The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
December 9, 2018
Joshua 2:1-14; Luke 1:68-79
This advent we are looking at the women in Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. But in Matthews recording of Jesus’ heritage he mentions only a couple women. There are lines and lines of men, this guy is the father of that guy who is the father of that guy. In the midst of all these male names there are only a few women. But why choose these women? They must be prime examples of something. Matthew breaks up his rhythm of father and son to bring attention to these mothers, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary. They are held up as women worthy of being connected to Jesus. Worthy to be mentioned as branches on his family tree.
Last week we heard how Tamar held on to hope, showing that Jesus’ family tradition was to believe in the power of hope. This week we are looking at Rahab. A woman we know only a few verses worth about but is for some reason important enough to make the cut for Jesus’ genealogy. To know about Rahab we have to dig a little deeper and open our net wider. It has been a journey to piece together her life this week, through historical records and writings about similar women of the time period. What we can be sure of is what scripture records. Rahab lived in Jericho before the Israelites invaded. In any introduction of her she is linked to the profession of prostitution. We also know her home sits on the outside wall of the city, and that she has family that she cares deeply for. The rest of the details we must piece together.
Tradition holds that Rahab was beautiful. Jewish communities speak of Rahab’s beauty much like the beauty of Queen Esther. But if she is living on the outside wall of the city beauty was the only thing she was rich in. The community along the wall was a slum. It was the most dangerous part of the city, because if anyone attacked, they would be the first to die. The rich lived in the center, the poor along the wall. The fate of a beautiful poor girl is not hard to guess. The word we translate as prostitute more closely describes a temple sex worker. The Canaanite gods accepted sex offerings, so girls would serve in their temples for worshipers to give these offerings. Necessity must have driven Rahab into this profession too.
Some scholars believe her beauty attracted the attention of the King of Jericho and his gifts to her at the temple allowed her to buy a home and start a business. The business was similar to our wild west saloons. An Inn, bar, and brothel in one convenient location. It was also a hot bed of information, which men in authority would also pay well for.
So Rahab has earned her way into a little bit of power and money. Her hard work and smart planning has put her in the position to learn things from travelers and pass along the information to the city guard and even the King. Tales are told at her Inn. Tall tales of a group of slaves who escaped Egypt. The God they serve bringing horrific plagues on their enemy, even drying a path in the red sea for them to escape safety from their slavers. These are old tales and they have grown more fanciful over time. Then Rahab begins to hear new tales. Stories of great battles. Of the Israelites defeating great powers in Sihon and Og. Travelers are saying these are the same people in the stories about Egypt. The slaves that escaped. The God who scared pharaoh. Travelers begin to show up who say they have seen these battles with their own eyes and Rahab begins to wonder if the old tales are true. The battles they have seen had outrageous odds against the Israelites but somehow, they keep winning. The battles are getting closer to Jericho, so Rahab alerts the guard and the King. Tries to tell them these Israelites have a great God and Jericho must be prepared to offer peace or they will all die.
Her warnings are ignored. She is poor, and a sex worker, she is an outcast. A slave to the system she was born into. A thought grows in her mind, the Israelites made it out, their God does not ignore outcasts, their God listens and sets slaves free. As her allegiances are being tested she looks out her window in the outer wall and sees the Israelites set up camp on the other side of the river. They are here.
SO Rahab is poor, scrapping together a living. But her profession means she is well connected with the men in authority, and it allows her to know things before they are well known in the city. The spies know this too. Brothels and poor inns are a great place to gather intel. Buy a few rounds and you can get people talking about anything. Poor brothel owners are easily paid off if needed, so Joshua’s spies head to Rahab’s place to gather information. While they are there the word gets out that some Israelites have been spotted at her place. When the knock comes to her door Rahab thinks fast. She hides the spies under the barley she is letting someone dry on her roof and calmly answers the door. She knows the men and she knows how to lie to them. The guards know Rahab has always been a reliable source of information, so they believe her words and move on. The spies are shocked, this Canaanite woman helped them without even taking a bribe. They are thankful but skeptical. That is when Rahab reveals her intentions.
“I am an outcast in this country” She says “but I heard your God does not turn away from outcasts. All I want is peace. Peace for myself and for my family. All I ask in return for helping you is that you do not bring this battle to my house. And if your God will have me I will become a follower of the God of Israel.” That is who Rahab is, a woman committed to peace. Peace was not an easy choice for Rahab. She had to betray the people she grew up with. The only culture and country she had never known. That is a hard thing to do. To look at the only world you know and see that it is corrupt, to recognize the other side is the good side. That is the hardest part of peace, realizing we are not always the good guys. Every one of us has been the bad guy in someone’s narrative. We have cut someone off on the road, we have broken someone’s heart, we have betrayed someone’s trust. We have used harsh words when we talk to ourselves and to others. Our commitment to peace wans.
When the dust had settled on Jericho Rahab and her family joined the Israelites. Salmon, one of the spies, marries Rahab. It was probably the first time any man did right by her. This offering of love inspires her to repent and give her life to God. The Talmud, Jewish oral tradition, that recounts a prayer Rahab said soon after joining the Israelites. She is believed to have prayed: “Master of the Universe! I have sinned with three things, with my eye, my thigh, and my stomach. By the merit of three things pardon me: the rope, the window, and the barley. Pardon me for engaging in harlotry because I endangered myself when I lowered the rope for the spies from the window in the wall.” Her prayer recognizes that she is a sinner in need of God’s grace. A sinner who upon recognizing their fault did all they could to turn towards God’s peace and do what was right. She prays this prayer to shed all guilt and shame over her past and begin anew with a new life, a new community, and a new God.
She gives birth to Boaz, the man who is able to look past the fallen nature of Ruth and redeem her. When I realized Boaz’s mother was Rahab, a fallen woman, it made so much more sense why he loves Ruth. Rahab must have raised her son to respect all women because Rahab was so disrespected by men. She must have instilled in Boaz an esteem for the laws of the Israelites because that was the community that showed her mercy. She must have raised Boaz to honor God in everything, because the God of Israel had finally brought her peace.
Rahab’s inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy shows that Jesus is just as committed to peace as she was. It’s a family tradition. Pasted on from generation to generation. It shows that Jesus will be committed to bringing peace to this world, a peace that passes all understanding.
Our verses from Luke today are a prayer Zechariah prays over his son John. We know John as John the Baptist. Zechariah says that John will “go before the lord to prepare the way, to give knowledge of salvation to the people.” He prays for God to turn our feet towards peace. The Hebrew understanding of peace means more than just freedom from trouble it means wanting everything that leads to the highest good. And because we are sinners that means facing the bad in ourselves and repenting. John the Baptist’s job was to help people repent so they were ready for the peace Jesus was bringing. God can turn our feet toward peace but there is a mirror in that direction. A mirror that will force us to see things in ourselves we would rather ignore. SO we turn away, and stumble as we try to walk towards peace without facing peace. John was the one to hold up the mirror to the world. To show us where their lives were not aligned with God’s peace. We can pray for wars to end, for our family to heal, but until we examine our role in those competitions, we are only guessing at the direction we should be walking.
John encouraged people to look in the mirror, Rahab’s example tells us to look in the mirror. To clearly see when we are not on the side of peace and do all we can to change that. Looking in the mirror is hard but trying to walk in the opposite direction we are facing is harder, and frankly makes us look ridiculous. Face peace so you can walk in the way God has guided your feet.
Dr. John Judson
December 2, 2018
Genesis 38:12-19; Matthew 1:1-6
John Wesley Hodge. It is not a name any of you would be familiar with, but he is my great, great grandfather. He was an itinerant Methodist minister in Louisiana in the early to mid-1800s. I suppose his occupation ought to make me want to claim him as an ancestor, but I wish he was not in my family tree. I wish he was not because he not only volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, but he raised his own company to fight for the rights of Louisianans to enslave and debase people of color. I am not sure if he was a slave owner but having met some of his descendants, it is clear he passed on to many of them a deep hatred for blacks with racism a mile wide. It may be that all of us, given enough searching could find someone we would not want in our family tree; someone who reminds us that we are part of imperfect families. If we believe religious writers across the centuries, Jesus has those same kind of people in his family tree; people who make his family seem as imperfect as mine. Now, interestingly enough, the people who make his family tree seem imperfect are three out of the four women who are mentioned in his lineage: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. They are portrayed as making his family imperfect because each of them have scandalous personal stories. What we are going to be doing over the next four weeks before Christmas is dig a bit deeper into the stories of these women to see what we can find, and to discover if they really make Jesus’ family imperfect or if there is something else we ought to see.
We begin with Tamar and the traditional telling of the tale. This tradition makes it clear that as my grandmother would say, Tamar was a hussy. The retelling begins with Tamar being childless and desperate to have a child. She was so desperate that she would go to any lengths to conceive, including seducing her father-in-law. We know this because when Tamar heard that Judah, her father-in-law, who was just over mourning for his deceased wife, was headed for Timnah to shear sheep so she laid a trap for him. She dressed like a prostitute, lay in wait for him and used her feminine wiles to seduce him. Her scheme worked, and she became pregnant. As my grandmother would say, what a hussy. She was, in other words, a sinful woman who crossed the bounds of decency and ought not to be mentioned in Jesus’ lineage at all. All of this poses a problem for this traditional reading. It poses a problem because King David named one of his daughters after her. It poses a problem because later in this story Judah will proclaim that she is more righteous than he is. And finally, it poses a problem, because the writer of Matthew, undoubtedly a good Jew, makes sure to mention her in Jesus’ genealogy. So, what gives?
What gives, is that Tamar was a woman who hoped in the justice of God and worked to make that justice a reality. Let me say that again. Tamar was a woman who hoped in the justice of God and worked to make that justice a reality. Now the backstory that is often left out. Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son. The son died before they could have a child. The law, and the justice of God in this case, was that the next son would marry her and have a child in order that the older brother’s memory would remain alive. Son number two married her but refused to do his husbandly duty with her. He too died. This left the third son who was to marry her, but at the time of son number two’s death he was too young to marry. Judah told Tamar to go live with her parents until son number three was old enough to marry, implying that he would send for her and she could have a son to keep her husband’s, and remember, Judah’s son’s memory alive. Well, when the youngest son was old enough, he “forgot” to send Tamar an email or text letting her know it was time to come home. When she discovered this, she put her plan into action. And this is where hope comes in. Tamar could not force Judah to proposition her and sleep with her. This is something only God could do…so she hoped. Tamar could not force herself to become pregnant. This is something only God could do…so she hoped. Tamar believed that God was a God of justice, and so lived into the hope that God would act. The conclusion of the story is that God did act, she became pregnant and justice for her and her deceased husband was served. This is the reason Judah calls her righteous and David names his daughter after her.
This past Thursday I was having breakfast with David Paterson and he commented that the saying we often use, “It is what it is” he said defeats hope. It makes hope irrelevant. I have been pondering this for the last couple of days and realized that what we should say, is not, “it is what it is”, but instead “what ought to be, will be.” In other words, what God desires for this world is what we ought to be working for and doing so with hope that God will bless our actions.
This is what Tamar showed us. She showed us that what is, is not necessarily what ought to be, but that what ought to be, will be if we are willing to hope and act on that hope. This is also the message of her descendant whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks. God did not look at the world and say, “It is what is” or “they are who they are”, but what ought to be, will be. And so, God sent God’s only son to teach, preach, heal and die for the world so that justice might live. Jesus is born into this world not to say, it is what it is, but to say what ought to be, ought to be.
The challenge before us then is to be Tamars. It is to be those who say what ought to be, will be and then act in hope of that reality. My challenge to you then this week, is this, to ask yourselves how am I being a Tamar in this world, hoping in God and working for justice?
Dr. John Judson
November 25, 2018
Isaiah 54:4-10; 1 Corinthians 14:1-5
A Red Rider bb gun and Ralphie are both familiar to those of us who have watched the Christmas Story at least once in our lives. For any of you who have not seen it, the story line is about Ralphie, a familiar name in this church, and his not so secret desire for a Red Rider bb gun. Like many of us he obsesses over the gun and does everything he can to get one. What I want to ask all of you this morning as we begin, is how many of you had your own metaphoric Red Rider bb gun, that you just had to have at Christmas? Ok, now that we have confessed, I want you to turn to your neighbor and in two minutes each of you share that one thing you had to have. Go…ok let’s come back here and out of Christmas wishes past, and remind ourselves that we are not alone. People from the dawn of time have wanted particular gifts, trinkets, beads or toys. And, as you might have guessed by now, so did the Corinthians…but the one gift they all wanted was a spiritual gift, speaking in tongues.
For most Presbyterians, the whole idea or concept of speaking in tongues seems a bit foreign. Most of us, I would guess have not ever seen it…any of you ever witnessed speaking in tongues? But while it may be foreign to us, evidently it was a regular part of worship in the church in Corinth. What it consisted of is individuals, at any moment, beginning to speak in language which was not only not their own, but was not a recorded language. Some people have called it glossolalia, or in a sense a language spoken by God and the angels. Though there were many other spiritual gifts, this was the one everyone wanted under the tree at Christmas, so to speak. Why would they want it? I think for a couple of reasons. First, it was pretty spectacular. It makes the speaker the center of attention. Second, it is, as I said a moment ago, supposed to be direct communication between an individual and God. Thus, it is hard to beat. For Paul though, speaking in tongues, was not the gift everyone ought to desire. Let me say here that Paul does not say, “don’t speak in tongues,” partly because he did, but the one gift everyone in the Corinthians’ church ought to desire is to be able to prophecy.
The thought of wanting to be able to prophecy might seem as strange to our ears as is speaking in tongues. After all, aren’t prophets those people who foretell the future? In other words, aren’t they sort of God’s fortune tellers? “Yes, I proclaim that the Lions will win the Super Bowl…in 2030” and “Is your auto insurance up-to-date? Good because you will need it next week.” So often this is our image of prophecy partly because at Christmas time we are always reading Isaiah’s predictions of the coming messiah. But that concept is not what Paul had in mind when he spoke of prophecy, because prophecy is also forth-telling, meaning it is speaking God’s great story of hope for the world to those who need to hear it, and then helping them live into that hope. Let me say that again, the gift of prophecy is the ability to speak God’s great story of hope for the world for those who need to hear it, and then helping them live into that hope. For Paul this hope story telling was more important than speaking in tongues because tongues only helped one person, while telling God’s great story of hope in Jesus Christ changed not only the lives of individuals, but the entire community.
The gift of this book (the Bible) is that it is not simply a set of moral guidelines, though it has them. It is not simply a history of God’s people, which it is. It is not simply a set of interesting stories, which it is as well. Instead, this book is God’s great story of hope for the world. It is the story of God’s creating the world and everything in it good. It is the story of humanities turning from God and yet of God sticking with humanity even when they ran away.
It is the story of hope when God saves God’s people from slavery. It is a story of hope when God brings God’s people back from exile. It is a story of hope when we read of God coming to be one of us so that we might become new people. It is a story of hope when we watch as God’s Spirit gives us gifts that we might become the living, breathing body of Christ, showing love and doing justice. In other words, is a story of hope. It is a story of the hope that all life can be made good again. It is the story of hope that we are never alone; that we are never abandoned. It is the story of hope that we can find authentic community in and with our brothers and sisters in this place. It is a story of hope that we have those around us to support us in our times of need. Prophecy is the ability to tell this story to those who have lost hope; to those who feel left out; tot those who seem adrift. This is the gift Paul wanted everyone to have, to be able to share with others, that there is hope. And if there is ever a time when we needed hope, this is it.
I say this because of what I have come to refer to as the Great Honey Baked Ham incident. This past Wednesday Cindy went to Books-a-Million at the corner of Southfield and 13 Mile Road. For those of you who have never been there, one of the other shops there is the Honey Baked Ham Store. Cindy described what she saw as the Hunger Games. People were screaming and yelling at each other. People were honking their horns and making strange hand gestures. People were arguing. It was all in all a frightening scene that somehow does not quite fit the day before our national day for giving thanks. And the context for all of this is we are in a moment of prosperity, where people have their own cars and can drive to a store where they can pick up a ham that they did not have to prepare and then have enough food on their tables. Yet they are angry and frustrated enough to just lose it in a parking lot. This is a society that needs to hear a word of hope that God is present and that all will be well.
So how are we doing with our gift of prophecy? If recent studies are any indication, the answer is not all that good. In his book Learning to Speak God from Scratch (Jonathan Merritt, Learning to Speak God from Scratch ; Why Sacred Words are Vanishing-and How We Can Revive Them (New York, USA: Convergent Press, 2018)), Jonathan Merritt, describes the slow but steady decline in our nation of what he calls, spiritual conversation; and what I will call, sharing God’s great hope filled story. Merritt uses recent national surveys to make his point. He shows that half of Americans had a conversation of a spiritual nature, less than once or twice a year and that sixty-three percent of Americans try to avoid having those conversations at all. Two of the reasons that we try to avoid those conversations are that people often get angry when we start talking about faith (any of you try this at Thanksgiving this past week) and because we don’t know enough about God’s great story of hope or the vocabulary of faith to make telling the story possible in order to share it. If either of those are your reasons for not sharing God’s great story of hope with someone who needs to hear it, then I hope you will plan to be with us after Christmas and through Easter. I hope you will be with us because Joanne, Bethany and I will be preaching a series on the Vocabulary of Faith, where we will be examining and unpacking the language of God’s great story of hope in which all will be well, in a way we hope will allow you to speak hope to those who need to hear it.
My challenge to you then is this, to pray that God would give you the gift of Prophecy, so that you can share a story of hope with those who need to hear it.
Dr. John Judson
November 18, 2018
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:7
She looked as frustrated as I felt. She had spent the previous three weeks, eight hours a day, six days a week, trying to teach me Tagalog, but somehow it had yet to take hold in my brain. When I signed up for the Peace Corps, I was excited about going to the Philippines, and making a difference. What had not occurred to me was that my brain was not one of those wired to learn a new language…especially one that had virtually no connection to English, Spanish or other romance languages. Sentences such as “Lakarin ako sa tendehan”, or “come with me to the store” did not flow out of my brain and off my tongue. The problem was that to be sworn in as a volunteer and stay for my two years, I had to pass the language test. The gift I was given was that the woman teaching me refused to give up. She believed I was supposed to be there, and through her sheer will, she taught me enough Tagalog to pass the test and become an effective volunteer.
Let me ask, how many of you have had a teacher like that. Someone who cared so much about you that they were willing to do almost anything to help you succeed? If you have, then you can understand the passion the Apostle Paul had for teaching the Corinthians what it meant to be Jesus people. I say that because the Corinthians had signed up for Paul’s basic Jesus People Course in how to follow the risen, reigning savior. As part of that course they had to learn a new language…the language of the love of God in Jesus Christ. This was a new language for the Corinthians because they had spent their lives speaking the language of Empire; the language of power, domination, class and cruelty. And unfortunately, even after several years of practice, they were still struggling with the language of love as much as I struggled with my Tagalog. We know this because the Corinthians were almost as selfish, self-centered, arrogant, rude, power-hungry and jealous of one another as they were when they began learning this new language. But Paul was not about to give up. And in this thirteenth chapter, he decided to give them a crash course in God’s language of love in Jesus Christ.
The first lesson was that love was patient and kind. Every five years Cindy and I try and go on a cruise for our anniversary. When we were on our cruise for our 30th anniversary, I was waiting in line for breakfast and lusting over what can only be described as a mountain of bacon awaiting me. In front of me was a woman who had eyed one particular, piece of bacon that she wanted. She said to the server, “I want that piece of bacon.” He pointed to one and she replied, “Not that one, this one.” Becoming angry, she said, “Can’t you see! That one right there.” Once again, when she pointed, and he couldn’t discern the exact piece of bacon, she loudly implied that he was incompetent and ought to get another job. The Corinthians would have appreciated the bacon lady. They would have because the Corinthians were intolerant of and impatient with those who violated what they saw to be the social norms and would respond with withering criticism. We know this because they made fun of and often refused to listen to Paul because he was not a great orator, not very good looking and was Jewish. This criticism of one another was tearing the church apart. What Paul tried to teach them was that the language of love was to be patient with, and kind toward, those who were different and did not meet the conception of perfection. They were to be patient and kind because Jesus had been and continued to be patient and kind to the criticizing Corinthians. Thus, if the Corinthians were to be Jesus People, speaking the language of love, they were to exchange their conception of perfection for patience, and their criticism for kindness. Consider for a moment what a different world we would live in if we all learned and spoke the language of patience and kindness.
The second lesson was that love is not envious, boastful or arrogant. Years ago, my parents received their first ever Christmas letter, long before they were in vogue. It was from one of dad’s Marine Corps buddies and was filled with the wonderful tales of this man’s brilliant and successful children. My parents just chuckled, but I got indignant. First, I was jealous of their success and second, I was sure that my brothers were better and smarter than his kids. In other words, I mixed those two sides of the same coin, jealousy on the one side and boastful on the other, meaning jealousy and boasting go together because we wouldn’t boast if we were not jealous of someone else. This mixing of jealousy and boasting was at the heart of one of the most contentious issues within the Corinthian church; that is, whose spiritual gifts were best? As a reminder from last week, in the previous chapter Paul had described how every Jesus Person was given certain spiritual gifts to help build up the church. Everyone had at least one and no one had them all. Rather than teaching people to celebrate each other’s gifts, Paul’s lesson created a competition to see whose gifts were better. It was a “My gifts are better than your gifts” situation and was tearing the church apart. Paul reminded his students that competition was the language of Empire. Jesus love language would set aside competition and allow for the celebration of everyone’s gifts. This love language would allow people to see each gift as unique and special and necessary for the family. Consider for a moment what a different world this would be if instead of speaking the language of envy and arrogance, we spoke the language of celebration and appreciation.
The third and final lesson is that love rejoices in truth. I’m not sure how many of you noticed that we had an election a couple of weeks ago. I’m also not sure if you noticed there were political ads, most them saying unkind things about people. And finally, how many of you noticed that many of these commercials simply lied. It made me wonder what lengths we have become willing to go to insure victory. Unfortunately, the Corinthians would have had no problem with this scorched earth campaigning, because they did whatever it took to win. I say this because the Corinthians were incapable of working out disputes among themselves. Rather than trying to find the truth or at least an agreeable solution to their arguments, they sued each other. Yes, that’s right, they would take each other to civil court and if we believe Paul, lie about the facts of the matter because winning was everything. And my friends, this was a church of probably no more than 30-40 people. Once again then, Paul tries to teach them that the language of love is not about winning, but that it is about seeking the truth and sacrificially serving one another. It is about seeking justice which builds up the community. This is the language of the love of God in Jesus Christ because it is the love God offers the world, calling for justice for all and a willingness to send Jesus into the world to give his life as a ransom for all. Love seeks the best for all. Consider for a moment what a different world we would live in if instead of arguing, we spoke the language of self-giving rather than of winner-take-all.
We live in a world where the language of Empire is all around us. This makes learning and using the language of love one of the most important things we can do. My challenge to you this week then is to ask ourselves, “How am I learning and practicing speaking the language of the love of God in Jesus Christ to everyone I meet in every place that I go?”
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
November 11, 2018
1 Samuel 17:32-40; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
I spent this last Sunday in Washington D.C. I had never been before, because the school I attended started the annual 8th grade trip when I was in 9th grade. I have never liked history, but I do like musicals, so I confess I went to see the stuff that related to Hamilton. People talk about New York or LA as a place for dreamers, but I found Washington DC is a place for dreamers too. The dreams that had to be dreamed to make that place a reality are huge. The statues and memorials and Arlington and buildings all are there because of big dreams. I learned all sorts of fun things, most I will not admit I didn’t know before going. One thing I will admit learning, is that 8 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were younger than I am now. When my friends and I learned this we joked about what we were doing with our lives. It became a common theme to hear about amazing people who had achieved big dreams by the time they were 30. The joke wore thin and as I was sitting in the Supreme Court Hall it hit me, I was surrounded by statues of modern people. Chief Justice Roberts will have a bust made of him for the hall when he dies. What am I doing with my life? I can pretty confidently say there will never be a statue of me in the Capital.
Then I came home and read these words from Corinthians and I had a small panic attack. I know these verses are supposed to be comforting. They affirm that we are all given gifts from God and are especially skilled for our work in the world. It should build me up that I work with such an amazing group of Christians, all making up one body. But despite how scholars tell me how I should feel about these verses, I still only feel anxiety and worry. When I read these verses I think these gifts are amazing! Prophesy, speaking in different languages, miracles…people with these gifts have statues made of them…these gifts can change the world. Then I look at what I consider my gifts and the anxiety sets in. My inner monologue usually goes something like this “Yes I have gifts, I believe God gave them to me, but are they as cool as the gifts listed here. Will my gifts move the world toward the kingdom of God like a literal miracle healer would?” Then I think “okay maybe my gifts are just as big and just as important. The Bible says so so let’s go with that…but am I even using my gifts correctly. I never got a manual on my gifts. How do I know that I’m not shirking my gifts on worthless endeavors? And if the whole body is depending on me to do my part will the whole kingdom of God come crashing down if I don’t use my gifts exactly right, which I don’t know what is right, do I even know my gifts…” you can see how my anxious mind spins and spins over these simple “encouraging” verses. Fear took hold of me and I was paralyzed thinking about what God wants me to do with the gifts I have been given.
The Israelite army was also paralyzed with fear by Goliath’s challenge. By the time the Israelites faced Goliath they had become a great army. They knew how to wage war together as a unit but the Philistines played by different rules. They sent their champion out to challenge one opponent from the Israelite army. One hand to hand combat match to decide the whole war. This was not something the Israelites were comfortable with and so they retreated to their tents in fear to try and come up with a plan.
David arrives on the frontline bringing gifts to his brothers. He isn’t old enough to fight yet and so he spends his days watching sheep, a job his brothers were more than happy to leave behind. After David delivers his gifts, he hears Goliath’s taunts and is shocked. Not a single Israelite steps forward. As David goes around camp he hears that the King has offered his daughter to the winner, the winner’s family never has to pay taxes again. David can tell the King is getting desperate for someone to step up. David’s shock isn’t that no one has taken the King’s offers, David is shocked that not even one of God’s army is willing to fight. David looks around him at gifted men who are all paralyzed with fear.
David doesn’t care about the King’s offer, he is offended by Goliath’s lack of respect for God. When the King calls him to his tent David pleads his case to be the champion. David’s willingness to move is not because he isn’t afraid, he is willing to fight because he trusts his gifts and he trusts God. David has faced down a terrifying opponent before, bears, lions. He recounts these battles to the King as proof he can defeat Goliath. But it isn’t his arms, or aim, or sling that gives David confidence, it is God, who has rescued him before.
This part of the story is my favorite (Read 1 Samuel 17: 38-40) This is the part of the story that reminds me this isn’t a story about a small person stepping into unknown territory to take down a giant. David is small, but he is also uniquely gifted. He isn’t being asked to do something out of the ordinary, he is doing something he has done at least twice before. David turns down the big weapons that he is unfamiliar with, and even though it leaves him more exposed he knows he must do this his way. For David it all seems so simple because he has found a way only he can help. His gifts in this place and time are what is needed.
David and Goliath has become synonymous with the underdog win, of something small overcoming something huge. But I don’t think that is all this story has to offer. Yes it says to dream big and face the giants, but is also says dream small. After rejecting the sword and armor, David went to the river and found 5 smooth stones to place in his bag. 5…he didn’t load up his bag, he didn’t stress over their size, he knew what he was comfortable with and used what was around him. Using our gifts is not about finding grand gestures or making elaborate plans, we aren’t even really called to solve any particular problem. When the spirit gives us a gift we are asked to pick up the simple stones.
These stone might say to us “leave work 30 minutes early and spend time with your family,” another might say “call up an old friend.” There might be a stone laying around that says “invite the family whose loved one is deployed to dinner,” or “learn something new about a good friend.” These are the simple stones the simple moments that can truly shift the world.
As I sat in my fear this week I did what I always do when I’m immovable, I went on Facebook.
As I scrolled through my friend’s newsfeeds I came across a post that was out of character for a friend of mine. This friend, Kevin, is a late-night radio host in a college town. His job essentially is to play the hits and create a party atmosphere every night of the week. Kevin has always been a high energy person, so it is no surprise he excels at this. He is always pictured at fun events, doing crazy things for his fans, his picture on buses, but this post was not a fun picture. This post was a screen shot of a message Kevin had recently received from a long-time listener. This listener, he said, often called in to request songs and he has met them at events over the past year. The message was about the first time this listener called the radio station. When they called to request a song one night, they had plans to end their life. They were holding on to the last happy things they could think of and decided to call in a request a favorite song. Kevin did what he always does, answered, listened, and played their song. For him it was a normal interaction, but the way the listener recounts it in the message he told them to “keep your head up buddy” those five words shifted their whole world. Five simple words that seemed like nothing to Kevin, all in a days work, but God used them to bring down the giant in that listeners life.
The hope in Corinthians is that we all have gifts that can shift the world, not by making giants fall with big dreams, but by us picking up the stones around us. We don’t have to go out and find a huge problem to solve, we don’t have to put on someone else’s mannerisms, we need to find the simple moments where we can be helpful. We may even find that by doing what feels comfortable to us, making a meal, sending cards, looking into someone’s eyes and smiling might be the exact stone needed to bring down the giant.
If you have big dreams, great! Big dreams are the foundation of our country, but don’t miss the stones along the way. Don’t pass the simple moments that change the world. Dream small, AMEN
Dr. John Judson
November 4, 2018
Exodus 13:1-10; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
To self, “Hmm, I know I came into the bedroom for something. What was it?” To my wife, “Hey honey, why did I come into the bedroom?” “You went in there to set the alarm.” “Oh, right.” To self again, “Hmm, now what time was I supposed to set it for?” To my wife again, “Hey honey, what time was I supposed to set it for?” “Seven o’clock, dear.” “Oh, right. Thanks.” This is an ongoing interaction at our house. And when we have them I like to think that I have not forgotten something, but that I had un-remembered it. It may be that few if any of you ever have these same kind of interactions; that you un-remember things. You never ask, why did I come into this room? What am I looking for in the fridge? Why am I holding this? There are moments when I think that un-remembering is product of our own time and culture. That we are so busy and so distracted with our devices that we cannot focus. But this is not the case and we know it is not first because the command to “remember” is used more than 280 times, and because Paul’s words to the Corinthians are intended to deal with a bad case of un-remembering; of un-remembering the core of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
This might not seem obvious when we first read Paul’s words of what we call, institution, of the Lord’s supper. These are words we are used to hearing on a regular basis when we come to the table. But if we were to have read what comes before and after them we can see why Paul thinks that the Corinthians had un-remembered the core of their faith. They had un-remembered it because they had become selfish and self-centered. Some people came with lots of food to church and stuffed themselves, while others went hungry. Others came to church with lots of wine, and they got drunk while others had nothing to drink. Some, who were wealthy and in the upper classes, came early and pretty much polished off the food that was meant for a communal meal, so that when the late comers, usually slaves and ordinary working folks arrived, there was nothing left to share. For Paul, this was a violation of Christian Faith 101, which is, we are a self-giving and not a self-serving community. This is where the words we read this morning come into play.
Though these words were probably the church’s earliest liturgy, meaning that they had been formalized for use when the church gathered for its communal meal, or love feast, here Paul is using them in a different context. In these words, Paul sees the very self-giving nature, not only of Jesus, but of God. He does because when Jesus says, “This is my body for you...” and “…this cup is the new covenant in my blood…”, he is telling his disciples that they will find new life and be part of the new coming Kingdom of God, because of Jesus’ own self-giving. And this self-giving is not only on Jesus’ part, but on God’s part because Paul understood that the history of God and God’s people was based on God’s gracious giving of everything from freedom, to manna in the wilderness, to the gift of the Spirit. This self-giving then was to be mirrored in the self-giving of people within the community. To have faith, in other words, was to faithfully give of oneself to God and neighbor. This is what the Corinthians had un-remembered, and of what Paul was reminding them. It is also the heart of what we are reminded of every time we come to the communion table.
This leaves the question though, why does self-giving matter enough for God to remind us every time we are together? It matters for two reasons. First it matters because it moves us from being spectators to participants in God’s great world transforming work. Both in Paul’s time and in ours it is easy to be spectators of religion, meaning we can stand back and appreciatively watch what happens in church without really being transformed by it. When we allow ourselves to be reminded of our call to be self-giving people, and we live it, then we become part of God’s recreative work…we become part of God’s work to recreate the world into a place or love, peace and justice. This understanding, then brings us to the second reason for self-giving…which is that in self-giving, the world is transformed into what it was and is, into what God would have it to be. The world is not transformed into God’s new creation by hatred, fear or greed. It is transformed by our self-giving just as we are transformed by Jesus’ self-giving. It is transformed by our self-giving; our self-giving great and small.
To that end I want to share with you an incident that happened this week at our local Kroger’s. My wife Cindy was going down one of the isle’s when she saw a woman in need of assistance, because she could not reach an item. Cindy walked up to her and asked if she could be of assistance. The woman said yes, and then after Cindy had retrieved the item off the shelf, said, “Thank you. No one has been kind to me in a long time.” I want you to think about that. Here is a person who evidently has not been shown kindness and who has felt the weight of the world’s disdain upon her. She feels somehow unworthy of kindness. And a simple act of self-giving, of awareness gave her a renewed sense of hope. This is what self-giving does. And this is what Paul reminds us we are to do.
This then is the gift of this communion table. It has been the gift to the church for almost two-thousand years. It was a gift to the people whose names we read this morning, helping them to remember whose and who they are. It is a gift to those who will come after us and light our candles. So, my friends, this morning we have a chance to once again remember whose and who we are as we come to this table (communion table). In the breaking of the bread and pouring of the cup we are reminded of God’s self-giving and of our calling to do so as well. My challenge to you then is this, as you take the bread and cup, ask yourself, how is this reminder causing me to live as a self-giving follower of Jesus Christ?
Dr. John Judson
October 28, 2018
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Romans 11:1-6, 17-18, 29-32
This is my family Bible. It was given to my great-grand parents by their son, my grandfather for Christmas in 1905. It is my family Bible for several reasons. The first is that it contains one of our family stories; the story of Elizabeth Fitchett who was captured in a raid by British and Iroquois in the town of Wyoming, Pennsylvania in 1778. It also tells how she later escaped. It is my family Bible secondly because it contains much of my family genealogy. Though the named records run from some of my cousins back to those married before the Revolutionary War, there is also a footnote about William Judson who arrived in the New World in 1632, twelve years after the Mayflower arrived. For most of the time I have had this Bible, this is where my sense of it being my family Bible ended. Beyond that it was merely a really, really heavy Bible, with some great pictures and a pretty good binding to have lasted more than a hundred years. But last night, it began to dawn on me that there was more to this Bible as a family Bible than that. And this is where I want you all to take a Bible and work with me, as I show you why the Bible is not only my family Bible, but it is yours as well...it is your family Bible.
First turn to page one of the New Testament. This begins the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the savior of the world. In this section we will read all the Jesus’ stories, letters from the early church leaders like Paul, Peter and John, and then we will find the final book of Revelation, which completes the Biblical story. This my friends, is my family story. This my friends, is your family story. This is your family Bible. It is our story because we are those who have been baptized into the community of Jesus Christ. This is what we did this morning when we baptized Connor. He was baptized into this family of Jesus Christ. He was baptized into the stories, into the power and into the work this family. And as I said earlier, you have become his family. His brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. This is our family Bible.
Second, hold your finger in the first page of the New Testament and then turn to page 10 of the Old Testament. This section is also our family story. This is the second part of our family Bible. It is this part of our family Bible that reminds us that we are also children of Abraham. Across the centuries many Christians have wanted to chuck this portion of the Bible because it does not explicitly speak about Jesus. Across the centuries, Christians have assumed that this portion of the Bible is about the Hebrews or the Jews and thus has nothing to say to us. Across the centuries, many Christians have believed that because they believe in Jesus and Jews do not that Christians are superior to the Jewish people. This is what the people in Rome thought. This is what Paul tells them is wrong. Paul makes it clear that God’s promises to the Jewish people are irrevocable; that God’s people will always be God’s people. And in fact, we Christians are only God’s people because we have been grafted into the trunk of Judaism. They are the original family and we are the adopted children. Because we have been grafted in, then this part of the Bible is our family Bible.
Finally, take hold of the first ten chapters of Genesis, which by the way is all that is left. This section of the Bible is also part of our family Bible. It is part of our family Bible because it is the story of humankind. It is the story of God creating all people in God’s own image and breathing into them the breath of life. It is a reminder that not only are we Jesus people. Not only are we people grafted into the Jewish community, but that we are all part of the human family. It is a reminder that this means we are no better than anyone else but that we are simply different. This sense of the unity of all humanity can be seen in Jesus’ life. He met with non-Jews and considered them to be worthy of his love and grace. He met with Samaritans and Romans, he met with outcasts and tax collectors. Jesus had a profound sense that all of humanity was linked by God’s love and care.
What does this mean then on this day? It means two things.
First hate has no place in God’s family. Throughout history, hate has been one of the few constants. There has been Christian on Christian hate (my father-in-law spoke of his youth where Catholic and Orthodox Christians would fight each other). There has been hatred of the Jews, which was around even before Jesus. There has been hatred of Muslims from the moment they came into being. And once again we are seeing a manifold increase in hatred here in this country and in the world. We see it in the language used toward migrants fleeing violence and seeking a better life; with one commentator wondering if we might shoot them. We see it in the language and acts of intimidation used against Muslims, Siks, and other non-Christians. We see it in the abuse heaped on the LGBTQ community. We see it in the abuse of people of color. We saw it in its most evil form yesterday in Pittsburg, where a man driven by years of hate took the lives of innocent people at a Bris, a Jewish naming ceremony for a child. My friends, this hate is directed toward those people seen as the other. But these people are not the other. They are part of our family, whether that is our Christian, Abrahamic or human family. They are all in our family Bible.
The second thing that this means is that when you make your pledge to this church during the final hymn, you are giving to a community that knows who it is. We are a community of followers of Jesus the Christ, who commits itself to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. We are a community of those who are linked with other Abrahamic faiths, striving to be faithful to God. We are a community of those who are linked by our common humanity with all people around the world. You are supporting a community that is hate free, where all are welcome, where all are loved. This is who we are as Everybody’s Church.
My challenge to you this morning is to ask yourself, how am I seeing every human being I encounter, that I see on the news, that I read about on-line, as part of my family and then treat them as such.
Dr. John Judson
October 21, 2018
Deuteronomy 16:13-17; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
I was sucking wind. This past summer Cindy and I had met our daughter Katie and the boyfriend, Brendan, in Colorado. The plan was not only to spend time with the boyfriend, but for Katie, Brendan and I to do some short hikes. So, for our first, and what would prove to be our last hike, we chose to hike to Nymph and Emerald Lakes. The trail is about 2 miles, beginning at about 9,500 ft and ending up around 10,000 ft. So, all in all an easy walk…or at least it would be if I were in shape and acclimated to the altitude. But half way into the hike, as I was being passed by six and seven-year-olds, I was sucking wind and was wondering if it was worth it to continue. At that moment I had a choice to make, either I gave up or I continued, hoping to catch my second wind or I told my companions, “Don’t worry about me, you go on.”
I offer this story because it was where the Corinthians were. They were sucking wind, not from hiking, but from giving and they had a choice to make, give up on the offering, or quit. Sometime before Paul wrote this letter, the Corinthians had begun a joyful quest to financially support the church in Jerusalem, but somewhere along the way they had quit. They had lost the joy they once had for this endeavor and were not sure they could find the joyous energy to continue. It would be easy enough for Paul to simply let them give up, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t first because the church in Jerusalem, the church from which all other churches had come, was in difficult financial straits. He couldn’t secondly because he knew that if they were allowed to stop and never restart, it would be the end of their giving careers. It may be that we can sympathize with the Corinthians. After all, at this time of the year, we are inundated with requests to give. I know this because I have with me this large stack of requests that has come in just this week. Sometimes I think we see these and begin not only to suck giving wind, but to become depressed rather than joyous because there is so much need and limited funds to give. Thus, giving feels like a burden or obligation, rather than a joy. So how do we turn this around and find our second joyful giving breath? Let’s see if Paul can help.
He begins by pointing them to others who have joy. In this case to the Macedonians. “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints…” Macedonia was the poorest and most oppressed part of Asia Minor. By all accounts they ought to have been asking for, rather than giving, money. Yet there was a joy within them that overflowed such that they begged to give; they couldn’t help themselves. They were filled with the kind of joy that the Corinthians once had for giving. The Macedonians showed that joyful giving is possible. I have to say, for me, that anytime I lose a bit of the joy of giving, all I have to do is watch the children comes down front for the Young Disciples Time and drop their money in the trumpet (yes that is what we call the vessel in which they put their money. The name comes from the same sort of vessels in the Temple in Jerusalem where the widow puts her mite). There seems to be within them an enthusiasm and joy for giving. Joy is out there. All we have to do is look.
Paul continues, by pointing them to Jesus. “I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” This was a reminder that what they had was not their own. It had been given to them as a gift; a freely given gift by God through Jesus. That the faith they now owned was joyously offered to them by the one who sacrificed all so that they could have enough and more. I say joyously because the word used by Paul for generous is “charis” which means joyous grace. For me, I find this at the table and the cross. Every time I walk into this sanctuary and see them, I am reminded that who I am and what I have, have come to me not only through Jesus, but through countless generations who have told and retold the story of God’s love, who have broken the bread and poured the cup, and who have given joyfully that this church might be here to nurture us and future generations, in Jesus’ love and tender mercies. Joy is in here. All we have to do is look.
Finally, Paul points them to themselves. He reminds them that less than a year earlier they were filled with the joy of giving. They had the eagerness to give to this needed offering. “And in this matter, I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” Paul reminds them that they had not been coerced into making a pledge to the church in Jerusalem but had been eager to do so. There had been this intense joy that had taken hold of them. He is saying, you had this joy once, you can have it again. Take a deep breath, find your joy and keep on going. I want to be clear about something at this point, and that is that Paul does not expect them to impoverish themselves. They are to give according to what they have and not what they do not have. Their giving is to be out of eagerness and joy, not fear or compulsion. My guess is that there is a time in your lives when you felt joy at giving. Maybe it was to the life and work of this church. Maybe it was to hurricane relief. Maybe it was to food baskets or Shop and Drop. Regardless of where that may have been, Paul reminds us that we can have it again. Joy is back there. All we have to do is look.
Unfortunately we have no idea if the Corinthians got their second wind, rediscovered the joy of giving and finished the collection. We don’t know because this is the last of the correspondence we have between Paul and the church. What we can know, though is that we can find the joy of giving again. Just as I found my second wind in Colorado and reached both lakes, we can find our second-giving wind.
The challenge for each of us is to find the joy. It is to catch our breath, find our second wind and rediscover the joy of giving back to God through this church and other helping organizations, such that lives are changed, and the world made better. My challenge to you then for this week is this, to ask yourselves, where am I rediscovering the joy of giving, such that I can continue to be part of the life changing work of God in the world?
The Rev. Joanne Blair
October 14, 2018
We are spending September-November in Paul’s 1st and 2nd letters to the church in Corinth … except for today, where we visit his letter to the church in Rome. Paul did not found the church in Rome, nor had he visited it yet at the time of this letter. There is no one distinct issue or problem that Paul feels the need to address, and so this letter is the closest thing to Paul’s theological dissertation. He is also paving the way for financial support of the Church, which fits with our 3-week miniseries on “Giving.”
In the early Church, Jews, as well as Jewish and Gentile Christians lived together somewhat uncomfortably, as they struggled with various cultures, traditions and rituals. And our scripture today is from that section of Paul’s letter which deals with practical questions about life and living.
Listen for God speaking as we read Romans 12:1-5
Still in Second Temple time, the Jewish people came to the temple in Jerusalem to give offerings and make sacrifices as an act of worship. This involved bringing vegetables, money and other valuable items. Grains and incense were burned, and certain animals were killed. Some of this was to help with the cost of running the temple and support the needs of the priests and temple workers. And some of this served for purification, reparation, guilt and atonement. Offering sacrifices was an important part of the Jewish religion, as well as other religions of Paul’s day ... and these practices were still very prevalent in society.
If you look up the difference between offering and sacrifice in theological dictionaries, you get varied definitions, opinions, and applications. Most common is the concept that “offering” means the giving of something.
And “sacrifice” involves the killing of an animal. In today’s world, we attach a negative connotation to the word “sacrifice”, and we associate it with death, suffering, or depletion. Paul is challenging the church in Rome, and us today, with the concept of sacrifice. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Paul never forgets that we are embodied creatures. Everything we think, say, or do… we do in a body. And Paul is calling us to a commitment … a commitment of the whole of our selves … to be worked out by a new way of thinking and behaving. Paul’s words are a call to action ... enacted by absolutely everything we think, say and do.
Even more, Paul is calling us to be transformed. We often come up with plans to transform ourselves – diets and exercise … even meditation and prayer. Obviously, all of these can be good. The problem exists when we try to control and dictate them for our own purposes rather than God’s purpose.
Paul is not urging us to transform ourselves. Rather, he is appealing to us open ourselves up to be transformed by God. We live in a secular world, but we are not to be trapped and molded by it. “Do not be conformed to this world” … do not be pressed into a mold dictated by an external force. “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds” … allow God to change your inward reality.
We are to be Christ-centered, not self-centered. And we do this not just hoping for what God will do. We do this by giving the whole of ourselves to God in grateful response to what God has already done. If we truly recognize what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, then our only response is to give ourselves completely to God.
And we do it out of gratitude and are filled with joy.
Martin Luther once said that “we are little Christs. That people see in our lives a little piece of Christ.” Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Just last week John talked about Paul “de-puffing” the church in Corinth. Personally, I find Martin Luther’s calling us “little Christs” to be humbling indeed.
Some of us struggle to feel worthy of being called “the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.” Yet we are. But we can only be the authentic body of Christ if we have offered the whole of ourselves to God. And we can only be the Body of Christ if we come together. We do not just live as individuals in our individual bodies. Together we make up the Body of Christ … as a community …. and as the Church.
Although I’ve misplaced the source, a study found that the main reason people remain part of a Christian congregation is because of the quality of love that they experience in human relationships. The music, preaching, mission, or children’s and youth programs may be why they join … but the loving friendships and relationships is why they stay. It is not the ideals of love they long for … it is genuine love in human form- with Christ in the center.
I come to worship on Sunday and am involved in this community not just because I work here, but because centering myself in the act of worship and being in community with all of you helps me stay grounded. This community (you!) helps me to stay open to continually be transformed by God. And you help shield me from those ways of the world that do not matter. For worship is not just coming here on Sunday mornings … it’s offering our whole self to God … and we need the support of each other to do that.
An individual cannot do it all, and even a community cannot do it all. But I can do, and you can do, and this community can do what God calls us to do.
It’s no secret that we are in our season of stewardship. And I hope you will prayerfully and gratefully think about your pledge for the coming year. This community does so much inside and outside of these walls thanks to your generosity of time, talents and treasures. And I hope that whatever you pledge, you do it with joy. But even more than your pledges, I hope you will each offer yourself to God as a “living sacrifice”, so that you may continue to be transformed by God.
“What does it mean to be a living sacrifice?” asked a woman to her pastor. Holding out a blank sheet of paper, the pastor replied, “It is to sign your name at the bottom of this blank sheet, and let God fill it in as God will.” Every common thought, action and deed is an act of worship. Our entire way of life is meant to live in relationship with God and each other.
Who here remembers the Hokey Pokey? You put different parts of your body in, you shake it all about, and then you turn yourself around. In the last verse, you put your whole-self in. Well, I’d like to suggest that we all do the Hokey Pokey with God. That we put our whole-selves in, open ourselves up and shake it all about … and let God turn us around and transform us.
God doesn’t just want our hearts, or our minds, or our gifts, or our actions. God wants all of us.
And so the challenge for us this week is to ask ourselves:
Dr. John Judson
October 7, 2018
Isaiah 54:4-8; 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7
We knew we were better. It was in the water. It was in the air. Growing up in Texas we just knew that we were better than everyone else. We were the second largest state. We had four out of the top eleven cities in the nation. Our economy, if it were on its own, would be the tenth largest in the world, almost fifty-percent larger than Russia’s. We have nine of the ten largest high school football stadiums in the nation, with average seating capacity of around 19,000. Two years ago, the largest oil discovery in the United States was made in west Texas, holding almost twenty-billion barrels of oil adding to Texas reserves which were around a third of proven reserves in the nation. We were also the only state to have ever been an independent nation. Finally, and above all of these, we have Willie Nelson and Tex-Mex food. It was hard growing up in Texas and not believing that we were essentially better than everyone else.
I offer you that take on Texas, not because I think it’s better, but because it can give you some idea of how the Corinthians felt about being Corinthians. Corinth was just better. It was better because it was founded by Julius Caesar himself. It was better because it was wealthier and larger than any other community in Greece. It was better because it was a major link in the trade routes across the Roman Empire. It was better because its massive stadium, with seating capacity of almost 18,000 played host to numerous dramas and musical attractions. And the biennial Isthmian Games, which were second only to the Olympics themselves, were held there. The city also contained great temples including one to Aphrodite. Finally, they were cultured and a seat of great teaching and wisdom. This meant that they were better than people like Paul, a Jew from a dusty and distant land. This meant that they did not have to listen to him, because he was not their equal. They, and their local leaders, were simply better and everyone knew it.
It was against this backdrop that Paul wrote his letter, and in so doing, decided he needed to deflate their egos and given them a crash course in humility. He wanted to do so not only because they were refusing to listen to him but because it was tearing their church apart. This course had two lessons, the first of which was on equality.
The heart of pride is a sense that we are better than anyone else, very much like those of us who grew up in Texas, knew that we were better than any other state. What Paul tells them though is that every other Christian, including Paul, can have everything that they have. Here is how he puts it, in a rather Pauline, sarcastic manner. “So, let no one boast in human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all belong to you, (but here’s the twist) and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” In other words, all those things that you think make you and your leaders great… may be and actually are possessed by everyone else who follows Jesus. They have the same leaders, the same new life, the same escape from death, the same present with Jesus and the same future with God. And above all of this, they do not belong to their charismatic leaders but to Jesus and to God. What Paul is telling them is that being in Christ is the great equalizer; that there is equality which does not allow for one group of believers to get all puffed up with pride. Instead they are to remember that humility is a virtue they were to cultivate.
Lesson two is a lesson in gratitude. One of the fascinating things about being from Texas is that we act as if we were the ones who won independence from Mexico, or secretly put all that oil in the ground or off-shore in the Gulf of Mexico, or that we invented high school football. There is this great myth that we did it all ourselves, forgetting that all we had been given in the land and what is under it, was a gift from God. This is essentially what Paul tells the Corinthians. “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” All of those things that Paul told them they possessed, and other possessed as well…life, death, present and future are all given to them by God in Jesus Christ. They did not discover them. They did not build them. They did not earn them. They did not create them. They are all gift and the so the response ought not to be puffed up pride, but gratitude; a gratitude that gives thanks to God and connects them with Paul and one another. And thus, humility is a virtue they were to cultivate.
It would be easy to say that humility is a vanishing virtue, but as we can see from Paul it has never been a favorite virtue of the church or of society. Rather than being drawn to humility through equality and gratitude, human beings have been drawn to pride and power. Humility has been seen as weakness and surrender. Yet humility, is an essential quality for the life and work of the church. I say this because equality and gratitude make authentic Christian community possible. Without them, we are broken and divided. What I would like to do right now is to give you two challenges. First, turn and look around. As you do, remind yourself that each and every person you see is neither greater nor lesser than yourself. They are all a beloved child of God. Then when you leave here, see everyone you encounter in the same way, as one equal to you. Second, when the elements are passed, to fill your heart with gratitude for the gift of God’s love and grace in Christ, and let that gratitude drive all that you do and all that you are. And by these two actions, allow yourself to live in humility, thus making possible, authentic community, here and in the world.