1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

I’m looking forward to our Presbytery of Northern Waters meeting on Saturday in Duluth, with some eagerness and a little trepidation. I’ve been thinking about how we argue and debate, because we’ll consider some contentious issues at this meeting. It’s constitutional amendment time, so we’ll be talking about a possible new confession of faith, changes to the standards for ordained office, and a proposal to completely overhaul the form of our church government. For a church polity geek like myself, it’s very exciting stuff. Even for those of you who may not be as jazzed about the process as I am, it’s important who we say we are and how we organize ourselves.

On all of the hot-button issues (and several others), there are “affinity groups” of like-minded people on all sides who like to tell each other how to vote. There’s no creative way to put it: the public conversation isn’t always civil, particularly when you listen to the people shouting from their polarized positions. Even so, I try to keep both sides of these issues before me as best I can. I try to do this because I’m chair of our Overtures and Bylaws committee, but I also try to do it as a spiritual practice. It’s not that my positions don’t matter – I have strong preferences about what we should decide, and I think this decision affects our ability to be faithful in the world – but I think that how we decide is even more important than what decision we come to. Presbyterians laugh about how cumbersome our decision-making system can be, but we’re not in it for the snap judgments. What we’re ultimately about is careful and ideally open-minded discernment.

The Corinthian church had the same kind of debate raging as we have in the Presbyterian church. Paul says that the Corinthian church is spiritually immature, because they’re still split into factions. Unity is what would demonstrate Christ’s spiritual presence in the church. Paul had the right idea not to worry about the distinctions between him and Apollos, but rather to see where God is working in the world. At the same time, unity does not mean uniformity: we don’t all have to know God in the same way. That’s why I’m not standing here telling you to agree with me on issues of ordination, Mideast peace, the new Form of Government, or the Belhar Confession. Some of you agree with me on these topics and some of you don’t, and I need both of you. We should by no means be in total agreement with each other on everything.

Jesus tells us how to be together in a world where God has seen fit for us to disagree with each other. In the midst of all the things he’s talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, I think he’s describing the principles we need to bring into our conversations with each other. He takes laws about murder, adultery, divorce, and taking vows, and he spiritualizes them. He says we have to keep the law by our actions and also by our deeper intentions. He shows us that God’s law is meant to shape your core being, not just the things we let ourselves do. So here’s what he’s getting at:

  • On anger: the really bad insults are the ones that discount your brother’s intelligence, that is, that deny his inherent capacity to make sense
  • On adultery: other people aren’t objects, they’re subjects of their own desires
  • On divorce: you don’t just get to choose to break your relationships with others (this is about acknowledging the deep pain of divorce than about forbidding it in all cases)
  • On swearing oaths: Jesus reminds us that truth and integrity are not special events, they’re the basis of our relationship with others; what is falsehood but an attempt to deprive another person of their legitimate freedom to choose how to act and respond?

That is, all of these comments on the law have to do with giving someone else their freedom to be themselves, to be different from us and ultimately outside our control. Whether or not we’re happy with each other, we’re tied to each other. There’s no getting away from your brothers and sisters in Christ. Our ultimate responsibility is to be related to each other.

Maintaining relationship in the midst of our disagreement means understanding where others are coming from. It means giving them permission to make sense as they are. For example, that means I have to understand why someone would oppose opening ordination to faithful and gifted people who happen to be gay or lesbian. At the same time, it means that I should be willing to tell you why I support it. That’s just as vulnerable a move, isn’t it?

So here goes. But first, let me remind everyone that I don’t expect you all to agree with me here. I take the freedom of conscience and our differences in interpretation very seriously. And, frankly, you who disagree with me have solid ground to stand on. I take the scriptures very seriously, and they clearly prohibit sex between people of the same gender. But my experiences of people who are GLBT have told me that sexual orientation is fundamental and certainly not a choice. They’ve taught me further that loving mutual relationships don’t care about orientation, and I can’t deny that God is present in those relationships.

This knowledge challenges scripture for me in the same way that modern astronomy or biology challenge scripture: it gives the text new ways to be true. It challenges the way ancient cultures assumed that relationships should be based on dominance and passivity. And when I look behind that assumption, I find that these texts are really about preserving right relationship, regardless of the genders involved. I find that they say more about dignity and consent than perhaps their authors realized. And it gives us space to talk about fidelity, commitment, and family without worrying so much about people’s gender orientations.

Again, those are my thoughts – they don’t have to be yours. I disclosed them because it’s only fair that I should take the first chance. Because I care deeply about this, it feels risky to put my true reasons out there. But the Presbyterian system ideally tries to create a safe space for that. We have the opportunity to listen to each other, to acknowledge that we interpret the scriptures and the world differently, and yet to reaffirm our fundamental unity as followers of Christ. That’s not to discount the importance of what we actually decide, but it is to insist that by all means we understand what the other people around us are getting at.

I’m talking about a radical spiritual practice called listening. Not the esoteric listening of deep silence with God, but listening in the flesh – listening openly, questioningly, and expectantly to each other. Something transcendent happens when we truly listen: we get outside ourselves and start to really understand each other. We see different perspectives than the one we call home. We and the people we argue with may still disagree, but we can start to understand each other.

Whom do you need to listen to more deeply, more openly? Whom do you need to understand, whether they’re in our church, in your family, at work, or in your neighborhood? Have a transcendent experience: take them to lunch or coffee. Go visit them with a plate of cookies and an open mind. Ask real questions until you understand where they’re coming from. Your mind probably won’t change, and neither will theirs, in terms of whatever “the issue” is – but your heart may soften, and that will be holy. God will be in your listening, in your truly hearing. So may it be.