Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pentecost 2 - Year A

NB: some of the exegesis is from
Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary
by Charles H. Talbert.

The city of Corinth that Paul visited in the first century was a city with no old traditions. The old city of Corinth, having been destroyed in 146 BCE by the Roman Consul Mummius, had to re-build from the ground up.

No longer bound to established customs and beliefs, the Corinthians were free to explore their own ways of living, to manufacture their own rituals and beliefs, to discover the excitement of re-inventing themselves.

In Corinth, history, culture, religion, politics, art – all these were up for grabs just waiting to be re-created. It was the city of innovation and novelty. Corinth was where anything could happen. The possibilities were as endless as their buildings were new. If you wanted a fresh start in life, if you wanted to re-invent yourself, if you wanted to live your life as creatively as you wanted, if you wanted your parents off your back, Corinth was the place to be.

And people flocked to the city. They came looking for better paying jobs than what they could find back home. They came looking to grab some of the Corinthian prosperity for themselves while it lasted. They came because they didn’t want to pinned down by old expectations, old orthodoxies. They had bigger dreams for their lives than what their parents had for them.

They wanted their life-story to have a different ending then the one that was given to them. They wanted to create that story for themselves.

That was Corinthian culture. People soaked in that culture. That culture stained on the hearts and minds of all those arriving, searching for a new life. A culture Paul’s church found sitting in their pews.

“…let no one boast about human leaders,” Paul says in the ramp up to today’s reading, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God,”

“Think of us in this way,” Paul goes on to say, “[Think of us] as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. ”

Paul knew what he was up against; a culture that said that if YOU weren’t gonna make something of yourself, no one else will.

It was no wonder the good folks at First Church Corinth couldn’t get along. Who was the church to tell them how to live? I create my own world, my own reality, thank you very much. I relate to God in my own way. I don’t need some pastor to tell me who God is. I just need the government out of my way so I can do my own thing, raise my children MY way, make a living the way I want to. No one has any say as to how I live my life than ME and how I choose to live it. It’s my BIRTHRIGHT to make life decisions for myself. I create my own destiny.

Sound familiar?

I think a 21st Century Albertan would be very much at home in 1st century Corinth. Prosperity and personal choice, that’s what we call “freedom.”

But Paul reminds them, “You are servants of Christ, not of yourselves. You are stewards of God’s mysteries, not your own appetites.”

“Stewards of God's mysteries.” I love that phrase. Especially when I don’t know what it means.

What do you think when you hear the word “steward”? In ChurchSpeak, stewardship usually means money. A “Stewardship Campaign” is a euphemism for fundraising. But as soon as people say that they are quick to add “but stewardship is not JUST about money.” lest they leave the impression that Christians are only interested in peoples' bank accounts and not the state of their souls.

Or we think of stewardship of the earth, taking care of God's creation and not treating it like a rental car.

But Paul talks about being “stewards of God's mysteries.” Being 'caretakers' of God's mysteries.

When I was ordained the bishop asked me “Will you preach and teach according to the Lutheran Confessions as a faithful exposition of Holy Scripture?”

To which I answered, “Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

Then he asked, “Will you be diligent in the use of the means of grace.”

“Yes, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

These two promises – or vows – I think, are the most important part of the ordination liturgy. They make up the heart of what I do and who I am. They make up the heart of our life together. Word faithfully proclaimed and sacraments duly administered. Maybe this is what it means to be stewards of God's mysteries.

I often wonder if the baptism liturgy should look more like an ordination service – or visa versa. My robe, my collar, by stole – all these things are to remind YOU of who YOU are – yoked to God through Jesus. Servants of Christ, and stewards of God's mysteries.

It's my job to equip you to be Christians in the world. Lately, I've been thinking how to do that more effectively. I think being a Christian in today's world is tough. Not because of the atheists, or the tiny minority of folks who are hostile toward religion in general and Christianity in paticular. I think it's tough to be a Christian today because the world is so seductive. It's so easy to get sucked into grabbing with two hands the what the world is offering.

The idolotry of the world is a terrible temptation to Christians. The idol is money and what we think it can provide: comfort, security, pleasure, esteem, power. It's what Jesus talked about in today's gospel, We cannot serve two masters...we cannot serve God and wealth. It's either one or the other. You can't have it both ways.

So this idol has been laying around since forever. It's not getting dusty. It's constantly being put before God. And God doesn't like what money does to us.

In Halifax, a recently widowed member of the congregation donated a substantial sum in memory of her husband. The council received it with thanks. But then we spent hours debating – fighting – over what to do it. Then other members of the congregation chimed in:

“It MUST go into the endowment fund!”

“We need to tithe the money to Canadian Lutheran World Relief.”

“The money's to go into the building fund!”

And on it went. For months. The voices rising, along with peoples' temperatures.

Then, the woman who donated the money said, “It's MY money. I'll decide how it's spent.”

“It's MY money” she said. “MY money.” And God wept at the sight of this sad spectacle. As servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries, we failed bitterly, falling into the tempter's snare. Not a tempter with a pitch fork and red pajamas. A tempter with a dollar sign stamped on it's forehead.

I often think about that troubled time in the congregation and wonder what made good, faithful Christians – servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries- behave like greedy children.

It's because we're both. At the same time. We're faithful Christians AND we're greedy children. We DO serve two masters. We have dual citizenship. We're citizens of heaven and taxpayers on earth. That's who we are.

But God has a way of making us more than who we are.

After fighting for months over the money, and the donor threatening to take the money back. And after our council chairperson called a special prayer meeting, it was agreed that the money would go to re-model the nursery.

A group of moms (and a token dad) got together with a fancy interior designer to figure out what to do with room that had peeling paint, 50 year old toys, and a broken crib.

Like most church projects, the job took twice as long as it needed to. But the result was stunning. It's amazing what a fresh paint, new carpet, a few leather couches, and a box of new toys can do. The nursery rivaled the sanctuary for being the most beautiful room in the church. In fact, I stopped meeting with people in my office, directing them instead to the nursery.

But this makeover was also symbolic of something new that was happening in the church. The re-made nursery told the congregation and to everyone who came through our doors that we trusted God's future. That God transformed the fights of the past into a hope in God's promised future. Everytime we walked past that room or stuck our head in, we were reminded that God is still making all things new. That God is still in the business of bring people together, that God is still re-creating the world.

At the church, we may have forgotten that we were servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries. We may have forgotten that we can't serve two masters. But God didn't forget. God remembered God's promises. And out of something ugly and hurtful, God created something beautiful and loving.

Stephen Ministry can be a lot like that. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones with scars. The ones who've been wounded by life, and maybe by God. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones whose lives have been visited by tragedy and by grace. The best Stephen Ministers are the ones who know what its like to be hurt. And they minister out of that pain. Out of pain and loss, God able to create love and renewal.

The folks in Corinth learned that freedom came NOT from what they can create for themselves, but from what God was creating in them. The church in Halifax learned that even when they forget that serving two masters will leave them bitter and fractious, God is still putting things back together, renewing what has been broken.

So, for us, as servants of God and stewards of God's mysteries, even when one door of opportunity is closed, God is asking us to remember that we still belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. That God still has promised us a future with hope.

May we be found trustworthy when God re-opens the door of possibility. Amen.


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