Here are my thoughts from today on the slanty side of the pulpit at Howland (ME) United Methodist Church
Lord, open our lips and our mouth will proclaim Your praise. Blessed are You, Creator of all, to You be praise and glory forever. As Your dawn renews the face of the earth bringing light and life to all creation, may we rejoice in this day You have made; as we wake refreshed from the depths of sleep, open our eyes to behold Your presence and strengthen our hands to do Your will, that the world may rejoice and give You praise. Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Blessed be God forever.
The night has passed, and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind. As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of Your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for You; now and forever. Amen.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Alice Grayson was to bake a cake for the Methodist Church Ladies Group bake sale in Tuscaloosa, but she forgot to do it until the last minute. She remembered it the morning of the bake sale, and after rummaging through cabinets she found an angel food cake mix and quickly made it while drying her hair and dressing and helping her son pack up for Scout camp. But when Alice took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured. Oh dear, she said, there’s no time to bake another cake.
This cake was so important to Alice because she did so want to fit in at her new church and in her new community of new friends. So, being inventive, she looked around the house for something to build up the center of the cake. Alice found it in the bathroom: a roll of toilet paper. She plunked it in and then covered it with icing. Not only did the finished product look beautiful, it looked perfect!
Before she left the house to drop the cake by the church and head for work, Alice woke her daughter Amanda and gave her some money, specific instructions to be at the bake sale the minute it opened at 9:30, buy this cake, and bring it home. When the daughter arrived at the sale, she found the attractive, perfect cake had already been sold! Amanda grabbed her cell phone and called her mother.
Alice was horrified. She was beside herself. Everyone would know! What would they think of her? She would be ostracized, talked about, ridiculed.
That night Alice was lying awake in bed thinking about people pointing their fingers at her and talking about her behind her back. The next day Alice promised herself she would try not to think about the cake, attend the fancy luncheon/bridal shower at the home of a friend of a friend, and try to have a good time there. She did not really want to attend because the hostess was a real snob who more than once had looked down her nose at Alice because she was a single parent and not from one of the founding families of Tuscaloosa. Having already RSVPed, she could not think of a believable excuse to stay away.
The meal was elegant, the company was definitely upper crust Old South. To Alice’s horror, the cake in question was presented for dessert!
Alice felt the blood drain from her body when she saw it being brought in. She started out of her chair to rush to the hostess and tell her all about it, but before she could get to her feet, the mayor’s wife said, “What a beautiful cake!”
Alice, who was still stunned, sat back in her chair when she heard the hostess (who was a prominent church member) say, “Thank you, I baked it myself.”
Alice smiled and thought to herself, “God is good.”
Okay. Okay. That’s the smile for the day. It’s time to get serious.
One of the precepts in the United Methodist Church is for elders and pastors to submit to the itineracy system, moving from church to church throughout their ministry. I think both you and I can relate to that.
You have had your share of faces behind the slanty side of the pulpit, including this Reformed/Presbyterian teaching elder. I think we are both stronger in our faith because of it. You have been empowered by a diversity in style and substance. I have been empowered by a diversity of congregations, from relatively small groups to larger gatherings, each with specific needs, all seeking wisdom, guidance, and sustenance from the Word. And while in the pew, I have worshiped in a variety of churches, denominational and non-denominational, large and small. I witnessed a similar diversity of style and substance, each, hopefully, contributing to my style and substance.
The UMC practice – similar to practices in other denominations – follows a Pauline viewpoint. Today’s first lectionary reading from I Corinthians 3 gives us a visceral understanding of the idea of servants together in fields of the Lord. Paul argues our attachments are often to the wrong things: to a human pastor, to a position, to a building. No pastor works in a vacuum, but builds on ministry and mission others directed long before arriving on the scene. And, that will continue long after the pastor departs.
Sometimes, the key to overcoming short-term conflict is taking a longer view. And God’s viewpoint stretches into eternity. You don’t get much longer than that. Paul was the epitome of the itinerant preacher, visiting and shepherding churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonia, Ephesus, Colossae, and small groups led by his disciples Philemon, Timothy, and Titus.
In today’s reading, Paul directly addresses the Corinthians’ divisions — and the assessments of themselves and their leaders upon which those divisions are based.
Paul opens his letter by saying he could not speak to the Corinthians as mature, spiritual people (3:1). He is not only telling them to grow up, he is also undercutting their misplaced self assessment as being particularly mature, particularly wise, particularly spiritual — super Christians!
Paul brings the Corinthians, and us, back to the simple measure of our life together. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh? (3:3). Paul argues at the heart of our Christian identity is our oneness in Christ. It might be worth exploring if we are willing to hold ourselves and our leaders up to this standard of maturity. Are we demanding an end to jealousy and quarreling?
In 1:21 Paul had contrasted God’s wisdom with the world’s by saying God saves by means of the belief that comes when people hear the word of the cross. Now, he urges the Corinthians to see both he and Apollos are servants through whom the Corinthians have come to such belief (3:5).
Notice how Paul has undermined their efforts to flock to one leader over another. Although worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom are antithetical concepts, he places both himself and his purported competitor Apollos on the side of God’s wisdom and the gospel. Rather than villainize Apollos, Paul insists the only way to rightly interpret the work of God in Corinth is to see both men have been working together, under God, to build the church.
Derek Weber tells us Paul makes a shift at the end of our text for this week. He’s all about growing things, babies and milk and solid food; and then fields and planting and watering. But then at the very end, he throws in a building. It seems odd, until you go on reading. Verse nine is a metaphor hinge, or pivot. He swings from one to the other. It’s a great technique; it keeps you from getting bogged down on one image that can’t carry the weight of the argument alone. But it works or works well only when there is at least one common element of both images. In this case, there are many, but the one Paul seemed to emphasize is they are both labor intensive.
Well, maybe that wasn’t his most important element. Maybe he was really more concerned about the progressive nature of the metaphors. They built or grew; they developed along the way. The starting place was not the ending place; the originating state was not the ending state. However you want to describe it, Paul was stressing there was more to come. And he wants you to grow. He wants the church in Corinth to grow, certainly. That’s why he is writing. Finally, a pastoral letter that says, “Stop acting like children!” How many pastors have wanted to write such a thing? Here it is.
Paul goes back to the beginnings in Corinth, remembers when he first arrived and there was so much he wanted to say, but couldn’t because they were infants in Christ. But he met them where they were, feeding them milk, the “abc’s” of the faith, knowing they would progress to more substantial matters. Even now, he argues, they are still not ready, because they are acting like, well, children, quarreling, being jealous.
Here is a good description of what Paul means when he speaks of being in the flesh. It isn’t necessarily a specific sin or types of sin. But it is doing that which hinders the growth of faith in the individual or the community. These selfish behaviors, even if done for good reasons, are of the flesh because they work against the common heart and mind of the body focused on the mission of the church.
So, then he turns back to the dividing issue as he sees it: this allegiance thing. Would it be fair to say his response is basically, we don’t have time for that? Maybe that’s a bit simplistic but given he then moves on to the mission field, it seems not too far off the mark.
There are those who argue Paul is all about grace; grace and not works. And certainly his theological center is on salvation by grace through faith. But there is work to be done, of that he seems clear. There is work not to earn our place but work because our place has been given. We serve because we’ve been served. We love because we’ve been loved. All that we do is in response to what Christ has done in us and for us.
The life we are called to live is an active life. We are workers in God’s field. We are laborers on God’s building. That’s what binds it all together. It is God’s. We are God’s. Dividing up, choosing sides, setting up opposing camps only hinders the mission, says Paul. There is no room for “us and them” in a church that is at work in the field of the God.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. The church in Corinth struggled with it. And we struggle with it today. Our church is divided, perhaps terminally. And the “can’t we all just get along” approach doesn’t even seem like a good bandage for the broken bones all around us. Paul argues our unity is in our shared mission – the mission given him by Jesus Christ, to love God and love neighbor. Our divisiveness handicaps our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Maybe we’ve tried to do it ourselves, our way, according to our leaders long enough. Maybe we need to let God give the growth. Do what we can where we can as we can, but trust God will take what we have and what we can do and make it flourish.
Perhaps the most formidable call of 1 Corinthians is not simply to recognize our own divisions are not God’s best for God’s people, but to take up its insistence we make the gospel message of the one, crucified Christ our own canon for measuring the church.
What would letting God give the growth look like? What vision can you proclaim that allows us to step out of our different camps and tend God’s field?
Matthew – our gospel reading of the day, 5:21-37 – also addresses these issues, connecting the past with the present. In his way, Matthew’s words are addressed to a post-Resurrection audience. He presupposes the belief in a Risen Jesus that fuels Paul’s ministry.
In this text, following the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew gives concrete answers to vexing questions. Each of the units begin with a juxtaposition of what was said to those of ancient times and what is now being said by Jesus to His disciples after the crowds dispersed. Each of these juxtapositions deal with relationships that affirm the law of the prophets.
- You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.
- Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
- You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
- It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
- Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “’Yes, Yes” or “No, No”’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Matthew as a whole and specifically these verses are actually a reassurance Christians do not advocate the abolition of the Torah but a fulfillment of the Law. Jesus taught beyond the confines and legalism of the Law and deepens or broadens it by expressing its ultimate intent. Matthew shares this radicalization while at the same time providing counsel for day-to-day living by imperfect people who fall short of this call to live by the perfect will of God. These examples are not new laws, but models for the disciples to adapt to their varied post-Easter situations.
In 5:21-26, we can see the interplay between the vision of the kingdom of heaven and the practical ways this kingdom is to be lived out in the Christian community. The first half, 5:21-22, says, in effect, all anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s kingdom. The second half, 5:23-26, admits Christians get angry and suffer through broken relationships and tells us what to do when that reality occurs. The difference between the two halves, between the vision and the practice, is not a matter of hypocrisy but of promise and hope.
We need to teach God intends a man and woman to marry and to remain together until death separates them. We need to hold that up as the goal toward which we should all strive. Given the scope of the divorce problem in our culture, people should know divorce to be avoided, if at all possible. But we also recognize pople often divorce because marriage failed to meet their unreasonable expectations. Marriage should not be some sort of magical carpet ride where glamour and romance reign. It is normal to fall in and out of love — and it takes commitment and spiritual strength to weather difficult times. While Jesus created an exception for porneias — sexual immorality — He didn’t create an exception for alcoholism, drug addiction, spouse abuse, or child abuse. Many of us would consider these to be honest grounds for divorce as well.
It is dangerous to shift the distinctive element in Jesus’ ethic as a relocation of ethics to the heart using the external practices of Jewish legalism as the foil. This is not Matthew’s intent. It isn’t historically true. It slanders Judaism.
Instead, Matthew connects the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching of rabbinic Judaism. It’s not the content, but the christological and eschatological perspective on life in light of the dawning kingdom of God.
As we transition out of the season of Epiphany and its proclamation of the good news of God’s presence with us, our response, our recognition of God’s life and work here and now, is more than going through the motions of church. Jesus calls us to a whole new life in God.
In this way, Jesus does not abolish but fulfill[s] the law (verse 17). No longer do the teachings on murder and adultery apply strictly to acts of murder and adultery. Instead, they become doorways into the examination of many internal dynamics as well as external behaviors of one’s life: anger, derision, slander, false generosity, litigiousness, arrogance, lust, temptation, alienation, divorce, and religious speech. Attitudes count. Jesus connects the dots for His listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger, from adultery to lust. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love.
We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words — we even call it “stabbing someone in the back.” The notion we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, stops us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship to God in these words. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others, prevent me from even giving my gifts to God.
We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet create primary alternate relationships with work, sports, or even the Internet, rather than our spouse. Jesus shifts our attention from particular behaviors we must avoid to particular interior orientations we must cultivate. Kingdom righteousness saturates our whole lives, and promises much more, too. It is the way of blessedness.
During the Epiphany season, we claimed once again we have a living God, incarnate among us, not some far-off potentate who must be humored with occasional acts of obeisance. We proclaim the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14), the Word embedded in real, everyday life, in outward actions and inward attitudes. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, not a keeper of check-lists.
This is good news! The God born in a manger enters the messiness of life in all its dimensions, seeking to heal and save. This God offers a life deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny, not a puny, flat life, reduced to avoiding the “big sins.” Jesus gives the disciples – and through them, us — a new way of life, not rejecting the tradition, but building upon it. It is a way of life that demands more and promises more. It is life abundant.
Are we, in fact, a cross-shaped people?
And the people of God say … Amen!
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. — Abraham Lincoln
We need to teach God intends a man and woman to marry and to remain together until death separates them. We need to hold that up as the goal toward which we should all strive. Given the scope of the divorce problem in our culture, people should know divorce is a sin to be avoided, if at all possible. People often divorce because marriage failed to meet their unreasonable expectations. Marriage should not be some sort of magical carpet ride where glamour and romance reign. It is normal to fall in and out of love — and it takes commitment and spiritual strength to weather difficult times. While Jesus created an exception for porneias — sexual immorality — He didn’t create an exception for alcoholism, drug addiction, spouse abuse, or child abuse. Many of us would consider these to be honest grounds for divorce as well.