Sunday’s sermon: Common Identity, Common Call

common identity

Texts used – Genesis 11:1-9; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

  • In both his full-length picture books and a number of his short stories, Dr. Seuss was a master at tackling complex social issues through his immediately recognizable lens of silliness and wild imagination.
    • E.g. – Horton Hears a Who[1]
      • Basic story breakdown: Horton the elephant finds a clover one day → on the clover: speck of dust → on the speck: town full of teeny, tiny people – the Whos → Horton tries to convince others of the presence of the Whos but no one can see them and only he, with his giant elephant ears, can hear them → some of the other animals are outraged that Horton is talking to people who “aren’t there” → try to destroy the clover out of malice and spite → at the last minute, someone else finally hears the Whos and saves them and the clover from destruction
      • Seuss’ moral of the story: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” → can certainly substitute just about any qualifying factor for the word ‘small,’ any of those qualifiers that we use to separate ourselves from one another
        • Age
        • Race
        • Gender
        • Economic status
        • Education level
        • The list could go on and on.
      • Horton Hears a Who originally published in 1954 just as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning à time that both highlighted the ways that we have become divided and the beauty and incredible things that can be achieved when we come together
  • Plenty of times in the history of the church – even and especially the recent history – when we have been keenly aware both of the ways that we have become divided and the beauty of coming together again → This type of scenario provides the historical backdrop for the confessional document that we’re talking about today: A Brief Statement of Faith.
    • History
      • For 100+ yrs., the 2 main streams of Presbyterianism in the United states had been divided – the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (“northern church”) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (“southern church”)
      • Reunification occurred in 1983 after 14 yrs. of negotiation → part of reunification process was creation of an intentionally diverse committee (because Presbyterians, no matter the stripe, love a good committee!) whose mission was to write a new creedal document for the church that spoke not to division but unity
      • Result: A Brief Statement of Faith
        • Took 4 yrs. to write
        • Another 2 yrs. of feedback and revisions
        • Officially added to the Book of Confessions in 1991
    • Purpose: to celebrate diversity while also articulating Presbyterians’ common identity
      • From preface to A Brief Statement of Faith: It celebrates our rediscovery that for all our undoubted diversity, we are bound together by a common faith and a common task.[2]
    • Specifically designed to be read aloud in worship as a community affirmation of faith
    • Lots of firsts for this confessional document
      • First to address Jesus’ ministry, not just his death and resurrection → recognizes the importance of Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity
      • First to address care of creation as an important facet of faith
      • First to use inclusive language and both recognize and affirm both male and female in God’s covenant with the people, in the person and work of God, and in ordination
      • First to recognize and affirm the importance and contribution of racial and ethnically diverse people to the story of our faith
    • Did all of this by maintaining the basic tenets of the Reformed tradition → uplifting and celebrating our diversity as a denomination through our unifying beliefs
  • Celebrating diversity and coming together = theme for both of our Scripture readings this morning
    • Obvious one = NT text – Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Corinth that their various gifts were all given by the same Spirit and crucial to the functioning of the Church as a whole body of Christ
      • Text: We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. … If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. … If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.[3]  → Paul is speaking all about celebrating diversity by coming together in unity
        • Not about whitewashing over the things that make us different but about highlighting the ways that those differences help us function together
        • Not about being envious of someone else’s gifts/abilities/characteristics over our own but about finding value in contributions that all make
      • One of the reasons that I love this passage is because Paul gets almost whimsical – as close to whimsical as Paul ever gets, really – when he addresses this issue by personifying various body parts. It’s almost Seussian in the farcicality of it. – text: If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearting? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? … But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”[4]  → I mean, really, it’s ludicrous to imagine a body that is made up only of an eye or an ear! It sounds like something out of a bad Nickelodeon cartoon! And yet by evoking such a nonsensical image, Paul makes his point in a way that is both entertaining and highly effective. We cannot function as the church – as the body of Christ – if we are all the same. Our strength comes not in our sameness but in our unity in diversity. We are a vastly varied people united in one common identity with one common call – to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.
        • In terms of our call, diversity just makes sense: all people are created differently, so how could the exact same message delivered the exact same way reach such a wide variety of humanity → the answer: it can’t!
    • OT text = a little more challenging this morning, mostly because of the way it’s historically been interpreted → This is the story of the Tower of Babel, and throughout much of the lifespan of Biblical interpretation, we have been told that this is a story of God punishing the people for their arrogance. But after looking again at the original Hebrew and various translation options, many more recent Biblical scholars are pushing back on that interpretation and seeing the story of the Tower of Babel as God’s blessing of diversity among the people.
      • First part of the story = people’s part
        • See that all are one (one people, one common language)
        • See that all are perfectly happy with the status quo (don’t want things to change) – text: They said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”[5]  → For some reason, throughout the centuries, we’ve come to believe that the building of this tower has something to do with pride and with the people wanting to be like God. But that isn’t actually mentioned anywhere. It’s not actually part of this story! What we hear instead in the people’s ambition is a desire to remain the same. What we hear is a fear of diversity. “Let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”
          • “Let’s make a name for ourselves” = where scholars have traditionally inferred the pride that brought down God’s punishment BUT more recent scholar points out that “making a name for ourselves” is not a point of pride but of establishment à if you “made a name for yourself,” you are attempting to endure – e.g., Israelites finally establishing their home in the promised land[6]
      • Second part of the story = God’s part – text: Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans had built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all the earth, and the stopped building the city. Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.[7]
        • Scholar: The story of Babel in face deals with the origins of cultural difference, not with pride and punishment. … The author describes a primeval time when everyone spoke the same language and used the same vocabulary. The goal of the building project was to keep the community in one place, lest they be scattered over the surface of all the earth. … Building a tower was only a means to this end.[8]
    • So rather than this being a story about humanity’s excessive pride and a punishment doled out by a fickle God with a frail ego, it’s a story about the value of differences … of getting to know “the other” … of the blessing that diversity truly can be.
      • Scholar highlights the juxtaposition that we find in diversity – the blessing and the challenge: Babel is not all bad. From our Babel component we get cultural diversity. We get to push ourselves outside of our own understandings. We get humor and most things that are fun in this world. But Babel is also what makes injustice thrive. Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes enemies. Babel is what makes wars to happen. Babel is often lived out in individual and corporate sin, because we tend not to look to God, but to ourselves for the ultimate answers. And what we end up with is confusion. None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.[9]  → “None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.” Friends, in this day and age, we seem to have lost our appreciation for diversity. We have allowed – sometimes even encouraged! – the things that divide us to grow to the size of mountains while the things that unite us in all of our crazy, messy, beautiful diversity have shrunk to mole hills. That is why the words of A Brief Statement of Faith are so important – words that celebrate all of those things that make us different and highlight just how in that difference, we find the Oneness of God. So let us recite those words together this morning.

[1] Dr. Seuss. Horton Hears a Who. (New York, NY: Random House), 1954.

[2] A Brief Statement of Faith from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 421.

[3] 1 Cor 12:13-14, 19-20, 26.

[4] 1 Cor 12: 15-17, 20-21.

[5] Gen 11:4.

[6] Ralph W. Klein. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 5.

[7] Gen 11:5-9.

[8] Klein, 3.

[9] Douglas M. Donley. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 4.

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