February 6, 2011 – Year A, Ordinary 5
1 Corinthians 2:9-16
Today's texts ask us to consider what is true or false in our practice of worship, and it reminds me of a story about a guy named David LaMotte. David is - or was - a singer, songwriter and storyteller from Montreat, North Carolina. He grew up under the influence of one of our great conference centers in a region of North Carolina heavily influenced by the Presbyterian tradition of Christian faith. After spending time in an intentional community for the homeless in Atlanta, he wrote a song called Butler Street. The song is about experiencing God's presence by being in community with those who suffer. The chorus repeats ironically, or perhaps sarcastically, "Sing me a song about Jesus, but please don't sing about the poor. It's already been a long day. I really don't want to hear anymore. Sing me a song about forgiveness, that'll make me feel happy inside. Sing me a song about Jesus, that'll make this lifestyle feel justified."
What's interesting about David is that he was transformed by singing these songs about Jesus. He still sings and does a show every now an then, but he made a radical shift because of these songs. He got married, had a kid, and did what most people do - put everything on the line to study peace, justice, and reconciliation! He runs a non-profit that supports a school in Guatemala, and is one of the gentlest, most sincere Christians you will meet. One particular moment in his transformation happened after a show. He always hangs out afterwards to talk to people. One night a woman approached him and said, "You know, you're right. Sometimes I do just want to hear a song about Jesus without having to hear about those poor people." Sadly, that is often the position of the church. Look how we are fasting, O Lord! Can't you see how hard we have practiced for the special music, O God? Why is it that all our efforts seem to fall flat? We are following the Book of Order and the Book of Common Worship to the letter.
Preaching! That's the answer. It must be because of the preacher. This one talks too long. That one stayed too long. This one spent too much time doing the wrong things. Yes, it must be because of the preaching. Now, I don't mean to suggest that preaching does not matter any more than I would suggest that one person singing off key can throw off an entire piece of music. Nor do I mean to show disrespect to John or our choir. Often times the music is the only place that those of us leading worship are able to be led and to truly experience God's presence.
What I do mean to say is that there is much more to proclamation – there is much more to right and faithful worship – than what happens in here. As I was reading and studying our gospel passage today I was struck by the idea of the church building as a bushel. We have such good and faithful practices in our worship experience. It is so meaningful to be held by the words of prayer and song and to be lifted into the very presence of God through our common unity. Yet there comes a point where it is all for nothing if it is only for us.
As we have been journeying through 1 Corinthians together, Paul has been very clear about the difference between wisdom and faith. He even criticizes his own preaching, basically saying, "Look, if you got something out of that it was by God's grace alone." Today he is focusing on the wisdom of the Spirit. I think it is important to remember a few things here. One is that this was written before anyone had a concept of the Trinity. Another is that wisdom and discernment were not simply characteristics or actions; they were archetypes and processes. They were something to participate in, rather than something to have and do. Human beings, therefore, can only participate in things that are limited to human experience. The Spirit, the pnuema, the very breathe of God was the active presence of God. The Spirit was and is the offering of experience beyond our ability to perceive. The activity of God is not understood, but discerned. It is experienced. It is confirmed in the relationships we share, in our common experience of being united and drawn into something greater than our own desires.
In this way, we have the mind of Christ. In this way, we are joined as different wavelengths and colors of the same light into something brilliant! In this way we become light into darkness. But to what end? Certainly it is not simply to come together on a Sunday morning, go through the motions of worship, and return to our lives. Surely our tithes and special offerings are not some form of penance to allow us to feel justified in other areas of life.
Recently I have had a few people ask me why I felt called to come here. My answer is always the same. This is a community of people who are called together by God, who care about each other, and who care about the community around them, reaching out in service as well as they are able to. Is that you? Do you feel like I am talking about you? (I asked this rhetorically, then repeated it while asking for a verbal response.)
Paul is very clear that we have the mind of Christ. This is a corporate identity. Isaiah is very clear that the community of believers is responsible to care for those in need, and when we do we will find that God is in our midst. Not because we have brought the presence of God with us, but because we discover God's presence in the midst of us, in the messiness of caring for someone else, and in the inconvenience of being responsible even for those who cannot or will not take responsibility for their own actions.
Although I am aware that I am suggesting a theology that effects our politics, I want to take it a step back from that and approach it from a more basic level – something more along the lines of salt. Salt is something our bodies cannot live without, yet too much can also kill us. Salt mines are found in every culture dating back to 6,000 BC. In its purest form, salt can never loose its flavor. The salt used in Jesus' day, however, came from salt marshes and had impurities. If not stored properly, the flavor would leach out. All that was left was something mildly corrosive enough to help keep the streets clear of other, less tasteful items.
Salt may be deluded and dissolved, but not without affecting the flavor of anything it comes in contact with. I saw two little girls, who are a little less little every time I see them, become salt the other night. Zoe had a sleep over with four other girls, and Samantha was one of them. As we were getting them all settled in, Zoe asked if we were going to pray. I said, "Sure! If any of you girls want to join us you are welcome to, but you don't have to." One girl said, "I don't pray." Two others continued to read books, but Samantha jumped up and clasped her hands together immediately! Zoe led us very meticulously through our ritual of thanking God, asking forgiveness (saying sorry), and asking for God's blessing on people we care about – very salty, those two girls, very salty.
Of course, the whole event of the sleep over was not without conflict or drama. In fact none of our lives are. That's why we say our "sorries". That is why we come to this table. We come to be reminded that there are those who are yet uninvited by us, and that God wants them here too. We come to be transformed and to have our impurities washed away. We come to be connected to something greater than ourselves, commissioned to experience God's presence in the messiness of life, and we come to be sanctified – set aside – for God's activity to flow through us and into the world.
I believe this old bushel has more life in it than any of us could imagine, as long as it is used as a lamp stand and nothing more. As long as we continue to give care for the needy, seeking God's presence in the midst of our relationships… as long as we remember to offer a relationship with God through Jesus Christ… as long as we confess our faults when our actions don't line up with our calling as a covenant community and as individuals who have been given the discernment of God's Spirit… I believe we will be fine.
By the grace of God, as we have received it through faith in the Christ, revealed to us in scripture, we will be fine. Or, maybe more to the point, we are being refined, made pure, and becoming that which we were created to be – and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.