I’m not one who gathers social media friends just because. I know everyone on my friends list and I know the heart of everyone on my friends list. While the diversity of those on the list runs pretty deep, so does their connection. At times, as I read their posts and tweets and pics, I become aware that this is a motley crew if ever there was one. And, I ponder how this diverse list of friends fit with something like today’s scripture readings. In Matthew, Jesus begins to gather the disciples and in Paul’s letter to Corinth, he draws the focus back to the Gospel message; the Gospel message that speaks to the wisdom of diversity and unity – where God does not see divisions, nor the cultural constructs around diversity. Where God only sees unity of the wonderfully diverse.
As often happens, once I take notice, I begin to ponder. How would my motley crew of friends reconcile diversity and unity? How do the posts and tweets and pics fit with scripture? How do we live into the message of unity created by God?
I get some clues from Matthew’s story – the one where Jesus says, “Follow me.” And they do. They dropped their nets; they walked away from their profession and their families to follow. They walked away to proclaim the Gospel – the one that holds up love over hate, unity over diversity, the one that lifts up preferential treatment for the poor. They dropped their nets to proclaim the Gospel that shouts out no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter where you are on life’s journey – God loves you – you are God’s beloved.
Today, we join Matthew as he reflects on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized, spent time in the wilderness facing temptation and now is walking along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. When you are in Israel, you note the shore is rocky and the sea is really a freshwater lake. As you drive around it you see boats tied to docks and piers and pulled up on the shore and one can imagine watching Jesus as he walks amongst the men and asks them to follow him.
Jesus’ ministry begins by the shore of the Sea of Galilee as he collects the first four of his twelve disciples. These four fishermen, who are actually two sets of brothers, would soon be joined by a tax collector, a few zealots, another set of brothers who are frequently defined as “obscure” and others from Galilee, a territory known for its rebellious nature. Just like my friend lists, it was quite a disparate crew Jesus put together; even more diverse when you include the women. A perfect mix to model diversity to the following generations, to model to us, God’s challenge to join in whatever olio we find ourselves and to focus on the Gospel.
Seems like that should be a good model for church. Yet, as we move through scripture, we run into Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which was written only about 25 years after the crucifixion and resurrection. From this letter we come to understand that division rather than unity is prevalent in the church.
Corinth was a community of diverse backgrounds. The church was composed of rich and poor, Jew and Greek, slave and free; a diverse community lacking societal boundaries. Such diversity would inevitably lead to factions with differing viewpoints and by the time of Paul’s letter, the church in Corinth has already begun to look at the Gospel from a variety of perspectives and that is causing division in the social structure of Corinth. As we all know, division, difference, and dependence often lead to dissension and resentment as power and status stratify rather than unify the societal structure. Paul calls for the church in Corinth to have “no divisions among you” because the purpose of God’s work in the world, the Gospel message is to reconcile the world and to bring peace; a life affirming message that shapes our response to the needs of others, shapes how we listen to each other, shapes our discernment process and shapes our actions. For Paul, the commitment to the Gospel, should provoke the people of Corinth to have “one mind” and “one spirit” because there is only one Gospel message; love God and love one another.
This is not a situation unique to Corinth nor is it unique to the early church. Throughout history, this situation has prevailed, making Paul’s letter as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. I’m not sure Paul ever got the whole of the church in Corinth on the same page, but I am sure we are called to heed Paul’s appeal for unity of mind and spirit around God’s message of reconciliation, peace and preferential treatment for the poor. And as I read through my social media posts, I am sure while the diversity of my motley crew runs deep, I am also sure they are of the same mind when it comes to the Gospel message.
One UCC clergy writes, “I believe God’s grace is extended to all. I acknowledge, respect and support all people in the wideness of their diversities. I am part of a community where all are equal, all are loved and all are supported and respected for all they can become.”
My staunch evangelical friend posted, “My passion is urban ministry: a context where I encounter the broadest spectrum of humanity — in all its divine diversity and deepest desperation. I’m amazed that we would devote so much time and energy holding people back, as if to do so would somehow strengthen our community. On the contrary. It’s time to focus on improving life for all of its citizens, rather than attempting to limit them.”
An Imam from Indianapolis wrote, “In my faith community, we have a motto: ‘Love for all. Hatred for none.’ That’s what we truly believe… We speak against any form of injustice that happens in society… No citizen of any society should be discriminated against, whether on the basis of race, faith, color, or whatever … I hope and pray that our nation will continue to be a free and peaceful place where all of us can practice what we believe.”
And finally, from a Rabbi who works with the Jewish Community Relations Council, “In a world so afraid that it routinely erupts in hatred, we are commanded to love. In a world in which children go to sleep without knowing that they are safe, or that there will be a meal tomorrow, we are commanded to love. And, when we live in a world where some are treated differently, we are commanded to love equally….”
To be honest, this seems like a pipe dream. But I was fortunate to experience such a community. In 2014 I was called to a church in the Upper Keys. Like the church in Corinth, it was comprised of millionaires and people living on derelict boats, and all those in between. People who were progressive, people who were socially progressive and fiscally conservative, and folks who were conservative to the core. And every Sunday, after worship, this diverse community would share a meal.
In part we did this with an eye to social justice. Often this was the only real meal those living on a boat or in a ratty trailer had for the week. And at the end of the meal, we would pack up the leftovers for the food insecure to take.
But beyond social justice, this meal created community. I was always touched when I walked into the Fellowship Hall because you never knew who would be sharing a meal with whom. One Sunday, Carl, a retired bank CEO might be sitting with Sonja, fresh out of her most recent incarceration, and Billy, who never wore shoes and lived on a very tired boat. Another Sunday, a pediatrician Stan and his husband Eric would be sitting with Susan and her parrot, Mama. Every Sunday, Coral Isles Church lived into the gift of diversity and unity.
This is a congregation that did not need a Congregational Care team. For the first few years I tried to create one, but finally realized they didn’t need one. They took care of one another; living into the Gospel message.
It’s not often we can see the relevance of scripture readings so clearly; yet, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ gathering of the disciples challenges us to drop our nets and to follow. It is a call to act, now. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to embrace unity challenges us to focus on the Gospel message of our loving God. How we do this will be as diverse as each individual. And that is one of the challenges we face, to understand that just like the disciples we won’t agree on how we live into the message, but we can agree to unify around God’s message of love. We can see the individual. We can share meals and find common ground.
Jesus put together a motley crew of disciples who changed the world. Paul identified a disparate church and the challenges of that church, providing fodder for a letter on unity. Sometimes scripture seems irrelevant – but not today. Today an Imam and a Rabbi, UCC and evangelical pastors, and scripture, come together to challenge us to find the gifts of unity and diversity. May it be so.
Benediction: As we leave worship, let us drop our nets, the nets that hold us back, and go into the world seeking unity with the wonderfully diverse. Amen.