Proper 9, Year B, 2015

Almost anyone who has worked for a white collar American company or educational institution has, at some point in their career had to take some kind of strengths inventory. We love to focus on our talents, our natural aptitudes and then strengthen them even further. In the 80s my parents talked a lot about whether people were Abstract Random or Concrete Sequential. Clearly their school had done some kind of training in Anthony Gregorc’s learning styles. (By the way, all of us Kinneys are Concrete Sequential. No question about it. ) By the 90s my parents were talking about Myers-Briggs testing and I made all my high school buddies take the test. When I became involved in churches I learned about Spiritual Gifts inventory and by the time I was a priest the book Living your Strengths was very popular for people discerning their role in the church. Focusing on our strengths makes us feel like we have a place in the world, like we matter.

And we aren’t alone. As you may remember from when we’ve discussed the church in Corinth previously, the Corinthians loved focusing on their strengths. Some Corinthians truly believed they were better than others because of their spiritual experiences, authentic or not. So, in our snippet from 2nd Corinthians today Paul toys with them a little bit.

Paul references a spiritual experience he had. He tells them “someone he knows” was once caught up in the third heaven. Now, there is not a single Biblical commentator that knows that Paul means by that. We know from Acts that Paul had a serious spiritual experience when God confronts him on his way to Damascus. But, I like to think Paul is also messing around with the Corinthians a bit. “Oh, you’ve had spiritual experiences? Well, I’ve been to third heaven.” You can just imagine them going. “Oh, yeah, third heaven? I’ve totally heard of that.”

After Paul earns that credibility with the Corinthians, he turns his whole argument on its head. He tells them that instead of boasting in these profound spiritual experiences, he boasts in his weakness. He tells them he has been given a thorn in his side. We don’t know what that thorn is, either. But whatever the thorn is, it humbles Paul. The thorn limits Paul in some way. And Paul rejoices in those limitations.

Paul is not interested in his own glorification. Paul is interested in God’s glorification. And Paul believes that God uses Paul’s weaknesses to reveal God’s own strength.

This is such great news to us ordinary Christians, who haven’t seen the first heaven, much less the third one! Whether the thorn in our side is a bad hip, a speech impediment, chronic anxiety, God can use those weaknesses as a platform for his own glory.

One of the most striking experiences I’ve ever had as a priest was being with a beloved parishioner while she was experiencing congestive heart failure. I was sure she was dying as she literally clawed the air as if she was drowning. Under the care of her excellent physicians, she did not die and a few weeks after the incident I paid her a visit. When we are in pain, it is so difficult to focus on anything else than relieving our own discomfort. I expected my parishioner to talk about her awful medical experience. But this woman, a faithful Christian of eight decades, wanted to talk about her prayer life. Her own suffering had made her think about all the suffering in the world and she was a little overwhelmed about how to pray for it all.

Talk about strength in weakness. She had been so faithful to God for so long, that when she was at her literal weakest, he used her to pray for the suffering of the world.

When you read great Christian thinkers, there is often a point in their lives where things just completely fall apart. Augustine abandons a lover of more than a decade and their child. Thomas Aquinas is literally kidnapped by his family when they find out he’s joined a Dominican monastery. Martin Luther’s vow to become a monk happens in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm.

Cranmer loses a fellowship at Jesus College to marry a woman named Joan, and then Joan dies. Our modern thinkers are no different. Buechner’s father commits suicide. Anne LaMotte and Glennon Melton face addiction. There is something about brokenness that God finds helpful to do his work.

When we are broken, we are vulnerable. We are open to change. We are open to re-imagining the world.

And those are the kind of people God needs to do his work. We have a new presiding Bishop-elect, as you might know. His name is Michael Curry and he is the Bishop of North Carolina. He fits into the profile of Christian thinkers who have suffered in that his mother died when he was very young. When he described the work of the church in the press conference after his election, he describes it as making the world “more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare”.

And God’s dream is so different from our nightmare. Bishop Curry describes God’s dream as Christians figuring out how to live as the beloved community, the human family of God.

We are so much more likely to treat each other with compassion if we have known suffering or weakness. We are so much more likely to be honest about our own lives, to let people unlike us into our lives. There is something about suffering that makes us more deeply human. After we suffer, we look at the world differently. We re-evaluate how we spend our time and where we put our energy. We remember that we have a family, and friends, and that work maybe is taking too much of our mental space. We have more compassion for others, realizing that their lives probably contain suffering, too.   We may appear weaker to the world, but suddenly we are open to God showing his strength to us.

I do not wish suffering or weakness on any of you. But I also know that your weaknesses, your wounds are beautiful. Most of those of you I know well have suffered mightily at some point in your life and that suffering is part of what formed you into the people you are now. You are people who are generous with your time and resources, who are quick to listen or bring a meal, who volunteer countless hours to make your community better. Your suffering is not wasted. Your suffering is redeemed by God and transformed into his Dream.

May God continue to shine through our weakness as we seek to become his beloved community.

Amen.

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Epiphany 4, Year B, 2015

First, a note to thank Eric for covering for me last Sunday! It is a great gift to work with a rector who completely understands your need to stay home with a feverish pre-schooler. And thank you all for all your concern. Charlie is just fine, thankfully.

This sermon was written for last week’s lectionary texts, when I was originally scheduled to preach. I encourage you to open your bibles to 1st Corinthians, chapter 8 from which this sermon springs.

On December 27th, a few days after Christmas, the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook, bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, hit bicyclist Tom Palermo at 2:30 in the afternoon, killing him. She initially fled the scene, and then returned a half hour later. News of this hit and run has been all over newspapers and social media, especially when it was revealed Bishop Cook’s blood alcohol content was .22, which is the equivalent of having consumed at least ten alcoholic beverages. More questions emerged when it turned out that Bishop Cook had been arrested for a DUI in 2010 with a BAC of .27. This DUI had been revealed to the search committee for the Diocese of Maryland, but was not revealed to the larger Diocese.

This whole awful situation has raised many, many questions. Why did she agree to stand for election when she clearly needed help? Why did the search committee not see her previous DUI as a red flag? But Mike Kinman, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Louis has the most interesting question, I think. He writes:

 The right question is everything. And the right question is this:

 What does this say about us?

 What does this say about the family system of the Episcopal Church?

 He goes on to say:

I believe our church is an addicted family system. That should be no surprise since our entire culture is an addicted family system. We are addicted not just to alcohol and drugs but to pornography and media and even the dopamine hit we get when we check if someone has liked our Facebook status.

And one thing we know about addictions … we will use every power of rationalization and misdirection we have to defend them, because we are convinced we need them and it terrifies us to the core to have them named and challenged. They are in every way the anti-Christ. They are a power counter to Christ to which we give power every bit as profoundly as we promise to give Jesus. And there is no way we can give our lives to Christ fully as long as they have us in their grasp.

Phew. Instead of locating the problem solely on Heather Cook’s shoulders, Canon Kinman encourages us to look at our entire church’s relationship with alcohol and addiction. But what do we have to do with Bishop Cook’s problem? We don’t even know Bishop Cook, right?

Believe it or not, Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about idol meat can help us here.

Yes, I know you have been waiting your whole life to hear what Paul has to say about idol meat and today is your lucky day!

Here is the situation at Corinth: You have a new Christian community mixed up of all kinds of different people. A group of “elites” has started to act in really snotty ways. They arrive at communion before everyone else and eat and drink up all the good bread and wine, they think their spiritual lives are way better than everyone else’s, and they happily eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Why would Corinthians even be eating meat sacrificed to idols? Corinth was a diverse town, and there were lots of people for whom worshiping their gods meant sacrificing an animal to their god. After these animals were sacrificed, there would be big social feasts in which the animals would be consumed as part of the meal.

The conflict in the Corinthian Christian community was whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat the food at these parties. After all, it had been sacrificed to a God that was not the Christian God.

The Christian leadership in Jerusalem had decided that there was nothing a person could eat that could defile them. But this was a really, really new idea. The Corinthian elites understood this concept and so thought eating the meat at these parties was no big deal. But there were other people in the community for whom the idea was just horrifying. They had recently become converts and eating the idol meat was just too yucky for them, felt too close to worshiping false gods. The elites thought these conflicted people were stupid, basically, and appealed to Paul to share his knowledge with them.

But Paul turns things around on the Corinthian elites. He tells them that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to say that while the Corinthian elites were technically correct in their understanding of the issue, their knowledge didn’t really matter. What was important was that this issue was becoming a real stumbling block in the faith of the other Corinthians. Paul tells the elites if they sin against members of their family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, they sin against Christ.

The members of the church at Corinth belonged to each other, whether the elites liked it or not. Their welfare as a community hinged on the well being of every member, not just the “knowledgeable” ones.

I believe alcohol may be the Episcopal church’s idol meat. I came to the Episcopal Church after a brief flirtation with more conservative Evangelical traditions. At my first Wednesday night supper at St. James’ Episcopal church in Richmond I was totally stunned and, thrilled frankly, to see wine being served at a church dinner. It was my first clue that the Episcopal Church understood that one could lead a holy life without following all the “rules” so dominant in more conservative traditions. We can dance and play cards and enjoy a beer. I love the freedom of the Episcopal church. I also really enjoy a glass of wine! But I have also been in parishes where police had to be called because of public drunkenness at a church party and where a rector had to wrestle keys out of the hands of an inebriated parishioner. This week Episcopal Relief and Development announced a contest for Dioceses to raise the most money for relief efforts. The prize? A Beer Tasting at General Convention for the winning delegation. The culture of alcohol lives at every level of our church life.

Bishop Cook is far from the first cleric to be an alcoholic. And I’d hate to see the statistics of the numbers of clergy who use alcohol unhealthiy, even if they are not technically alcoholics.

I think Bishop Cook’s arrest is a wake up call for every Episcopal parish. In the spirit of Canon Kinman’s essay, I ask you to help me think about our parish’s relationship with alcohol. I floated a case study about a recovering alcoholic in the ethics Adult Forum I did a few months ago and the general sense was that it was the sole responsibility of the person in recovery to manage her own sobriety. But I think the apostle Paul would argue with us. I think he would ask us to take a hard look at our life together and really look at whether we are causing stumbling blocks for any one in our parish life.

I would love for anyone planning a church function—whether that be a Lenten supper, Ladies’ Night, or a parish retreat—to think really carefully about how alcohol is used in the function. Are parishioners being pressured into drinking? Is alcohol in the foreground or background of the event? Are there elegant alternatives to alcohol? We can probably do better than powdered lemonade.

If you are an alcoholic or recovering alcoholic, I invite you to share with me how you have felt safe or unsafe in our church setting. What can we do to make church a place where you feel respected and supported? Since the nature of recovery is often that those in recovery are anonymous, please feel free to send me anonymous letters if that would be more helpful to you.

This conversation may raise your anxiety levels, especially if you or someone you love in in trouble with alcohol or other addictions. But Canon Kinman has words of encouragement for us around the good news of Jesus Christ:

But the good news is we are people of Jesus Christ. And we are people who put our whole trust in Jesus’ grace and love. And we are people who believe in Jesus’ saving power. And so we are people who need not fear any question — no matter how deeply it convicts us. On the contrary, we are people who must welcome the hardest and most convicting of questions, the questions that reveal the deepest truths, for we truly believe the truth shall set us free.[1]

And to that I add a hearty, Amen.

[1] Kinman, Michael, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-right-question-about-bishop-cook.html

Epiphany 4, Year B, 2009

When I was ten, my father got diagnosed with high cholesterol.  My mother was the cook in our house and within days she was deep in the American Heart Association cookbook and ordering a subscription to Cooking Light.  Gone were the omelets, steaks, and sour cream from our lives.  They were replaced by cheerios, pasta, and skinless chicken breasts.

At the time, this did not seem that remarkable to me.  But now, looking back, I am impressed with my mother’s willingness to uproot an entire family’s dietary lifestyle for the health of one member of the family.  If my dad’s eating habits had to change, all of our eating habits had to change.  It would not be fair to him if he was eating a piece of fish while the rest of us chomped down on hamburgers.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians today is also about dietary choices that are good for a community, but the situation Paul is responding to is not as simple as one member of the Corinthian community having high cholesterol!

Corinth was a Greek town with a predominantly Hellenistic culture.  Part of that culture was idol worship.  Small statues would be placed on altars and these “gods” would be given gifts of food.  The food would later be eaten by people in social gatherings.  The religious and social life was entwined together.

This created a huge problem for Corinthian Christians.  After all, they certainly did not believe in worshiping idols or that these small “gods” even existed.  To them, there was only one God.

The Corinthian Christians had broken into two camps.  The first was a group who approached the situation intellectually.  They were secure in their faith, they knew no other gods existed.  Since no other gods existed, then food offered to those gods was no different from any other food.  For this group of Christians, joining in the social eating of food offered to idols was not a problem at all.

The second group of Corinthian Christians were not so sure.  At one point in their lives they, too, had offered up food to idols, and that time was recently enough that eating food to those same idols now made them nervous.  To these Christians, eating the food offered to idols was acknowledging the gods they represented and was just plain wrong.

And this is where Paul comes in.  Paul has been asked to adjudicate this dispute.  He acknowledges that the first group, the intellectuals, are right from a philosophical viewpoint.  He states,

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

He agrees with their argument that since there is only one God for the Christians-even if another culture thinks there are many gods-then idols don’t exist so food offered to them is food offered to nothing.

However, just as that group is feeling pretty proud of themselves for being right, Paul turns the argument.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

In other words, just because the intellectual argument was correct, does not mean that eating the meat offered to idols was right.  By eating the meat, the first group was threatening the faith of the second group.  Members of the second group may know that there is only one God in their head, but that deep knowledge may not have penetrated their heart yet.  Worshiping many gods may still be a temptation for them.  Because of this Paul is saying that he, for one, would choose not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols in front of Corinthian Christians.  Eating the meat did not matter one way or the other to God, but wounding another Christian was absolutely not acceptable.

Paul is telling the Corinthian Christians that they are in this journey together.  They need each other.  If eating meat sacrificed to idols threatens the faith of some of the community, than the entire community should abstain from eating the meat.

In the modern church we do not have a direct comparison to this problem.  As far as I know none of you were part of an idol worshiping religion before you came to Emmanuel!

However, I think we can learn about sticking together from this passage. Paul sums it up well when he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The desire to be right, the desire to win an argument can blind us to the needs of others.  Whether we are on our high horse about our political beliefs or whose turn it is to take out the trash, our single mindedness can be deadly to our relationships.  I find it helpful to step back from an argument and think about what I really want.  Do I really want to prove that I cleaned exactly 61% of the house or am I just looking for some affirmation and gratitude for the work that I did?  Ultimately what we want, I think is to feel heard and loved in our lives.  When we don’t feel that, being “right” is the next best thing.  But what we really want, is love.

The foundation of any good relationship is love.  We want love ourselves, but we are also asked to give love.  Part of love is seeking the good of the other, even if it means some sacrifice for yourself.  Paul asked the intellectual group of Corinthians to be generous to their brothers and sisters.  We are called to be generous, too.  For instance, if you live with an alcoholic, the generous response is to not keep alcohol in the house.  If you are friends with someone who is pinching pennies, the generous response is to plan a walk through a park together, rather than a shopping trip.  If your father has just had a heart attack, the generous response is to not bring him over those bacon wrapped twinkies you just deep fried.  While none of us can control the behavior of another person we can help to make life a little easier.  We can refrain from being “stumbling blocks” to those around us.

We are a community that worships one God.  And that God reminds us over and over again to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are bound together by our faith in God, but those binds can enrich us as much as they limit us.  By rooting our identities in a community rather than in our individual lives, we become kinder, more open minded, flexible and loving.  Seeing the world through the different lenses of members of our community helps us to be creative and to learn.  Our community makes us stronger.  Our community makes us better Christians.