First Baptist Richmond, September 10, 2023
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Come and listen to the story of a man named Bill,
Living with his woman in the East Kentucky Hills,
But then one day he said, “Honey, God has blessed us!”
So they loaded up the Taurus and they moved to Austin, Texas.
That’s not exactly the way Bill Bishop’s story goes, but it’s close. In a book called The Big Sort he writes: “My wife and I made the move to Austin, Texas, in the way of middle-class American migrants. We rented a Ford Taurus at the airport, bought an Austin map at a U-Tote-Um quick stop, and toured the city in search of a place to live. We didn’t have a list of necessities—granite countertops or schools with killer SAT’s—as much as we had a mental image of the place we belonged. We drove and when a place felt comfortable, seemed right, my wife drew a smiley face on the map. We didn’t intend to move into a community filled with [people who vote like we do], but that’s what we did—effortlessly and without a trace of understanding about what we were doing. We bought a house on one of those smiley-face streets…”[i]
At some point Bishop began to wonder how many other people had made decisions about where to live in much the same way. As a journalist with a keen political interest, he started an investigation that led him to some surprising conclusions. In the introduction of his book he writes, “As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and in the end, politics.”[ii] In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties. [iii] Bishop’s book was published in 2007 and doesn’t include the current data, but it seems likely that the polarizing effects of the past few presidential elections have driven that number even higher.
Bishop writes, “The United States has been sorting itself, sifting at the most microscopic levels of society, as people move from one place to another to take jobs, to be close to family, or to follow the sun. When they look for a place to live, they run through a checklist of amenities: Is there the right kind of church nearby? The right kind of coffee shop? But they also make choices about who their neighbors will be and who will share their new lives. Those are now political decisions, and they are having a profound effect on the nation’s public life.”
For decades this “sorting” went largely unnoticed, but when Bishop and his research partner Robert Cushing began to look more closely they discovered that “Americans were forming tribes, not only in their neighborhoods, but also in churches and volunteer groups. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more importantly, thought alike. As people heard their beliefs reflected and amplified, they became more extreme in their thinking. The like-minded neighborhood supported the like-minded church, and both confirmed the image and beliefs of the tribe that lived and worshiped there.”[iv]
If you are nodding your head and thinking that’s a good thing, you need to know that the full title of Bill Bishop’s book is, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. The synopsis on the back of the book explains: “As people in like-minded communities grow more extreme and firm in their beliefs, we are left with a country of neighborhoods and towns that are so polarized, so ideologically inbred, that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live just a few miles away.” All of which leads me to the conclusion that what America needs in times like these is a church like this.
I came to First Baptist in 2008, around the time Bill Bishop’s book was published. The search committee had told me that the congregation was very diverse, but when I stood in the pulpit I didn’t see it. I came to understand that it wasn’t necessarily an ethnic or racial diversity, but more of a political and theological one. After a few years here I began to say, “This is a big tent kind of church. If you could put us all on the same pew you would have the full spectrum of political and theological diversity.” I thought that was remarkable, not the theological part as much as the political part. I had come from a church in Washington, DC, where the political atmosphere could be almost toxic. Here at First Baptist it seemed a little healthier: in fact, in one of our Sunday school classes, the resident liberal would regularly square off against the resident conservative, but always in a way that made it clear that they loved and respected each other.
That kind of thing is good for society. You might drive home from church thinking about that exchange in Sunday school and the good points made on both sides. You might end up being a little more open-minded than you were before you came, a little more tolerant of other views. You might even be able to think of that person who votes differently than you as a brother or sister rather than an enemy. At the end of his book Bill Bishop writes: “There are Americans who aren’t just like you. They don’t live like you, they don’t have families like yours, and they don’t think like you. They may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too.”[v] And that’s when Bill Bishop begins to sound a whole lot like the Apostle Paul.
Because Paul would say there are people in the church—at least in this church—who aren’t just like you. They don’t live like you, they don’t have families like yours, and they don’t think like you. They may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their church, too.
Writing to a church like that in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” It’s a brilliant analogy, because we know how our bodies work. We know we need all those various parts and we need them to work together. As Paul points out later in this same passage, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” And yet, that seems to be exactly what’s happening in America. When you move into a neighborhood or join a church where everyone is just like you, it’s as if you were saying, “I don’t need those other voices or other views. I’m fine just the way I am.” As a result you don’t see very well, you don’t hear very well.
The body begins to suffer.
As I said earlier, what America needs in times like these is a church like this. In the past few years this church seems to have become more ethnically and racially diverse. I see that as a good thing. On the other hand, it may have become less politically and theologically diverse. I see that as a bad thing. If the Big Tent is going to remain big it has to have all kinds of people in it. “Indeed,” as Paul says, “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” So, if you look around inside the Big Tent and see that it’s all hands, you need to go out and find some feet. If you look around inside the Big Tent and see that it’s all eyes you need to go out and find some ears.
Can I be honest with you? I feel that there’s been some sorting going on at First Baptist Church in the last few years, that some people began to feel their political or theological views were no longer welcome and went looking for a church that was a little more like-minded. If that’s true then this church is poorer for it. A church full of people who think the same way and believe the same way may soon stop thinking or believing altogether. As Paul says, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?”
Where is the Body of Christ these days? Where is the United States of America? We have been sorting ourselves into like-minded neighborhoods, churches, and associations where all of our biases are confirmed by the people we spend time with. None of our thoughts are ever contested, none of our beliefs are ever challenged. It becomes a little too easy to believe that we are right and everyone else is wrong, that we are among friends and everyone else is an enemy. “No,” says Paul. “That’s not true. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Americans can’t say to their fellow Americans, “I have no need of you,” and Christians can’t say to their fellow Christians, “I have no need of you.” We need each other. Diversity makes us better, it makes us stronger.
More than twenty years ago I read a book called The Mammoth Hunters by Jean Auel. I can’t really recommend to you. It’s what some people might call “a good beach read.” But in that less-than-literary novel there is a better-than-average vision of human relations. A group of prehistoric people who make up the Lion Tribe are led by a laughing, red-headed giant of a man named Talut. Rather that gathering around himself only those who are like him, Talut gathers a tribe of people who are different. There is Ranec, a dark-skinned carver with an infectious grin; Mamut, a shaman who is well over a hundred years old; Rydag, a clever boy who is half Neanderthal; Ayla, a tall, blonde woman who is a skilled hunter and healer; and Frebec, whose role in the tribe seems to be to make everyone else miserable. When I read that novel at the beach I was struck by the idea of consciously collecting a tribe of people who were different, rather than the same. It seems like a recipe for disaster. And yet, under Talut’s leadership the tribe became smarter and more successful than any other tribe in that part of the ice-age world.
Their differences made them strong.
I was still thinking about that book a few months later when I was asked to speak during Martin Luther King week at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. On the night before my speech I met with a group of students from the campus Christian community. I explained the concept of the Lion Tribe, and then asked them to gather in groups of four or five to discuss their differences. I said, “Tell the others in your group what your unique contribution to the tribe will be. Tell them about your special skills, qualities, traits, or abilities. Tell them what you can do that no one else can.” So, they sat on the floor in small groups, and one by one they shared their uniqueness.
In the group I joined one student told us she was an amazing soccer player. Another said he was so funny he often made himself laugh. Another said she was good with children. Another said he could write music and play several instruments. After each person shared their unique contributions to the tribe someone would mark their palm with the sign of the Lion Tribe—four vertical lines on the palm of the hand. At the end of that exercise we stood in a circle and at my signal every person raised his or her hand. It was amazing to see each palm marked with four vertical lines, and to realize that every person there had been able to offer a contribution to the tribe.
It makes me wonder if Jesus wasn’t up to something similar when he started his ministry. When he called fishermen, Zealots, and tax collectors to follow him, was he trying to include as much diversity as possible? When he said, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, and the mourning,” did he know that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these? When he looks at the church in America today does it break his heart that we seem to be sorting ourselves into like-minded communities rather than celebrating the rich diversity of God’s Kingdom? How could we change that?
Well, maybe it’s true that what America needs in times like these is a church like this: a Big Tent church where, if you could put us all on the same pew, you would have the full spectrum of diversity: not only politics and theology, but also age, race, ability, disability, ethnicity, marital status, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographic location, education, income, culture, language, and any other thing that might threaten to divide us. What is it that holds us together? Only this: the center pole of the Big Tent—the Lord Jesus Christ. We gather around him. We listen to his teaching. We follow his example. We obey his commands. When we hold up our hands to greet one another it isn’t the four vertical lines of the Lion Tribe that we see; it’s the cross of Jesus Christ, with a vertical line that symbolizes our connection to God, and a horizontal line that symbolizes our connection to each other. That’s the kind of thing Jesus was willing to die for, and in his final hours with his diverse disciples that’s the kind of thing he prayed for:
That they might all be one.
The unity of the body of Christ is possible, even in times like these, but it won’t be easy. It’s never been easy. You might have to drive in from the suburbs to get to church. You might have to go to a Sunday school class with people who have different political and theological views. You might have to sit down for Wednesday night supper with people who don’t look like you or live where you live. But it is also entirely possible that what you need in times like these
Is a church like this.
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 1.
[ii] Ibid., p. 5.
[iii] Ibid., p. 6.
[v] Ibid., p. 310.