First Presbyterian – Lafayette, LouisianaIsaiah 40:21-31
February 5, 2012 – Epiphany (5B)
February 5, 2012 – Epiphany (5B)
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
The ending of the Isaiah passage we read today reminds me of a game that I have played with old and young alike. It's what some call an "ice breaker", because it gets people to say something about themselves that reveals a little about their character without forcing them to become truly vulnerable. Specifically - verse 31 reminds me of the ice breaker we did in our recent Session retreat. I asked our Ruling Elders to answer one of two “what if” questions. The first was, what if you were an animal? What kind of animal would you be and why? The second option was, what if you had a super power? What would it be, and why?
I will not disclose the individuals and their answers, but there was one answer that attempted to encompass both questions. This person said, “You people are thinking small. I would be an eagle that could fly supersonic speeds and go all the way to heaven!” So rest assured that you have at least one elder on Session that knows what it means to expect God to help us “mount up with wings like eagles... run and not be weary... walk and not faint.”
Sometimes we are consumed by our limitations, and we forget about the abundance of God’s providence. Sometimes in our distress, we forget that God is with us - actively sustaining us and providing for us. That’s why Isaiah was speaking words of comfort from God - right after he finished telling King Hezekiah that everything of value in his kingdom, including people, was about to be carried away into Babylon. These words of condemnation and consolation were to a particular people experiencing God’s activity in a particular way at a particular time.
It is hard for us to compare our struggles to a nation that has been occupied - not just inconvenienced by protestors or manipulated by the powerful or even bowing to the weak - but truly occupied by a foreign power.
Yet these words are for us as well. These words remind us when we feel trapped by the difficulties we face - real difficulties - that God is the one who built and ordered the universe with all of its limitations. God is also the one who stands with us and encourages us. God is the source of our strength because God is the source of everything that is.
These words are for us because everyone experiences things that make us feel overwhelmed from time to time. Overwhelmed - I use that word sometimes, but I don’t always think about how strong a word that is. Overwhelmed - that’s when the tide comes in too quickly and the undertow takes you into the deep. Overwhelmed - that is when an enemy comes at you with more force than you expect, more than you can respond to. Overwhelmed - that’s when fight or flight has become run like you are covered with angry bees!
Of course life is not always that bad. Even if it is, you cannot survive in constant panic mode. The human brain is designed to kick in and declare certain things as normal so that you can survive. I think that is why there are times when we feel a little trapped without knowing why. Expressions of people feeling occupied by their own lives can be found in literature and pop culture from the earliest records of civilization all the way to TV shows like Desperate Housewives.
I think that is why Paul’s words of obligation strike such a bitter chord with me. No one really likes to be obligated to something. Obligated, compelled, expected - these are words that do not sit well with most of us. Yet there it is. Paul is using that bad word - obligated - to describe the way the he believes he must respond to the message of God’s love. He chucks free will out the window, because that would be seeking a reward. In telling everyone about Jesus, Paul is not seeking a reward. He is responding to the grace he has already received.
The next part of this passage has been misinterpreted (or blatantly abused) over the years to say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Sound like anything familiar? Maybe something like, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”? When Paul says, “I become as” he is clearly not saying that he is going to throw what he knows about God out the window. He is also clearly not saying that he is pretending to be like someone else - politically, socially, economically - so that they can become like he is.
What Paul is saying is that he is willing to let go of his own expectations in order to meet others as equals. What Paul is saying is that it is not only good and right but it is also necessary to respect and value the experiences of others in order to have permission to share your own.
Now the funny thing is that, along with the popular twisting of the phrases about becoming as others are, the last part is often spoken correctly - but usually in the negative. How many times have you heard it said that, “you cannot be all things to all people”? This is, of course, usually interpreted as, “you can’t please everyone,” or even worse, “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.”
But Paul is not saying any of these. Paul is saying that it is our duty to see others as God’s beloved. Paul is saying that our faith in Christ compels us to love as we have been loved. Paul is saying that we have no choice but to love others for who they are and where they are because there is no “they” in the eyes of God. There is only a “we.” Loving is not about choice. It is simply who we are and what we do.
God is. We are. God is love - unbound agape love that finds its reward in loving. We are the expression of that love. God is. We are. God is love. For us to know ourselves as God’s beloved, we must be loving. Love shatters the bonds of obligation. Love re-orders the priorities that limit us - as Paul seems to whisper parenthetically, “I am not free from God’s law, because I am under Christ’s law.”
The law of Christ is the command that he left his disciples with - saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
That’s simple enough, right? Well, sorta. Talking about love and equality are sometimes a lot harder than really loving others and seeing them as equals - especially when we think of others as people who want our stuff.
Jesus cuts through the confusion by way of example. He came to his disciple’s mother-in-law and healed her - even at a time that he was not supposed to. He healed her because it was the right thing to do. In the eyes of the faithful he did something that was offensive to God, but in the eyes of that woman he simply offered her life. Immediately, she responded by serving them. She did not wait until a time that was appropriate to respond. She responded when and where she could.
Others heard about Jesus and came in a more appropriate time. Jesus healed who he could, while he could, and then he went out to pray. Then he left. Surely there were more to come, but he left. He left because he was not there to stay in one place and serve a few particular people. He left because he came to proclaim a gospel of repentance. Healing and casting aside demons came along with that message they were natural consequences - they were the expression of the gospel of repentance.
That is not to say that all we need to do is tell Jesus how terrible we are and he will reward us by healing those we love. It is instead to say that God is always working to make things new. Sometimes healing is of a more spiritual nature than it is physically. Sometimes our trials refine us - making us more able to respond to others out of love. All of it starts - again and again, over and over - with the relationships we have been given and the ones we are able to create.
I know some people who offer healing and hope. I know a woman who helps herself stay sober by helping people in detox at the hospital to begin their recovery and find a group to support them. I know a man who makes a habit out of helping others - even starting his day with the prayer, “God, please send me someone that I can help today.” I know a young man who is a friend to all, young and old, constantly trying to make people feel welcome and included. I know a woman who has lived a life less ordinary - responding to God’s calling when and where she can - who is still trying to figure out how God might use her. I know people who make hospital visits, distribute peanut butter to the needy, and visit the elderly with meals. I know a gathered community that comes to the table of Christ - believing that God offers not only eternal salvation but healing and wholeness here and now.
I know a group of people who sing praises to God, welcome others into a fellowship of faithfulness, and practice ministries of presence. I know a group of people who are trying to be faithful and live into the Kingdom that Christ has proclaimed. I know a group of people that scripture calls, “The Body of Christ.”
You realize, of course, that I am talking about you and me. I am talking about this congregation of members and visitors (and even those reading this on my blog or facebook) - a priesthood of believers one and all. And I leave you with two questions (perhaps not entirely different from the animal and super power questions). Do you see yourself in the list I just mentioned? If you do not, know that there is room for you at the table of Christ. If you do, and if the church is the Body of Christ, are you ready to be broken for the world? Are we ready to be Christ’s Body, broken for the world? I sure hope so. Because it is there - in the broken and crumby places - that we meet God face to face. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.