Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of the Spirit: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

The passage I’ve just read is a little disturbing. It’s also a little funny. We giggled a lot, over certain portions of it, in Bible Study this week. It’s a little disturbing, it’s a little funny, and it is either the worst news we’ve ever heard or it’s the best. Wow. That’s a lot to pack in to 20 verses of a letter written nearly two thousand years ago. But that’s what we have in front of us.

To recap: We are accustomed to referring to the Bible as “the Word of God,” and while that may be true, it is not so helpful in understanding the sheer diversity found within its pages. The bible contains many different kinds of literature—it contains history, and poetry, and even one or two books that qualify as “novella.” There is prophecy and gospel, which in the Greek is rendered “good news.” And there are letters, communications between individuals and groups. First Corinthians is a letter that has been written by an individual, Paul, to encourage and instruct the members of a congregation that is flailing around a little bit, floundering, you might say.

I talked a little last week about some of the things troubling the Corinthians. There were personality conflicts. There were disagreements about which particular gifts and talents were a sure sign that you were really God’s favorite. And there were divisions along class lines, along lines of wealth and status. This issue reared its ugly head on Sundays.. Remember that this is the era of the house-church. The more well-heeled members of the community could host the weekly gatherings in their big homes, which added to their prestige. The gatherings, supposedly re-enacting the Lord’s Supper, took the form of elaborate banquets. Both the hosts and the wealthy members who were not the hosts could arrive early, get the best seats in the house, and start in on the food and wine hours before the day laborers were released from their employment. By the time the working stiffs arrived, the food would be gone and the wealthier folks would be tipsy, if not ready to put lampshades on their heads. Evidently, for those who arrived later, that didn’t feel much like the sharing of the “good news.” The day laborers and peasants were not exactly feeling the love.

And so Paul has a daunting task before him, in the writing of this letter. He is trying to highlight for his readers a certain inconsistency between what being followers of Jesus Christ should teach them, and their outlandish, decidedly selfish behavior. I don’t think he wants to scold them. But he wants to drive home to them the reality of their relationships to one another, now that they are members of this faith community. He wants to help them understand the power of the Spirit. He starts with a lesson in gross anatomy.

You see, says Paul, there’s such a thing as a body. You each have a body. And your body is one thing, one entity, a unity. But it has lots of parts, doesn’t it? It has hands and feet and arms and a face. It has other parts we won’t mention except indirectly, for the sake of your sense of modesty and propriety. That’s fine. And all the parts of the body are needed, aren’t they? (I have no doubt Paul’s audience consisted of at least some folks who had lost parts of their bodies; the day laborers, stone cutters, woodworkers—a finger here, an arm there. His point would have been driven home to them all the more.) You need your foot every bit as much as you need your hand, don’t you? Of course you do.

And, you know those parts you don’t want to mention directly? Out of modesty, and out of a sense of propriety? How do you treat those body parts? I’ll tell you how, says Paul. You treat them like royalty. They get special attention as to whether they are clothed or not. They receive greater honor than the hand or the foot, which anyone is allowed to see.

Fine. We all understand all these things about the body. Now hear this: by virtue of being baptized into membership in the church, by the power of the Spirit, you are, each and every one, a part of the body of Christ. And you, who are hands, need to deal with the fact that there are also feet. And you, feet, have to stop putting yourselves down because you’re not hands. And you who think these folks here are slightly disreputable, like those body parts we don’t mention by name, you need to understand that that means you must treat them, not with less respect, but with greater respect.

As I said when I started, it’s kind of disturbing. What it all boils down to is a profound misunderstanding of “membership.” We modern day Christians are accustomed to thinking of membership in terms of voluntary association. We pay our dues and we go to meetings, or we receive the newsletter, and so we are “members,” of AARP, or the Glee Club, or Young Republicans. But that is not what Paul means by membership. What Paul means is that we are members in the same way the hand is a member of the body. Try to pull this body apart, and you are dismembering it. Try to pull this body apart, and you have carnage. It’s a bloody mess.

If you have ever been unfortunate enough to have been witness to a serious division in a church, a serious split, you know what I mean. I served one church in which I couldn’t figure out why the Christian Ed. people and the music people were so standoffish, so suspicious of one another. Turns out it had to do with a split over a minister that had happened 20 years earlier. We divide this body, we take sides and face off, at our peril. We have to ask ourselves: is it really worth it, all that pain for all those years?

And then there is the matter of pain and suffering. I was trying to remember the last time I was in pain, and otherwise I felt fine. You know, when I had a toothache, or had pulled a muscle, but aside from the specific pain of my injury or illness, I felt just wonderful.

Surprise, surprise, I could not remember such a time because such a time does not exist for me. Each and every time I have had an illness or injury that caused me pain, every time I have had so much as a paper cut, the pain of that cut has distracted me so that I had a hard time thinking about much else. My friend Jeffrey says, Pain has a way of getting your attention. Naturally, there are degrees of pain. The gall bladder attack that landed me in the emergency room got my attention more dramatically than a paper cut ever did. But pain does have a way of getting your attention, of getting our attention.

And so, Paul says, it is, with the body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all suffer. I don’t know about you, but our family has discovered “Glee.” “Glee” is this year’s break-out TV hit about a high school Glee club, with all the expected (and some unexpected) stereotypes. We have the diva. The cheerleader. The kid in the wheelchair. The young Aretha Franklin. The gay kid. The jock. All these young people come together, not necessarily willingly, I might add, to sing. They sing their hearts out. And while they are singing, life is happening to them.

There are levels of prestige in Glee. There are social strata. The jocks and the cheerleaders, latecomers to the Glee club, are the popular kids. The original Glee club kids, various levels of dorky, are not. But still, they come together to make incredible music. And that is how they become like the members of a body. They develop an undeniable connection to one another. And time and again, in storyline after storyline, whether they are reaching out to the young couple who are trying to cope with an unplanned pregnancy, or trying to figure out how to get the boy in the wheelchair to a big competition, or coping with any of the rest of their high school crises, they realize again and again how deeply they are connected, how very much they need each other, how the pain of one causes the suffering of all. And then, just because it’s “Glee,” the episode usually ends with their singing something like “Lean on Me” to one another, just to drive home the point in show-stopping fashion.

When one member suffers, we all suffer. We are all connected, perhaps more intimately than we have ever realized, more permanently than we signed on for. That is one reason why the heartbreaking stories that continue to pour out of Haiti continue to rivet us. As the estimates of deaths rise to the 200,000 mark, we cannot look away. We are connected. That’s our body that’s suffering.

This is the nature of the power of the Spirit. It binds us together so that when one weeps, we all taste the salt of their tears. This is either the best news we’ve ever heard or the worst. It is not easy to live with a constant sense of exposure to the pain of others, but that is what happens in community. We become thin-skinned… we feel more. But if we feel more pain by virtue of being bound together, we also have the opportunity to feel more joy. When one suffers we all feel the pain. When one rejoices, every heart lifts. You see that on “Glee” too. The jubilation when the diva hits her high note or the jock decides not to abandon Glee for football.

So. I put it to you. Is this good news or bad? This connection we have with one another, courtesy of the power of the Spirit? I will be honest with you. Is makes some people want to flee. Sometimes the thought of being “one” with certain people confronts us with a level of intimacy that is more than we can bear. So tell me: are we willing both to carry this burden and to share this joy? Are we prepared to weep at the suffering of those we love and at those we will never know, God’s children wherever they might be? Are we ready to join in the celebration at one another’s joy? Are we willing to let the power of God’s Spirit do its work on us? Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unwrapping the Gifts: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

You search and you search for just the right gift for someone you love. You spend time combing the malls and the catalogs that arrive in the mail, to no avail. You go online and browse the many websites for imported items that are a little harder to get, but nothing seems right. You think about something homemade, and you wonder if they’d like it. Finally, you are settled: this is not only what the one you love needs, you just know in your heart they will love and appreciate it. They will be able to use it, and it will bring joy, not only to them, but to those around them.

You choose the perfect container, the lovely wrapping paper, the ribbon or bow or decoration. You outdo yourself: when you are finished, it is a vision. Gorgeous! With joy and excitement, at precisely the right moment, you present it to that person you love. With a smiling face, and words of thanks and delight, they reach out their hands, and they receive the precious gift. But instead of opening it, they turn away, and open a closet door, and find a shelf, and deposit it there. They close the door, and turn back to you and say, “Someday I’ll open it, but not right now.”

Now, that’s a silly little parable. Who would really do such a thing? No one under the age of 12, that’s for sure. Children love gifts, and their innate curiosity and openness and willingness haven’t been damped down yet. But what happens to us later? How ready, willing and able are we to receive gifts, especially when those gifts come from God?

Our passage this morning is from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and it’s fair to say, this was a congregation that had a significant amount of dysfunction spicing up its common life. You don’t have to read very deeply between the lines in the letter to see that there are power struggles going on between different camps. Much of it is outlined in chapter 1. Some identify with a leader called Cephas, and some with one named Apollos, and some with Paul. You’d think this would make Paul happy—he’s got people in his camp! But Paul is not happy about this. He wants no part in partisan bickering, he wants no “camp” swearing special allegiance to him. He wants something for the church which they themselves seem to have lost sight of.

Another area of dysfunction has to do with the worship life of the church. Whether related to or separate from the personality-driven camps, people are also, dividing along lines of those who prefer different styles of worship. Of particular concern is the matter of speaking in tongues—ecstatic speech, given by the Holy Spirit, which needs to be interpreted for most people to understand it. For some in First Church of Corinth, speaking in tongues is like showing up driving a Lamborghini, or wearing the Hope Diamond—it’s flashy, it’s impressive, and it’s enviable.

These matters, and others besides, are splintering and fracturing the community. There is resentment. There is jealousy. There is arrogance, and a sense of superiority. And somewhere, somehow, something important is getting lost.

So Paul writes this letter. And the letter is far-reaching and comprehensive. Like a good doctor with a holistic outlook, Paul diagnoses the situation of the people of Corinth, and recommends, not just a pill, or a quick fix, but an entire change of heart. He takes the Corinthians back to basics. He asks and answers the question, “Why is God giving out spiritual gifts anyway?”

A few sentences into our passage we hear words that may be familiar to us. Paul says,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Paul is engaging in some remedial education for the church here. Notice the lovely and poetic balance he strikes in these words, a balance between two foundational ideas: unity and diversity. One Spirit, many gifts. One Lord, many ways of serving. One God, many activities. One. Many. Paul is gazing at the situation of a fractured community, a group of people who have grown accustomed to identifying themselves by the ways in which they are distinct, or different, or better. And instead of focusing on what divides them or on what differentiates them from one another, he is urging them to recognize what unifies them. What unifies them is God. This is why Paul rejects the “camp of Paul,” just as he rejects the camps of Apollos and Cephas. He wants for the people one camp, the camp of God, the camp of Christ.

But there’s more. One sentence casts all ideas of gifts and giftedness in an entirely new light. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Not only is God one, but the end or goal of our gifts is one as well. If God has given us gifts, they are not solely for our private use or personal satisfaction. They are for the good of the community, the good of all.

The Corinthians have been thinking of the gifts God gave them in terms of the status they confer upon them. Well, that seals it. The Corinthians were human. We are the same. If we look around us we will see that, in our culture as well, certain “gifts” certainly do seem to engender admiration, respect. We admire beauty. We respect talent. We are impressed by eloquence. But in this passage we are invited to learn a new way of looking at gifts. The true measure of our gifts is not how rare they are, or how impressive they are. The true measure of our gifts is how they are used.

Like many of you I have been riveted this week by the news coverage of Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. The photographs and the descriptions of the death and destruction are so overwhelming, so heartbreaking, at times it was just too much. What can one person possibly do in response? I heard a story on National Public Radio about the US military gearing up to provide medical relief to the devastated country, in the form of supplies, personnel, and airlifting out the injured.

The reporter interviewed a number of officers and airmen at Scott Air Force Base outside St. Louis. Each person told a little piece of the story, how the operation looked from their perspective. They spoke of the particular challenges of flying into a country whose infrastructure has been so utterly destroyed. But it was one voice that really got my attention. It was the voice of Captain Justin Brockhoff, explaining the Air Force’s attitude towards these challenges.

“Keep in mind… We have folks on the road every day. We're landing at dirt strips in Afghanistan, dirt strips in Africa. We're taking this show on the road.”[i]

Now, it was partially what the captain said—his confidence that their training and experience had more than prepared them for this mission. But there was more to it than that. It was something in his voice that captivated me. It was the excitement I heard. He sounded so alive. My first reaction was to wonder that someone would feel and act so alive in the face of such grim circumstances. But then it occurred to me that this is what it feels like to know that you have training, or a gift, or an ability, and it is needed, and you are going to make good use of it right now. This is what it feels like to use your gifts for the common good. It brings you to life.

Most of us do not have the option to fly to Haiti to lend a hand or to drop off supplies. But we do have options, both to respond to this disaster and to use our gifts for all the communities of which we are a part. One Spirit, many gifts. One Lord, many ways of serving. One God, many activities. Sometimes I think we have exactly the opposite problem of the church in Corinth: it’s not that we want to lord our gifts over others, it’s that we’re afraid to use them, even to find out what they are. We’re afraid to open the package, unwrap the gift.

Here are some ways we can use our gifts, both in response to the crisis in Haiti, and to enrich our own community.

First, we can pray. Every single one of us is capable of praying. Our prayers do not have to be long or wordy in order to be heard by God. And prayer matters, whether we are praying for healing and comfort for the injured, dying or mourning, or praying for the strength and health of our family or our church or our nation. Prayer is a gift, prayer matters, and every one of us can pray.

Second, we can learn. Every relationship is enriched when we make a deliberate decision to deepen our knowledge or understanding. We can learn about Haiti, its history, why it was so vulnerable to this natural disaster; we can learn about our own neighborhoods and communities and what their special needs and challenges are. We can learn as much as we can about scripture, and deepen our connection with the stories of our faith community.

Third, we can speak—honestly, openly. Each one of us has a wealth of knowledge, experience and insight that is ours alone. No one else brings to the table precisely the same blend of experiences and learning as you do. So, if there is a moment of discernment or decision making, whether here in this community, or in a family, or in the town, county, or state, our individual voices are a precious, irreplaceable gift.

Fourth, we can search ourselves to learn what other unique gifts we can bring to each and every situation and circumstance. Maybe we can bring our monetary gifts. Maybe we can bring our mind. Maybe we can bring our muscle. The possibilities are limitless! But only if we unwrap those gifts and determine we will use them for the common good.

God searches and searches for just the right gift for each of us. God brings all the wisdom of the ages, and infinitely more, to the project. God knows us intimately and knows the circumstances of our lives, and at last, God settles on it: this gift is not only exactly what we need individually, but God knows we will be able to use it, bring joy, not only to ourselves, but to those around us, to the wider world.

When God is finished choosing this gift, it is a vision—God’s vision for us. Gorgeous! With joy and excitement, at precisely the right moment, God presents it to us, God’s own beloved. And what will we do? Will we reach out our hands? Will we accept it with joy or with trepidation? Will we unwrap the gift God has given us, and find out how we can give it back? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Air Force Coordinates Military Relief for Haiti,” NPR’s All Things Considered, January 14, 2010, Wade Goodwyn reporting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Prayer for Haiti

God of compassion
Please watch over the people of Haiti,
And weave out of these terrible happenings
wonders of goodness and grace.
Surround those who have been affected by tragedy
With a sense of your present love,
And hold them in faith.
Though they are lost in grief,
May they find you and be comforted;
Guide us as a church
To find ways of providing assistance
that heals wounds and provides hope
Help us to remember that when one of your children suffer
We all suffer
Through Jesus Christ who was dead, but lives
and rules this world with you. Amen.
(Adapted from Book of Common Worship)

-Bruce Reyes-Chow, Gradye Parsons and Linda Valentine

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is responding to this earthquake through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and its partners. Presbyterian World Mission is gathering information on the safety and status of our mission personnel and ecumenical partners in the area. For updates on the earthquake and the church’s response, please visit PDA. Initial reports indicate a large number of casualties and widespread damage especially in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

You, too, can be part of God’s answer to prayer for those affected by this disaster. Information on the situation and prayers and worship resources are available through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Funds from One Great Hour of Sharing are already helping with the initial response. You can give to the ongoing relief through PDA account number DR000064.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"I Am With You": Sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7

You can learn a lot about a person by the stories they tell about themselves. I grew up listening to the stories my mother told me about life during the Great Depression. Her father, my grandfather died in 1929, leaving my grandmother a widow with seven young children. My mom was the second youngest, a Catholic girl who attended Saint Gabriel’s School in South Philly. My mom was a Catholic girl, but she did not like to kneel in church. The nuns thought she didn’t like to kneel because she was too proud. But the truth was, she didn’t like to kneel because she didn’t want the people behind her to see that she had holes in the bottoms of her shoes. My mom also told me that she was a teenager before she finally noticed that her mother never ate the meat she prepared for her family, but only the drippings with bread. The meat was for the children.

I was privileged to grow up in a home in which children did not have to go without new shoes for too long, and parents did not have to be undernourished so that the children could eat. My mom’s stories were the stories of a woman who saw herself as someone who overcame adversity, worked her way out of poverty, but who was still haunted by it. The stories my mom told went a long way towards explaining why she saw herself as a kind of modern day Scarlett O’Hara, she who proclaimed, “As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”

In addition to reflecting our self-understanding, the stories we tell about ourselves can actually help to shape it. If the story I tell about myself is that I am a person who works hard to overcome any obstacles which life might throw in my way—well, I will tend to be the kind of person who lives up to that narrative. And, if the story I tell about myself is that I just can’t get a break, that I will never overcome these unfair circumstances… well, I will probably live up—or down—to that narrative, as well.

What stories do we tell about ourselves? I’ll tell you two stories I heard about St. Sociable Church before I ever came here to be your pastor. Both these stories told me something important about our church. Both these stories made me want to be a part of your life here. One story tells of something that happened not too long ago—well within the memories of many of our members. One story tells of something that happened before any of us were born.

The first story I heard was the story of the terrible, devastating fire of ’06. In 1906, the church that first stood on this spot was struck by lightning, and burned to the ground. But within a year—just under ten months, in fact—the building in which we worship this morning had been completely constructed, and dedicated, and the people of this congregation were once again worshiping God on this site. So here’s one story we could tell about ourselves: St. Sociable is a kind of phoenix, that rises from the ashes; we are the kind of church that comes back from terrible devastation to rebuild and to go forward. The second story I heard was the story of our church’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The short version is, you raised a bunch of money, you bought a lot of supplies and put them in a big trailer, you got a group of people together, and you—the people and the supplies—drove south to Mississippi to help, in person. So, here’s another story we could tell about ourselves: St. Sociable is the compassionate hands of God, hard at work mending a broken world filled with broken hearts.

As Christians, of course, we look to the bible as the great reference library for the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves. In one sense, there are thousands and thousands of stories within its pages. In another sense, there are just a handful of stories, two, maybe three. Among these few stories is the one our passage tells us, simply, directly. This is the story of a God who never leaves us, who always stands by us, who is always with us.

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you… he who formed you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…Do not fear, for I am with you…

~ Isaiah 43:1-2, 5a

It’s important to understand the background for these words Isaiah reports from the mouth of God. The background is the Babylonian exile… when God’s people were carried away from their homeland, and their Temple was destroyed, and they languished for more than a full generation as strangers in a strange land. We can’t understand the importance, the depth, the passion of the commitment God is proclaiming here without understanding the devastation that precedes it. I am with you, God says. I was with you, I am with you, I will be with you.

Your church has burnt to the ground. But I am with you: when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned. Your community has been devastated by a flood. But I am with you: when you pass through the waters, they shall not overwhelm you. Your losses may be great, unfathomable, unendurable. And still I am with you.

In a few minutes we will be calling those who will be ordained and /or installed as deacons and elders to stand in our midst. We will call them forward so that we can pray over them and for them, and lay hands upon them. We will call them forward so that we can commission them to work on our behalf for this church—this church which, when faced with smoldering piles of ashes, builds something even more beautiful in its place; this church that sees people in pain and reaches out to extend loving and healing hands to them. We will call them forward and entrust them with the story; we will call them forward to convey to them our deepest hopes and dreams for our future together. And all the time, through all the work they will be doing, we call them forward, in the sure conviction that God will be with them, and with us, through it all.

This is the story of God’s love for us: “I am with you. When you wake in the morning and greet the day, brand new, a day you’ve never seen before, I am with you. When you set about your daily routine—at home, in the office, in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the gym—I am with you. When you sit to eat your meal—at a table for one, in the midst of a large family, in the din of a cafeteria, listening to the clinking of water glasses in a restaurant—I am with you. When you get a phone call, or an email, or a text message, or a letter that tells you terrible news, or wonderful news, I am with you. When you are sure your heart is breaking and can never, ever be mended again, I am with you,” says the Lord your God.

“When sitting in a committee meeting, or a session meeting, or a staff meeting, or a parent-teacher conference, or a town council meeting, I am with you. In passion’s embrace, in the heat of an argument, in asking forgiveness, in telling the truth, I am with you. When writing a letter to the editor, when laying down your pencil after taking the SAT’s, when talking to the nice officer, when talking to the emergency room doctor, I am with you. When you lay your weary head down on the pillow at night, whether your heart is filled with anxiety or gratitude, fear or love, I am with you.” This is what God promises, to each of us. This is what we take with us into every room, every situation, every relationship of our lives. This is our story, this is God’s promise: “I am with you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.