layers of another human being so we can know what’s important to them, what their values are, what matters to them – and, in so knowing that, can then understand how we relate to them.
Renowned Presbyterian author Ann Weems was speaking at a ministers’ conference in Wisconsin some years ago. At dinner one night, she was greeted by a man with a southern drawl that stood out as much as hers; she being a child of the south. The man shook her hand and asked, So where you from? She replied, Nashville.
His follow-up question might’ve sounded odd in any other context, but to these fellow southerners, was second-nature: Who are your people? he asked. Who are your people. Ann knew exactly what he was asking. “It’s an ancient question,” she would later write. “It’s a means of identification, a claiming of ties. It can instantly open doors or shut them in your face.”
So Ann told him that her father was Tom Barr. And his eyes lit up. Turning to his group at the table, the man announced, Hey, this is Tom Barr’s daughter – she’s one of us! And he led Ann to their table, where they reminisced about all the people they’d known in Nashville from 25 years ago. Later Ann would write, “We dashed back in time and it felt right. I was in the wilds of Wisconsin, but at that dinner table I knew who my people were. I was accepted. I belonged.
Last week we talked about home and how church is a kind home – not a where, but a when; not a place, but that moment when all who ought to be together are together. When we know to whom we belong.
But our scripture today looks at what happens in the church when that belonging becomes something else. Paul is writing to the Christians in Corinth. He had a particular soft spot in his heart for this church. It was Paul who originally helped to found it; it was he who embarked on a ten-year correspondence that included at least two letters and a couple of visits.
His first letter finds Paul dispensing all manner of advice, praise and even a little admonition here and there. But it is the theme of unity that is woven throughout the letter: I appeal to you, siblings, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united in the same mind and purpose.
“United,” he says. In Greek the word is katartizo. In its simplest form it means “to knit together, but in a larger sense katartizo refers to the healing of broken bones, specifically this idea of holding the splintered pieces together until it heals on its own and can support the weight of the body again. All of that from one word. It’s the perfect image for the kind of unity Paul is preaching here. Holding the broken pieces together until they heal on their own and can support the weight of the body again.
Of course, there’s a reason he’s having to bring this up in the first place. The people of the Corinthian church were not katartizo. To the contrary, they had become divided – and interestingly, divided over people. Leaders in the church, apparently those who had baptized congregants, had now become objects of their allegiance and devotion: “I belong to Cephas,” “I am with Apollos,” “I follow Paul.”
You can almost hear the question they asked: Are you Team Apollos or Team Cephas? Are you Team Paul or Team whoever? Like splintered pieces of bone not held together, not being healed, not supporting the weight of the body.
That was the Corinthian church. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon thing, is it?
A seminary student recounts his visit to the renowned Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, on the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion. What he found there was the presence of six Christian denominations, which is not surprising. What was surprising was that these six denominations had partitioned the church down to the tile. Armenians were only allowed in a certain area, Orthodox in another, Catholics could only process in a certain door for a determined amount of time. The tour guide shared stories of priests name-calling and even throwing punches because another priest moved a piece of furniture or stepped a couple of tiles too far to the left during a procession.
Now, let’s first state the obvious: it is particularly galling when divisions and divisiveness find their way into the church. It drives people nuts; both in the church, as well as outside the church. People look upon our petty squabbles and divisiveness and wonder how in the world followers of the Prince of Peace could be so unpeaceful sometimes.
Divisions are indeed frustrating. But according to Paul, they are only the tip of the iceberg.
That’s because there comes a point, if we’re not careful, where belonging to a thing and being aligned with a thing, leads us to being beholden to that thing. Owned by that thing. And when that happens, when we give ourselves so completely to a thing, we lose something of immense value and worth: we lose ourselves.
We have a name for this, incidentally. We call it idolatry.
And I know it’s weird, using that word here; because we have an image that comes to mind when we mention idolatry – literally, an image. Might look like a golden calf, fashioned from the very jewelry the Israelites wore as they were camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. They had set up temporary residence there, a year or two out of their forty years wandering in the wilderness.
It was Moses who had led them there and who would lead them on. But at this particular juncture he is not with them; no, he is on the mountain communing with God, as prophets are prone to do. The people knew this, they knew he was there. But because he was not with them, they become afraid.
And that’s why they throw gold into fire and make their idol – not because they’ve suddenly been bitten by the arts and crafts bug, but because they are full of fear. Because they need to fill the void. Because when you’re all alone in the wilderness, you need something to belong to.
If idolatry is defined as the worship of or allegiance-giving to anything other than God, then it follows that the very root of idolatry is panic and fear. When we are unsure of ourselves in the world, when we don’t know exactly where we belong, idolatry gives us something to bow down to; something we can see, hear, touch. And rarely is it made out of gold. It can be anything, a person, an ideology. Anything can become an idol if the fear is strong enough. And the real tragedy of it all is that, in beholdening ourselves to something in an attempt to quell our fear, we find that the fear only increases, and so we give ourselves over to it more, and we lose ourselves more.
Y’all, there’s a lot of idol-worship going on these days, isn’t there? If Paul were writing his letter in 2020, it’s very possible that first chapter might’ve sounded something like this:
I appeal to you, siblings, that there be no divisions among you.
For it’s been reported to me that some are saying:
I belong to the idol of political and religious ideologies carried to the extreme.
I belong to the idol of white nationalism and white privilege.
The idol of racism, tribalism and other isms.
I belong to the idol of gun violence
The idol of violence in general.
I belong to the idol of thinking and believing
that when some get more than their fair share, it means I get less of mine.
that our problems are too great to tackle,
and the only way to cope is to deny the problems even exist.
that truth is literally whatever I want it to be.
I belong to the idol of panic and the idol of fear.
To whom do you belong? That’s the question Paul is asking here: to whom do you belong? And the obvious answer, of course; the one we know it ought to be, is God. As people of faith, we know that we belong to God.
But the truth of the matter is that it’s not just that. There’s something else. It’s not just that we belong to God. Anybody can say they belong to God. What makes it clear we belong to God is when we realize that we also belong to each other as well.
We belong to each other.
And belonging to each other is more than just getting along with people, more than treating others with respect, more than being agreeable or disagreeing agreeably. Belonging to each other means we are mutually bound to other people, we are accountable to others as they are to us. It is refusing to live compartmentally in our relationships with people. It means having a vested interest in the well-being of others, even people we don’t know; because what happens to them happens to the rest of us. If another is broken, we all are broken. If another suffers injustice, we all suffer injustice.
Do you see what I’m saying? It is impossible to belong to God and not be responsible to our brother or our sister. It is impossible to belong to God and support policies and structures that elevate some and denigrate others. It is impossible to belong to God and continue living the Christian faith as if it were an individual excursion. And to try and do any of that is no more and no less than living in idolatry.
I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the concept “Ubuntu” before – have you heard of it? Desmond Tutu spoke of it during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following apartheid in South Africa. The word “ubuntu” literally means, “I am because we are.” I am because we are. “To speak of ‘ubuntu,’” Tutu says, “is to speak of the very essence of being human. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound, in yours.’ We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons… A person with ‘ubuntu’ knows that they are diminished when others are diminished, oppressed when others are tortured or treated as if they were less than. A person with ‘ubuntu’ knows that he or she belongs in a greater whole.”
My friends, you belong to God. And you most certainly belong to each other. You are because we all are. May we never cease our steadfast commitment to holding the broken pieces together until they heal on their own and support the weight of the body again.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Featured image from https://msolajpiced.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/ubuntu-an-african-philosophy-i-am-because-we-are/