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Jan 22, 2023

Pledge of Allegiance

Pledge of Allegiance

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2023

 

Today's Sermon

 

"Pledge of Allegiance"

 

Second Reading
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

            10Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

            18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Pledge of Allegiance

            Allegiance.  It must be human nature to want to rally around certain figures with almost religious fervor.  Strike the almost.  Followers often become even truer believers than the figures themselves.  We all know of someone in recent years who was able to mobilize a formidable force, draw crowds, someone who was outspoken about what he thought was wrong with the country, and who all he did was win win win. I’m, of course, talking about Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team.  You didn’t think I was going to jump right into politics, did you?  The sports thing is no joke, though.  I was listening to a podcast a while back talking about how if you attend a European professional soccer game as a fan of the visiting team, there’s a whole way you have to enter the stadium escorted through a separate entrance with a security detail.  Our identity is wrapped up in our allegiances.

             Contests over allegiance are as old as human society I suspect.  Charismatic leaders have always drawn crowds, whether for good or ill.  This last weekend our attention was returned to what Martin Luther King Jr. was able to do with crowds, but Adolf Hitler drew crowds too, and there are plenty of examples in between.

            In the letter we call First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul shines some light on the corrosive effect of competing allegiances in the early Christian movement.  There were splinters from the beginning.  Paul writes you’re pledging your allegiance to different Christian teachers, Apollos, Cephas (Peter).  He even includes himself (1 Cor. 1:12), and says to them no!  You have lost the plot, or better put, its main character, Christ. Notice he does not critique these figures’ teachings here; he warns about how people have divided themselves into camps around these teachers.

            I am breaking no news when I say we are living in divided times in a divided land.  Those divisions run right through our families, our friendship circles, and they threaten both as they do the wider society.  Let’s explore this the way we should explore anything, with genuine curiosity, wanting to understand, appreciate what is going on.  On one level, can we not appreciate people being so committed to their convictions that they would risk losing something meaningful such as an important relationship?  We may learn that relationship is more important and more important to developing better ideas, but at the outset, let’s recognize how we get here. 

            I don’t believe that having different ideas about how to order society is the problem per se.  That we once all thought the same is likely more myth than history, more an indication of how tightly the circle around “we” was drawn.  We could get into the modern means of communication as sowing seeds of not only division, but of dangerous misinformation which leads to heated and unproductive division.  One additional, perhaps related, explanation for the unproductive, indeed destructive, flavor of division we are now enjoying is the energy we bring to our oppositions.  What could be an ideological contest, or an honest debate about different approaches to an identified problem or challenge, has become the battlefield for a proverbial holy war.  I use hyperbole ironically here.

            People have been studying the phenomenon of our enmity for some time.  You may have read a while back the book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  In it author Jonathan Haidt tries to get at why we are so diametrically opposed in these arenas, and this was written in 2013, a good reminder that what we are experiencing is not brand new.  Haidt studies moral psychology and he looks at our commitment to our own sense of righteousness, the different conceptual understandings we bring to certain values, and how we privilege our commitment to the groups to which we belong above the most reasoned approaches to addressing the actual matters at hand.

            As a refresher, or an introduction, here are a few quotes:

“Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.”  In other words, we don’t bring the kind of genuine uninvested exploration to what we deem as moral issues a good scientist would to a study. 

“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.”  How does one be committed to important causes and simultaneously open to new information and perspectives that might shift or contradict their course.  This strikes me as a spiritual discipline.
How can we allow our stories to evolve while still retaining their essence?  This strikes me as a spiritual practice.

“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”[1]This leaves us with quite a challenge.

            Here’s an observation that may help.  We bring a kind of holy passion to our positions, and some suggest this is the problem.  At least it’s the problem to bring this to an arena that neither warrants it or, in fact, benefits from it.  Shadi Hamid is a professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary in Southern California.  Fuller is an interdenominational evangelical seminary though it produces a fair number of Presbyterian clergy.  In an April 2021 piece for The Atlantic, titled “America Without God” he links the decline in religious faith in this country with the rise of religious-like commitment to politics.  He writes,

As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.[2]

            Bruce Ashford, who is a senior fellow at Caimbridge’s Kirby Laing Centre, which explores public theology, makes a similar assertion.  In an August 2021 op ed for The Carolina Journal, he observes that, “as religion has declined, political ideology has intensified, society has fragmented, and cultural common ground has disintegrated. As a result, politics is increasingly divisive and existentially fraught.”[3]

            You might guess where a religious adherent Ashford might go with this argument, namely a call to return to religiosity.  That certainly plays into my own job security, but I am less convinced the answer is to grasp for the religiosity of a bygone time.  How quick we are to forget how fraught with division the church has been throughout history.  Church splits are one thing, but wars, genocides have been given religious justification.  Remember, Paul was already warning about division and allegiance within a generation of the life of Jesus.

            Haidt, I think, has a more appropriate direction for our exploration, attention, and investment. He writes, “Focusing on effective leadership without focusing on a willingness to follow is like studying clapping by studying only the left hand.”[4]We are a leadership-obsessed culture.  How many leadership books are churned out every year. We are told from the time we are children that we can and are all leaders.  Don’t be a follower, we’re taught.  Be a leader!  Tell me something, how many books have you read on how to be a good follower?  How many modules can you take on effective following?  We will have a few chances to lead well, but a million to follow wisely.  The only time we talk about following it’s with reference to a cult or a conspiracy theory.  What if we devoted study to what faithful following looks like, which includes discerning what and who is worth following?

            To be a Christian is to be a disciple, a word that simply means student, a student of the way of Jesus.  It’s that simple, yet we have so often confused our allegiances.  Paul warns from the beginning about the object of our devotion.  As the Presbyterian Book of Confessions Study Edition reads:  “Jesus Christ...alone has the right to claim absolute and unqualified loyalty and obedience.”[5] That’s it.  Paul argues for unity, but not unity for unity’s sake, unity with the mind of Christ.  Our lives public and private are about figuring out what following Christ looks like in each new setting. 

            Our convictions, for which we should sacrifice, are to grow from our discipleship.  That should be our focus over the destruction of our neighbor.  We are called to examine our own allegiances first; that’s the tougher work than critiquing everyone else’s.  In what I would call a really good, progressive look at the church and Christianity, and I use that term intentionally because it involves some self-examination of his own crowd, in his book Saving Jesus from the Church:  How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following JesusRobin Meyers writes, “It is easier and much more satisfying to rail against the Right than to suggest that we go back to Genesis 1 and study together.  Liberals can be just as intolerant as fundamentalists, and we have arrived at a moment in human history when intolerance and hope are mutually exclusive.”[6]  Critique begins at home.  Being in relationship does not mean full approval.  It merely recognizes that connected we will accomplish more than disconnected.

            In the church our allegiance is to Christ, who embodied a vision for a more just and peaceable world and who spent time with those from whom he and his people differed.  Jesus refused violence to his neighbor.  If we dare to claim to follow him, we must do likewise, for the stakes now are too high.  Our existence may indeed depend on it, because unlike our beloved Warriors and Steve Kerr, our common life on a planet with 8 billion people on it is no game.

            Amen.

 

[1]Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

[2]https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/04/america-politics-religion/618072/

[3]https://www.carolinajournal.com/opinion/how-politics-has-replaced-religion-in-america/

[4]Jonathan HaidtThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

[5]The Book of Confessions, Study Edition

[6]Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church:  How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus