divided attention

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I waited until this morning to post my sermon in hopes that it would not get quite as buried under the Super Bowl hype. The text is 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, a passage that offers a less-than-flattering look at the people in the Corinthian church, but also offers a connection with them because they acted in ways we too often find familiar. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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Last year I was asked to conduct a memorial service for a man I didn’t know. He had connections to the church where I was serving as interim, and the family wanted the service there. I met with family members beforehand to learn a bit about him, and they told me a few family stories and talked about the company he had founded and built, but I was caught by surprise when I walked into the church and a red MAGA hat was in the middle of the spray of memorial flowers.

I could feel my guard go up, in part because I have encountered intense views from some wearing those hats. I realized as I sat in my place that the hat brought up stereotypes I learned from the way we talk about each other and the way we have been taught to define one another.

After several family members and friends had eulogized the man, I asked if anyone else wanted to comment. Four people got up from a pew in the back and came forward. They identified themselves as long-time employees of his company. There were two men and two women: one Black man, two Latinas, and one white man. They wept as they told stories of how he had created opportunity for them, loaned them money to get through crises, and helped take care of their families.

After the service, several people came up to say how meaningful the service was and to tell other stories. What I learned from listening is the man was more than his hat.

I thought a long time about using that story to open the sermon because just the mention of the MAGA hat would make some folks wary of the direction the sermon might take, or that others might decide they know where I stand politically and then make further assumptions. My choice to include it was bolstered by the words we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. They were a congregation that argued a lot, it seems, particularly around who they thought was the best teacher: Paul or Apollos, who was another missionary traveling between churches across the region.

The people in the church had taken to choosing sides rather than listening to each other–and that’s what took me back to the story. My impression of the man who died was changed by listening to those who knew him and loved him. A lot can change by listening.

I have a friend name Hugh who lives in Mississippi. He is a minister, a writer, and a community organizer. He wrote this week about sharing a meal with someone who shared very few of his political ideas and yet they found they had much in common. Hugh wrote:

We seem to have lost the capacity to listen. I’m not trying to sound nostalgic there as if I am mourning for an idealized past where everything was rainbows and kittens. Rather, it is harder to listen to other people now than it once was – largely because we have so many alternatives. Our hyper-connected world has made it easier and easier for us to find like-minded people, but also easier to shut out those who differ from us.

And because we do not listen to each other, we don’t truly know each other, and thus it is easier than ever for people in power to divide us. . . . Years of listening have taught me one critical thing: We are not nearly as divided as we think we are. Or, more accurately, we are not as divided as those who profit from our separation want us to believe we are.

We are divided, perhaps as much as we think we are; the issue is what we do with the divide. Hugh’s last sentence is powerful: We are not as divided as those who profit from our separation want us to believe—which is another way of saying it matters who we listen to.

If we listen to much of both public and social media, we are an irreconcilable nation, broken in two, divided into red and blue. Pick any issue, and we are poles apart. There is no nuance, no discussion of ideas, no sense of a continuum of thought. It’s either our side or their side, so we better take what is ours. The perspective prioritizes issues over relationships and individualizes systemic problems that we need to work on together. Over and over we are told we are not capable of learning how to live together–yet is what we are called to do.

Ginger, my wife, often speaks of the UCC as a place where we choose relationship over doctrine. I like that. But notice that it doesn’t say we choose not to talk about tough issues, just that when it comes down to it, we will choose each other over whatever the issue might be. In an interfaith workshop recently in Guilford to deal with increasing physical and verbal anti-Jewish violence, the trainers talked about choosing “counsel culture” over “cancel culture”—to find a way to move beyond just writing each other off.

Though it didn’t happen in church, the choice of relationship played out in public as LeBron James broke Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record–a record that had stood for thirty-eight years. There was a lot of talk about how Kareem would feel about LeBron’s achievement, and most of it assumed the record was what mattered most to Kareem. But he wrote an open letter to James on his blog to say he celebrated the achievement largely because the record didn’t define who he was–or who he had become as a person. Since he retired from the NBA, Jabbar has been an activist and writer–he has invested his life in relationships. He was happy to pass the torch without feeling as though his accomplishment had been negated.

As she reflected on Jabbar’s words, writer Rebecca Solnit said,

“Or maybe there’s one thing to say, about the capitalism of the heart, the belief that the essences of life too can be seized and hoarded, that you can corner the market on confidence, stage a hostile takeover of happiness. It’s based on scarcity economics, the notion or perhaps the feeling that there’s not enough to go around, and the belief that these intangible phenomena exist in a fixed quantity to be scrambled for, rather than that you can only increase them by giving them away.”

In other words, Kareem–or anyone else for that matter–could celebrate LeBron and still see Jabbar’s achievement as worthy of recognition. There is more to life than being in first place, or always being right, or making sure you are the one with the power because we have enough to go around if we are committed to choosing relationships over, well, pretty much anything.

In the last few minutes, we’ve gone from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to a funeral to coffee in Mississippi to basketball to scarcity economics as a metaphor for how not to live. The thread I have been trying to follow–and I hope you have been able to see–is we have to keep reminding ourselves that what matters most is each other. Listening well is an act of love. Trusting one another is an act of love. Being trustworthy is an act of love. Being open to growing and changing is an act of love.

Rev. Susan did good work with us last week in her presentation after church, asking us to think about who our neighbors are. The implicit question was what kind of neighbor do we want to be? Our UCC motto says, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” but welcome just gets you in the door. Belonging takes work: attention, listening, vulnerability. It happens in small, significant gestures, not grand statements.

Let me give you a specific example. When Ginger and I decided to get married, it created big problems within my family. It’s too much to go into now, but the rifts and the fact that we moved to Boston four months after the wedding enabled the distance to grow. The divide seemed too expansive.

After a couple of years of living that way, Ginger said, “We are never going to get to have the conversation that clears the air, so maybe we should try another approach. Why don’t you pick a day of the week and call your parents and say these things: How are you? What did you do this week? Here’s what we did this week. I love you. And hang up.

I did just that, Saturday after Saturday. It became a part of our lives, and it grew in significance. After a time, I began to call on days other than Saturday, or my parents would call me. We still had serious disagreements about how we looked at life, but they died knowing I loved them, and I knew they loved me.

If we want to feel like we belong here and help others belong as well, we have to listen, to move beyond our assumptions, and trust that we have enough love to go around. May we be people who make those choices every day. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

1 COMMENT

  1. This was a very poignant read for me, a United Methodist retired Deacon. My church, as you’ve surely heard, is in schism and it is so sad.

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