At the direction of Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (UMC) and Bishop Laurie Larson Caesar (ELCA), all in-person worship and in-person meetings are suspended through March 28 in the interest of public health. You can find more information here: greaternw.org/category/blog/pastoral-letters/ . We will continue to follow the directions of government officials and our denominational leaders regarding how best to keep our communities safe.
Look for more information regarding online worship and other activities on the church Facebook page and the website: hoodriverchurch.org
The health prescription for COVID-19 is social distancing. However, social distancing has its own negative health consequences, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While meeting face-to-face is impossible, it is all the more important that we find other ways to connect with one another. On Sunday, I’ll be introducing a new plan to keep us connected.
In the meantime, I encourage you to keep in touch with one another and with your friends and family through telephone calls and video chats. Commit to making at least four calls every day. We human beings need connection with one another. It is part of our ministry in this time to reach out telephonically to make those connections happen. It is an expression of the love of God. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Please know that I am always available to talk with you. Let us all pray for wisdom and safety in this time of pandemic.
Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
Spirit of Grace, ELCA UMC
As concerns grow about COVID-19 and authorities are advising more “social distancing,” we are developing plans for how to stay connected in the event we cannot meet together in person. At this point, worship is still scheduled for this Sunday, March 15, but with extra precautions to limit points of contact. You’ll find the latest updates here and on the church’s Facebook page.
I pray that we will all to act wisely, but not fearfully.
Sunday 1 March 2020
The First Sunday in Lent
The story from Genesis is really weird. I know it’s a very familiar story, the story of Adam and Eve. It’s one of the best known stories in the bible. It might be the most familiar story in the bible. But that doesn’t keep it from being really weird. We’ve heard the story so many times, and we’ve been told so many times what it’s supposed to mean that we don’t usually notice. But if you take time to notice the details, it is very strange. And it really doesn’t square very well with our usual understandings of God.
The first thing to notice is that the story of Adam and Eve is not the same story as the six days of creation in Genesis 1. They are completely separate and incompatible stories of how God created the universe. The bible actually has several different creation stories, and they don’t agree with each other, but it is quite interesting that it starts off in Genesis 1-3 with two different stories of creation that don’t match. Genesis 1 is the six days of creation. God speaks and creation takes shape. First God separates light and darkness, then God separates ocean and sky, then ocean and land. Then God makes plants. Then God makes the sun and moon and stars. Then God makes fish and birds. Then God makes all the land animals and finally humans, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Finally, God takes a day to rest, observing the first Sabbath.
But then in Genesis 2:4, a completely new story of creation starts. And it happens totally differently. God starts by making earth and sky. Then, before there are any plants or animals of any kind, God creates Adam from the earth. Adam is the Hebrew word for human, and the word for earth is adamah. It’s not until after Adam is created that God starts planting a garden, including the two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God tells Adam not to eat from those trees, but Eve still hasn’t been created yet. Then God starts making animals, trying to make something that will be a good helper for Adam, but none of them are right. Finally, God breaks Adam into two parts. The larger part is called ish, or man. The smaller part becomes ishah, or woman. Adam and Eve.
The two stories are completely different. God uses different methods for creating things, and God creates them in a different order. The two stories don’t even agree about the name of God. It’s two different stories, from two different places, from two different time periods, that eventually got collected together and placed side by side here at the beginning of Genesis. That’s not the main point I want to make about the creation story this morning. That’s not what makes the Adam and Eve story weird. But it’s important to know that these are two different stories, and that many of us have gone for years reading through Genesis without noticing.
But let’s move on to the story of Adam and Eve. Even though it appears second, it’s the older of the two stories. It comes to us from a time before monotheism, a time before people believed there was just one God. They thought that their God, Yahweh, the Lord God, was the greatest of the gods, but they thought that there were other gods around as well. That will become important later in the story.
In the passage we have from today, God has already created Adam, but no other land animals. He shows Adam the two trees at the center of the Garden of Eden—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We might call it the tree of morality. If you eat from the tree, you know the difference between right and wrong. And God tells Adam not to eat from that tree. God says that if he eats from it, he will immediately die.
So let’s stop right there. That is really strange. Why would God not want humans to know the difference between good and evil? Isn’t that kind of the main thing that God is supposed to be about? Isn’t a huge amount of the Bible taken up with God trying to encourage us to do good and to avoid evil, to choose what is right over what is wrong, to live a moral and righteous life? It’s impossible to do that if we can’t even tell the difference between good and evil. So why is God try to prevent humans from getting that knowledge?
It’s also strange because what God tells Adam isn’t actually true. God threatens that if Adam eats from the tree that he will die on the same day. That isn’t true. He does eat from the tree later, but it doesn’t cause him to die. In fact, he goes on to live. In fact, according to Genesis 5, Adam goes on to live for another several hundred years. He doesn’t die until he’s 930 years old. What God says to him is simply not true: “In the day that you eat of it you will die.” It sounds like the kind of over-the-top threat that parents sometimes make. If you do that, I’ll ground you until you’re 30 years old. But it’s definitely not true. Which is very strange.
The reading for today then jumps ahead. In the part that is skipped, Eve is created from Adam’s rib. Which means that she never gets the warning not to eat from the tree at the center of the garden. Presumably she only has a second-hand warning from Adam.
In any case, our next scene opens with Eve and Adam having a conversation with the snake, who is described as the most intelligent animal in the garden. Notice that this snake is never described as the devil. It’s just a snake who is talking with Eve. It reads kind of like a folktale, with talking animals who act like humans. The conversation is between Eve and the snake, but it’s revealed in verse 6 that Adam is there the whole time. He just doesn’t say anything.
So Eve and the snake have a conversation about the sacred tree while Adam stands by listening. The snake asks if God really said that they shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden, and Eve corrects the snake, that they can eat from any tree except the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that if they eat from that tree, they will die.
But the snake disagrees. The snake says, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So here’s another weird thing. The snake is right. What God said about the tree isn’t true, but what the snake says about the tree actually is true. Do you see what I meant about this being a weird story? It is a really weird story.
As we know, both of the humans do eat from the tree, and just as the snake predicted, they don’t die, and they become a little more like God. They gain moral reasoning. They gain he ability to know good from evil. We might say, they grow up. Of course, God is not pleased. God curses the snake and Adam and Eve, and expels them from the garden.
But why exactly? In one sense, it’s obvious. God is upset that they were disobedient. But before they ate the fruit, they didn’t even know right from wrong. It’s not until after they eat the fruit that they realize that it was wrong for them to disobey God. And why did God want to keep them from knowing the difference between right and wrong in the first place? Why wouldn’t God want people to know the difference between good and evil? That’s just very odd.
And the answer to that is given a little later in the story, in Genesis 3:22. It appears that it’s because the gods are jealous of humans. Here’s the quote: “The Lord God said, ‘The human being has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’”
Remember what I said about this story being older than monotheism, the idea that there is only one God? What seems to be happening in this story is that the gods are afraid of the humans. There are two things that separate animals from gods. The first is their ability to reason. The second is immortality. The humans have begun to bridge the gap. Humans are now able to reason, they have the knowledge of good and evil. The gods know that that is halfway to become a god. If the humans are allowed to eat from the tree of immortality, then they will be just like the gods, and presumably, that means that they would be a threat to the gods. As in the stories of so many other ancient cultures, the gods are afraid that they will be overthrown by a new group of gods, in this case, by humans.
Do you see what I mean that this is a strange story? This is an incredibly familiar story, but it presents an image of God that is so unlike the image of God we are used to. This is a jealous, capricious God who is afraid that if humans learn the difference between right and wrong, they might become a threat to God’s position. I shouldn’t be spending as much time as I am on it, but I just can’t resist pointed out just how strange this story really is. It is ancient, and it is, in many ways, quite foreign.
The Apostle Paul picks up on the themes of the Adam and Eve story in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Romans. He compares the first human being, Adam, with the person he thinks of as the new Adam, Jesus the Christ.
The main detail Paul latches onto is that Adam commits the first sin. In eating from the fruit of the knowledge tree, Adam disobeys God. Oddly, Paul doesn’t mention Eve here. I’m not sure whether to congratulate him for not putting all of the blame on Eve, on the woman—like so many theologians have wrongly done—or whether to be upset that he has written her completely out of the story.
In any case, as Paul understands it, this first sin has a number of consequences. Sin enters the world. Along with sin, death enters the world. In Paul’s understanding, the nature of human life changes in this moment. Humans are now under the control of sin and death. Paul doesn’t think God starts keeping a strict tally sheet of sins until after Moses comes along and reveals God’s law. After all, can people really be held accountable for breaking laws that they have never heard? Nonetheless, they are still subject to death. All of this, Paul argues, follows from Adam’s first sin of disobedience. At some level, Adam can be blamed for every sin that comes after his.
It’s important for Paul to establish that all sin is ultimately the result of just one person’s action because he is about to argue that just one person’s action can break the power of sin and of death. When Jesus is unjustly killed, when he sheds his blood like one of the animal sacrifices that people used to make for sin, he wipes out the power of sin with the many-times greater power of God’s grace. Not only that, but when Jesus is raised from the dead, he destroys the power of death. Just one person, Adam, did something that brought sin and death to everyone. Just one person, Jesus, does something that destroys the power of sin and death, not just for himself, but for everyone.
Now we can argue about just what happened in the garden, or what it is that Adam and Eve did wrong, or whether Paul is really understanding the story about Eden. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a very weird story, and therefore, it can be somewhat confusing.
But no matter what we think about those questions, the point that Paul makes about Jesus is absolutely right. He says it over and over in this passage, no matter how much sin you and I and the entire human family might accumulate, God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is not just a little bit more powerful, it is many times more powerful. “The free gift of Christ isn’t like Adam’s failure. If many people died through what one person did wrong, God’s grace is multiplied even more for many people with the gift—of the one person Jesus Christ—that comes through grace.”
God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for me. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for you. God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ is enough for the whole human family. In fact, it is many times more than enough. Our sin is dwarfed by God’s grace.
In this season of Lent, when we tend to focus more on our sin, to try to find ways to live more closely with God’s intention for us, it is enormously important to remember God’s grace. You and I can never make up for all of our mistakes, for all of the ways that we have hurt God and one another, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly. But we stand in the power of God’s grace, a grace that is more than sufficient for us. In fact, it is only by God’s grace that we can begin to stand up to the power of sin in our world.
As we reflect on our lives this Lent, we aren’t trying to clean up our lives to make them presentable for God. No, we are accepting God’s grace into our lives, to transform us, a grace that has already conquered our sin, a grace that has already righted the scales, a grace that has already broken even the power of death. Thanks be to God, who in Jesus overwhelms us with grace and leads us forward to share that grace with our world.
Sunday 23 February 2020
And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. He was transfigured. It’s not a word that we use very often: transfigure. Pretty much only when we’re talking about this particular event in Jesus’s life. It comes to us from Old French and from latin, and it means, to transform into something more beautiful or elevated. In other words, we get our definition of this word from the Biblical event. So that doesn’t help us very much in understanding what it means.
But the word from the original Greek might actually be more familiar: μετεμορφώθη, metamorphosis. It’s a compound word in Greek. Meta: to change. Morph: form or shape or substance. Metamorph: to change form or shape or substance.
In science, we use the word metamorphosis to describe a transformation that takes place in insects and amphibians. Metamorphosis: the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Like a tadpole transforming into a frog or a caterpillar transforming into a chrysalis and then transforming into a butterfly. It’s a process of maturing, but the end result, the adult form, is wholly unlike the form that came before. The tadpole goes from breathing water with gills to breathing air with lungs. The caterpillar goes from crawling around eating leaves to flying through the sky eating nectar from flowers.
Another definition for metamorphosis is “a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.” Similar to what we saw with the insects and amphibians, one thing changes into something completely different. And yet it still remains the same being. It is still the same creature, still the same person, even though the new form may not be recognizable at all from the first.
So Jesus, a first-century Palestinian Jew in his early thirties, a traveling preacher, a healer, a rabbi. He goes up on the mountain with a few of his followers, away from everyone else, and he is transfigured, he is metamorphosed. He is transformed before their eyes from one form, to something completely different. Matthew tells us that Jesus’s face shone like the sun, and that his robe was as white as pure light. In other words, his appearance was completely indescribable. He was unlike anything they had ever seen before.
You might recognize this description of Jesus. It’s similar to the way Jesus is described in the first chapter of Revelation. “I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed in a long robe. His head and his hair were white as wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire… and his face was like the sun shining at full force.”
Peter and James and John, up on that mountain, get to see on earth what even the very select few only get to see in a heavenly vision. They see Jesus Christ in his glory, the heavenly Christ, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Jesus that stands beyond the cross, beyond the grave, having conquered the powers of both sin and death. They see as the earthly Jesus is transformed into the cosmic Christ, full of grace, and power, and truth. Something that looks completely different, almost unrecognizable, and yet is still the same being, is still the same person.
Now that is what I call a mountaintop experience. It’s definitely one of the most magical moments in the Bible, and it’s probably where we get the very term, mountaintop experience. These three disciples are witness to an amazing revelation of the glory and majesty of God. They get to experience God’s power and beauty firsthand, directly, with their own eyes.
Not many people get to have an experience like that. Moses does on Mount Sinai. Elijah does on Mount Horeb. And Peter, James, and John do on this unnamed mountain. But these days, those kinds of mystical experiences are few and far between. Not many people alive today can claim to have had such a vivid experience of the living Christ.
And yet, there are those times, aren’t there. There are those mountaintop experiences. Those times when the veil that separates the earthly realm from the divine realm seems particularly thin. There are those times when our hearts feel absolutely assured of the love and presence of God.
For many Christians, the moment of conversion, that time when they first accept Jesus into their hearts, is a mountaintop experience. They feel, almost physically, the presence of Christ in their lives in a way that is indescribably real.
Many people have mountaintop experiences when they are out in nature. Seeing the awesome beauty of the Gorge, watching the whitewater power of the Hood or White Salmon rivers, experiencing, the mossy explosion of life in the forest, looking up at the striking presence of Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams, or even seeing the view from those impressive mountaintops. These types of experiences somehow remind us of the awesomeness, the absolute enormity of God, and the profound complexity of God’s creation. And we can find ourselves truly resting in God’s presence, fully aware of the nearness of God.
And many encounter the real presence of God in the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, when by the power of the Holy Spirit, simple bread and ordinary wine and grape juice are transformed, metamorphosed, into the Body and Blood of Christ for us. It can be a profoundly mystical experience, receiving this blessed sacrament, and encountering Christ, in the flesh, as it were.
Mountaintop experiences, no matter what form they take, can be absolutely mind-blowing and earth-shaking. But what happens when the experience is over? What do we do when it’s time to come down from the mountain? Is it over? Are we left with nothing but a memory of what we had seen, heard, or tasted of God’s presence? Is it just something to look fondly back on when we are feeling down?
No. Because a mountaintop experience is not just about viewing some manifestation of God, it isn’t just about experiencing God’s presence. No, a mountaintop experience is about allowing the real presence of God to transform you. It’s about allowing the experience of God to metamorphose you. Because it will. Your experience of the living Christ can and will transform you. It might change the form or nature of you into a completely new one. It might transform your immature form into an adult form, in two or more distinct phases, just like the butterfly.
You see, the transfiguration of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues. It moves beyond that event on a Palestinian hilltop to transfigure us, to transfigure you and me. It takes our incomplete form, and it transforms us, it metamorphoses us into something new, something that might be almost unrecognizable from our former selves, but is still the same being, still the same person. Made new, washed clean, sanctified, and reformed into the image we were created with, the very image of God.
Sunday 16 February 2020
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
It seems like Paul is calling for unity. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow,” he says. In other words, why are you dividing yourselves into factions, some who say they’re following me and some who say they’re following Apollos? Don’t you realize that we’re both doing God’s work? There isn’t a difference. Don’t divide yourselves on our accounts. We both have the same message. We’re both saying the same thing. Don’t make a decision between me and Apollos. There’s no difference between us.
That’s what it seems like Paul is doing. It seems like he’s being generous, magnanimous. It seems like he’s saying “Can’t we all just get along?”
That’s not what he’s doing. He’s not asking everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbayah. What he’s actually doing is much more cunning.
Over the last several Sundays, we’ve been reading through the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The story of the church in Corinth is a story of division. Paul has heard reports that there are several factions developing in the congregation. Some say that they’re part of Paul’s faction. Some say that they’re part of Apollos’s faction. Some say they are part of Peter’s faction. Others say that they are the only one’s who are actually following Christ. However, the main conflict seems to be between those who are following Paul and those who are following Apollos. Paul had been in Corinth first. He had founded the Christian community. After Paul went on to start churches in other communities, a new missionary named Apollos had come to town. And he had perhaps brought different views than Paul’s. We know very little about the actual message of Apollos. What we do know is that the messages of Paul and Apollos have become part of a reason for discord in Corinth.
From what we can tell, the church in Corinth is divided largely over class and status. Those known as the strong are generally upper-class people, those who own property and have relative control over their economic lives. They are educated, trained in philosophy, and are patrons. Those known as the weak come from the lower classes of society. They are slaves, peasants, or poor laborers. In general, they are uneducated and have little control over their economic lives.
The strong have a powerful sense of their freedom in Christ. They claim to have great wisdom and spiritual gifts. Their freedom in Christ means that they don’t pay much attention to issues of purity. They don’t believe that the traditional gods exist, so they don’t worry about the appearance that they might be worshipping idols during certain political and cultural activities.
This is pretty scandalous to the weak, though. They take the traditional gods very seriously. Before they had become Christians, they had worshipped the Roman gods, and now they consider them to be demons. They are very careful not to show any appearance of worshipping these idols. This means that they can’t take part in many of the cultural and political activities of the time.
In the section of First Corinthians today, Paul sounds like he’s asking the two sides to sort out their differences and get along. He’s actually taking sides. He is appealing to the strong on their own terms, but he is taking the side of the weak.
The strong are very proud of their wisdom, their education, and their spiritual prowess. They can display their elevated status with impressive spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues. Paul begins chapter 3 by cutting them down to size. He mocks their supposed wisdom and their spiritual enlightenment. Paul tells them that they are so unspiritual that he had to treat them like babies. He couldn’t even share his true spiritual wisdom with them because their faith was so infantile. They wouldn’t have been able to process it. Paul’s wisdom would have made them sick.
The strong in Corinth no doubt think that they have progressed a long way since their beginnings in the faith when Paul was with them. But Paul insists that they have not. Paul tells them that they are still spiritual babies. Paul can’t even share his elevated spiritual wisdom with them because their delicate spiritual constitutions couldn’t handle it.
Paul goes on to tell the strong that their supposed wisdom and spiritual enlightenment are completely meaningless. They think that they are wise, but Paul is much wiser. Paul receives his wisdom directly from God. Paul gets revelations directly from the Holy Spirit. The reason that they aren’t already seeing things from Paul’s point of view is because they don’t have access to the Holy Spirit. They are so clueless that they can’t even realize that Paul has access to the greatest wisdom that there is.
Paul appears to be striking a note of conciliation when he says that he himself planted their faith and that Apollos watered it, but that it is God who made it grow. Each of us had our role. But there is an edge to Paul’s comparison of himself and Apollos. Planting and watering aren’t of equal importance. Planting the seed is more important, more meaningful. The actual content of the faith comes in the planted seed. Watering only aides in the growth of the thing has already been planted. It’s the one who plants who has control over what kind of plant is going to grow. The one watering has no control over that.
The point becomes even more clear as Paul shifts metaphors in the second half of chapter 3. He describes himself as a master builder who built the foundation of the faith of the church in Corinth. No one else can build a new foundation that is other than the foundation that Paul has built. Many other people can try to build on top of Paul’s foundation, but each one of them will be judged by the quality of their work. And Paul implies that the building that Apollos and others are doing is not sound. He says, “Whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.” Paul has built a strong foundation of stone, but anyone who tries to build on top of it with straw, well, their shoddy work will be revealed and ultimately destroyed.
It is quite remarkable how Paul can use very friendly-sounding words in a way that is designed to prove himself right against his detractors. But he isn’t just doing it for his ego. Paul isn’t just being crafty with his words because he wants to be right. He’s doing it because he’s defending the weak. Paul is doing this because he is concerned with justice.
Paul knows that the weak in Corinth are being mistreated and left behind. Just as one example, when it is time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, something that at the time involved an entire meal, the strong come early with lots of fine food to share. The weak can only come after they have finished working, and by then all of the food is gone. The strong want the weak to stay in their place and to be happy with the scraps that are left over.
Paul isn’t calling for peace here, he’s calling for justice. It’s not that hard to have peace without justice. So long as the oppressed stay in their place, it’s easy to have peace. If the powerful are taking advantage of the powerless and there is no recourse, it’s easy to have peace. It’s much harder to have peace with justice.
I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” While he and many others were in jail for protesting segregation in Birmingham, several high-ranking white clergymen, including two Methodist bishops, wrote a letter called “A Call for Unity” that was published in local newspapers. In it, they urged that demonstrations cease and that those seeking racial equality use other, less disruptive means to get their point across.
From his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response that included these words: “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection….
“You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.”… Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
Too often those who are relatively comfortable wish for peace instead of justice. Too often we prefer a calm status quo than a noisy and disruptive movement toward the Kingdom of God. We shouldn’t be misled by Paul’s clever rhetoric. He is not calling for a thin peace; he is calling for a robust justice in which the weak are no longer abused by the strong.
We too, if we have the courage, can follow Jesus’s radical call for justice. We too can stand up for those who are being abused, for those who are being mistreated, for those who are being excluded and minimized and brushed aside. We can choose not to be content with a false unity that hides injustice, but to embrace the struggle for a justice that leads to true peace. That is the imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is our calling as Christians. That is the work of the Kingdom of God. Not to be happy with quiet injustice, but to work for true peace with justice. May God give us the courage to follow.
Sunday 9 February 2020
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Paul tells the Corinthians: when I came to you, I came in weakness. I stood in front of you with weakness. This passage is actually used when a new bishop comes to their cathedral for the first time. I’m thinking of the Episcopal Church here, but it might be true in the Roman Catholic Church, as well. The bishop comes to the front door of the church, which is closed. They take the shepherd’s staff that is the symbol of their office—it’s called a crozier—and they bang on the door with it. Someone lets them in and asks them who they are and what they are doing there. Part of the bishop’s response is “I come to you in weakness, determined to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified.” It gives the sense of the leader being humble. It gives the impression that the bishop doesn’t want to lord over the people with any sort of superior knowledge. It’s a nice sentiment. It affirms the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all Christians, the idea that everyone has an equal ability to understand the faith, that no Christian is any better or more wise than any other. I came to you in weakness.
However, it doesn’t actually have much to do with what Paul seems to be talking about in this letter. When Paul talks about weakness, he means something very specific. In fact, this is one of the keys to understanding all of 1 Corinthians. For Paul, the problems in the church in Corinth have to do with a division between two groups of people. And he refers to those two groups of people as the weak and the strong. We don’t know the exact definition of these two groups. Both Paul and the people of Corinth already know who it is that Paul is talking about. He doesn’t have to explain. We are reading other people’s mail 2000 years later, so we have to make some guesses about what was going on. But here’s our best guess about what Paul means by weak and strong.
As best as we can tell, the people Paul refers to as strong are people of means. They might own their own farms and business ventures. They generally don’t have to do physical labor for their living. They are educated, and education in the Roman world means rhetoric and philosophy. They know Plato and Aristotle. But that doesn’t mean that they are philosophers themselves. Instead, they hire philosophers to instruct them in wisdom, but those philosophers are their social inferiors, like the private tutors in the house of a wealthy or noble person. The strong think of themselves as above superstition, especially when it comes to the practice of their new Christian faith. Through discipline, they think they can control their wills and also their bodies. Through physical and spiritual exercise, they can sculpt themselves into better people. Because of their training in philosophy, they tend to think of the traditional Roman gods—like Jupiter, Mars, and Minerva—as more mythology than reality. So when they statues of the gods in temples and shrines, they think of them as just statues, not the embodiment of real, spiritual beings. In the ancient world, meat was usually sacrificed to a god before it was distributed to people. Since the strong don’t think those gods exist, they aren’t worried about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Since they don’t really believe in the traditional gods, and since they think they can control their own bodies, they aren’t worried about being polluted by things like idol meat or sex with prostitutes. They tend not to be very impressed by the idea of a bodily resurrection. Instead, they favor the Greek philosophical understanding of the afterlife, the idea that the spirit leaves the body and is joined with God. When they come together for the Lord’s Supper, they bring plenty of fancy food to eat. They also tend to be very interested in spiritual gifts, and are the sorts of folks who are likely to speak in tongues and have ecstatic visions.
The weak, on the other hand, are from the lower classes of society. They would include slaves, laborers, and maybe some small-time tradespeople. They don’t own much. Often they themselves are owned. Their time is not their own, and they spend nearly all of it working. They aren’t educated and are probably illiterate. Few can even write their own names. At least before they hear the message of Christ, they had believed in and been devoted to the traditional Roman gods: Apollo, Minerva, Mars, Jupiter. They understand the world to be inhabited by all kinds of spirits, both good spirits and evil spirits. They don’t have the kinds of resources, leisure, or freedom to try to sculpt their bodies and minds. In fact, many don’t even own their bodies. If their masters decide to use them for sex, they have no choice in the matter. Because everything in the world is filled with spiritual power, they are scared of being polluted by things like meat that has been sacrificed to idols. They probably can’t afford to eat meat that isn’t sacrificed to idols, so they don’t eat meat at all. They don’t have a concept of an immortal soul, so they are very interested in the idea of bodily resurrection. They don’t have the freedom of their time, so by the time they are able to make it to the Lord’s Supper, all of the food has already been eaten. They are unlikely to be interested in the showier of the spiritual gifts. They are common people.
These are overgeneralizations, but it should give you some sense of the conflict in Corinth. The strong are people of privilege who are used to controlling their destinies and having their own ways. They aren’t at the uppermost levels of Roman society, but in Corinth they are patrons. They demand respect. In general, the poor work for them, or for other higher-class people. They are workers or slaves.
Paul has a very interesting stance regarding this division between the weak and the strong. He insists to the strong that he is even stronger than they are. He doesn’t need them to give him a salary because he doesn’t need a patron. He’s not like some hired tutor. He has his own authority. He is educated in philosophy and rhetoric. He has spiritual gifts that are even more impressive than those displayed by the strong of Corinth. He has complete spiritual control of himself. If they want to have a competition about who is stronger, then Paul insists that he far exceeds anyone else at Corinth.
However, at the same time, Paul insists that he comes as one who is weak. That’s what he’s doing in this part of the letter. Paul sets aside his strength and becomes weak, for the sake of the weak. This is Paul’s refrain throughout the letter. Although he is strong, he sets it all aside and shows solidarity with the weak. He tells the strong in Corinth that they should imitate him in doing this.
So when Paul says to the Corinthians, “I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified. I stood in front of you with weakness.” When he says that, he is simultaneously saying that he is not beholden to the strong and that he stands with the weak. He is not like some philosopher who dazzles with fancy words and wisdom and expects to be hired on in the houses of the wealthy. He is not going to be afraid to upset their refined sensibilities about the scandal of the cross. And he is going to identify himself with the weak, not because he can only be weak, but because he chooses, from a position of strength, to be weak. He knows that idols are not really gods, but he still won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, because he doesn’t want to create a spiritual crisis for the weak. But neither will he bow to the strong and their puffed-up sense of self-justification.
This is what Paul thinks is the difference between Godly wisdom and worldly wisdom. The world honors the accomplishments of the rich. The world respects people who have enough means to live at leisure. The world is impressed by those who can exercise power in the world. But God isn’t impressed with any of that. God honors those who have nothing. God respects those that have to work to survive. God is impressed by those who have no power to exert, not even power over their own bodies.
That is, after all, how Jesus achieved the victory, by giving over his own body to be tortured and killed. That is why Paul preaches Christ crucified, the very image of powerlessness, and yet, the profoundest expression of God’s power. Because it is in weakness that God finds strength. It is among the powerless that God finds power. It is among the poor that God finds the greatest riches.
Sunday 26 January 2020
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
They were no better than we are. Did you notice? Even in Paul’s time there was division in the church. There’s been division in the church from the beginning. Sometimes we have a tendency to look back fondly on the time of the early church and to imagine that they had everything figured out, that they were pure, and righteous, and united in a way that we are not. In the beginning, they had the real message, they were real disciples, and their church had not yet been perverted by the world, like our church is now.
Nope. According to Paul, that’s not how things went. From the very beginning, there were arguments. There were disagreements over doctrine. There were fights over what the Christian message meant and what it meant to be a good Christian. There were fights over rituals and practice. There were fights over who was in and who was out, who was blessed and who was unredeemable.
According to Paul, there seem to be at least four different factions or parties of Christians in the church at Corinth, each identifying themselves with a different early Christian leader. Some have chosen Paul as their hero. Others have chosen the famously eloquent Christian, Apollos. Still others have rallied around Cephas—which is the Aramaic name for Peter. We know from other biblical writings that Paul and Peter had their fair share of disagreements about what it meant to follow Christ and how those who follow Jesus should live. Finally, some partisans have claimed that they are the only people who are truly following Christ, not some later apostle.
It’s no wonder we have so many disagreements amongst churches today, no wonder we have so many denominations and arguments and divisions. Even in the first generation of the church, Christians couldn’t agree on what the whole Christian message and mission were all about.
I know a lot of us are anxious about the unity of The United Methodist Church. I’ve heard some of you calling it the Divided Methodist Church. There has been division in our denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. And it is beginning to look as though the only way to include all people in the church is to divide it. In fact, listen to the name of one of the more popular plans. It’s called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” Reconciliation through Separation. That sounds like an oxymoron. And yet, at the same time, it is in many ways an accurate description of the current crisis and its proposed solutions. Which is more true to Christ gospel: to maintain one denomination and exclude LGBTQ+ persons, or to divide the church so that part of it can be inclusive?
Of course, if The United Methodist Church does divide, there won’t be two different Methodist denominations in the United States. Don’t forget, there is also Free Methodist Church, the Christian Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the Nazarenes, the Wesleyans… There are, in fact, already at least 23 Methodist denominations just in the United States, twenty four, if we include Canada. Twenty-four. How much more divided would things be if there were 25 instead?
It’s not the same in the Lutheran Church, as I’m sure you know. Lutherans in North America aren’t divided up into 24 different denominations. No, Lutherans are divided up into more than 40 different denominations. And again, that’s only in the US and Canada. Worldwide, the numbers are almost incalculable.
My group follows Paul. No, my group follows Apollos; he’s an amazing preacher. No, my group follows Peter, the first of the disciples. No, all of you are wrong. My group is the only one that really follows Christ. Division and schism certainly didn’t start with us. It was there from the beginning. And while our brokenness is painful, while it is sinful, it is at least understandable.
Paul does warn the church in Corinth against these kinds of divisions, against this kind of schism. Mocking their factionalism, he asks them, “Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He wants everyone to focus on the saving message of the Messiah. That’s why he goes into that whole convoluted argument about how he wasn’t sent to baptize. He’s not very successful at it, though. He boldly declares: “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you!” He’s trying to say that no one in Corinth can claim special authority because they were baptized personally by Paul. But then he seems to remember that, in fact, he did baptize two people. He baptized Crispus and Gaius. And after he has remembered the two of them, it occurs to him that he also baptized the entire household of Stephanas. Finally he says that and he’s not sure if he might have baptized a few other people while he was there. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want anyone to be able to use him as an excuse for breaking the church into parts.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Truth be told, Paul wants everyone to agree with him. He’s really not about to give an inch. You’re never going to hear him say, “You know, Peter and I disagree on a few things, but it’s fine if you do things Peter’s way.” Never. In fact, we can check the transcript. Peter and Paul also disagreed on the subject of inclusion. And here’s what Paul has to say about it in Galatians 2. (Remember, when Paul refers to Peter, he uses his Aramaic name: Cephas.) Here’s what he writes:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promote circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy os that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?’”
Yeah. Paul isn’t really about bend when it comes to theological disagreements. He’s not the live-and-let-live sort. But he still insists that he should not be the grounds for division. He is nothing more than a messenger of Jesus’s pure message. No one should accuse him of being a partisan.
In particular, Paul says that he was not sent as an apostle in order to baptize. That’s kind of funny, because we know from the Book of Acts that Paul and Apollos had different understandings of baptism, at least for a time. But Paul seems to want to sidestep that difference. Paul wasn’t sent to baptize. Instead, he was sent as an apostle in order to preach. The Greek word is εὐαγγελίζεσθαι—evangelize. It means to bring the good news. It’s often used when talking about imperial announcements. If the emperor won a battle or if the emperor had a son or if the emperor was deified: that was the subject of typical good news. That’s what evangelism was.
But Paul has a very different kind of good news to share. He says something very strange about it: he proclaims the good news “not with eloquent words, so that the cross of Christ might not be drained of its power.” What on earth is that about?
Well, let’s think again about the usual good news: imperial proclamations. They would always be proclaimed with eloquent words. Rhetoric was a highly prized skill in the Greco-Roman world. It was the most important part of Roman education, by far. Court cases were usually decided based on the skill of the rhetoric, not on the weight of the evidence. In many cases, the eloquence of words was everything.
But Paul says that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the eloquence of words. Again, this might be a dig at Apollos, who was known as an eloquent speaker. But Paul doesn’t want to be judged on the power of his rhetoric. He thinks that the power of his message comes from something else. It comes from the cross.
Now, that might not sound very strange to you and me. We are trained to think of the cross as powerful. But it would have been completely unthinkable in Paul’s time. Remember, good news usually meant news about the victories of the emperor. Good news was about raw, military power, the ability of Rome to utterly crush any opposition, whether foreign or domestic. Crucifixion was one of the ways that they enforced that power. Rome crucified thousands of people. It was a form of execution that was reserved for rebels and political dissidents. It was meant to be humiliating. It was meant to show just what happens to those who dare to stand up to Rome: they die utterly powerless, nailed up on a cross like a piece of meat. It was completely dehumanizing.
So you can imagine, a cross was never associated with power, at least, not with the power of the one being crucified. The cross quite literally drained its victims of power. But Paul has a completely unbelievable message about the cross. It is the exact opposite of what anyone would ever expect.
Paul says that he is a messenger of good news, but his good news doesn’t need any fancy rhetoric or eloquent words. Just look at the fact of the cross, Paul says, that’s all the power that you need. For Paul, the cross means exactly the opposite of what it usually means. It is usually a means of humiliation. But in the case of Jesus it means something different. You see, Jesus overcame the humiliation of the cross. Jesus overcame the crushing power of the cross. Jesus overcame the ultimate death of the cross. What had been a sign of humiliation became a sign of glory. What had been an instrument of torture became a means of grace. What had been the power of death became the power of everlasting life.
Because that is the unlikely, counterintuitive message of the gospel. The Kingdom of God is not about political power or military might. The Son of God chooses to come to us not as a warrior or as a king, but as a teacher and a healer. The Messiah chooses to spend his time not with the rich and the righteous, but with the poor and with sinners. The Christ chooses to take on our frail human form and to take the road that leads to the cross. God’s greatest power is made perfect in weakness. It is through dying that Jesus breaks the power of death. It is through the scandal of the humiliation of the cross that Christ’s glory is revealed. It is Christ’s self-emptying that we see his power.
I can stand here all day preaching my most finely crafted words, or someone more eloquent than I could do the same. We would never speak a word as profound as the grace and love that is revealed in the cross of Jesus. He became human for us. He died for us. He is resurrected for us. Thanks be to God.
Sunday 19 January 2020
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Most scholars agree that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah isn’t written by just one author. In fact, it was probably written over the span of a few hundred years. Scholars usually divide it into three sections, and each section is thought to have been written in a different historical context. The first section, called First Isaiah, was likely written in Judah during the time of the historical prophet named Isaiah. It was just as the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were expanding and threatening the independence of the two Jewish kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Judah held out longer. They sustained several attacks from the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who replaced them, but Jerusalem finally fell to the Babylonians in 597 BCE. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and many Jews were deported to Babylon. The so-called Babylonian Captivity lasted for seventy years. This is the period when Second Isaiah was written, during the crisis when there was no temple in which to worship God, and many of God’s people were exiled from their homeland. The final section of the prophetic book, referred to as Third Isaiah, was written after the Babylonian captivity, when the Persians had conquered Babylonian, Jews were allowed to return to Palestine, and the temple was being rebuilt.
The passage that we have today from the Book of Isaiah is from Second Isaiah. So this is during the time when there is no temple in Jerusalem and many of God’s people are in captivity in Babylon. It is hard to overstate what a huge crisis this is for the people of Israel. For as long as anyone could remember, their religious practiced had been focussed on the temple and on the land. Now they didn’t have either. How could they worship God if they had no temple to worship in? How could they even talk about God if they were no longer in the land that God had promised them? Did their God even exist any more? Had the God of Israel been defeated by Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? Was this the end?
But it wasn’t the end. In fact, it is during this period of captivity that much of the bible came to be written. Stories that had been floating around and scraps of writings were collected, edited, brought together, and producing into something that was the beginning of our bible. If religion could not be practiced in the promised land, and if God could not be worshiped in the temple, then something else would have to take its place. And that something was scripture. That something was story and song, law code and myth, poetry and prophecy. If they could not build a temple out of stone, they would build a temple of parchment and ink. If they could not worship their God with burnt sacrifices, then they would worship their God with song and study. If they could not return to their homeland, then the stories of their faith would be their home.
This is the context from which our reading today springs. The people are looking forward to a time when, they pray, they will be able to return home, bring back the people who have been scattered, rebuild a temple, and perhaps return to life as it was meant to be. But that time has not yet come, and no one is sure if it ever will. But they long for it. They long for a return to the way things used to be.
And that’s a feeling the church can identify with in this age, isn’t it? We often long for a return to the way things used to be. We sometimes feel like we’ve been taken away from the place that felt like home. A good portion of the people here grew up in a time when church dominated society. For many of you, the church was the center of the town that you grew up in. Church activities came first, and everything else had to be scheduled around them. Church was the place people came not only to worship and also for social activity. It was expected that every upright citizen be connected to a church. It was expected that everyone come to church every Sunday. It was expected that every child would be baptized, that every wedding happen in the church, that every funeral happen in the church.
That’s not the reality that we live in anymore. Especially in this part of the country, church is not at the top of most people’s priorities. Instead of church being the expected thing, now church is the exceptional thing. Most people don’t go to church at all, ever. The people who are connected to a church tend not to come as often as they used to. Church is not the primary thing defining people’s schedules. It is not the driving moral force in every community. It is not the center of social activity. It is not the thing that everyone is simply expected to do. The world has changed in a way that is beyond our control. And sometimes we simply feel left behind.
And so it’s normal to want to get back to where we were. It’s normal to try to figure out how we can bring everyone back. It’s normal to want to make things like they used to be.
That’s what the Jews in Babylon want to do. They want to bring everyone back to Jerusalem. They want to go back to how it used to be.
But God will not let them be content with just getting back to the way things used to be. That would be a hard enough job on its own. But God is still not satisfied with it. “It is not enough, since you are my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel.” It’s not enough to gather up all of the Jews who have been scattered by war and famine and forced migration. What else could God possibly expect from them? Even that task seems impossible. But no. “It is not enough to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the survivors of Israel. I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!” I will also appoint you as a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth!
It’s not enough to just bring the Jews back to Jerusalem. What is needed is to do something new. What is needed is to spread the message to those who have never heard it before. What is needed is to cross uncrossable social boundaries and share God’s message of liberating grace with the world. It’s not just for Jews any more. The good news has to be shared with the Gentiles. The good news has to be shared with the nations.
You know, they never do get things back to the way they used to be. Some Jews do return to Jerusalem, but more stay behind in Babylon, and they continue to develop the scriptural tradition. A temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, but it is never as grand as it had been before. After a few more centuries it is destroyed again, never to be rebuilt. They never get back to where they had been before. They never make things the way they used to be.
But they do do something new. They develop a scriptural tradition that will eventually transcend the need for a temple. They develop a moral tradition that inspires and attracts Gentiles, both common people and philosophers. And eventually they extend the message of God’s liberating grace to a much wider circle of people, a circle that now includes close to four billion people worldwide. The people of Israel become a light to the nations. According to Isaiah, Israel becomes God’s secret weapon:
“The Lord called me before my birth,
called my name when I was in my mother’s womb.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.
He made me a sharpened arrow,
and concealed me in God’s quiver,
saying to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I show my glory.”
I really like that image of God’s servant as a finely honed weapon, hidden away by God. I’m not always a fan of military imagery when it comes to God. It can often be very problematic, especially when it is preached by the powerful against the weak. But it’s important to notice here that the only weapon that is mentioned is words. “God made my mouth like a sharp sword, and hid me in the shadow of God’s own hand.” The weapon that God wields is the message of freedom, spoken by God’s servant. The weapon that God wields is the message of God’s own grace with humanity.
And what if God has known our names since before we were born? What if God has been honing us like a sword, hidden away for the right time? What if God is preparing to do something new with us in this world, not to get us back to the way things used to be, but to use us as a light to the nations?
For most of my time as your pastor, my office has been hidden snuggly away on the back of the lot where no one knows where to look for it, and the front doors of the church have remained locked most days. Now my office is right up front. Like, right up front. If I’m there, everyone can see it. It’s forward facing. Jennifer and I have both noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people who come in to talk to us. It is at least double, and perhaps quite a bit more than that. It’s both church people and people from the community. It makes a difference that we are forward facing.
Before we had our Open House and Building Dedication last week, a couple of you went out to invite folk in the houses that are nearest to us. It’s much of a walking neighborhood, but you made the effort to do it. I know that knocking on doors was not something that you were looking forward to doing. It’s not something we were ever trained for back when church was the center of the community. But afterward, I heard you say how meaningful the experience of knocking on doors had been for you. People wanted to hear from you. They wanted to be invited. They wanted to be heard by you. You took a risk, you let your light shine, and it made a difference. It made a difference to the people you talked with, and it made a difference to you, as well.
In the next year, I want us to think about what it means to be forward-facing with our faith. When we made our offices forward facing, it made a difference in how we connected with people. When some of you put your faith forward to knock on the doors of strangers, it made a difference. What else could happen if we face our faith forward? It’s not about getting back to where we used to be, it’s about looking ahead, facing forward in faith, and living as if we are God’s secret weapon, finely honed for such a time as this. That’s what a church called Spirit of Grace is called to do: to speak grace, to extend grace, to lead with grace. You’ve already begun. May God continue to lead you forward in faith, empower you as messengers of grace, and make you a light to the nations.