Monday, February 13, 2017

Servants, Working Together
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20
By Griff Martin
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On February 12, 2017
The Sixth Sunday following Epiphany

Incarnate God, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter. 

Can we just all take a second to breathe? Because here is the deep hope we all need to hear today: we are going to be okay… it’s all going to be okay. And we need to take that in…. I say this because currently I am in wedding season with 6 lined up over the next two months and of those several couples have told me that there are conversations off limits in their families right now because as one bride said “there are things that if they got brought up, would cause divisions that would empty out one side of the aisle at the wedding”… and I have had folks in my office talking about family they are currently not talking to or friends who have broken relationship in the last few weeks. Because I think for most of us never in our life have we seen a political climate so divided, so tense and so anxiety producing. We are all walking on egg shells and it’s time we all take a deep breath because it’s going to be okay.

However in all that I have been thinking a lot about the church today, in particular our church and some of the things we claim. It’s really nice to say we want unity but not uniformity… that our desire is community but not conformity… that all people truly means all people. The words look great on paper and they read well in sermons and they look good on a website or in an article, however they are have a short shelf life when it comes to practice. They are what I call Hallmark greeting card theology… they look good, but do they actually mean anything?

This morning I want to challenge us that if we don’t mean those words, we need to stop using them. And the Gospel for this morning is that the world’s salvation depends on us learning to put those words into action.

Unity not uniformity.

Community but not conformity.

All people.

When I fly it is my goal to get onto the plane and off the plane without talking to anyone. I want some time of silence, to read and to nap, not to engage in conversation. A few summers ago I was getting on a plane headed to Atlanta for CBF General Assembly, I boarded the plane and got my two books out and started reading. I could tell the woman next to me wanted to talk but I was very intent on my reading. I was reading two books that were quite obnoxious in a sense. One was a book about politics and the cover did not hide the way the book leaned as it featured a prominent photo of the politician who had written this memoir. The other was a book about theology and the name God pretty much took over the cover. So the things you are supposed to avoid in polite conversation, politics and theology- these books were obviously all about that.

I read the books during the flight and never really engaged in conversation with my seatmate. I was flying Southwest, which is as close to public transit in the air as you can get. So the plane landed in Atlanta and those of us getting off there, got off while the others stayed on for the next stop. I got off my seatmate did not, however before I got off the plane she reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezed it and looked into my eyes and said, “I am staying on the flight but you will be with me.” (remember we had zero interaction before this point). I got off the plane, thinking “that is the strangest social interaction I have had in a long time.”

Three days later I am flying back home, get back onto the Southwest flight in total flight mode- paying zero attention to anything going on around me, find the first open seat, and am about to open my books again when the woman next to me says, “I knew this would happen.” I glanced over and it was the same woman from the earlier flight, the same one who had done that weird hand holding thing. The chances are slim something like this would happen.  However she had a very different view of things.

“I knew God was going to help us meet again because there was something I needed to tell you, to share with you.” I immediately knew where this was going, but she gave me no in to the conversation and instead begin to lay out the four spiritual laws for me. She eventually paused and then asked a question, “You are interested in knowing more about God, right?”

I told her that yes I was very interested in knowing about God but that I was in fact a pastor of a local church. She got really quiet and then she said, “How can you be a Christian and also be reading….” and then she mentioned the author of the political book I had been reading on the earlier flight. She continued “I just assumed anyone who belonged to that political party was not Christian and then you read the book that had God’s name on it and I just figured you had to be seeking something more, that you were ready to experience the Truth.”

I tried my hardest to explain that I am a reader and I read in a wide spectrum of books in order to know how people think and then I explained to her that I was a Christian and I had in fact voted for both political parties in my life and believe I will continue to do so and I did not believe that our faith called us to vote for just one political party.

She sighed and said, “I was hoping there would be a conversion today, but maybe my world just got a bit bigger instead.”

There is a great deal of grace in her statement, don’t miss it because conversion is about our world getting bigger. The simple truth is this: our minds are sick and stuck in a default setting of binary thinking constantly looking for division.

Dividing things seems to be the natural ways our brains work. Our brains think in binary system meaning that we know things, we understand things, we see everything through comparison and competition. Or better put we think in terms of us versus them. Think about how we learn things…. Tall is opposite of short… black is the opposite of white… right is the opposite of wrong.. truth and false…. Certainty and mystery…Republican and Democrat…Rich and poor….Gay and straight…Healthy and sick… Light and dark.

The brilliant non-dualistic thinker Richard Rohr teaches it like this: When we are exposed to something new, that part of it which we like, agree with, respond positively to, understand, the part that does not threaten you. That is what we understand and thus we call that part truth and good. The other which threatens us we call bad and we resist. Our brains tend to only take in that which we can control and use to our own advantage.  In the great spirituality of recovery tradition this is taught as all or nothing thinking and anyone who has been in the recovery movement will tell you that this is death.

And the problem is we do this all the time, we do this without even knowing we are doing it, and we end us missing so much. And it is destroying us and our world- look at how it has affected our politics and our churches. And it will destroy our own faiths, here is a scary part of that type of thinking- you know what our brains don’t agree with, like, respond to… anything that is mysterious or that is broken or that might cause us turmoil and require hard work. And church, hear this: God is constantly found in those things.

Thinking like this in binary terms makes us miss so much. It’s seeing the world in black and white and not in the full color spectrum that makes everything alive. This type of thinking is simply the refusal to see that everything belongs.

Everything. Belongs. Where as non-dual thinking (full color thinking) is the refusal to split and the commitment to see everything on a level playing field, to see that everything can speak, that everyone contains the beloved image of God, and that God is all around us in this present moment, every moment.

And the greatest non-dual thinker in history is our Lord, Jesus Christ. And this is a truth that Paul knew all too well. It’s why I think when he hears what is going on in Corinth, he feels compelled to write them a fairly strongly worded letter. I know it’s hard to imagine, but Paul is writing to a church and to a world that is fairly divided.

He’s writing to the church of Corinth that is a really important city in his day. It’s a city that is experiencing quite a comeback. It’s been rebuilt into a vital cultural city. It serves as a port in between two other large ports and has claimed an important role in between there, you might even say it’s the third coast of the day. It’s a capital city that is multi-ethnic, largely non-religious and very big on the arts. See if you can imagine a city like that….

And then the church, which is actually several house churches, it might even be helpful to think of this letter to an Association of the Churches of Corinth, and they are experiencing a pretty important time and yet theological and political and cultural divisions of the day are even part of their narrative.  They are questioning things about sexual identity and who belongs, about which financial systems best serves all people, they are concerned about theology and if they are truly preaching the cross of Christ, they are struggling to go to the Table together. See if you can imagine the large church in a state like that…

And Paul spends the first two chapters of this letter trying to address all these divisions until he finally reaches his wit’s ends and before he can stop what he is writing, it’s out: “And I know you want me to speak to you as spiritual people but you are not… you are infants who can’t get it together and you need to grow up. Is it true some of you claim Apollos and others of you claim me? Really, you have missed it… The only one you can claim is Christ.”

Paul writes to a people who are consumed by their own binary minds and he points them to our Jesus Christ who is the ultimate non-binary, truly contemplative, original “Everything and Everyone Belongs” thinker. Our Jesus who came and dined with the religious leaders and the sinners. Who befriended the poor and the rich. Who told stories that included everyone. Who said let the weeds grow right alongside the wheat. Who reminds us that God is everywhere. Jesus whose life is based on the ultimate truth: God loves everyone.

Our Jesus who so often used images of agriculture and farming, which makes me wonder if he understood the ecological and farming principle of “ecotone” which is defined as “a region of transition between two biological communities” and is known for being one of the most fertile places in our ecological system. This place is a special meeting ground between two communities, say a forest and a meadow. Ecologists tell us that there is an edge effect that naturally happens there in that place, where it’s as if you get the very best of both communities and it creates a place that is particularly fertile and life giving. One of my favorite scientists writes about this place calling it “the pregnancy of edges.”

And I think it’s that place where Jesus knew ministry and life and wholeness happened. And I think Paul knew this as well. Which is why Paul does not write, “Wait some of you have it right because you choose my way and my thoughts and my theology… but as for you Apollos folks, well you have some work to do.” Instead Paul is upset that anyone claimed ether himself or Apollos because it’s about Christ and Christ alone.

Because in our divided world, our only chance at salvation is unity. Uniting together to follow the will of our God.

And that means that we all have some work to do. Maybe we start with something simple like reading a book that will make us see things from another’s viewpoint, to experience a narrative from eyes that look differently than you and to be changed by that experience. Perhaps we agree that we are no longer going to try and change one another’s opinions on facebook because that is doing no good and only adds stress, but instead sit down face to face in real conversations to get to know one another better, not to change one another. And maybe we vow that every time we think of someone and immediately think of a label with which we disagree, we will stop and think of something that that we have in common with that person. It might be a simple vow that you are going to pray each and every day for that person who makes your soul light up with anger.

And then there are harder steps: thinking about that person in your life who broke your heart and thinking of a few steps you can take that will bring you closer to reconciliation maybe with them and maybe just with yourself. Maybe this is an invitation to look at the divisions and boundaries you have created in your own soul and approaching those with the hopes of becoming truer to who you are and doing the healing but difficult work of embracing self. Perhaps you reach out to someone with whom you think you have nothing in common and you ask them to start a true and daring friendship because you want to know them and you need them in your life.

What I know is that each and every step we take towards unity is a step towards God and helps bring about the Kingdom of love and grace and justice and mercy closer. And if we keep on like we are, we are on a path towards further division and death.

It’s about the simple truth that all of us, all of us “are God’s servants, working together” and all of us are “God’s field, God’s building.”

It’s the words from Deuteronomy that we read earlier this morning, this message that Moses gives to the Israelites, this is his farewell address and his final words are for them to “choose life…choose loving and following God.” Because if they can all do that then they can become who they need to be and not divide over things that will ultimately create destruction among them.

It’s the life of our Jesus who came to break all chains, step across borders, break boundaries, heal division, create a larger community and set us all free to do life together…. Working as builders together on a project so much bigger than any one of us.

Unity not uniformity.

Community but not conformity.

All people.

And the Gospel as our very center and foundation.

Working together to build something beyond us all.

Amen and amen.

*artwork: Boundaries, Photo by Ed Batista,


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