Friday, January 28, 2011

To us who are being saved

Epiphany 4A - January 30, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Have you ever had a radical realignment, a perceptual shift where everything changes?

We've stopped talking about the conversion of Paul because of the way "conversion" suggests a change of religion. According to Paul himself, he never ceased to be a Jew, and at the time, there was no "Christianity" to convert to.

But it is clear that something happened to turn him around. We don't know much about where or how it happened - but we can see his movement. Saul the persecutor took on the role of persecuted. His encounter with God led this Pharisee to embrace the illegal (un-kosher) and un-holy, and accept the "pollution," the shame, the outcast status, and the physical suffering that came with this change.

In his letters, Paul repeatedly talks about the radical, earthshaking, transformative nature of the change. Here he stresses the perverse revelation of God, whose coming is seen not in immense power, but in weakness, whose wisdom looks like complete foolishness.

Have you ever seen those so-called "optical illusions," which can be seen in more than one way? Like the picture to the right, most people first see the picture one way. It requires some looking, some work, some change, for your eye and brain working together to notice the picture may be perceived quited differently. Is it a chalice, or two faces?

It seems to me that the Apostle is now seeing the world differently than he did before. Nothing much changes in the world when God's revelation comes. Jesus was not the first nor the last child of God to be nailed to a cross, not by a long shot.

But for those who are being saved, the world, seen through Jesus Christ and God's scandalous righteousness, is turned upside down.

One suspects that God's revelation to Paul was not a dramatic, one-time event, even given Paul's own description of his vision of heaven and Acts' story of his Damascus journey. Once that first shift occurs (when you now see the chalice, or the faces, when you realize that no continent has any better claim for being "on top" of the world), your location changes. You cannot go back to seeing just the chalice.

This is not something that happened once to a long-dead apostle. Paul describes God's process of on-going revelation and on-going transformation of the world.

The repressive regimes represented by the Iron Curtain seemed too strong to topple. But in the 1980s small cracks appeared - in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in Hungary, in the Soviet Union. And at a certain point, people looked around and said "The emperor has no clothes. It's possible. It's time." Most of this change took place without violence, as millions of people saw at more or less the same time that what was solid was now shifting.

And so today. As people throughout the world look at their governments and institutions and see the always fragile nature of authoritarian power, we pray that people reach firmly and peacefully for freedom, in Tunisia, in Egypt, and elsewhere. We know that God's call to justice and righteousness is too often resisted with spilled blood. Yet we are awed at the witness of those praying and demonstrating in the face of police and military opposition, and still more at places where demonstrators and police have stopped their confrontation to share water and prayer.

Paul knew that once you experience a new vision of what God is doing in the world, of what is now possible, while nothing is different, everything is changed.

But it is critically important to him that the change be directed by God. The moment of revelation is not "game over," but "game on." The new perception, the new reality, calls us to take responsibility for where we are going and what we are doing not just with our own lives, but with the world around us.

Paul is encouraging his listeners to recognize, to remember, to realize what God is doing with them. He knows how easily we are misled by our own desires. Our best desires - for God, for our ideals - may be even more susceptible to error. Our wisdom is likely to be foolishness, and our delusions of power are not solid.

This is why Paul, while he may not be able to change his "stripes," his Jewishness, his personality, his zealousness, he can change his location, his orientation. "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are," so that we may receive God's righteousness and sanctification and redemption. This can't come from Rome, or Jerusalem, or Cairo, or Washington - only from God. And until we turn God-wards, we will be looking for salvation in all the wrong places.

The great good news is that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1:18). We have the benefit of almost two thousand years of trying to get our minds around this notion - and it is still foreign.

But the message of the cross is simple. God stands with the persecuted. God stands with the forsaken. God's love for the world will never be extinguished, not by the worst tyrant, not by the most despotic regime, not even by the failings of God's ragtag people. That message only makes sense to those who are being saved...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We do big things

The commentators are so totally not going to get this. Amazing, and a very odd moment in American oratory. I think people were paying attention, while Obama said things that were hard to disagree with in a way that confounded the folks in "the Chamber." The folks in "the Chamber" (the Congress, the 24-hour media "echo chamber," the Chamber of Commerce?) didn't quite know how to react. It was Sober. Most of this plays very well outside the Beltway, and on my block. A lot of folks will listen to this. Amazing! We do big things.

Did you hear that?!? Veto earmarks? Remove oil subsidies? (I've seldom heard less applause for more popular ideas.)

Did you hear that? No retreat on health care. You got an idea? Put it out there baby!

Did you hear that? Dream Act on the one hand.. Let's talk "illegal immigration" on the other. I dare you... let's do immigration...

Freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years? Say what? You think any Congress will do this? I dare you... mess with my budget...

Did I mention tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?

"This year...we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America’s commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end."

One big question... Afghanistan... Missing is the plan for that war coming to an end.

And God, bless 'em, "Plan B," guts and ingenuity and the miracle. We do big things.

We do big things.

Text of President Obama's State of the Union Address, January 26, 2011.

Monday, January 17, 2011

No divisions?

Epiphany 3A - January 23, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

No divisions!?!

For Christ’s sake, how do you expect that to happen?
Perhaps we don’t. In our daily lives, we constantly see real differences and divisions. All the current rhetoric about political divisions touches on the real fact that people have different opinions, beliefs, and interests. Personally, the markers of difference are part of our identity. And many of these are pretty important – we will not give them up or set them aside lightly.

Ordinarily we think of these differences as the things which make us who we are. They define where we are in the world and who we are related to others.

Divided Loyalties (artist unknown)

This may have been even more acute in first century Corinth, where everything depended on who you were with. It mattered if you were with Cephas, or Apollos, or Paul. In the society it mattered whose family who were part of, since your family’s (and its head, its father) wealth, power, and influence determined your wealth, power, and influence. It mattered which city you belonged to, since each city had its own laws and privileges. It mattered if you belonged to Rome (were a Roman citizen), to Jerusalem (capitol of a conquered nation within the empire), or to the "barbarian" tribes beyond the empire’s control.

Unity was found in this context of banding together against the next family, city, nation... "I belong to... " was a powerful statement. (Even when it was forced upon you by your owner.)

It may sound a bit puzzling that Paul criticizes even those who say "I belong to Christ." Haven’t they got it right?

No. They may have the right name, but the wrong spirit. The problem is not that they have different household in faith, but that they are quarreling. This points out that they lack the kind of unity which Paul presumes is a fruit of belonging to Christ.

This is not union in everything. Paul’s apostleship is in fact built on allowing, but disregarding many of the differences which the surrounding world saw as important. Foreskin or circumcised? No difference. Slave or free? No difference. Man or woman? No difference – in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27-29). Clothing yourself with Christ does not erase our differences, but it does cover them, set them aside, put them in a new context.

Paul does not ask that the Corinthians be identical – only that they cease to work at cross purposes, and instead work for cross purposes. They are to stop working against one another (through competitiveness, quarreling, and maintaining imperial divisions in their fellowship - 1 Cor 11). Instead, they are to work together by emulating Christ’s radical upset of the world’s power relationships.

We will hear more about this next week, or just by reading a little further in this letter (the foolishness of the cross and the power of God), but for now let’s simply lift up that unbelievable idea that "there be no divisions among" the church at Corinth.

Paul’s apostleship is marked by transformation by his encounter with Christ, and his presumption is that the same kind of radical change will take place in the people and communities who encounter Christ through preaching, baptism, and the Holy Spirit. But let’s use his own image to think about the kind of unity Paul is preaching.

The new people gathered together around the cross of Christ and sharing Christ in their communal life are a body, the body of Christ in the world (1Cor 10-12). The body has many parts. They do not look alike or act alike. They do not even always move in the same direction. Look at a runner – arms and legs pumping, as one goes back, the other goes forward. All the various part of the body are joined together and they work together to move the whole body forward.

"All of you be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." This is directed not at identity, but at mission. Division is to be avoided because Christ has called us together, into a body, to accomplish God's purpose in the world.

No divisions!?!

For Christ’s sake is exactly how that happens.


See also John Meade, "What is Church Division?" (2007) for a discussion of New Testament language on "division."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Prayer for Haiti

Lord God, as the earth moved one year ago in Haiti, move the hearts and hands of your people throughout the world, that we may remember the people of Haiti with our prayers, with our hearts and our words, and with our actions.

Lord God, as the earth shook one year ago in Haiti, we ask that you shake the powers of this world. Shake loose some money, that it may fall upon Haiti, not just on the corrupt class, but upon those living in tents and on the streets, that it may make a difference in their lives. Shake up the structures of power which seek to exploit Haiti, shake out corruption within and without Haiti, and shake aside obstacles to adequate food and shelter, health care, safety from violence.

And, Lord God, we tremble to ask that you also shake the people of Haiti, gently we pray, that they may band together to keep working and fighting with love for justice in their land.

Bless the land of Haiti, and keep it and its people ever in your care, through Jesus Christ, bloodied, crucified, yet risen now and forevermore. Amen.


Friday, January 7, 2011

God is great!

There is always a place for hope.

On New Years Day, a bomb, possibly from a suicide attacker, exploded in front of a Coptic Christian church as a crowd of worshippers emerged from a New Years Mass. At least 21 people were killed and nearly 80 wounded. The attack came in the wake of threats by al-Qaida militants in Iraq to attack Egypt’s Christians (Al Hayat wa Dounia newspaper).

Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

And then - a Christmas miracle.

Last night, thousands of Egyptian Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve services offering their bodies as "human shields," making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife (Ahram online).
Egyptian Muslim women displaying cross and crescent
together in support of their Coptic neighbors

May God, who is one, who is all-knowing, who is all-merciful, who is peace, guide and support and sustain and protect the people of Egypt in their desire for brotherhood and peace. Restrain the hands of any who contemplate violence, and bless the land with the courage and hope of all who live for peace, for the sake of all your people. Amen.

We are inspired and blessed by the faithful witness of Egyptians to stand together against violence and for one another. May God bless the Coptic church and Egyptian Muslims. You give the world hope.

Monday, January 3, 2011

To the church of God

Epiphany 2A - January 16, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the appointed second reading for most of the Sundays in Epiphany, with Year A containing portions of the early chapters (1-4), Year B the middle chapters (6-9), and Year C some of the later chapters (12-15).

The interpreter has some basic choices to make in approaching these texts. The letters are intensely personal and address very specific concerns of Paul and the assembly of believers in Corinth. One approach to their interpretation is to try and understand this context as well as possible. In drawing conclusions about what faithfulness looked like in that setting, we might have an idea of what faithfulness looks like in similar circumstances.

Another approach may look at the historical setting of the letter, yet recognizes that the letter now has a canonical context. The church has made use of this text in ways which go well beyond its original setting.

These reflections will focus more on the latter approach, using the basic outlines of the historical setting to inform how the text speaks to congregations and believers today. While the issues faced by the Corinthian church are not exactly the same as those in current congregations, the broad issues may be recognizable: power and authority in the community, exercising spiritual gifts, idolatry and the relationship to non-godly powers in daily life, intra-community conflict.

In the church today, we also chop these letters up into pieces, reading only a short segment in each worship service, rather than hearing the whole letter at a sitting, as if it were sent direct from the apostle to us. Most preachers will thus try to stick close to the words and ideas contained in each reading, since the congregation will have only heard that portion.

Having read the whole letter, one can then go back to the initial salutation for clues or signs about Paul’s overall proclamation. In the opening salutation of First Corinthians, the Apostle briefly foreshadows themes that he will come back to:
  + The transformative nature of Christ’s call (“to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints,” v2);
  + The unity of the whole church: the Corinthians are not isolated in their faith, but are “(together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” v2);
  + His own authority to teach, to encourage, to chastise (“called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” v1);
  + The grace of God, which is manifested in spiritual gifts given to the Corinthian church and its members (v4-7);
  + Faithfulness in preparation for the time of Christ’s return (“that you may be blameless,” v8);
  + And perhaps most important, reemphasizing the call of Christ to all believers, which is rooted in the proclamation that “God is faithful” (v9).

Each of these points is a starting point for preaching, and might be rephrased in the form of questions. What does Christ's call mean in our lives? How does fellowship in Christ connect us to other members of his body? What does it take for us to exercise the authority given us - how do we "step up" to God's call? How are we enriched in Christ? What are, and how are we using our spiritual gifts?

One of these will usually jump out and call to the preacher as a lively issue for this time and community.

I think that central to Paul was this last point - that God is faithful, even when we are not. God's grace calls to us even when we are most alienated from God. Recalling, for example, that time when he was a persecutor of the church, and God called him out, and into a new life of mission and blessing... As we read through the Corinthian letter, Paul is most unhappy with how they have gone astray, and locates this problem principally in people's failure or inability to trust in the redeeming power of God. This is an opportunity to be in touch with those times when we have felt abandoned by God, or been unable to trust in God's faithfulness and care.

Paul has been there, and will go on in this letter to preach Christ crucified, the way God has turned the world upside down. Yet without abandoning God's promise of care for God's own.

For other resources for preaching this text, see

Thanks to Rev. Elsa L. Clark for helping me think about this text.