If you drive along Minnesota’s north shore, 30-40 minutes up highway 61 past Duluth, you will come to the lovely little town of Two Harbors. When you get to Two Harbors, you take a right onto Waterfront Drive, and go until you get about half-way down the hill, towards Lake Superior. You will come to the intersection of Waterfront and 6th street. There, on that corner, you will find two Lutheran churches, sitting directly across the street from each other. Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the same as us), and Messiah Lutheran Church, also a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
They’re right there. Literally across the street from each other.
Inquiring minds might wonder why there are two ELCA congregations across the street from one another in a community with a population of roughly 3,500 people. It’s a good question.
Well of course, back then, over 100 years ago, because one congregation was formed by Norwegian immigrants, and the other was started by Finns.
And trust me when I tell you: Back then? Ne’er the twain shall meet.
Over the years, occasionally someone would ask “should one of these churches maybe be closed? Since they are kind of…you know…the same…. Or maybe should they merge?” No. Not possible. It can’t happen. This one is for “us.” That one is for “them.” Us. And them. Us. And them.
Now, lest we become a little bit too high and mighty, let’s remember that here, in Owatonna, Minnesota…God’s country…in 1919, when Trinity was formed it was formed as an English speaking alternative to the German speaking…and the Danish speaking, and the Norwegian speaking Lutheran churches that were here in town at the time. All Lutheran…all the same basic beliefs…but that was “them.” This is “us.”
“Them and Us” is not a new concept. 2,000 years ago, shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were gathered together in this little house when the Holy Spirit descended, and we believe that in that moment, Christ’s church was formed in an event we call the Pentecost.
Now, that day, 2,000 years ago, may have been the last time that the church of Christ on earth was unified. Because ever since then, the Christian church has found ways to divide and to split itself. We have divided by ethnicity, by nationality, by politics, by gender, by race, by age, by economics, by preferred style of music, by doctrine, and sometimes even by which pastor someone likes more.
You name it. We can divide ourselves by it.
These kind of divisions, they were exactly what the Apostle Paul was addressing when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians.
2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul would travel to a town and set up shop. He would preach. He would teach. He would motivate and inspire. He would form the church; a small group of dedicated believers and he would train leadership, and then he would leave and head to the next town and do the same. He did this in communities all around the Mediterranean Sea.
But often, shortly after he would leave a town, something would happen to that small, dedicated group of believers that he’d left behind: There would be a disagreement, the disagreement would turn into a fracture, and the community would start to unravel.
Someone then would send a letter to Paul, in whatever town he was in, and explain what was going on, and Paul would write a letter back to them, telling them what to do and trying to settle the dispute. It was kind of “long-distance conflict-management.” These letters make up, by the way, much of the New Testament.
That is what was going on in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul had started the church in Corinth, and shortly after he left, problems arose. That community…that church…it had fractured…split. It seems that different groups within their community had developed allegiances to different leaders. They asked him for help with their divisions.
Paul’s response to them, his first letter to the Corinthians is a little unusual. In many of his letters, he gets deeply theological. He’d write about the nature of God, and about how God and humans interact, through Jesus the Savior. He would craft a carefully considered argument. There was depth to what he wrote. In fact, much of our understanding today of how God works in the world comes from these letters of Paul. But here in 1st Corinthians, he takes a very different approach.
He writes (and I’m paraphrasing here) “Stop it! Just stop it! Can’t you all just get along! I want you to knock off the fighting and agree with each other. Get it together and get over yourselves and your petty arguing. Nobody cares which leader you’re following…that’s are not the point. Jesus is the point. We focus on Jesus. Christ, who is crucified. So stop it!”
This is not exactly the nuanced, theological argument that we are used to from Paul. Clearly, he has little patience for this kind of bickering. “Just stop it!” he says.
Paul is reminding us of a lesson that I think we could all stand to remember: If all our energy is going into fighting over those petty things that divide us, we will just spin in circles. But if our energy goes in to following Christ, we can unite, and we can move forward in God’s mission.
This is true in our faith. It is true in the church. And it’s true in our culture. When we choose to argue or fight…over issues of poverty, or race, or gender, or whatever the hot button issue of the day may be, we spin in circles, and we lose ground. But when we center ourselves on what unites us, our faith in Jesus, and together we put our energy into our mission, we can make God’s vision for the world a reality in the here and now. There is power in uniting around a mission.
You may remember the story of the Apollo 13 trip to the moon. On April 11, 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida. Shortly after the small, fragile spacecraft had begun its long journey, there was an explosion in the oxygen tank that critically damaged the ship. The struggle became one of survival. And the astronauts and mission control had to deal with cascading problems with the spacecraft.
Because of damage to the command module, the astronauts had to move to the lunar lander. But carbon dioxide levels in the lander began to build up. The the air filters in there were designed to support only 2 astronauts, not all 3. The astronauts’ lives were in jeopardy. The only spare air filters they had were made for the larger command module. They were square shaped. The lunar lander, used round filters. The astronauts needed a solution. And they needed it fast.
Back at Cape Kennedy, Gene Krantz, the NASA flight director, got every engineer he had into a room, and then dumped onto a table, one of every object that was aboard Apollo 13. Everything. From air filters to duct tape, to food packs, to pens and paper. “Ok people,” he said. “We’ve got to make this,” holding up the square filter, “fit into the hole for this, “holding up the round filters. Using only the things that are on this table. Failure is not an option. Let’s go.” And the team started sorting through the materials.
Hours later, this group of exhausted engineers had invented a whole new way of filtering carbon dioxide in the space craft. And they saved the astronauts lives.
They did this as a group, as a team. They came together around a common mission, and failure was not an option.
There is great power in coming together. There is great power in overcoming division and working as a community, as a team. When we work together to accomplish a goal, it’s as if somehow, the gifts of the individuals are not simply added together, they are multiplied together. A community of people united around a common mission becomes way more than the sum of its parts.
I believe that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. It happened 2,000 years ago in that room at the Pentecost. It happened in that room at NASA with the engineers. And I believe, it happens right here…in this room…when we gather…every single week. Because of the Holy Spirit, we are more than the sum of our parts.
Humans are created to be in community and are wired to work together towards the common good. And as people of faith, it is critical that we reject the idea of “rugged individualism,” or “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Those ideas are not accurate historically, or from a faith perspective. It is easy for those who have means or access to resources to think individualistically. But far too many in our world, and in our community do not have means, or access to resources.
Jesus taught us, and Paul reminds us today: We are all in this together. Together. We live for each other. And failure is not an option.
At Trinity, this is a part of our mission…it is a part of our identity. We exist, together, for the sake of each other, for the sake of our neighbor…for our community…and for the world.
And we believe fully, that when we set aside those things that separate us, and when we focus on our mission, (remember, “Through Jesus’ love we welcome, connect, learn and serve,) and we link together our time, and our energy and our financial resources and our hearts, for the sake of Jesus amazing things can happen:
- We can help people find meaning
- We can care for the broken
- We can serve those on the margins
Together, we can do these things, because Jesus first did them for us. Let me say that again, because I think it’s really important; Jesus first did these things for us. Jesus poured himself out…for you. Jesus gave of himself completely. For you. Jesus loves. You.
- Because of Jesus, we are here.
- Because of Jesus, we set aside those petty things that divide us.
- Because of Jesus, we welcome.
- Because of Jesus, we connect.
- Because of Jesus, we learn
- Because of Jesus, we serve
- Because of Jesus we have the resources.
- Because of Jesus, we give.
- Because of Jesus, we are Trinity.
- And because of Jesus, we are Trinity together.
Thanks be to God!