Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love
September 6, 2009
Acts 15 (Ephesians 4:1-6)
I will open with a story from the preacher and biblical scholar Fred Craddock. He says that one day he was walking down the road and he saw a man with a pile of bricks, going through them, measuring them, setting some aside. Fred said, what are you doing? The man responded, I’m going to build a church. I want it to stand, so I’m measuring all of the bricks, making sure they are the same size. And with that, the man began stacking those bricks ever so carefully.
The next day, Fred walked by that spot again, and the man’s hard work of building a church lay in a pile of bricks. They had all fallen down. He continued walking, and soon came upon a woman with a pile of rocks. All kinds of rocks. All shapes and sizes.
What are you doing, asked Fred.
I’m going to build a church, the woman replied.
Oh, said Fred, it will never stand. That guy down the road had nice square bricks, all the same size, it’s a pile of rubble.
This will stand, she said.
But this guy down the street . . .
This church will stand, she said. And then she went over to a wheelbarrow and began mixing something. It looked like cement, but that wasn’t what she called it. And she just globbed that cement-like stuff in between all those crazy rocks.
Thirty-eight years later, Fred walked by that corner again, and the church was still standing. It was all that stuff she had put in between the rocks. That stuff—it looked like cement, but that’s not what she called it. You know what she called it.
The whole point of the story, of course, is that you all decide for yourself what that stuff is that holds the church together. What that stuff is that keeps the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Whatever that stuff is, the church needs it. The broader Mennonite Church needed it back in 1995 when the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church—two separate denominations—were considering the prospect of joining together.
Their idea of what that stuff was in between the stones—what it would take to hold together a bunch of differently shaped rocks—had to do with agreeing and disagreeing in love; in being able to maintain a unity of Spirit and purpose despite theological disagreements. They felt that this ability to agree and disagree in love was so important that they drafted and approved a statement about it. The brief text is on your bulletin cover. A more expanded version is available on the web site.
Eventually, of course, the two denominations did merge, and now we are part of Mennonite Church USA. So the church now has twice as many mishapped rocks being held together by that stuff that looks like cement. And, as you might imagine, there are cracks forming and some people are worried that the church may not stand after all.
Some churches have already left the denomination because they disagreed with others about whether women can be pastors, whether gays and lesbians should be fully accepted and included in the life of the church. And we have an increasing number of people coming to Mennonite churches who didn’t grow up Mennonite—who didn’t even grow up speaking English or low German. Is that stuff holding all of these rocks together strong enough? Maybe we didn’t get the mixture quite right.
So we’re turning to focus again on this idea of agreeing and disagreeing in love. To consider what it means for us, as a denomination, to maintain the spirit of unity through the bond of peace. We are, after all, a peace church. And people should be able to tell that we are a peace church by watching how we treat each other.
The principles of agreeing and disagreeing in love can certainly be applied to groups besides our denomination. Think what it would look like for people in this country to agree and disagree in love about health care reform. While we cannot realistically expect everyone to follow these principles, I find the first three helpful just for my involvement in the discussion: accept conflict, affirm hope, commit to prayer.
While the entire nation cannot be expected to agree and disagree in love, it seems like a reasonable goal for our congregation. It is, I think, a necessary ingredient of that stuff that will hold all of us rough rocks together as a church from year to year.
If you have been with this church for awhile, or if you have gone through the membership class, you know that we have a rich history of disagreeing—and not always in love. People have been deeply hurt by this congregation. And because of our past inability to disagree in love, we now put an emphasis on the consensus process—which is a model that promotes the principles outlined in the Agreeing and Disagreeing statement.
I think we are getting better. I think we do love each other and that we do a good job of listening carefully and speaking gently about the big issues that could cause the church to crumble. You called a pastor and bought a building all in the spirit of unity. I have full confidence that as we enter into a time of discussion and decision-making about increasing our space, we will agree and disagree in love. The church will stand—that stuff that keeps us connected will hold.
The early Christian church had a huge test of it’s ability to agree and disagree in love. In Acts 15, we have the story of the Jerusalem council. The debate back then was about how to include Gentiles into this new Jewish sect of Jesus followers. Some were teaching that the Gentiles had to follow all of the Jewish laws, including circumcision. Others insisted that we are saved through grace and there is no need to put such huge demands on Gentile Christ followers. The meeting—as it is recorded in the Bible—is a model of listening, speaking, and negotiating. They arrive at an acceptable solution, and the church stands.
Paul and Barnabas, partners in ministry and leaders of the church, go from this meeting to continue preaching and teaching about Jesus. After several days, Paul suggests that they go on a journey to visit some churches. Barnabas wants to take John Mark. Paul says, “No way. That guy deserted us at Pamphylia and hasn’t shown his face since.” And Barnabas says, “But . . “ And Paul says, “Listen here . . .” And Barnabas says, “I’m taking John whether you like it or not.” And Paul says, “Fine. Then I’ll take Silas. So there.” And the two head off in different directions.
It’s a sad story, really, but you have to appreciate the irony. All of the church leadership can come together and agree on a foundational issue, and then a few days later these two leaders of the church bicker and split up over a personal squabble.
In his book, Life Together, which is about living in Christian community, Dietrich Bonheoffer writes that, “Many a community has broken up over who washes the dishes.” Or maybe it was over who takes out the trash. I’ve heard the quote before but couldn’t find it this week. I may be remembering “dishes” because the worst fight I had with my housemates in college was over washing (or rather my not washing) the dishes.
Agreeing and disagreeing in love. It is great to have practices in place for those big decisions. But we must not neglect the principles when it comes to everyday disagreements. That stuff that holds the church together must hold fast through our decisions about buying and building, and it must hold fast through cleaning up after potlucks.
Most people have stories of things church folk have fought about. A simple request for such stories on Facebook brought in unprecedented responses. Some controversies were over things I would consider theologically significant, like the age of baptism and who can join the church. Most of fights people wrote about were . . . I’ll be nice and just call them trivial. Church folk have fought about the color of the carpet, the placement of the communion cup, the color of juice the kids could drink, whether the youth could play ping-pong or not, appropriate worship attire, paper, plastic, or “real” dishes, and my personal favorite, non-dairy creamer vs. half and half during coffee hour.
Honestly, when people start talking about these things, I feel a little left out of these conversations. The best I can do is talk about our Congregational meeting discussion of the comma. You remember, whether to put a comma between “others” and “and” in our new mission statement. But that wasn’t really a fight. Everyone was good natured and no one left the church over it.
Then, this week, I thought I finally had my story. Awhile back, someone put up a little knickknack shelf in the kitchen above the stove. There was a little oil lamp on it, which someone else took off of the shelf with a note that it was a fire hazard. So this week, the lamp shows up on the shelf again. I thought, ahhh, you gotta love those passive aggressive Mennonites.
But then I saw that there was a sticky note by the lamp. “Now contains water and food coloring” with a little smiley face.
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”
It’s the stuff that holds all of us lumpy rocks together. It’s the stuff that makes us church. By the power of the Spirit and the grace of God.
Thanks be to God.