October 3, 2021 – “Grateful for Differences” by Rev. Cody Sandahl

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First Reading

Ephesians 4:1-16 – I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” 9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Introduction

We are still in our series about cultivating gratitude in our lives. Last week we were grateful for music and the impact it has on our lives. I hope we want to be a “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” church rather than an apathetic elevator music church, figuratively speaking.

This week we are grateful for differences. It lines up pretty nicely with today being World Communion Sunday. Churches all across the globe are celebrating the Lord’s Supper today just as we are. Today we can remember that we commune with each other, we commune with Jesus, we commune with Christians across our country, we commune with Christians across our world, and we commune with Christians of the past and present and future. Across all those differences, we commune together in the way Jesus taught us when we come to this table. No matter where or when we live, no matter the finer points of our theology, at this table we are brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Now that sounds all nice and kumbaya. But I don’t think our world feels quite that unified in the name of Christ. Do you? Luckily for us, we get to peek over the shoulder of the church in Corinth in the first century AD. They had some serious tectonic fault lines in their city and in their church. They had people from different countries. They had rich and poor. They had slaves and slave owners singing hymns next to each other. And so the Apostle Paul had to write this letter and this section about being part of the same body. Not because they had this figured out. Not because this was the felt reality in the church. No, he wrote this precisely because they were struggling to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s see if we can learn a few things from them.

Sermon Text

1 Corinthians 12:12-31 – 12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Monoculture

You hear about my kids pretty frequently, but I don’t often talk about my dog. Our beloved lab Stella died tragically right before we moved to Colorado, so after we settled in here we contacted a lab rescue agency. We were hoping for another lab – one of those big, lovable, clumsy, enthusiastic doofuses. Somehow we wound up with a small dog who has just about every other high energy sporty dog mix in her genealogy as well. But she is FABULOUS with the kids! She helps Charlie when he’s having seizures. She’s great with the kids, and she brings a lot of humor to our house even though she is clearly not a purebred labrador retriever and she’s not even particularly close to a purebred.

But that got me thinking about other purebred dogs. Have you seen a Chow Chow? Very interesting looking dog. You, too, could have one for the low price of $11,000. But you had better save up because purebred Chow Chows suffer from hip dysplasia, improper thyroid function, eye issues, AND they’re a notoriously stubborn breed that’s hard to train.

If that’s too rich for your blood, how about an English Bulldog? For a bargain basement price of $4,300 you can begin your English Bulldog journey. But that unique bulldog face also makes it susceptible to a host of breathing issues and trouble regulating temperature. They are also known for various skin issues and bone and joint diseases and eye problems.

So people pay gobs of money to get purebred dogs that look cool, even though they also buy into health issues caused by narrow breeding. Labrador Retrievers are also known for some health issues like hip dysplasia. And do you know what our vet said about our obviously mixed-heritage Scout? “At least you shouldn’t have to worry about the typical lab health issues.”

A purebred dog probably looks good. A purebred dog probably makes you feel good. But a purebred dog also contains its own genetic problems that undermine its health. Good looks traded for bad genetics.

In agriculture, this trade off comes with monoculture. It’s more economical and more efficient to run a business that only grows one type of banana. So the Gros Michel banana, a large, flavorful banana, became the cultivar du jour until the 1950’s. That’s when a fungus called Fusarium wilt basically wiped out the Gros Michel bananas around the world. The Cavendish banana resisted the wilt, so that’s what we eat today.

Of course, now there’s a new variant of the wilt. And it’s wiping out the Cavendish everywhere it finds a toehold. So when humans had to start worrying about new variants of COVID emerging, bananas were like, welcome to my world, dude! You’re just playing second banana, here!

Bananas have the monoculture problem even worse than purebred dogs. Have you ever wondered why bananas don’t have seeds? Plants can’t reproduce without seeds, right? Well bananas are actually clones. The bananas we eat are all genetically identical clones of one banana from long ago. Cloning bananas makes for good business. But it also lays the seeds of its own demise. Pun intended on that one.

It is not healthy to have everything the same. It might look good. It might make you feel good. But it’s not healthy. It works until something comes along that wipes out all the cloned bananas.

It’s not healthy for purebred dogs. It’s not healthy for cloned bananas. Even the company that we used to rehabilitate our lawn a few years ago went with a blend of 80% Kentucky Bluegrass and 20% rye. It’s not even healthy for my grass to be 100% the same type! In the same way, it’s not healthy for human communities to be 100% the same. It’s not healthy for churches for everything to be the same. For everyone to be the same.

What would this church look like if we were all Cody clones? There would be some advantages. We’d probably have the most technologically advanced ministry in the world. We could have meetings not just by Zoom, but inside the virtual reality metaverse!

But it would also get weird in a hurry. With the number of Star Wars and space references I could make in my sermons, we’d probably be sponsored by Lucasfilm and Lockheed Martin. I’m notoriously Scrooge-ish about Christmas decorations, so who knows what Advent would look like around here. Or I shared last week that I’ve had many different musical phases in my life. What if we were a bunch of Cody clones and I was still in my rap phase? We’d have some phat beats coming out of that organ! And yes, that would be a terrible idea.

Purebred dogs give you good looks, but the trade off is bad health. Banana clones give you tasty fruit and good business, but the trade off is a risk that the whole species can be wiped out quickly. Human monocultures give you a tremendous feeling of affirmation and belonging. We all want that! That feels good! But the trade off is that human monocultures can’t distinguish between good and bad ideas.

My dad used to say this joke about my mom – which got him in trouble, by the way. So, sorry Dad, Mom’s gonna watch this and you’ll be in trouble again thanks to the memory of this joke. My dad used to joke that my mom had ten ideas a week. Eight of them were pretty good. One of them was brilliant. One would land you in jail. And the trouble was that she couldn’t distinguish between them.

That is a fabulous summary of the problem of having a group of people who all think alike. There are some great ideas in that group. There are some horrid ideas in that group. No one can distinguish between them because no one has a different enough perspective. There’s no one to tell you that hip hop on the organ is a terrible idea!

Now, I use that as a joking example. But there are equally bad ideas in probably every human monoculture on the planet. They just can’t see it. I’ve seen it in conservative monocultures I’ve been around. I’ve seen it in liberal monocultures I’ve been around. I was even in a church where free-thinking was the core concept. Everyone thought differently, but they all agreed that everyone should be a free thinker. That was their monoculture. And it got weird there, too. Turns out they liked being the one free thinker rather than everyone free thinking. It didn’t feel as special.

Every group. Every country. Every race. Every philosophy. Every religion. If you only spend time with people who think like you, you’ll have some great ideas and some terrible ideas, and no one in your group will be able to tell the difference.

Grateful for Differences…through the Primacy of Christ

Our text today was written to the church in Corinth. Now, Corinth was a melting pot. It was a Greek city that was rebuilt as a Roman city. It was re-settled by Roman freed slaves, but ruled by Roman elite. It was a place where cultures from across the Mediterranean mingled. And the early church had all of those different groups. The early church had all of those potential divisions.

You had Jews who felt superior because Jesus was a Jew. You had Greeks who felt superior because the Gospel was spreading in greater numbers among them instead of Jews. You had descendants of the freed slave settlers who felt superior because their family had roots in Corinth. You had slave owners who felt superior because of their economic clout. And you had current slaves…who probably didn’t feel superior, but in this church they felt hope. And they weren’t going to let anyone take that hope from them.

So we see that the earliest churches had people who seemed diametrically opposed to each other in almost every way. ALMOST every way. In fact, maybe they seemed opposed in all but ONE way. But that ONE way was the most important.

If Jesus is the most important thing, the most important person, the most important idea, the most important philosophy, the most important EVERYTHING, then it’s possible to get such a wide range of people to be together. But that’s the ONLY way it’s possible.

If Jesus isn’t #1, this, the church, isn’t possible. Jesus being the clear #1 in our lives is the only way we can be grateful that our differences make us healthier rather than angry that people differ from us. Jesus being the clear #1 in our lives is the only way we can have Greek and Jew, slave and free, rich and poor, blessed and cursed, Republican and Democrat, Colorado native and those pesky people moving in like me, early morning people and sleep in people, clapping people and no clapping people, young and old, and everything in between. This, the church, only works if there’s something more important than all of that. And the only thing that can be more important than all of that is placing Jesus as the #1 thing, person, idea, philosophy, and guiding light in our lives.

Over the years, I’ve asked our church leadership a few different times if they want to pick a side – be a more clearly conservative church or be a more clearly liberal church. The church would immediately shrink, but then would probably have an opportunity to grow. It’s easier to grow because a monoculture feels better. It’s not healthier, but it feels better.

And while some have wanted that clarity, so far every time I’ve asked, the church leadership has wanted to be the kind of place that can focus on Jesus and our relationships as more important than the things that could divide us. That’s not easier. It’s harder. But it’s healthier. Now if it’s going to be a reality, it’s up to all of us to choose to focus on Jesus and choose to focus on the value of our relationships. It’s up to all of us to decide to be OK with, or even value, being around people who aren’t clones of our own bananas. People who aren’t part of our own purebred dog lineage.

This is actually something I am a bit of an expert in. I figured out at an early age that no one around me was thinking about the same things I was thinking about. So I learned to seek out people who thought about some of the same things I did. Not everything. But some of the same things. One of my friends texted me a couple of years ago. He texted that he wanted to get together for a meal because he wanted to talk about nuclear reactor designs and he thought I might actually have thoughts on that. And I texted back, “I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about that for 15 years! Do you want to talk Gen 3 reactors? Gen 3+? Thorium? Small reactors? Waste disposal? I’m ready to go!”

My brain is weird. I know it. You know it. If you came to my sabbatical presentation today, you saw it. And I’m training up my younger son in my weirdness, too! May the world tremble at the thought!

The Gospel of Jesus Christ gives us the opportunity to hang our hats on Jesus as the most important thing, the most important person, the most important philosophy, the most important guiding light in our lives. If we place Jesus as #1, we can actually be grateful for our differences instead of angered and annoyed by them. But if anything else is #1, this, the church, won’t work.

Our Sunday worship plan this Fall has been a great example of the potential and the pitfalls of this approach. To reinvest in our relationships, our church leadership really felt strongly that we needed to have a single worship service. As I talked with early worshipers, most could go as late as 9:30am for worship, but 10 was the absolute latest. As I talked with late worshipers, most could go as early as 10:30 for worship, but 10 was the absolute earliest. So 9am Sunday school and 10am worship was the ultimate compromise – no one’s first choice, but most people could tolerate it for the sake of being one church together.

Having kids in worship is another example. Lots of people were nervous about that, though I think just about everyone can admit it hasn’t been as disruptive as they feared. Melissa is doing great back there. And my younger son tells me multiple times per week, “I wish today were Sunday.” I overheard a boy whose family joined us for worship recently telling his mom as they left, “I want to come back here!”

But having kids in worship who can’t be vaccinated yet also led me to ask everyone to wear masks if you’re able. If we have 85-90% masking, families can feel safe about having their kids in worship. And I know many who are wearing masks right now hate it. I also know many who think it’s dumb or fearful. But my family has unlikely medical stuff happen all the time – even the doctors make comments about our paradoxical reactions to things. I’m sensitive to the unlikely. So even if you’re just humoring me, I appreciate it.

Those are examples of what it looks like to be the church together. Being willing to stretch away from our preferences so that we can be together in the name of Christ. The more we do that, the more we show that Jesus is #1 in our lives. We do things we don’t prefer for the sake of work or a paycheck. We do things we don’t prefer for the sake of family. We do things we don’t prefer when there’s a higher value at stake.

So who, or what, will be #1 in your life? Who, or what, will be worth stretching away from your preferences? That might be the most important decision you can make. Amen.