Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, "Run With It"

Sermon 10/31/10
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Run With It

            I’ve never preached on Habakkuk before. It’s just one of those books of the Bible that doesn’t get a lot of play. You know, ones that, if you aren’t a regular Bible-reader, you might not have heard of before this morning. Habakkuk is one of the books in the Bible in the collection we call “minor prophets.” Minor prophets are just shorter books of prophecy than major books – they aren’t any less important. Not a lot is known about Habakkuk, the person. He was a contemporary of the more well-known prophet Jeremiah. His writings seem to come at the time around the 6th century BC when the kingdom of Babylon was becoming a greater and greater world power, and their takeover of Israel was a threat that was forming on the horizon. In other words, the people of Israel probably had a bad feeling about what was coming.
            Habakkuk’s writing is a dialogue between him and God. He has some questions, hard questions, to pose to God, and then he waits for God to answer. Our reading for today gets right into that conversation. Habakkuk wants to know: why is justice so long in coming? Why are bad things always happening? If God is just, why isn’t God intervening in this situation? Pretty timeless questions, right? “O Lord,” cries Habakkuk, “how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” Habakkuk says he’ll wait for God’s answer: “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.”
God does answer. In the next verses we hear: “Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
Earlier this month, as you know, the Parish Council went on a retreat at Vanderkamp. Paul Spero, the council chair, besides getting us lost in the woods, spent some time talking about and asking us about what our vision for the church was. We have a mission statement. I hope you are a bit familiar with it, because it appears in our bulletin insert every single Sunday. Our mission is “Growing together in our knowledge and love of God through Jesus Christ and sharing this with others.” That’s our mission. But what’s our vision? How do we expect to put our mission into practice?
Each person shared some thoughts about their own vision for the church. I won’t name names, since I didn’t ask everyone about sharing their words in advance, but I think I can give you the content of what was lifted up. Our vision is: Service, and doing for others. Being a helpful church. Reaching out. Being challenged, communicating Jesus and growing. The church is only as strong as its youngest members. Sharing our story and creating a space that makes that happen. Seek God’s view. Love. Joy. Think about long-term viability. Try non-traditional things, try blending old and new practices. Respecting a diversity of opinions. Forgiveness. Just because we’ve always done it or tried it before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it or try it again. God’s love, our love for each other, families, community. Respect, dignity, humility. A church you can come back to. Welcoming and family-oriented. And here’s what I said: I want this church to be a place where people’s lives change because they’ve encountered Christ. I want people to hear God’s call and learn how to respond to it.
“Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time.” Is there a vision here, friends? What do you see for this church? The last couple of weeks, as we’ve talked about giving and stewardship, we’ve been talking about the why questions. Vision is all about the why-questions. Why do you come here? Why is it important for you to come to church? And why would you want someone else to come here? What do you hope happens to you because of coming here? What would you want someone else to discover because of being in this place? Do we have a vision? Is it plain? It is visible? Is it apparent? Can we all be a part of it?
            Let me tell you more about how I would answer those questions. First, and foremost, we come here to worship God. We give thanks to God for our many blessings. We offer gifts back to God. We pray to God. We meditate on God’s word. We sing our praises. We come to worship. My vision is that we would worship with our whole hearts. With passion. With enthusiasm. With joy. How we do that, what form our worship takes, is not nearly as important as how invested our hearts and souls are when we’re worshipping. Honestly, I could find worship meaningful with only traditional music, or only contemporary songs, or only printed prayers, or only spontaneous prayers, with drama and dancing and noise, or with quiet, contemplative reflection – any of those work for me when I feel that I’m surrounded by people who are here to joyfully give thanks to God with their whole hearts. If there’s a way I can help you connect more in worship, please, seriously, let me know. What would capture your heart in praising God? Last night, some of us were treated to a wonderful concert by Richard Koons and friends. He sang quite a mix of songs – show tunes, ballads, hymns, show-stoppers. But everything he sang, he sang with a passion and commitment to what he was doing that was clear in his expression, his every gesture, and his tone. No one doubted his sincerity. That’s what I think worship is about – offering our whole hearts up to God.
            We come here – I want you to come here, to come here myself – to have our lives changed. Time is one of our most precious commodities, isn’t it? It seems like there is never enough time. We are such busy, busy people. To come here, to be a part of this church – that’s a commitment of some of your precious resource of time – to come for worship, for meetings, for activities, for youth group, for Sunday School or Bible Study. You commit your time. And yet, time is such a precious resource, why would we give it unless we’re a) required to or b) really consider what we’re giving our time to a priority in our lives. You aren’t required to be here. Ok, maybe some of our younger members have strong parental influences for being here. But mostly, you are here by choice. Some folks long for days when going to church was a cultural expectation – you just went to church because you were supposed to. But, although I’m sure that was great for attendance figures, I don’t wish for that. As we heard Rob Bell say last week – God wants nothing less than our hearts, freely given. God wants you to want a relationship with God, not to force one on you. I want my relationship with God, and my relationship with the church of Christ to be life-changing, or why bother? How has being here changed your life? If it hasn’t been changed, for you, in ways you can articulate, I encourage you to wonder: is there a way you can put more into your relationship with God? Can you make getting to know God a higher priority in your life? If you do that, and you still don’t see change in your life – talk to me. Seriously. I’ve said before and I’ll say again: I love helping people figure out how God is calling them. I’d love to talk with you.
            And if, if the first two are true – if you come here to praise God, and you praise God with your whole heart, and if you find that your life is changed by knowing God more, then why wouldn’t you want to share your experience with others? My vision for this congregation is that we’re a community of faith where being a part of God’s family is so meaningful that you can’t help but want to talk about it with others. I don’t mean that I want you all to be moved to going door-to-door or preaching on the street corner. I mean that I hope you are so grounded in your faith that it is simply a part of how you live and move and exist in the world, so that is it part of every decision you make. You feed the hungry because you were deeply moved by Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 and can’t stand to see more people starving in the midst of abundance. You care for children because you understand that children have the easiest time seeing God, and you want to see through their eyes. You visit shut-in members because you understand what the apostle Paul means when he talks about us being essential parts of the body of Christ. If your life has meaning it didn’t have before, if you have purpose, and if you have this unfailing love of God – how can you not share that, share your life with others? I want your life to be your witness in the world.
            That’s my vision. Habakkuk was wondering, in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty around him: did God have a plan? Did God have something good in store, even still? Maybe you are wondering that too. I believe God answers us, as God answered the prophet. There is a vision. What do you see?
“Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time.”  Amen. 

Sermon for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Gratitude Sunday (non-lectionary)

Sermon 10/24/10
Mark 12:38-44
Putting In Your Two Cents

Last Sunday, I mentioned to you that even in Paul’s day, a lively debate about ministry and financial giving was already taking place. Today, we opened our worship service with a deeper look at some of those issues. Connie read for us 2 Corinthians 9, a chapter where we read Paul talking about a financial gift for the Christians in Jerusalem that has been promised by the Christians in Corinth. Paul writes here to encourage them, essentially, to have the gift ready when his missionaries come to pick it up, and to have the gift ready with a good attitude. Paul wants them to stay firm to their commitment to give, and wants them to give it cheerfully. Paul is smooth in his persuasive style. He says, “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.”
Paul goes on to say, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 10[God] who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us.” 
Essentially, Paul encourages the Corinthians to give by telling them that God blesses you abundantly always, but that you reap what you sow, and so if you sow abundantly, freely, you’ll also reap an increased harvest. At first read, I get a little nervous about this. I’m not a big fan of what is called the “prosperity gospel” – this theology basically says that if you are faithful, God will bless you financially, provide for you materially. And not only do I think that there’s not a lot in Jesus’ teachings to support that theology, I also think it is incredibly presumptuous in the face of so many faithful and generous people I know who have struggled for years just to keep their homes, pay their bills, make ends meet. But what Paul actually says is something different: he says that when you give generously and freely, with an open heart, you are blessed because you will have enough to share in good works, and you will find you have an increased harvest of righteousness. You do get more when you give more, he says. You get more blessings, more abundance, more riches in your life, of the kind that last eternally.
As I prepared for our stewardship focus the past month, I went to my ready audience of thoughtful contributors to my sermon-writing efforts: in other words, I posted some questions for readers of my facebook page. I asked people, was there ever a time in their life when they heard something that really inspired them to change the way they give? Let me share with you some responses.
One wrote: I was feeling guilty about not giving to the church. Later I promised God that no matter what if there was $100 in my account on Sunday I would give it to the church. Well Saturday night there was like 17.00 in my account so I figured oh well. That night [my husband] did some computer work for someone and made $60 so I decided I'd give $20. I had the $60 in my purse and then during church [a member] gave me $40 he owed me for doing a cake for [his son’s] wedding. When the offertory started I had exactly $100 in cash. I never have $100, especially not in cash. I went back and forth not knowing what to do. There is so much we could use the money for. I put the whole $100 in the plate and that week I got a small, but unexpected raise at work. I know it sounds silly, but it validated everything everyone had preached about giving coming back around.”
Another wrote: “My pastor told us of God's challenge in Malachi 3:10:"Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." I was unemployed and facing unpaid bills, but I started giving. The following week I got a full-time job - an overflowing blessing indeed! Tithing seemed easy after that.”
A pastor friend wrote: “It might sound silly but a woman in my last church shared her personal struggles with being able to give what she thought was enough to the church. She actually gave up cable in order to give to the church. That might not be much of a sacrifice to some people but for others it is. I thought about how many people just say they can't give without really giving much thought to what they put before God. I think that the way we spend our money and where we put our money says a lot about our beliefs and what we value.”
I don’t believe that if we give more money to God, we magically get more money somewhere else. If that were the case, everyone would be clamoring to give in order to get, and that certainly isn’t the spirit of giving I think God wants to stir up in us! But I believe that God loves it when we love to give, and that we’ll find ourselves counting blessings we couldn’t see before when we free up our hearts. I can’t say that I’ve ever met anyone who regretted their generosity. I’m sure there’s always an exception. But God says that giving blesses us in ways we’d be hard-pressed to regret.
But let me push us all a little farther. Our reading from Mark is the story of the Widow’s Mite. A simple story – a poor widow puts pennies equivalent into the temple treasury collection box, and Jesus remarks on her gift, saying that what she has given amounted to more than what many rich people had given, since for her she gave all that she had to live on. We can quickly draw conclusions from this: it’s not the size of the gift that matters so much as what it costs you to give it. We should be like the widow, give like the widow, and know even our small gifts are important, like the widow’s. Okay, but is there more to this story?
Our reading actually starts a few verses earlier, with the context, the why-Jesus-told-the-story part that we usually forget about. We begin with Jesus talking about the practices of the scribes. The scribes were professional interpreters of the religious laws. They were educated men who could read and write. And having these rare skills and this knowledge gave them power and status over others. It is this status, this position that Jesus is talking about. He warns the crowds against the scribes, who would have been respected and esteemed by most, criticizing them for making their faith for show. He calls them insincere, calls their intentions into question, and accuses them outright of unethical practices. All this they do while still saying long-winded prayers to God, Jesus says. This hypocrisy is what most troubles Jesus – he’s upset because the scribes act like they are faithful Jews, but in reality, what they do is just for show.
Then we hear the part of the story we know well: Jesus sits opposite the treasury at the temple, and he sees many rich people putting in large sums of money, and then sees a poor widow putting in two small copper coins – like a penny or two in our terms. He calls his disciples to him and says “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.” Unlike the scribes, it is apparent that her faith is what compels her to live justly and sincerely.
Are we like the scribes? I fear it is still easy to only look like a faithful disciple instead of actually being one. What does the good Christian look like? I once read a quote that said something like, “character is what you do when no one else is watching.” It is so rare in today’s world that someone isn’t watching what we’re doing. And so it is easy to end up doing everything because we think we have to, because we want to look good, because we want to fit in. But when it comes to discipleship, what God sees in our hearts is what matters.
Why do you give? And why do you give what you give? What moves you to give your money to this church, or to anything? Our readings today ask us seriously about the whys of our giving, the whys of our discipleship, beyond what’s apparent on the outside, to what’s going on in our hearts. Jesus wants us to be genuine and be giving of our whole selves, not for the sake of what others think of us, but because our loving and generous God also wants us to be loving and generous. And I think Jesus wants us to make sure that what we give our all to, what we give our whole lives to, is worth our giving. The issue today isn’t giving what you think you are supposed to be giving, what we think must be giving to qualify as a good Christian. You don’t have to find out what the person next to you in the pew gives and make sure you’re giving more than them. There really are no bonus prizes for the highest pledge or biggest increase. God wants what is real, what is in you, and what is all of you – that is what you are called to give.
            And, so most importantly, I want you to ask why you give to this church. Like Paul says, I want us to move beyond giving because we feel an obligation that weighs us down. I think we’re called to give because we have this abundance from God that we want to share, and I want us to give to this church because we have this passion, this commitment, this hope and vision for the message, the gospel we have to share with the world, that makes us excited about supporting the mission and ministry of the church. Why would we give our all to something if what we’re giving to is not worth the sacrifice, not worth the generosity? I want this community of faith to be the very place that captures your heart and soul. But I also want you to know that if you want to be a part of the mission and ministry of the gospel, if you want to be a disciple, God is going to ask you to give everything you have.    
Wherever you find yourself answering God’s call, God will require your deep generosity, your giving your last two cents for God’s purposes. But please, know that God wants your generosity for all the right reasons. Whether you think you’re a modern-day scribe, or you relate to the widow with her coins, God wants your generosity for all the right reasons. Whether you’re a pillar of the church, or a Sunday School student, or up front for Children’s time, or trying to go unnoticed, God wants you, wants your heart and soul, and wants you for all the right reasons. Amen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sermon for 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Inspiration Sunday (non-lectionary)

Sermon 10/17/10
Luke 12:32-34, Matthew 25:14-30

I’ve been struggling with just how to approach my preaching for this our stewardship campaign on this Inspiration Sunday. I find it difficult because so many things are tied together for us, emotionally and spiritually when we talk about giving. For example, as we talk about what makes up our church budget, salaries and benefits make up a huge chunk of what we pay. It puts pastors in a bit of an awkward position, trying to encourage people to support a church financially, when that support provides their livelihood. This isn’t a new consideration – the apostle Paul considered that very issue in his ministry, and had some lively conversations with his churches about ministry and money. I find it challenging because when we talk about giving in the church, we usually also happen to be talking about giving to our church specifically, when, in reality, giving and supporting our church financially are not one and the same. I find it difficult because I know for some people, people who are struggling people who have lost jobs, people who have made do without, money is such a stressful topic. My own childhood includes a time when we made use of food stamps, when we were recipients of the church’s thanksgiving basket, when we opened Christmas presents with our winter coats on because the heat had been shut off. I know the stress, the anxiety that the lack of money can cause. I find it challenging because I also know the power that having money can have over us. I know what it is like to always want just a little more. I know what it is like to have a larger income than before and not be giving anymore away, and to have nothing important to show for my spending. I find it difficult because for a society that leaves very little to the imagination anymore, where nothing is really off limits, where so many public topics were once private affairs, talking money is still one of the most taboo topics there is, especially when we’re talking specifics. What do you do with your money? What is your income? What do you spend it on? How much do you give? Do you tithe – give a tenth to the church? A percent? Why? Why not? Taboo. And yet, I also know, that as people of faith, we must respond to the overwhelming witness and message of the gospels that call us to seriously consider our stuff, our money, and what it all means in relation to our faith.
What I want to do is untie things a little bit, so we can get to what I think is at the heart of our stewardship campaign. First, stewardship is about giving to God, because God gives to us, because we are thankful for our blessings, and because God calls us to give. In this, it doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about giving to this church or not. Even if our entire budget were cared for by some grant, or some anonymous donor, or some magical windfall of money, we’d still be called to give, and give as generously and freely as ever. And second, stewardship in our particular setting is about who we are as a community of faith and who we feel God is calling us to be. We’re called to care for this faith community if we are a part of it, to hope and dream and vision all the ways in which we can serve God in this place, and then to act to see those visions carried out.
In our video, we heard Rob Bell speaking about our text from 1 Timothy, and speaking about what it means to blessed and to be a blessing, to take hold of that life that is really life. We also heard two gospel lessons this morning. The first was a short lesson from Luke’s gospel. Jesus has been telling the crowds and disciples not to worry, and he follows up with these words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
I love this verse, and I love it because it is deeper than it sounds. It’s easy to remember, and I think sometimes we forget to really think about verses that we might know by heart. Why does Jesus order this sentence this way? He doesn’t say “where your heart is, there you’ll find your treasure.” No, he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I think the difference – the order – is important. We’d probably like it to be that where our hearts are, our treasure is, because it’s easy to think of where our hearts are – with our loved ones, with God, with friends, and family, right? But Jesus says that where our hearts really are is determined by where our treasure is. And what is it that we truly treasure? If we looked at where our treasure was, what would it say about our hearts? We might answer one way – try to define treasure a certain way – but Jesus seems to see it differently: Our treasure is what we store up, what we gather and collect and keep for ourselves. So what are you storing up? What do you treasure? What do you spend the most time storing up? What in your life do you hang onto most tightly? What are you working for, what do you spend the most energy accumulating? Because that’s what you really treasure, and where your heart really is, Jesus says.
Our other gospel lesson is a parable – the Parable of the Talents. Like most of Jesus’ parables, this parable is meant to tell us something about what the Kingdom of God is like. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”
It’s that concluding sentence that makes me think I don’t really understand the rest of the parable. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, with that last sentence, I’m confused. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense? 
Author Luther Snow reflects on this parable, focusing in on this very troubling. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compare to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they have nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.
Our Parish Council spent the last two days at a retreat at Vanderkamp. There was another group there, and a woman from the group, before saying the grace at dinner said, “People never know when they’re getting a gift.” Something about that statement really struck me, because I believe that is particularly true when it comes to gifts from God. We seem to know what to do with gifts we get from others. We say thanks. We open the gifts. We use the gifts. We encourage others to try out what we’ve been given. We take joy in sharing. Why is it that we don’t know what to do with our gifts, our blessings, our abundance, given to us by God, who loves us?  
Today is Inspiration Sunday. Inspire – the word comes from a root word that means to breathe into or blow into something. Think of the creation story in Genesis 2 when God breathes into Adam to give him life. You might say that something that is inspiring is something that is life-giving. Think about what gives us life in this congregation, and how we can give life to things in and outside of this congregation. Be inspired by God’s generous heart.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your [God’s] good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sermon for World Communion Sunday

Sermon 10/2/10
1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

            When I was a child, and in my early teens, I used to get excited on Communion Sundays because it usually meant that my pastor would preach either a very brief or no sermon at all. I knew that some faith traditions practiced weekly communion, though, and I couldn’t imagine that. I was sure that doing something every week like that would take away the meaning, the special quality of celebrating communion. Years later, though, when I was in seminary, I experienced living in the midst of a community of faith 24/7 in a way that I hadn’t before. And we had chapel services offered three times a week, with the biggest service being the weekly celebration of Holy Communion. And I found that I loved it. I found that it was moving in a way I didn’t expect. It was a bond that held us together as a community. It was a sacrament that drew me closer to God. It was a ritual that made the words that were preached just before make more sense. Over my years of ministry, I have found that celebrating the sacraments – baptism and communion – is one of the greatest blessings of ministry. There is nothing that compares with baptizing someone, and such intimacy in saying, “this is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the cup of Christ, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  
            This summer, I took my first Doctor of Ministry class, “Continuity and Change.” The course was taught by a New Testament professor, who encouraged our detailed study of the early church as a way to examine our church settings today.  New Christians in the early church – they had to work everything out. Everything was new. Everything was a learning process of living out the faith of Jesus Christ. How would they be community together? What of their old ways of living had to be left behind? Paul, the planter of so many of these communities, writes in detail to address concerns he has, teachings he feels each place needs, conflicts that already arise in the young churches. That’s the content of most of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. In class, I was immediately drawn to what we learned about first century worship, and particularly, the practice of sharing the Lord’s Supper, holy communion, in the community of faith.
            Paul writes in most detail about communion and worship in his first letter to the church at Corinth. Churches – just a fancy word for the gathered faith community – met in homes of church members. For practical reasons, they met in the homes of the richest members because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship and communion practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. Worship was a feast – a meal shared together. The bread, the Body of Christ, was broken early on. The cup was given after the supper. But the meal, the feast, and the sacrament intricately tied to it, was the primary, central act of worship.
            In our first reading from Corinthians, Paul is writing to address concerns he has about disturbing practices that have come up in worship and especially in sharing the sacrament. In Paul’s day, like ours, people came from many different economic backgrounds. But proper roles for people according to their classes were more structured. We still have plenty of class difference. But in Paul’s day, when people of all different backgrounds came together to feast and worship – things got complicated. In an early Christian household of a wealthy person, like at the home of Gaius, the host of the Corinthian church, a home would have an open air center atrium, and a room called the Triclinium – a dining room with three-sided couches, and an open side for servants to bring in food. There were places for about a dozen people to sit – to recline actually. Imagine meals taking place while everyone stretched out on lounge chairs. But worship feasts would bring in many more than a dozen people. So everyone who couldn’t sit at one of the dozen seats had to be served their food in the atrium. Guess who got the dozen seats on the couch?
Of course Gaius, the wealthy host, and his wealthy friends. Not only that, but Paul indicates that he’s discovered that those seated in the Triclinium were either arriving before the working poor or slaves who were members of the church, to start their meal early, or actually eating in front of them, first, while the others looked on. And further, food of different quality and quantity was served to the wealthy church members. So Paul says that some members are getting drunk on good wine, while others are going home from a worship feast hungry. Can you imagine, at worship, if we sat according to economic status, and served better communion bread to those of a higher status. Outrageous, right? What a horrible distortion of the beautiful meal left to us by Jesus!
But we can’t blame the people of the Corinthian church too much. They were only replicating in their brand new faith community exactly what happened in the rest of the social lives. In the other clubs, organizations, and associations they were a part of, this pattern was exactly how things functioned. You might all be part of the same group, but the societal divisions were still firmly in place.
Paul writes to remind the community what it means to be the one Body of Christ. He is passionate about this. He can’t say enough about how important understanding what it means to be the Body of Christ is. He says that if the Corinthians continue practicing the Lord’s Supper as they have been – well, it isn’t actually the Lord’s Supper at all. You can’t call the practices they’ve engaged in the Lords’ Supper. Paul says, repeatedly in his writings, that when we are in Christ, we are new creations. They are baptism words – in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul means this with a sincerity, with an urgency that I find it hard to even convey to you. In Christ, we are new creations, and we are part of One Body. People were used enough to participating in religious ceremonies that had symbolic meanings. But Paul – he understood that the power of belonging to Christ was real change in your life and in the world. Real change. Real transformation. For Paul, that meant that your identity, so entrenched in societal standards – your gender, your ethnicity, your status – it was nothing, nothing anymore, because of Christ.
Paul wanted the community at Corinth to know that being a Jesus follower meant real, actual, concrete changes in the way you would live in the world and treat other people. If you come to the table together, if you feast together, if you share in the One Body of Christ together, you better expect some real changes in how you live. And so when we look again at our second reading from Corinthians, this imagery you know well about us all being different parts of the body, hear Paul’s repeated emphasis: we are one body, one body, one body in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say it lightly. He doesn’t say it to sound pretty of poetic. He means it. We are part of each other if we are part of Jesus. We have to act that way, live that way, act to make the world that way.
We still struggle to get Paul’s message. But on this World Communion Sunday, I want us to think about what it would mean if every time we celebrated the sacrament, we remembered that if we want to be part of Jesus, we’re part of each other too. Not symbolically. Not to be forgotten as soon as we leave this building, or even just this time of worship. Not to be forgotten when we’re stuck in traffic, or in classes, or at work, or at the store, or confronted with racism or poverty, not to be forgotten when we want to put up walls between ourselves and those who are other. Because of Christ, because we are One Body, there is no Other. There’s only all of us. What if we remembered?