A Way Forward (… with help from the Church in Ephesus and Mr. Rogers)

7/9/2018

GROWING IN GRACE
BEN GOSDEN
 
This summer, Trinity United Methodist Church (Savannah) is kicking off a new sermon series called, “Won’t You Be a Neighbor?” that follows the Ephesians thread of the lectionary. The church in Ephesus had to struggle with what it meant to form a meaningful community of faith. Paul writes to them at length about important aspects of being the Body of Christ: reconciliation between separate groups (Ephesians 2), how we’re bound together in God’s powerful love (Ephesians 3 and 4), and how, as a result, we are called to seek unity as we offer ourselves as a sacrifice of praise (Ephesians 4 and 5). Added to this series are the wisdom of Mr. Fred Rogers and the amazing new biographical movie out this summer, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
 
We live in an angry, hate-filled world. We seem to love nothing more than to pick sides and be at war with our enemies. Even the church is subject to such brokenness. Our United Methodist Church is trying to discern a “way forward” on the issue of human sexuality and it doesn’t take long for sides to be chosen and harsh words to be exchanged. You can read the harshness on Twitter and Facebook. You can even see it at district and conference gatherings. The harsh language isn’t part of the main discussions, but the “sidebar” conversations are so often filled with anger and vitriol. It doesn’t seem to matter which “side” you support either, just as long as you become a raging ball of anger in the process.
 
Enter Mr. Rogers and the Church of Ephesus. It occurs to me that part of the reason for the rave reviews of the new Mr. Rogers movie has to do with its timeliness. I’m seeing the movie the day after I finish writing this column, but I assume there is more brilliance to it beyond just its cinematic character. Mr. Rogers writes, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” And Paul writes powerful words like, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3 NRSV).
 
I don’t think the challenges we face as a church, or a nation, or as the human race hinge on whether we’re right or not. I think it has more to do with HOW we choose to act in our perceived rightness. Will we love being right more than loving others? Will we be right in a way that allows love and grace to reign even over our rightness? Even if separate ways are our ultimate fate, can we avoid being jerks in the process?
 
Author Brené Brown says we all need a “strong back, soft front, and wild heart.” A strong back means we know how to stand up for what is right with courage. A soft front means we do so not with pride or anger, but with a sense of vulnerability and humility. A wild heart means whatever we do, we do it remembering the “wilderness moments” of our life – those difficult moments where we are reminded of our brokenness and where we become more keenly aware of God’s grace. It also helps us look at others, especially those we don’t like or agree with, and remember that we know the same wilderness they might be struggling in and know the same God who loved us through it loves them too.
 
On my best days I struggle with all of this, so I don’t want you to read this and think I’m humble bragging about possessing some superior sense of spirituality. It’s more like I will preach as one who wants to learn. On my best days I long to be part of a community of faith where the desire to DO things right is even more important than need to always BE right.
 
The Apostle Paul, the Church in Ephesus, Brené Brown, and Mr. Rogers sure could teach us Methodists A LOT about how to follow God’s way forward.
 
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at ben@trinity1848.org.