Messy But Real Diversity

Messy But Real Diversity

When the Renewing the Mainline Church group sat down to work on a vision statement, we first affirmed our willingness to embrace our diversity as a congregation.

The United Church of Huntsville is a place of love, hope and welcome. People can be safe here to share diverse ideas and feelings. Sharing our faith with each other feeds us and helps us to grow spiritually.

Divergent theological views are okay here, because we try to leave the judging to God. We are pluralistic, not just tolerant of our diversity, but fully engaging one another in all of our differences. (It is sometimes messy, but always real.) We believe that our understandings of science and our faith are compatible. We also believe that our engagement with our diversity leads to transformation, as we are called to love one another as Christ loves us.

The Thursday night group’s attempt to capture the essence of United Church parallel’s our scripture from Paul. The Church in Corinth was even more diverse and messier than our congregation. The Church in Corinth included Jews, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, almost every ethnic group in the Roman Empire was represented in this bustling port City. In addition to ethnic variety a vast array of religious cults were practiced by the City’s residents. As a seaport and center of commerce Corinth was a wide open cosmopolitan Metropolis boasting all manner of entertainments and pleasures. Especially pagans who were recruited into the life of the Corinthian church tended to bring with them many beliefs and practices from their former spiritual affiliations.

The divisions within the congregation were made worse by itinerant missionaries and teachers who would visit Corinth with their own particular interpretations of the Jesus message. Some Jewish Christian missionaries claiming authority from Peter visited and taught the people that they had to keep the kosher dietary rules in order to be faithful Christians. Another teacher named Apollos who was apparently mixing into the Jesus message some Greek Platonic spirituality found a following among several members of the church. And finally there was a group of folks who maintained that everyone had to be loyal to the message of Paul, who after all had founded the church.

As people began to choose up sides and throw rocks at one another, the church very nearly collapsed into warring factions. The situation became really messy. Of course we wouldn’t know anything about that. At the height of the conflict Paul wrote one of his famous letters. He addressed his naughty Christians by reminding them that they were the body of Christ in the world. They had a sacred mission to transform the world through love. And so Paul used the metaphor of the body to talk about how they needed to be able to respect each other, honoring their differences and working together.

As Paul wrote, “the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ and the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’” We’re all in this together. We need one another in order to transform the world through love. Diversity in the work place has become a hot topic, and I am reminded of a story.

Recently, a large corporation hired several cannibals to increase their diversity, “You are all part of our team now,” said the Human Resources rep during the welcoming briefing. “You get all the usual benefits and you can go to the cafeteria for something to eat, but please don’t eat any employees.”

The cannibals promised they would not.

Four weeks later their boss remarked, “You’re all working very hard and I’m satisfied with your work. We have noticed a marked increase in the whole company’s performance. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to him?”

The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”

After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals said to the others, “Which one of you idiots ate the secretary?” A hand rose hesitantly. “You fool!” the leader continued. “For four weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything. But now, you had to go and eat someone who actually does something.”

Paul wants to tell us in the Body of Christ we are all important. I know sometimes it is hard to understand how all of us are important, but each one of us has a role to play in our life together as a community. I’ve had some people suggest at times that surely we could do without some so and so, because after all they are so difficult, but as far as God is concerned we are all part of the team, and as long as we are willing to participate, we’re all going to get there together, because part of transforming the world through love means that winning and losing isn’t the issue, but how we work together. How we treat one another, how we are community together is more important than any worldly measures of success or failure.

In the church in Corinth there was a raging fight about what spiritual gifts were the most important. Human beings are like that. Give us half a chance and we allow our egos to grow and take over the community, and then we will invent hierarchies of value to justify our egos. My gift of prophecy is superior to your gift of coffee making. Or my talent for prayer is more important than your ability to organize a fund raiser. As human beings we are like that. Some of us will even claim we have no gifts in order to try to outdo others in the virtue of humility. As human beings we are like that. Paul was guilty of it himself. If there was ever a zealot it was Paul. But here in chapters 12 and 13 of his letter to the Corinthians Paul points us beyond our own egos to love as the essence of the way of Jesus. Love will transform the world – not correct theology, or good engineering, or fantastic organization, or beautiful music, or elegant liturgy, good business sense, or venture capitalism, or smart politics, or good lawyering, or excellent health care, or balancing the budget, or even lavish philanthropy. Jesus showed us only love can transform the world.

And the reason Jesus gathered the church is because real love can only happen in community. We can’t all go become hermits and be an example of love to the world. We can’t go off and write books about love, we can’t preach about love, we can’t dream about love in isolation from other people. We have to do love in community, and doing love is messy, especially when we embrace diversity, especially when we welcome everyone, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. Love is so much easier, when we only allow people who look like us, talk like us and think like us into our circle of caring, when we restrict the circle of communion to people of a similar socio-economic, ethnic and gender identification. Love is easier when we simply exclude people who struggle with mental illness. Love is easier, when we arrange to be homogenous and live together in our spiritually gated communities. You are welcome here, if you are like us.

After we posted the Thursday evening group’s initial vision statement that in part read, “We also believe that our engagement with our diversity leads to transformation, as we are called to love one another as Christ loves us,” someone commented that diversity does not lead to spiritual transformation. But I disagree. When we engage with one another and learn to appreciate one another because of our differences, even when we don’t agree, we become the love of Jesus that transforms us and the world.

So why is any of this important? Because we live in an increasingly intolerant and polarized world. We talk at one another rather than listening. We can look for a news source that reaffirms all of our own biases, so we never have to consider any ideas with which we might disagree. With the demise of public schools we will soon be able to select learning environments for our children that reflect our prejudices and exclude “influences” we don’t like. As more and more institutions in our society are privatized, if we have the money, we will be able to limit our contact with others to people who are like ourselves.

Spiritual communities that embrace diversity like United Church are a small minority. Many religious expressions throughout the world are highly intolerant. We have been called to try to work out our salvation with fear and trembling as a diverse, messy but real spiritual community, that follows the way of Jesus welcoming all people, learning how to love one another, even when we are different from one another. And if we can become a safe place to be different, then we will be the body of Christ in the world.

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