As I’m sure you heard, Theodor Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss” has a new book out—even though he died nearly a quarter century ago. A complete manuscript—ready for publication—was recently found entitled, What Pet Should I Get? and even though they already HAVE a PET—I can’t wait to GET copy to read Joel and Lydia!
This morning I want to begin my sermon by reading one of Dr Seuss’ older stories. It’s called, The Zax and it goes like this.
“One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped. They stood.
Foot to foot. Face to face.
‘Look here, now!’ the North-Going Zax said, ‘I say!
You are blocking my path. You are right in my way.
I’m a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!’
‘Who’s in whose way?’ snapped the South-Going Zax.
‘I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you’re in MY way! And I ask you to move.
And let me go south in my south-going grove.’
Then the North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.
‘I never,’ he said, ‘take a step to one side.
And I’ll prove to you that I won’t change my ways
If I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days!’
‘And I’ll prove to YOU,’ yelled the South-Going Zax,
‘That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax
For fifty-nine years! For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School.
Never budge! That’s my rule. Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!
I’ll stay here, not budging! I can and I will
If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!’
Of course the world didn’t stand still. The world grew.
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.”
Don’t you just love Dr. Seuss!
He has a way of making profound truth hit home—
—a way of revealing our foolishness—and the silly ways we roam…
He makes our disagreements and quarrels seem moot—
–and he does it with a rhythm and a rhyme to boot!
In case you didn’t notice—those last four lines were mine. Seriously—I share Dr. Seuss’s story of the Zax this morning because it illustrates how important it is for people to learn to get along—and this is especially true of the local church. When a body of believers learns to give and take—without compromising Biblical truth of course—when Christians learn to love one another as Jesus loves us all—they experience a fellowship that blesses both the church and the community around it. But when a church stubbornly, selfishly fights—when their fellowship is weak or non-existent, the world ignores it. Like these two Zaxes the world just by-passes—ignores—churches like that.
This morning we are starting a new sermon series designed to help us prevent that kind of thing from happening here—a series to help us continue to foster healthy fellowship here at Redland—the kind of fellowship that develops friends that stick closer than a brother. I’m calling the series: “Builders and Busters” and we’ll be looking at things that can help build or bust our relationships here at Redland.
This is important Biblical truth to cover for several reasons but one of them is the fact that from time to time church families like ours have to deal with potentially divisive issues. As you may know we’re going to be dealing with some of that in the near future—issues that Satan would love to use to damage the sweet, sweet Spirit we enjoy here at Redland. For example, this fall I’ll be proposing by-laws changes to protect our church from the recent Supreme Court rulings about gay marriage—changes that will make it easier for us to continue to preach about marriage and even conduct weddings according to the Bible’s clear definition of that covenant relationship—namely a life-long union between one man and one woman. We’ll also be looking at what the Bible teaches about men and women and their roles in both the home and in the church—so as to help prepare us to do a wonderful thing—namely ordain Pam Burdette as a hospital chaplain. In fact, my next sermon series will focus on this issue. And our MASS CLASS—MERGE deal this summer focuses on equipping us to live in a culture that increasingly teaches things that are counter to our beliefs as Christians. So I believe this series is timely.
Today we begin our study by looking at a “buster” called “sowing dissension.” Our text is Proverbs 6:16-19. Take your Bibles and turn there or follow along on the screen as I read.
16 – There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to Him:
17 – haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
18 – a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 – a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.
Now—the unfortunate truth is that down through the years this particular buster has reeked DEADLY DESTRUCTION in the church over and over and over again. People who have SOWED DISSENSION have destroyed friendships, marriages—and—as I said—precious congregational harmony. It’s sad to say but over the years, as a pastor, there are several times in which I have seen our adversary move weak, immature Christians, about like pawns on a chessboard—successfully tempting them to grumble and complain and gossip—and in the process starting feuds that have wounded people so deeply that entire churches have been rendered ineffective in the kingdom.
In the parable she entitles, A Brawling Bride, Karen Mains paints a vivid scene, describing a suspenseful moment in a wedding ceremony. Here’s the picture. Down front stands the groom in a spotless tuxedo—handsome, smiling, full of anticipation, shoes shined, every hair in place, anxiously awaiting the presence of his bride. All attendants are in place, looking joyful and attractive. The magical moment finally arrives as the pipe organ reaches full crescendo and the stately wedding march begins. Everyone rises and looks toward the door for their first glimpse of the bride but as they do there is a horrified gasp. The entire wedding party is shocked. The groom stares in embarrassed disbelief. For you see—instead of a lovely woman dressed in elegant white, smiling behind a lace veil, the bride is LIMPING down the aisle. Her dress is SOILED and TORN. Her leg seems TWISTED. Ugly CUTS and BRUISES cover her bare arms. Her nose is BLEEDING, one eye is PURPLE and SWOLLEN, and her hair is DISHEVELED. The author asks, “Does not this handsome Groom deserve BETTER than this?” And then she gives us the clincher as she says: “Alas, His bride, THE CHURCH has been fighting again.” Well, this is an accurate illustration of far too many congregations.
Now—as your pastor, I can’t tell you how THANKFUL I am for the harmony we enjoy here at Redland. We do indeed enjoy a sweet, sweet Spirit around here and have for a long, long time. That spirit has been and IS so precious to me—because not only does it make my job easier—and not only does it keep us an effective tool in God’s kingdom—I’m also thankful because our health and harmony is a source of strength for me personally as I live in this fallen world. Our fellowship here at Redland is an anchor for me. I rely on it. And I’m sure you do as well—but please hear me! In order to keep it that way we must guard against this particular “buster” especially when we deal with controversial issues.
By the way—I may be naive but I believe Christians can talk about divisive things without experiencing division. I think by relying on Jesus Who lives in each of us—our bonds of love can actually grow stronger as we look at what the Bible teaches about topics over which we often disagree.
In any case, last week I told you that there is a lot of repetition in leadership—I said leaders have to keep doing the same things over and over again—and this is true of pastoral leadership. I say that because I’ve told you many times in the past—but it bears repeating—that even though church harmony is a powerful thing—even though it is source of strength—it is also a fragile thing—and as such it must be protected and guarded. This is what Paul is saying in Ephesians 4:2-3. We MUST “…be completely humble and gentle;” We MUST, “be patient, bearing with one another in love.” We MUST, “Make EVERY EFFORT to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” I’m emphasizing the word “MUST” to help you realize that it is IMPERATIVE that we UNDERSTAND this and refrain from sowing dissension in any way—because keeping our fellowship healthy is an essential. In fact, every time I teach RBC101 this is the first essential belief we study. It’s right up there with our belief that the Bible is God’s infallible Word—and that Jesus is God’s only Son—and that faith in Him is the only way to Heaven.
Well, to guard against this particular fellowship buster—to learn how to protect our harmony—the first thing we need to do is remind ourselves what it is that MOTIVATES us to sow dissension in the first place. There are several such motivations but I want to mention only two.
(1) The first—and it’s a biggy—is SELFISHNESS.
You see, many people come into a church expecting the congregation to feed them—to entertain them—to serve them—to meet their needs. And when a church doesn’t meet their needs, or suit their tastes—they complain and gossip and slander—and in this way, they selfishly reek havoc in a congregation. Other people selfishly refuse to listen to another person’s insights or perspectives on an issue. It’s their way or the highway. Philip Yancey once illustrated the destructive effects of self-centeredness in his description of the behavior of SEA GULLS. He writes,
“It’s easy to see why people like the seagull. I’ve sat overlooking a craggy harbor and watched one. He exults in his freedom. He thrusts his wings backward with powerful strokes, climbing higher and higher until he’s above all the other gulls, then he coasts downward in majestic loops and circles. He constantly performs, as if he knows a movie camera is trained on him, recording. In a FLOCK, though, the seagull is a different bird. His majesty and dignity melt into a sordid mass of in-fighting and cruelty. Watch that same gull as he dive-bombs into a group of gulls, provoking a flurry of scattered feathers and angry squawk—to steal a tiny morsel of meat. The concepts of sharing and manners do not exist among gulls. They are so fiercely competitive and jealous that if you tie a red ribbon around the leg of one gull, making him stand out, you sentence him to execution. The others in the flock will furiously attack him with claws and beaks, hammering through feathers and flesh to draw blood. They’ll continue until he lies flattened in a bloody heap.”
Unfortunately this is an accurate picture of many Christians—where one or more forms of selfishness has led to infighting so fierce that the church eventually becomes lifeless. Well, relationships in a body of believers must be the other way around—not self-centered but OTHER-CENTERED. As Paul Powell writes, “The purpose of the church is not just mutual enjoyment, but also mutual enrichment for spiritual development.” In a biological family we work to help each other grow to emotional and physical maturity. In a healthy family that is our focus—helping each other. And the same is true in a healthy spiritual family. It’s a place where we work to help not ourselves—but each other.
We see this reflected in the New Testament’s numerous “one anothering” commands. I read once that there are 31 such commands. Here’s a sampling. Read them with me as they appear on the screen. In God’s Word we are commanded to:
- “love one another” (John 13:34-35).
- “depend on one another” (Romans 12:5).
- “honor one another” (Romans 12:10).
- “rejoice and weep with one another.” (Romans 12:15)
- “admonish one another” (Romans 15:14)
- “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
- “forgive one another” (Ephesians 4:32)
- “encourage one another” (1 Thess 5:11)
- “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2)
So—by reading the New Testament it becomes obvious that God intends the church to be a SELF-LESS place—a place where we focus on OTHERS. When congregations realize that, they enjoy a truly BLESSED fellowship. But when Christians are SELF-CENTERED—so often dissension is the result.
(2) A second motivator of those who spread dissension is unrealistic EXPECTATIONS.
Many people expect a church to be full of people who are easy to be with and fun to fellowship with, people who always agree with them on everything. And when that doesn’t happen they do one of two things. Either they leave and continue their foolish search for the perfect church—or they attack the imperfection they find in others with gossip or slander or grumbling and complaining. This perception IS foolish because there is no such thing as a perfect church. In fact, the truth is, by its very nature a church will be full of imperfect people—people who can be hard to get along with. As Henri Nouwen once put it, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
Years ago Sue and I discovered that a great place to shop for Lee or Docker brands of clothing is at a Vanity Fair outlet. This began with a visit to the one up in Reading, PA. Now there are outlets like that everywhere and we usually stop in because Vanity Fair sells Lee and Docker brands at half-price or less. And speaking of “less,” the best deals at Vanity Fair can be found on their “as is” rack. However if you shop there you need to know that the inventory on this rack is always “slightly irregular.” You have to shop very carefully on this rack because it’s EXPECTED that you’ll find FLAWS: a stain that won’t come out—a zipper that won’t zip—a button that won’t button. I mean, there WILL be a problem. That’s why they are so cheap. But every once in a while you get lucky and find some great deals so we always look. However, there’s a fundamental rule when it comes to purchasing the ultra-low-priced items on this rack. There are no returns—no refunds—no exchanges. If you’re looking for perfection, you should shop elsewhere. If you purchase clothes from this rack you take them “as is.”
I got a pair of pants there a few years back that appeared flawless but I didn’t look close enough. When I got home I found a hole in one of the legs that they sewed up—but it’s visible. I still wear them though—because I figure if I didn’t see the flaw—no one else will. And I’ve been wearing them for years with no one pointing out the hole—so it was a good deal. I thought about Vanity Fair as I read John Ortberg’s book, Everyone is Normal Until You Get to Know Them, because in it he refers to this kind of shopping and says, “When you deal with human beings—even Christians—you have come to the ‘as is corner of the universe’ because all of us are ‘slightly irregular.’ There are flaws in all of us—a streak of deception, a cruel tongue, a passive spirit, an out-of-control temper. The flaws are always there. So when you find them—and you WILL find them—don’t be surprised. But, remember, if you want to enter into a relationship with a fellow human being, there’s only one way to do so, ‘as is.’”
Think of it this way—if we enter churches looking for perfection, we’re shopping on the wrong “rack.” We’ve entered the wrong aisle—because the church, like this fallen world of ours, is full of imperfect people. As Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” Rick Warren writes, “We must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the IDEAL while criticizing the REAL is evidence of immaturity.”
Do you remember the scene from the old movie As Good As It Gets, where Helen Hunt’s character is so frustrated with her boyfriend—the character played by Jack Nicholson? He is kind and generous to her and her sick son, but he is also agoraphobic, obsessive-compulsive, and terminally offensive. I mean, if rudeness were measured in square miles, he’d be as big as Texas. Well, in desperation, Hunt finally cries to her mother: “I just want a NORMAL boyfriend.” And her mother says, “Everybody wants one of those. But there’s no such thing, dear.” And her mom is wise—because all people are flawed. Quoting Ortberg again, “When we enter relationships with the illusion that people are normal, we resist the truth that they’re not. We enter an endless attempt to fix them, control them, or pretend that they are what they’re not. One of the great marks of maturity is to accept the fact that everybody comes, ‘as is.’”
Sadly—so often Christians don’t have this level of maturity—they expect perfection in the church and this expectation motivates them to sow dissension. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to this when he says, “Those who love the DREAM of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community—even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
Okay—to summarize what we’ve learned so far—two of the main motivations behind YIELDING to the temptation to sow dissension are: SELF-CENTEREDNESS and UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS. Now, at this point, I’d like us to flip things around so that we can examine this particular fellowship buster from the opposite perspective by seeking an answer to this question: What is our motivation to STEER CLEAR of this sin? What is it that should compel us to PRESERVE church unity and harmony?
(1) The first thing that comes to mind is the basic truth that God COMMANDS us to strive for healthy COMMUNITY.
Of course—that should be all the motivation we require! The fact that God commands it should do it! And by the way He does! Remember? Jesus said that all of God’s laws boil down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your mind…and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40) In other words, it is God’s will that we embrace a healthy relationship with Him and also with our fellow man. In fact, the truth is, these TWO relational commands are really ONE. They are linked—in that you can’t fully obey one without fully obeying the other. As 1st John 4:19 says, “If we say we love God” but don’t obey Him by “loving our neighbor—we are a liar. The truth is not in us.” So these two greatest commands—these commands that Jesus said are to be foremost as we go about our lives—they are interlinked. We can’t love God and not love each other. We can’t love God and at the same time do things that damage our unity as a community of believers. And—-in our struggle with this particular fellowship buster we need to understand that the PRIORITY of this command shows us that relational health—is VERY important to God. We see this reflected throughout His written Word. In fact, the New Testament gives more attention to UNITY of believers than it does to either Heaven or Hell. For example, Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” In other words it says, “Build up or shut up.” If what you are saying doesn’t add to congregational health, don’t say it.
The next verse says that when we ignore this command—when we damage congregational health with our words and actions we, “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” So, like any earthly parent, our Heavenly Father grieves when His kids fight among themselves. Our Lord wants us to love one another and get along. And if you doubt this—-then turn with me to the Gospel of John where Jesus’ final prayer before the cross is recorded. In this prayer Jesus said, “I pray for these My followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in Me because of their teaching. Father, I pray that they can be one. As You are in Me and I am in You, I pray that they can also be one in Us. Then the world will believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21) Now, understand. Knowing that the end was near, Jesus prayed one final time for His followers. And He prayed not for their success, their safety, their happiness, not even for their doctrinal correctness—No, Jesus’ FINAL prayer was for their—and OUR-unity. Foremost in our Savior’s mind as He faced the cross was His desire that His followers would obey God’s command down through the ages and enjoy healthy, love-filled community. As Dallas Willard says, “God’s aim in human history is the creation of an inclusive community of loving persons, with Himself included as its primary Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant.”
Think of it this way. Relational health in the church—UNITY in a local body of believers—is the SOUL of its fellowship. So when you destroy it with dissension you rip the HEART out of Christ’s body.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God wants unity at all costs. He doesn’t want us to ignore disputes over the essential beliefs of our faith if that’s what it takes to make everyone happy. No—of course not! Genuine unity would not be possible under those conditions. Our shared convictions like those I mentioned earlier are the SOURCE of our unity. They are the foundation of congregational health. But what I AM saying is this—whenever we act UNLOVING—whenever we gossip or slander or complain and grumble about things—whenever we carelessly, selfishly, damage congregational unity and health—we are working contrary to the will—and the nature of God. Let me put it a little more bluntly. Whenever we sow dissension we are working for the enemy. Surely knowing that should motivate us to steer clear of this deadly sin.
(2) A second motivation for us to do this is the basic truth that we all NEED community.
I mean, we’re not designed to work alone. We need deep, genuine fellowship with other believers. Jane Howard says, “Call it a clan, call it a tribe, call it a network, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” Dallas Willard writes, “The NATURAL condition of life for human beings is RECIPROCAL ROOTEDNESS in others.” Ortberg puts it this way, “Our need for community with people and the God Who made us is to the human spirit what food and air and water are to the human body. As frustrating as PEOPLE can be, it’s hard to find a good substitute.”
I like the way he put that because we all DO need healthy community. We can’t BE Christians on our own. There is no substitute for a fellow believer! We need each other! A man from northern Michigan was once traveling in the deep south. He stopped to eat breakfast at a diner and saw GRITS on the menu. He’d never eaten—or even SEEN grits before so he asked the waitress, “What exactly is a grit?” Her response was classic, “Honey, grits don’t come by themselves.” By the way, here’s a picture for those Yankees of you who have never had this southern delicacy. Well, as a connoisseur of grits I would say the waitress was right. Grits don’t exist in isolation. No grit is an island, entire unto itself. Every grit is a part of the whole.
Well, the same is true of Christians. They don’t come by themselves. When we acknowledge God as our Father, every other Christian instantly becomes our brother or sister. And that’s one of the wonderful things about our faith. Our mutual relationship with Jesus meets our inborn need for deep fellowship with others. We’re empty otherwise. As Bonhoeffer said, “Whoever cannot stand being IN COMMUNITY should beware of BEING ALONE.”
In “Dr. Seuss fashion,” Lucado writes,
“We are olive-skinned, curly-haired, blue-eyed and black.
We come from boarding schools and ghettos, mansions and shacks.
We wear turbans, we wear robes. We like tamales. We eat rice.
We have convictions and opinions, and to agree would be nice,
but we don’t still we try and this much we know;
‘Tis better inside with each other than outside living alone.”
It is better “inside”—because we were created to draw life and nourishment from one another the same way roots of an oak tree draw life from the soil.
And scientific research bears this out. For example, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 276 volunteers were infected with the virus that produces the common cold. The study found that people with strong emotional connections did four times better at fighting off illness than those who were more isolated. These loners were more susceptible to colds, had more viruses, and produced significantly more mucous than people in a healthy community. And then Harvard University did a study in which they tracked 7000 people over nine years. Their researchers found that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections.
And listen to this! Terp Robert Provine of the University of Maryland has found that people are thirty times more likely to LAUGH when they are with other people than when they are alone. When people are in bonding situations, laughter flows. Surprisingly, people who are speaking are 46 percent more likely to laugh during conversations than people who are listening. And they’re not exactly laughing at hilarious punch lines—unless they are talking to a professional punster like myself! Just kidding! Seriously, only 15 percent of the sentences that trigger laughter are funny in any way that is discernible. Instead, laughter seems to bubble up spontaneously amidst conversations when people feel themselves responding in parallel ways to the same emotionally positive circumstances. So—even the seemingly mundane parts of humanity, like laughter, show how we’ve been hardwired by God to love and enjoy relationships. As Rick Warren has put it, “We are created for community, fashioned for fellowship, and formed for a family, and none of us can fulfill God’s purposes by ourselves.”
So two things that compel us to protect church fellowship are: first, the fact that God COMMANDS that we do so and second that we NEED to do so. And then a final motivation for us to avoid dissension should be this:
(3) Non-believers are ATTRACTED to healthy Christian community.
You see, because of humanity’s need for community, non-believers are naturally drawn to healthy relationships. A church with a Sweet, Sweet Spirit draws people like a campfire on a cold night. And—this yearning is especially strong these days because our society has become so disconnected. Think of it. Instead of face-to-face discussions we rely on e-mail or face-book or instagram. Plus, our work days are so long we rarely even speak to our neighbors.
The sad fact is that over the last 50 years, while society has been growing more and more prosperous and individualistic, our social connections have been dissolving. Emily Esfahni Smith from The Atlantic magazine describes the PRICE for our social disconnection: “We volunteer less. We entertain guests at our homes less often. We are getting married less. We are having fewer children. And we have fewer and fewer close friends with whom we’d share the intimate details of our lives. We are denying our social nature, and paying a price for it. Over the same period of time that social isolation has increased, our levels of happiness have gone down, while rates of suicide and depression have multiplied.”
Well, this life-style of isolation leaves a void that all people long to fill. And many churches are realizing that filling this void can provide them a chance to share the Gospel. They’ve learned that the first step in evangelism is often just to give their non-believing neighbors a taste of authentic community—by inviting them to a Waves of Grace concert or a children’s choir musical or an RBC CAMP family fun night or to play on the church softball team or to come play volleyball or basketball. And they—WE—are correct in this way of thinking because healthy community fosters belief. People naturally want to be around Christians who act loving to one another. I can think of several couples who joined Redland over the years because of the friends they made at a picnic or something.
Dorothy Bass writes about a family that found a novel way to honor the Sabbath. On Sundays they have an agreement that there will be no criticism in the house and they keep to this agreement. There are no fights or quarreling in their home on the Lord’s day. The most striking result, she relates, is the way their children’s friends end up spending Sundays at their home. They like being in a place where instead of dissension there is love. It works the same way in a church family. As Rick Warren says, “When people find a church where members genuinely love and are for each other, you have to lock the doors to keep them away.” So—unity fosters belief—but unfortunately the REVERSE is also true. Disunity fosters disbelief. When we sow dissension—even as we discuss the essentials—anytime we act unloving toward each other—it distorts our message of love and drives the lost away from Christ.
Would you join hands as I lead us in prayer?