Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Labor Day Sermon

This weekend I was again privileged to spend Sunday morning with the people of St. Michael's-on-the-Heights in Worcester. I asked them to switch the readings for the day, from the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost to the propers for Labor Day. My sermon was focused on I Corinthians 3:10-14

Corinth, for anyone who may be wondering, is located on an isthmus about 85 kilometers west of Athens. I Google-mapped it this week! Since my internal metric-converter isn’t very good, I also found a website where I could convert kilometers to miles. All of this under the category of sermon prep time! So, in American English – Corinth—what the locals call Korinthos—is just about 50 miles west of Athens. You can drive it in 56 minutes.

I read once, somewhere, that one in five Americans can’t find the United States on a map of the world, so maybe this information doesn’t mean very much. But this being a particularly astute congregation, I’m sure at least 4 out of 5 here today could pick out Europe on a world map, and from there it’s not too hard to find Italy (the boot) - then you just go to the right of that and you’re in Greece. Athens is more or less in the middle.  

There are no direct flights from Logan Airport to Athens, but there is a flight from Logan to JFK leaving at 11:30 this morning, and then a direct flight at 4:30 p.m. on Delta to Athens. Yes, today. If we could get to JFK this afternoon, then we could all be in Athens at 9:40 a.m. local time tomorrow - where we could rent a car at the airport and start driving west. If everything went smoothly we could be eating souvlaki for lunch in Korinthos, followed by little nap by the pool.

The travel advice comes free of charge today. I begin here, though, because I think that sometimes when we open the Bible - especially when we are sitting in church – and then we hear someone say “the Word of the Lord” (and we say “thanks be to God”)—there is some part of us that can forget that that Word was first written to real people in a particular place at a particular time. Sometimes we imagine “Bible-land” as a kind of fairy tale land where people wore long-flowing robes and talk with bad Elizabethan accents.  

But while the Scriptures no doubt carry a timeless and transcendent meaning, they also have a real-world context. Before they made it into the Bible, Paul’s letters were just that: letters written in Greek, to his friends in Corinth and other equally real places like Rome and Galatia and Ephesus. He wrote to real people serving on the vestry and on the mission committee. He wrote to real people who were trying to live out their faith as best they could in a changing world, people who had real struggles and real conflicts. While it has no doubt changed a lot in two thousand years in all of the ways you would expect things to change, I think just being in Korinthos and breathing in that sea air and feeling that awareness of our own foreignness would significantly change the way we hear Paul’s letters.

So even if we can’t all get on that plane from JFK this afternoon, maybe we can try to imagine Paul – before he was ever called a “saint”—coming into that port city to proclaim the gospel and trying to build a congregation.  Corinth was not some out-of-the-way backwater - but right in the middle of a major commercial hub, a port city where diverse cultures from north, south, east, and west converged. Then, as today, diversity provided both an opportunity and a challenge. The congregation reflects the diverse make-up of the city: there were Jews there who believed messiah had come and his name was Jesus. But there were even more Gentiles, goyim, which is to say all sorts of people from diverse religious backgrounds who were also coming to see the way of Jesus as the Way to full and abundant life. They come to the community, however, with different perspectives and different values and different backgrounds.  They didn’t always get each other’s jokes. And here is the thing: while they all agreed that Jesus was the Christ, their differences had become a source of deep tension and conflict for the community.

So Paul’s reason for writing not one but two letters to them is that they were fighting – a lot. In fact the key theological question underlying both First and Second Corinthians is this: how do you hold together a community that includes people of such different perspectives and beliefs? Obviously you try to keep Christ at the center, but that is often easier said than done.

For St. Paul, the key to Christian community is love. Faith, hope, and love are all important—the big three. And Paul loves to argue theology as much as the next guy. But make no mistake, even this great theologian of the church who inspired many who followed him to embrace faith rather than works as the path to salvation recognized that you can have all the faith in the world—enough to move mountains even—but if you don’t have love you gain nothing. You are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You remember that? We hear that part of the letter a lot at weddings - that thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. And we get all goose-bumpy when we look at this young couple and the reader says they will need to be patient and kind and gentle and not arrogant or rude. But the truth is that Paul wasn’t writing to a couple on their wedding day—even if that does turn out to be good advice for making a relationship work. Paul is writing to the vestry and the altar guild and the property committee in a congregation not so different than this one –in Korinthos in the middle of the first century. And the fact is that he is writing to people who have been behaving badly. They have been arrogant and rude and boastful and impatient with each other.  

So I’ve jumped ahead like ten chapters from the text we heard today but it’s important to know where it’s going: I Corinthians 13 – that love chapter – takes us to the heart of what Paul wants to say to that congregation and maybe what he says to those other congregations in Rome and Galatia and Ephesus too. You could distill both letters and maybe even all of Paul’s writings down to that single chapter. And maybe that’s what every preacher needs to say in every generation to every congregation – the very same thing Jesus said (and did) on the last night of his life when he took a towel and washed his friends’ feet and gave them their final instructions: love one another. That’s all I ask. I give you a new commandment to love one another.

Preachers need metaphors, though. The most famous metaphor that St. Paul offers to that community of Christians in Corinth is of the human body. What does love-in-action look like, Paul asks? Well, everybody is not supposed to be the same. That would just be silly. If every part of the Body was an eye, the Body would see extremely well, but hearing and digestion would be a problem. The human body needs eyes and ears and a nose and fingers and toes and all the rest. Moreover, an eye that wishes it could hear is of little use to the body since the ears pretty much have that job covered. Paul wants that congregation to figure out how to embody the love of Christ through cooperation rather than competition. He wants them to learn to value and honor one another’s gifts—their own and others—rather than envying the gifts that others possess. He wants them to celebrate their unity in the midst of their diversity, rather than striving for uniformity.  

Now I realize I have taken a little detour today. We have this very short epistle reading today—just these four verses from the third chapter of First Corinthians. And here I am talking about first-century Greece, and a conflicted congregation there, and why it is love that binds Christians together. And we’ve not even gotten to today’s epistle reading and I’m pushing my time limit and I know that some of you are wondering, “how much longer, Lord, until we eat?”

Fear not. The good people in Holden got used to that over fifteen years, but they also learned to trust that eventually I would find my way back.

…like a skilled master builder, Paul writes to that congregation, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

Paul turns to the world of architecture to remind those first-century Christians in Korinthos and us who have gathered here today to listen for a Word of the Lord that there is only one foundation. As one of the great hymns of the Church puts it in borrowing this same metaphor: “the Church’s one foundation, is Jesus Christ her Lord.”  

This is good news! As St. Michael’s continues to move through a season of transition, it brings with it both an increase of anxiety, but also a host of new possibilities. Even when it may feel like the foundations are shaking, it is good to be reminded that just as the foundation in Corinth was not Paul or Apollos, so here at St. Mike’s it is not Don or Frank or Warren or whoever may be called here next: the foundation was and is and will be Jesus Christ.

Our work—the shared work of both the ordained and laity—is to build on that foundation. And that work is unfolding here even now, even in this season of waiting. The great gift of this time is that it has within it the potential to draw you back to those foundational values, back to the risen Christ upon Whom everything else will be built.  

This is not just a time of passively waiting for what comes next. It’s a time for a deepening awareness and for prayer and for asking the really big questions like “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in Worcester County in the twenty-first century?” When we look back to a place like first-century Corinth they won’t give us all the answers, but they will remind us of what it takes. Faith, hope and love, for starters. But above all, love. A Body that works together rather than at cross-purposes. A community that is building something together, not from scratch but on the sure foundation of what began in the hills of Galilee two millennia ago. Transitions invite congregations back to the basics.  

Labor Day weekend is as good a time as any to stop and ask: what role will you play going forward in the life of this congregation? What gifts do you possess to help this congregation move from good to great, and how will you share those in love? Ultimately as each person begins to take hold of that and pitch in with what they can do, the new St. Michael’s will begin to emerge. It won’t look the same as the St. Michael’s of the 1950s or the 1980s. It will be a new creation. Each of you must choose with care how to build on that sure foundation that has already been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 

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