Love bears all things, believe all things, hopes all things, endures all things.-I Corinthians 13
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”-Luke 19
Turns out jolly old St. Nicholas wasn’t always so jolly. The saint who we celebrated yesterday allegedly punched the heretic Arius in the nose at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). A good old church fight.
In my time, I’ve witnessed a few church fights. I bet you have too. There have been fights over social and political issues, for sure. Fights over liturgy and language and leadership. Fights over money, for sure. Fights over who’s in and who’s out. Fights over how to read the Bible and who gets communion. Fights over what kind of music is acceptable to our Lord. I’ve crossed the garden committee and the altar guild, the finance committee and the ushers, and lived to tell about it. I’ve witnessed fights over the most efficient ways to make sandwiches for a lunch program for people in need, prompting those words clergy fear: “We’ve never done it that way.” I’ve negotiated fights between church ministries that had to share a refrigerator. I’ve noted the creativity of the human spirit, finding all kinds of things to dispute.
I had always known that church fights happen. I came to realize that sometimes they are not a dispute between a good and a bad thing, but the collision of two good and noble things. “My way of serving Jesus is just a bit more important than yours.” How do we navigate such?
Since day one, the church has had to figure this out. The church in first century Corinth received several letters from St. Paul. Those letters describe church fights about food, liturgy, sex, money and leadership. Any of that sound familiar? Maybe there were valid arguments for both sides. But what St. Paul said is that what really matters is not who is right, but what builds up the church. In response to these various disputes, Paul writes his great hymn about love (I Corinthian 13).
In Morning Prayer we recently read the story of Zacchaeus (see above). He was a tax collector, held in low regard with good reason by his people. He had an encounter with Jesus that turned into a conversion experience, out of which he decided to give away half his wealth and restore any wrong he had done fourfold. Jesus is criticized for hanging out with Zacchaeus. While I’ve know this story since Sunday School, and while I’ve sung the song about the wee little man climbing up into a tree, I never noticed what Jesus says in response to this criticism. He says this about Zacchaeus: “He, too is a son of Abraham.” In other words, to the critics Jesus says: “Hold on. As unlikable, perhaps reprehensible as he may be, Zacchaeus is your brother.”
It’s the wisdom of our baptismal covenant that we are to seek Christ in all persons (even when Christ comes well-disguised). What part of “all” do we not understand? It’s the wisdom of eastern traditions that say the light in you greets the light in me. It’s the wisdom of the South African theology of Ubuntu, which proclaims the inherent interconnectedness of humankind.
In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a time marked by division and rancor. It bubbles up from our personal resentments. It trickles down from our leadership. In families, in churches, in political discourse, we too easily find reason to dismiss our connection to each other.
Jesus calls us to another way. I’m wondering where you hear that call this week. It doesn’t mean we won’t have disputes or disagreements. It doesn’t mean we suspend deep convictions about what is right, what is just. It does mean that we embrace the sometimes annoying truth of our inherent interconnectedness. So we bless each other. We pray for each other. We forgive each other and seek forgiveness. And we do our best to walk in the way of love.
I’m working on it. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not quite there yet.