Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You Are God's Temple; All Y'all

I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
February 19, 2017

            When I read the text from I Corinthians for today, I remembered vividly the first time I heard someone describe the body as a temple. It was Goldie Hawn who used this metaphor. She was a guest on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” My mother was a watcher of late night talk shows. She loved Jack Paar, Steve Allen, and she definitely watched Johnny Carson. I was a kid when Goldie made this statement on late night television, but I was sick, so I was curled up on the couch in our den, feeling miserable, watching The Tonight Show with my mom.
            I don’t remember the exact context that surrounded Goldie’s comment. I imagine she was referring to caring for one’s physical self. Your body is a temple, and how do you treat a temple? You put good, healthy, nutritious things into it. That way your body, your temple, will respond by becoming and remaining strong and healthy.
            Perhaps I have not been putting good things into this temple lately, or perhaps it was just a matter of time, but this past week I was sick, like I was when I watched that interview with Goldie Hawn. I fell victim to the plague that has been sweeping Shawnee and the nation, so it would seem. I have to admit that when my brain could focus, I spent some time thinking that my particular temple had been cursed. I vacillated between wishing for the apparent curse to be lifted, or just be over with already. It was a rough week.
            But I was reminded of an important fact – more important than Goldie Hawn on The Tonight Show – and that was that I am not solely responsible for everything working or everything failing. We had a Service for Wholeness on Friday. I could not have led it no matter what. But Alice could and she did, beautifully from what I understand. Yesterday, the session gathered at the big church to do another walk through concerning the contents. What stays? What goes? I arrived. I stayed long enough to walk through my office, and I left. And the work continued without me.
            I realize that I could be preaching myself out of a job here. You could be thinking to yourselves, “You are so right, Pastor Amy, our work continues whether you are here or not, so how about not?!” Obviously, I hope that my presence is still somewhat necessary to our life together, but I think a danger courted by those of us in leadership positions is thinking and believing that I am the church. If I am not there, everything will fall apart. If I am not present, the congregation will not know what to do. All services will have to be cancelled! All programs will have to be scrapped! All plans will be waylaid! Because I am the pastor and I am the church! I am God’s temple!
            No. When Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you,” I do not believe that he was charging individual leaders with the responsibility of being the foundation of the particular congregations for whom they were shepherds. And that’s a good thing. Yet, I also do not believe that Paul would have agreed with another popular interpretation of his words. You, individual believer, you are God’s temple.
            It isn’t that each of us does not bear the spark of the divine in our very being. But Paul was not referring to a privatized temple or a privatized faith. As one commentator wrote, our God is not a private God. No, Paul’s you was plural.
            So to avoid confusion, let’s insert “y’all” for “you.”
            “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in y’all? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and y’all are that temple.”
            That’s right. Y’all! Plural. We are God’s temple. The temple is not a building. The temple is not a structure. It is us. It is a gathered community. It is in the relationship between God and us, and between us, all of us. According to N. T. Wright, God has been trying to dwell with us since the Garden. When God, through Moses, led the Israelites out of Egypt, God made his dwelling a tabernacle. In John’s gospel, when the Word became flesh and dwelled with us, what is really being said is that God tabernacled with us. The tabernacle was more than just a humble tent, set up in the midst of the people of God. It was God’s dwelling. When the temple was built in Jerusalem, it was believed that God dwelt there. With Christ, crucified and resurrected, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God’s dwelling was no longer fixed to a single place. One commentator put it this way, God’s Spirit was on the loose. God’s Spirit is on the loose, and that Spirit dwelled in the people in Corinth, making of their community a temple. God’s Spirit is on the loose here, making of us a temple as well.
            Y’all are God’s temple. We are God’s temple. But here’s the proverbial rub. If I understand Paul correctly, what he was trying to make the Corinthians understand was that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was not just in one group or one faction. The Holy Spirit did not dwell only in those who considered themselves to be Paul’s people. It did not dwell only in those who were well-educated or in those who were not. It did not dwell only in those who were professionals, or those who were day laborers. It did not dwell exclusively in those who were rich or in those who were poor. God’s Spirit dwelled in all of them. They were all God’s temple. You are God’s temple; all y’all.
            It seems to me that understanding all y’all is critical to understanding Paul’s words, not just in this particular chapter, but in his understanding of the Church. What is the Church? It is a community of believers, people who have recognized God’s indwelling Spirit. It is not reserved for one kind of believer over another. The Holy Spirit crosses every boundary and jumps every border we try to construct between us. God’s temple is not just a few, it is all y’all.
            Our other readings today seem to also highlight the crucial understanding of all y’all. Leviticus speaks of the treatment of the poor and the alien, the laborer, the neighbor. Matthew speaks of the evildoer, righteous and the unrighteous, tax collectors and Gentiles. In other words, even the Other is included in all y’all.  
            You are God’s temple; you and those who look like you.
            You are God’s temple; you and those who do not. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; those who believe as you do, interpret the scriptures as you do.
            You are God’s temple; those who believe differently; those who disagree with your interpretations. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; those who are conservative.
            You are God’s temple; those who are liberal. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; those who want contemporary worship, with bands and words on the screen.
            You are God’s temple; those who want traditional worship, with an organ, a piano and a hymnal. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; you Presbyterians.
            You are God’s temple; you Pentecostals. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; you Lutherans, children of Luther.
            You are God’s temple; you Methodists, children of Wesley. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; those who are rich. You are God’s temple; those who are poor. All y’all.
            You are God’s temple; those who benefit from society. You are God’s temple; those who are oppressed by it. All y’all.
            All y’all. We are God’s temple. Does this mean that we can do anything, say anything, even if it contradicts the way Jesus called us to live out our faith? Does this mean that we are God’s temple, even if we harm or oppress or ignore the least of these? No. I don’t think so. But once again, this is a reminder of God’s wisdom versus the world’s wisdom. The world’s wisdom says stick with your own kind. God’s wisdom says over and over and over again, all y’all.
            Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

God's Servants, Working Together

I Corinthians 3:1-9
February 12, 2017

            Haven’t we heard these words from Paul before? Didn’t he make this same point about getting caught up in human leadership back in Chapter 1? He did! In chapter 1, verse 12, Paul wrote, “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”
            One of the factors contributing to the division in the church in Corinth was that the people argued over which human leader was superior, which leader was the right one to follow. If Paul is superior and the best of God’s leaders, then I’m with Paul. I’m on Paul’s team. If you are on Team Apollos, then you have chosen poorly. Because not only is Paul the superior leader, choosing to be on his team makes me superior to everyone who chooses to be on Team Apollos!
            But Paul emphatically told the Corinthians that this was wrong. They were confused and misunderstood what he and the other leaders had come there to do. They were creating division and rivalries amongst themselves that were based on false understandings. They had come together as a church, not to follow a human being, but to follow Christ. It was not about Paul. It was not about Apollos. It was about Jesus the Christ, God’s son, Christ crucified. It was about what God and the Holy Spirit were doing in their midst.
            Paul made this point about their confused loyalties at the beginning of the letter, but in these verses from chapter 3, he reiterated his earlier words. Why? Because it was obvious to Paul – and to those of us reading his epistle – that the Corinthians did not get it. Paul realized that when he was with them he had been speaking to them in language and in abstract theological concepts for which they were not yet ready. He assumed they were mature enough to understand, but Paul stated without hesitation that he was mistaken.  
            “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.”
            Perhaps Paul once tried to feed the Corinthians with solid food, but they were not ready for it. They were infants who still required milk rather than meat. Perhaps the Corinthians seemed mature at first glance, but their jealousies and quarrels revealed otherwise.
            It is as if Paul were the parent of, I don’t know, teenagers.
            I seem to recall that when I was a teenager, my parents told me more than once that I wanted to be treated like an adult but I did not want the responsibilities of an adult. I would chafe against any rules that seemed not to match my age and wisdom.
            “Stop treating me like a baby,” I would cry.
            “Then stop acting like one,” was the response I would receive.
            Along with many other issues, the Corinthians were bickering over the teams they had created. They were not spiritually mature. They were spiritual infants, so Paul would have to treat and teach them accordingly.
            I would not be surprised if Paul’s words did not spark some outrage among those reading or hearing this letter. Infants?! We are not babies! But while Paul’s words may have been harsh, they were not unkind. As I have said in past sermons, Paul was a master of rhetoric. He knew how to grab people’s attention. This statement about their spiritual immaturity would have done just that.
            Paul referred to them as being “of the flesh.” This was not necessarily a reference to what we might call, “fleshly delights;” although Paul will take those on in later chapters. When Paul told them they were of the flesh, he was trying to make them understand that they were still living as if Christ had never lived, died or was resurrected. Paul understood the crucifixion as transformation. It was death to the old creation. It gave birth to the new creation, the new life. Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about new life. It was that new thing God was doing. However, while the Corinthians may have proclaimed this transformation with their lips, they still lived as though it were not true, it had never happened. Their “fleshiness” caused them to continue in their old ways of being and doing – competition, rivalries, quarreling and jealousies; Team Paul or Team Apollos. They were still spiritual infants. They needed to grow up, but that kind of wisdom would take time. It was the solid food they were not quite ready to eat.
            Spiritual milk was needed. Paul fed it to them by reminding them that they had their priorities wrong. They had attached themselves to a human leader, and had forgotten that the One they were called to attach themselves to was the ONE. It was not about being on Team Paul or Team Apollos. It was about living for God. After all, God was the reason they were a church to begin with. Paul and Apollos were instruments for God. Paul planted the seeds, and Apollos watered, but it was God who made them grow. They were the field God was tilling and cultivating. They were the building God was constructing. They were believers – they were a church – because of God. The Corinthians either never understood that, or they had forgotten, but the spiritual milk Paul gave them was the knowledge that they were God’s. Maturity and wisdom in Christ would come, but for the moment they had to understand one thing and one thing only; they were God’s.
            When they understood that, then their actions would tell that truth. When they realized that it was about God, then the church would be the light on the hill it was called to be. When the church in Corinth comprehended that they were all God’s servants, then they would come to full maturity in Christ.
            They were all God’s servants. That is what Paul told them, “We are God’s servants, working together.” Perhaps that is what really distinguishes a spiritually mature person, from one who is struggling to eat solid food. It is the recognition that we are called to be servants. We are called to be servants to God and servants to one another. When you recognize that God has called you to be a servant, to live in service, to do acts of service for others – whoever those others may be – then it becomes harder and harder to stay on a team. It becomes more difficult to choose sides. I’m not implying that we must agree with one another on everything, whether we are in the church walls or outside of them. I am not saying that we are not to live in any other way than with the courage of our convictions. But it seems to me that first and foremost, we are called to serve.
            If Jesus gives us the fullest knowledge of God, then we know that God values all life and all people. We know that God is about service. How did Jesus serve? He showed compassion to the lowliest of the lowly. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He ate dinner with outcasts. He told the truth to those who did not want to hear it. He held those with power and position accountable. He was willing to give of himself to save others.
            We come together as a congregation not because we are on Team Amy or Team Alice. We come together as a congregation because we believe. We come together because we have heard God’s call to be here. We gather in this place and in this time because we want to be disciples. We want to follow the path Jesus walked. We want to be God’s field and God’s building. It is not about us or about anyone in a position of leadership. It is about God. We are about God. We are God’s servants, working together. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

We Speak God's Wisdom

I Corinthians 2:1-16
February 5, 2017

The Cold War was on. The Russians were winning the space race. Two dogs and cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin had all successfully been launched into space and returned alive. Here in the States, NASA was working feverishly to catch up. They were preparing to launch an astronaut into space to orbit the earth. While what we have seen in old recordings and movies are rooms filled with white men – scientists and engineers of various kinds – there were also many women who worked at NASA. You might assume that they were secretaries and assistants, but there were also women who were human computers. There were black women who were human computers. That is the story behind the movie Hidden Figures. Three of those women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are the main subjects of the film and they were essential to the success of the space program. They are also three of the most incredible women I have seen depicted in film in a long time.
Katherine Johnson was a mathematician of extraordinary genius. While I’m still astounded by 2 + 2 always equaling 4, she was computing equations that I don’t have language to describe. Mrs. Johnson was assigned to work directly with those white men to do the math required to launch a man successfully into space and to return him safely to the earth.
In the movie, Johnson’s new assignment was in a different building. The building where she and the other black women generally worked was separate from the rest of the NASA complex. When Johnson walked into the room where she would now be working, someone walked by and stuck a full trash can on top of the papers she was carrying and said,
 “This didn’t get emptied last night.” 
Even when it was established that she was not a custodian, she was not treated any more respectfully. In one corner of the large room there was a table with a coffee urn set up, along with cups, creamers, sugar, etc. Johnson poured herself a cup of coffee and turned to see all of the men glaring at her. The next day, there was a smaller coffee pot labeled “colored.” There wasn’t any coffee made in it so she had to do that as well.
But one of the points driven home in the movie, and one that I never thought of, was the issue of bathrooms. Again on her first day, Johnson went to ask the only other woman working in that level where the ladies room was. The woman answered,
“I don’t know where your bathroom is.”
This is when a large part of NASA was located in Virginia, a state in the segregated South. Black folks and white folks did not use the same restroom. There were no restrooms for Katherine in the entire building, or any of the other buildings except for the one where she and her fellow human computers worked. In order to use the restroom, she had to run to another building then run back. Each time she carried her work with her so she could continue working. I read that the movie took license with this. In reality the building that housed the segregated restrooms was not as far away as the movie makes it seem. But geography aside, Katherine Johnson, a woman of extraordinary genius, who would be fundamental to the ongoing success of the space program, could not use the same bathroom as the white women she worked alongside. Forget water fountains, she couldn’t pour herself a cup of coffee from the same coffee pot.
            My point is this, in a building, in a facility, in a program that housed some of the smartest, the brightest, the most gifted people of that generation – maybe any generation – wisdom was lacking. In a place where imagination and talent and genius worked together to do what was deemed impossible, a fundamental knowledge of the commonality of all human beings was in short supply, if not missing entirely.
            So we come to Paul. I struggled – as I often seem to when writing my sermons – with how to dig into Paul’s message about wisdom without also giving what I believe to be a false message of anti-intellectualism. I believe that Paul’s words have been used to defend that stance. I do not think that Paul was trying to say that knowledge, reason, or being smart was an affront to God. Okay, maybe he was, but if so I wholeheartedly disagree with Paul on that point. Yet, I do not think he was. Paul was schooled as a Pharisee. His knowledge of the Law, his education and intellectualism would have been greatly admired and respected in that culture. He was also a master of rhetoric. Even as he assured the church in Corinth that he did not come to them “proclaiming the mystery of God … in lofty words or wisdom,” he was using wisdom and rhetoric. In verse 6 he seemingly contradicts everything he said in verses 1 through 5.
            I didn’t come to you proclaiming God in words of wisdom, but on the other hand we do speak wisdom to those who are mature. Wait, what? However, Paul stated that the wisdom he and others who were spiritually mature understood was not the same wisdom of that age and of the rulers of that time. This was wisdom about God. The wisdom of God that he spoke was “secret and hidden.” It was wisdom about mystery, yet mystery explained is no longer mystery. So what was Paul talking about?
            Paul was not referring to a wisdom that comes from learning, but a wisdom that comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God gives wisdom. The Spirit of God reveals that which cannot be understood in any other way. We speak the wisdom of God because of the Holy Spirit and because we see Christ crucified.
            That is not a literal seeing. That is a seeing of perception. As one commentator pointed out, when Paul wrote about the cross it was in the language of transformation, of seeing, of visualizing. The cross was no longer the instrument of death that killed Jesus. It was more than a symbol of faith – no matter how sacred. The cross was a lens in which those who believed, those who had seen God revealed through the Holy Spirit, saw the world.
            The cross is a lens in which we who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit see the world. We see the world through the cross, through Christ crucified. What is the cross a symbol of? What does our knowledge of Jesus tell us, teach us about God? If Jesus gave us the fullest vision and understanding of God, then God must stand with the powerless and the vulnerable. God considers the least of these. God loves even the most unlovable. God loves the world. God loves us as we are, in flesh and blood. How do we know this? Because God became flesh and blood.
            This Word made flesh went to the cross obediently. The cross may have been a method of death and power for those who killed Jesus, but to us it is God’s self-sacrificing love in the world and for the world. It is a symbol of God’s power that is not based on might, but is based on love.
            So if we are speaking God’s wisdom, then we are speaking of wisdom that we know with more than just the reason of our minds, but through the expanding of our hearts. As those who believe, as those who have been given the gift of the Spirit, we see the world through the lens of the cross.
            Paul ends this section by writing, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Does that mean that we see perfectly or think perfectly? No, I don’t believe so because we are not perfect beings. Even with the mind of Christ, our thoughts, our words, our actions are still influenced by our contexts. Yet a commentator described having the mind of Christ as having the imagination to see beyond what our senses tell us. Having the mind of Christ is “imagination in action.” We are able to imagine what God’s world, our world could be, should be, and we can put our imaginations into action. We can imagine with our feet and our hands as well as with our minds.
            We who have the mind of Christ are not limited to or by the world’s wisdom. The world’s wisdom said that people who had darker skin pigmentation were not equal to those with lighter – no matter how smart, creative or innovative they were. But the wisdom of God says that the labels we use for others and the categories we place others in are artificial. In Christ they are broken down. In Christ they are revealed for the nonsense they are.
            We who have the mind of Christ recognize that what the world sees as folly and foolishness is actually a revelation of God’s most wonderful love and grace. We who have the mind of Christ have been given the gift to imagine what the world could be and what it should be. We have the mind of Christ. We have imagination in action. So let’s not only speak God’s wisdom, let’s witness to it with our words, our hands and our feet. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Foolish Message

I Corinthians 1:10-18
January 22, 2017

            The Gods Must Be Crazy. Back in 1980, this was the title of a little independent film out of South Africa. It told the story of a bushman named Xi. Xi knew only his particular world, his family, his clan. The way of life that he was born into, and the traditions and customs and world understandings that went back generations, provided his only lens for the world. But Xi was starting to see strange things, such as giant birds that flew across the sky without flapping their wings. One of those strange birds was flying in the early moments of the movie, and while Xi looks up to watch it, the audience gets to see the “bird” up close. The pilot of the small bush plane was drinking a coke. Emptying the bottle, he threw it out of the small opening in the window next to him. A terrible act of littering and environmental recklessness I know, but the bottle drops to the ground near Xi. Xi followed the sound of the bottle meeting earth, and went to find its source. This bottle was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was clear like water, but hard. It did not break when he hit it against the ground. Xi could not fathom what the bottle was or what it might be meant for, but as the narrator said if something drops from the skies it must be a gift from the gods. So Xi took this “gift” back to his people.
            Everyone was fascinated by it. They had never seen or touched something this strange and beautiful. It turned out to be one of the most useful gifts the bush people had ever been given. It could be used to open the hard rind of fruits. Rub some dye on its mouth, and it decorated cloth with perfect circles. It could roll dough into thin, even strips. You could even make music with it by blowing air across the top. The gift was wonderful. Or was it? The people in the clan began to experience feelings they had not known before: jealousy, frustration, anger. Two women began to fight over the gift, each one trying to take it away from the other so she could have her turn. It resulted in one woman hitting the other on the head with the gift. When the woman fell to the ground in pain, the other woman immediately dropped to her knees to hold her and comfort her. What had she done?! What was happening to them? Xi realized that if this was a gift from the gods, then the gods had gotten it wrong. He tried to give it back to the gods by throwing it up into the air. The second time he did it, the bottle fell and hit his own daughter on the head. The gods must be crazy, because this was a gift that only brought harm. The rest of the movie chronicles his journey to return the gift to these crazy gods, as well as the strange new and supposedly civilized world he encounters along the way.
            “Crazy” and “Foolish” are not necessarily synonyms. However, trying to dig into and understand Paul’s words to the church in Corinth made me wonder what someone who had no knowledge about our country or our civilization would think if they suddenly encountered it as Xi did. What would someone unfamiliar with us and our ways think about us if all they had to go on was media, commercials, news, etc? Let’s narrow that question down a bit. What would someone think about our faith, our churches, our denominations, if they had no context to go on, no understanding to draw from? I wonder if they might not come to a conclusion similar to Xi’s. The God we worship is one God, but we proclaim that our one God is three-in-one. We proclaim that God is powerful, omniscient, omnipotent, but this powerful God became like one of us. Not only did our God become like one of us in birth, but also in death. Our God died! Our God died, not in a noble way, but in the way of a criminal. Our God didn’t just die, our God was executed.
            We also proclaim that we are all one in Jesus the Christ. Our unity is in Christ. Because of Christ the barriers and walls that we erect to keep us separate are torn down. The labels and the categories that we place one another in are meaningless and swept away because of our God who we know in Jesus the Son. What Paul seemed to be telling the Corinthians is that they either forgot or misunderstood the meaning of their baptisms. They forgot or misunderstood to whom they belong, and into whom they were truly baptized. They didn’t get it. They were not baptized into the camp of the evangelist or preacher who did the baptizing. They were baptized into Christ. No person’s baptism or evangelist made them superior or inferior to someone else. They were baptized into Christ, and Christ was not divided into pieces and parts.
            We can look at the factions in the Corinthian church and see how they got it so wrong. We can imagine that someone like Xi, a stranger to Christ and a stranger to the church, might see their squabbling as hypocritical and foolish. But let’s be honest, would Xi think any differently of us? Not just our congregation or our denomination but the church universal. What would Xi think of us?
            I realize that I am getting at two different kinds of foolishness here. There is the foolishness that can be seen in the gap that lies between who we are called to be and who we are. There is the foolishness that can be found in how often what we proclaim and what we do are very different. And then there is the foolishness that Paul expounds: the foolishness of the cross.
            “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
            Why is the cross foolish? It is foolish for all of the reasons I’ve named. It is foolish because an all powerful God should not die like a criminal. It is foolish because it is an instrument of death, but in that cross we find the gospel of life and hope and love. It is foolish because any stranger would see that the cross seems to fly in the face of every value that is exalted in our culture. It was about the power of God, but not power exerted through might. It was power shown in sacrifice. It was about serving rather than being served. It was about a willingness to be poor so that others might be rich in spirit, in hope and in love. It was about love – love of neighbor, love of the stranger, the other; love of those who would remain at the foot of the cross and those who would not. It was about love, even love for those who made the cross possible in the first place.
            The cross was foolish, is foolish, because it upends every expectation, every understanding, every notion that we might have about the world and how it should be ordered. It reverses every category we impose on one another, every label we use, every wall we build, every way we try to divide ourselves. It overturns what we think we know about God, about other people and about ourselves. It preaches a powerful sermon about how we see one another. Do we see one another in the way we desire or in the way God sees us? Do we see one another through our differences, or do we see one another through the cross and through the man who willingly went to it? Do we see one another as God sees us? It seems to me that seeing one another in that way, through God’s perspective, is probably the most foolish thing we could do – at least in light of every standard our world is ordered by. It is crazy. It is nonsensical. It is foolish.
            Yet, that is how God works, in foolish ways through foolish people. God chose and chooses the most unlikely ways and unlikely people to bring about God’s purposes. The cross may be the most foolish message of all, but it is in that foolishness that we find life. It is in that foolish message that we receive grace. It is in this foolishness that we are encircled and embraced in God’s foolish, gracious, merciful, wonderful love. The cross is a foolish message indeed. But thanks be to God for its foolishness. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

To the Church of God

I Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15, 2017

To my dear friends, my sisters and brothers, in the church of Shawnee,
            To all of you who have been made new in Jesus Christ, to all of you who are called to be saints, along with all the other people in every place who call on the name of Jesus, their God and our God; God’s grace and peace to you and to your loved ones.
            Everyday I give thanks to God for each and every one of you, because you have been grace from God through Jesus. Because of this grace, you are all amazing people. You have such incredible gifts – gifts of speech and knowledge of all things. God’s grace that enfolds you has strengthened the witness of Jesus Christ in your midst. None of you lack any spiritual gift, and these spiritual gifts will help you and abide with you as wait for the complete and total revealing of Christ Jesus. Not only will the spiritual gifts that you have been given strengthen you as you wait, Jesus himself will strengthen you as well, until everything in this world is complete. Because you have been given such strength, so many gifts, you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that God is faithful. It is through God, not any human being, but through God that you have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus our Christ. It is through God, not any human being, that you are a church.
            The first time I learned the word epistle was in a letter that my dad wrote to my sister, Jill. I don’t remember where she was living or what she was doing at the time, but she must have been struggling. My dad sat at our dining room table, carefully typing on our old typewriter, a letter of encouragement and love. I offer my apologies to both my dad and my sister for reading over his shoulder as he typed; but honestly I don’t remember anything else about the letter other than he closed it by saying that he was sorry for writing such an epistle. For some reason, that stuck with me. An epistle was a letter. That memory came back to me when I was in seminary, not only studying Paul’s epistles in New Testament, but also struggling. My dad sat down, probably at our dining room table once again, and wrote me an epistle of encouragement and love.
As often as we refer to the letters of Paul, sometimes I still forget that he was writing letters. I know how silly that sounds. Of course they’re letters. But so often we turn to a particular chapter and verse somewhere in the middle a book, and it easy to forget that the chapter and verses are not something we consider in isolation. They are part of a larger context. They make up a letter written by Paul to the churches that he started and ministered to. David Hay, in his opening remarks about this first letter to the Corinthians, stated that Paul felt a deep responsibility to these churches. He kept in touch. He would send his associates to the churches if he could not go. He planned return trips. And he wrote letters.
            I suspect that Paul did not have the luxury of sitting at a table as my dad did, but his letters, his epistles, were meant to encourage, to discipline and to share the love of Christ. Paul was a master of rhetoric; in other words, he wrote some mighty fine letters. Paul knew how to use language to persuade, convince, and exhort. That does not mean that Paul was manipulative or sneaky. I think Paul was sincere in his passion and zeal for Jesus and the gospel. But let’s not underestimate what seems to be Paul’s innate understanding of how to phrase something to capture his readers’ attention.
            The church in Corinth was a divided and fractured church. They experienced conflict and strife. There were misunderstandings about Paul’s earlier teachings to them, and misunderstandings about the purpose of spiritual gifts. The church in Corinth was home to both wealthy people and poor people. As converted gentiles, the Corinthians would have brought practices and understandings from their pagan context into their life together. They were people in a particular time and place, just as we are here in Shawnee, in the United States, in North America, in the 21st century. The Corinthians were struggling to live out their faith. They made mistakes. They bickered with each other. Some in the community believed that they were superior to others in the faith community. Perhaps some believed that they really did not belong to the church at all.
            So Paul wrote a letter. If you remember later sections in this first letter to the Corinth church, Paul was not afraid to call the church folks on the carpet for taking wrong paths. But his opening greeting to them, the words we read today, sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He writes to them in the love of God made manifest in Jesus, God’s Son. The love of God is at the foundation of the letter. Paul reminds them that it is the love of God that is the foundation of the church as well.
            In spite of the fact that Paul had heard disturbing reports about what was happening in the Corinth church, he did not begin by admonishing them. Instead, he gave thanks for them. He gave thanks for them because God’s grace had been given to them in Jesus Christ. He gave thanks for them because of their knowledge and spiritual gifts – both of which are the source of many of their conflicts. He gave thanks because the testimony of Jesus, the witness of the gospel, was strengthened in their midst.
            It may seem strange that Paul started off in this way because the Corinthians were messing up big time. If we look only at their errors, their mistakes, their false assumptions, it would be easy to conclude that they were failing to be the church of God. Wouldn’t it make more sense that Paul would begin his letter by telling them to knock that nonsense off? Wouldn’t we expect a letter written to address the conflicts and issues they were experiencing to be a rebuke from beginning to end? As I said, Paul excelled at rhetoric. I suspect that he knew if he started off by telling them they were blowing it, they would stop reading. His words would have fallen on the proverbial deaf ears. Paul understood that, so he began by giving thanks for them. He even gave thanks and lifted up the sources of their conflicts.
            Again, I do not think that Paul was trying to manipulate them. I think Paul was sincere. But his opening words of thanksgiving and love not only made his later, harsher words more palatable, they serve as a stark reminder that the Corinthians were a church not because of themselves, but because of God. The people were not responsible for creating that church. Paul was not responsible for creating that church. God called their church into being. God blessed them with grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ was made strong among them because of God. They were a church because of God’s grace and because of God’s love through God’s Son.
            It seems to me that this is a reminder we all need to hear. How is that we are a church, a congregation? Yes, we keep on keeping on because we are determined, because we love one another in spite of our differences, and because we feel called to be a witnessing presence in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But first and foremost, we are a church because of God and God’s grace. God called us into being in the earliest days of Shawnee, and God called us into being when two churches merged into one, and God calls us into being right now. We are a church because of God. We are God’s church.
            Yesterday in officer training, we studied and discussed some of the creeds and confessions that are a fundamental part of being Presbyterian and in the Reformed tradition. At the General Assembly last summer, the Belhar Confession was adopted and added to our Book of Confessions. This is a confession that comes out of the Reformed church in South Africa and apartheid. As apartheid was dismantled, this confession came into being to state clearly the need for reconciliation and unity; the reconciliation and unity that is given witness to in the gospel of Christ. The church in South Africa offers this confession as a gift to the larger Reformed body, because we are all in need of reconciliation – one with another.
            One statement of belief that we read yesterday was this: “that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
            “That the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.”
            I have been repeating those words in my head since yesterday morning. I need to be reminded that this church is not ours. We are the possession of God. God created us, claims us, calls us – as individuals, and as a congregation. How does knowing that, how does understanding that, change how we view ourselves, our situation and our future together? I so rarely have the answers to the questions I ask you, but I do know this: we are the church of God. God is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. We may not know what will happen in our future, but knowing and trusting that God makes of us a church is trusting that we are in God’s good and gracious hands. Knowing that means that we also that there is always, always, always, always reason to hope.
There is always reason to hope. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Public Notice --Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17
January 8, 2017

            Long trips are perfect for audio books. They make the time go faster. They keep me alert and awake while I’m driving. One of the best books I’ve listened to in a while has been Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This was her “lost novel,” published in 2015. Like her classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman also tells the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her relationships with her father and family in Macomb, Alabama. Watchman begins with a grown up Jean Louse on a train from New York, coming home to Macomb for her annual visit.
            Although the story is set in Jean Louise’ present, she has flashbacks, memories, of her childhood with her brother, Jem, and their best friend, Dill. One of these memories centered on the annual revival that was an annual summer event in Macomb. It was a joint effort of the Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Scout, Jem and Dill had been attending the revival, along with everyone else in the town, for three nights. On the fourth day, a hot, hot, hot summer day, the three children were trying to come up with a new game to play. Dill suggested they have a revival.
            Jem was the preacher. Dill and Scout were the choir and the congregation. Jem preached a longer sermon than any Scout had ever heard from any adult. Dill jumped up to be the usher and took the two nickels Scout had in her pocket. She warned him that he better give them back to her when they were done. They sang “Amazing Grace,” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” Then it came time for anyone who wished to unite with Christ to come forward. Scout went forward. 
            Jem asked her if she repented. She replied, “Yes sir.”
            Jem asked, “Have you been baptized?” “No sir,” she said.
            Jem dipped his hand into the fishpool they were gathered next to and started to sprinkle Scout on the head, because Jem and Scout were Methodists. But Dill jumped in and said that this was a Baptist revival, so it had to be a Baptist baptism.
            “You’ve got to duck her.” Dill decided since he was the only Baptist, he would also be baptized. But Scout threatened him. Dill had gotten to do everything else. She was going to be baptized.
            She took off her overalls, the only item of clothing she was wearing. But before Jem could baptize her in the dark, slimy water of the fishpool, Dill ran into his aunt’s house. He returned covered in a sheet that he had cut two eye holes in. When Jem asked him what he was doing, Dill replied, “I’m the Holy Ghost.”
            Scout stood in the pool and Jem stood on the edge. The Holy Ghost stood next to Jem and “flapped its arms wildly.” Jem dunked Scout and had just begun to baptize her in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, when Dill’s aunt came after him with a switch. He had taken her good sheets off the bed and cut holes in them. They were taking the Lord’s name in vain. She switched him and got him out of the water, then marched him back to her house.
            Jem and Scout turned to go home, and saw their father standing there watching them. Two people were with him, the minister who had been preaching every night at the revival and his wife. [1]
            The memory goes on from there, but I’ll let you read it for yourselves.
            When I heard that scene, I laughed so hard I almost had to pull over to the side of the road. But along with being hilarious, this moment in the book is a wonderful illustration about some deep seated beliefs concerning baptism.
            Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ baptism is powerful. We meet John at the beginning of chapter 3. He came from the wilderness in Judea, and called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People were coming to him to be baptized in the river Jordan. They were confessing their sins. As I understand it, baptisms or ritual cleansings were fairly common. Jesus did not institute a whole new practice when he was baptized. But when Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he confronted them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” John went onto preach that while he baptized with water for repentance, one was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
            Sometime after John preached this fiery proclamation, Jesus came to him from Galilee. Jesus came to be baptized. John not only questioned Jesus doing this, Matthew writes that John would have stopped him from being baptized.
            “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
            Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
            I have to be honest, I am not sure I fully understand what Jesus meant by these words. Commentators point out that Jesus coming to John was as a response to John’s message about repentance. That seems confusing, because why would Jesus need to repent of sins? There is a sense that Jesus was deliberately illustrating that his ministry chronologically followed John’s.
            Perhaps most importantly, Jesus’s words to John about letting it be, or as one commentator said, “permit it,” is not about legalism but about discipleship.
            Jesus being baptized was the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ baptism was a declaration and a confirmation of his identity as the Son of God and as the one who issued in the kingdom of God. Certainly that became apparent when heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove, and God’s voice was heard proclaiming that Jesus was his Son, his beloved Son. In his baptism, Jesus proclaimed who he was. It was a moment of discipleship, and it was a moment of commissioning. It was a public notice of who Jesus was, what his presence ushered in, and what he was there to do.
            At the YMCA Bible study last Thursday, I asked the people around the table to tell the stories of their baptisms. Although a couple of people spoke about being baptized as infants, most of the folks talked about being baptized as believers. It was part of the ongoing debate over which is better – believer’s baptism or infant baptism. They also spoke about being baptized and being saved. They accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and they were baptized and saved.
            I don’t argue with their understanding of baptism and salvation, but it isn’t the language that we generally use as Presbyterians. Certainly we talk about accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We take salvation seriously. But we do not necessarily consider salvation and being born again in the same way. We baptize infants, and the reason I am comfortable and confident in doing so – my children were baptized as infants – is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we recognize it, understand it, get it or not. To be honest, I think that’s how grace works in my life all the time – not just when I was younger. I rarely recognize grace in the moment.
            Yet, looking at this story of Jesus being baptized and seeing it as a moment of identity formation, of commissioning, of giving public notice about Jesus’ ministry, is causing me to consider our baptisms in a new light. When we are baptized, whether or not we are believers or babies, our identity is being marked. As a believer, we claim that identity ourselves. As babies, the people around us promise to help us know and grow into that identity. Identity formation is a lifelong process. It is not complete at our baptisms, no matter how old we may be. But baptism marks a beginning. It is public notice that we are at the beginning of a life of discipleship, of growing into Christ, of being molded and shaped by the Spirit, of being in relationship with God and with others.
            Our baptisms are public notice, that we are a new person, that we are disciples, that we are beginning a life that is marked by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Go Set a Watchman, Dill dressed as the Holy Ghost stood by the fishpool and waved his arms. In our baptisms, the Holy Spirit descends on us, perhaps not as apparent as Dill or as the dove that descended on Jesus. But the Holy Spirit is there, marking us, making us, molding us. As we prepare to reaffirm our baptisms, let us once again see this moment as public notice of our discipleship and of our commissioning to be bearers of God’s love and light and hope. The world needs all three. The world needs to hear from us. This is our public notice.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] “Go Set a Watchman.” Copyright © 2015 by Harper Lee. 

God Promised -- New Year's Day

Matthew 2:7-23
January 1, 2017

            If you’re anything like me, after hearing our gospel story you must be wondering, “what the heck happened to Christmas?!” Wasn’t it just seven days ago that we were listening to angel choruses? Wasn’t it just last week that we followed the shepherds to Bethlehem? Wasn’t it only 168 hours, 10,080 minutes, and 604,800 seconds since we were gathered around a manger, oohing and ahhing over a brand new baby?
            It was. But within a week’s time, everything has changed. Technically, we were not supposed to hear any of the Epiphany message this morning, but I added those earlier verses in because I felt like we needed to pay homage with the Magi, and give thanks for the coming of this new king just a little bit longer.
            Yet sadly, the birth of a baby, even the birth of Jesus, does not hold back the sadness of the world. God’s incarnation – God coming into the world as a baby, as one of us – did not forestall terrible tragedies or reign in the power of a despot king’s tyranny. It would seem that the opposite were true. God’s incarnation brought about the tragedy that unfolded. Herod was a jealous, mean, paranoid, desperate, narcissistic ruler. We know from other accounts that he would do anything, anything, to protect his seat of power. He had his own son killed because he thought Junior was trying to usurp Herod’s throne. Herod had a strange, icky sort of relationship with Salome, his wife’s daughter. What came from that relationship? John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. So, honestly, it should be no surprise that Herod would turn to infanticide in order to protect his kingship.
            That does not negate the horror of what Herod did however. It does not diminish his abominable act against innocent children, against mothers and fathers. We may be outraged and horrified that Herod would have as many children killed as necessary in order to stop one child from growing up. We may be sickened by the thought of Herod massacring infants to prevent a child king from one day unseating him. But we should not be surprised. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was about speaking truth to power. But those in authority – those powers and principalities – fought back. They always do.
            Still, it would have been nice just to bask in the Christmas glow for a little while longer. It would have been lovely to have skipped these verses altogether. But that is what is so difficult, so challenging about Christianity. These kinds of texts present themselves to us. They confront us and our sensibilities. They demand to be read. They demand to be heard. As I understand it, being people of faith means that we have to sit with these stories, as painful as that can be. Matthew wanted his listeners, his readers to know what Herod did, what Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through. He wanted us to know these things. So we will.
            Magi, astronomers and wise men from the East, saw in the stars a Star – a Star that meant a great king had been born. Although our nativity sets and popular lore might have us believe that they showed up in the same night as the shepherds, it most likely took the magi two years to make the journey. That would explain Herod’s order to kill male children two years and younger.
            It really is amazing that these men of a different country, of a different religion, would travel so far to bring gifts to this king. As so often happens in the gospels, it is the outsiders, the others who recognize the true nature of Jesus. When these strangers finally reached Jerusalem, they went to Herod to find out the new king’s specific location. Perhaps they thought that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a baby royal, it would be another royal. But they didn’t know Herod. Unwittingly, they tipped him off about Jesus’ birth. This set in motion the terrible events that followed. Following the Star that had led them thus far, the wise men found Jesus with his parents. They brought him gifts that do not sound practical to our ears. I suspect they were not entirely practical then as well. But their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh signified that this baby boy was a king. As I said, these strangers got it.
            Dreams play a significant role in Matthew’s birth story. It was in a dream that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph telling him to take Mary as his wife. Herod told the magi that he wanted them to return to him as soon as they found the child. That way he could pay a visit as well. But the magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod, so they went home by another way. And for a second time, Joseph was visited by the angel of the Lord in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the baby and flee from the nightmare Herod was about to unleash.
            Joseph obeyed. He and his family fled for their lives. Didn’t they do what all refugees do? Their own homeland was so dangerous, that they fled to a place, anyplace, that would give them some shelter. As many times as I have read and heard this story, I never gave much consideration to the place where the young family fled: Egypt. When I visited Egypt, I saw signs of buildings proclaiming that this was the spot where the Holy Family stayed – or this one – or this one. But think about it. They fled to Egypt. Egypt was the land where their ancestors once fled. It was in Egypt where they were enslaved and abused. There another king ordered the death of children in order to protect his power. Yet, for Joseph, Mary and Jesus Egypt was safer than Bethlehem. Egypt was safer than Jerusalem. Egypt was safer than Israel. A land of strangers was safer than home.
            The real problem of this entire story is this: the magi were warned in a dream; Joseph was warned in a dream, but what about the parents of those children who were killed? Why weren’t they warned? Why did they not get a chance to flee, to protect their babies? Did God not care? Did God manipulate the events so that Jesus would be saved at any cost? I know that other folks believe that this is an example of God being in complete control. It’s terrible what Herod did, but everything happens for a reason. People suffer for a reason. Terrible things have always happened for a reason.
            But to that I have to say, “no.” I don’t believe Herod was God’s puppet. I think Herod was an awful man, an evil man, who did evil things. Were those children killed, were those families torn apart, because that’s what God wanted? No. I just can’t believe that. God made promises to God’s people, covenants. God promised that Abraham would have more descendents than the stars in the sky. God promised that God would be with God’s people. God promised to be with us, no matter what. God promised to be present in our lives, in times of joy and times of suffering – especially, I think, in the suffering. As terrible as it is to think about, Jesus’ birth brought about suffering. Because the powers and principalities always fight back. That was true then, and it is true now. The powers and principalities of the world fight back when truth is spoken to them. They fight back when they are threatened. Herod was a fearful, paranoid ruler, and he acted out of fear.
Fear still abounds. How often do we respond to the events around fearfully? How often are our actions guided by fear? Every night before our family goes to bed, I make sure the house and our cars are securely locked. I leave on outside lights to discourage people from trying to get into the house. Those kinds of actions stem as much from common sense as they do from fear. But fear drives me in so many ways. Fear keeps me from speaking out and acting and living. Fear lulls me into the belief that I, through my own power and will, can make myself secure. I can keep my kids completely safe. I can prevent all bad things from happening – to them or to me.
But we all know that’s not real. All fear really does is keep me from living the life God called me to live, from being the person God called me to be. God did not call us to be fearful. God called us to be hopeful. God did not promise that our lives of faith would be easy or free from tragedy or suffering. But God did promise that God would be with us. I don’t believe that God wants his children to suffer; but I do believe that in God our suffering is redeemed. God promised that God would be with us.
On this first day of this New Year, with the reality that suffering is alive and well all around us, we are called to be hopeful. We are called to live lives of courage – courage that is born of faith. We are called to live in hope, not because it is easy, but because God promised.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.