Disruption, Discouragement, and Distractions: Dealing with Discontent and Division

Scriptures: James 2:1-13; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Today we have the second half of the third lesson in the series “On being the church.” So the second half of the lesson “Disruption, Discouragement, and Distractions,” dealing with discontent and division.

Last week we talked about the tongue, and focused on the tongue and the kind of damage that it could do, if we don’t guard it and take care when we speak. We were frank about the differences between gossip, and people like myself who put their foot in their mouth like Peter did with regularity. We went on about some ways about how to curb that perhaps.

This week we’re going to talk about another what I would call “hidden sin of the church,” if you will. Division that deals with partiality or deals with unconscious segregation, if you will.

It’s very easy to say, “Well, you know, that’s not me, and we’re a welcoming and open church.” And we are a warm and welcoming church.

But I do want to point out, in the context of the passage here, some things that may open your eyes a little bit. One is a study that was done, I believe, in 2014, that showed that the most segregated time in the United States of America, as far as race goes, is Sunday morning.

It is, to a large degree, self-segregation. It isn’t that we don’t welcome other people. It’s that, as the liturgist noted, we tend to hang with the people that are most like us in many ways. And we have ways of looking at people, we have ways of considering people, and we unconsciously or subconsciously (I can never decide when to use those words) judge them and their value to us and to the church.

And so you see somebody that’s dressed really well, who has, as James noted, gold rings or jewelry or something like that, and think, “They would be a good person to become a member, because they can help support the church.”

And you see somebody in clothes that are in very great state of disrepair, very old clothes. Maybe they have not washed recently, and you don’t want them in there because they’ll be a disruption.

There’s a story about a church that was what they call a proper church, “High Church.” Everybody wore their suit coats and women wore their dresses and maybe even hats. And this was in the 70’s. They were a full church (I’d love to see our pews that way), and the ushers helped people to find a seat.

The service had already begun, when the back doors opened and a younger man came in. And he had long hair. He had a beard. He wore buckskin jacket, he were frayed jeans and flip-flops. And the people just sat and looked. And he looked around, this young man, and he couldn’t find a seat anywhere because the pews, as I said, were full.

So he walked down to the front of the church aisle there, and sat on the floor. Now the pastor is going along and he’s preaching, because he’s not to let anything stop him. This usher, an older man, stands up, and comes down on his cane and he walks towards the front of the church.

The people start nodding their head. This situation’s about to get taken care of. And so the older man comes down and puts his hand on the shoulder of the younger man, and the younger man looks up. And the older man puts his hand out and then, with the young man’s help, sits down next to him in the aisle.

And everyone is shocked. You see, the young man didn’t fit in with what that church expected for a member to be

Before I was ordained, a few times during the summers, if I wasn’t singing at another church for music ministry, I liked to go to a local black Baptist church that was down the road from our Presbyterian Church. Our church had a good relationship with them – we even had a joint service once every summer. It was always held at the Presbyterian church because it was a lot larger.

We were always welcome with open arms at this black Baptist church, but I can tell you how uncomfortable it was, even knowing that I was welcome. Because we literally stuck out like a sore thumb.

And I love their worship. I love the energy of the African-American worship culture that’s there. I love it when you get the response. An amen pew is great. I always encourage you folks, if you hear something, don’t be afraid to say amen or Hallelujah. That’s that’s the black Baptist in me that just wants to come out. But I still felt out-of-place and uncomfortable.

We self-segregate. And it’s been that way in the church from day one. James, in writing to these people, shows that they automatically gave somebody who looked well-to-do (“rich” is what he said, but it could just as well be social status) a seat of honor.

They seated him and paid attention to him, whereas with the poor man, they just said, “You go stand over here” or “You sit on the stool.” And they don’t have the proper respect, from God’s perspective, for each other.

It’s easy to just think of the warning against favoritism as applying to the context James uses, poor versus rich. And say, “Well, that’s not me.” Or, because of our country’s race issues, applying it to race or ethnic background, as I already mentioned.

But the challenge for us as Christians is to really treat everyone as a brother or sister in Christ. We tend to bring into the church with us our usual ways of thinking about and relating to other people.

There are those who we really want to be with and make a point of spending time with, usually because they’re a lot like us or perhaps because they reflect what we want to be, and they are comfortable to be with.

Then there are those that we see often and get along OK, but are not particularly close to. We are friendly to them if we happen to meet, but we don’t go out of our way to get involved in their lives.

And then there are those that we don’t exactly mind rubbing shoulders with, because after all it’s church, and we’re supposed to all be a family. But we don’t feel we’re missing out on anything if a smile or a greeting once a week is the extent of our contact with them.

That’s human nature. We all form groups of people where we feel we belong, and being in these groups make us feel both comfortable and special. There’s nothing wrong with feeling closer to some people than others, because no one can be equally close to everyone.

Even Jesus himself. He had twelve disciples and then a whole bunch of other disciples around. Even amongst those twelve, he had three: James, John, and Peter, who were his closest confidants.

No one could be equally close to everyone. But if we bring into church the same attitudes and guides for conduct that holds sway out in society as a whole, we have missed out on what God wants to do among us.

The church is more than another social group where what we have in common happens to be a set of religious beliefs and practices, even though that’s exactly what our culture generally thinks church is.

Practicing our usual preferences is natural, but God wants to do something supernatural among us. He wants His glory to be shown in how He brings together people who normally would not have close relationships, and show that they are really one in Christ.

Age, background, education, social standing, political views, and so many other factors shape who we welcome into our circle of friends. But for Christians, there is only one factor. We belong to Christ, because he has redeemed us from sin and death.

How does that happen? how do we overcome our usual tendencies to gravitate towards those we naturally feel comfortable with, instead of those God has supernaturally made part of the family with us? Or perhaps it helps to think of us as having been made supernaturally part of the family with them.

Maybe we need to rethink what it means to have fellowship with others in the church. If it is primarily a time to chat over coffee and snacks, we will probably continue to form our usual groups to fellowship with. And we can be blessed in that fellowship, as we encourage and are encouraged by our friends.

But Christian fellowship is to be a deeper sharing, that transcends the usual categories that we let define us and our behavior. It will probably only happen when we make deliberate efforts to be together with those who we wouldn’t be with if we just go on as usual.

Because we’re all different, the shape this takes is different in one church and another. In some churches people tend to divide by age groups and need to work on intergenerational activities, especially when it comes to worship in Sunday School or Bible study.

It might mean coming up with different kinds of service projects that bring together a different group of people. It might mean finding a way to structure social activities that pushes people into different groupings then they usually choose.

It means, when you find yourself and perhaps your companions criticizing another person or group of people, to see whether it is a fault that needs to be corrected (and then following the Scriptural pattern for doing so), or if it is just a different way of seeing things, doing things, and relating to people that just doesn’t feel right to you because it’s different.

We need to examine the stereotypes we hold to, and almost unconsciously use on a daily basis, for evaluating a person and whether or not they belong where we are and whether they belong with “us.”

We also have a tendency, as was noted in the book of Corinthians, by Paul, to consider ourselves first. “What am I going to get out of this?” And if I’m not going to get what I think I need out of this, or I think I should get out of this, then I will leave. Or I will break off what I’m doing, or I may take a little while to try and get what I think I want, but if it doesn’t seem to be going my way I pull out.

The people in Corinth – again it happened to be rich versus poor – but those who were rich were feeding themselves with no regard for the poor people in the congregation. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that you have committed the sin of gluttony. What he says is you have shamed the poor.

You have shamed the poor, and you have shamed and cast doubt on Christ and His sacrifice and it’s meaning. You’ve partaken of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner because you don’t hold it in high enough regard. You don’t treat it as the covenant it was, and the depth of the love that God shared.

Sometimes when people do things differently or somebody comes up with a different idea, it’s very easy to say. “Well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s not going to help me in any way, it’s not going to challenge me in any way.”

But the fact is, it might be the God is calling you to that particular perspective, to that particular activity, because you will be an example for somebody else, that as you participate in something that takes you outside your comfort zone, as you begin to disciple yourself and follow Christ publicly in a way that stretches you, somebody else will see it and say, “What an amazing thing.”

It means going outside of our normal boundaries that we set. It means looking solely at “Do they need and know Christ?” And I hate to tell you this on this but that’s a pretty inclusive standard.

Because if they know Christ, they’re a brother or sister, and are to be treated as family and are to be treated as someone to take seriously, no matter what they may look like on the outside. No matter how they might be restricted in terms of their ability, whether physical, mental, or emotional.

And if they don’t know Christ, but they need to know Christ, then we need to show God’s love even more, so that they understand how much God loves them, and come to know Him. Because that’s the great commission, to “go out make disciples of all nations, teaching them all that I have commanded you.”

That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Reaching out, exercising the laws of love, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and secondly to love your neighbor as yourself. So that others, too, come to know God.

Divisions within the church are a pretty normal happenstance. But they shouldn’t end up being the death of the church.

A lot of times I hear calls for or opining “I wish we could get younger people to come to a church,” just to use an example. A lot of the Presbyterian churches are older. I think the last demographics study said that the average age was 64 in the Presbyterian Church.

How many of you have actually gone out to a younger couple that you know, and said, “We’d like you to come to our church. We’ll make sure there’s some sort of child care or Sunday school. But we want you to worship with us and experience the love of God, as we do in this church.”

If they aren’t told, they don’t hear. And if they don’t hear, how can they believe? How can they come to know the love of God in Christ Jesus without you?

And when we have a division within the church. as was noted earlier, we need to decide. Is that division something that needs to be addressed. Is it something that needs to be brought to the attention of other people? Is it a teachable moment?

Or is it just me, and my own preferences, coloring the way I look at things, and making it more rigid for my own satisfaction?

It’s a tough charge. Nobody ever said that discipleship was going to be easy. Jesus said, “Take up my cross daily and follow me.” That cross is a burden. But it’s not one you carry alone. Because God is with you. And so is your church, if you allow it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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