First Presbyterian of Lafayette, Louisiana
February 13, 2001 – Year A, Ordinary 6
Psalm 119:1-8 (Cantor)
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Some of you may have noticed a sign from a local high school about a play they are running called "Into the Woods." It's a wonderful story that blends classic European fables into one narrative, finding common ground in the mythic quality of the woods. The wilderness offers opportunity, conflict, and transformation. What is even better is that they get to the normal happy ending by the intermission and are forced back into the woods for continued reform during the second half.
Life is like that. We are always arriving and yet beginning at the same time. One of those points in my life happened during a brief career as a restaurant manager. I was assigned as part of a management team to a store that had been struggling. The new General Manager called the staff together to address the issues they faced. The one thing I remember from that meeting was his reference to an old Louis Jordan tune, "Is You Is My Baby."
Is you is or is you ain't my baby?
The way you're acting lately makes me doubt.
You's is still my baby, baby.
Seems my flame in your hearts' done gone out.
This was not an Alexander Haig "I'm in charge" moment. This was a legitimate request for fidelity. In our passage from Deuteronomy we find a similar plea for mutual submission in the words of Moses – so near to the end of his life. Moses calls for fidelity as a people to the ordinances he has given them. In what seems like a contract, Moses acknowledges the benefits and natural consequences of a lifestyle of following or denying God's laws. At the same time, what Moses is describing is more than a contract. It is a covenant – perhaps even a marriage. Moses calls upon all of creation to bear witness to the agreement between God and the people of Israel.
Through Christ we have become recipients of this same covenant, but there are some tremendous differences that sometimes blur our vision and limit our ability to see what that means. Theirs was a fundamentally communal and theocratic society. The choices of individuals, as they related to covenant community for the ancient Israelites, affected the character and nature of the whole community, and their government was believed to be directly from God. Ours is a fundamentally individualistic and democratic republic. The choices of individuals, as they relate to covenant community in these United States, are usually seen as personal decisions unless someone does something that harms someone else. We value individual freedom, and we say that we will fight to the death anyone who tries to take away our collective right for individual freedom. Yet with so much individual freedom, there is bound to be conflict.
The story goes that a young Rabi was astonished at the argument that broke out in his congregation over whether or not to stand for the reading of the Decalogue. He decided to visit the former Rabi in a nearby retirement home to find out what the traditional practice has been. The old Rabi smiled at the younger and said, "An argument over worship practices? Yes, that is our tradition." Sadly, the same story could be told in many Presbyterian congregations. Even now there are those who are trying to force their hand in the processes that shape and form our denomination.
Paul's letter to the church in Corinth reminds us that this is nothing new. Though I will say that I do not like his tone or his ecclesiology (he seems rather condescending and describes spiritual leaders as a separate class of believers), what I do believe to be faithful is his concern over arguments and misplaced loyalties. What I do believe to be faithful is the way he reminds us that we are not acting as children of God when we are more concerned with being right than we are with doing what is right.
This week offered one of the most beautiful expressions of righteousness that many have seen since September 11, 2001. While hired thugs tried to incite violence and trample peaceful demonstrators in Cairo, groups of Christians and Muslims took turns guarding one another with nothing but a circle of bodies and the clasping of hands during times of prayer and worship. We do not know if the future will bring a military coup or a popular revolution and democracy for Egypt. What we do know is that God is at work in the midst of Muslims and Christians and tanks and bodies. And if God is active there, surely God is at work here!
For we are 'God's field, God's building.' There it is again – that sense of being and becoming, arriving and beginning all wrapped up together. Paul truly thought he was preparing the Corinthians for an immanent and immediate harvest, yet God must have wanted something more permanent to be communicated. God must have had something else to do with them, and God must have something else in mind for us as well. Perhaps salvation is not just about getting into heaven or protecting a way of life. Perhaps salvation is about experiencing God's presence here and now and becoming more and more transparent and vulnerable. That's what I believe Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount.
He began with the complete reversal of fortune in the beatitudes. Then, last week, we heard about the imperative that we become the light to the nations. Now he is interpreting what it means to live the letter of the law and fulfill the message of the prophets. What I believe all of this comes down to is character. For those who have dogs, I have heard it said that having character means being the person your dog thinks you are. Then I have heard it also said that having character means being the person your God created you to be – a person who confesses limitations and responds to God's grace, however imperfectly she or he is able to respond. Then I have also heard it said that character is not about what you do when other people are watching so much as it is about what you do when they are not.
Perhaps it is like the story of the signs the children saw in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note, and posted on the apple tray: "Take only ONE. God is watching." Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."
Now, I do not mean to oversimplify the message of Jesus – but I do believe that the core of his message is about integrity in relationships. Are we who we say we are? Are we the church, the body of Christ that is broken for the world? Are we the body of Christ that is broken for the world when we step out of those doors and into the relationships that we cling to, navigate through, and seek out in our daily lives? Do we listen as God croons for us, "Is you is my baby or is you ain't?"
You see we have been given a choice. We have been given a choice in the past, and we are given a choice today. We have to decide who and what we believe and value. Is it God's will and mutual submission, or is it our own will and the idea of individual freedom? Like the Coptic Christians in Cairo, we have to decide who and what we are willing to protect - even though we disagree with every fiber of our being over that which we are protecting.
Just as we have been given a choice, we have also been chosen. We are called into a covenant community so that we may together become the construction site of the temple of God. As God's beloved children, we can do no more than to be transparent and straightforward in our relationships. We can do no less than to become vulnerable to one another under the Lordship of Christ, and by God's grace we can, we do, and we will experience the presence of God here and now and in the life to come. May it be so with you. May it be so with me. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!