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The Name on the Front

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

February 16, 2020
I Corinthians 3:1-9

A Reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Many of you know that I have been an Atlanta Braves baseball fan for most of my life. It started when I was 12, in 1991, when we were living in Atlanta and the Braves made a miraculous run to the World Series and lost to the Minnesota Twins, and so in 1991, I learned two things about myself. I learned that I loved the Atlanta Braves. And I learned that I hated the Minnesota Twins. The next year, the Braves lost to the Blue Jays, and so I hated the Blue Jays, and a few years after that, they lost to the Yankees, so I hated the Yankees, and as time went by, they lost a bunch more playoff series: to the Cardinals, to the Giants, to the Cubs, to the Dodgers, and even, yes, eventually, to the Astros. They even lost to the Marlins and the Padres, two teams which by now have been bad enough for long enough that I’d just as soon strike that from the record. But part of the trick of being a Braves fan is that we have made the playoffs many times and we have lost in the playoffs many times, which means there’s a whole litany of teams we’ve lost to over and over, and over time I have grown bitter at just about every one of them.

I will admit, though, that my Braves fandom has waxed and waned, and I will admit to you that there was moment, in about the mid-2000s, when I was getting a little tired of the Braves. I wasn’t living anywhere near Atlanta, and I was tired of this team that would make the playoffs easily and lose just as easily. It had gotten a boring and a frustrating at the same time. And so there was a season when I tried to find some other team to root for. I tried to make myself a free agent. I could have given my heart to the Cardinals — but, to be honest, I was still a little bitter from them beating us in 2000. I could have tried the Cubs, but I was still a little heartsick from when they beat us in 2003. The problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find a team I could root for because I was still so busy rooting against all of the good options. It turned out that even though I was a little bored with the Braves, I was still entirely committed to my resentment of the Yankees and the Giants and the Dodgers and especially, lest we not forget, the 1991 Minnesota Twins. And what I realized was that the only team I could root for that would allow me to nourish all of my resentments was the Atlanta Braves. It turned out that I would root for anybody with the words “Atlanta Braves” on the front of their jersey. Because it meant I knew that all my bitterness was in safe hands.

Now, if you are not a sports fan, this may sound insane. It may in fact be insane to choose sides based on nothing but bitterness to the opposition. But I promise you, this does not just happen in sports. I am reading Ezra Klein’s new book on American polarization, which it makes it very clear that this exact dynamic is what animates our own political moment. For one, bitterness is exactly how we vote. The research says we’re not making choices about our candidates based on the positive attributes of the party we choose. Even though party-line consistency in voting is way up, we are much less likely now than ever before to identify with one political party or another. We don’t want to call ourselves Democrats or Republicans, but we vote for one side or the other with remarkable consistency. Which means our voting is not based on liking one team. It’s based on the vitriol we feel about the opposition. Research also suggests that the most reliable predictor of political activity — like turning out to vote, or giving to campaigns, or working for a campaign — the most reliable predictor of engaging in the process is also anger towards the other side. You may think and feel all sorts of things about gun policy or environmental policy or the marginal tax rate, but as a matter of social psychology the thing that will most motivate you to vote is not what you think about policy. It’s how much you hate the opposition.

And that hatred isn’t really earned. It actually doesn’t come from years of disagreement. It turns out that it’s just built-in human behavior. In his book, Klein talks about the research of social psychologist Henri Tajfel. In 1970, Tajfel wanted to study discrimination and social exclusion, so he brings a group of 64 teenage boys from a local school into his laboratory. Tajfel pretends to give the boys a visual quiz — guess how many dots are in this picture — and then he divides them randomly, but tells them that half the room guessed high and the half the room guessed too low. The whole point is to make an arbitrary separation of this group: there are 64 boys who already know each other well, they come from the same school, and they have been divided up over a totally meaningless test whose results aren’t even true. But no sooner are they divided than the trouble starts. The researchers give the boys some real money to distribute inside the room, along with a few loose guidelines. And it turns out that not only will the boys only give money to other boys on their own totally meaningless and arbitrary team. They’re actually willing too accept less money overall if it means that the other team is further deprived. The behavior they show isn’t just self-protection. It’s something worse. It’s an instinctive harm of others just because they get defined in our brains as others. Like, as soon as we create a line. Instinctively. We hate the other side of it.

Of course the lines we find in our own political moment are something more than arbitrary. We have policy differences that are real and substantial. Even as you saw this morning if you came to the screening of And Then They Came For Us, we are at a moment where differences of policy have a particularly historic effect on the lives of real, vulnerable people. But of course as you undoubtedly also know, the ability to do meaningful work on those policies is hampered by how far apart we are. By how polarized we are. By, in so many real ways, how much we hate each other. And what has been staggering to internalize and learn as I have read is this. We don’t hate each other because we disagree about policy. I know it feels like we do. I know it feels like you just can’t believe that somebody else would vote for the people who think this way or that way about whatever your issue is, like who would ever want to be associated with people who could think that way. But that’s not actually how our brains work. It’s actually in our brains, the other way around. In a very real, and very psychologically hard-wired sort of way, we have disagreements about policy because, first, we hate each other. Because somebody drew a line. And there was another team. And their jerseys look different. Therefore. All the rest.

As it was in Corinth. In our text today, Paul writes to a church that has been overcome with its own internal divisions. In the first chapter, Paul observes that “there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas.’” At no point here does Paul clarify what policies the church has been arguing about. It’s not clear that Apollos thinks one thing about diet or sacrifice or circumcision and maybe Cephas thinks something else. The letter as a whole has no shortage of policy disputes in it, but it’s never clear exactly which ones belong to which faction. But I think this is precisely because Paul understands that the factionalism itself is the problem. Paul understands that if they didn’t argue about diet, they’d argue about sacrifice. And if they didn’t argue about sacrifice, they’d argue about circumcision. And if it wasn’t circumcision, it would be the marginal tax rate. And if it wasn’t the marginal tax rate, it would be the 1991 World Series. Paul understands that the basic problem in Corinth is that somebody drew a line. And once they did that, you know the rest. We don’t hate each other because we disagree. We disagree because we hate each other, because somebody else is the other side and our psychology kicks in.

Paul gets the issue: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” I certainly wouldn’t accuse Paul of being a modern social scientist, but I think his instinct is right. The problem isn’t that some bad actors have gotten in the way, or that a few rotten apples have spoiled the bunch. The problem is elemental human psychology. The problem is that as soon as the church drew lines, trouble followed. Which means the struggle is with our own predispositions. “I could not speak to you as spiritual people,” Paul says, “but rather as people of the flesh,” people still ruled by their own base instincts. So the hope, for Paul, and I hope for us. The hope is that we might yet be something more. Something more than ourselves. Something more than the defense responses wired to our psychology. Something more than the petty bickering that flows from our subconscious. Something more than ourselves. Something touched by the spirit. Something touched by God.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” What if I told you — Paul says — what if I told you that the God at work on your team is the same God at work on the other team. What if I told you that the same God created all of you. What if I told you that the same God loves all of you. What if I told you that of all the things you can use to divide yourselves, of all the lines you can draw, what if I told you that God refuses to be a part of your little game. The point, of course, is not to minimize the real differences of policy that are happening inside the Corinthian church. Paul is not wishing it away; some people in Corinth are just wrong on major issues of theology and practice and Paul will not pull a single punch explaining it to them. This isn’t cheap relativism and “can’t we all just get along?” But what Paul understands is that none of those issues are navigable without an appeal to a higher principle. If all we have is base instinct, Paul says, then we’re lost. We need to be more than ourselves. We need something that will interrupt us before those base instincts kick in. We need to remember who created us, all of us; and, who is at work in in us, all of us; and we need to give that God some room in our hearts to work with.

Hopefully, if you have been around UPC a bit over the past few months you have noticed that we are now sporting our very own team jerseys, I mean, uh, church t-shirts, designed and produced by our own Social Witness Committee late last year. I love mine, I brought it all the way to South Africa with me. But I have to admit that sometimes when I pull it out of the drawer, I get a little bit turned around. Because I see the UPC logo and I expect that to be on the front, you know, where team logos go. I expect that a UPC t-shirt should have the UPC logo on the front, right there in the most prominent place. It takes me a minute to realize, every time I pull it out, to realize that the Social Witness Committee is a lot smarter than I am. Perhaps they designed these t-shirts after a thorough exegesis of 1 Corinthians 3. Because of course, UPC is not the team we’re on. Not really. Not at the end of the day. At the end of the day, the only team we’re on, and the only team that matters, is printed right there on the front, in the most prominent place. Where it says “Do Justice. Love Kindness. And Walk Humbly with God.” That’s the only team that matters. Thanks be to God.


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