Sunday, February 25, 2018

Hard Truths

Scripture Mark 8:31-38 NRSV 

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

On February 7th the Polish President put his signature on a piece of legislation that outlaws blaming Poland’s government or its citizens for any crimes committed during the Holocaust.   Over 3 million Polish Jews were killed in camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobib√≥r, andTreblinka.  And while it is true that no Polish nationals were employed at any of these camps, the camps were built only after years of Nazis stripping Polish Jews of their rights and property, which the Polish people did know about.  Many were able to move into much nicer homes because the Jewish families who owned them were carried away, into the ghettos at first, then into the camps.  They knew whose homes they were occupying - these had been their neighbors and friends.  And people who lived near the death camps knew something bad was going on, but not exactly what that something was.   Somehow they were able to convince themselves that it didn’t affect them.   And now, 70+ years later, the government would like to deny that any of those things happened - they would like to claim complete victimhood.

With that said - there are nearly 7,000 names of Polish Christians on Israel’s list of the Righteous of the Nations, Holocaust rescuers, the largest number from any nation.  Some estimates put the number of Poles involved in rescue at up to 3 million, and credit them with saving upwards of 450,000 Jews from certain death.   The rescuers knew that the penalty for helping the Jews was death, not just for themselves but for their entire families!, but they persisted.   So, although there was some complicity by Polish citizens, at the same time there was great courage and sacrifice by Polish citizens.  It’s important to recognize and accept both truths - both sides to a situation.  It’s always important to recognize truth - however hard and unpleasant it may be.    
And . . .  As a sort of “the rest of the story” aside . . . yesterday the Polish government announced  they would not open criminal proceedings against those found breaking the new Holocaust law until Poland’s constitutional court reaches a decision on the legislation.  

Some years back I asked a friend how her son was doing.  I’d heard he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had started chemo.  She snapped at me, “Don’t use that word.  Don’t ever use that word.  If he has that, it means he is going to die.”  She also didn’t know that there was any such thing as a cancer survivor, until I told her that I was.  So her choice up to that moment had been to deny the truth of her son’s illness.   

And Peter - classic denial.   “Rabbi, don’t say those things!  If you talk about bad things happening they’ll come true!  You should only talk about good things, happy things.  Don’t let all these people think you’re worried.”   And Jesus,  “Peter, tempting as it may be to think that everything is going to be wonderful, I know better.  And we have to accept the truth, no matter how hard it is.  We cannot deny what we don’t like, and we can’t change the reality that faces us. So stop tempting me to ignore reality.  Stop tempting me to take the easier, softer  way.   I need to go forward along this path, as hard at is may be to travel.”  (All this dialogue, of course, comes from The Gospel according to Maria.)  

It’s easy for me to see Peter’s denial, and Jesus’ call to accept reality, because I have always been pretty good at denial.  I remember decades ago - around 1975 - I called one of those helplines and said I thought I might have a drug problem because I was spending my grocery money on drugs.  They said, “If you’re still worried about food, you don’t have a problem.”  So I immediately started obsessing over always having lots and lots of canned goods, because that would mean I didn’t have a problem.   Maybe 10 years later, I filled out one of those “Are you an alcoholic?” questionnaires, and had no difficulty proving to myself I was perfectly fine.  “Do you ever drink alone?  No. The cat is always home with me.”  See?  No problem.  Eventually, however, I was able to break through the denial and accept that I did, in fact, have a problem.  Then, and only then, I was able to begin to change my life, with lots of help from God and from people God put into my life.  That’s not to say that I’m still not prone to denial when I don’t want to deal with a situation.   It’s just that today I can (eventually) recognize it for what it is, and I can move beyond that to acceptance of reality - no matter how much I don’t like the hard truths I have to face and accept.

Jesus goes on to speak a phrase that, I think, we maybe haven’t paid enough attention to.  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”    I think most of us only hear the “take up your cross part.”  Many of us hear Jesus urging us to accept whatever bad things come along - pain, sorrow, grief - and carry that with us as our own personal cross.   We talk about the bad things in our lives as being our cross to bear.   I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus meant here.  Cancer, arthritis, chronic pain -  not crosses.  These are medical conditions, and there are treatments.  Addiction.  Poverty.  Oppression.  Not crosses to be borne, but realities we must first accept as reality, then work to change and heal.  

 In denying ourselves we take up our cross and walk with Jesus.   I was once told (not by anyone here) that because I was the pastor, I was expected to make sacrifices for my congregation - sleep less, work more hours, do without family time and days off in order to serve the congregation better.  That’s not actually true.  (And you may be sure that I was really happy when that person decided to leave the congregation I was serving at the time.) I am not the professional Christian who is supposed to do all those things in your place.  What I am supposed to do is model discipleship, and help all of you learn what it means to take up your crosses.  Peter is not the only one who had to face reality and accept the hard truths.  Each of us is called to do that.   

Lent is the perfect time to remember that we are called to walk alongside Jesus, accepting the hard truths that we would much prefer to ignore.  For these forty days we are reminded of all that Jesus did, and all that he called his disciples to do.  We are given examples and directions on how to live and how to follow him on his journey.  We are called to do as he did, to speaking truth to power, healing the sick, comforting those who suffer, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, standing alongside the oppressed.  We will each find different ways to do that, different ways to deny ourselves, different ways to serve as Jesus’ disciples - followers, students.  Some of us do these things through our work - social workers, teachers, police, public servants of all kinds whose focus is on helping others.  Some of us write publicly, or make financial donations to agencies that help the particular causes that are most important to us, or even join demonstrations.  All of us are expected to do our best to become educated on the needs of the people around us, the people in our community that need our help.  We carry our devotion to the work of the Church- to loving our neighbor - as a cross along the way - heavy yet at the same time liberating.

In Feasting on the Word, Paul C. Shupe notes that our churches all have crosses in them - big ones, small ones, stained glass ones, wooden and stone ones, even flower covered ones - but all of those crosses represent the cross of Jesus.  He suggests it would be a good idea if every church had a multitude of crosses, so that as we leave here on Sunday morning we can pick up our own cross and take it out into the world with us, to our homes and jobs and the grocery store, to where ever we happen to go between now and next Sunday.  

And, you know, we can do that.  We have all these little pieces of burlap with crosses on them.  We gave them to the folks who came on Ash Wednesday, but we can give them out again today.  So when you leave today, take one of these from the basket in the narthex.  Keep it with you - in your pocket or your wallet - so that you will remember that you, too, are walking with Jesus.  You, too, are called to be his disciple.   You, too, are called to be His.

So let us stand and sing, accepting our cross and giving ourselves to Jesus, saying to him, “I’m Yours.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Dazed and Confused Part 2

Mark 9:9-15 NRSV

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”
14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him.

Several of us posted our experiences of Ash Wednesday on Facebook.  Jorge and Adriana even posted selfies with their ashes.  And one of the most common comments on those posts was something like, “I didn’t know that Christians did ashes.”  Other comments to posts about Lent and Ash Wednesday were more basic.   “What’s Lent?”   And I received an email on Thursday morning from a member who said they had never experienced receiving ashes before, and were still trying to process the impact it had on them.  

It occurred to me that maybe everyone here isn’t as familiar with this season and its practices as I thought they were.  So, on this first Sunday in Lent, a short lesson on “What is Lent?”  

Lent is a 46 day period of fasting and prayer, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter.  It is a reflection of the time Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry.  Lenten practices have changed in the last couple millennia.  In the first few centuries, people who were seeking baptism would spend these 40 days learning what it means to be a Christian, so that they could be baptized on Resurrection Day, Easter.  In the Middle Ages, the entire 40 days of Lent were fast days, which meant no meat, no sugars, no fats, no parties, no celebrations of any kind, and all kinds of self denial were common - wearing scratchy clothes next to your skin, or kneeling on rice or pebbles to pray.    (Sidebar - the entire season is 46 days long, but only 40 are days when we fast or whatever, because Sundays don’t count.  Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection, and share the feast of love, so there is no fasting on that day.)   After the Reformation 500 years ago, these practices underwent some changes in the Protestant traditions, but Lent is still considered a period of self denial, hence, questions about “what are you giving up for Lent?” and answers like, “Chocolate.”   Today some Christian traditions don’t observe Lent at all, while others do.  We do.  On Ash Wednesday, many of us came here and received a blessing - a cross on our foreheads of ashes made from burning palms used on Palm Sunday - and a reminder, that we came from dust, and to dust we will return.  Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are mortal.  But it also reminds us that our death will be a temporary thing, leading to eternal life with Christ.   During the last week in Lent our emotions will be like yo-yos.  We will shout Halleluia as Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  We will share hope of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. We will mourn his passion and death on Good Friday.  And then, Easter, and a great celebration!   And all the purple goes away, and we drape everything in white and fill the sanctuary with glorious flowers.   

But first, we must get through Lent, through self denial and grief and suffering.  

The cross you see here is a symbol of what we will experience in the next six weeks.  As we watch throughout the Lenten season, we will see that as it draws closer to the center of the stage, as Christ’s passion and death draw nearer to us,  it will become less lovely.  By Good Friday, all the flowers will be gone.  Lent is much more than just six weeks without chocolate, or alcohol, or pasta.  Lent is a time of preparation and purification as we walk alongside Jesus on his journey to the cross and beyond.   

And now - back to the Bible.   If you were here last Sunday, you might have noticed that this passage begins with the very same line that ended last week’s, “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. “   And they wouldn’t, because they were pretty good at doing what Jesus asked of them.  But they had questions. They didn’t understand.  Jesus knew that his cousin, John, the Baptizer, was Elijah returned, to make prepare the way for him.  But they didn’t.  After all, they’d just seen Elijah, along with Moses, and they were pretty sure they hadn’t seen him before.  So how could he be the Messiah if Elijah had to come first . . . it was probably a fairly circular moment for them.  All would become clear later, but right now all they had were questions, and a requirement to remain silent about what they had just experienced.   So they down the mountain and it was business as usual.  There was a crowd, there were lawyers arguing with the other disciples, and as soon as Jesus was spotted, he was surrounded by people.     

I wonder what it was like later that evening, when the crowds had gone.  Wonder if the other disciples asked how it went up on the mountain, and if Peter, James and John were all, “You know, same old, same old.  Prayers, some conversation.  Nothing unusual at all.”  Or maybe just changing the subject real quick. Cause you know, they weren’t allowed to tell anyone what they had experienced.  Not even the other disciples.

Jesus did that a lot.  He’d do something amazing and then say, “Don’t tell anyone.  Don’t tell anyone I healed you. Don’t tell anyone that I was just having a conversation with Moses and Elijah.  Don’t tell anyone that you know who I am.”    Dunno why.  I mean, obviously in this case, the disciples were pretty much still dazed and confused by what they had experienced.  You could tell by their questions that they didn’t really understand who Jesus is, or the role John played.  Even if they did tell people, they didn’t have enough information for their story to make any sense even to themselves, never mind trying to explain it to someone else.  It won’t be until after the resurrection and beyond, in those 40 days after Easter when Jesus takes his disciples away to teach them everything they need to know that they will begin to really understand.   And even after that, not until Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes to them, will they have the words and the full knowledge they need to carry the Good News in Jerusalem and around the known world.   So it makes sense Jesus wouldn’t want them to tell anyone, not until they are able to fully comprehend what they have seen and heard.  

It’s not like he wanted them to be greedy with their knowledge, and keep it to themselves.  He just wanted to make sure that they had all the knowledge they needed before they gave it away.

Greed is about more than money and stuff, you know.  It’s also about time and caring.  Greed can be seen in an unwillingness to share who you are and what you’ve experienced, with people who really need to hear those stories.  There might good reasons to keep silence, or to hold yourself back from others.  We’ve seen that with the #Metoo movement, that women and men have held their silence for years, decades even, refusing even to warn others about abusers and rapists, out of fear, or even in some cases out of a sort of warped sense that everyone has to go through what they went through, like a twisted rite of passage or something.  I understand that.  I do.  It’s self protection.  But we are now seeing an upsurge in generosity of spirit, a willingness to stand up for what is right that is spreading, so that maybe, some day, no one needs to fear that a more powerful person will be able to take advantage of them without any concern for consequences.  Generosity of spirit is as important as generosity of money, and stuff, and time.

This congregation is particularly generous, and not just with your money and your stuff.  You do so much for each other and for our city.  I can’t keep begin to keep track of what all you all are involved in.  I am so proud of you all.   And I know there are some of you who give more than you can afford, who give so much of your time and spirit that you are exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally.  And I believe that you think if you stop doing everything you do, even for a minute, that you are being greedy.  

But know this.  Self care is not greed.  Self care is taking the time and effort needed to make sure you have what you need to continue to serve generously.   Self care is being generous to oneself, and it is necessary.  Jesus did that.  He regularly wandered off into the wilderness to pray, regroup, re-charge and re-energize.   He took time away by himself, or with just a few close friends, so that he could come back and face those giant crowds who overwhelmed him with their awe, with their needs and desires, and with their arguments.   He even told his disciples not to share what they knew, as wonderful and amazing as that news was, so that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by trying to answer questions that were impossible for them to answer.   And, just in case you have forgotten - even God took a day off.  

The Good News today, my brothers and sisters, is that Jesus did not tell us not to tell anyone.   On the contrary - we, who are blessed with the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, we who have been taught to know God’s grace, mercy, and love are supposed to go and tell everyone, so that Christ’s great kingdom can come to earth.  So let us stand and sing, for We have a story to tell the nations!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Dazed and Confused, Part 1

Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)  

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany - the season of “Aha!” moments.  Those moments begin right after the birth of the Child, when (depending on which gospel is read) either the Three Magi from the East or the prophets Anna and Simeon recognize the child Jesus as the King, the promised Messiah.  It continues on with the voice from above calling him “My Son, My Beloved” at his baptism, Nathaniel naming him Son of God and King of Israel, Simon Peter and the sons of Zebedee dropping their work to follow him, and unclean spirits recognizing him as Holy One of God.  This is the final week, the last of the revelations that really should get the attention of his disciples, and drive the point home that this is the son of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah promised by all the prophets, God with Us.  

Jesus, Peter, James, and John went apart from the others to pray.  We remember that these three are the ones he called first, the ones who are closest to him, who should know him best.  They are with him on the mountain when suddenly he is changed, transfigured, his clothes became “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them,” and suddenly, there before them are Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets - the two who went straight to God at the end of their lives, who were not buried, nor were their bodies corrupted as happens to every other living thing when it dies.  In fact, there is no record of them dying, only of them going away - Moses alone to a mountaintop and Elijah taken up into the air in a flaming chariot.  
note:  I have no idea how they would have recognized Moses and Elijah.  There weren’t any portraits of them anywhere.  They couldn’t look them up on Google to see if these were really those guys.  But somehow they knew that these two people were Moses and Elijah and they were suddenly standing there having a conversation with Jesus, their rabbi.  

Peter, always practical, offered to build shelters for the three who stood before them.   Not quite sure why, but Peter wasn’t known for standing by quietly to figure things out before jumping in with words or actions.   Maybe in his mind it was equivalent to offering a hot beverage in times of confusion.  At any rate a cloud appeared around them and a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  And when the cloud was gone, so were Moses and Elijah, and Jesus was himself again, (as were his clothes) and it was time to go back down the mountain.  Jesus then ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man was risen from the dead.

“No problem, Lord.  Our lips are sealed!”  They weren’t going to tell anyone.  They had no idea what they had just experienced, but they for durn sure aren’t going to tell anyone.  (Spoiler alert - they’re going to start questioning Jesus about it next week.)

Seminary students may be among the most arrogant of all graduate level students - with the possible exception of Law and Med Students.  We look at the disciples, and we see all the very broad hints and outright statements Jesus makes to them, and yet they continually seem dazed and confused by everything.  They never seem to really get that Jesus is not the kind of Messiah they have been expecting.  We all shake our heads, and laugh about how dense they seem to be.  I mean, in story after story they are given clues about what is coming.  Jesus tells parables to the masses, and then breaks it down for the disciples so they will understand what he’s talking about.  And they just always kind of look like Captain Jack Sparrow saying “whuh?”  We would have known better.  We would have picked up on what he was saying. It’s so clear!  How could they possibly miss the point over and over again?  

Well, you know, they missed the point because they haven’t been raised with these stories.  They haven’t had the symbolism pounded into them in sermon after sermon.  They had no idea that this is the way the ancient prophecies would play out, because this isn’t the way they were taught to understand them.   We can see clearly because we come from a different place and time, a time when we know who Jesus is.  They had to figure it all out for themselves, and none of it was making sense to them because understood the Messiah in a totally different context than we do.  Frankly, we would have missed the point, too.  We’re not smarter than the disciples.  We just have better information at our disposal.  

This appearance on the mountaintop is filled with symbolism, some of which would be clear to the disciples but most of which is only clear with 20/20 hindsight.  Jesus’ clothes were white beyond any earthly reality, which we will see again when an angel appears to the women in the garden on Resurrection day, but which simply confused the disciples.  Moses went to the cloud covered mountain to speak with God, so God’s voice coming from a cloud is symbolism the disciples would recognize.  Likewise, God spoke from a cloud on the day Jesus was baptized, which we know, but the disciples weren’t part of his life yet, so would be unaware of that event.  And of course, Jesus will ascend bodily to heaven, leaving no earthly body behind, just as Moses and Elijah left none behind, which we understand because we know the rest of the story.   To the disciples, however, Moses and Elijah appearing to speak with their rabbi would prove to them that he was one of the great prophets, for they also had the power to raise the dead, heal the sick and perform other great wonders.  They had no idea what was to come, and that he would ascend into heaven in the same manner they did.

This passage, and the symbolism in it, will help the earliest Christians realize that Jesus stands firmly within the Jewish tradition.  And this was important.  Mark needed to make it clear to his listeners, who would have been primarily Jews, that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy.  It was important for them to hear that Jesus was there to honor and reform their tradition, not to bring a totally new thing into the world.  So the Good News was that they were, indeed, the Chosen People, the people to whom God sent, not just prophets, but God’s own Son, so that they would be healed of the sins that separate them from each other and from God.  The Good News for them was that God was still speaking to them, that they had not been abandoned or rejected, that God still loved them.   And the Good News for all the rest of the world is that God’s love encompasses everyone, all the peoples of the world, not just the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The Good News for us is that in just under two months, we will be celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, proof that sin and death have no hold on him, nor on us who follow him. 

But first we must walk alongside him on his journey to Jerusalem, to that final Passover supper, to his betrayal, his trial, his suffering, and his death.  On Wednesday we will adorn our foreheads with ashes, to remind us of our own mortality, to remind us that, although the resurrection is at the end of the road, first we have to travel the road Jesus traveled.  There is so much left for him to do, so much more for him to teach, so many more people to reach with the Good News of God’s kingdom, in such a short time.  

On this last Sunday in the Season of the Epiphany, on this very last day of Aha! Moments, even though the disciples are still dazed and confused, we recognize Jesus for who he is, Son of God, Messiah, the Prince of Peace, God with us.  Let us all sing praise to him.  Please stand and sing “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.” 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Chameleon

1 Corinthians 9:16-23   (NRSV) 

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.


Sometimes it’s a bit hard to figure out just what Paul is talking about.  Because we don’t get to hear the whole letter all at once, as the members of the Corinthian churches did, and because maybe I preached on something else last week or because maybe the last bit wasn’t in the lectionary, or because maybe we just plain forgot, we might wonder, “What on earth is this man talking about?”  

So here we go:  Previously, in Chapter 8 of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he had been mediating an argument over whether it was ok to eat meat that had been part of sacrifices to idols or not.  Some have no problem with it because there is, after all, only one God, so the idols are nothing and the meat is just meat.  They are theologically correct.  Others, however, think that eating meat sacrificed to idols is to take part in that sacrifice, and refuse to eat it.  You can see this argument could turn into a significant problem.   Paul says, whichever you choose is ok.  But you must accept each other’s decisions as valid.  And if you eat the meat, you must not tempt those who believe eating it is sinful, for if they eat they will suffer from a guilty conscience.   For myself, he says, I would stop eating meat altogether if by doing so I could keep another from falling into sin.  

Then, in the beginning of Chapter 9, he apparently responds to complaints about how he supports himself.  He reminds them that he is an apostle, one who has encountered Christ, whose work it is to go from place to place making disciples and carrying the Good News.   As such, because this is his life’s work, it is his right to receive food and shelter from the church.  In support of this right, Paul quotes the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.  He says,  in verses 13 and 14, “13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”  

15 But I,” he says, “have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!”      And now we are caught up.

You know, Paul has a point.  A really good point.  I’m the pastor, and when I tell people about Jesus, about my faith, about how amazing this congregation is, what I often get back, either in words or in eye rolls, is, “You’re the pastor.  You have to say that.  You have to invite people to worship.”   Well, yes, I suppose so.    Sometimes I guess I’m a little bit jealous of all of you, because when you tell someone how God has worked in your life, and how much you love your church no one says, “Well, you get paid to think that, so why should I believe you?”   You have no idea how often I wish I would win the lottery, so I could just do the work without worrying about the budget.  Of course, for that to happen I’d have to buy lottery tickets . . .  Paul refused to be supported by the congregations, and thus was free to proclaim the Good News without anyone telling him what he had to do or how he had to do it - except for God, of course.  

This can be an issue in some congregations.  I was part of a conversation this week with other clergy folks around when and where one may do pastoral care.  It seems one church board  took exception to their pastor saying that she did some pastoral care in a local coffee shop.  The rest of us clergy folk were, like, “Yup.  That’s where we work.  And at the market, and at dinner with friends, and at the gym, and at City Council meetings, and jogging in the park.  We do pastoral care with church members and people we meet on the street and random phone callers.”   That’s hard to explain to people who would love to install a time clock in the church office.  I am so grateful that sort of thing doesn’t happen here! 

Unlike me and my clergy friends,  Paul was not paid to proclaim the Gospel or to start churches or to preach in the streets or do any of the things he did.   He refused to allow the church in Corinth to support him, so that he was completely free to do God’s will, to be a slave to Christ.  

Paul says,  I have become all things to all people.”  For most of us, being a chameleon is not a good way to live.   When I was in high school I knew how to act like whatever group of people I was hanging around with at the moment.  Hippies or greasers, college bound or tech school, chess club or jocks, I could fit in with all of them.  I knew what to wear and what to talk about in each of those groups.   But I never really fit in with any of them because I was so busy trying to be like everyone else that I didn’t know who I was or what I liked.  It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s and early 40s that I started trying to figure out who Maria is.   Still working on that, in fact.  That is not the kind of all things to all people that Paul is talking about.   Don’t be like Maria was.  Be like Paul.

Paul was able to draw upon his own life experience and beliefs to relate to all of the people he encountered in the church.  He spoke to the Jews from his own background, upbringing and education.  He could speak with intimate knowledge of what it means to live under the Law of Moses.  But he could speak equally to those who did not live under that law, who did not need to follow the dietary restrictions and so on, because he no longer felt himself bound by the Law of Moses, only by the Law of Christ.  For the weak - like those who couldn’t eat the idol meat - he became weak, giving up meat so that they could look to him for encouragement.  He spoke with great passion of his former life, of his sins against God and Christ in hunting down Jesus followers to be imprisoned and possibly killed for blasphemy, of his conversion, of the way he was struck down on the road to Damascus, and raised up again by Christ himself.    Paul was able to speak to people at their own level, not as one who was better than they were, but someone who had been where they are, and knew how it felt.  By sharing his own stories, his vulnerabilities, his challenges and his successes with them, he was able to carry the Gospel to people and places that would have been impossible for some of the other apostles.   He could understand and empathize with the Jew and the Greek, the educated and the manual laborer, the free man and even the slave - because he was a slave to Christ, going where the Spirit called him to go, doing as God instructed him to do.  He knew pain and loss, and joy and glory.  And all of these things made it possible for him to carry the Good News.

For lo these many centuries, Paul’s letters have shown us how to be church together.   He has shown us how to be in relationship with those who are not like us, how to understand the viewpoint of those with whom we disagree and allow them to be themselves, as we are allowed to be ourselves.  He has taught us about compromise, and about calling out those who would lead us in the wrong direction.  He has given us the example of his own life in welcoming  everyone who comes, and helping each other on our journey with Christ.  He has made it clear to us that in Christ there are no divisions based in gender, orientation, race, nationality, class or economic status.  In Christ there are no false distinctions to be made between one person and another, for all are slaves to Christ, all are free from sin through baptism and believing, all are God’s beloved children.  All are welcome to come to Christ.  All are welcome in God’s house.

When we go out from this place today, let us go determined to be all things to all people, that we might by our example and by our encouraging words, save some.  Let us go out and invite people to come and hear of God’s love, forgiveness, and compassion, and make sure they know that here, in God’s house, all persons are welcome.