From Strife to Solidarity

 Satellite View

At today’s meeting of the congregation, the proposal to sell excess property was approved ….

Where I grew up on the west side of Flint, Michigan, two middle schools fed into one high school of about 2,000 students.  In Utley Middle School, nearer to the city, the student body was characterized by young people whose fathers were laborers and craftsmen for General Motors automobile factories.  Dye Middle School, further out in the suburbs, was known for kids whose parents were executives or highly schooled professionals.

There was a dividing line between the two middle schools.  In the youth culture of that area, those in the first middle school were known as the Utley “slobs,” and those in the second known as the Dye “snobs.”  Those stereotypes created some hard feelings that were never completely overcome.

It was a little like the situation described in the novel The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton.  Our youth group watched the film version on Friday night. The novel’s main character is Ponyboy Curtis, a longhaired orphan who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and belongs to the sub-culture of the “greasers.” Ponyboy is befriended by Cherry Valance, a girl from an elite family across town, who belongs to the sub-culture of the socialites or “socs.”  Boys from the greasers and the socs regularly engage in gang violence as part of turf wars.

Cherry sees through Ponyboy’s tough facade, and recognizes the sensitive nature that he hides to survive.   As Cherry talks about books and watching sunsets, Ponyboy begins to see Cherry not simply as a “soc,” but rather as a human being with thoughts and feelings just like his.  He tries to picture her watching the sun set.  It seems funny to him that the sunset she sees from her fancy patio and one he sees from his humble back porch are the same.  He begins to open to the possibility that their worlds may not be so different after all.

When a gang confrontation occurs, and violence threatens to erupt, Cherry has to leave Ponyboy.  Ponyboy recognizes that group boundaries will not allow them to be close friends.  As Cherry leaves this group of “outsiders,” Ponyboy reminds her  “Just don’t forget that some of us watch the sunset, too.”[1]

Nearly fifty years after it was written, The Outsiders” still has a place in school curricula because it so powerfully conveys the tragedy of prejudice and hatred that often plays out between individuals and groups that seem different from one another. In one part of our lives or another, most of us have been aware of such conflict in our school, our community, or our workplace.  Even the Church is not immune from such divisions, nor from boundary-defining behavior intended to keep others out.

In today’s gospel text from the ninth chapter of Mark, we read about a time when a similar behavior threatened Jesus’ budding ministry.  The disciples had been traveling around Galilee, aiding Jesus in his ministry. They had returned to Peter’s house at Capernaum.  In the post-journey debriefing, John raises a troubling event encountered on the road.  “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

John’s statement reveals the human impulse to create a line between insiders and outsiders when personal power or prestige is threatened.  It’s an impulse behind denominational battles about who may serve as ministers and church officers.  It is an impulse at the root of congregational feuds about who may use a room, or change a program, or suggest a future direction.  In those moments when we feel our turf threatened, it is not difficult to engage in our own boundary-setting behavior.  Anyone who supports my agenda may be part of the “in” crowd; anyone who threatens my place in the pecking order is “out.”  To Jesus we pray, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

If you look closely at the text, you’ll see that Mark gives no indication that the rogue healer is saying anything blasphemous or doing anything scandalous.  The healer has obviously listened to Jesus in the hills or along the shores of Galilee.  He has given a major portion of his life to ministry in Jesus’ name. The problem is not that the man is not following Jesus, but that he is not following the Twelve.[2]

Karoline Lewis, in a blog post this week, gives us a rather free rendering of Jesus’ response. He says, “Umm, no. That’s not how this works. That’s not how discipleship works.” And then he says further, “And, I know what you want to do next! Now you want to put a stumbling block in their way. Not only do you want to call them out, you want to make sure they fall. Seal the deal.” Yep. That’s exactly what we want to do.[3]

As I reflected upon our scripture in context of this day when we vote on another proposal that will prepare us for a new church building, I was reminded that the language we use to frame a situation can create strife, or it can foster solidarity.

Through the years, I’ve found myself in several conversations where the pronoun “you” was prominent.  They’ve happened in places like the checkout counter at Walgreen’s or in the produce section of Shop N Save. “Well, YOU really did it now, getting the church to vote to move.” “YOU will have a lot of work to do, now that YOU have voted to move.”

I realize that statements like these may, in some respect, reflect the personal anxiety and hurt of those who make them. But I find them inaccurate, and, if repeated often enough, harmful to the health of Christ’s Church.  First, I can’t make anyone vote in a particular way on anything. I don’t have that kind of power. We don’t have bishops in the Presbyterian Church. I can’t even keep Therese’s cat from jumping up on my lap when I’m trying to drink my morning coffee.  Second, if you have taken the vows of membership, then you have agreed to be part of a Presbyterian Christian body that discerns God’s will through the vote of the majority. The voice of the minority is heard, but the vote of the majority prevails.

And, so, when it comes to the direction of this church, there is no “you,” there is only “we.”  WE voted to move. Regardless of the outcome of today’s vote to sell land, WE have a lot of work to do. WE are all in this together.

Perhaps you’re someone who preferred that the congregation NOT move to a new location. Perhaps the process has been so drawn out that you’ve lost excitement. Yet, here we are, surely going in that direction, perhaps two years from the design on paper becoming a building on land. I hope you will become part of the “we” and go along with us on this journey. Or at least hang around the edges a little longer, and see if you might warm up to the idea. As Jesus said in his response to John, Whoever is not against us is for us …. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

[1] S.E. Hinton, “The Outsiders,” New York: Puffin Books, 1967, 1995, p. 40 ff.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr., “Mark,” Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983, p. 171.

[3] Karoline Lewis, “On Seeing Yourself,” 20 Sept. 2015, workingpreacher.org

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~ by JohnH1962 on September 27, 2015.