A New Thing

A message given by Rev. Scott Summerville on March 25, 2007

Today I will talk about doing new things, or doing old things in new ways. We live in times that are so challenging that unless human beings can learn new ways and perceive new approaches to old problems, we will be in deep trouble. In the April edition of Scientific American magazine there is an article on ravens, describing experiments that reveal the remarkable thinking powers of these birds. In Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem ravens can talk –– quoth the raven,”Nevermore.”

They may not actually have the power of human speech, but they are amazing creatures. In experiments designed to test their logical powers, ravens were attached to a perch so they couldn’t fly away, and a string was attached to the perch with a piece of meat tied to the end of the string. How to get the meat? – that is the challenge. Again and again, ravens solved this problem. Using one foot and their beak, they reached down and pulled up the string, held it with their foot, let go, reached down and pulled the string up some more, and again secured it with one foot; eventually the meat would be pulled up to the perch and eaten: problem solved. Very few animals have the mental capacity to solve this problem. Then the scientists changed the parameters of the experiment by looping the string with the meat on the end over a rod placed higher than the perch, so that the raven would look down and see the meat but had no way to directly pull the meat up. In order to pull the meat up, the raven would have to pull the string down. For most ravens this proved to be just too many mental calculations to make. After all, to solve that particular problem requires what we might call counterintuitive thinking, not doing things in the most immediately obvious way. Pulling down to make something come up was too much for most ravens. We live in times when human beings have to think in new ways and come up with new solutions. Conventional thinking will not solve the challenges that we are facing. God said through the prophet Isaiah,”I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In Scripture the Spirit of God pokes and challenges, disturbs accepted conventions, and presents human beings with new opportunities. I am holding a book entitled The Meaning of Jesus, Two Visions. It consists of essays written by two biblical scholars who specialize in writing about Jesus: Marcus Borg and Thomas Wright [NT Wright.] There is no new information in this book. There are no theories that have not been expressed elsewhere, but to my knowledge this book is quite unique. These two scholars come from opposing sides of the great debates about the meaning of Jesus and the interpretation of the New Testament. Tom Wright is a”conservative” and Marcus Borg is a”liberal.” I put these designations in quotations, because these kinds of labels are misleading. One purpose of this book is to help Christians get away from the labeling of one another. When we use the word conservative to describe a Christian biblical scholar, we mean that person tends to accept more ancient and traditional ways of interpreting the New Testament and of describing Jesus. A conservative in religious matters is someone who is more likely to say, ”This is something that I accept, because my tradition affirms , even if I cannot prove its truth.” A liberal Christian Biblical scholar would be one who would tend to take apart and analyze and question traditional understandings. A liberal in religious matters is someone who is more likely to say, ”Someone has to show me that what they are telling me is true and plausible in terms that I can understand; it’s not enough for me to know that something is part of a tradition.” (That is a very simplistic definition.) Some of you may have heard me use those words and said to yourselves,”Oh, I’m a conservative.” Or you may have said to yourself,”I must be a liberal.” Either way is fine – Methodists come in all sizes, shapes and theologies. So here are these two scholars. Ten years ago they were writing their books, and they were experiencing a lot of conflict. It seems that biblical scholars, like the rest of the world, are polarized into conflicting camps. You wouldn’t think that people studying the New Testament would get nasty with each other, but at times these conflicts can be very acrimonious. These two men did a new thing. That new thing is reflected in this book. Instead of writing books attacking each other, they embarked upon a dialogue taking place over several years. They traveled to visit one another. They listened at length to the other’s viewpoints. And they agreed to write a book together. They agreed to read carefully everything that the other person had written, and then they got together and presented new articles to each other and listened to each other’s observations and criticisms. Then they redrafted their articles and shared them again. They say in the introduction to the book that they have not come to agree with each other, and that was not the point. They say further: “We may both be right…. We may both be wrong…. It might be that one of us is closer to the truth in some areas, and the other in others; and that by our dialogue we may see more clearly things that the other has grasped more accurately. ” “Though we have not ….. reached agreement, we are satisfied that we have eliminated misunderstandings, that is, that neither of us has misrepresented the other. We offer the result to the reader as the celebration of shared friendship, faith, and scholarship.” Instead of the old tug-of-war between opposing scholars, look at what these two men did. Look at the care they took to visit one another and listen to each other and to allow the other to respond, to be certain that what they were saying about the other was fair. Look at how they could disagree and yet be united as scholars, as friends, and as people of faith. This is an amazing thing. We may think it should not be so amazing and that this sort of thing should happen all the time, but it does not happen all the time. It happens rarely. How often do politicians, or scholars, or anyone else for that matter say to the opposing party,”I want to be sure that I understand exactly what you are saying, and I want you to let me know whether the way I understand what you are saying is the way you understand what you are saying.” How often does such a thing happen? The two men, Wright and Borg, have stepped out of the conventional way of doing things, and they provided a model for how Christians and others can engage in public disagreement about important and serious subjects. In the same spirit, three years ago the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our annual conference, passed a resolution establishing something called Unity Task Force. Typically at the annual conference sessions there is much debate over contentious issues. For the most part it is respectful and good spirited, though sometimes it is not. These debates are draining and put a strain on Christian fellowship. This particular resolution acknowledged that among United Methodist there are deeply held convictions and deeply rooted disagreements, but it went on to say that our New York Annual Conference believes that we must focus energy and attention on listening to one another when we disagree about important things, and that we do not always have to be trying to persuade others that we are right. Instead, we need to come together sometimes just to hear each other, just to get to know each other, just to listen, and not to see each other in terms of the labels we place upon each other. This resolution specifically acknowledged that the issues surrounding sexual orientation have been the most contentious and difficult issues for our annual conference. This new task force, the Unity Task Force, was established to initiate respectful conversation among persons representing a broad spectrum of feeling and opinion about issues of sexual orientation and other issues of significance. Since the adoption of that proposal in 2004 the task force was constituted , received training, and initiated the first of these dialogs. They have brought to the table people who formerly had related to one another primarily as opponents in public debate. They report that people have experienced a new thing as they have participated in these dialogues. People were able to hear and honor one another. The discussions have been intense and loving and meaningful. This is very much like the two scholars who did not agree to agree, but agreed to come together in conversation and in Christian friendship. This is a new thing for Methodists of the New York Annual Conference. It breaks the pattern. It invites people to relate in new ways. It proposes a new model that is one of conversation and listening and relationship-building. I am very excited about this work and this model. I am very excited about this new thing. In fact I will propose that our congregation establish a unity team of our own. I hope that individuals with skills in careful listening will be trained to facilitate conversation around important issues that people feel strongly about. At one moment the issue might be church’s stance toward people of different sexual orientations, but life always presents new issues, so there will always be this challenge to allow each other to be different within the body of Christ and yet to remain in true fellowship in Christ. This would be a new thing. It would be a different way of approaching things. If people can learn and practice these skills in the church, they can take these skills wherever they go – into the family and the workplace and politics. It would be very difficult for birds to do this, even ravens –– those remarkably brilliant birds. Only humans have been given the capacity to take paradoxical action, to resist the normal impulses to pull away or to attack when we are in disagreement. Only human beings have the capacity to see that where we disagree is as sacred as the places where we are of one mind. We live under the sign of the cross, a sign of both pain and reconciliation; we are called by God to be willing to take on some pain in order that we might be ministers of reconciliation. So be it. Grace and peace to you in Christ Jesus.

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