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Together We Serve
August 14, 2022

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto

1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-20

There is an elephant in the sanctuary. We are gathered to praise the Lord, but there is an elephant here getting in the way of praising the Lord and serving the Lord. What do we do with the elephant? Name it. Much of the New Testament was written by Paul dealing with church squabbles, church fights. As I read his letters, I find a common denominator, summarized in the ugly word ‘division’. Our elephant also is named “division”. Some of you don’t know what I’m talking about. Some of you know exactly what I mean.

Let me put it this way. I’m talking about how we get along together, how we work together, how together we serve the Lord. We are called to unity, not division. We are called to do God’s will—not what I think is best, not what you think ought to be done, but God’s will. We are called to love one another. The admonition to love one another appears 56 times in the New Testament! Evidently, division was rampant. Paul wrote the church in Rome, Romans 12:16, “Live in harmony with one another.” He wrote to the church in  Ephesus, Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” I like the word ‘tenderhearted’.

How do we live in harmony with one another? When Jesus named the demons, they fled. To name them was to bring them out in the open which they couldn’t handle.  Our elephant is named “division”. What do we do about it? How do we get along and work together in harmony?

Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, (paraphrased) “Go and have it out with him or her. Speak, express it and do it directly.” Speak directly—not on the telephone with someone else, not gossiping, not bad mouthing, not holding it inside in anger. Express it and do it face to face. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:15, “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” We are members. We are all part of the body of Christ.

Be direct and open, face to face. Soon after arriving at one of my former churches, I was told about a conflict between George, the teacher of the fourth grade Sunday School class and the United Methodist Women. Both had shared the same meeting room for years, and both had shared the same centerpiece—the cross and candlesticks. When the new building was built, the women moved over to the Fireside Room and took the cross and candlesticks with them. George accused them of stealing his centerpiece. This had been going on for a year when I arrived. 

I said, “Let's all get together.” George, three women and I sat down in my office and I asked, “What can we do to work this out?” In ten minutes, the women offered to buy a new cross and candlesticks. We got out the Cokesbury Catalog, picked out a cross and candlesticks and ordered it. George said, “I’m going to like this one much better than the old one.” In ten minutes we went home.

Be open and direct. One of the problems Paul addressed was getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper. He said, “Eat at home first.” I don’t think we have that problem in our church’s celebration of Holy Communion, but I do recall one time I used the direct approach, visited one of the women leaders and asked her to please not have cocktails before coming to church meetings. She didn’t get angry. She accepted my request and came to church meetings sober!

When there is a problem or a disagreement, deal with it openly and directly and, then, listen. James wrote in chapter 1, verse 19, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” What a helpful principle—be quick to hear and slow to speak. Listen, so you really understand what the other person is saying. Before you react, clarify, make sure that you have heard correctly. Many arguments go on and on because the two people are talking about different things. They’re so busy trying to think of how they're going to respond, they don't listen to what the other is saying. Stop, be quick to hear before you speak. In delicate confrontations, rephrase what you have just heard. Begin by saying, “I hear you say such and such. Is that correct?” Rephrase, play the tape back to the speaker. Put in your own words what you have just heard before you respond. Then when you communicate, you will both be on the same page. Be quick to hear, slow to speak. 

Then, when you speak, speak in the first person. “I” not you, not they, not them. “I”. Say, “I feel as if I'm not listened to”, rather than saying, “You never listen to me.” When you accuse someone of not listening to you, and put it in the second person and say “you”, then they get defensive and you're into a quarrel. Keep it in the first person. “I feel as if I am not being listened to. I feel hurt. I feel angry,” rather than saying, “You make me mad.”

Keep the disagreement constructive. Don't try to win. Trying to win has no place in the church. There is no place for winners and losers. Paul urged, “We are members one of another.” We are all members of the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:20, “There are many parts, yet one body.” There are no winners and losers.

The purpose of of disagreeing constructively in a church is to make sure that all aspects of the issue are brought out in the open so that the will of God may be accomplished. We are all members of Christ’s body and we discover the will of God by everyone speaking, sharing their intelligence, sharing their experiences, sharing their wisdom, sharing their talents, sharing their feelings. All of us together are the body of Christ.

For many people, the hardest thing to give is to give in. If you must always win, if your ego is so small that you always have to win, you are not ready to serve the Lord. You have no right to put yourself into a sacred relationship with someone else where you can hurt, harm and bruise them. You have no right to enter such a relationship if you are so weak, so insecure, so immature that you always have to win. “We are all members one of another, forgiving one another.” If you always have to win, get down on your knees, repent and let the love of God fill you. Hear God's love say to you, “You are a beautiful person just as you are.You are okay. You don't have to win. You don't have to have your way.” ”Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another.”

The angry ones is what Eleanor Armstrong called the elementary school children in the poverty stricken area of Appalachia. She had gone there to set up an art program in the school, and was given classes totaling 600 children. She knew that the children were poor, but she gradually came to learn what poor means:

Poor are children who put on winter clothes in October and don't take them off until April.

Poor are children who fight each other for old car seats that serve as beds in their house.

Poor is the girl who told her proudly, "I get the blanket when Ma don't come home."

She knew the children were poor; she was surprised how angry they were. They were belligerent, restless, and seething with anger. She couldn't keep their attention very long at one time. The anger wasn't directed at her personally; it usually turned on one another with scuffles, kicks, stealing, destructiveness, and foul language.

Through her art work with them, she got an insight into their lives. Once she assigned them to draw pictures called My Family. Most pictures showed only one parent; some had no parents at all. When there were two parents, usually the father was a tiny figure at the bottom of the page. She gradually came to realize what the cold statistics on their cards meant: father unknown, mother in jail, mother an alcoholic, etc. And, she discovered, inevitably, the child artist had drawn him/herself standing alone, as far away from the other figures as the little piece of paper would allow.

One classroom in particular was hostile, with an undercurrent of jeering anger. One day she prayed in earnest for God to help her reach the children, and God answered her, "Look for me in the classroom; look into the children's eyes and you will see me. And when you see me, call me by name. Talk about me.”

She went into the classroom with trepidation, but with faith. The children were more restless than usual. She had with her a set of prints that cost her an entire week's salary. A tall boy named Johnny grabbed them and with a ruler slashed the first picture in half. She wondered if she could see Jesus in Johnny. She looked into Johnny's eyes and saw strength. Nobody picked on Johnny. She felt that Johnny was strong like Jesus. As she looked into Johnny's eyes, he lay down his ruler and walked to his seat.

She walked the aisles, just looking at the children. She looked at one girl whose mother had taught her to steal. The mother pretended to faint, and the children would fill sacks with merchandise. The girl had been put into a county home where she had been whipped, lectured, and locked up; but she had never changed, and she had never cried. Eleanor looked in the girl’s eyes and thought, “She is like Jesus who also could not be frightened and who would not give up.”

By the time she had walked around the room, it was as still as a church. She had not yet said a word. Then she softly said, "Jesus is here." And she whispered, "Jesus loves you." The shoplifter who never cried began to weep. The tall, strong Johnny began to sob. The children changed; they were never the same.

Please stand. Look around the room. We are all members of the body of Christ. Together we serve the Lord. Move around the room, look each other in the eye, and say, “Jesus loves you.”

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© 2022 Douglas I. Norris