How Can Love Overcome What Divides Us?
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on March 21, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Lent
2 1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
How can love overcome what divides us? This is really where it gets down to the brass tacks, huh? We’ve been talking about love a lot and we think we get it: look out for each other; care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself, remember that this is not just about us. But so far we have only been dancing around the elephant in the room. Are some divisions just too deep to be touched, even by love?
It certainly feels that way. The reason we are talking about love in Lent of 2021 is because we are a seriously divided people and because the answer to this question is not immediately clear, not because we doubt the power of love but because the depth of our divide feels so insurmountable.
What divides us is a heart-breakingly long list: racism, immigration, the role of science, gun control, human sexuality, the role of media, and the king of them all, politics, which takes every other conversation in our lives and turns it into a binary—you’re either for it or against it, and everyone on this side is “us” and everyone on that side is “them.”
What divides us is serious business because these aren’t just issues. These are people; this is justice; this is equality; this is fairness; this is human dignity; this is quality of life for ourselves and our communities. This is why our divisions are so deep.
This is why some days—most days, in fact—this polarity in which we are currently living feels like a self-imposed prison. We talk about unity, but do we actually want unity? I hear a lot of calls for unity (who I’ve heard it from depends on who’s party is in the White House) when actually what we mean when we call for unity in this sense is that we want the other side to let go of their problems and join us on our side. As if patriotism alone were enough to overcome what divides us. But it’s not. That’s not an authentic call for unity because that doesn’t require any healing. And healing is what we need.
That’s why our divisions will not be overcome in a political arena. If they have any chance of being overcome, it’s going to be here, and it’s going to be love. And it begins with a simple acknowledgement from each of us that we can’t repair what we can’t admit is broken. We cannot overcome what divides us unless we’re ready to admit that our own actions may be part of the divide. (Jesus, stone throwing story) Is there any among us who can stand blameless? Healing can’t happen unless we’re willing to be honest about how we’ve contributed to the divide.
I don’t care how right we each think we are. And this goes for every side of every issue. Something fundamental about our relationships with one another, the way we communicate, the way we listen, and the way we work things out has gotten broken along the way.
You’ve probably heard the phrase cancel culture, right? It’s the idea that when someone or something upsets you, then you can block it out of your life. I think the intention can be well-meaning, in the sense that canceling someone or something is a form of boycotting them or their product as a way to force them to come to terms with what they did that was so offending. But I also think that cancel culture has become an easy way out from the harder work of actually reforming society and building healthier relationships where we give people a chance to change before we block them out of our lives.
Cancel culture really thrives on social media and the reason, I believe, is because it’s really to keep arms-length from any actual, meaningful relationships there. A mob mentality can take over and it’s very easy for someone to be defined by the worst thing they’ve ever said or done. Without real relationships between people, it’s so easy to just write each other off, unfriend, block, and cancel.
Until we know the depth of someone else’s suffering we don’t know how to overcome division, so we just walk away. We got into this a little last week when we talked about how loving our neighbor requires us to actually know them, listen to their story, and see their suffering.
Story about John McGraw and Rakeem Jones. From “Love Is The Way” by Bishop Michael Curry
On March 10, 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The rally was disrupted by protesters, as happened around the country at both Trump and Clinton rallies. Eventually law enforcement officials led the protesters out. As they did, a seventy-nine-year-old Trump supporter named John McGraw, who is White, jumped out from the crowd and punched one of the detained protesters, Rakeem Jones, in the face. Jones is Black. Afterward, McGraw said on video, “He deserved it … The next time we see him we might have to kill him … We don’t know who he is. He might be with a terrorist organization.”
Notice the language: We don’t know who he is. That is profoundly telling. McGraw was arrested and charged with assault. Months later the two men met again in court, where McGraw pleaded no contest, apologized, and was sentenced to twelve months of probation. Afterward, they faced each other and shook hands. McGraw said, “If I met you in the street and the same thing occurred, I would have said, ‘Go on home. One of us will get hurt.’ That’s what I would have said. But we are caught up in a political mess today, and you and me, we got to heal our country.” Later, at Jones’s request, they had lunch together.
Rakeem Jones took a lot of flak for forgiving John McGraw so quickly. The only people that have a right to judge this situation are the two people involved. I told you that story today because I think it illustrates something profound about overcoming division.
One way to resolve conflict is through punishment. This can mean shutting someone out of your life completely, refusing their apology, holding a grudge, canceling the relationship altogether. In worst-case scenarios, we fight back with words or actions. Resolving conflict this way through punishment is a very common approach (we see it everywhere from our justice system to our parenting styles).
But I hope we also know, and I think Rakeem Jones and John McGraw knew, that punishment isn’t the only way to resolve a conflict. Another option is to try to repair the breach by working on the relationship where it broke down in the first place.
If we really want love to overcome what divides us, we have to want our goal to be restoration not retribution. We have to want to reconcile not get revenge. In order to overcome division, we have to want to repair what’s broken between us more than we want to get even for past wrongs. And that’s a hard pill to swallow when we feel like those past wrongs were really wrong.
But if anyone should be able to get this it’s Christians. In the scripture this morning, we hear an earnest plea. If Christ has meant anything to you at all, you will remember that above all else you must stay in relationship with one another. You must not give up on each other. Put your pride aside and understand that being in relationship requires a compassion that defies reason. Jesus Christ had every reason to insist on being right and powerful—he was God, after all. But instead, he chose to die an awful death because he knew that this one act of true selflessness and true love would ultimately be the only thing that would change the hardened hearts around him. A world full of resentful, bitter, self-absorbed people had to watch God sacrifice himself on the cross in order to realize their division was going to ruin them all forever.
If God can put Godself aside in order to break the cycle of division and hate around him, can we not find it within ourselves to do the same? Compared to Jesus giving up his own life, not giving up on one another when we disagree seems like a small price to pay.
Love does not mean giving up on justice. Love means staying in relationship with one another as means of reconciliation. Love means not letting the worst thing that someone does define them forever. Love means leaving the door open and believing that circumstances and people and the world itself can change for the better. Love is undying hope.
There is no division that is too deep for love to touch. There is only our self that stands in the way.
When I Cry For The World
I cry for our world.
I cry over broken bodies
and broken homes
and broken hearts.
I cry over violence
I cry most of all over the children!
Through my body and breath,
I pray for your kin-dom…
For all to have
nourishing food and nurturing homes,
edifying work and safe, skilled schools,
compassionate healthcare and dignified wages,
soft beds to fall into at the day’s close…
For the children to be protected,
the elderly honored,
and both hugged every single day…
For reparative justice,
and peaceful purity in what’s
breathed, eaten, and drunk.
I cry and I pray,
confessing the many times
I’ve declared what I deserve
rather than asked what I could give.
I cry and I pray,
knowing I’m complicit in the pain
and essential to the healing.
I cry and I pray,
trusting my tears mingle with your own,
hoping this tearful river softens and shapes
the hardest canyons of injustice-
or at least lays the groundwork.
I pray and I act,
moving my body and resources
toward your kin-dom vision,
trusting my skills and gifts
carry forward the new, just world you imagine
and are always bringing.
I remember this work is mine to do.
“Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
yours are the feet with which
he walks to do good,
yours are the hands, with which
he blesses all the world…”
O Jesus, have mercy
and help me.
Let us pray.