Building on Shalom—Living the Promise
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
By: Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Sunday, September 4, 2016
1 Corinthians 13New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Gift of Love
13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
“What’s the first sign of a lurking, hidden expectation you didn’t know you had? Pain! People don’t do what we want, things don’t happen quickly enough, the weather doesn’t cooperate, our bodies don’t cooperate. Why are these moments so painful? Because our minds are focused on a static, unchanging, me-centric picture while the dynamic unfolding of a broader life continues around us. There is nothing wrong with expectations per se, as it’s appropriate to set goals and work, properly, towards their fruition. But the instant we feel pain over life not going “my way,” our expectations have clearly taken an improper turn. Any moment you feel resistance or pain, look for — and then let go of — the hidden expectation. Practice giving yourself over to what “you” don’t want. Let the line at the store be long. Let the other person interrupt you. Let the nervousness make you shake. Be where your body is, not where your mind is trying to take you.”
― Guy Finley
PAGE ONE—GOD’S SHALOM
Last week, Robin shared with us some great thoughts on the meaning of God’s Shalom—what the word means and what we can do to embrace those meanings. It was a rare pleasure for me to be able to sit out there, among this congregation, and experience the sermon as a listener and attend-er to her words. I am grateful for this—one of the things that happen to those of us who lead worship is that we sometimes lose those wonderful moments of transcendence that can occur when the thin place of worship allows our souls to glimpse something bigger than ourselves. I’m grateful I got to worship last Sunday without my brain worrying about the next thing I have to do in worship. Chapel at Phillips seminary has become an important part of my spiritual practice for this very reason.
So, just what did I take away from Robin’s sermon last week? As I tried to illustrate in last week’s children’s sermon—interpreting words and ideas is difficult work as there are so many different ways to approach words and ideas and it always comes down to context. I used the illustration of the color blue—and all of its attendant pitfalls—because every one of us brings different ideas and experiences with the color blue—or any word or idea—and it’s difficult to find agreement. Ultimately, I believe, we find an interpretation that works for us—and if we’re lucky enough to find a group of people who at least believe in a similar fashion—well, then a community is born. We’d rather surround ourselves with like-minded folks than spend all of the time and energy required to explain ourselves to people who don’t believe as we do.
The Apostle Paul gives us a great guide about God’s shalom—a way for followers of Jesus to measure our love against a higher ideal of love—God’s all-encompassing shalom. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have him addressing a church that has had difficulty in dealing with its member’s spiritual gifts. In our modern usage we hear these words most often at weddings and we sang a hymn that uses these words but a few weeks ago.
1 Corinthians 13New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Gift of Love
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Paul is instructing those members of the Corinthian church that, yes, you may have many gifts: eloquent words, or perhaps even speaking in tongues in some communities; yes, you may have a gift of prophecy you may even be in a position in life where you can give everything away and live a simple life. But if you do any of those things without a spirit of love and shalom, then you are nothing but a gong, or an empty promise—you have nothing. Love—God’s shalom, infuses your actions with meaning. We read a bit further in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. And let’s skip to the ending: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Paul is reminding us that yes, our faith is important and our hope is important but love is more important.
PAGE THREE—BOUNDARIES AND IDENTITY
I’ve been struggling with identity and boundaries. What does it mean when I claim space as a Christian Minister? A white, male, Christian Minister? There’s a huge weight of expectations on me when I claim that space. Add being gay to that identity and there’s a whole other world of heavy expectations. How do I create the space for this identity? Especially when our corporate and public ideas of Christian ministry encompass expectations that are out of reach for most humans AND those expectations do not allow space for a man with my attributes. Or for that matter for most of us and our physical and spiritual attributes. How do we claim space to be Christians? Especially when there are so many who would proudly deny us that title. So many who would refuse for us that space.
I find it curious that we ascribe God-like attributes to this man Jesus and then place expectations of perfection on our very human selves. Listen to that again…we claim that Jesus is God on earth and then we attempt to compare our behavior to this God’s. We expect ourselves and others to attain a God-like perfection in our lives. What would Jesus do? Well, since he was perfect I must behave as this perfect individual—except that this premise is flawed. Jesus the man was not perfect. He broke commandments—he failed to honor his parents—I’m thinking of an incident in his youth where he ran away to the temple against his parent’s wishes. Imagine a young person going missing for three days in our modern context. The parents would be terrified, beside themselves with worry and anxiety and fear. Jesus was missing for 3 days before they found him in the Temple asking him why he had done this, disobeyed them and caused such great anxiety—and Jesus responds with great ambiguity about being in his “father’s” house and they did not understand him, but we’re told that even though they were confused, Mary treasured these things in her heart. There’s a sermon topic for another day.
Jesus also worked on the Sabbath against the proscriptions of the commandments—in fact he was brought up on charges on this occasion, when he had healed a woman who was ill, and his response was less than charitable. Luke’s gospel tells us “The Lord answered him (his accuser), “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” This legalistic interpretation of scripture and desire to adhere to some impossible ideal of perfection has plagued the church since its inception. Who is in and who is out is often based on adherence to strict interpretations of laws and ideals—such tight belief can’t be life-giving, can it? It chokes us and places a death-grip on our lives that often ends up with many of us fleeing the church, wounded by the suffocating pressure of our inability to live up to these impossible expectations.
Boundaries are tough as well. I’ve earlier preached on Christology—that idea of where our belief of Jesus falls on a continuum from believing he was just a man to believing that he is the living God. The higher your Christological belief, the more you believe in the divinity of Jesus. Where do we draw the lines of membership in a community? Here at University Congregational Church, we are more interested in the questions than in any pat answers, so you’re all free to answer that question as you see fit. We have all types of believers and non-believers here. We have atheists and agnostics and recovering Catholics and recovering Protestants and we have seekers and we have more concrete believers. And we are all here, because we value the community that we have built here. A community that requires our constant attention, care and support. If you value this intentional beloved community of resistance and mutual support, then you need to invest in it. Because your investment pays off in dividends of understanding—understanding our Christology and our boundaries and our identity as a Christian community. A Christian community grounded in God’s magnificent shalom.
PAGE FOUR—LIVING THE PROMISE
A definition of shalom must include a discussion on wholeness and completeness. In the rabbinical texts, shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category: It denotes the overcoming of strife, the ending of a quarrel, and the softening of social tension, God’s shalom includes the prevention of enmity and war. The word is still, to be sure, depicted as a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace, but in a great many sayings Shalom appears in a normative context: The pursuit of peace is the obligation of us all and should be the goal of our various social regulations and structures—including our church. The shalom of peace should encompass every one of our interactions. Shalom can lead us into right relationship with each other. But only when we deal with each other with realistic expectations—we’re humans, not God’s. We’re Christians, not experts in the Jesus Seminar, we’re ordinary humans on an extraordinary spiritual journey. Guy Finley reminds us of these expectations and the pitfalls we might avoid when he writes this—it’s in your bulletins under the contemporary word: “What’s the first sign of a lurking, hidden expectation you didn’t know you had? Pain! People don’t do what we want, things don’t happen quickly enough, the weather doesn’t cooperate, our bodies don’t cooperate. Why are these moments so painful? Because our minds are focused on a static, unchanging, me-centric picture while the dynamic unfolding of a broader life continues around us. There is nothing wrong with expectations per se, as it’s appropriate to set goals and work, properly, towards their fruition. But the instant we feel pain over life not going “my way,” our expectations have clearly taken an improper turn. Any moment you feel resistance or pain, look for — and then let go of — the hidden expectation. Practice giving yourself over to what “you” don’t want. Let the line at the store be long. Let the other person interrupt you. Let the nervousness make you shake. Be where your body is, not where your mind is trying to take you.”
Isn’t that a big part of shalom? Living in the moment? Taking a deep, deep breath and letting life just settle around you—or if it’s a chaotic moment…step back and put God’s shalom in your heart and enjoy the chaos for a bit. If it gets to be too much, I think God’s shalom allows you to leave the situation until it settles. The promise for our lives lies in remembering that we are humans and prone to human frailties and mistakes. Once we try to attain the impossible God-hood expected by many in the modern church and in modern society, then we are entering a realm of magical thinking that has us believing that as long as the outward appearance is ok—that as long as we say the right things and believe the right thing and profess the right things—as long as we look and act like modern Christians should look and act—then we’re good. And any manner of foul corruption can exist right below the surface, because, hey, at least we go to church, right? At least I profess certain doctrines—no one can say I’m not a true believer. There’s rottenness to lives that hold that to be true. We’ve all seen it—we’re seeing it writ large in our current political battles—as long as everything has the appearance of piety and all of the correct words are being said, then there can be any manner of corruption and vile grotesqueness happening underneath.
It’s really difficult to be people of integrity, isn’t it? Especially in a world where integrity is not cherished. But you know what, I cherish your integrity. I cherish your conscientiousness. I cherish your wholeness. Because you are whole. You are whole because you don’t buy into the false narrative of being broken. You are not broken, no matter how many messages you may hear that try to tell you that you are. You are whole. You are loved. And you can be a person of high integrity by simply admitting to your humanness—and by refusing to live up to God-like expectations. Let’s just start living up to our very human expectations—expectations of faith and the promise of hope and the great Shalom of God’s love. I wish for everyone here this morning, this simplest of prayers: May each of you find something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. I believe this is a recipe for a happy and fulfilling life, a way to live the promise of God’s shalom. Have something to do, someone to love and something to hope for. It’s that simple. May we all find God’s shalom in that thought.