Communities of Integrity and Authenticity

Philippians 4:1–9, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on October 15, 2023

Last week at this time I was lucky to be at a gathering in Cleveland, OH. Now, depending on your personal history with the great city of Cleveland, you may or may not find it surprising that I consider myself “lucky” to have spent time there, but for people connected to the United Church of Christ, Cleveland is a special place. Because Cleveland is home to the UCC’s national headquarters. I’ve been thinking a lot about that trip over the past week, and I wanted to share some thoughts that have emerged from the mixing of my experience in Cleveland with this week’s reading from Paul. As the sermon title suggests, this intersection brings me to integrity and authenticity.

First, Cleveland. For three days, the UCC’s national office hosted a group of folks like me—Members in Discernment, or MIDs, as we’re called—folks in the process of responding to a sense of calling to go into some form of ministry. I was one of 26 MIDs able to travel to Cleveland to build community together through learning, speaking, and listening, paying close attention together to this thing we all have unfolding in our lives. By virtue of our vocational choices to work towards ordination in the UCC we had some things in common, but we carried a broad range of lived experiences. To the best of my knowledge, of the 26, I was one of three straight, cis gendered white men. It was a majority queer, majority people of color group, beautifully diverse in its theology, language, and gifts that we are all bringing to ministry and church leadership.

I have many memories, and many pages of notes from the weekend, but there was one memory in particular that stuck in my imagination. At the end of our first day, we had a Zoom conversation with the UCC’s new General Minister and President, Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson, and she was asked what she learned in her first called ministry position, which bled into an overarching question of what the church needs in this moment. Rev. Thompson answered that what she learned, and what the church needs, is that each of us step into our full integrity and authenticity.

Sounds easy enough, right? Basically, act in ways consistent with your own held values and beliefs. Our culture abounds with this advice, delivered in any number of ways: we tell our kids that the world needs their gifts, so bring ‘em out. We implore folks, Don’t be someone you’re not; be yourself. #youdoyou, right? It’s status quo wisdom in our world.

I hear some of this same messaging in Paul’s letter to the Philippians—the letter’s closing that we heard earlier. Seems there’s an argument in the church between two church members, Euodia and Syntyche. Paul has gone on at length in the letter about the beauty of unity in the body of Christ, and what it means to be of one mind in the ever-resurrecting community of people living out Jesus’ example in the body—the community—of Christ. Now, at the letter’s end, he finally names the conflict directly. And keep in mind, the way things worked back then was that this letter would have been read aloud to the assembled community during worship. Maybe we can picture a contentious moment in the life of a church, Euodia’s friends sitting on one side, Synteche’s on the other side, everyone stewing in anger and frustration about the other side. You can assume that there’s power, and prestige, and theological rightness on the line. And into this space comes Paul’s letter, which ends by saying, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about thesethings. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (4:8-9)”

I hear Paul calling the Philippians to their best selves in these lines. To bring their minds out of the us vs them state they had worked themselves into and to think of the praise-worthy and excellent. And harkening back to the readings from the past few weeks, from earlier in the letter, Paul taught that what is praise-worthy and excellent is the impulse to think of the other before the self. It’s really only at the end of the letter that we understand the full landscape that Paul writes into, and it makes his teaching so much harder: thinking of the other is always hard, but thinking of the other is especially hard in times of conflict when you brain hardens into a defensive certainty that you are right.

It happens all the time: you’re going along, thinking you’re “doing you,” bringing your gifts—your ideas and service—to a place, then someone else who’s “doing them” comes along who has different ideas. And maybe that other person has been running the program you had an idea about for years. Or maybe they’re brand new and folks are paying special attention to them because of their new energy. Either way, it’s uncomfortable, it hurts, and in our culture, it often doesn’t go well.

I think of my ministry colleagues, the ones I met in Cleveland, and the Christian church’s history of exclusion. How in our country, literalist, black and white readings of the Bible have and continue to justify the exclusion at best, and the persecution at worst, of people who don’t come through the church door looking, sounding, acting, loving the way that the group in power approves. And while I’m proud that the UCC is a safe and inclusive place for many who have experienced church trauma, we need to understand that inclusivity is a demanding spiritual practice, because it is, like all spiritual practices, ongoing. And it applies to all of our relationships, no matter the scale or severity of the difference of opinion.

In his book, Dancing in the Darkness, Rev. Otis Moss III shares a small story illustrating how the spiritual practice of openness to the other showed up for him. He describes working with his communications people to gather images for a sermon series highlighting African American athletes who had taken a stand on issues of justice. Well, all of the images that he and his male co-worker came up with were of men, and Rev. Moss was rightfully called out by his female ministry team members for not visually representing the spiritual leadership and physical brilliance of other genders. In this story, Rev. Moss had brought his integrity and authenticity to the work of racial justice and was informed of how his unconscious bias excluded bodies of other genders. Both Moss andthe people who identified his gender bias shared the vision for the liberation of Black and Brown bodies, but Moss came to understand that he showed up to that work in a way that didn’t hold space for some of the people who needed to step into that vision with him. It begs the question of whether liberation for only some is liberation at all.

Moss suggests a path forward, out of this place of “insiders” and “outsiders” that so often results from conscious or unconscious bias. Writing to both arguing sides he writes,

Our deliverance comes when both can listen. Each needs to hear the other crying out; each needs to respond not to the surface accusations or despair but to the underlying source of pain, while at the same time acknowledging their own situation, their own feelings. Listening of this kind—liberation listening—turns dialogue into a spiritual practice. It requires both sides to have faith that if we will truly listen, then your liberation will be my liberation, and mine will contribute to yours.[1]

Liberation listening transcends our cultural status quo of “you do you” and makes space for us to be us together. It recognizes that in order for you to be you, we need the cultural competency, the moral imagination, the spiritual humility to recognize that we all need to reserve space for those around us to live into their full integrity and authenticity in the same moment that we endeavor to live into ours.

Like the UCC’s new Minister and President said to my colleagues and me last week, what the church needs in this moment—what this fractured, beautiful, tragic, warring world needs—is for all of us to live into our full integrity and authenticity. But for that to happen, we all have to be attentive to the shy, tentative sparks of authenticity trying to emerge in our peripheral vision. As church, we must tend to those sparks with love and compassion wherever we see them. Even, and perhaps especially, when we fear those sparks don’t fit comfortably with our own shy and tentative sparks. We all bear a responsibility to practice liberation listening, to hold another’s integrity and authenticity safely in order for it to bloom for our mutual glory. Your spark is my spark. My spark is your spark.

What voices in this community do you hear crying out? For what do you cry out? May we open our ears to each other’s cries. May we hear underneath the current pain and emotion to the deep yearnings yet to find voice. May we participate in the spiritual practice of liberation listening and be the church the world needs: the church of extravagant welcome, the church of divine justice. May it be so.

[1] Moss, Otis, and Michael Eric Dyson. Dancing in the darkness: Spiritual lessons for thriving in turbulent times. Simon & Schuster, 2023.