Thursday, February 26, 2009

sermon: what are you giving up?

“What are you giving up?”
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Ps 103: 8-14; 2 Cor 5:20 – 6:10; Mt 6: 1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, Year B
February 25, 2009 (Preached on the “Main Mall,” University of Texas at Austin)

If you’re like me, you’ve been asked the question a million times this week – “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’ve been paying close attention, and so far, I’ve heard all the standard resolutions: no junk food, alcohol, homework, cuss words, gossip, meat, sandals, or road rage - to name just a few. And perhaps my favorite – one brave soul, for the next forty days and forty nights, plans to make the ultimate sacrifice and abstain from all forms of Facebook stalking. But what about you? What are you giving up for Lent?

I have to admit, at first, my answer to this question was “nothing.” But when you’re a priest, this answer doesn’t really go over that well. And so by Monday afternoon, I began telling people about my plan to fast on Wednesdays. But that answer’s not much better. For one, I ate a cliff bar on my way here. And second, I changed my answer to keep people from staring at me like I just kicked their puppy. In other words, I was playing to the crowds – seeking the approval of others. And because of that, my heart wasn’t in the right place. And so Lent 2009 is off to a shaky start. But it made me wonder – is Lent really about giving things up? In other words, what is Lent really about?

Well the traditional answer – in one word – is repentance. Some say Lent is all about repentance. Now, don’t get me wrong – Lent is a time to repent, a time to return to God. But I’ve got a problem with the traditional answer. Because if Lent is all about our repentance, then the focus is on us - about what we give up, or about the disciplines we take on. And if we make Lent about us, it gets really easy to start playing to the crowd – and our heart won’t be in the right place.

And here’s why I feel the way I do. Repentance, in Old Testament times, could be somewhat of a joke. You see, repentance used to be a very public event – kind of like what we’re doing tonight – just a lot more extreme. You see, we’re just getting ashes on our head. But back in the day, people would literally cover themselves in ashes. They’d blow trumpets, rip their clothes, put on sackcloth, and then, they’d start wailing as loud as they could. At times, even the animals were dressed in sackcloth and were denied food and water. (Jon 3:7) Now, lest anyone stops feeding their pet and stuffs it in a burlap sack, let me go ahead and be clear that God wants more from us than these outward acts of piety. It’s not that repentance isn’t important, or that it’s not a big part of Lent. I just don’t think it’s the main point. Because ultimately, Lent’s not about anything that we give up or don’t give up at all. Our God wants much, much more. You see, these public acts of repentance started out great, but over time, these events became less about God and more about them.

And in a very real sense, that what’s going on in tonight’s reading from Matthew. Jesus sees the religious people of his day making repentance all about them. They give alms and they pray and they fast – in other words, they give up a lot – but their focus is on themselves. And Jesus calls them “hypocrites” – a Greek word that literally means “play actors.” In other words, Jesus sees their acts of repentance and tells them they’re acting. “You’re playing to the crowd.” Jesus said. “But your heart’s not in the right place.”

And that’s why I think Lent shouldn’t be about us. Because each of us, in our own way, is a play actor seeking the approval of someone other than God. And really, that’s all sin is - the very thing that keeps our heart from being in the right place. And because of that, tonight can’t be about anything that you or I give up. It can’t be about any sacrifice that we make. So: what is Lent really about?

Lent is all about the cross. It’s not about what we give up. But it’s all about what God gave up for sinners like us – for people whose heart never seems to be in the right place. To quote tonight’s epistle, “for our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5: 21). The focus is not on us. It’s on Jesus, and on what he gave up for you and for me.

And when it comes to the cross, Jesus wasn’t playing to the crowd, nor was he seeking the approval of anyone but God. As the Son of God, Jesus didn’t sound a trumpet before him to demand the world’s attention. No – Jesus suffered silently and quietly. He was abandoned and betrayed. And though equal to God, Jesus emptied himself, took the form of a slave, and died on the cross. In other words, Jesus gave up everything. Out of love for you and for me – Jesus gave up everything.

And so with that in mind, what are you giving up for Lent?

Remember, outward acts of piety can be good – but our God wants much, much more from us. And when we start to see that Lent is all about Jesus’ sacrifice and not about ours, we can then begin to “give up” the one thing God requires – our heart. After all, Lent is a time to repent, a time to return to God. But like we heard in tonight’s reading from Joel, returning to God is a matter of the heart.

And so here’s our homework for the next forty days – at least for those of us not giving homework up for Lent. Give up your entire heart to God. Hold nothing back. Through the merits of the cross, we have God’s approval. And so let’s give up playing to the crowds – let’s give up seeking the approval of someone else. Because our God wants much, much more from us than outward acts of piety – He wants all of our heart, and all of our mind, and all of our soul, and all of our strength. And if giving up carbs help us do that, then awesome. But ultimately, the only things God wants is us – for us to give up our heart to Him. And to the extent that we do that, our heart will finally be in the right place.

And so to answer my original question –is Lent really about giving things up? Yeah, it is. It’s about a Father that gave up His son. It’s about a Son that gave up His life. And it’s about the Spirit, through whom we can give up our hearts to God.

And so for the last time, what are you giving up for Lent?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

omega talk: you are god's temple


Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?

Samson. According to the Book of Judges, he brought the house down.

Actually, it was the temple of the Philistines. But that’s not as a good of a punch line.

But on a more serious note, I need to begin by saying that since December of 2008 I’ve been in an abusive relationship.

And it’s with my personal trainer at 24 hour fitness.

It all started out so innocently. I joined the gym hoping to tone up a bit for 2009 and was offered a special “one-time” deal to meet with a personal trainer at a discount. I was matched with Jerod. And I’ll never forget the first time we met. I extended a hand and said, “Hey man, how’s it going, I’m John.” And Jerod responded not with his name but with a question. “I need to know right now,” Jerod said quite intently, “on a scale between 1 and 10 – how bad do you want it?” Well, you know how your parents would always tell you to think before speaking? Yea, I didn’t do that. Because I told Jerod I was at a 6.5. And looking back, that’s really where the abuse began. Because Jerod was really disappointed with my answer. And so shaking his head in disappointment, he asked a follow-up question. “What are you on?” I didn’t want to embarrass myself again and so I asked for clarification. “Supplements” he said. “What are you on for your body? You know, creatine, protein bars, omega 3’s, fat burners, muscle rebuilders? What fuels your body,” he said, “What are you on?” My answer was “Claritin.”

Jerod then gave me a list of supplements that he expected me to take. Half of them were available at the 24-hour fitness vitamin shop, but to get the other half I had to go to some dude’s van in the alley behind the gym. “Why do I need all these” I asked. And this is what Jerod said. “Because your body is a machine.” I then made some weird, awkward joke about being a “micro-machine” and that didn’t really go over too well, and so I fired off a second joke about the movie Terminator, which also bombed. But - I do find Jerod’s perspective intriguing. “Your body is a machine.”

Is that true? Your body is … How would you fill in the blank? For example, according to Jerod, your body is a machine. According to some biologists, your body is a planet. According to most 6th grade teachers, your body is changing. According to John Mayer, your body is a wonderland. But how would you fill in the blank?

Well, tonight we look at how another personal trainer filled in that blank. Because the apostle Paul, for a while now, has been training the Corinthians in the ways of Christian discipleship. And in two different parts of the letter, Paul makes the following statement. “Your body is a temple.” And so for tonight, I want to look at how Paul fills in the blank and examine not only what his words meant to the Corinthians, but also what Paul’s words mean to you and to me. And so if someone could please read the first passage:

1 Corinthians 3: 16-17

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Now, in order to understand how radical Paul’s statement is, we need a little crash course on “the temple.” Historically speaking, the Temple, located in Jerusalem, was planned by King David around 1,000 BC and then assembled and supervised by his son and successor Solomon. That’s a lot of S’s. And the Temple was the central sanctuary for Israel. There was nothing holier than the temple – nothing more pure than God’s temple. And this was the case for two primary reasons.

First, the temple was literally God’s home. The temple was where heaven and earth met – the primary place on this earth where God was believed to dwell. Psalm 123 speaks of God as “enthroned in the heavens.” Well, people in Jesus’ day believed that God stepped down from His heavenly throne and descended into the Temple. And so the Temple was God’s home.

Second, the temple was the place where sacrifices were offered and accepted. How many of you have read the book of Leviticus cover to cover? Well, your loss – it’s a real page turner. Because Leviticus lays out a highly detailed written code on what sacrifices one should offer to God and the suitable manner in which they should be offered. And so the idea of sacrifice has deep, deep Biblical roots. But the Temple was where they were offered.

Now with that in mind, listen to Paul’s words again.

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

When we examine the Greek, the pronoun “you” is plural. And so Paul’s talking to the entire Christian community. Remember C1?

The Christian community is where an explosive Christian spirituality begins. And the reason, according to Paul, is that the collective body of Christian believers - or “the Body of Christ” – is God’s new Temple. Now, think about how radical this is – how controversial Paul’s statement would have been to his original audience. Because when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the temple Solomon built was still standing. Think about what you and I, as Christians, believe to be holy and pure. For me, it’s the Bible and the Eucharist. Well, what if someone snatched the Bible right out of your hands and was like, “you don’t need this anymore. Because you are God’s Bible.” What would you say? Or what if next Sunday you came to the communion rail and reverently reached out your hands hoping to find fresh grace and forgiveness and instead of giving you bread I slapped you a high five and told you that the Eucharist was out of date. Well, that’s kind of how radical Paul’s statement was. To the entire Christian church, Paul says – “The physical temple, the one made of stones, the one stationed in Jerusalem, is no longer where God lives. The physical temple, the one made of stones, the one stationed in Jerusalem, is no longer where sacrifices are offered to God.” “And the reason for this,” Paul says, “is because you are God’s temple. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Now listen to our second passage:

1 Corinthians 6: 19-20

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore honor God in your body.

In the first passage that was read, Paul says that the whole church – the Body of Christ – is God’s new Temple. But when we examine both the Greek and context of this second passage, Paul is now speaking to -- the individual Christian believer. He’s no longer addressing the community. He’s talking to individual Christians and telling each of them that their body is God’s Temple.

Now remember, the point of the Temple was that God lived there. And what Paul is saying now is that being a Christian is about God living inside of you through the person of the Holy Spirit. And so for Paul, Christians don’t just encounter the Spirit sporadically – like when they pray, or read the Bible, or do some other fun religious activity – like, I don’t know, playing laser tag - which we just happen to be doing tomorrow night around 8 PM at the Blazer Tag Adventure Center located at 1701 West Ben White Boulevard – you know, if you happen to be free. But for Paul, the Spirit of God takes up permanent residence in the person who believes. According to Ephesians we can grieve the spirit (4:30), but there’s no such thing as telling the Spirit to take a vacation while we go off on our own. Because the gift of the Spirit is permanent. The old Biblical adage “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” doesn’t apply here. And that’s why the gift of the Spirit, according to Paul, is both precious and costly. In Paul’s own words, “you were bought with a price.” And of course Paul is referring to C2, which is _______ ? The cross. In other words, Jesus paid the price of his own life, the price of his own blood, for you and for me. And so the question is why? Why were we bought at a price?

Well, typically speaking, people only pay a high price for things they love – for things they intend to cherish and nurture and guard and keep and take care of. For example, imagine paying a lot of money for a rare, antique book and then tearing out a few of its pages to blow your nose. Or imagine paying a lot of money for a tangerine crocodile Birkin and then tossing it to a drunken friend in need of a barf bag. It’s a ridiculous thought. For that book was bought with a price, therefore you’d honor that book. For that Birkin was bought with a price, therefore you’d honor that tangerine crocodile designer handbag. Because we tend to honor things that pay a high price for.

But here’s the thing. We’re not a book. And we’re not a handbag. Building off last week’s theme, we’re humans made in the image of a Trinitarian God. And the price that God paid for you and for me is far greater than anything that we could ever pay for a book – or a designer purse. And that’s kind of what Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians. Paul is trying to tell each one of them that God, in His perfect providence, has hand-picked each and every one of them to be His new temple. He’s trying to get them to understand that each one of them has been “bought” at a tremendous price. “For you were bought with a price,” Paul says, “therefore honor God in your body.” Because Jesus didn’t die for us just so that we wouldn’t be punished for our sins. Being saved from death is only a part of our salvation. But Jesus died for us so that God could cherish and nurture and guard and keep and take care of each one of us. He died to take up permanent residence in all who believe. He died so that each of our bodies would become God’s new Temple.

And here’s the question I’d like us to consider. If the Body of Christ is God’s new Temple, and if each of our bodies is a temple for the Holy Spirit, what does that mean for us who are training in the ways of Christian discipleship?

First, if the Body of Christ is God’s new temple and each of us is God’s new temple - that means that we, as a church, are to be the place on this earth where the Living God chooses to dwell – the place where heaven and earth come together. If a friend were to ask you, where can I encounter God? You should be able to confidently point them to this community and to say “right here.” Because we are God’s Temple. And the same is true at the individual level. Our primary goal in life should be to say with Paul, “it is no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Or to say with John the Baptist, “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). And so our primary vocation – as a church and as individuals – is to be God’s home. That’s first and foremost what it means for us to be a temple.

And so the question is, how do we do that?

Sacrifice. Remember, the temple is where sacrifices are offered and accepted by God. To quote Paul in his letter to the Romans, “I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Someone once said that the problem with living sacrifices is that they’re always trying to crawl off the altar. But part of our vocation – as a church and as individuals – is to offer our lives as a sacrifice to others. Just as Jesus laid down his life in love for us, we too are to lay our lives down in love for one another and for the world. And so sacrifice is also at the heart of what it means to be a temple.

Before I send us off to small groups, I want to go back to Jerod for a second. Whenever we workout and I’m about to start a set, Jerod always gets in my face and abusively screams at me and this is what he says: “get your mind right.” I don’t think our body is a machine, but because I do think it’s a temple, I like Jerod’s advice. Get your mind right. Or to quote Paul again, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Because it takes a lot of faith and courage and reminding to believe that God, in His perfect providence, has hand-picked each and every one of us to be His new temple. It takes a lot of faith and courage and reminding to believe that each one of us has been “bought” at a tremendous price. And it takes a lot of faith and courage and reminding to believe that we – as a church and as individuals – are God’s new Temple.

And so to return to Jerod’s question – what are you on? What fuels your body? Because in the Christian life, as we train in the ways of Christian discipleship, we should strive to live lives – as a church and as individuals – that are fueled by the Spirit of God. And far from being an abusive relationship, the Spirit intends to cherish and nurture and guard and keep and take care of each one of us, so that we can go and do the same for the world.

But it takes work on our part. We who train in the ways of Christian discipleship always have to “get our mind right.” And it takes prayer and diligence and commitment. And so the question I leave us with is, on a scale between 1 and 10, how bad do we want it?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

sermon: finding jesus in what's ordinary

II Kings 5:1-14
Epiphany 6, Year B

I’ve always appreciated fine literature. In fact, my favorite book has always been a classic by the name of - Where’s Waldo? If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a pretty easy read. Probably because it has no words. Because the point of Where’s Waldo is literally to find Waldo – an ordinary, geeky looking dude with glasses, a striped shirt, and a goofy hat. And the author assures us that Waldo is on every page – but as a kid, I didn’t believe it. And to be honest, I still have my doubts. Because finding Waldo was hard. And it was hard because Waldo, to be quite honest, just looked so ordinary. And the author has this knack for hiding Waldo in the very place that you least expect to find him. [1] And because Waldo looks so ordinary, finding him requires patience. And intentionality. And a decision to cling to the author’s promise that Waldo is present on every page. Because finding what’s special in the midst of what’s ordinary is not a skill that we’re born with. It’s something we learn. But if you and I intend to follow Jesus, it’s a skill we need to learn. Because our God, in all of His glory, splendor, and might, hides himself in the midst of what’s ordinary.

Let’s consider the story of Namaan recorded in II Kings. Naaman was a military man. In fact, we’re told he’s a “great man” – a man of means. After all, you don’t become the general of the king’s army by accident. Naaman had distinguished himself. If there was a hill to be taken, a battle to be won, a king to be killed – Naaman knew how to get it done. And Namaan, in the context of tonight’s reading has just defeated the Israelites and killed their king. And so Naaman is at the height of his career – he’s a national hero. Influence, wealth, power – Naaman has it all. Until - one day Namaan wakes up and sees a little patch of discolored skin on his body. And so Naaman approaches the king’s physician and hears his diagnosis. Leprosy. Naaman, we’re told, is a leper.

And so when a young slave-girl tells him that there’s help in the land of Israel, Naaman is desperate and returns to the very land he’s just plundered. It’s hard to emphasize how desperate Namaan is, and so you’d think that he’d be humble knocking on Elisha’s door. But he’s not – because when Elisha sends out an intern that tells him to wash in the Jordan River – Namaan gets furious. Because that’s the last thing Namaan was expecting to hear. Namaan was expecting something loud and flashy and showy. He knows how healing is supposed to work – he watched his fair share of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. And so Namaan’s kind of expecting Elisha to emerge from his home in a white three piece suit and to pray in big southern accident before waving his hands around and dramatically heal his leprosy. But instead, God sends him Elisha’s intern. And so listen to what Namaan says: "I thought that for me the prophet would surely come out himself, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would waive his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” You see, Namaan was expecting God to do something flashy and loud and showy. But God doesn’t. Because our God, in all of His glory, splendor, and might, hides himself in the midst of what’s ordinary.

And so the question I’d like to ask us this morning is, where do we expect to find God? You see, our God is a God of burning bushes and empty tombs and road to Damascus experiences. But - if we take our Biblical story seriously, more often than not, God hides himself in the midst of what’s ordinary.

You see, this isn’t something Namaan – “great man” that he was – understood. Namaan expected a flashy prophet and a dramatic healing. Are we like Namaan - expecting God to meet us on our terms – whatever those terms may be? Or, are we open to God meeting us on His terms? Where do we expect to find God?

In a matter of moments we will receive ordinary bread and ordinary wine, and yet our faith tells us, in no uncertain terms, “this is the Body of Christ. This is the Blood of Christ.” And when our time of worship ends will be sent into the world of ordinary people. We’ll return to our ordinary families and our ordinary friends. And yet Jesus tells us, in no uncertain terms, “what you did to the least of these – to the most ordinary of these my brothers and sisters – truly I tell you, you did it to me.” Because more often than not, God hides himself in the midst of what’s ordinary.

I’m not really sure why, but one of my favorite biblical prayers is Isaiah 64:1. It says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that even the mountains would quake at your presence.” God, would you would tear open the heavens and come down.” The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God did. In other words, that prayer was answered. That’s what Christmas is all about – God tearing open the heavens and coming down in the person of Jesus. That being said, Jesus wasn’t what anyone expected. Because Jesus, to be quite honest, looked so ordinary. To quote the prophet Isaiah, he had no majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

You see, at the heart of our faith is the belief that God did tear open the heavens and come down. But when God did, he was born in a manger and got a job in the construction industry and ran around with peasants. In modern day terms, Jesus was a geeky looking dude with glasses, a striped shirt, and a goofy hat. On the surface, you wouldn’t have known Jesus was special. And that’s probably why no one recognized him as the answer to Isaiah’s prayer. They were all expecting the charismatic preacher in a three piece suit. But what are you expecting. Where do you expect to find God?

Maybe we’re like Namaan and expect something loud and flashy and showy. Or worst, maybe we’ve lost heart and don’t expect anything anymore. Either way, I want you to know that Jesus is alive and that he’s in our midst. And I’m willing to admit, finding Jesus can be really hard work. It requires patience. And intentionality. And a decision to cling to God’s promise that Jesus is present on every page. But he’s here. Jesus is alive. And he’s in our midst.

Because whether you believe it or not, Jesus is right around the corner. Jesus begs for money and smokes cigarettes on the frontage road of I-35. He bags groceries at HEB. He’s a partner at that big defense firm downtown. He’s sitting next to you right now. You see, Jesus has this weird knack for lurking in the very place you least expect to find him. And so if your life feels pretty ordinary – rejoice – because that means it’s a pretty good hiding place for God.

When it comes to your life, Jesus is present on every page. The question is – have we learned to live our life expecting to find him?

[1] I borrow the Waldo / Jesus typology from John Ortberg’s God is Closer than You Think. This particular book was also helpful in my application and understanding of Namaan’s story from II Kings. My application of Ortberg's thought, however, is unique and original.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

omega talk: being single

Tonight’s joke seems appropriate given tonight’s topic. What is every Amish woman’s secret fantasy?

Two Mennonite.

Last semester I polled this group to see what topics you wanted to discuss in the spring. And “being single” was across the board the most popular answer. Personally, I was hoping it didn’t make the cut. And whether it’s perfect timing or horrible timing, I have to say that it’s honestly a coincidence that this talk comes the Wednesday before Valentine’s Day. And so sorry – but, alas, you the people have spoken and so tonight we’re looking at what it means to follow Jesus and to be single. Now that being said, we can’t look at being single and not touch on relationships, and we can’t talk about relationships and not talk about friendships. And so if it makes you feel better, tonight’s talk is much more broad than previously advertised.

And I have to say, this was a very difficult talk for me to write. I didn’t really know where to get started. As a rule of thumb, it’s always easier and less vulnerable to talk about being single when you’re actually in a relationship. And second, as much as I love the apostle Paul – well, he’s not tons of help in this area. Because Paul’s situation in Corinth doesn’t mirror our situation in Austin as closely as the other issues we’ll be discussing. For example, “dating” – as you and I know understand it - is a concept that would have been lost on Paul and the Corinthians. But, we’ll get to all of that soon enough. And so without further ado, we’re going to begin tonight’s talk – since we are all adults – by talking about ----- porcupines.

The porcupine is a member of the rodent family and has roughly 30,000 quills attached to its body. And each quill can be driven into an enemy. And because of that, the porcupine isn’t generally regarded as a loveable animal. Think about it, books and movies celebrate just about every animal you can think of – cats, dogs, horses, pigs, spiders, dolphins, fish, geckos, lions. Free Willy is about a killer whale. Ratatouille is about a rat. Charlotte’s Web is about a spider. But Hollywood never made any porcupine famous. And I never met a child who just “had to have one” for a pet.

Because porcupines, as a general rule, have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack. Porcupines either run for a tree or they stick out their quills. And because of that, they’re generally solitary animals. Porcupines spend a lot of time alone. But here’s the thing – porcupines don’t always want to be alone. And from time to time, a young porcupine’s thoughts will turn to love. But love turns out to be risky business when you’re a porcupine. Female porcupines are open to dinner and movie only once a year, and the female porcupine’s “no” is respected by all in the animal kingdom. And so this is the “porcupine’s dilemma.” How do you get close without getting hurt? In other words, what does it mean to be a solitary animal and yet at the same time long to connect?

Now, on the one hand – this is our dilemma too. Because we too have thousands of quills of our own that we use to keep others at a safe distance. But our barbs have names like arrogance, selfishness, insecurity, resentment, fear, and contempt. And like the porcupine, we too have learned to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack. We hurt and find ourselves hurt by the very people we long to be closest to. And of course, this doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. This applies to all human relationships. We all have a porcupine in our life. But here’s the thing - the problem isn’t just them. Because I’m also someone’s porcupine. And whether you realize it or not, so are you.

But here’s where the analogy falls short. We’re not porcupines. We’re humans. We bear the image of a Trinitarian God. And because of that, we were made for communion, for intimacy – with God and with other people. Our need to not be alone, unlike the porcupine, isn’t just biological – our need is spiritual. The yearning to attach and connect, to love and to be loved is the fiercest longing in the human soul. And as hard as connecting with other people can be, it’s pretty hard to find a good substitute.

Think about how the Bible opens - Genesis chapter 1. There’s this little refrain that keeps occurring. God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was – fill in the blank. Good. God created the light – good. God created the ocean – good. God created the birds and the porcupines – good. But all that’s just the precursor to the final act when God creates humans in his image. Because in Genesis 2, we’re told that God created man in his own image. And God looks at this man, who bears his likeness, and God says – “not good.” To quote Genesis directly, “it is not good that the man should be alone.”

Now, what’s striking is that the Fall has not yet occurred. There is no sin, no disobedience, there’s nothing to mar the relationship between God and man. The solitary human is in a state of perfect intimacy with God. Adam is known and loved to the core of his being by his competent and loving Creator. And yet the word God uses to describe him is “alone.” And God says that his aloneness is “not good.”

The church is famous for telling lonely people not to expect too much from human relationships. By a show of hands, how many of you have heard the following statement before: “inside every human being is a God-shaped void that no other person can fill.” Well, that’s true. But tonight we’re talking about “being single,” and according to the writer of Genesis, God created inside of us a “human shaped void” that God himself will not fill. Now, I’m not saying that this void has to be filled romantically – it doesn’t. But, if it’s true that we all have a God-shaped void that humans can’t fill, it’s also true that we all have a human-shaped void that God chooses not to fill. And no substitute will fill our need for authentic human relationship.

Not money. Not busyness. Not business. Not casual sex. Not casual conversation. Not looks. Not books. Not brains. Not achievement. Not drugs. Not alcohol. Not even your daily private time with Jesus. Even though Adam was in a state of sinless perfection, Genesis tells us that he was “alone.” And God said, “not good.” And that’s why as hard as connecting with other people can be, it’s pretty hard to find a good substitute. And that’s where I’d like to begin our conversation on what it means to follow Jesus and to be single.

Now with that in mind, listen to a portion of what Paul has to say to the Corinthians.

Now, concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. But, I do wish that all were as I myself am. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.

Last week we talked about Corinth being the intellectual capital of the world and about how traveling teachers – called sophists – would pass through the town and teach the Corinthians. Well, now these sophists are teaching the Corinthians that “it is well for a man not to touch a woman.” In other words, these sophists weren’t just saying that celibacy was more noble than married life, but they went as far as to tell married people that they couldn’t have sex within their marriage. In other words, these teachers were advocating celibacy as the only path to spiritual maturity and personal holiness. And this isn’t Paul’s position at all. And if you read the entire letter, Paul basically goes back and forth. On the one hand, Paul has chosen to remain single and celibate, and part of him wants the other Corinthians to remain single and celibate too. And so unlike many in our world, Paul doesn’t think that a life of singlehood is inferior or deficient. But on the other hand, Paul knows that marriage is a gift from God – and that when God gives us a gift, we should honor and cherish it. And so the root of Paul’s message, in my opinion, is that the Christian is free. The Christian is free to enter into a sacramental, life-giving romantic relationship. And the Christian, for personal reasons or because of life circumstances, is free to abstain from those relationships. And so for me, Paul’s words to the Corinthians are helpful in two key areas. First, the Christian is free. Second, when it comes to being single or being married, both are equal in the eyes of God.

But unfortunately, that’s about as far as Paul’s words to the Corinthians will take us this week. And so for the rest of this talk, I rely on wisdom gained from the rest of scripture, common sense, and life experience. And so back to our question – what does it mean to be single and to follow Jesus?

First, following Jesus and being single means avoiding false substitutes. Like I said earlier, our yearning to attach and connect, to love and to be loved is the fiercest longing in our soul. And it can be hard to connect with other people – both romantically and platonically. But as hard as connecting with other people can be, don’t be fooled into thinking that anything but a human can fill our human shaped void. And so avoid false substitutes. And some of these false substitutes are obvious. The average American watches five hours of TV a day. Assuming these same people never miss church, that means that the average American has a TV to church ratio of 35 to 1. But some of the things we substitute for life-giving relationships are more subtle – and one of them can be excessive dating – bouncing around from relationship to relationship, or friendship to friendship – but never really connecting to another person. And so first and foremost, avoid false substitutes.

Second, following Jesus and being single means that we don’t become a porcupine – in our friendships or in other relationships. Now, obviously there’s a time to put up our quills or to run away in order to survive a situation. But the problem comes when we make a pattern of attack or withdrawal – when “fight or flight” becomes our standard way of relating to other people. Because if we’re always attacking or withdrawing from other people, then my guess is that we’re not really connecting. And so be vulnerable. Take risks. Be honest. Because if we’re not really connecting, then we’re probably traveling alone. Interestingly, a recent study found that people with poor health habits but strong social ties lived significantly longer than people with great health habits but who happened to be isolated. In other words, it’s better to eat Twinkies with friends then Brussels sprouts alone. And so don’t be a porcupine.

Finally, if you are single, learn to see this as a precious time in your life. And here’s what I mean. A relationship is life-giving and healthy to the extent that both people are secure in who they are, have confidence in who they are, and because of that are willing to offer themselves freely in love and mutuality to the other person. In my own opinion, relationships struggle and go bad when we start depending on someone else to make us feel valuable, loved, and secure – or when we depend on someone else to define our identity. Now this is tricky, because life-giving relationships should make us feel valuable, loved, and secure. But the key word is depend. Who or what do we depend on to make us feel valuable, loved, and secured? God? Another person? Our achievements and accomplishments? In other words, if we know that we have value because we’re created, loved, and saved by a God that has invested everything in us, then we’ll have the courage and the foresight to avoid false substitutes. And if we know that we’re loved not because of who we are but because of who God is, we’re not going to feel the need to run away or to put up our quills as much. And so being single, for many, is a real time of discovery. Because when you’re single, you have a lot of time to discover who you are – not decide who you are – but discover who you are – to discover the person God says you are. And to the extent that we discover our true identity as a child of God, we’ll feel more confident and secure in offering what we discover to someone else.

And so to wrap this thing up, let’s go back to the porcupines. Believe it or not, porcupines will get together from time to time. In fact, it’s been observed that porcupines will often spend days together. And what they’ll do – and I promise this is true – is pull in their quills, stand on their hind feet, touch paws, and walk around together. It’s called the “dance of the porcupines” by porcupine experts. I know it’s hard to believe, but somewhere out there two porcupines are doing the foxtrot as we speak.

But I find it miraculous that porcupines – the most solitary animal you can imagine – have learned to dance with one another. Because you and I – we’re not porcupines. We’re humans that bear the image of a Trinitarian God. And because of that we have a human-shaped void that God chooses not to fill. And so the question I leave us with, whether in our friendships or in our romantic relationships, is this: what would it look like for us to pull in our quills and start dancing?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

omega talk: being spiritual


What happened to the nun who didn’t have enough money to pay her exorcist?
She got repossessed.

For a piece of candy, who can tell me from last week why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians?
Because he heard a rumor from Chloe’s people that there was serious drama at Corinth.

And so about three years ago I was on a flight from Houston to Charleston and I had the misfortune of being placed next to a yapper – I mean, this woman, God bless her, just went on, and on, and on. And of course I tried all my standard moves to communicate my desire to be left alone. I stared out the window; I responded to her questions with one word platitudes, I even asked the flight attendant to bring me headphones while she was talking. But it became clear, early on, that I didn’t stand a chance. Yap, yap, yap – on and on she went. I was no match for this woman and so I surrendered. I gave in and decided to talk to Mary – that was her name. “And so what do you do?” She wanted to know. “I’ll be starting seminary in the fall.” I said. “God’s calling me to be a priest.” “Ah, and so you’re religious?” Mary asked with a smirk. “Good guess,” I replied. “What about you? Are you religious?”

And then she said the magical words – the words you’ve heard a million times before, the words you may have said a million times before. Anyone care to guess what those words are?

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

And then Mary went on to explain what that meant to her. She boasted that she was studying under a man by the name of John Edward to receive “the gift.” If you don’t know who John Edward is, he’s a self-proclaimed psychic that claims to communicate with the dead. And Mary had lost her son a few years back, and John Edward had acted as a medium to reunite the two. Mary bought, literally, what John Edward was selling – access to the spirit world. And now she was traveling to Charleston to meet with him and study under him hoping to become a spiritual guru herself.

You see, Mary wanted access to the mind of John Edward. She wanted direct access to the spirit world. Mary wanted to talk directly to her son. This had become her sole purpose in life. And this desire, she thought, made her spiritual.

And I remember being sad for Mary because in my opinion, she was being duped, and she was duping herself. Mary was chasing after something that wasn’t even real. And because it wasn’t real, I knew she’d never catch it. Now, you may or may not agree with me. But in my opinion, Mary’s life revolved around chasing after something that wasn’t even real.

That’s the best image I have to explain what Paul’s dealing with at Corinth. Like Mary, the Corinthians are boasting – literally bragging to Paul and to each other – how “spiritual” they are. I mean, the Christians at Corinth think that they’re spiritual gurus – wiser than the wisest spiritual master. And so with that in mind, listen to what Paul tells them.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I … decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. For we speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. 14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. 16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people. For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

Austin has been described as the “live music capital of the world.” As a city, Austin prides itself on its live music scene. Well Corinth, in its day, prided itself on its “intellectual scene.” And so in the same way that different bands pass through Austin on a regular basis, different philosophers and teachers would pass through Corinth on a regular basis. And the whole town, and even people outside the town, would show up to listen to these teachers. And of course, everyone would discuss what they had to say. Because Corinth was the intellectual capital of the world.

And these traveling teachers were often referred to as sophists, which comes from a Greek word meaning wisdom. And so here’s the situation Paul is addressing in today’s reading. In the same way that Mary was chasing after John Edward, the Corinthians were chasing after these different sophists. The Corinthians thought that by doing so they could obtain a wisdom that would elevate them above the ordinary. You see, the Corinthians wanted access to the minds of these sophists. It’s not that they didn’t believe in Jesus. It’s that they didn’t understand Jesus. Because the Corinthians were eager for the kind of teaching these sophists were giving. They imagined that by mixing a small dose of their Christian faith with a strong dose of sophistry they could become super-Christians. In fact, that’s how the Corinthians viewed themselves – as super-spiritual, super-Christians. And what Paul is telling them today, in a nutshell, is this:

“If you think you’re becoming more spiritual by chasing after these sophists, you’re duping yourselves. In fact, you’re less spiritual than ever because you’re chasing after something that isn’t even real. Because the harder you try to access the minds of these sophists, the harder you seem to be fighting with one another. And fighting with one another and being spiritual don’t go together.”

And so, to me, this raises a question. What does it mean to be spiritual? And if being unspiritual, by definition, is chasing after something that isn’t even real – then what is real? In other words, if faith is about anchoring our lives in what matters, in what’s real, in what’s spiritual – what does that look like?

And for Paul, there are three realities – all of which are interconnected – that are real and worth chasing after. And like all things that are real and meaningful, they can be reduced to three simple bullet points, all of which begin with the same letter. And so without further ado, I give you the three C’s of Corinthian Christianity –or the three C’s of Christian spirituality.


First, Christian spirituality is rooted in community. Although rare individuals have managed to be Christians in isolation, the Christian life is most fully expressed in a harmonious relationship with others. You see for Paul, God is transforming and saving a people – not just a few random individual believers. And so when Paul writes in Romans, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice,” he’s talking to the entire church. For Paul, the church’s vocation is to love – to become “a living sacrifice” – for one another and for the world. Listen again to the last line of today’s passage:

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

In essence what Paul is saying is this: “as long as you’re fighting, you’re proving how unspiritual you are, because Christian spirituality is rooted in community, and you Corinthians, are ripping the community apart.”


Second, Christian spirituality is rooted in the cross. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “I … decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” For Paul, this is what it means to be spiritual – to know nothing else except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. You see, what the Corinthians haven’t yet grasped is that God’s nature is most clearly revealed in Jesus’ cross. For Paul, the cross isn’t an “oops” or an accident. But instead, the cross was God’s intentional plan from the foundation of the world to reveal the fullness of His nature and to express the depth of His power. And what the cross tells us is that to be God – by nature – is to pour out one’s own life in love for someone else. Historically speaking, it’s hard to know for sure what the sophists were teaching the Corinthians that made them feel so “spiritual.” But we do know it had nothing to do with the cross. Because we live in a world, and we’ve always lived in a world, that teaches us that happiness and fulfillment are found in “looking out for number one;” in a world that tells us that happiness and fulfillment are found in making sure that we never have to go to the cross. And what Paul is saying to the Corinthians is – what the world has taught you is wrong. What the sophists are teaching you is wrong. Because for Paul, Christian spirituality is rooted in the cross.


Finally, Christian spirituality is rooted in God’s new creation – in the belief that Jesus is “making all things new.” C1 and C2 don’t make sense without C3. Because it doesn’t make sense to become a living sacrifice for others unless God is at work remaking a world where all people become like God – a world where all people would gladly go to the cross for the people they love. And so for Paul, this new world – this new creation – is a future reality, BUT it’s a future reality that’s already started to break into our present experience. And if our heart is open and our eyes are peeled, we’ll catch a glimpse of God’s new world from time to time – perhaps when we take Communion or when we experience, just for a second, the joy of pouring out our life for someone else. You see, this, above all else, is why Paul is so frustrated with the Corinthians. They don’t get that Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed everything. The Corinthians are still living in the “old creation” where division and selfishness and pride are the norm. And what Paul is trying to tell them is that the “old creation” is on its way out and that a new creation is on its way in – and in God’s new creation, unity and selflessness and love are the norm. And so to be spiritual, Paul is saying, is to live a life rooted in God’s new creation.

Let’s go back to our question. What does it mean to be spiritual? And if being unspiritual, by definition, is chasing after something that isn’t even real – then what is real? For Paul, what’s real is authentic Christian community, Jesus’ cross, and God’s new creation.

C1, C2, and C3. And when you add it all up, you get …

C4 – an explosive Christian spirituality.

I think it’s funny when people tell me that they’re spiritual but not religious. Because the word religion derives from the Latin ligare, a verb meaning to bind or to connect. In other words, our religion is whatever we bind or connect our hearts to. And we can bind or connect our hearts to anything. Mary’s heart was bound to a hope she had in the teachings of John Edward. The Corinthians hearts were bound to the teachings of the sophists. Paul’s heart was bound to the Christian community, to Jesus’ cross, and to the reality of God’s new creation. We can bind or connect our hearts to anything. But we have to connect them to something. And because we have to connect them to something, we’re all “religious” in the strictest sense of the word. But what is our religion? What does it mean for us to be spiritual?

Mary, for example, wanted access to the mind of John Edward. Paul wanted to access the mind of Jesus. Mary wanted direct access to the spirit world. Paul enjoyed direct access to the Holy Spirit. Mary wanted to talk directly to her son. Paul spoke directly to God’s Son. Two very different views of what it means to be spiritual – is one of them real?

I’d like to end today’s talk with a story (Craddock). This story is about greyhounds, the kind that race around the track after that mechanical rabbit. The following is a conversation between a reporter and a successful greyhound that quits racing at the height of his career. Anyway, the conversation goes something like this:

The reporter says to the dog, Uh, you still racing any?
No, no, no, I don’t race anymore.
I bet you miss the glitter and the excitement of the track?
He said, no, not really.
So you got too old?
No, no, I still had some race in me.
So you must have not won enough races?
He said no, I won over a million dollars for my owner.
So, they treated you badly?
God no! They treated us like kings, as long as we were racing.
Then what, did you get injured?
He said, no, no.
I said, then what?
I quit.
You quit? Why on earth would you quit at the height of your career?

The greyhound said, I quit the day that I found out that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit. That’s when I quit. All that running, running, running, running, running, and that thing I was chasing, it wasn’t even real.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

sermon: letting go

Next week I hope to blog more. Until then, old sermons is all I have to offer ...

“Letting Go”
Mark 1: 14-20
Epiphany 3, Year B
January 25, 2009 (Preached at All Saints, ESC)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ *1As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

It’s hard to exaggerate how little I know about the art of fishing – which is sad, because I really admire good fishermen. And what I have a really hard time understanding is when people fish with the purpose of not taking home the fish – when they catch a fish and then just let the fish go. I’m talking about “catch and release.” In my limited understanding, “catch and release” is when you take some bait, deceive a fish, catch that fish, rip a few holes in that fishes lips, hold the fish, measure the fish, nearly suffocate the fish, so that you can admire the fish, only to hurl the fish back into the water to be humiliated in front of its family and friends. Now people don’t always plan to throw a fish back. Sometimes the decision release a fish is made on the spot. Strong fish are kept. But the weak, the small, the wrong class of fish, and any fish with a defect – they’re all thrown back. Now, I will admit that I’ve seen Finding Nemo a bit more often than your average twenty-seven year old male, but I can’t help but think that being caught and released is a pretty traumatic experience. I mean, don’t there have to be a few lakes out the fish suffer from low self-esteem and bad attitudes? Imagine the mental torture of being thrown back over and over again. Is it me? Am I not a keeper? Does no one want me? Because they took one look at me and they let me go again.

But in all seriousness, I am intrigued when people just let a fish go so freely. In fact, I’m intrigued when people can let anything go. Because as little as I know about the art of fishing, I know a whole lot less about the art of letting go. And yet if today’s Gospel tells us anything, it’s that the art of letting go is exactly what Jesus aims to teach us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus approaches Simon and Andrew, James and John, and proclaims that the Kingdom of God has come near. In other words, Jesus announces the “good news” that God’s reign of peace and prosperity, justice and mercy, is right around the corner and that this is their chance to “believe in the good news” and to get in on the action. But to do so required letting go of their nets. And if one starts to imagine the sort of life that Simon and Andrew and James and John had grown accustomed to, and the totally unknown future that Jesus was inviting them into, one quickly sees how earth shattering today’s Gospel was and is. “Let go of the familiar things you’ve come to rely on to feel secure,” Jesus tells them. “Let go of your nets. Let go of your profession. Let go of your family. And follow me.”

Now, “letting go” wasn’t any easier for Jesus’ contemporaries than it is for us. In fact, the religious people in Jesus’ day relied on all sorts of things in order to feel secure: their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws, and even their status as God’s chosen people. And in part the reason Jesus was such a revolutionary rabbi is because he invited God’s people to let go of these things in light of the Kingdom of God now available through him. And when Jesus cast his net wide, he didn’t just bring in the strong. He also gathered the weak, the small, people from the wrong class, and people with defects. No one who’s come to Jesus has ever been thrown back. Anyone could get in on the action. But to do so, they had to follow Jesus. But following Jesus meant letting go of some of the familiar things they had come to rely on to feel secure. And it still does for you and for me.

And so the question I want to ask today is, what do we need to let go of? What safety nets are we clinging to? In other words, what familiar things have we come to rely on that make us feel secure? It can be anything – our whit, our intelligence, our collar, our sense of humor. Maybe it’s our money, our career, a certain relationship, or our pride. What keeps us from having a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ? What makes us feel secure? What is our net? Because the words Jesus spoke to four fisherman two thousand years ago he still speaks to you and to me: let go of your nets. And come, follow me.

And so what do we do? Well, to quote today’s Gospel we “repent and believe the good news of God.” And when I say repent, I’m not suggesting that we beat our breast and weep for our sins. Lent will come soon enough. But in the original Greek, the word repent means to change one’s mind. And so to repent and believe the good news of God is to change our minds about our need to cling to false props and to trust the Good news that our God is big enough, and good enough, and wise enough, and loving enough, and competent enough to take care of us.

Because if you think about it, the best fisherman in today’s Gospel lesson isn’t Simon or Andrew. It’s not James or John. It’s not Zebedee or the hired hands in the boat. It’s Jesus - passing along the Sea of Galilee and casting God’s net wide to catch all sorts of people for His Kingdom. Jesus is a great fisherman. But it’s not enough that we admire Jesus. Because the invitation Jesus extended to four fisherman two thousand years ago is extended to you and to me: let go of your nets. And come, follow me.

After all, “the time is fulfilled” and the kingdom of God is very near. And Jesus, the master fisherman, has already caught us in his net. And Jesus isn’t a catch and release fisherman. Because when he catches you, he wants to make you a child of God. When he catches you, he wants to make you a disciple. When he catches you, he wants you to let go of anything and everything that keeps you from experiencing the fullness of His Kingdom.

Because Jesus isn’t a catch and release fisherman. To paraphrase his words in the Gospel of John, “I cannot lose a single disciple whom the Father has given me” (Jn 18:9). He cannot let us go. Jesus will not let us go. And because of that, we can let go. We can let go of the false props we rely on that make us feel secure. We can let go of the shame and the pride and the hatred and the fear that far too often infect our hearts and guide our decisions. We can let go of anything and everything that keeps us from stepping into the unknown future that Jesus is inviting us into.

And so repent and believe the good news that our God is big enough, and good enough, and wise enough, and loving enough, and competent enough to take care of us. Let that be your security. Let that be your safety net. Jesus cannot let us go. And because of that we’re free. We are free to let go.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Omega talk: divisions in church

Real World Corinth: a study of 1 Corinthians
OMEGA: "Divisions in the church"
1 Cor 1: 10-17

When the flood recorded in Genesis ended and Noah’s ship finally made it to land and he lowered the ramp of the ark to let all the animals out, Noah told the animals who had gone in two by two to “go forth and multiply.” Well all the animals obeyed Noah except for two snakes who sat sulking quietly in the corner. And so Noah yelled at them – “I thought I told you to go forth and to multiply.” And the snakes said, “We can’t. We’re adders.”

In all seriousness, I’m not going to talk to us tonight about multiplying or adding. Because we’re going to begin our spring segment of Omega talking about division.

And we’re studying a fascinating book. It’s a book with big stories about big characters that make big mistakes. It’s a book about God, greed, and grace. It’s about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayals; about siblings, squabbles, and sex. It’s a book about power and prayer and passion.

And it’s not by Grisham. Or Clancy. But it was written by a tentmaker – Paul of Tarsus. I’m talking about 1 Corinthians.

And I want to begin our study by saying that I’m blessed with a lot of friends that aren’t really religious. If you don’t have any non-religious friends, I’d suggest finding some. I’ve learned a lot from my non-religious friends. But one of these friends in particular once told me that he can’t be a Christian because he’s not as “good” as the people in the bible. I still haven’t been able to track down whatever translation he was reading. Because in my Bible, Abraham – our father in the faith – pretends that his wife is really his sister and then tries to pimp her out on two different occasions to foreign kings. In my Bible, the prophet Elisha has his feelings hurt when a few kids laugh at him for being bald. And if you’ve read II Kings you know that Elisha immediately prays – not for their forgiveness – but that God would send a bear to eat them. And in my Bible the rock of the church denies the Lord of the church three consecutive times. And so to be honest I was relieved when he told me that he wasn’t as “good” as the people in the Bible.

Because the truth is, people in the Bible are just as broken and flawed and sinful as we are, and because of that, they experienced just as much conflict and division in their lives as we do in ours. By a simple show of hands, in the last six months, how many of you have been asked about a certain relationship or friendship – whether it’s your own or that of a friend’s – and then used the following word to describe it – DRAMA. (I’m banking on all of women’s group.)

As we dive into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – as we seek to understand Paul’s words to the Corinthians and the implications they have for our life – we need to imagine what the Corinthians were like. After all, this letter is a living piece of history. Paul wrote it to address specific issues in a particular church community. And so whenever we think about the church at Corinth, this is the lens that I want us to read it through – (DRAMA). Make no mistake about 1 Corinthians. Paul is dealing with some pretty serious drama.

Now, here’s a little background info that might be helpful. This is a church that Paul founded himself – a “church plant” to use modern language. And it’s very diverse. There are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, educated and un-educated. And so within this community, there’s sexism, racism, classism, a bunch of other “isms” that wedge people apart. And on top of that, the Corinthians have a lot of theological squabbles over the same things that we still wrestle with in the church – spiritual gifts, sex, the Eucharist, whether or not it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to pagan Gods.

And so the Corinthians are all about drama. They are at odds with one another. And by the time Paul writes this letter, they’re at odds with him too. And so with that in mind – looking through this lens (DRAMA) – listen to a passage from the first chapter of this letter.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Perhaps you’ve woken up to “the sounds of the birds singing” before. If you haven’t, it’s absolutely - ANNOYING. People have compared the birds chirping and speaking and whistling to a symphony. They must be listening to birds much more talented than the ones in my backyard. Because if they are singing, they’re all out of key and they’re all singing a different song. But, does anyone here know why the birds sing? Any bird majors?

Well, usually it’s the male bird that “sings,” in part to attract a female of his same kind, but more importantly to tell all the other birds to stay away. It’s a territorial claim. When a bird chirps what it’s saying to the other birds is “this is my tree. Or this is my garden. And you don’t belong here.” It’s not that much different from a dog urinating on a tree.

Now, I hate to leave you with that image, but that’s kind of what Paul is dealing with in Corinth. There’s a lot of noise and squeaking and whistling, and it all means the same thing: this is my vision of what Christianity is, and if you think differently, you don’t belong here. The Christians at Corinth are divided. Different groups are staking out their own territory. And course, each group thinks that God is on their side.

And so looking again at our passage for today, it seems that Paul has heard a rumor. And this rumor is the reason that Paul is writing this letter in the first place. And the rumor comes from Chloe’s people. We’re not totally sure who Chloe is – but she’s important – because she has “her people.” And so if anyone ever asks you why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the answer is simple: “Because Chloe’s people told Paul a rumor that there was serious drama at Corinth.” And the root of that drama is allegiance to different teachers. Listen again to a portion of our passage.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ."

It’s not that hard to imagine what’s going on with this community. Some are claiming allegiance to Paul. After all, he’s the founder of the church. Paul’s the first one that ever preached the good news to them that Jesus was Lord of the earth. Bet here’s the problem.

Paul wrote this letter 20 years after Jesus died and rose from the dead. And Jesus’ resurrection was like the big bang – it was so powerful that teachers and missionaries and apostles were catapulted throughout the Roman Empire. And just because Paul founded the church didn’t mean that he had the luxury of staying put. Paul was a traveling missionary. He had other churches to plant. In other words, Paul may have been the first Christian teacher in Corinth. But he wasn’t the last.

Because not long after Paul left, an eloquent and charismatic speaker arrived. His name was Apollos, and according to the Book of Acts, Apollos had been converted by some of Paul’s friends. Well, Apollos visits the Corinthians and guess what. A lot of the Corinthians like Apollos’ teaching and way of doing things a lot better than Paul’s. And Paul may be a gifted writer, but he tells us himself that he’s pretty unimpressive in person. Paul’s power came from what he had to say, not from how he said it. But Apollos, he’s eloquent and charming. And so some of the Corinthians liked Apollos more, and where Apollos and Paul disagreed, some would say “I belong to Apollos.”

But that wasn’t all. Some were saying they belonged to Peter – or Cephas which is his name in Aramaic. After all, didn’t Jesus say that Peter was the rock of the church? Now, we don’t know whether Peter ever visited Corinth. My guess is that some traveling Christian preachers had passed through claiming to teach what Peter himself taught. Because when some where saying, “I’m with Paul,” and others were saying “I’m with Apollos,” others were saying – “your vision of Christianity is wrong. Because I belong to Cephas. And if you think differently, you don’t belong here.” And so when it came to staking out their territory, some sided with Peter.

But that wasn’t all the squeaking and chirping and whistling going on. Because there seems to have been a fourth “party” claiming that they were the real Messiah people. In other words, while everyone else was following this leader or that, some were saying “Oh, I’m just following Jesus.” Now, I know this sounds good – but don’t be fooled, it’s the oldest power-play in history of the church. It’s the modern day equivalent of the person who says, “I’ll just do what the Lord tells me,” and then does whatever they want. Or it’s when a person says, “I don’t need the church thank you very much, because I just do what the bible says.” But if we think that it’s “just” that easy, then my guess is that we just haven’t read it. Because the Bible itself says we need one another.

But do you get a sense of the drama that Paul’s dealing with? I mean, I haven’t even mentioned “the issues” they’re divided over yet, and because we have all semester, I’ll save a lot of that for later. But I find it both sobering and relieving that the church experienced such division – such drama – in its very earliest years. There wasn’t much of a “honeymoon” period for the early church. Because from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but also struggling to maintain unity.

And so the question is, why?

Why is unity so important? Why does Paul write a desperate plea to the Corinthians begging them to be united, to stop fighting, and to end the drama once and for all? Why is the rumor from Chloe’s people so troubling?

Because the Gospel, in one word, is about reconciliation. You see, behind this passage, behind this letter, behind the entire New Testament is Paul’s message of the cross. Because the drama and the division we experience with one another has never been our primary problem. Our drama with one another isn’t a problem, it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of the drama and division that we experience with God because of a separation that exists between us and God. And so behind this passage and this letter and the entire New Testament is Paul’s message that Jesus’ cross has healed that rift between us and God – that God took initiative and ended the drama between us and him so that we might be united to God. And if God really did that, if God really ended the drama that exists between us and Him, what on earth are we doing fighting with one another? That’s the question that Paul is asking the Corinthians.

Can you hear the blend of anger and sarcasm in Paul’s voice? “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” You see, Paul took baptism pretty seriously, because for him it was the formal and outward sign before God and one’s family and the entire church that someone was leaving their old identity behind and entering a new life with Jesus. Baptism for the Christian was like crossing the Red Sea for Israel during the Exodus – it meant coming out of slavery into freedom.

And so when Paul asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” what he’s essentially asking is, “are you still a slave? Are you not free? Didn’t you get the memo that God put an end to the drama?”

And so back to our question – why is unity so important? I’ll let y’all discuss that a bit in your small groups, but here’s my answer in a nutshell.

First, God is one. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a perfect community of oneness. By definition, God is Perfect Community – a communion of persons so close that we believe not in three Gods but in One. And so unity is important because God is one. And God aims to make us His children.

Second, Jesus prayed for the unity of His church, and Jesus died for the unity of His church. To quote his prayer in the Gospel of John, “I pray that they may be one as we are one.” The second person of the Trinity becoming human, praying for our unity, and then dying on a cross is not a small matter. Because Jesus died to end the drama – to end the division – between us and God. And so unity is important because Jesus died for it.

And so don’t be like the chirping birds staking out your territory and singing out of key. But like it says in Colossians, live in harmony with one another. Because as clear as the Bible is that we still wrestle with petty divisions and immature drama, it’s even more clear that God’s desire and commitment is to see all division and all drama come to an end. And so please – whatever you do – do not be as good as the people in the Bible. Because Jesus invites us, and the Spirit empowers us, to be much, much better.