Growing Our Faith: Speaking Faith
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.
Growing Our Faith: Being Loving
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?”
Growing Our Faith: Dream Small
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
Growing Our Faith: Being Reminded
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?