Saturday, November 26, 2011

Strong to the End

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Advent 1
November 27, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

             Today Advent begins with a blessing. The apostle Paul sends a letter to a congregation in Greece. They had written him with lots of questions. There were concerns within their fellowship, questions about Christian doctrine, and issues about practical matters. They were called to live as Christian people in a world that did not care anything about Christ. How were they going to make their way?

            Paul begins with a blessing: “Hail, church, full of grace!” God’s grace is overflowing out of you. God’s grace gives you speech, knowledge, and testimony. You do not lack anything. God gives you everything you need. So live out this grace while you wait it out for Christ to be revealed. Hang in there as you count your blessings. That’s my rough paraphrase of his word to the Corinthian church. It’s a pretty good word for most of the people that I know.

Years ago, we had a regional minister named Jim Mays. He loved to preach on this scripture text. Jim would offer to preach in a little congregation in the country. They would complain they didn’t have enough money to pay him and he would say, “That’s OK, the rest of the people in the presbytery pay my salary.”

He would arrive with his pulpit gown over his arm. The self-appointed church leader would meet him and say, “Our building is not in very good shape.” Jim would answer, “You don’t need a building in order to be a church. A church is a community of people.”

Sometimes they would say, “We don’t have an organist,” to which he would respond, “You can be a church without an organist. I see hymnals there. What would you like to sing?”

            Then Jim would quote the text and say, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You are no lacking . . . and they would look at him quizzically, as if to say, “Really?”

            Then Jim would give them the Gospel: God in Jesus Christ has forgiven any inadequacy. God has declared you capable, and given you the word of the Gospel. All the gifts you need to be a Christian people are already given among you. So live by the great mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again.

            That’s a pretty good sermon. You are adequate, not because of your own ability, but because of the generosity of God. It reminds me of a great definition of grace. It was spoken in a promotional movie years ago called “The Presbyterians,” although the film could have been called “The Christians” or “The Corinthian Church.” This was the definition of grace: “God requires from us only what God working through can achieve.”

            Let me say it again: “God requires from us only what God working through us can achieve.”

            The human dilemma is that we doubt this. We think we have to earn God’s love by putting good deeds on our to-do list. Or that we have to steer clear of all those behaviors that could seem sinful but we aren’t willing or able to do that yet. Or that we simply don’t have enough to make ourselves adequate.

            We see it in the mad rush for Black Friday shopping. Perhaps we hear field reports of a special bargain here or there that somebody was able to score. But this whole business of standing in line for five hours before the opening of Toys-R-Us strikes me as sad and pathetic. Or so I thought.

            Then I read the observations of Diana Butler Bass, one of our more astute observers of faith and unbelief. She noticed the people who tend to stand in line for the discount store sales are not the wealthy, but the working class. These are the folks who go to church every week, express a high level of belief in God, and more likely to give a higher percentage of their money to those in need. Diana would know this; she is a historian who have discovered that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be faithful and generous.

            By contract, those who weren’t in the sales lines on Black Friday are typically less religious, less generous, and more likely to find meaning in getting a lot of stuff. As the New York Times recently reported, the wealthy spend most of their holiday cash as upscale stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, where there aren’t a lot of come-on sales.

            “So what’s going on?” asked Diana. She caught a glimpse on a Black Friday interview. The TV reporter asked two women in line, “What are you going to buy?”

The (first) woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women?[1]

            Diana says this is a matter of morality. Not merely about the riots over getting a cheap flat-screen TV, but the fact that many, many people can’t afford to buy nice things for their families without waiting in long lines on Thanksgiving night. She notes, “We have become a coarser and less neighborly America, a culture where too far too many - including those who will spend their Christmas wad at high-end stores rather than Black Friday sales - are not working for the common good…”

The dividing line is between those who don’t have enough and those who have more than they will ever enjoy, and both groups are driven to want more. In such a situation, who can hear the apostle Paul declare, “You are not lacking in anything as you wait for the revealing of Jesus Christ”?

            This is not a new situation. The ancient city of Corinth was opulent and expensive. The wealthy went to Corinth for medical care. The sailors stopped there as a pleasure destination and other entertainments. Yet there was a division between people, and it crept into the little church that Paul had started there.

Just a few years after he had moved on to Ephesus, Paul hears reports that the wealthy people in the congregation bring fine wine to communion while the poor don’t have a drop. The affluent folks in the Corinthian church have plenty of fresh bread for the sacrament which they do not share with those who show up without so much as a crumb. Some end up drunk while others go hungry. “That’s not communion!” he thundered. “What is communion, but a sharing in one another, a participation in Christ!” (1 Corinthians 11:17-22)

            When the world with its divisions creeps into the church, the church ceases to be the church! For the center of the church is the Good News that all of us are made adequate by the grace of Jesus Christ. Sin is forgiven, division is overcome. We have been given what we need: a love for one another and a shared hope in God. The Spirit of God empowers some to preach this message, others to testify to this message, others to administer it, others to embody it, to the end that all might live it out. By rooting ourselves completely in the news that God gives us all gifts in Christ, we shall “stay strong to the end.”

            There is a good word for us here as we begin this Advent. Bigger is not better; it’s just bigger. More is not a blessing; it can be a burden. We don’t need to buy the lie of our over-charged culture. We all know what it says: that we are inadequate unless we have more, do more, grab more, build more, worry more, hover more, and fear more. That’s a lie.

It is perfectly OK to be adequate. To be forgiven. To be accepted. To be loved. To be visited by God. I don’t know who said it first, but the adage certainly applies: this Advent, don’t just do something; stand there. Stand there, still and non-anxious. Stand there, cherished by Christ and hopeful that you will see him. Be at peace, in the knowledge that “God requires from us only what God working through can achieve.”

You may have heard about Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic in the 1960’s who helped us understand the importance of rooting our lives in God and not worrying about much else. The story goes he walked into a drugstore one day to get some toothpaste, and a clerk asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred. Merton smiled and said, “I don’t care.”

Well, he said, the clerk almost dropped dead. He expected the customer to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest, each with its own special ingredient. Merton did not give a rip. All he wanted was some toothpaste. He didn’t need to give his allegiance to a particular brand. His allegiance was already given to God.[2]

            This is our Advent challenge – to care first for God. To want nothing more than to see Jesus Christ. He is revealed in the grace that declares the hearts of human beings are more important than the stuff in their cabinets. Jesus is the One who came to us, who will finally come at the end, and who comes secretly each day. So we pray for the ability to see him, and for the ability to trust that his grace is all we need.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

 [2] As told by Kathleen Norris, “Apocalypse Now,” The Christian Century, November, 15, 2005, p.19.

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