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.