Choose love | 20 July 2014

This sermon was given by Mark Rupp, candidate for Pastor of Christian Formation at Columbus Mennonite Church.

 

Twelve Scriptures project

Text #5: 1 Corinithians 13

 

What is love?

 

For the last few weeks we have been exploring this question.  As a congregation we have named three scriptures into our top twelve that attempt to dive into the heart of this question.  Yet, in many ways, it could also be argued that we have named 12 scriptures that get at this question.  Perhaps instead of “The Primacy of Love” we should have named this section “The Indefinability of Love.”  Is it any wonder that we have and need so many resources to help us answer the question, “What is love?” when one of our primary ways of understanding love is simply, “God is love.”  That settles it, right?

 

But thankfully we also have any number of other resources for helping us to answer this question.  Maybe it’s helpful for us to have Jesus boil everything down to “love God and love neighbor,” but we see in at least one of the scriptural versions of this account that even this answer invites further questions.  “But who is my neighbor?”

 

Before we get to Paul, maybe we want to consider some other resources for helping us understand what love is, because society gives us no shortage of answers.  Perhaps we should first consult one of the greatest philosophers of our time.  According to Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang, “Love is walking hand-in-hand.  Love is a letter on pink stationary.  Love is letting him win even when you know you could slaughter him.”

 

But it seems like everyone has a different answer to this question.  If we turn on the radio, we get a diverse array of answers.  There we hear things like, “love is all you need,” or “I can’t help falling in love.”  We learn that the opposite of love is indifference, not hate.  We learn that love is what you call to say when you really mean it from the bottom of your heart.  We learn that sometimes love is what lifts us up but other times love is a bit like a wrecking ball.

 

Or maybe we should let the innocence of children take the lead in teaching us about love.  There is an often-quoted story about a group of children who were asked to define love.  According to this anonymous source, Billy, age 4, tells us that “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”  Chrissy, age 6, knows that “Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs.”  Noelle, age 7, teaches us that “Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday.”

 

What is love?

 

We don’t give all of these resources the same amount of authority in helping us answer this question, but I think their diversity teaches us something important.  In part, they teach us that love is really, really big.  God is love.  God is greater than that which we can think or imagine.  Therefore, love is greater than that which we can think or imagine.  But at the same time, love is really, really small.  Love is being a neighbor.  Love is the way you say someone’s name.  Love is “hey, I like your shirt.”

 

It is with this tension in mind that I want to approach Paul’s attempt at answering one of life’s deepest question.  For many of us, 1st Corinthians 13 is love at its biggest.  Love is patient and kind, and it believes all things, and it never fails, and it never ends, and it is greater than all the other spiritual values like faith and hope.  The list goes on, and we should understand that when Paul starts making lists, he doesn’t typically intend for them to be exhaustive.  So, perhaps we could continue Paul’s list with our own thoughts on love, because this is the big sort of love that can’t ever be contained by any one list.  It is the kind of love that gets at the heart of what it means to be, to be known, and to know.

 

It is no wonder that we turn this sort of love into the “I do” sort of love.  We hear 1st Corinthians 13 at countless weddings because we want to remind ourselves that the love that is expressed in the commitment between two people is one of the many ways that we connect with something really big.

 

But love is also really small.  Love is the note on the refrigerator even after 50 years of marriage.  Love is a reassuring touch on a friend’s arm or a single word that someone needs to hear.  Love is sometimes just a smile, or maybe even a smiley-face emoticon.  If things are really serious, then maybe it’s even a winky emoticon.  And sometimes love is even surprising and might not fit into any kind of list we might try to make.  When we only let ourselves think of love in big ways, we can sometimes miss these small loves and everything in between.

 

When we only think of love in big ways, we are likely to turn Paul’s treatise on love into a beautiful piece of poetry that we only really think about at weddings.  We tend to forget that this chapter comes toward the end of a letter addressing a multitude of problems within the church at Corinth.  These problems included things like divisions in the Church over questions of authority, questions about sexual immorality, and questions about sex and marriage and celibacy.  I’m sure glad the modern Church has figured out how to move past such things…

 

In reality, some of the problems addressed by Paul in 1st Corinthians do seem so very distant from our experience, such as the question Paul addresses about food sacrificed to idols.  Yet, at the same time, we are still today wrestling with how to live with differing views about how food and justice are inter-connected.  Or perhaps, unlike the church in Corinth, we do not regularly experience members of the congregation asserting that their ability to speak in tongues makes them more spiritual and holier than others, but I think we know very well the reality of subtle spiritual hierarchies that become ingrained, however unintentionally, in the life of the Church.  When we divorce chapter 13 from the rest of Paul’s letter, we are likely to forget that love is more than just this big thing that we can spend hours pondering over and making lists about.  Love is also the work we do every single day figuring out how to live together in ways that reflect the blessed community in which God is both calling and equipping us to participate.

 

This tension between the bigness and the smallness of love presented itself to me this week as I was reflecting on how to talk about this scripture.  A couple of my friends shared a blog post online that intrigued me because I saw that it happened to reference 1st Corinthians 13.  It was titled, “Why It Doesn’t Matter What Christians Think About Hobby Lobby,” and for those of you who just tensed up a bit because I mentioned something controversial, don’t worry, because apparently it doesn’t actually matter what we think.  The author’s argument was essentially that it doesn’t matter what Christians think about Hobby Lobby or any of the other so called “controversial topics” because the ultimate litmus test is simply how we love.  They will know we are Christians by our love.  Period.  I want to give credit to this author because a lot of what she wrote is spot on, but part of me feels like she wants 1st Corinthians 13 without 1st Corinthians 1 through 12.  Yes, like Paul we affirm that the greatest of all things is love, but with Paul we also affirm that the day-to-day decisions we make about how to love one another in both big and small ways matter just as much.

 

The comment sections of online articles are never good places to go for good, rational thoughts, but one of the comments on this article caught my attention because I think it is an argument we hear in a lot of different forms.  One person wrote: “This is the main reason I choose not to engage in politics. Because most arguments and opinions are about things that make no difference in my relationship with Christ. And that is what is most important.”  This comment stands out to me not because it’s some off-the-wall piece of rhetoric but because it is exactly the opposite; this is what I’ve heard from a number of sincere people of faith.  Perhaps I’ve even said something to this effect at some point.

 

Make no mistake, I think it is completely understandable to be frustrated with the state of U.S. politics and the way it seems structured only to pull people further and further apart to the point where no one is listening to one another.  It is something else to say that the love we experience in our relationship with Christ has nothing to do with the ways we show love to one another through the structuring of society.  The big-ness of love can never be a cop-out for what is often the hard work of the smallness of love.

 

Immediately before chapter 13 and the discussion on love, Paul outlines his vision of the Church as one body with many members.  Starting at chapter 12, verse 18, Paul writes: “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Paul wants us to see that the fundamental reality of the body is that we need one another.  I realize that Paul was speaking about the context of the Church as the body of Christ, but I have to believe that this truth transcends the four walls of the church building.

 

We need one another.  When one suffers, all suffer.  When one rejoices, all rejoice.

 

I think this is actually the foundation from which Paul builds his vision of love.  We can do all sorts of great things.  We can have all the knowledge in the world.  We can have faith that moves mountains.  We can give away everything we have.  But if we do all these things without the fundamental understanding that we need one another, then our greatness is for nothing.

 

I don’t think I ever truly understood how giving away all one’s possessions could be devoid of spiritual value until I began working in community ministry.  If you don’t know, I work part-time as the supervisor of a community kitchen ministry on the south side of Columbus.  In my work with people who are poor and homeless, I have come to see the many different ways that our partner churches approach their mission work.  I would not want to ever give the impression that any of the things these churches do lack love, but I have seen how some churches have a deeper understanding of love as an expression of the fact that we all need one another.  Yes, love is serving food to the poor, but perhaps a more complete understanding of love involves getting out from behind the counter and sharing a meal with the poor, building a relationship of mutuality.

 

Love is understanding that I need people who are different from me to teach me about God.

 

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

 

When Paul wrote this, he was most likely alluding to the tradition of Moses as the great prophet who was said to speak with God face to face.  But the divine is not just something that the select few encounter at the top of the mountain; it emanates from each one of us as the imago dei, the image of God.

 

Love is the life-altering and liberating encounter with the image of God.

 

Author and social critic James Baldwin, who wrote during the civil rights era of the 1960’s, sums up well the liberating power of love.  He writes:

 

“A vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.  All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there.  It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided.  Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

 

For Baldwin, the liberation of the oppressed is intimately tied to the liberation of the oppressor because anything less than love, anything less than a recognition of the interconnectedness of humanity, anything less than the recognition of God in the other, is to allow ourselves to be less than we were meant to be.  To be truly free means to recognize that we need one another.  To be truly free is to love.

 

Love is hard because sometimes it exposes who we really are.  Yet love is always good for the very fact that it exposes who we really are.

 

In the end, love will shatter our mirrors, love will tear away our masks, and love will burst open our closet doors or any other dark place we may be hiding, because in the end, when all is revealed, we will be fully known.

 

Until that day, however, we must recognize the limitations of our understanding of love.  For now, we know only in part, we prophesy only in part, but that does not mean that our knowing and our prophesying are in vain.  The more we do these little things with love, the more our understanding of love will grow.

The good news about love is that it is both big and small, that it bridges the tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God, that we understand love as both ‘God’ and “I like your shirt.”  The good news is that Jesus stands in that tension as the perfect example of both big and small love.  The good news is that as we are empowered to choose love in little ways, we can never begin to exhaust our understanding of the height and width and depth of God’s big love.

 

And so, my wish for you, my friends, is:

–          That we would never stop asking “what is love?”

–          That we would never use the big-ness of love as a cop-out for choosing love in small, everyday ways.

–          That we would see the limitations of our understanding not as a barrier but as an opportunity to grow.

–          And, finally, that above all, we would choose love.

 

 

 

 

Grace to you, and peace | 19 January 2014

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-10, John 1:35-42

It feels appropriate to begin speaking on this theme of reconciliation with a tone of humility.  We are a people in a tradition that has valued peace from our very beginnings.  Out of the fray that was 16th century Europe – Reformers, peasant wars, apocalyptic prophets, state church territorial battles, the ever present threat from the outside of those Ottoman Turks – out of this mix emerged small fellowships of Anabaptists, who believed that their baptismal commitment to Christ called them to reject violence outright.  One of their early leaders wrote:  “The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife.  They are children of peace who have beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks, and know no war.”  These people lived out their convictions under threat of death, and over the following centuries migrated to different parts of the world where they were given haven, economic opportunity, and exemption from military service.  They also went to different parts of the world to share their faith such that today there are over 1.7 million of these Anabaptist Christians globally, with the largest numbers being in the continent of not North America, definitely not Europe, but Africa.

We continue to believe that peace is inseparable from the gospel of Jesus and goes beyond merely not engaging in warfare.  We have helped pioneer the Fair Trade movement in which artisans are paid a fair and living wage for their wares that are sold in wealthier nations.  Our alternative service during wartimes led us to help reform the public mental health system to be more humane.  We have developed alternatives to the punishment oriented criminal justice system by teaching the value of restorative justice and creating programs where victims and offenders meet together to restore the wrong committed.  We witness against the death penalty, against nuclear weapons, for diplomacy, for treating our planet Earth with honor.  On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend we resonate with those urgent words that Dr. King repeated so often when he said: “the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”  Many of us in this tradition still bear the name of that early leader who spoke of the regenerated as being children of peace.  Menno Simons.  Mennonites.  And Womennonites.  This is our spiritual ancestry, and, for some of you, your biological ancestry.

This doesn’t sound very humble yet.

That was the set up.  Here’s the note of humility.  We are children of peace, have this rich heritage of peaceful relating to our neighbors, and yet! we have struggled like all other faith communities, all other human communities, to live peaceably among ourselves.  We struggle to reconcile and forgive in our interpersonal relationships, to disagree lovingly.  As a result, our family tree has many branches splitting off from one another.

If you’ve ever told anyone that you attend a Mennonite church and are then asked with a perflexed look if that’s kind of like the Amish, you have one of those historic splits to thank.  At the end of the 17th century Jakob Ammann and several of his co-ministers felt that the Brethren should be more firm in their practice of shunning and excommunication, and clearer in their definition of who was truly saved.  The factions couldn’t agree and Ammann’s followers came to be called the Amish and the others Mennonites.  If you want to use a short-hand answer to the question of whether Mennonites are like the Amish, just say that we’re cousins.  I think this congregation is more like Amish meets Bono.  Tell them that and see what they say.  They might show up with you the next week!

This is not a service about denominational church unity.  It’s not about social justice and peacemaking between the nations, important as that is.  It’s also not about what you get when you cross a politically active rock star with conservative bearded farmers.  The Reconciliation Team is helping us focus on interpersonal peacemaking.  Peacemaking among ourselves.

I’m going under the assumption that we’re all in the same boat in believing this is important and don’t need a whole lot of convincing on that.  It’s not easy, but it’s important.  I think it’s also safe to say that we have all been hurt by the church in some way.  I don’t mean this congregation specifically, but if you hang around church long enough, just like if you’re married long enough, you will encounter tensions, maybe painfully so.  To be in a church, to be in a family, to be in a friendship or relationship of any kind, is to experience conflict as a normal part of life.  It’s normal, it’s human, it’s potentially very creative, but it’s hard.

It’s fitting that the lectionary epistle for the morning is the opening words of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  The Corinthians can make any church feel better about itself because the Corinthians had problems.  They were this prototype of Christian community, the first go around at trying to make this thing work, and it was not without its hitches.  In his letter Paul addresses a number of different issues going on within this community.  For example: There were arguments about who was their spiritual leader.  Was it Paul?  Was it Peter, Cephas?  Was it Apollos?  Could it be, perhaps, Christ?  The Corinthians had disagreements about issues of sexuality and marriage, they were taking each other to court over trivial things, they were elevating certain spiritual gifts-  like speaking in ecstatic languages -above others, some of them were even scarfing down the Communion bread and wine before everyone had a chance to partake, causing Paul to write, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”  Prototype!  They were struggling along as a little community who had fallen in love with the message about Jesus, and Paul is instructing, scolding, guiding, lovingly accompanying this group of tryers.  They were trying, and Paul loves them for it.

In Paul’s opening words to them, he uses a wonderful phrase, one he also uses as he addresses other communities in other letters.  “Grace to you and peace.”

“Grace to you, and peace.”  He goes right on to say that he “gives thanks to God always because of you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ.”

I don’t know if Paul was strategically thinking about putting grace and peace right alongside each other, with grace coming first, followed by peace, but it presents us with a lovely idea.  If we are to be a community of peace, we must first be a community of grace.  A community who has deeply experienced the grace of God, and a community that extends that grace to one another.

A couple months ago I had lunch with a student from Trinity Lutheran Seminary.  We had met at a BREAD clergy gathering and, when he learned I was Mennonite, was interested to meet to talk about Anabaptism.  He very much shared Anabaptist core convictions, and after talking about this for a while, I  asked him what he thought was the most important value that his own tradition, the Lutheran church, emphasized.  He did not hesitate, and answered with one word.  “Grace.”

“Grace to you, and peace.”

This word for grace that Paul uses so frequently, charis, is directly related to the Greek word for gift, charisma.  Grace is gift.  Gifts are grace.  We are starting the annual Gifts Discernment process here and we could also call it the Grace Discernment process.  What graces are there among us to be shared with others?  To live in grace is to live with the recognition that all is gift.  Absolutely everything we have, every kindness we experience, is grace.  Every breath we breathe in this rich was made possible by the faithful photosynthesizing of the cyanobacteria over the course of millions, even billion of years, slowly transforming our atmosphere to have the amount of oxygen to sustain strange life forms who need the stuff.  How that for biological ancestry?  That’s the long view anyways.

We can shape our world, but we do not create it.  It precedes us.  All good things flow from the Divine Mystery and everything is gift.  The air is within us and we are within the air.  Grace is within us, and we are within grace.  We’re swimming in it.

There are skills and habits and important practices for working at reconciliation in our interpersonal relationships, and the Reconciliation Team is committed to helping us practice those, but as a foundation, and even a prerequisite, for those practices, there is the presence of grace.  It is a powerful thing for us to consider ourselves a community of peace.  I am suggesting that we also consider ourselves a community of grace.

The gospel reading is from John and John always has his own unique take on things.  In this case it involves the calling of the first disciples.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus invitation into discipleship is “Follow me.”  You want to know what this kin-dom of God thing is all about?  Follow me.  Here we go.  In John, the invitation is a little different, and shows up twice in the passage that was read.  Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathanael meet Jesus for the first time, want to know what he’s all about, and Jesus’ response to them is, “Come and see.”  It has a little different feel to it.  Rather than just following this start-up wandering preacher around the countryside, in John it’s as if Jesus is inviting them into something that’s already going on.  Not something to help start, but something to join.  John begins his gospel by talking about the Word that was from the very beginning with God, the Word through which all things were created, this Word and communion and intimacy and union with God that Jesus embodied so radiantly.  This grace-filled way of being that Jesus invited his followers to join.  You want to find out where the party really is?  Come and join this Divine overflowing that has been going on from the very beginning, even before the cyanobacteria saw the light of day.  For John, that’s what eternal life is, that’s salvation, and it’s happening right now.  And the invitation is simple, Come and See.

Being a grace-filled community is being a community that continually encounters this overflowing  Source of life.  Each of us become better grounded in this reality and it affects all of our relationships.  When you know in your inmost being that you are loved, that you are a child of God, that you an expression of the Divine life, it is transformational.

1 Corinthians 12: Being the Body – 9/2/13

To the church that is in Cincinnati, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Master Jesus Christ.

Grace to you and peace from God our Mother and Father and Jesus the Christ.

I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace that has been given to you.  Whether you are aware of it or not, you are a light of hope for many people.  You give Christ a good name to those disillusioned with religion, not using your faith as a way of making yourself holy and others condemned, but welcoming new ideas, new people, new challenges into what it means to be a human being, a child of God.  You serve meals to hungry people in your neighborhood and, just as important, give them a place to come and be themselves, fully welcomed and celebrated for who they are.  You put your faith into action; you understand that faith is as faith does.  People notice this and are hungry for it.  You are known across the nation, at least in the Mennonite world, as lovers of the arts and supporters of artists.  When people think of you, they are inspired to serve more whole-heartedly, to find their own creativity.  For all this I thank God.

I do not write, actually, type, this letter to merely pat you on the back or inflate your ego.  The Lord requires, you will remember, that you walk humbly with your God.  But I write, type, this to encourage you, to be sure that you see things that are clear to those on the outside looking in.

And this is only one side of things.  Being church in 21st century America is difficult, and you face many challenges and struggles.  You live scattered throughout the metropolitan area, and at times this can make the bonds of community feel thin and fragile.  You lead busy lives, full of many good things, and you are challenged to discern which good to pursue, and which good to let go of in order to live life most fully.  You breathe in the same somewhat toxic political and cultural atmosphere as everyone else, and, depending on the day, no doubt find yourselves swinging between hope and cynicism.  Many of you are transplants from other communities, and you miss mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews.  There are some burdens and wounds that you carry that you have not yet found language to express.

And yet you are here, and God is here, and together you are the church.

I type to you now, having arrived at the end of your Twelve Scriptures Project.  This summer you have traveled from the beginning of the cosmos of Genesis 1, through slavery, deliverance, and the giving of the law of Exodus, through the comfort of the Psalms, the challenges of the prophets, and the words of the Galilean teacher who so strangely and perfectly reflected the very life of God in human form.

How appropriate, now, to end this series of choice Scriptures with a letter to a church: the Apostle Paul, writing over 2000 years ago to a congregation in the commercial city of Corinth, a Roman colony.  A setting no less cosmopolitan than your own.  A congregation perhaps no larger than yourselves.  A group of people no more gifted and no less flawed than you and any other congregation.  Actually, when you read the letter, they did have some serious issues.  But we can cut them some slack.  They didn’t have a whole lot to go on.  They were a prototype, part of those first generations making a trial run at what it meant to be church.  Clearly, it’s always been difficult.

Those familiar with the Bible know that the New Testament begins with the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, because they tell the story of Jesus, and the New Testament is about Jesus.  But what’s less obvious from reading the New Testament is that well over a decade before any of the Gospels were written, these letters to different churches were being written for their instruction.  Ponder a church without the Gospels, and that’s what you’ve got in Corinth.  These letters are addressed to a specific group of people in specific circumstances, with certain gifts and challenges.  Just as specific as this letter is to you.

You decided not to choose as one of your Twelve Scriptures that part in this letter to the Corinthians where Paul chides them for constantly arguing among themselves about who their pastor should be – Paul, or Peter, or Apollos.  I take that as a good sign.  You did not select where Paul encourages them to stop suing each other in the courts, or when they are working through whether it was right or not eat meat that had been sacrificed at one of the many temples to the gods around the city and then sold in the marketplace for common consumption.  To eat or not to eat?  I’m pretty sure I know why you didn’t choose as one of your top Scriptures the part where Paul teaches that the women should wear head coverings during worship.  And apparently you don’t find highly inspirational the part where Paul despairs over their bad Communion manners of snarfing down the common loaf before everyone had a chance to get a bite.

The part of this letter that you have elevated as being of central importance to your community is when the Corinthians are reminded, that, despite all these failings and shortcomings: “Now you are the body of Christ…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

You are not Jews and Greeks and you are all free, but you are the wealthy and the not as wealthy, you are the young and the not as young, you are West side and East side, you are the skeptics and the mystics.  You are a diverse people.  And what’s important is that none of that is what’s most important.  “For in one Spirit you were all baptized into one body.”

There’s another part of this passage that you’ve chosen that you no doubt find intriguing.  This church body is made up of many members.  And this is a body, where the parts have minds of their own, thinking out loud, and sometimes talking to each other. As Paul writes: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

Who has not had a similar kind of conversation in their own head before?  I don’t have the same kinds of gifts as that person.  I’m not a speaker so my voice isn’t worthy of being heard.  I don’t have much money to give, so my presence isn’t valuable.  I’m not as _____ (blank) as ______ (blank).  I really don’t know the Bible very well.  I can’t sing four part harmony.  I don’t live a simple enough lifestyle to be a real Mennonite.  I don’t really belong.

To all this, beloved people of God, Paul tells those Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.  If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

It is a holy situation when the individual is continually invited to let go of their own sense of inferiority or superiority and simply be a member of a community.  To look beyond one’s own life circumstances and to enter into those of others.  I’ve seen you do it time and again.  To listen to the suffering of another and to allow it to be your suffering.  To celebrate the life of another – as small as a birthday, as significant as a retirement announcement, marriage, a birth, a coming of age, a baptism.  Do this enough, and you start to get the hang of it.  You are members of one another.  You share the same body.  This is who you are called to be.

You are very good at doing.  At serving.  This is reflected in the 12 Scriptures you’ve selected.  Many of them are action oriented, ethical commands, faith as a way of life.  This is a very good thing.  It’s a gift.  It’s in your DNA.  But along with doing, it’s also OK to simply be.  To be still and know that God is God.  To be in fellowship, having no particular goal other than the enjoyment of one another’s company.  To be the church.

Even just in your being, you are a congregation on the move.  You have a vision.  As a Mennonite community, seeking to follow Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, you will be embracing, engaging, growing.  You’re embracing those who come through your doors and who you meet outside these doors.  You’re engaging your wider community in so many important areas: business and education, your places of work and your neighborhoods where you live.  You’re growing not only in number of people, but also in the size of your building.  An exciting new front entrance to the church has been drawn up and is in the works of becoming a reality.  This is significant.  A front door can say a lot about a community, especially when careful attention has been paid to making it accessible to those in wheelchairs and the elderly – not that any of you are anywhere near being elderly.  This is a tangible way of making your vision more of a reality.

People don’t write long letters anymore and I pondered simply making all of this very brief in the form of a Tweet with that maximum of 140 characters.  It would have been something like this:

Hey Cincy Mennos  Peace! 12 Scriptures finale. From creation to Christ.  Now Corinthians. The point: UR body of Christ. Yes U.

How different our Bible would be if Paul had a Twitter account.

I end this letter to you with words that have been written to another congregation so many years ago, this time, Paul’s letter to the Romans:  Now be strong, with the power of Holy Spirit.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;  10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18

And, I might add, just as, when you gather, you greet one another with the words of the risen Christ, “Peace be with you,” so make it your aim to extend peace to all you come into contact with throughout the day.

The grace of our Master Jesus Christ be with you always my sisters and brothers.

Healthy Sexuality III: Good Sex, Eros and Agape in Bed – 9/19/10 – Songs of Songs, 1 Cor. 13

These past two Sundays we have spoken about sexuality as an essential part of our humanity.  The Cliffs Notes version of these weeks would go something like this:

 We are all sexual beings.  From the moment we’re born, emerging from the union with our mother, cutting the chord and making us an independent human being, we cry out for connection.  We grow up in our parent’s embrace, gain a sense of safety and security from those who care for us, and continue to expand our world through friendships.  Our sexuality takes on a new power during adolescence, continues to grow in young adulthood, and matures throughout adult life.  Sexuality is the force within us that drives us toward relationship, that seeks intimacy, that works against our being along, and which allows us to thrive in solitude in seeking communion with God.  Sexuality seeks expression through creativity, to seeing and making beauty, giving itself to a skill, a cause, a life partner.  It is an energy, which, at its core, is good and blessed, taking us beyond ourselves and overcoming our selfishness, seeking, ultimately, communion with creation and the Creator.

This is the ground we’ve covered up to this point and is foundational, I believe, for a healthy understanding of sexuality and a spiritual footing for what it means to be sexual people.  It’s a high view of sex, seeing it as a holy gift, related to our whole selves, body, mind, and spirit.

It’s within this wider picture of sexuality that physical expressions of sex are best held.  Our sexuality drives us out into the world to love and create and embrace life and sometimes it drives us straight into a collision with another person who we come to love and share in sexual intimacy.

And once they are sexually intimate, the happy couple lives happily ever after…!

Or maybe it’s a little more complicated than that.

Or a lot more complicated than that…

Sometimes when things get complicated us preachers like to create three point sermons.  It helps give the impression that it’s all under control.  It’s complicated, but nothing a little 123, ABC can’t resolve.

I’m going to resist the temptation to speak about sex as if it’s not a complicated matter, but I am going to embrace the prerogative that every preacher has, to every once in a while have a three point sermon.  That’s just the way this one worked itself out this week.

So when our sexuality involves sex, what are some spiritual markers that make for healthy sexuality, or, good sex?

Let me set this up just a little bit more by introducing a couple key players in all this.  So this is really three points plus an introduction.  Here’s the introduction, which is actually longer than any of the points. 

We could call this When Eros met Agape.

In English, we count on the word love to cover a lot of ground.  It can mean romantic, sexual love.  It can be the bond of love between family members, siblings and parents and children.  It can be the kind of love that we commit ourselves to for ethical reasons – seeking the well-being of the planet and fellow human beings. 

The Greeks thought that this was a little much to pack into one word, so they divvied out these different aspects of love to different words.  The two that we’re concerned about right now are eros – sexual love, the root of our word erotic;  and agape – love that seeks the well-being of another, even if it involves personal sacrifice, sometimes spoken of as unconditional love.

Like other major, archetypal forces in the world, the Greeks imagined sexual love as a personified being, a god, who interacted with other forces, having a life of its own, influencing the course of human affairs.  Eros was a primordial god of intimate love and desire.  The Romans called him Cupid, but we’ll stick with Eros.

This was news to me, but a little research revealed that Plato wrote that Eros was conceived by the gods Poros (Plenty) and Penia (Poverty)  [Wiki reference HERE].  Now imagine this with me.  Getting inside the Greek mind here, this basically means that they understood Eros as inheriting the DNA, carrying the genes, of both plenty and poverty – a “child” of these gods Poros and Penia.  So Eros, passionate love, lives in this state of either feast or famine, has times when its appetite is full and satisfied, and has times of hunger and craving and almost starvation.  It’s no wonder sex is such a powerful force, for life and for destruction of life.  It seems to live in the extremes, and has a big appetite.  If you’re hungry, impoverished, it’s hard to think about anything else.  If you can’t find a healthy way to be fed, you might start doing desperate things that cause harm to yourself and others.  This is a powerful force. 

Eros, in its goodness, is the restless energy within us that wants to give itself away, and receive in return the feast of affirmation and acceptance and embrace.  Eros recognizes beauty, finds value, and wants to be a part of it.  Wants to share in the beauty that it perceives.

The Songs of Songs was written in Hebrew, but involves the force of eros. The connection between hunger and feasting is direct in different parts of the text.  The young woman says, “As an apple tree among trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men.  With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.  He brought me to the banqueting table, and his intention toward me was love.”  Eros is ready for a delicious meal.     

But there’s another word for love that the Greeks used.  Agape.  This was a word that the first Christians especially picked up on.  The gospels speak of Jesus teaching that we should love God with all our being.  Agape.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Agape.  Love your enemy.  Agape.  This is the kind of love that doesn’t waver between the extremes – poverty and plenty.  It’s steady.  It’s constant.  It’s committed even if it hurts.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “Agape is patient.  Agape is kind; Agape is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Agape never ends.”

Agape didn’t get its own god for the Greeks, but the early Christians taught that it was a force to be reckoned with.  The kind of love that God shows toward us that we in turn can share toward others.

Present within every healthy sexual relationship are these two forces of eros and agape.  Not always there is full strength and not always balanced, but present, somewhere, in the relationship.

So now that we’ve got Eros and Agape introduced to each other and at least maybe holding hands, let’s get to three spiritual markers of what healthy sexuality, good sex, might be. 

Spiritual Marker #1

Good Sex = Two Becoming One

At the core of sex is an impossible math equation.  1+1=1.  This goes back to the Genesis creation account of the single human being, Adam, alone in the garden.  In order to make a second human being, a partner, God basically rips out Adam’s heart and forms it into another human being.  Genesis says that it’s a rib, which technically isn’t the heart but just protects the heart, but essentially what’s going on here is that for the one human to have a second human, they have to watch their own heart walk around alongside them.  It’s a rather vulnerable undertaking.  And the first human says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  There was one, and now there are two.  Only, strangely enough, the two still have this distant memory of being one, and something within them wants to get back to that unity.  Genesis goes on to say, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” 

Sex is that way of relating by which we remember and realize one flesh.  That’s the spiritual impulse behind sex.  And orgasm can be one of the fullest ways we have available to us of transcending ourselves.  For a brief time to allow the boundaries of our own body to get a little fuzzy and to merge with the other.  One plus one = One.

Not only do the two people become one, but they get to work at allowing eros and agape to become one as well.  In healthy sexuality, eros and agape are also in bed and want to become one.  So it’s more than just eros getting hungry and getting fed and getting hungry, and going back and forth in this way, and it’s more than just agape having the steady, committed love even to the point of sacrificing one’s own desires.  It’s eros and agape learning to live together, learning what makes each other tick, accepting the other on its own terms and accepting the gifts that the other offers.

The passion of eros is in search of the covenant of agape, and the commitment of agape needs the energy of eros.  This is portrayed beautifully at the end of the Song of Songs.  The lovers say to each other.  “Set me as a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand.  For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.  Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.”  Passion is as fierce as the grave, Eros, and so it seeks that seal of covenant of security that binds two people together – agape. 

1+1=1, whether it be two people coming together sexually, or the two forces of eros and agape.

Spiritual Marker #2

Good Sex = Telling the Truth

When sex is good, it’s an act of telling the truth.  When you take off your clothes, you’re allowing another person to look at the truth.  It’s hard to hide when there’s nothing to hide behind.  And since we are whole human beings, body and soul, the union of sex leads us into a coming together of our whole person.  It’s one thing to have to show that mole on your thigh, or to let someone touch a part of you that you’ve never really liked, but it’s another thing to start having to reveal blemishes on your soul.  It takes a few seconds to get naked and jump into bed and start rubbing bodies together, but it takes a whole lot longer for souls to come together.  It’s hard to fake it for too long when it comes to our own shortcomings and hurts and hangups.  This is real vulnerability. 

There’s no such thing as a quickee when it comes to sharing one’s soul with another person.  Foreplay can last for years.  This is where the part about love being patient and kind comes in.  “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Can love be patient enough to endure him working through being sexually abused as a child and never being taught how to see himself as a strong, whole person?  Can love be gentle enough to work through her poor body image and come to slowly discover herself as beautiful and sexy to her partner?  Can love hope against hope that when the sex life has been cold for months or years that a spark of intimacy can be revived into a flame of warmth if both are committed to meeting the other person where they’re at without trying to change them to serve their own needs.  This is where eros isn’t enough.  Eros and agape have to become one for a couple to continue to grow as sexual partners.  And sometimes agape has to take the lead when eros is paralyzed.    

Sex can be just a body thing.  Lips, hands, skin, but if it’s just physical it’s not completely truthful.  It’s hiding something.  It’s keeping some of the clothes on, holding back on letting the other person into your life.  And that can’t last for too long.  Eventually somebody’s going to get bored.  And they’ll leave, either literally or emotionally, and you’ll live together as resentful roommates, or you’ll just not live together.    

But open up the mystery of the soul to one another, and all of a sudden we have a lifetime of discovery ahead of us.  And a lifetime of forgiveness, healing, disappointing each other and thrilling each other with surprises of grace and faithful love.  It’s about sex, but it’s about a whole lot more than sex.  It’s about sharing ourselves with another, entrusting ourselves to another.  Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to risk being seen for who we really are, blemishes and all.  Positive results are not guaranteed.  Frustration and hard work are guaranteed.       

Good sex is a commitment to telling the truth, which takes a long time to do.

Third and Final Spiritual Marker

Good Sex = Two Becoming More

One of the expressions for sex that we have in our language is love-making.  There is a recognition in this phrase that when people unite in sexual intimacy that love is not only shared, but made.  Something is created, generated, comes into being that wasn’t there before.  Sometimes this can be an actual creation of a new life.  A couple makes love and makes a child that increases and deepens the love between them.  The couple gives the child to the community and love is again increased.  Each child at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is a gift to all of us and we all benefit from the unique personality and gifts that each child brings.  And each child will, we pray, serve the world in ways that increase and deepen the presence of love in ways we can’t yet imagine or anticipate.  It starts with love-making.

And the two become more through sexual intimacy that doesn’t produce a child, which, I would have to say, on average, is the majority of time.  There is a synergy that comes through love making where each person is enabled to become more of who they are.  And while this happens in the privacy of the home, the effects spill over into all of one’s relationships and one’s work.  When partners are able to take refuge in each other’s arms and have that place of safety and understanding and kindness and intimacy it creates more love to give.

So these marriage relationships that we have are so vital to nurture and attend to because for couples, that’s your core.  That’s your home base.  That can be your primary source of restoring and generating love.  And what happens between spouses has ripple effects that are felt, even when we’re not conscious of them.       

There are probably another 3 or 10 or 100 markers for healthy sexuality, but this feels like a good start.  Good sex = two becoming one, telling the truth, two becoming more. 

Eros and agape have a long, complicated road ahead of them and for them to do well, it will take the support and prayers and nurture of an entire community.  And the everlasting grace of God.  Lots of grace.

Other sermons in this series:

Healthy Sexuality I: Our Bodies, God’s Image

Healthy Sexuality II: Created for Relationship

Healthy Sexuality IV: Sexuality and Spirituality, When All is One

This Body That We Are – 1/24/10 – 1 Cor. 12:12-31a

Imagine a body, female from the neck down, with a head that is male.  Now imagine yourself, or this congregation as some part of anatomy on that body – an elbow, a hand, or something much more obscure – a capillary in a little toe, part of the lining of the intestinal wall.

After the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, those who considered themselves followers of Jesus found themselves stretching for metaphors to illustrate just what it was they were now a part of.  The apostles came up with various images that gave the church a sense of identity, many of them borrowed from the culture, and then given a twist. 

The name church itself, ekklesia in Greek, was one of these images.  The ekklesia, the assembly, was the name of the principle democratic gathering of ancient Greece which was open to all male citizens over the age of 30.  Those who went to the ekklesia participated in key decision making activities like issues of war and peace and keeping magistrates accountable.  The early Christians thought of themselves as an ekklesia, and their assemblies were open to those who had been baptized into Christ.  The apostle Paul echoes the baptismal liturgy when he says that in Christ, in this ekklesia, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.       

The body was a common image used in the ancient world to talk about society, and that there can be unity in diversity.  One body, many members, each making their own contribution.  The New Testament letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians each mention the church, the ekklesia, as a body.  The metaphor gets intensified and takes on a unique quality when it is said that this is a body with Christ as its head and that the body itself, the people making up the church, are the body of Christ. 

Another metaphor for the church, coming from a picture of Israel in the prophets, is that of a bride.  Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God pursues Israel with the intense love of a bridegroom for a bride.  The book of Revelation pictures the church as a city which is dressed in a wedding gown, a bride adorned for marriage.  She will marry the Lamb of God, the meekness of God which has overcome the violence of the world through its suffering love.  

Combining some of these metaphors gives us a wild picture of the church.  It’s a body, Christ’s body, a female, a bride dressed in white, the head of which is Christ – keep or subtract the beard as you wish.  The head passionately in love with the body, the whole creature ready for the wedding vows, married for all eternity to a Lamb.   

Look closer and the body itself is made up of countless smaller bodies of individuals, like one of those computer generated images of a face made up of 1000 smaller faces, all different shades and shapes – a cosmopolitan city with people from every tribe and nation.  Remove just one of those smaller bodies from the picture and it becomes incomplete.        

This composite image either shows us that the church is by far the most exotic, wonderful, and bizarre creature of all God’s creations, or that we really shouldn’t be combining all these metaphors into one.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is focused on just one of these metaphors – probably a wise move – the church as a body.  His message through the picture is this: we are all one, and everyone in the church, everyone, has a vital place in the life of this body.

This is how he starts: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many.”

As he goes on, it’s easy enough to re-create what was going on in the Corinthian assembly – mainly because it’s something that we all still struggle with.  In this case, the church as a body, speaks to two different voices from within the assembly.  The first is those who underestimate their own worth: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.”  Or the ear might think that because it’s not an eye, that it doesn’t belong to the body. 

This speaks to our tendency to minimize our own gifts and the value that we inherently have simply as members of the body.  Or to see the kinds of contributions that one person is making and to put oneself on a one dimensional continuum with the extremely gifted over here and oneself on the other side.  That’s not the way this body functions, Paul argues.  Simply by being a part of the body, by showing up and being in relationship with other parts, other people, we become indispensable to its organic, multi-dimensional life.  Annie Dillard talks about “no one but us” and that there are no others that are somehow more holy or more worthy to do the work that we have to do.  No one but us.  We all bring this unique image of God that only we bear and this small but vital aliveness that God desires to bring in to the life of the body.  In our assembly here it’s part of the joy of my work to see each of you as a great gift to the life of each and every one of us.                  

The other angle this passage takes speaks to those who underestimate the value of others.  “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.’” A strong temptation that we may face in this area relates with those who call themselves Christians but who come down so differently on the issues that are so important to us.  There are a number of parts of the Christian family that I’m not necessarily all that proud of and am sometimes tempted in my thoughts or words to put that part to the chopping block and just pretend in my own head that I’m walking around as a part of a happy and healthy spiritually “progressive”, “open-minded,” peace loving body that is completely whole in itself.  Diminished in size, no doubt, but freed from those cumbersome parts that I’d rather not be identified with.  What do you think?  I think tt would be hard to square such a dismemberment with these urgings to the Corinthians.     

As engaging as the body metaphor is, especially when we ponder that we are the body of Christ, Paul knows that it brings up some difficult, even off-putting kinds of associations.  We have complicated relationships with our bodies.  Not least of which is because it’s not just that we have bodies, but that we are bodies.  In life as we know it, we can’t escape this body of ours.  So much of our identity is tied up in what this body does or doesn’t allow us to do, and how others perceive our body, or at least how we perceive that others perceive our body.

It may seem to be an ideal image, this body with all of its members working together in harmony with each other, but we know better than to idealize it, and fortunately so does the apostle Paul.  This is a body, not a perfectly running no-maintenance machine.  Bodies have problems.  Bodies get sick, bodies get wrinkles and parts don’t always work the way they’re supposed to, affecting the rest of the functioning of the body.  Bodies get tired, get hungry, get cancer, get bored.

The life of the Christian, just like the life of Jesus, is a life in the flesh.  A life of incarnation.  Enfleshment.  Our imperfect body is the vessel in which we bear the glory of God.  The imperfect body of the church is the imperfect vessel in which God desires to incarnate Godself.

Paul knows that something so familiar to us as the body does not serve as a metaphor to lift us into the ethereal realms of ideal perfection – that there are parts that we just about always cover with clothing more than just to keep warm.  That this talk about bodies and brides and wedding feasts can only take the church so far in a certain direction of reality before we’re pulled back into our skin and this body of ours.  This earthbound humanity of ours.  So he mentions what might be on the minds of those carnal Corinthians.  “and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”    

During one of the Engaging Pastors events I participated in last year, there was a group of us pastors and we were each asked to choose a metaphor that we felt characterized our pastoral work so far.  Most of us chose very theological and spiritual metaphors.  Different ones of us felt we had experienced our work as calling us to be the loving face of God, or a spiritual guide on the faith journey, or a learner who is also a teacher.  One pastor’s metaphor for himself stood out.  His metaphor for himself was an asshole.  When it got around to him to talk about his image we were all pretty curious how he was going to spin this one.  His congregation had experienced a fair amount of conflict in his time there.  He said, with a straight face, that in his time pastoring where he is at, a lot of the crap of the congregation has passed through him.

The image had come to him as a kind of revelation during a heated conversation he had had with a congregational member.  After going back and forth and disagreeing on a certain matter, the member came back at him by saying, “You know what?  You’re an asshole.”  The pastor said he paused for a little bit, and then sort of out of nowhere, heard himself saying. “Alright.  And how do you treat that part of your body?”  The person was taken aback and then said something like, “Well, I take care of it, I guess.”

Not sure if this is what Paul had in mind here, when he talks about treating the less honorable parts with greater dignity, but I think it fits perfectly.  Where would we be without the parts that take care of things we’d often rather pretend don’t even exist?

John opens his gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…and the word became flesh, and dwelled among us.”   

Ever since this we have been asked to recognize that the word, the very articulation of the name of God, dwells among us through this flesh, this body.  Incarnation is a great mystery of our faith.  It is not only something that we look at and behold in the person of Jesus, but something that we are asked to participate in through our own body. 

Think about this congregation as one body itself, joining together with other bodies to make up the body of Christ, one face of those thousand faces who make up Christ.  So how would you picture all of the workings of the body of Cincinnati Mennonite?  I can picture all of the emails and phone calls that happen among us as these firing of neurons, connecting and signaling to the body how to move, where to go, what to say.  All of the prayers that we offer for one another are part of the body’s immune system and healing that occurs.  Since we’re all over the map in Cincinnati, maybe our driving and traveling around the city is something like a circulatory system.  Every week we cycle back for worship to be restored and renewed, like blood cycling through the lungs, breathing in deeply the oxygen of God’s grace.  All of the meals that are made in caring for one another and the neighborhood keep our muscles supplied with what they need to keep active.  I think of all of the care that goes into maintaining and repairing our church building, changing light bulbs, watering plants, shoveling snow, and those who adorn the worship space to add to its beauty.  Those who teach and mentor the young people are helping the body grow new healthy cells, passing on the DNA of love of God and neighbor.  I think this body of ours has especially strong hands that are well exercised in the act of service to others, and also well developed vocal chords, which is a great gift.

All of this, all of the life of this body and the wider body of Christ, is for the glory of God, in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Sacramental Eating – 6/08/08 – 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1, 11:23-26

Imagine with me two different scenes:

The first is at a gas station somewhere along a busy highway.  You’ve been driving for a while and have reached the point where you’re starting to get nervous about whether or not you can make it to the next exit before running out of gas, so you pull off the exit ramp, find the closest gas station, or the one just down the road that’s a few cents cheaper per gallon, pull in, slide your credit card and remove quickly as instructed, and begin fueling up your vehicle.  You’re slightly annoyed at having to stop and are glancing at your watch and doing some quick math in your head about how much time you have until the meeting you’re driving to begins, how many miles there are left in the trip, and how fast that means you’ll have to go in order to get there on time.  Your mind races with other thoughts and concerns until the automatic shut off signals that the tank is full.  You put the nozzle back in its place, try not to pay too much attention to the price, and speed off out of the station toward the highway.

The second scene is at an art gallery.  You’re there with a small group of people, looking around, admiring the different pieces of work.  You have your cell phone turned off and have allotted yourself plenty of time to be here.  You stop at the pieces that catch your attention, looking at them from different angles, reading the artists’ description of their work that gives more insight into what they were thinking when they created it.  You notice things, lines and colors and relationships.  You’ve never seen it expressed quite like that before and you appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the piece.  You point out what you like to your companions and get their perspective on what they see.  You go away inspired to see the world in a new way and maybe create something yourself.

These two scenes could represent two different ends of the spectrum for how we experience the average meal.  There are times when we treat food more like a pit stop for a quick refuel of the engine before getting back to the really important things of life, and other times when we are able to be more present with our food, mindful of what we’re eating, and enjoying the company of those we’re eating it with.  Does it matter which end of the spectrum we eat on most of the time?  Does it affect our attitude toward other parts of life?  If you had your choice, how would you like to experience eating?    

In cultures throughout the world there is the recognition that eating is closely linked with thankfulness.  I think of the Native American cultures and their reverence and respect toward the earth and the animals and plants that they use for food.  The ancient Israelites were told “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that God has given you.” (Deut 8:10)  This has been called  “grace after the meal” since the order is you shall eat your fill, and bless the Lord.   

Dinner times in the culture of the Miller house these last couple years have taken on a whole new complexity with having young children.  Sometimes it feels like dinner time is more about the art of picking your battles — what has to be eaten, how long we need to sit down together before starting play, whether reaching over the table is OK right now; and less about the art of grateful eating.  To complicate this, we’re trying to pay more attention to where our food comes from and how its production contributes to a healthy or harmful system of agriculture.  Sometimes I wonder how much to give thanks for some foods and how much to reconsider having it around in the first place.     

The struggle could be named as how to keep eating a holy occasion – with what we eat, and how we eat it.  And it is a struggle.  What if it’s really true that we are what we eat?  Or we are how we eat?  If we eat hurried and mindlessly, are we hurried, mindless people?  In what ways consciously and unconsciously does our eating affect who we are becoming? 

How to eat well and how our eating affects the rest of life aren’t new questions.  Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth addresses one of the big hot button eating issues for the early church.  On the surface it appears to be something from another time, another culture, unrelated to the kinds of questions we have around good eating.  And it appears to be just about what we eat, or not eat.  But the way that Paul addresses it provides insight into the whole spirit behind good, holy, eating.    

Here’s the issue the Corinthians were struggling with:  as followers of Jesus, believers in the one God, should we, or should we not eat food that has been sacrificed to the pagan gods?  This was a question that many new converts faced throughout the Roman empire, but it was especially strong in Corinth.  Being a commercial hub, sailors and traders brought their own religions to the cosmopolitan city.  Archeologists have found around two dozen different shrines and temples in Corinth, with Greek and Egyptian shrines existing right alongside those of the Roman imperial cult.  To these temples citizens would bring an animal to sacrifice.  Some of the flesh was burned on the altar for the deity, some of it was eaten at the temple in a sacred meal, and what was left over would have been sold at the public meat market for anyone to buy and eat.  The deli section of the grocery stores of the time would have been filled with this meat.  So, the question is, do the Christians eat this meat that has this morally questionable history with part of it having been offered up to what they believe to be an idol?  If they buy this meat are they in some way endorsing and economically supporting these practices that they believe to be false worship?  It’s a practical question, and one that the Apostle Paul considers important enough to take up a significant portion of his letter to address.  It’s a question that could have a Yes or No answer.  Yes, you can eat it, don’t worry about it, dig in and enjoy.  Or No, don’t associate yourselves with this kind of unethical food.  So like a good, strong assertive leader, ready to provide clear answers to his flock who want to know “how should we eat?” Paul’s straightforward answer is….”well, it depends.” 

He weighs both sides.  On one hand, these are idols and this meat, morally speaking, is damaged goods.  On the other hand, we believe there’s only one God, so technically, there aren’t other gods that the meat is being offered to, so it’s no problem to eat something offered to these gods that don’t even exist.  On the other hand, when you eat something it is becoming a part of you and you don’t want false worship to become a part of you.  On the other hand, scripture says that all the earth and everything in it belongs to God, so eat whatever is set before you with thanksgiving.  On the other hand, if someone who isn’t a believer sees you eating this meat they may think you are agreeing with how it’s been used in the past.  On the other hand, why should you let someone else’s hang-ups keep you from your own freedom and thankfulness for the chance to eat?  Hmmm.

As a way of getting beyond this back and forth reasoning, and as a way of opening this up to more than just this particular question about eating, Paul makes a couple moves that I find helpful.  First, he makes eating not a black and white issue of right or wrong, but rather a relational issue.  In 10:23-24 he writes, “All things are lawful – you have tremendous freedom – but not all things are beneficial.  All things are lawful, but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”  Paul trades in language of lawfulness, permissible, right and wrong, a moral code, for language of relational health.  Not judging against some absolute standard, but looking at how it affects relationships here and now.  Considering this, we might ask ourselves How does my eating affect me?  My physical health, my mindfulness of being connected to the big economy of creation?  How does it affect others?  How does it affect the environment?  Paul might say to us, don’t be rigid about your answers to these questions, but keep asking them and then eat with thanksgiving and gratitude, just like he asked the Corinthians to keeping asking how their eating could build up the community and be beneficial to all.

Paul’s other move expands this well beyond simply what we eat.  He does this is 11:23-34.  For him, the last word comes from the Last Supper – when Jesus invited his followers to think of the bread they were eating at the meal as his very body, and the wine they were drinking as his very life blood.  This act of Jesus has become set aside as a unique liturgical experience in a worship setting, as it should be – the eucharist, communion.  But it can also be a daily experience in all of eating.  Recognizing that the food that we eat is more than just food.  It is the best metaphor that we have for how our lives intersect with the Divine life.  God comes to us as food, as daily bread, and we eat it up and are sustained.  The holy energy of God is given to us graciously as a loaf of bread.  This is sacramental eating.  Paul says it’s not good to eat without “discerning the body” – without being mindful of this holy gift that we are receiving in the form of sustenance. 

We Mennonites didn’t leave ourselves with many sacraments.  We took the Roman Catholic seven and narrowed it down to two, baptism and communion, and we don’t really like to call those sacraments.  But maybe we need to expand our awareness of how grace and sacredness come to us.  I like the possibilities of considering communion and all of eating as sacramental, and I see that in this letter from Paul.  Whether or whether not these Corinthians are going to eat that meat, the apostle’s deepest desire is that they discern the body in their meals together.  Last week we ate during the worship service as a form of communion.  Communion today will be in the form of the potluck meal after worship that all are welcome to.

Here’s a couple examples of some who are working on making eating more sacramental.  One is called the “Slow Food Movement.”  The description on their website, slowfood.com reads, “Slow Food is a non-profit, member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”  Slow Food is a philosophy about how food should be produced, shared, and enjoyed, but also a campaign to educate people about the food production process, encourage biodiversity, connect producers with markets and markets with producers, and change the culture around how we see and experience food.  Given our pit stop, refueling mentality when it comes to eating, this feels like an important voice in helping us move our eating in the direction of being sacramental.     

The other example comes from an article I read earlier this week about a café in Salt Lake City.  After a number of years as an acupuncturist, Denise Cerreta decided that she would enjoy serving people better if she was able to give them something she herself created.  She sold her practice, rented a storefront and opened One World Everybody Eats café.  When her first customer had finished her meal, Cerreta told her to just pay what she thought the meal was worth.  Cerreta said that after she had said this, “it was like my heart expanded and I realized my purpose in life.”  So ever since, the One World Everybody Eats café has had no set prices.  People set their own price, and if they can’t pay they are asked to wash dishes or help serve food.  And it has become a profitable business.  The article noted that by 2006 the café was “producing a 4% profit from annual revenues of about $300,000, which compares favorably to more traditional restaurants.”  Now she has 12 employees.   At least five other restaurants based on this model have opened or will open soon in different parts of the country. (Ode Magizine, June 2008, p. 47.) 

I see this as a creative expression of sacramental eating.  One that takes into account the web of relationships involved in the eating process and seeks the health of the community.  There are countless other ways, small and great, that eating and sharing meals together can be an experience of grace and holiness.

There’s one other aspect of eating to mention.   Ultimately we are not merely eaters of food.  At the Last Supper Jesus asked his followers to make the connection between eating the bread and eating his body, metabolizing his misson within them and becoming what they ate —  becoming the body of Christ, one of the central images for what it means to be church.  In other words, we, like Christ, become a meal that gives other sustenance.  Bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty.  If we are bread and water, then we have that sacramental quality about us – channels of God’s grace.  We can be as food for others.  And not only food for others, but what if we, in some poetic, strange, delightful way, are also food for God?  What if Jeff Gundy’s Cookie Poem unveils a small sliver of reality in picturing God as a joyful Cookie Monster, holding and chewing and eating all of us many flavored cookies with loving abandonment? (Had read from poem earlier in service)  Us little broken crumbly cookies, who receive so much grace from God, can also return grace and gratitude and joy as a holy banquet for the One who loves us all.                  

Body Language – 1,21,07

I’d invite you to go ahead and turn to Luke chapter 4 in your Bibles.  This is on page 936 in the church’s Bibles in the pew backs.

 

There are some sharp signals Luke gives us for why we should pay particular close attention to this passage.  Luke’s gospel begins by paralleling the birth stories of John and Jesus and then, 30 years later, has Jesus joining John’s renewal movement by getting baptized in the Jordan River.  When Jesus is baptized it says “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” and he heard a Divine voice saying “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Then in chapter 4 verse 1 this Spirit that Jesus received promptly leads him out into the wilderness in isolation where he faces down another spirit that Luke calls the devil.  And Jesus wrestles with which spirit he will allow to guide him, and emerges ready for ministry. 

            This brings us to verse 14 where the reading for today began.  “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee (in other words, he’s now out of the wilderness) and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  And then he comes to Nazareth, his hometown and we have this episode in the synagogue, the first act of Jesus’ ministry that Luke narrates. 

If you look in Mark and Matthew’s gospels you notice that Jesus’ visit to Nazareth occurs much later in his ministry.  Jesus does all sorts of things before he actually gets to Nazareth.  Healings, calling his disciples, teaching different parables, traveling around the countryside.  But Luke wants to have his trip to Nazareth be the first thing he narrates about Jesus’ ministry.  His nod to these other things that have happened is this statement in verse 15, “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” 

            Luke places this Nazareth story where he does because for him it is the entire ministry of Jesus in a nutshell.  He’s basically using the same technique as a modern day newspaper reporter.  In newspaper articles, the first paragraph or two are designed to tell the whole story in condensed form.  If you read the opening paragraph closely then you get the gist of the whole story.  The rest of the article serves to provide further details and fill out the picture.  Luke’s strategy here is not to provide a chronological account of Jesus’ ministry, but to offer an opening story that summarizes the meaning of the whole rest of the story.  So Jesus’ talk in this synagogue serves like his inaugural address where he highlights what he is all about.  Or it’s like his personal mission statement.  So, this passage asks for our attention because of where Luke has located it in his gospel.  If we get what’s going on here, we will have a pretty good grasp of the rest of the gospel which provides more of the details and fills out the picture of Jesus’ ministry.

            So if we’re supposed to pay attention and read closely, what is it that we find when we read here?                     

            One of the things I try and notice when I read Scripture is the pace of the narrative, where the author chooses to move action along rather quickly and what instances the author chooses to dwell on and hover over for a while.  As I mentioned, verses 14 and 15 cover a lot of ground.  In two verses Jesus goes from the desert back to Galilee, and visits a whole bunch of synagogues.  He goes from being a nobody to having news about him spread all over the country side.  At the beginning of v. 15 Luke tells us that he began to teach, but doesn’t give us any details about the content of this teaching.   

            Then in verse 16 the pace starts to slow down.  He came to Nazareth (a walk across the countryside), then we went to the synagogue in Nazareth (a walk across town).  And we see that it was the Sabbath day.  So we have a specific time and a specific place.  And then the narrative slows down to a crawl.  And we begin getting almost a moment by moment description of what is taking place, a very slow pace right at the end of v. 16.  “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written…

            If this passage had a soundtrack to it, the music that would open would be have to have a fast paced driving beat to match all the activity that gets packed into just a few verses.  And then, it would suddenly slow down into some kind of ballad.  The way that a story is paced also helps us know where to pay attention.  Luke is hovering on a particular moment and wants us to hover there with him.  Jesus reads the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And then Luke continues this painfully slow moment by moment narration.  V. 20.  “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”…So we’re set up.  Whatever happens next is key. 

            Just so we’re where Luke wants us to be its important to know that it was custom for people to stand up to read the Scripture and then sit down to teach.  So Luke begins this section by saying that Jesus stood up to read, and ends by saying that he sat down.  “And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”  This is every teacher’s dream!  To have the complete undivided attention of those who are listening.  And his teaching begins with this one sentence.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

            The position of this passage in Luke’s gospel as a whole signals its importance, and the way Luke has paced out the passage itself lets us know where he is focusing.  And this seems to be the message.  Jesus actually believes that the Scriptures are talking to him and about him.  He actually believes that when the prophet says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” that it means “The Spirit is on ME” “because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight for the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Jesus believes that scripture can be fulfilled in his self, through the life of his physical body.  Today.  This apparently, is what the ministry of Jesus is all about.  Each day, living under the anointing of the Spirit, and bringing freedom to those who would receive it.   

            It should be noted that this quote from Isaiah is not a single passage from Isaiah.  It’s a composite which comes mostly from Isa. 61, but also partially from Isaiah 58.  So it’s not as if Jesus is picking out just one little Scripture and choosing that to define himself.  It’s as if he is saying that the entire liberating message of the law and prophets are referring to ME, and my ministry is about fulfilling all of this.  The last phrase of this quote, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, could very well be speaking of the Year of Jubilee which involved a rather radical redistribution of wealth and a rebalancing of power.  Jesus’ body becomes a vessel for the Holy Spirit and through his physical body he becomes the bringer of this message of hope. 

            Now here’s the kicker for us.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul tells the church, “Now YOU are the body of Christ”  “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews (and) Greeks, slaves (and) free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  The anointing of the Spirit, Jesus baptism, and fulfillment of Scripture in Jesus aren’t meant to be one time events.  The mystery of our Christian lives is that through baptism WE are God’s Beloved Children, welcomed into this same movement of the Spirit, and WE become a part of the living and breathing body of Christ.  And this body is no longer an individual, Jesus, but an entire community of people making up different parts, as Paul describes.  We each play a small part in this.  So none of us has everything, but we each have something, and we bring our gifts together and work together like the parts of a body.  And, like Jesus, we are about the work of fulfilling the liberating message of the scriptures here and now, as the body of Christ. 

            So, if we use our imaginations a bit, we might be able to see how this is happening.  I can imagine a Scripture hanging over the Children’s Circle downstairs from Matthew 18: “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” And then the words, “Today, in this Circle, this Scripture is being fulfilled.”  Or how about a sign outside of Ten Thousand Villages with the words from Deuteronomy: “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers…justice and only justice you shall pursue” and the words, “Today, in this store, this Scripture is being fulfilled.”  As we provide spiritual and emotional support for each other in this congregation I think of the words from Paul in Romans, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” Today and many days this Scripture is fulfilled among us.  And when the day is over and we lay down for sleep and offer the day back to God I can imagine the words from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Tonight, as we rest, this Scripture, fulfilled.

            We, the body of Christ, living out the fulfillment of God’s desires for the world.  Jesus’ mission statement.  Our mission statement.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon US, because WE have been anointed to be bearers of good news. 

            We have the chance to take communion together today.  And it just so happens to be World Fellowship Sunday for Mennonite churches where we are mindful that the body of Christ is so much bigger than just our local gathering, but spans around the world.  In communion, the body of Christ becomes alive to us again and again.  The bread and the juice are a sign of this living body, and a sign that we are participants in the ongoing life of the resurrected Christ.  And the Scriptures are fulfilled within this.  We receive God’s forgiveness, freely offered.  We receive the gift of Christ’s self, freely offered, and we again take the body and blood of Christ into our body and blood that we may become Christ’s living body, anointed with the Spirit, bearing good news. 

  

Words of Institution…

 … and I say to you, that today, in your hearing, this Scripture has been fulfilled.  All who wish to share in this gift of Christ and invited to come, eat and drink.