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Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Variety of Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Ashley and I got back from our honeymoon earlier this week, and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s a little surreal to have to come down from on top of that cloud and plant your feet back in the real world. I just want to reiterate how glad we were that so many of you blessed us with your presence on our special day. We loved having our families, our friends, and members of both congregations gathered together in the same room, worshipping God, singing God’s praise, and surrounding us with love. That was a great gift to us.

And speaking of gifts, oh my goodness! There were so many wedding gifts! I wish someone would have prepared me for that! I’ve done a lot of weddings, I’ve been to a lot of weddings, I even went a little nutzo with the price gun thingy at Macy’s when we were setting up our registry, but I wish someone would have prepared me for the sheer number of gifts that would show up!

By the time the wedding day was over, the dining room at Ashley’s house, which had become our unofficial gift depository, was unpassable – there were gifts stacked all across the floor, in every corner, under the buffet, on the table, under the table, even in the chairs.

I’ve never seen so many gifts in one place before, and I’ve never prepared to write so many thank-you notes, either. The good news is that I hear we have a year to complete those notes and still be under Emily Post’s umbrella of acceptability. And, I also know that each of those gifts is simply someone saying “I love you, and here’s a little something for your new life together.”

Similarly, in today’s scripture reading, we find the apostle Paul writing to the Church at Corinth about spiritual gifts – gifts which are entrusted to individuals but manifested for the common good of the whole church. They belong, collectively, to the whole church to build them up in their life together and draw them together in the unity which God intends for those who are followers of Jesus. These spiritual gifts are God’s way of saying, to the whole Christian community, “I love you, and here’s a little something for your new life together.” May we pray.

The Christians in Corinth were given to divisions, quarrelling, and fighting. I know it’s hard to imagine followers of Jesus, members of the body of Christ, church people behaving in this way, but they were. Some people’s insecurities led them to snipe at others within the church, to bully them, to gossip about them, to spread negativity and dissension rather than work together toward unity. Some people arrogantly bragged about their own accomplishments and belittled the contributions of others. Some were jealous of the position of others within the church, and took pot shots at them. The only way some people could feel good about themselves was to put others down as often and as publicly as they could. Have you ever in your wildest dreams imagined that church people could be capable of such divisive evil toward one another?

There is something within human nature that always wants to divide into in-groups and out-groups; every generation struggles with this us-vs.-them mindset. Something within us always wants to divide people based on friend and foe. We use those divisions to place honorific labels upon those we perceive as “with us,” and pejorative labels upon those we perceive as “against us.” This division, fracturing, and labeling is the impulse of the evils we humans are capable of committing toward one another. And so we destroy and tear down, because we are bent and broken, which leads to deeper division, fracture, and fighting.

But friends, God proposes something better. God’s desire for us is to break free from the destructive patterns that are fueled by divisions, quarrelling, and fighting. You can sum up God’s entire interaction with humanity in one word: reconciliation. In dealing with humanity, all that God has ever done, is doing, and ever will do is directed solely and unilaterally at reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other. Or, if you want to put it another way, God is constantly training us in the ways of love of God and love of neighbor.

For people of Christian faith, we celebrate Jesus as both the best example of God’s love and reconciliation, and the most excellent pathway to God’s love and reconciliation. God’s entire work of reconciliation is already accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and when our lives are placed securely in Jesus, we find ourselves transformed to become more like Jesus. In Jesus, God is reconciling all things to God’s self, both things on earth, and things in heaven (Colossians 1:20). And those things – people, in our case – who are reconciled to God, find themselves unified with each other.

The goal of the entire Christian existence is unity – unity with God, and unity with each other. Again, it’s love of God and love of neighbor. The goal for Christians is unity – it’s the thing for which Jesus prayed on the night before he died, when he prayed for us, for all his followers, for all who would call upon him as Lord, Jesus prayed, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:23).

Now, what Jesus knew, what Paul knew, what you and I know is that’s easier said than done, which is why God in the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are a wonderful thing! They are given to us by God, and enacted through us by the Holy Spirit for one purpose: the manifestation of the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Again, going back to that unity and reconciliation God desires, you see how it all ties together. There are a variety of gifts, services, and activities, but there is one Spirit, one Lord, one God.

On your way in today, several of you were handed something – would you come up to the front now with the thing you were handed? What these folks may have guessed is that they were each handed a puzzle piece. Now, on its own, a puzzle piece isn’t all that interesting, and it doesn’t look like much. Do you know what you have to do with a puzzle piece for it to mean anything? When we surrender the individuality of each piece and put them together, something greater and more beautiful emerges. (Put puzzle together and display it).

Likewise, spiritual gifts are like puzzle pieces. When we put them together, God works through them and something beautiful emerges. We surrender the individuality of each one and place them together in community, and only when they are freely given through individuals to the entire community, the Spirit works in them and through them for the manifestation of the common good. Spiritual gifts are entrusted to individuals, but they are given to the entire Church. Everything we have is a gift from God, and God calls us to use what we have been entrusted with for the common good. Particularly within the church, everything we have, everything we do, everything we say, every attitude we harbor is intended to be directed toward building up the body of Christ, toward making reconciliation between us, God and each other a reality, toward achieving the unity God desires for this, God’s church.

When I was growing up, one closet in our family room was the game closet. My parents had filled the closet with metal shelves, and upon those shelves were every board game and puzzle imaginable. As games and puzzles were removed and put back in, from time to time, one or more of those boxes would fall. We would pick up the pieces as best we could, but you know that some of them fell in the back of the closet never to be seen again. How disappointing it was to pull out a favorite puzzle, work hours on putting it together, only to realize that it would never be complete because a few pieces were missing.

Paul looked at the church in Corinth, and he saw a picture with missing pieces. You see, there were some who thought so much of themselves and so little of others that they told them to just keep their piece of the puzzle out. There were others who were embarrassed by how relatively little they had, so they never brought their puzzle piece out. There were those who misunderstood the whole thing, and rather than bringing their piece to be added to the others, clutched it tightly and wouldn’t let go. There were others who, even though they had a piece of the puzzle, refused to bring it and share it. There will still others – mean, hateful, awful people – who after some had brought their piece, when they thought no one was looking they snatched it up, tore it to shreds and threw it away. Whatever the reason, the result was all the still the same – missing pieces, an incomplete picture, a fractured community, unrealized potential, a broken body of Christ.

In the church at Corinth, Paul saw Christians whose jealousy, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness were destroying the church. And God, speaking through his servant in this letter says, “Knock it off! Don’t you see what you’re doing to the body of Christ? If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, then act like it! And if you want to keep acting this way, do all of us a favor and stop claiming to be a Christian! For the love of God, literally, stop tearing the church apart! Don’t you realize that you’re all in this together?”

The last two weeks have had me in and out of airports, and I continue to be amazed at how self-centeredness and self-importance make it impossible to board an aircraft. You know how this works – as soon as boarding for the flight is announced, a whole bunch of people pop up and go wait, technically not in the line, but so close to the line that you can’t really tell they’re not in it. They are waiting for their turn to board, for zone 4, which is stamped on their ticket, to be called, but only after zones 1, 2, and 3 are called. Of course, the people in those three zones can’t get on the aircraft because the people in zone 4 are standing in the way.

It makes me wonder if they realize that, for all their shoving and pushing to be first, we’re still all on the same plane and we’re still all going to get there at the same time, and that if they would just cooperate and show the slightest bit of concern for others, they would actually get to wherever it is they’re in such a rush to get to just a little earlier. Like it or not, to get on a plane means that you’re in it together.

In the same way, being part of the church means that we’re in this together. You can assert your own importance at the cost of someone else’s or make yourself feel better by making someone else feel worse, but all you’re doing is making a miserable ride for everyone.

Now, if you’re one of those people whose ride is being made miserable, just remember this – regardless of what some mean or small-minded person does or says, you still have a seat on the plane. Jesus has already purchased your ticket, Jesus died for you, too, and nobody can take that away.

Paul knew that we would be faced with a constant choice, that we would live our lives at the intersection between two competing claims. We in the church can either engage in the behaviors and attitudes and actions that would tear apart the body of Christ, or we can do the things that build it up. That means you have a choice today. Are you going to build up the body of Christ? Or are you going to tear it down? Are you going to do things that destroy the church’s unity? Things that grieve the Holy Spirit? Things that mock Jesus? Things that blaspheme the body of Christ?

And if you gossip about somebody else in the church or snipe at them, that’s what you’re doing. If you bully them or marginalize them, that’s what you’re doing. If you make yourself feel big by making someone else feel small, that’s what you’re doing. If you are spreading negativity and dissension, that’s what you’re doing. If you’re withholding the gifts God has entrusted to you – whatever they are – that’s what you’re doing.

You’re welcome to do those things – that’s your choice – just do it without fooling yourself and with your eyes wide open about what you’re actually doing.

Now, maybe you’re saying, “Pastor, I don’t do any of those things,” and if so, good for you and the world could use more people like you. Even so, I can’t let you off the hook today, either. Because if you witness a member of the body of Christ doing something that tears down rather than builds up but don’t do anything about it, then the result is still the same.

And here’s the thing: I can’t let myself off the hook either. Leaving on our honeymoon, a woman boarded two rows behind us who only spoke Spanish. The flight attendant was trying to communicate some instructions to her, and he called out, “Does anyone know Spanish?” Now, I know a bit of Spanish, enough to get by pretty well, as a matter-of-fact, but I thought, “How much can I really help? I have so little to offer . . .”

I cringed as the flight attendant just spoke louder to the woman and put an “o” at the end of all his English words, and then, out of his own insecurity, publicly belittled the woman in front of the other passengers for not understanding his jibberish, making her feel about an inch tall. I was so embarrassed for her, and embarrassed for myself, because I probably could have done something to save her from that pain, and yet I did nothing. I just looked at Ashley, shook my head, and said, “I could have done something there.”

So you know what? Next time I’m in a similar situation, I have no choice but to speak up, to offer the meager Spanish I do know, even if it means I embarrass myself with my limited vocabulary and incorrect sentence construction. However, better to cause some minor discomfort for myself if it means saving someone else. After all, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Jesus went through to offer reconciliation to us.

You have a choice today. Are you going to tear down, or are you going to build up? Either way, everyone still has a seat because Jesus has personally paid for everyone’s ticket. So either way, the plane will still leave and everyone’s going to be on it. Does our journey reflect the unity of God’s kingdom, or have we tried to bring along our baggage filled with divisions, quarrels, and fighting?

If so, you don’t need to bring all that on this flight. Trust in the gifts God has given and bring those with you – it’s really all you’ll need.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bless. Break. Give. (1 Corinthians 11:17-29)

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment on themselves.

A little girl went to mass with her mother every Sunday. She held her mother’s hand as the mother went forward to receive Communion. One day, the little girl asked, “Mommy, what does the priest say when he gives you Communion?” Imagine the little girl’s shock, years later, to find out the priest doesn’t say, “Be quiet until you get back to your seat.”

Today is World Communion Sunday. Since 1936, the first Sunday in October has been designated as a time for churches of all denominations and in all nations to celebrate Communion. We do this as a way of reminding ourselves, in a real and tangible way, that the Lord’s table is a place where we forge a connection with all others who call upon Jesus as Lord, including those who have died, and those who have yet to be born. Communion is a place where we celebrate our oneness, our participation in the body of Christ, our unity with Christ and with other members of his body.

I love to go out to eat, be invited to someone’s home, have people in my home, or even just grab a cup of coffee, because at the table, something wonderful always happens. May we pray.

Divisions at Communion

In today’s text, Paul is writing to the struggling church at Corinth. It is a church wracked by divisions, factions, politics and power plays, a church where countless agendas fight with each other for leading roles and end up upstaging the Gospel of Christ. Christians are to be maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and yet he learns that they are exalting themselves instead of Christ.

For Paul, the salad really hits the fan in how the church at Corinth conducts itself at the Lord’s table. Communion is a place where grace is offered, where the playing field is leveled, where unity is made real, where divisions cease. And yet, for this particular church, rather than divisions being healed at the table, they are magnified all the more.

In those days, celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Holy Communion were not limited to a liturgical meal of bread and wine that took place during a designated time of worship. You will recall that when Jesus first instituted what we know as the Lord’s Supper, he did so in the context of a family meal – the Passover meal. Likewise, celebrations of Holy Communion took place within the context of a meal that was shared among the whole family of faith – Methodists didn’t invent covered-dish potluck suppers – they’ve been around for a long time!

The repeated miracle of the potluck supper is this: no one person makes any huge quantity of food, yet when put together, it becomes a feast, and you watch person after person come through the line with their plate heaped with food – the combined caloric count of which I certainly don’t want to know – and even after everyone has gone through and taken their fill, and seconds and thirds, and there is still as much food left as everyone has already eaten. We share freely with each other, some people make a little more, some people make a little less, some people bring nothing at all, yet no one goes away hungry.

It is in this spirit of sharing and generosity that the Lord’s Supper was authentically celebrated – a community meal where there is always plenty to go around, and no one goes away hungry. The meal itself was a sign of the abundant grace made real in that meal – there’s always plenty of grace to go around, and no one goes away empty.

Now, imagine some warden standing near the table as the dishes are brought in, taking careful inventory of the quantity of food each person brings, and then as they go through the line, making sure that they take no more than they brought. With this being the case, people begin to bring less and less, eventually they stop sharing altogether and everyone just brown bags their own meal. Those with means pig out, while those without go hungry. A few stop coming altogether. Somewhere along the way, the grace-filled sacramental meal of sharing in Christ became a middle school cafeteria.

I’ve heard a quote attributed to a wide variety of people: Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Pope John Paul II, Bill Federer, and Warren Buffet. It says, “A society’s greatness is measured in how it treats its weakest members.”

Likewise, a church’s greatness is measured not in the size of its membership, building, or budget, not by how it treats its biggest donors or longest-tenured members. According to Jesus in Matthew 25, it’s measured by how it treats the poor, the infirmed, the hungry, the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast. A church’s greatness is measured by how it treats children, those who are new in their faith, those who are outside its faith. The values of God’s kingdom call for a reversal of the values of this world – putting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting those of low degree (Luke 1:52), opposing the proud and giving grace to the humble (James 4:6), taking the seat of lowest honor for ourselves (Luke 14:7-14), and the parts of the body that we think are less honorable, we treat with special honor (1 Corinthians 12:23).

A meal of the kingdom

From the beginning, God has been taking the values of the world and turning them upside down, and we call this new upside-down kingdom the kingdom of God. And Holy Communion is a meal of the kingdom – where God calls us to feast on grace, strengthening us for the journey of following Jesus, equipping us to live the upside-down values of God’s kingdom in a world where those values make no sense.

Our place at the Lord’s table is not on the basis of our wealth or worldly standing, our self-importance, our rank and serial number. In today’s text, Paul got miffed at the Corinthian church because they brought division to the Lord’s table, and so Holy Communion – intended to be a unifying experience of God’s grace – became yet one more example of the divisions and fractured nature of their community.

Jesus, the head of the body, the host of the meal, looks around at the fractured congregation, and says, “This is my body, broken by you.”

At the Lord’s table, title and rank don’t matter. It is a meal of God’s grace, and so we come, each of us, simply as children of God. It is a meal hosted by Christ, and so we come, each of us, as brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore, brothers and sisters of each other. It is the meal of the body of Christ, and so we come, each of us, because we are the members of the body of Christ.

Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). I need four volunteers to help illustrate what Jesus was getting at. Each of these people are a member of the body of Christ. When we come to Holy Communion together, we come to re-member Jesus. And so, if these four people link arms, which is symbolic of the way we are joined to Christ and each other in Holy Communion, we “re-member” the body of Christ – we are taking individual “members” and re-membering them; think of the word “remember” as the opposite of “dismember,” we are literally getting the body of Christ back together.

A frequent celebration

Jesus promised to be present in this sacramental meal. He promised his presence would be discernable among us every time we celebrate Communion. He promised to give us grace, and this grace would draw us closer to God and closer to other members of the body of Christ.

These are great benefits that Jesus promised to us every time we celebrate Communion. Because of these great gifts, we should celebrate Communion frequently. Now, I have heard people say, “If we have Communion too much, it won’t be as special,” and this has been used in many churches as an excuse for infrequent communion, and offered by many churchgoers as the reason they do not receive Communion. But friends, there’s no such thing as “too much” Communion; it’s special not because it is a rare treat, but because Jesus is really present, because he meets with us, because he gives us grace. These are the things that make Communion special, and these are the reasons we should celebrate it frequently.

An unworthy manner?

Paul chastises the church for partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. I have heard all sorts of really bad teaching about this, often to the point of making people feel so bad about themselves that they are terrified to receive Communion. Here’s what Paul actually says: “All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:29).

When the bread is handed to you, you will hear the words, “Body of Christ, given for you.” And yes, those words mean the body of Jesus, to be sure, but also the body of believers. All of us. Rick Lischer, in his book Open Secrets, tells us his journeys in his first pastoral assignment. He says, “Paul warned his readers in Corinth to “discern the body,” which means to see Jesus’ body in a new way. Not as a miracle of physics occurring in the elements, but as a miracle of community in which atoms of solitude are re-created into new families and friends. Christianity is a body religion. I had only begun to discern it.

I took such pleasure in lifting the chalice . . . Because, when the light was filtering through our art-glass windows or flooding through the open doors in back, I could just see the whole congregation reflected in the silver cup. And in the congregation, the whole church.”

Paul calls us to discern the body, recognizing the communal nature of Communion – our inherent connectedness with all Christians of every time and every place. We are part of the one body of Christ. Discerning the body involves a constant process of asking God to widen our circle of who we discern as part of the body of Christ – beyond ourselves, beyond our church, beyond our personal preferences, beyond our denomination, beyond our politics, beyond our race, beyond our nation, beyond our time.

We discern the body when we give ourselves to that which builds up rather than tears down, that which unifies rather than divides, that which heals rather than hurts, that which renews rather than destroys. When we discern the body, we receive worthily.

Blessed, Broken, and Given

In Communion, Jesus took bread, which he said represented his body, and he blessed it. The bread represents his body, and we are members of his body, which means God intends to bless us. Anyone here want to be blessed? Anyone here want God to bless them? I think we all want God to bless us – and what I want you to notice is that blessing comes first – without having to earn it or deserve it, without having to prove that we need it, without anything on our part, God just has already blessed us, is blessing us, and will continue to bless us because that’s who God is. Whether or not we ask for it, whether or not we recognize it, we are blessed.

But blessing is not a destination. It’s not a goal. It’s a starting point. Because after Jesus blessed the bread, his body, he broke it, and he gave it. And so, blessed members of the body of Christ, it is intended that we will be broken and given. Whatever it is that God has blessed us with, we are called to use those things to bless others. To whom much is given, shall much be required. With great privilege comes great responsibility.

Jesus gives us the gift of Communion, and in it, a pattern of blessing, breaking, and giving. We give ourselves in the same way to the world. As we say about the bread and wine in the Communion liturgy, “Make them be for us the body of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ.” The call, for we who find ourselves blessed, is to allow ourselves to be broken and given, not for our own purposes, but so that Christ may revealed through us.

Here’s what I’ve found. Having been blessed by God, and then giving myself to be broken and given by God, leads to further blessing. And from there, the cycle begins all over again – blessing, breaking, giving, blessing, breaking, giving. It has led me to the realization that I am not my own, but God’s. It has led to me the realization that I am not, first and foremost, an individual, but a member of something larger than me. It has led to the realization that I am connected, through Christ, to brothers and sisters the world over, and every time we come to this table, it’s like a great big family reunion.

In Holy Communion, Christ is present and giving away grace, empowering and equipping us to live the sort of lives that constantly reflect God’s love. The body of Christ is blessed, broken, and given; we are blessed, broken, and given. That is our call.