One of my favorite things about the internet are these little videos called TED talks. TED, short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, began in 1984 as a forum for innovative ideas. They now host conferences all over the world where interesting people – artists and researchers and entrepreneurs – have around 15 minutes on stage to present a compelling idea. Their website is a treasure trove of inspirational and thought-provoking snippets. Many of us have been talking together about the difficulty of this strained political season, where no one seems to really talk to each other anymore, when appeared in my inbox a TED talk by Robb Willer, a social psychologist at Stanford who studies morality and politics. “How To Have Better Political Conversations,” was the title of his talk.
Willer begins with what we know – people who note different political preferences are living in fewer of the same places, are socializing less, find each other less attractive, and, according to recent studies, increasingly don’t want our kids to marry someone with different politics. All of which means we don’t have the chance to practice talking to each other. Willer – and I commend the video to you, which I’ll link to when the sermon is posted – argues that different core values tend to motivate folks who are more liberal and folks who are more conservative. And what we tend to do is argue, even speak, to each other in the wrong ways. Liberals try to persuade conservatives on a point like, for example, gay marriage, by making arguments that appeal to their own, more liberal values. Which doesn’t work. Conservatives, too, make their argument to liberals out of their own framework. Unless we understand what animates, what moves someone else, we’re stuck. Empathy and respect, Willer says. Then he says it again, and again, as his talk concludes. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect. Empathy and respect.1
But the hearty band of Christians in Corinth weren’t there, not by a long shot. Paul founded the church in Corinth, a major commercial center on the isthmus between the northern and southern parts of Greece, in the year 51 or 52. He remained in touch, and there is likely a letter he sent to them before this one that we do not have. His correspondence with them is largely about conflict. Word has gotten back, he notes in 1:11, that there are “quarrels among them.” Other apostles had followed Paul, each preaching their version of the gospel, which had led to further divisions in the community. I belong to Paul, some say. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas (Peter). Paul was worried the splits were deepening, arguments and frustration building. No one was listening anymore. He writes to encourage them toward one another.
Chapter three begins with Paul admonishing them again. “I could not speak to you as spiritual people,” Paul says, “but as people of the flesh” – as opposed to people of the spirit, where he is trying to move them – “infants in Christ.” J. Paul Sampley writes, “The best that Paul can say about the Corinthians is that their understanding and comportment show that they are merely babies in the faith.”2 Their tendency towards division is a sign of their spiritual immaturity. As long as there is jealousy and quarreling, are you not of the flesh? Not subtly, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have seriously overestimated themselves and their maturity of faith.3
Paul needs the truth to be clear before he re-orients them. Their divisions show immaturity – they easily pick one issue over another, one charismatic leader over another, he says, like Apollos, like Paul himself. But who are we, he asks? We are merely servants, ALL of us, servants of God. I planted, Paul writes, I started things, Apollos watered – here he acknowledges that even his perceived competitor has a role to play – but it is GOD who gives the growth. No matter what good work either one of them did, it begins and ends with God. The one who plants and the one who waters each have a common purpose, which is pretty radical because I imagine Paul’s people and Apollos’ people aren’t excited about each other. “For” – here’s the last line – “we are God’s servants, working together.” We are God’s servants, working together.
While it is important to note that Paul is responding to a particular season in a particular congregation, and that not everything transfers, I think there’s some wisdom here that might help in a season in the world in which there feels like a decent amount of turmoil. Willer’s TED talk doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. We don’t talk to each other as we should, don’t engage in the kind of rich relationships to which we are called. Within the Corinthian church, Paul is reminding them that no matter who does what or who thinks what or who follows whom, it is all grounded in God, and all the work comes from God, and goes towards God’s purposes in the world. That is the ground of our unity, and is a way God teaches us, through our differences.
Again, not everything from one conflicted church in Corinth transfers, but I wonder what the implications might be for our churches or our neighborhoods or our world if we truly understood that we were all God’s servants, working together? If we acted like we really believed it? I suspect that all of us, in our heart of hearts, have some folks in mind, either a person or group, that we aren’t really interested in working together with? Sometimes our anger or suspicion or condescension persist long enough that we kind of make friends with them. It’s easier, preferable, to hold that grudge. We don’t have to give up anything that way. We get to maintain the illusion of our own faultlessness, every bit of our own worldview perfectly intact. It’s tough, crucial work. Of listening and care. Of patience. Even with folks who may not be interested in working with you, may not be interested in serving alongside. If, as Christian people, we ultimately believe in the sovereignty of God, that the God who created it all doesn’t entirely leave us to our own devices, but journeys with us here, and Christ is still, ultimately, Lord of all, then we must persist.
What if we saw every member of the church as our fellow servant, working together in God’s vineyard? No matter what you do, or how often we see you here, whether you’ve been here 40 years or six months. You got a letter from me this week on behalf of the Session about a pretty big budget gap we need to work on. What if every member of this church was truly invested, giving sacrificially, to further Christ’s work here and beyond? What if ever member was praying, deeply for ALL? What could we do? I feel confident that the budget gap would be nothing, and we’d have money and energy and wisdom for projects and organizations and people, SO MUCH MORE TO SPARE. How might we all engage, every person, together?
What if we saw every neighbor as our fellow servant, working together? The cranky guy who drives too fast, the quiet older woman who keeps to herself. The family of a different race or ethnicity, of a different faith tradition, or who, dare I say, had different signs in their yards over the fall. The conflict and division that surrounds is corrosive, and hurts all of us. It damages our communities and eats at our souls. Not that there aren’t real and important differences. But the way, I’m convinced, through those differences is not all agitation and mobilization – and this is where the church has to be engaged – we’ve got bridges to build, one to another, among people, before we can ever do anything larger in our political system. We tend to get the system we deserve. If we knew our neighbors better, truly – or even had a deeper desire to TRY – for more empathy and respect, it is less likely we’d be as confused as we are.
I fear we’ve lost something – if we ever truly had it – a sense of common purpose and engagement. There are some problems that are tolerable if they are someone else’s. The refugee situation is sad but we can’t let it affect our safety. Crime on the other side of town is bad, as long as it doesn’t creep into our neighborhoods. Poverty in rural America is sad but inevitable in globalization, so we dismiss and go to our hip events in town. And we shake our heads and look down our noses at folks who aren’t as enlightened as we feel ourselves to be. And I don’t know how far that is from Paul’s people or Apollos’s followers at that little church in Corinth two millennia ago. “For as long as there is jealously and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, behaving according to human inclinations?” Paul reprimanded them. Yet he speaks to them again: “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” God has given each of us what we need, that we might be a community, that we might rush out of here to participate in a world in which we work side by side. Together.
May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. “How to Have Better Political Conversations.” Robb Willer. TED. Courtesy Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin
2. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002 ), p 825.
3. Ibid, 825-826.