Epiphany 3A, RevGalBlogPals, Sermons

We Belong to Christ

(A sermon with Super Bowl Associations, preacher January 26, 2014 at Ruth Memorial Presbyterian Church, Poplarville, Mississippi ~ 1 Corinthians 1:10-15; Matthew 4:18-23)

Sally-Lodge and I just returned from a week with our dear colleagues, spent on a cruise to Mexico, and this time last week I was flying to New Orleans to be on the spot a day ahead of our departure. Sunday evening, I ate at Drago’s with 8 other clergywomen, and while we waited for our shrimp and grits or red beans and rice, some paid attention to the playoff game on the big TVs found on the walls in the bar section of the establishment.

Well, one of us did.

When she responded to a play with cheers, the people in the bar responded with boos. The local folks were not rooting *for* anyone; they were simply rooting *against* the Seahawks.

  • I suspect y’all, like our neighboring diners last Sunday, belong to the Saints.
  • I grew up belonging to the Redskins (and perhaps have changed colors to keep the peace, because…)
  • My spouse belongs to the Giants.
  • But our friend Sarah belongs to the Seahawks.

Sarah SeahawksNow, Sarah grew up in Oklahoma, so there is no geographical explanation for the passion she feels for the Seahawks. There was no family tradition of following them. She pastors in Texas, within a stone’s throw of Cowboy Stadium, so she didn’t adopt the customs of her new location.

I asked her why she loved the Seahawks so much. I could tell from her sportswear choices that this was not the impulse of the hour, and she explained that when she was 11 or 12, she decided she liked their colors and has been a huge and loyal fan ever since.

  •  “I belong to Paul.”
  •  “I belong to Apollos.”
  •  “I belong to Cephas.”
  •  “I belong to Christ.”

We don’t know the whole story of the divisions in Corinth, but we know their arguing grieved Paul. We can gain wisdom about more than their circumstances by training our knowledge of people on the text. The landscape may look different, technology has certainly changed, and even our cultural understandings shift slowly, but human nature seems to be eternal. We form our loyalties and like to fight over them with people whose loyalties are different. We establish our preferences and prepare to defend them to the death. We define ourselves in order to understand ourselves, and we hold tight to that understanding in order to make sense of the whole world.

We belong to the GIANTS.
We belong to the GIANTS.

I belong to the Giants, and even though they had a wretched, wretched season, my loyalty to them will influence who I root for next Sunday in the Super Bowl. You see, the Giants have a quarterback we love at our house. His name and number are on a special jersey worn for good luck when they are playing, and we rise and fall with his successes and failures. There has been a lot of that falling this year: many interceptions and many missed passes and many puzzling choices by receivers just running the patterns all wrong.

That quarterback’s name is Manning, and I feel pretty sure you know about his people, especially his father Archie and his brother Peyton, and perhaps you can follow my train of logic to see that I will be hoping for a win by the Broncos, and perhaps using the logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, any of you who are Saints fans will root for the Broncos, too.

Paul, Apollos, Cephas (also known as Peter), Christ.

Somehow in that community of Corinth, people had divided their loyalties and teamed up against one another. We have this today, too. We are Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian and more, without even getting to the non-denominational, and if you’ve been in a variety of churches, you’ll know that we have different ways of doing things. Some sprinkle and some immerse. Some like a tasty loaf and others use wafers. Some serve juice and others always have wine. Sometimes the wine is white, but most of the time it’s red. We have special ways of disposing of the leftovers – pouring the juice on the ground, or feeding the bread to the birds, or making the clergy eat and drink all of it. At our church, the loaves you see broken are not the ones eaten in the congregation, where precut bread cubes are served. The loaves for show are given to the Senior Pastor, and I have it on the best authority they most often become French toast. There are some who would find that idea appalling, and others who would ask to come over for Sunday night supper.

It can be hard to look beyond those familiar, reassuring details. I prefer grape juice at Communion, although I will politely receive wine if I am visiting where it is the practice to use it. Still, it doesn’t feel like “my” way.

Our differences can distract us, but I want to tell you I don’t believe they matter.

Like my friend Sarah and her immediate love for the colors of the Seahawks, the first disciples saw and heard and felt something they found irresistible. Jesus came proclaiming that God’s kingdom was at hand, right there, within reach. They got out of their boats to learn more. They left behind their fishing, which we might read as leaving behind what others expected them to do. They left behind their families, specifically Zebedee the father of James and John, which we might interpret as leaving behind the traditions of generations. They up and left because they heard a compelling message from the most compelling person they had ever seen, Jesus.

They belonged to him. They didn’t know what it meant yet, but they belonged to Jesus.

Who do we belong to?

RevGals on our first cruise in 2008. Only one tattoo is real.
RevGals on our first cruise in 2008. Only one tattoo is real.
(Buy the magnet here!)

For the past nine years, I’ve been working with others to build a community for clergywomen that crosses typical boundaries of denomination and generation and nation. Sometimes we share information about the varied ways we do things, and as long as it remains a sharing, it goes well.  But as soon as we get to comparing, we run the risk of defending, and that usually leads to my least favorite “ing” – quarreling. When that happens, when we devolve from our best selves and our higher minds and our kind hearts into squabbling — and because we are an Internet group, that most often happens in discussions online — I am usually the one tasked with wading in to say something like what Paul said to the Corinthians.

“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.” (1 Corinthians 1:10, NRSV)

This can be challenging, and if you have ever been asked or, worse, tempted to tell someone why you go to a particular church and not another one, and especially not the one *they* attend, you’ll know what I mean. What can we say about the differences between us that, unless said with extreme care and delicacy, won’t cause a rift instead of building a bridge across it?

We’re not just a bunch of fans of different teams. We’d better not be, if we want to follow Jesus with the spontaneous and courageous faith of the first disciples. But even as soon after his death and resurrection as the writing of the epistles, just 20 or 30 years, sub-groups had formed and people disagreed about how to follow him. Paul would go on to instruct the church at Corinth about hospitality and welcoming everyone to God’s table, I suspect all the differences boiled down to the picky-pickies of taste or habit or the fancier way of saying it, “long-held tradition.”

One of our traditions on the cruise is having Communion, and almost every year we’ve had it at our closing worship. We’ve had it in odd spaces, as you might expect on a cruise ship. We’ve had to substitute cranberry juice for grape. We’ve tried the gluten free loaves baked by the chef, or brought aboard rice crackers. The very first time, we had Communion in the Card Room, where all the little tables for four had been pushed into a long rectangle. At the head of the table were two perfectly fine glasses, one with juice and one with wine. But between them sat a plate stacked high with slices of white bread.

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and as it happened, it was up to me to find a way to make that odd pile of slices feel like a whole representation of the Lord’s Supper to people who called it by different names and expected it to look and smell and taste different ways. Could we find our way to the place where would all proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, or would we get caught up in the picky-pickies?

It took a good long moment, and an invitation to let go of all the things that might get in the way of feeling what Paul and Peter and Andrew and James and John knew so well.

We belong to Christ.

And when we choose to follow – because it’s a choice, the getting up and leaving, the dropping of the nets and the trusting in what he’s calling us to do – when we choose to follow, we will all have our times of wanting to cleave to something that feels safer, to get back to the familiar nets, to climb back into the boat, to cry out with the Corinthians for the safety of some more limited version of the truth, saying:

“I belong to Paul.

I belong to Apollos.

I belong to …” No.

No.

We don’t belong to whole loaves, or team colors, or perfectly reverent spaces, or any of the other things that might entangle us. We belong to Christ. Let’s drop our nets, and go where he leads us.

Epiphany 3A, Exodus, Holy Week

Behold a Star

My friend and colleague, L, came to dinner at our house tonight. She arrived with a bag full of colored strips of paper and sat with Snowman and LP to teach these origami-loving young people the craft of a different culture: Moravian Stars.

While they worked patiently (or not so, in some cases) to create a star for the first time, we marveled at L as she turned pieces of wrapping paper ribbon into an example. This was hard enough with larger, less slippery paper in contrasting colors!

It always interests me to listen to the way one person will describe an action and how differently another person will hear it. I become easily frustrated when I cannot understand how to do something, and it is perhaps fortunate that I was occupied getting dinner on the table while they worked. 

We think of a star, especially at Christmas-time, as shining a sudden, amazing, even clarifying light, but these stars took building, weaving the paper in and out to make the points. And I suspect enlightenment, or to put it less dramatically, understanding, comes in a similar way, one movement leading to another, a seemingly random set of actions or thoughts or feelings finally creating a whole.

Moravian Stars 122709 018

(Read more about making the stars here.)

Epiphany 3A, Psalms

My God, You Make My Darkness Bright

"You O Lord are my lamp."

Bells.

"My God you make my darkness bright."

Bells.

It's the wrong psalm (not 27, but 18), but it's the theme that comes into my mind when I read that psalm about light.

I was singing in the choir at Large Church, this must be fifteen years ago, or a little less, and we sang a plainsong setting of the psalm, with a baritone soloist and the whole choir coming in on the refrain based on those two lines. An odd assortment of handbells, carefully arranged, were sounded after each of those lines. They formed a chord neither major or minor, a sweet cacophony, a temporal fugue, hanging in the air as the last word of each line faded away.

As I walk through a tense and transitional period in my professional life, I know something of that feeling, of being in the dark and having only God as a source of light for some questions, and knowing that light does not always equal an answer.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

That is what I want. I imagined myself in settled ministry for the rest of my working life, perhaps making a move or two, but plunging deep roots into a community of faith. Now it seems that may not happen, and I find myself wondering why? Am I discerning a particular gift for ministry, or am I facing the reality of a geographically tied woman who entered ministry at mid-life and will never have the "big" job?

These questions are personal, but perhaps they speak to anyone who is trying to live faithfully and having it turn out very differently than imagined.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
"Come," my heart says, "seek his face!" Your face, Lord, do I seek.
(Psalm 37:7-8)

Make my darkness bright, I pray.

1 Cor, Epiphany 3A

Priorities

From 1st Corinthians~~

1:10 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.      

1:11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

Get out of town! Church people, quarreling? I've never heard of such a thing!

But seriously, folks…

What are the things we quarrel about at church? They don't tend to be very high-natured. We fuss over a page layout in the newsletter or a bit of punctuation in the annual report or a missed announcement in the Sunday bulletin. We fuss over flowers. And if someone wants to talk about something potentially more explosive, we clam up or complain in private, or in the parking lot.

I would love to have an open conversation about Communion (why do some people feel walking forward is so terrible? Can we get to the roots of that disagreement somehow?).

I would love to explore the adamant attitude some people hold about having an American flag in the sanctuary, and I would love to be heard myself.

I would love to talk about what gives anyone the idea that being rude to a church member or to the pastor is just a way of doing business in church meetings. I would love to talk about why some people think it's okay to drop an accusation against another person's honesty and then move on saying, "I got to state my opinion, I'm satisfied."

I want to think it's a 21st century phenomenon, a product of talk radio and political TV shows. But I fear it's not. I fear it's been with us all along. It's human. But I want the church to improve on other human systems, for people to remember the reason they are together: to be the body of Christ, to transcend our personal issues and be transformed, to be saved, ultimately, from ourselves.

1:17 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.      

1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Epiphany 3A, Isaiah

Walking in Darkness

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a
      land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
Isaiah 9:2, NRSV

My walking schedule has been blown apart by short days, cold weather and most of all, ice.

For six months I walked, rain or shine, early or late, but ice and darkness stopped me, and I have not gotten back into a routine. It's not that my training partner has abandoned me; he hasn't. But his walks are happening in daylight hours, and often I am working when he is walking.

I didn't realize until I didn't have it anymore how whole walking made me feel. I thrive on oxygen, and I glide when my endorphins respond to exercise. I'm looking for those feelings elsewhere and not finding them. I am sitting still in the darkness contemplating a cupcake instead of walking.

It was different in the summer. It didn't matter how late I came home from church because walking in the dark was actually attractive, cooler than walking at mid-day. The surfaces beneath our feet were reliable, not covered with a coating of slippery danger.

Those dark walks were actually a light for me, a sign that there was a way out of cupcake contemplation or eternal loginess.

Maybe it was because I walked in darkness that I was able to see the light?

Epiphany 3A, Gospel, Matthew

Immediately they left–

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Immediately, they left—

After a nightmare about moving, it's on my mind how difficult it is to leave a place, usually. My parents have been gone for 10 and almost 15 years, but I still dream from time to time about having to sort out their household, and in every dream I am on a deadline.

James and John, immediately they left, and followed him.

Last night I dreamed I was with my first husband and younger versions of our children, and we had to leave the place we were living, and we had to be out by a certain time which was only minutes away, and there were still so many things to pack, the task felt similar to Cinderella's assignment to sort trough the lentils. What did we really need? and how would we carry it all? and where were we going?

What did we really need? When you are moving, there is more to it, usually, than what you need. There are things you want as well, and in my dreams there are often sentimental items that need special packing materials. Do I need those things? Or the feelings that go along with them? Probably not, but the thought of being cut off from them, the fear of it, generally plays an important part in those dreams.

How would we carry it all? In last night's dream, there was no truck or van. We seemed to be leaving with only what we could carry. In that case, there was no doubt, we could not bring it all with us. Toys and small objects and clothes not on our backs would be left behind as surely as large pieces of furniture. I wondered what would happen to them, considered the position of the landlord, or whatever person might come in behind us, left with the mess of our lives, unpacked and unsorted.

Zebedee stood in the boat, alone, with the half-mended nets.

Where were we going? It wasn't clear in the dream, and it wasn't clear to James and John, either. Did one of them feel the impulse more strongly and the other follow him more than Jesus? Had they had it up.to.here. with Dear Old Dad, and were they looking for an opportune moment to flee? Or did they truly feel the same calling in the same moment with identical intensity?

We don't know. We only know they left. Immediately.

If you are like me, you fear their choice and envy it at the same time. Most of us stay behind in the unsorted rooms, at least on the physical plane, but the inner journey is open to us. Taking it may not necessitate abandoning the family business or leaving your mother's collection of painted china behind, but it might. You just don't know. And perhaps that is the scariest part of all.

Except for this part. You might be Zebedee. And I can't imagine a lonelier guy in the whole world then Zebedee when James and John "immediately left."  "Left" and "flee" easily mis-type, in the early morning, as "felt" and "feel." How do you feel if you put yourself in Zebedee's place? In the text, even the boat gets priority.