Sunday, June 19, 2016

The True Wisdom

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

A week or so ago, I sat in a few lectures by a neurobiologist (Tina Payne Bryson), who described how when we are healthy, we exist in a “river of well-being,” that flows between the banks of chaos on the one side and rigidity on the other. Sometimes we can get trapped, stuck on the bank of rigidity or of chaos, marooned out of well-being.

It seems to me this is a perfect description of our world today. We are generally either stuck on the bank of chaos: fear, reaction, mayhem, name-calling, flailing, finger pointing, blaming and frantically trying to get our feet underneath of us. Or we are stuck on the bank of rigidity, trying to control others, setting stricter rules and higher walls and bigger boundaries. Naming enemies, organizing factions, eliminating adversaries. Judging who is safe and who is dangerous, who is right and who is wrong, who is with us and who is against us.

Last week we talked about how easy it is to fall into factions – and how Paul warns the Corinthians about this temptation. And they had the obvious pitfalls they were trying to avoid falling into – wealth, class, race - but in striving to avoid those, they cooked up some new ways to divide themselves, whose crew are you? Which leader do you follow? because dividing ourselves from one another is one of the oldest, strongest and surest ways sin rears its ugly head.

We all belong to God and we all belong to each other.
All of us. All the humans. Without exception.
There is no more fundamental truth than this, nothing more real in all the world, actually.
But oh, how we doubt it and disguise it and deny it. How we cover it up with layers of interpretation and competition and hedging our bets and building our coalitions and hiding our true selves.

And soon this hunger for belonging - this absolutely core, unshakable reality that we yearn to feel because we know it in our depths as the truest thing and most real thing - soon it becomes something we commodify. We dole it out in tiny amounts, and sell to the highest bidder, we seek it relentlessly, addictively in harmful and dehumanizing ways. And we make it probationary, or provisional, shutting out some in order to welcome in others.

And this connection to God, this belonging to the very source of life, our identity, our purpose, our human-made-in-the-image-of-the-Creator-core-being – we long so badly for it that we set up rules to mediate it, to say who has it and who doesn’t and how to earn it and who can dispense it and what can make you lose it or gain it. And oh, the chaos and the rigidity we can strand ourselves upon in our efforts to gain or earn what already defines us!

We forget- in that deep existential kind of forgetting - that belonging to God and belonging to each other is something hidden before the foundations of the world, decreed before the ages for our glory, utterly true and unchanging. 

So here Paul goes again.
There are two wisdoms, friends. He says.
There is the wisdom of this age.  We’ve called it “the way of fear.” This wisdom tells us that might makes right. It says that salvation can be found in smart leaders, wise investments or the careful construction or dismantling of isms. It says we can be saved by weapons, or by legislating against weapons, by this candidate or that party, this act of piety or that specific prayer, this way of seeing the world or that list of beliefs.  It says that violence or moral rightness can force others to respect you, or can earn you worth or a place at the table.
And we put stock in that kind of wisdom, we pay money to it and educate our children in it and take it in through our televisions and computer screens and phones and radios, so many words: his words, her words, their words.

And like the dingy beam of a dying flashlight, we hold up this worldly wisdom before us, and we squint into the darkness, letting it guide us. And we’re killing each other. And we’re blaming each other. And we are finding more ways to divide into ever smaller and more homogenous camps, until there will be no belonging left and it will be just me against you – all the mes and all the yous against all the other mes and all the other yous. Despairing. Alone. Afraid.

But there is another wisdom.
Ancient and true. Secret and Hidden. Decreed by God before the ages.
The wisdom that spoke the world into being with a single word, the wisdom that bound it all in harmony and order, a delight to its creator, functioning in love and cooperation. The wisdom of the Word made flesh when the Creator of all came to dwell among us. Stupidly. Weakly. Foolishly, to live without power and to die alongside us, on our behalf.
There is no worldly wisdom in this. It is “the deeper magic from before the dawn of time”, as the Narnians would say. It is unbreakable and strong, absurd and powerful, and it comes concealed in weakness to stand with the weakest among us.

Paul was a Roman citizen from a prominent Jewish family, well-established with an impressive pedigree. He studied under the most prominent rabbis of the day, and was fluent in classical literature, philosophy and ethics. Paul was educated in the wisdom of the world. He was a successful, powerful, influential figure, and a zealot.  He knew how to speak the wisdom of the age, in the language of the rulers of the age.

But when he comes to the Corinthians, he chooses to leave all that behind. He sees it as a distraction, a shiny diversion that might keep people from seeing the real reality. I did not come with all the methods and the political skills of lofty words or persuasion. He says.  I came in weakness and fear, with much trembling. I wanted you to see God’s actions instead of focusing on my words -  So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.
In other words, he says, I vowed to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul uses this language -  Jesus Christ and him crucified, “the cross,” the foolishness of the cross, again and again, as a kind of shorthand to refer to The whole of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus- that is, that God came in this completely backwards, upside down way to share this life with us, taking all that separates us from God, even death itself, into God’s very being, and letting it destroy him. 
And then, Jesus rose from the dead and everything we thought was real about the power of death and division and destruction is exposed as utter fraud by the unquenchable light of the world, the wisdom hidden before the ages shining forth, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. It’s settled and final. 
We belong to God, we belong to each other; this is what Jesus trusted, and embodied, and died for and rose into and referred to again and again as ‘The Kingdom of God.’

And yet… and yet we choose sin. We choose self-protection and division and destruction and existential forgetting. We choose to tear others down and to fear, fear, fear that anything, everything, could tear us down.

And here is the free gift of salvation, friends. Right here: You belong to God. you belong to the rest of the people in this whole big world.  And they belong to God, and they belong to you. Fact. Done. All that is needed is to say yes. Yes, I accept that. Yes, I receive that.

Which wisdom will you live by?
Which words will you listen to?
Which messages will you internalize and let direct your actions, your thoughts and words and habits?

You, sisters and brothers, you have the mind of Christ. That is to say, Jesus who embodied completely belonging to God and to each other here on earth, whose Spirit actually inhabits us and makes us into his body here on earth so that we embody belonging to God and belonging to each other – this mind is our mind now.

We can think this way. We can trust in this. We can see it around us. We can recognize it and understand, as Paul says, “the gifts of God bestowed on us.” We can point it out and celebrate it. We can hold it up in the midst of the worst kind of suffering and despair. It should make us brave. Brave to face the truth. Brave to tell the truth. Brave to live the truth. This sucks! This hurts so bad! it’s terrible and I hate everything about it! And also, it’s not the end. It’s not the real, final, and true word about all of this or all of us. And right here, in the midst of it, we keep belonging to God and we keep belonging to each other.  Because that’s the real reality. And that will not change.

This neurobiologist also talked about the usefulness of storying experiences as a way of helping people cope with trauma, whether big or small, by telling what happened – saying it aloud, naming the feelings, recounting the events and then saying what happened next. Every story ends with some kind of redemption – even if it’s just, “and I survived,” or “and the community came around them in their loss,” whatever it is, the story doesn’t end with the incident of trauma. That is not the final definer of a person or of reality.
I saw this in action that very day when Theresa’s two-year-old Eleanor was on my deck on a sunny day, and she walked barefoot onto a black mat. She pulled her foot back and with tears streaming down her face she exclaimed, “That’s HOT! I burned my foot!"

“Oh Eleanor!” I said, and I picked her up and hugged her. I asked her where it hurt and I kissed it. We stood there feeling sad about it for a minute longer and then she noticed a bird flying past and commented on it. After a moment she turned her face to me, and pointed to the mat and said, “Tell the story.”

Thankfully, I had been in the lecture and knew what she wanted.

“Ellie walked over to that mat and she put her foot on it and it was HOT. It hurt so much! Eleanor cried and Aunty Kara picked her up and kissed the owie on her foot and asked her how she felt. Then we saw a bird flying right there.”  She nodded along. Her face pinched in sadness at the burning foot part and softening to a smile at the flying bird part.
She asked twice more for me to tell the story in the next few minutes, and twice more I recounted what happened. And each time I watched her body relax. Yes. Yes, that is what happened. It’s real. It happened. It still stings, but it can’t hurt me any longer. You are holding it with me; I am not alone.

And I thought of all the times we tell each other oh, it’s ok! When it’s not ok. 
Or we move on from the pain and try to avoid it. 
I thought of the wisdom that says if you don’t talk about how bad it is maybe they wont notice they’re hurt. Or the more pervasive move: their charged emotion feels threatening, and it’s making me uncomfortable and afraid, so I will do whatever I can to silence, redirect or change it. Be it flailing in chaos or bringing the hammer of rigidity down, I will escape this.

But if we belong to each other and we belong to God then there is nothing that happens to us that God doesn’t share.  And sharing it with each other is how we experience that. 
Pain? It’s uncomfortable. I will hold it with you and help you name it. 
Stuckness? Fear? Addiction? Anger? Worry? Loss? We are in this together. I will help you tell the story of it and you will help me remember that the story keeps going and doesn’t stop right here. 
But I don’t get to just jump to the end because it’s making me uncomfortable. I have to go with you through the experience and see and bear with you, because that is where Jesus is. Bearing with us, already. 
That is the wisdom of the Spirit  - that God doesn’t swoop in and sweep all of it off the table triumphantly, God sets a place for each person and sits down alongside us. God offers God’s very self to us, broken and given, so that we might be made whole.

None of the rulers of this age understand this.
And why should they? It makes no sense.
Its logic is love; its wisdom is Spiritual: It is the mind of Christ.

Biblical scholar Mary Hinkle Shore describes spiritual wisdom like a pair of lenses at an eye exam, where click, click, click, suddenly the fuzzy blur is sharp and clear, the chart in focus. You can see what was there all along, only obscured by the various lenses that interpreted it for you. She then manages to sum up the whole of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians when she explains: “The actions of those with the mind of Christ will be characterized by self-giving love. The leaders will act as servants (3:5). The strong will refrain from exercising their freedom at the expense of the weak (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). Love will prove greater than prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (13:8).”
And then she concludes, “To have the mind of Christ is to be able to imagine the new creation and participate in it before it has come into focus for others. And as God’s Spirit calls and equips the church for that imagining and participating, the new creation actually comes into focus for the world.”

Here’s the really good news about all this. It remains true whether you remember it or not. Whether you look for it or embody it or whether you’re stranded on the banks of rigidity or chaos, this fact remains: there is a real reality. There is a deeper wisdom. There is a truer truth: We belong to God. We belong to each other.

So this week, amidst whatever chaos and bedlam, or intolerant rigidity you may encounter outside or within, I invite you to stop, breathe, and listen to the stories underneath. The ones that say, this sucks, and it hurts, and I feel alone and afraid.  Don’t turn away from those stories; take them in and bear them, Jesus is there. You belong to these people and they belong to you. 
Tell their stories to yourself and add the parts that come next.
Our faith rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God, so watch for that power in the midst of the suffering parts and in the parts that come next – the helpers, the sharers, see the people embodying love and connection, hope and belonging, living the real reality right alongside and in the midst of whatever and everything.

Watch for the wisdom established before the foundation of the world – the Kingdom of God. It plays out mostly in weak, gentle and surprising ways, but it is steady, persistent, real.  Underneath and behind and inside everything, this reality is the heartbeat that keeps the whole world alive: 
we belong to God; we belong to each other. 
We belong to God; we belong to each other.
We belong to God; we belong to each other.
Let it pulse through you.  
Let it bring you back to life.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Path of Least Resistance

Maisy’s best friend Elsa was over the other day, the two of them alternately building a space ship out of boxes and stabling horses in the great wide ranch of our backyard.  Into the middle of their limitless imagination dropped some real world advice when Elsa sagely observed, “Maisy, watch your thoughts, because they become your words, and your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character and your character becomes your destiny.”
“Ok.” Maisy responded. And they continued mucking out the dirty stalls.

Andy and I looked at each other and grinned.  But Elsa’s words have echoed in my head this week thinking about Paul’s exasperated words to the Corinthians.

We are bombarded with the message, from very young childhood on, that it is me against the world. We are trained in self-protection, competition, honing our herding instinct.  So we congregate with those we know, those we have something in common with.

I know I do this. I show up at an event and I look for my friends. If my friends aren’t there, I look for someone I know. Barring that, I look for other moms, women, people around my age.  We seek out those that appear to be most like ourselves. I heard a social scientist this week describe it as “the path of least resistance.” We know those like us, they’re familiar. It’s easy, intuitive. But with people different than me, I have to work. I have to extend myself differently, to listen and pay attention. I have to draw on different stories than the shared stories, different assumptions than the shared assumptions, different awareness than the easy non-thinking groove I can get into with those of my “group.”  Left to our own devices, we might try to get away with living our whole lives on the path of least resistance.  Thoughts, words, actions, habits, character… and so it goes.

We are so immersed in this way of seeing and functioning in the world that we import it into the church. We forget, and not just at a mental level but deep in our being – in our habits and our unthought actions, we fall back on the path of least resistance even when we are consciously trying to live otherwise.

The Corinthian church was a congregation of dozens, not hundreds. And perhaps they were a bit like us –when people ask if we have a 3rd grade Sunday school class or a young, single adult ministry or something fancy and specific like that, I sometimes tell them that we’re more like “one of everything,” all together in community.

They too had just a few of everything. The church at Corinth was smallish, with an astonishing range of cultural, religious and socioeconomic diversity: slaves, free people, Jews, gentiles, wealthy, poor, men, women, no one “group” in charge, all fully involved in the life of the church and serving in church leadership. With all these groups represented, on the one hand, it was a little cross-section of the cosmopolitan port city of Corinth, a microcosm of life in their larger community. 
But on the other hand it was the opposite - a little cross-section of the Kingdom of God, a microcosm of life where all are One in Christ Jesus, valued and honored, where the labels used in society to define and restrict people had no power to sum up or limit them from full belonging and participation.
Out there, things were one way, as though it was a fact that some were better than others, and that differences defined their worth and roles.
But when they came together, when they crossed the threshold into wherever they were gathered that day, or encountered each other on the street the next, they saw sister, brother, equal, child of God, fellow believer, friend.

We are one in Christ Jesus.  The labels and categories we use every day to rank and divide and separate and compare, in the truth’s unflinching light they are exposed as lies.  We all belong to God.  We all belong to each other.
Corinthians: You’ve believed this. This is changing you. You are glad to be church with each other.  You are forming a community around new shared stories, shared assumptions, shared awareness.  The message of Pentecost has penetrated your hearts and has transformed you – one faith, one baptism, one Body. All are welcome at the table, and you’re on board with that message. Done and Amen.

But when you show up, where do you sit?  
Who do you chat with about your annoying boss or your teething baby, your citizenship application or your brand new boat? 
Who do you call when your embarrassing heap of a car breaks down again?  
Who do you ask to watch your kids in a pinch?
Path of least resistance: Find someone like you. 

Sin is insidious, and it doesn’t stop at the front door to the church building, or the edge of conscious thought. The Corinthians are aware of the obvious trip wires (though, as well see later, that doesn’t stop them from stumbling over those either). They are consciously already doing the work to see and accept one another despite society’s overt divisions of rank and race and class and gender; that is on their radar.  
It might even be what compelled many of them about the gospel to begin with, what brought them to this community in the first place – the shocking witness of God’s love in seeing human beings blatantly disregarding what seemed to be set-in-stone distinctions, facts about who people are and what they are worth, instead these people welcome each other freely and wholly.

But nevertheless, thoughts, words, actions, habits, character… the path of least resistance…
Being intentional about seeing each other takes work, whereas falling into factions is effortless.  And if the regular possibilities are clearly not options, then a tantalizing new division prospect arises: Whose crew are you?
I was converted by Paul.
Appollos was my Evangelist, his stuff is better; you should hear the guy preach!
Cephas is the best, actually. I belong to his way of thought.
Look how petty you all are! I belong to Christ.

Sin – as Paul will blast them for in many other forms later – Sin is that internal bent to separate ourselves from God and each other, and even our very true selves. To silo and bunker. To hunker and protect.  To compare and compete. To degrade and destroy. And sin doesn’t often look like blatantly terrible stuff. It often hides inside pretty good stuff. Loyalty, camaraderie, carefulness, ease and support.

I recently saw an encouragement to fiction writers that said something along the lines of, “You can never write a true villain until you understand how he is the hero of his own story.” We are all heroes of our own story; we all think our motives good, right and true.

One of the hardest and greatest gifts of community, of relationship with other people, is what these Corinthians are in the process of finding out: it holds up a giant mirror. This mirror reveals that we are not all good, our motives are not all right and true.  Being in community exposes the places where our own inability to see ourselves and the world honestly makes us collaborators in behaviors we’d never overtly choose. 

It strips off the layers and the lies and forces us to see how our actions impact others, how, even despite our good intentions, our thoughts or words or habits might, in fact, separate us from God and each other. 
In other words, being in this together with others reveals our sin.

But, by the grace of God’s foolish wisdom, revealing sin’s hold on us creates the possibility for death and new life to emerge.  Being in relationship with others who are not identical clones of ourselves creates the fertile ecosystem for God’s truth to bloom and grow, because where there is offense, there is also the possibility of forgiveness. 
Where there is pain, there's the bearing of that pain with each other, and healing. 
Where confession, there’s grace. 
Where honesty and heartbreak, there’s true, shared joy.  
It is here, in community, that the Kingdom of God is tangible, that the real reality can be experienced: that everyone is a precious child of God; we all belong to God and we all belong to each other.

The Corinthians’ keep mixing the way of fear with the way of God, falling back into paths of least resistance, that make us behave as though others are objects or barriers instead of sisters or brothers, or that God favors certain of us over others. 
And as we will see going forward in this letter, Paul has no problem, over and over again, calling out specifically where he sees them ruled by the messages of the dominant culture, and calling them back to the true community of Christ.

In his opening telling-off, Paul is calling the Church in Corinth to be vigilant about divisions. To notice the seemingly innocuous way divisions creep in and invade, and then dig them out before they take root in our thoughts and our words and actions and habits. 

We can testify to what it looks like when they take root.
We could show Paul what happens centuries later when good things like loyalty, camaraderie, carefulness, ease and support cover for the path of least resistance, and actions become habits become character.
The Church today often defines itself by factions and litmus tests that allow us to claim that while we may be one in Christ, some of us are closer to Christ than others, you know who you are.
How long, I wonder, would it take him to notice how much more welcoming and gracious we are to those outside the Church than we are to each other?  Paul, Appollos, Cephas, conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, progressive, Evangelical, Mainliner, who do you belong to?  
We are not that kind of Christian, or the more subtle, This is the kind of Christians we are.  (finger pointing strongly implied).
Has Christ been divided?
Was Evangelicalism crucified for you?
Were you baptized in the name of the progressives?

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, Paul writes, to be united in the same mind and the same purpose!  
To be one body, to be united in the same mind and the same purpose, is a great and intimidating prospect, but it is also the most true thing, the real true thing.  And yet, we treat it is as impossible. We act as though our divisions and factions are more powerful definers of us than Jesus Christ and the wisdom of the cross’s foolishness.

But this is God’s Church.  
WE are God’s Church.  
One in Christ Jesus.

Being One in Christ Jesus doesn’t mean having the same faith heritage or the same theological tradition; it doesn’t mean liking the same music or way of praying, it doesn’t mean believing exactly the same things, even, or living out your faith in exactly the same ways.  
It means, trusting Jesus Christ, who claims and forgives and transforms, and who calls the whole human race back to God and back to each other.
It means being led and compelled by the Spirit who makes unity real among us, and draws us into deeper truth, 
and deeper faithfulness, 
and deeper letting go of the lies we hang on to protect and divide ourselves, 
and deeper connection with God and each other.
It means knowing we are all in this together: sister, brother, equal, fellow believer, child of God, friend, knowing that despite all the many differences between us, the love of Christ is at the very core of each of us.  
In other words, as Paul would say, it means being united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Falling into factions is effortless. 
Being intentional about seeing each other takes work.  

But our unity is not just so we get along. 
It is actually a defiant promise to a world steeped in division and feeding on factions.  
In the face of entrenched tribalism, and stomach-turning animosity, unity is a fragrant taste of truth, a clean glimpse of the real reality. 
It is hope.

You are going to hear these phrases a lot this summer: the kingdom of God, the real reality, the big picture, the truth that we all belong to God and we all belong to each other. 
Because the whole book is a letter Paul writes to a church community dealing very directly and practically with how to be Church, and how to remember whose they are and who they are.  
He breaks it down. He gets mad, he rambles, he loses his train of thought sometimes, but this message keeps getting pounded home – You belong to God. You belong to each other. Your living this truth is a vivid witness to the world.

The Spirit who now shapes and defines them as Body of Christ gives them new shared story, shared assumptions, and shared awareness. These are the thoughts, words, actions, and habits that Paul is wanting to cultivate in the Corinthians, and that we will be actively cultivating together this summer.

May we take to heart the gift of being in world-witnessing, faction-busting, sin-exposing, pain-sharing, hope-trumpeting, truth-telling community with one another, One in Christ Jesus. May we welcome the Spirit’s work in and through us.