1 Corinthians 16 (all if it, but especially vs. 13-14)
Last weekend Andy got a bug to clean out the basement storage area, and he plunged right in. I didn’t realize it was happening until I heard the dragging, thumping and banging, and the occasional shout of an unintelligible swear word that comes when something gets pinched or whacked, a sure sign in my house that a construction job of sorts is well under way. By the time I came down to investigate, tubs of baby clothes and Easter baskets, a treestand and a typewriter, empty luggage and over a dozen full boxes of college and grad school notes were pulled out of storage and piled around the playroom, and he was dismantling the shelving piece by piece. It’s been ten years since those walls have seen the light of day, and there was some work to do to get everything “back up to code.”
In the midst of the chaos, I poked around in a box or two and found some old journals of mine, which I carried upstairs and spent some time reading this week.
These journals are funny and sad, boring and captivating. There are things I remember differently than I wrote about them and things I didn’t remember at all. I felt strongly about some things that don’t matter to me anymore, and some of my thoughts and beliefs that have changed a lot. There were dilemmas I was in the middle of that found resolution, and prayers written in great longing that I can look back on now and see clear answers to. Mostly, I marveled at how open and transparent I was with God. Each entry is addressed to God because journaling was, for most of my life, my primary way of praying. There is celebration and gratitude, anger and frustration, confusion and doubt, seeking, wondering, doing the best I could, failing and learning. My life unfolding in connection to God.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Bible is a kind of scrapbook of faith, the story of those who’ve gone before and their unfolding connection to God. The Psalms are like journals written to God, honest and rejoicing, struggling and angry. There are and letters and lists, poetry and prose, so many different and diverse individuals and communities and God’s relationship with humanity in the midst of their real life. All of it pointing us to: Who is this God? And what is God up to?
I love this closing chapter of 1 Corinthians that we have before us today simply because it’s so weird. We don’t know what to do with it – it’s not in any lectionary; I have never heard any sermons or read any commentaries on 1 Corinthians 16. It’s just so darn ordinary. It’s the end of a letter, Tell so and so I said hi. Be nice to so and so when they come, they can be a little annoying. I keep trying to get so and so to visit but he is being stubborn about it. I guess he’ll come when he’s good and ready. I really miss you. I am planning to come but want to stay a long time and not just pass through. All these other people say hi and hang in there, they’re praying for you.
It’s so obviously pedestrian that I get a little bit of awe - like finding a baby picture of your grandma, or pictures of ancient artifacts of dinner dishes buried in an Egyptian tomb – it makes me stop suddenly, struck with the awareness that we’re all just ordinary people. They were just living their life. This chapter of 1 Corinthians says, This really is a letter; these people’s struggles and questions were real, their longings and their mistakes, their hopes and their dreams, their arguments and their bad habits – they were really wanting to follow Christ and live the faith alongside each other. And so they wrote and received letters.
And all that we’ve seen Paul talk to them about in this letter – scolding, encouraging, frustrated and joyful – had an impact in their community- their actual lives were changed by this letter.
Paul blasting them for dividing themselves over who they first heard the gospel from – Has Christ been divided? Was Paul baptized for you? And admonishing them to be vigilant about rooting out division in all the insidious and subtle ways it creeps in… Someone received those words and felt convicted. Somebody thought, “He’s talking about me! What have I done?” And then they had to talk about it and forgive each other, and new ways of relating were established because of what he wrote to them.
And when Paul talks about the true wisdom –that we all belong to God and we all belong to each other- that God came in weakness to share suffering and not in might to save the perfect and the powerful, it goes so radically against the world’s wisdom and logic that they needed to keep hearing it again and again and again. I wonder if that portion of the parchment was worn thin, read over and over, passed around and discussed in hushed tones and wonder.
Paul noted how – even perhaps accidentally – their meals together leading up to the Lord’s Supper were not reflecting the true communityof God. They were held in a rich person’s home and rich folks came first and sat in the best spot and ate their fill before the slaves got off work and the poor people made their way on foot. And even though they said, and believed, they were all in this together, this meal in here looked a lot like the lies out there. So he said, Don’t you dare sit down to this meal – don’t you lift that bread or cup - without first seeing your brother and sister alongside you, really seeing them. And really seeing yourself- all of you, sinners in need of forgiveness, and saints sharing in the holy healing work of God.
And then they had to go have a communion together after reading this! They had to suddenly hold off the food until everyone got there. Stop the ones who started eating too soon. Figure out a new place to meet maybe, or a different time of day, that shifted the power dynamics. Notice where they were sitting, who was being greeted first, and ask themselves if it reflected the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of God? They had to see their sin – their separation from God and each other- to own it and repent for it, to see each other and try things a different way.
And then, when he talks all about them being all one body, all different – each with gifts just as valuable as each others – and that it is love that makes the whole thing move, what did that feel like to read? Did it make them look inside at how they had discounted their own contributions, or look around and see for the first time the profound impact of the quiet ones, and the generous ones, and the hidden ones who don’t get noticed but, it turns out, hold the whole place together?
Did they find themselves growing in love for one another, when they realized love isn’t something they can muster or perfect; it can only be received and shared? How did it feel to acknowledge their weakness and celebrate each other’s strengths? How did look to own their blaming, boasting, critiquing and jealousy, and deliberately let love be the true guiding force within everything they did or said?
And then the death part- the part of the letter Paul saves for last – that part about how Jesus’ resurrection means that death no longer has the final say about life –and that death is not, in fact, the end. That the sting of death is sin – it’s power to separate us from God and each other, to degrade and destroy and stunt a hope and a future – that that power is taken up in Christ Jesus and defeated, so that one day there will be no more suffering, and all that is wrong will be made right. And in the meantime, Christ has died, Christ has been raised, death’s say is temporary, and the conclusion of everything is God’s love. How was that for them to hear? These people who were struggling to make sense of all this? To let this bizarre claim that Jesus was raised from the dead actually shape them? How did it impact their regular lives – their sleep, their waking hours, their work and their prayer, the way they treated each other, the way they saw their own bodies and futures, when they began to see that the final word over it all is not death, but life? Did it make them braver? More open? Did it give them a new lens to see the world around them - precious to God and being redeemed?
And beyond all this, the letter is filled with so many more particularities that we didn’t get into this summer- real world problems and questions these people struggled with, and in response to them all Paul keeps hammering home these truths –You belong to God and to each other, everyone is valuable, quit finding ways to separate yourselves from each other and from God, that is sin. The love of God endures forever and it claims you – you can live bravely instead of fearfully, you can use your gifts to contribute to the well-being of everyone, you can seek God, and be honest about your weakness and your need for forgiveness, you can celebrate with each other and grieve with each other because God’s love holds you, and now defines you, and you can trust in this love, because it will never ever end.
Imagine receiving that message by courier, and cracking it open! And not just in generalities, but in the very situations you had found yourself mired in! The very places you were doubting God’s love, breaking connection with each other, struggling to understand, wishing you were seen. Imagine what a gift, and a challenge, these words would be!
Right now this little diverse community, in all our quirks and oddities, is gathered here, and we come with all different burdens and worries, or own questions, struggles and situations.
We’re in the midst of transitions – and even good change is almost always both hopeful and fearful. We are so excited to be soon officially acknowledging Lisa’s calling as a pastor to this congregation, believing that by her sermons and visits, her teaching and her care, God will keep leading us to love each other more and seek Christ in all things.
But also lots of people around the country have been waiting for Lisa to be ordained for a really long time, and suddenly, for a short time, a lot of attention will be on our little congregation. And I feel protective, a bit, of the gift that it is to be in this Jesus-following thing with each other, and the faithfulness with which we try to share each others’ burdens and joys, and seek God together. And I don’t want that to be overshadowed or swallowed by other people’s perceptions and noise.
Along with this, after eight years, my job is changing a bit to include writing. And some people here might feel anxious that it means I wont be as available, or that my focus or attention will drift away from this community. And I feel anxious that people feel anxious about that. Because I love this church, and I love being your pastor, and I am completely committed to you.
And at the same time I feel both grateful, and nervous, that this calling to write about what God is doing in our lives, in my life, is being recognized by session as part of the ministry God is doing here. And in the middle of all that anxiety and hope, as one person said, “We will have to trust God and trust each other.”
And we all have questions we would ask Paul if we could.
We wrestle with our voice and our role as Christians, and frankly, humans, in the midst of a vitriolic election season.
We struggle with how to parent our kids or support our grandkids in a break-neck paced world with competing voices everywhere.
We’re faced with our own mortality and weakness in half a dozen different ways.
We see violence and hatred around us, and fear seems like a more effective, or at least more prevalent, response than love.
Change is scary and life is hard, and it all makes us sometimes doubt what we trust in, and fall back on the wisdom of the world, the always available way of fear: hunker down and divide, compare and rank, hide your real self for fear of judgment, judge others, count your money, horde your resources, build up your boundaries, and let suspicion and apprehension speak louder than faith, hope and love.
I wish Paul’s letter was written right to us. That we could read it addressed right to our own circumstances…
But that’s the power of scripture, beloveds, because it is.
We believe the Holy Spirit speaks right to us, through these words written in a letter long ago to an ordinary group of people who were learning how to live in the freedom of Christ. What God wants us to know and trust and see and change comes to us through their experience, because we too are an ordinary group of people learning how to live in the freedom of Christ. God was with them. God is with us. These words are to them. These words are to us.
So after all these weeks we’ve lived with the messages of this book, watching how they interact with our lives, helping us ask, Who is this God, and what is God up to? In our world, in our hearts, in our homes, in our relationships and our questions, I love that in this last, rambling chapter, Paul leaves this nugget:
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.
And so I will hold that in front of us today. Sisters and brothers:
Keep alert: Stay open, pay attention.
Stand firm in your faith: hold to what you know to be true.
Don’t back away from your trust in God.
Be courageous: Give it all you’ve got. Speak up, reach out.
Be strong: resolute, tenacious and steadfast.
And let all you do be done in love. Everything. Every word spoken, every action taken. Love is meant to be what holds us together and propels us forward, it is the lifeblood of it all.
I am thankful to the Corinthians for all their screw-ups. I am thankful they had the courage to write and ask their questions. And that they really longed to love each other, and that they really sought to turn their whole lives toward God. Because their experience of God and life together shapes our experience of God and life together.
And I am thankful for the people in this room. I am thankful for all of our own questions and struggles, and our longing to love well and our seeking to turn our whole lives towards God. Because your experience of God and life shape my experience of God and life.
And so it continues.