Being in community together isn’t always comfortable, especially when being together means talking about important issues that matter in our lives and our world. As we approach another big election season, passions are going to rise and tensions are going to rise with them, even beyond what we’re already seeing. Does the Bible have anything to say about how to navigate these waters? I think it does, so let’s take a look.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed… And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
“All People that on Earth Do Dwell” — William Keethe (YouTube video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/JmGwHdNtpEw)
All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice; Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell, Come ye before Him and rejoice. The Lord, ye know, is God indeed; Without our aid He did us make; We are his folk, He doth us feed, And for his sheep He doth us take. O enter then His gates with praise, Approach with joy His courts unto; Praise, laud, and bless His name always, For it is seemly so to do. For why? The Lord our God is good, His mercy is forever sure; His truth at all times firmly stood, And shall from age to age endure. To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, The God whom heaven and earth adore From earth and from the angel host Be praise and glory evermore.
This week, I stumbled across a parable told by Cameron Trimble, author of Piloting Church: Helping Your Congregation Take Flight. I can’t stop thinking about it.
It was a bitterly cold winter and many animals were dying. The porcupines, realizing the situation, decided to group together to keep each other warm. This was a great way to protect themselves from cold and keep each of them warm, but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions. After a while, they decided to distance themselves, but they too began to die due to cold. So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or risk freezing to death. Wisely, they decided to go back to being together. They learned to live with the little wounds caused by the close relationship with their companions in order to receive the warmth of their togetherness. This way they were able to survive.
Real togetherness and genuine community come at a cost, but that cost is worth it.
One of my favorite images for the church is Thanksgiving dinner. The old adage that you should never talk religion or politics around the table applies doubly at Thanksgiving, but nobody ever seems to abide by it. Differences in belief and ideals, no matter how close you are as a family, tend to come out of the woodwork during holidays, and our differences rub against each other like quills, poking and prodding and sometimes literally hurting the very people we love. And yet, Thanksgiving dinner would never be the same without everyone there. That’s a lot like church, I think.
The church is called the “Blessed Community” not because we all agree with each other on everything, but because we all love each other and treat each other accordingly even when we might not like the signs we’ve got flying in each other’s yards. After all, Jesus tells us at the beginning of his most famous sermon in Matthew 5 that the ones who are blessed are none other than the ones who make peace.
Peace, of course, isn’t easy, and it isn’t quick — and that’s no doubt one reason why it’s so hard to come by nowadays. But, another reason might be that we often confuse peace with conversion. “Once you agree with me, then we’ll have peace.” This is peace by default. It makes peace by simply eliminating the tension altogether. It would be like my wife and I deciding not to discuss what’s bothering us because that’s just easier and more comfortable. Ignore the problem, and it goes away (for a time, at least). Or worse, one of us could decide simply to acquiesce and give in because we find talking things out is too hard or too scary. Sadly, that’s less peacemaking than it is coercion.
And maybe that’s why Cameron Trimble’s little parable has stuck with me. Those porcupines enjoyed each other’s warmth even at the expense of a little difference and discomfort. They didn’t decide to pluck out all their quills so that they could come together without any worry of getting poked. They realized their very quills — all their differences in beliefs, positions, tastes, etc. — were worth rubbing up against each other if it meant that they could still be together. In fact, the very feeling of each other’s quills reminded them that they were one community, a blessed community, not because they were all alike (quill-less) but because they weren’t and yet they were still one.
No doubt I’ve stretched this poor metaphor too far, but the picture of the Blessed Community that we get from scripture is not one where everybody is absolutely alike but where everybody has come together, differences and all, to be around a common center: Jesus Christ.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants…these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.– Isaiah 56:6a, 7
I think it is important that, here in the Book of Isaiah, God isn’t describing a single uniform group. Instead, what we have is “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Presumably, these foreigners are gathered together with the “outcasts of Israel” to form a blessed community centered around their common Lord. (It might also be helpful to remember, maybe a little shockingly, that we are the foreigners in this story.)
So, what are we to do about all our differences, then? Do we just “deal with it” because we want to be warm and survive? I don’t think so. I think peace can happen when we recognize that we’re all focused on the same goal — Jesus Christ and God’s Kingdom — even when we don’t all agree on what’s the best way to get there or what it even looks like. We need to keep talking, to listen honestly and graciously, always being open and willing to change our minds and our actions, even as things become uncomfortable. Indeed, peacemaking is as much about the way we work through our differences and our divisions as it is about any final result.
And, for me, I’ll take that any day over the cold.
Holy God, help us to be your disciples who through your grace and your sacrificial kind of power proclaim your truth with boldness, perform your justice with compassion, and love all of our neighbors and strangers with faithfulness. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.