Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, January 26, 2014
I Cor 1:10-18
Westworth has been very fortunate to have a rich heritage of beloved ministers, who have each been instrumental in particular individuals coming into the fold of this church. I have often heard people make reference to Clark or to Eleanor as the reason they have joined Westworth. I am grateful in so many ways to both Clark and Eleanor for the lasting legacy they each have left here. We are especially blessed to have the continuing ministry of Eleanor, who once again offered emergency pastoral care for us last week during Mona’s & my continuing education at Epiphany Explorations.
The young church in Corinth was not as fortunate. It also had a legacy of previous ministers, but their legacy was not as amicable as ours. People were forming groups, saying, I am of Paul or I am of Apollos. Some said they weren’t of any previous minister, but were of Christ—thereby forming their own group. Paul, himself, was allergic to groupies. He was aware that when people claimed allegiance to a particular group, they inevitably began comparing themselves to other groups, and he urged them to resist this divisive tendency.
That’s one of the reasons clergy in the Scottish highlands developed their own tartan. So the story goes, clergy who wore their own family tartans provoked ill-feeling amongst competing clans within their own parish. They found that they were best able to be a pastor to all by avoiding symbols of division. But, rather than abandoning tartans all together—heaven help us—they decided to design their own. They used neutral colours of blue and black, avoiding the greens and reds that declared sides.
While we don’t have competitive groups within our church—at least not that I know of—we may at times compare ourselves to other churches. Are we losing members faster than other denominations? Do we have more children than other United Churches? Is our Messy Church more successful than other’s? Is our theology more enlightened than others? While we can certainly learn from what works well in other churches, comparisons can also lead to divisions and protective strategies. Today is the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Our focus this past week was not on ways we are better or worse than others, not on our differences, but on our similarities and how we can join together across the different Christian denominations—even across different faiths, to strengthen a united, spiritual calling to peace and justice. Comparison can debilitate collaboration.
We also suffer when we compare ourselves to our own past. I recently learned that this entire sanctuary, at one time, was filled with just the children of Sunday School. We are alarmed when the number of children, youth and young adults is dropping. We do need to pay attention to this and address it, but we have to be careful that our attention not slide into obsession and become self-defeating.
The same applies to our own lives. When comparison with others becomes the primary motivation for self-improvement, it can rob us of joy and creativity. Laura Williams said, “Comparison is the thief of happiness.” Comparing ourselves to others can lead to a sense of scarcity. We live out of a sense of loss and lack. There’s always someone else who weighs less than we do, makes more money than we do, has less grey hair, can sing more on key, can speak more eloquently, is wittier…
The more comparison we do, the more we feel a lack. Brené Brown is a researcher who has studied vulnerability, worthiness and shame. She suggests that finding the courage to live out of enough, rather than out of scarcity, can move us into gratitude and joy. It doesn’t come with having more; it comes with being grateful for what we already have.
This afternoon, after a church lunch, we will be having a celtic concert fundraiser for a new organ. For us to move in a big way into our future—and buying a new organ is one example of moving forward in a big way—I suggest that we need to live out of a sense of gratitude and joy for what we do have. We need to focus on enough, not on lack. I invite you to turn to a neighbour and spend just a few minutes talking about what keeps us from moving out of a fear of scarcity into gratitude for what we do have. You’ll find a few questions printed in your bulletin that might give you ideas for a conversation.
What keeps us locked into a fear that we don’t have enough?
What keeps us from being grateful for what we do have?
Name one thing in your personal life and one thing in the life of this congregation for which you are grateful.
In our passage from I Corinthians, Paul urges the Corinthians to set aside their tendency to compare and compete with one another. Rather, they should focus on the message of the cross of Christ, a message of foolishness to the world. Focussing upon the cross leads us to own and accept our weaknesses, rather than boasting in our strengths. When we accept our weaknesses, we are not trying to outdo the other, but are humbly accepting who we are, that God’s power might shine through. This seems foolish to the competitive standards of our society, but through our foolishness, perhaps God’s wisdom can be found.
I offer you a foolish experiment. From now through Lent until Easter, April 20—almost 3 months—I challenge all of us to be grateful for what we already have, personally and in the life of this church. Let’s try to set aside our worries, fears, criticisms and doomsday prophecies for 3 months. There’s nothing better than fear and scarcity to frighten people off. When new people come into this congregation and they hear us talk about what we don’t have, how we’re going down quickly, they won’t be back. But if they hear us celebrate, with gratitude, the many ministries and opportunities that we do have, they just might stick around. I’m suggesting a type of Lenten discipline that is very difficult to do. It takes a tremendous commitment to catch ourselves speaking negatively out of fear, but let’s try it. Three months to enjoy what we do have. Three months for God to be set free to work through our foolish gratitude.
 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010: 95.