Why I Stay, Part 2: Paul’s Body and Jesus’ Banquet
Recently, I was invited to preach at Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church, an open and affirming church up in Seattle, Washington. Unfortunately, when my husband got ill and needed to be hospitalized, I had to cancel my trip to Madrona at the last minute. The pastor there, Mark Zimmerly, and the session were wonderful about my rapidly changing plans and I greatly appreciate the offer to come back to preach at another time.
In anticipation of my time at Madrona Grace, I had prepared a sermon and I want to share it with you here as the second part in a series of posts on the Biblical roots of why I stay in the Presbyterian Church (USA). You can read the first part, here.
I hope you are inspired by the Gospel in these words and look forward to your thoughts.
I trust we can all agree that unity is hard. It was hard in the time of the Reformation, 500 years ago, when the founders of Presbyterianism left or were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. In laying a new foundation for life together in the body of Christ, they articulated this wisdom that they passed down to us: Unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all. This is good. It is not easy.
Unity is hard. It demands commitment and real work for a faith community to stay together, as a congregation, as a presbytery and as a denomination. Three times in the last hundred years there have been significant episodes of division in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and we seem to be heading to a fourth right now. We have contested the essentials for so long that our charity is utterly frayed. I think it is fair to say we are all exhausted.
I trust we also agree that unity is good and worth giving our selves to. To work together building a vital church that proclaims the Gospel in word and deed—a church where your neighbors know you are Christians by your love—is part of being faithful to Christ. This is what we yearn for in the PCUSA and what feels so terribly elusive right now. How we, the PCUSA, can turn from threatened dissolution toward a transformed unity in Christ is what I want to explore today.
Let me give you an example of unity from my experience as a place to start.
Thirty plus years ago, I was ordained only a few years and serving a small church in Pittsburgh when a new pastor came to the congregation where I had grown up and where my parents were still members. As a courtesy to a new colleague in ministry, I called Doug Dunderdale up and invited him to lunch. I enjoyed the conversation, getting to know Doug, and this began a regular regimen of joining together for lunch every couple months. That has lasted for more than thirty years now. We became friends.
I didn’t know that Doug was fondly known in some circles as “Fundy Dundy” or that he was active in the group of pastors on the far right politically of my presbytery. I didn’t know that we were supposed to be antagonists whose different views on many things in the church, especially LGBT equality, were supposed to set us against one another.
I learned pretty quickly that our approaches to Scripture were significantly different as was our experience in life. To our astonishment, this did not set us apart or against one another. In my experience over lunch with Doug, these distinctions gave us wonderful food for good conversation—way more interesting than had we agreed on everything. Usually, and for decades, we rose from the table reluctantly, wishing there was more time and grateful for what felt to me like a taste of the banquet table Jesus used so frequently as an image for the kingdom of God. We’ll get to the example of one of those stories Jesus told in a little while.
Earlier in this decade, when the Peace, Unity and Purity Taskforce was doing its work and implored the whole church to engage in conversation together the way they were, Doug and I hosted three lunches where we each invited about fifteen of our friends. We were intentionally bringing together pastors who would see one another as seriously different and had been on opposing sides of presbytery debates many times. We wanted to expand those sitting at Jesus’ banquet table beyond ourselves. Each time there were around ten or twelve who came. I am not sure we accomplished our goal of these people experiencing the same blessing together that Doug and I enjoyed. I remember the effort, not a miraculous outcome.
So what exactly was informing the friendship Doug and I built despite our vast disagreements? What bound us together and inspired us to learn from one another and moved us to invite others to join us? I find the answers to these in two familiar Scripture passages and a short, favorite Psalm.
The apostle Paul understood all these things. His letters suggest that he was very familiar with the disagreements and tensions within the churches he planted and helping these congregations stay united was a large part of his ministry. The image Paul develops is the body of Christ and I love the way he presents how we often justify leaving the church, disturbing our unity, because it sounds so familiar.
On the one hand, Paul points out, “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” Amen to that! It’s as if some in our church, after being on the losing side of the vote last year on ordination standards say now, “Because I am not the majority, I do not belong to the body.” And I would say with Paul, “Please, that does not make you any less a part of the body.”
On the other hand, Paul switches the image, reminding us, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” This was a message from Paul that both Doug and I got even with our different interpretative approaches to Scripture. We simply never could find any way–no matter how much we disagreed on a matter—to a judgment that we had no need of the other in the body of Christ.
In my years of involvement with More Light Presbyterians, I have seen most of the Presbyterians in MLP also living out Paul’s teachings here. No matter how much others may say that we are not a hand and therefore not part of the body, More Light Presbyterians know to the core of our beings that who we are does not make us any less part of Christ’s body. And we also know, having been told for so long that we are less than, that we cannot say to any other Presbyterian, “I have no need of you.” We cannot be so cruel.
My memory is that every single time Doug and I broke bread together, at some point in the conversation, Doug said to me something like this: “The thing is I know you love Jesus.” I have often reflected upon what drove him to articulate that every time. I mean, I felt the same way about him but it was never important to me to share that assessment with him. We both know, both with some surprise I’d say, that the other is a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, a faithful member of the body.
I would say we are helped in this by both of us grasping Paul’s third point in the Corinthians passage: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” As I see it, Paul is using his body image to express the same point Jesus is making in his banquet image reported by Luke in Chapter 14.
In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus draws a variety of lessons from the story of the wedding banquet. In this passage, he expands on the point made first in Proverbs 25, verses 6 and 7: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Jesus puts it this way: “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
What does this mean for us?
In the PCUSA, we could see the majority as the honored guest, the one who prevails in the discerning of God’s will, placed at the head of the table. We could see the minority, frankly the losing voice in the discussion, as the humiliated one who sits in the lower place. This is the way we could connect Jesus’ story to many different settings where there are winners and losers. In the PCUSA—and perhaps elsewhere—I find this to be a cautionary tale for the majority and a ringing word of hope for the minority.
If the opening of the church to the possibility of ordaining gifted, called and prepared LGBT Presbyterians places More Light Presbyterians in the majority, if, now after forty years, Doug is in the minority in the church and I am in the majority, then More Light and I have now the responsibility of the honored guest, even of the host of the banquet as Jesus would have us be. Jesus goes on here: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
When we remember how it is to be the minority in the church, how beaten down and humiliating losing can feel, then we must give to the minority the dignity Jesus is directing us to give. I want us who may be the new majority to be duly cautioned to be the majority as Jesus would have us do, drawing on our experience of being the minority.
I want Doug and his friends who feel a stinging pain at losing on a crucial matter in the church to take heart from Jesus’ parable. In fact, now is the real opportunity to shine because “those who humble themselves will be exalted,” according to Jesus. The minority is at the table, has a voice, and has all the processes of the church to express their passionate views. And, I say this, knowing that I in Pittsburgh Presbytery continue to be in the minority. I take some heart in the minority’s place at the banquet table as the one that is truly blessed and embracing what may feel humiliating as really better seen to be humbling, definitely not a bad thing.
So, Jesus’ banquet table is where we all come, all join in the unity of Christ. All are welcome; all participate. Majority and minority shift within sessions, between Doug and me, even sometimes in our presbyteries. Our love for one another, the deepest essential, will remain. From that love will come the humility to listen and learn and be transformed by the other that is the very heart of Christian friendship.
Unity is hard because humility for us is hard. Humility, in the end, is what gives me hope for us in the church—the humility necessary for any of us to take a seat anywhere at Jesus’ banquet table in any particular place or moment in our lives. This is the humility captured in my favorite psalm, which I hope inspires you to be and do what helps you stay committed to the unity in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and in all the communal circles of your life. This humility is the ground for our hope in Christ:
I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
My soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in God from this time on and forevermore.