What’s Your Main Thing?
What’s Your Main Thing?
Rev. Boone Clayton
November 8, 2020
Denbigh United Presbyterian Church
[A note on the Coffee with Jesus comic strip re footprints in the sand.] See attached image.
The first week of November. This was a big, crazy week in the US, wasn’t it? There were a lot of added pressure on families, rising number of COVID infections, physical and mental health concerns, even just the ability to sleep…
And you can pretend you don’t know what I’m referring to, but there’s no getting around why: Daylight Savings Time ended last week! Right? It’s the worst. But, I’m being told that many of you here and at home said something about an election. Right, right, I remember now hearing one or two…million things about the big election, the most important one ever; and of course, the 2020 election has been the 2020 of elections. <note about future 2020 references> I began to meaningfully form this sermon last Sunday afternoon out of a sense of anxiety about what lay ahead in the week to come.
It is known that there are typical/traditional themes a preacher might be expected to hit on today, the Sunday after a presidential election: themes like unity, healing, bridge-building, or that we are all members of one body with Christ as the head. But I worried then, when we didn’t know who would win, that half of you – or maybe even all – wouldn’t be able to hear that for what it is; heck, I worried I wouldn’t be able to hear it. That worry remains when, five days after the election, we’ve just learned in the last 24 hours in what has been an incredibly close election across the country. Such is the extent of division in our country.
But are we so divided in the church? Have the divisions of the world seeped into our relationships, our faiths here in God’s community?
The early church had it so much easier, didn’t they? Sure, they were targeted for following the risen Christ, worshiped in secret in house churches, arrested, tortured, and executed when they were found out, but they hadn’t lived through 2020! Joking aside, the political landscape of the early church did not leave a lot of room for ambiguity. For the first few hundred years, Christians didn’t have a voice in the system and they were considered enemies of the state, so those in the church were united against this violence and oppression. For many Christians over the last 1700-ish years (though certainly not all), they have had some role and say in whatever society and government they found themselves living in. Those who have had a role have always taken it seriously as they seek to make the world around them more in line with God’s vision – bit by bit – bringing God’s kingdom to fruition here on earth.
We are not so united today in our politics as Christians. I think this fact saddens all of us in our own way, though I will say that I am so happy to be a part of a church that truly has real diversity throughout so many aspects of its member’s lives. That is a powerful thing when so many Christians choose to be a part of churches that are monolithic in their political, economic, and racial makeup. Other churches are often united in how they oppose other churches and other Christians and they see themselves as different from them. We at Denbigh United may not be united politically, but I believe that at the end of the day we are better for it as we reflect the diversity of the body of Christ.
Last weekend in the days leading up to the election, I heard some survey results that really jumped out at me. First, the divisions: 90% of Democrats said that if Trump wins, we’re headed for dictatorship; 90% of Republicans said that if Biden wins, we’re headed for socialism. But hear the agreement: 90% of the country says the biggest problem facing this country is polarization and division. So they want to heal it but maybe don’t know how.
When I was a teenager and had recently come to Christ, I had a t-shirt that got a lot of mileage in my middle and high school years. On the front it said, “First Things First,” and on the back it read, “The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing. Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven.” It is at times like these when we have so many other things competing for our attention, and ultimately competing for our very hearts and minds, that I am reminded of that shirt. What is our main thing, right now in this moment of our lives?
The Sermon on the Mount has all sorts of suggestions for us. Which of these (from the CEB translation) applies to you or resonates with you the most right now?
- Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (5:3)
- Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. (5:4)
- Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. (5:6)
- Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. (5:9)
- You have heard that it was said, “You must love your neighbor” and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you. (5:43-44)
- Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:21)
- Desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. (6:33)
- Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? (7:3) and
- You should treat people the same way you want them to treat you. (7:12)
Obviously, loving our enemies is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It seems sometimes like whenever we live out Jesus’ words there, it has to be a very intentional act that doesn’t always feel natural. And how much harder when the division all around us makes it seem like enemies are everywhere. Someone this past week made an important distinction between having enemies and having opponents. It is a vital distinction to have in our country in every age and era, but it just as valuable for us in the church. I could not help but recall the famous words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address when the country was on the brink of civil war: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” After the sermon, as we sing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” remember those words from Lincoln. I would not be surprised if that song was fresh in his head as he wrote those powerful words in 1861.
Beyond that, those last two (about the log and splinter in our eyes and the golden rule) work together to have a special relevance right now. In order not to judge, as Deborah illustrated a few weeks ago with a story from her Los Angeles teaching days, and in order to get to know how another person wants to be treated, we have to have patience, ask questions, and get to know the other person.
In the church, when we get to know one another, what stands out as most important? Especially when we learn of differences between us, we can inflate the importance of some of those differences. Now I have gotten to know many within the church to learn that some of you harbor some very wrong opinions. For example, did you know that some of you prefer peanut M&Ms over peanut butter M&Ms? Ugh. Some of you prefer Sam’s Club over Costco, I can’t imagine why. Some of you don’t eat meat at all and some of you eat too much meat, both wrong. And some of you don’t like coffee and instead drink something like diet coke as your preferred means of caffeine intake? <point at Deborah>
All of the above tongue-in-cheek examples are light-hearted, trivial ways we can diverge in our opinions, preferences, and outlooks in life. Of course, there are many other topics that are more serious where we are bound to disagree. One needs look no further than this most recent election cycle to find a long list of those topics – I won’t go into them here. My point here, in case you’re wondering, is that the differences often get highlighted more than the similarities. When we are really bad about this, we stop seeing the other person as a person, created in the image and spirit of God just as we are, and we begin to see only the differences.
I hope that in the church this can continue to be a different story. Let me be even more specific: I hope that in this church, we can continue to live a different story. I hope that in the church, when we have patience and take the time to get to know one another in the loving way God has shown us in Jesus Christ, that it will be a person’s heavenly treasure, their spiritual priorities that stand out as most important; that at the top of their priority list won’t be patriotism or their homeland, a sports allegiance, the car they drive, or even their family ties; I hope that at the top of the list will be God, plain and simple.
What we can rely on in the church is a belief, trust, and faith in something higher. We can stand side by side, hand in hand, with God at the top of our lists. No matter what happens, God’s hand is in it and God is at work in the world.
And so we come to the two verses for today from the Sermon on the Mount, verses about a narrow gate and a narrow, difficult road. It might take us longer to get through together, but again, just as with other parts of the Sermon on the Mount, we must know and believe that it is worth the time. (I cannot help but connect this to the “many are called but few are chosen” statement from later in Matthew’s gospel. With the narrow gate and narrow road, many are bound to fall away. But again, that is why we are in this together and why it is so important to stay together and bring each other along.) The gate, the road, the way ahead is narrow because it is not easy. But it is definitely worth doing.
One reason I think it’s important to tie in a lot of what we’ve heard from the Sermon on the Mount thus far is that none of it is said in a vacuum. Time and again, we have pointed out the impossibility of some of the Sermon. It is set before us as an ideal. Similarly, not much of the Sermon is said to us as individuals acting alone but rather to us as a group. We are EXPECTED to respond as a group. So, as a group, let us continue to come together to tune out the distractions and focus on keeping the main thing the main thing; together let us fix our eyes, our hearts, our minds and our very souls on God alone.