Perspective

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes.  For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite.  He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume.  imgresAt the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip.  So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.”  This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective.  Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse.  Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.

In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully.  The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage.  From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise.  In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments.  Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness.  Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual.  As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses.  This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century.  In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority.  For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired.  Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life.  Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance.  The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.

But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness.  While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married.  His rationale for this is striking.  Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”  A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture.  But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”  Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century.  In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness.  While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ.  While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives.  For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.

This brings us to the passage we heard this morning.  Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true.  Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community.  Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective.  Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments.  imgresFor Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians.  The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity.  For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences.  For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory.  For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.

There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world.  From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about.  But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective.  Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget.  Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important.  Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective.  It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance.  It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed.  It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God.  Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.

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Fragments

Today’s post is going to be brief, as I not only have to put the finishing touches on a sermon, but also need to watch (need!) a very close national semifinal game between the Florida Gators and the Connecticut Huskies (go UConn!).

imgresThough I’ve been watching the game on TBS, I’ve noticed that there are two other broadcasts available: one for Florida fans and one for UConn fans.  Presumably, the Florida broadcast will include commentators with a rooting interest in the Gators, while the UConn broadcast will feature people transparently supporting the Huskies.  It occurs to me that the existence of these team-specific options is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture today.  Our society has become fragmented; we tend to spend time only with people we agree with and listen only to people who share our worldview.  This is part of the reason for the proliferation of news networks that cater to people of a particular political bent.  We would rather pretend that everyone agrees with us than engage in the challenging work of listening to people who do not share our views.

This is not a new issue.  The early Church had to deal with a huge variety of perspectives and understandings about how to be faithful to God: Should Christians be required to keep the Law of Moses?  Who has the authority to speak for the Church?  What should we do with people who have committed notorious sins?  Much of the New Testament is devoted to dealing with these questions.  In some cases, like in the letters of John, the solution is to exclude those who do not share the majority view.  In most other cases, however, we see the Church struggling to hold a variety of perspectives in tension, to include as many people as possible, and to recognize that unity can exist even with diversity.

In the Church (and the world) we must remember that we can be in relationship with one another even when we disagree or root for different teams.  Ultimately, we are called to recognize that our unity is grounded not in anything we have done, but in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

Hospitality

There’s a video making the rounds on various social media platforms.

For those who didn’t watch, the video follows a man dressed like a waiter as he delivers meals to homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles.  The meals are arranged on plate and require flatware.  As he delivers the food, he says things like, “Sorry about the wait, sir” and “Did you have the chicken?”  The people who receive these meals greet the guy with a mixture of surprise and appreciation.  Towards the end of the video, we see one recipient share part of his meal with an acquaintance.

On one hand, there is a very kitschy character to this video.  It’s dripping with sentimentality and a little self-congratulation, and was clearly designed to be shared as many times as possible (I’m just doing my part).  On the other hand, there is something very beautiful about this man’s service to the people in his community.  By dressing up as a waiter and serving a meal that requires a fork and knife, this man starts with the fundamental assumption that everyone is entitled to their dignity, no matter what their life circumstances may be.  More importantly, this video reminds us how important relationships are.  After receiving their meals, nearly all of the recipients introduced themselves to the guy dressed as a waiter.  Every encounter depicted in the video started a conversation.  Notably, it was typically the people being “served” who took this next step in building a relationship.

We often get caught up in the notion of doing things for those who are “less fortunate” than we are.  In some ways, there is nothing wrong with this.  If we have an abundance of something, we are called to share it.  But this is very basic discipleship.  This was the minimum standard that John the Baptist articulated to usurious soldiers and greedy officials at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  Jesus calls us to a much deeper level of commitment.  Jesus tells us that if someone steals our coat, we should call them back and say, “Wait! Take my shirt too!”  I don’t think this is because Jesus wants us all to walk around shirtless (ahem, Matthew McConaughey); I think this is because giving someone our shirt after they have our coat requires us to build a relationship.  It requires us to call that person back and find out why they took our coat, to find out how we can work together to improve their experience of life.  Ideally, we are called to do things with those who need help, to recognize that we are all part of the same creation, to embrace the fact that we are all people for whom Christ died.

Loaves

On this first Sunday in Lent, Christians around the world will hear Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  The movements of the story are familiar: the tempter makes an offer to Jesus three times, and three times Jesus rebuffs him.  Today, I wanted to take a moment to focus on the first interaction between Jesus and the devil:

The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:3-4)

Jesus’ response is packed with meaning and recalls an important moment in Israel’s history.  After the tempter suggests that Jesus turn stones in to bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, recalling God’s provision of manna in the wilderness.  Jesus indicates that when we are in the wilderness, we are not meant to rely on cheap parlor tricks, but rather on the grace and mercy of God.  One also can’t help but hear echoes of Isaiah in Jesus’ response to the devil: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).  Jesus points away from the empty and easy promises of mere satisfaction and toward the true fullness that comes from a relationship with God.

In spite of this, it’s hard not to fault Jesus in this situation.  After all, there are lots of hungry people in the world, and most of them are probably more interested in bread than they are in the words that come from the mouth of God.  Isn’t Jesus indulging in an unaffordable luxury by refusing to create food when he has the opportunity?

Just a few chapters after we hear Jesus refuse to make bread for himself, Matthew relates the story of the feeding of the multitude.  The striking thing about this story is not its miraculous nature, but the fact that Jesus shifts the perception of the gathered crowd.  When Jesus asks his disciples what they can share with the hungry people, they say, “Nothing…except for two fish and a few loaves.”  Jesus invites the people gathered in that wilderness to look at what they have in a new way, to understand that even when we have limited resources, we can share them with those in need.

imgresUltimately, Jesus does not turn stones into bread because that would accomplish very little; it would not feed anyone except Jesus.  But the next time he is in a deserted place and food becomes an issue, Jesus invites his disciples to share their meager lunch with the gathered multitude.  Jesus indicates that feeding the hungry is not an individual enterprise; it requires relationship.  In the same way, the process of becoming a faithful person is shaped within the context of community.  This morning, the Curate at Heavenly Rest reminded us that we’re not meant to go through Lent by ourselves, but rather within a community of people who are also struggling to be faithful.  When we gather around the bread of the Eucharist, I pray we will remember that our lives are not sustained only by loaves of bread, but by relationships with God and one another.