Sunday, June 21, 2015

1 Corinthians 3, Deuteronomy 6:4-9: Foundations

This week is a somber week for Christians in the United States as we look for ways to love and support our brothers and sisters who were brutally attacked and killed by a white terrorist in Charleston, SC. Paul's letter to the church in Corinth offers some comfort and a call to action for the church in just such times.

Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
            One of the things I love about reading Paul’s letters is that he rarely leaves his own emotions to the reader’s imagination. He’s not one to beat around the bush or try to spare anyone’s feelings. One thing I noticed when reading the original Greek of this chapter this week was how much the English translations try to soften the edges in this passage. There’s one word in particular that stuck out to me. “Moros.” This is usually translated in the English to “foolishness” but it’s the root of the word “moron”.
            There is still bickering, infighting, argument, jealousy, and other petty division happening in the Corinthian church. The people are dividing up based on the wisdom of the world and Paul says, when you depend on the wisdom of the world, you sound like a bunch of morons. Do you get the feeling that he’s not too pleased with the church when he’s writing this letter? If the world is baffled by your response and thinks you sound like a bunch of morons, says dear Paul, then you’re probably on the right track.
            Unity sounds nice. It’s a great ideal that Paul has here, but it’s hard to carry out. It’s difficult to follow through on this idea of being united when the world around you is saying something completely opposite. I’ve been talking about unity for a couple weeks now because that’s the foundation of this letter and Paul spends many chapters of it talking about unity. But it’s really hard to put hands and feet on that pretty idea. It’s an easy one to put on a pedestal in the abstract, but it’s hard to find how to live it out in concrete ways.
Paul says that the answer is Jesus – the Living Word of God! Remember the one who unites you. The church is to be built on one foundation – Jesus Christ. Build it on anything else and it will crumble. God is what holds the walls up from falling to the ground. And the church is the walls. The people are the temple. That means that every aspect of their lives is to be built on that one foundation of Jesus. And whatever is built on that foundation is sacred.  
As a convert to Christianity from Judaism, one of the very first scripture passages that Paul would have learned as a little child is one that Jesus says is still important to Christians:
Listen up, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is the one and only. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your being and all your might, so these words that I command today will be in your heart. Impress these words on your children. Talk about them when you’re sitting in your house and when you walk around your neighborhood. When you go to bed at night and when you get up in the morning. Bind them as a sign to your hands and make them like a sign right between your eyes where everyone can see them. Write them on the doorframes of your house and on your gates.[1]
            There is nothing fancy or complicated or grand about how God’s people are to build their foundation. Just put God’s Word, reminders of God’s love EVERYWHERE. Teach it to your children. The Hebrew here uses a verb tense we don’t have in English that takes the word teach and makes it mean, “Really really teach.” Talk about it when you’re just sitting around in your house and talk about it when you’re going about you daily stuff. First thing in the morning and last thing at night. Mark your house and even your own body with God’s Word so that everyone knows who you belong to. This is what binds God’s people together visibly. This is how we know who our brothers and sisters are. They are the ones marked by God’s Word – built on Jesus Christ the Word Made Flesh.
            Wednesday evening, a terrorist – a white supremacist - walked into a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. After sitting through their Bible study for around an hour, welcomed into their gathering with open arms, he announced to the people gathered there that he was there to “kill black people.” He shot and killed 9 people, including the pastor of the church, and left 3 survivors, telling them he was letting them live so they could tell people what happened.
            There have been all sorts of responses to this horrific massacre. There have been prayer vigils for the church and the families of the victims. A fund was started to financially support the congregation and the victims’ families. Not all the responses are healthy, though. Many of them are very worldly. Some of the responses are filled with fear, hate, and violence. Some people are even calling for pastors to start carrying guns to protect their congregations. I love you guys, but last I checked, Jesus just said to pray for those who persecute you, so this preacher will not be packing heat in the pulpit any time soon.  And these people were not killed because they were Christian or because they were at church. They were killed because of their race.
            This brutal hate crime is another example that we humans have not changed much since the time of the Corinthian church. We like to think that with all our technology and science and books that we know so much more than people did back in “Bible times,” but the same hateful, terrible, sinful, evil violence is still happening now that happened then. We’ve put different names and boundaries and categories on it, but it’s still there. We like to think that because we’re using fancier weapons that it’s not as brutal, but it’s just as awful. Sin is sneaky like that. We call it out in one place and it changes its appearance just enough that it can pop up somewhere else and make us think we’ve moved past it.
Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is exactly 641 miles from Liberty Presbyterian Church. It is a part of a different denomination. It is, historically, a predominantly black church while Liberty is historically a predominantly white church. Emmanuel is a southern church, Liberty is a northern church. Emmanuel has nearly 2000 members, we have about 100. We are, on paper, worlds apart.
The victims of the church shooting in Charleston were at Bible study when they were brutally attacked. They were right in the very middle of doing what Deuteronomy 6 says to do. In fact, the shooter even sat in and listened to their Bible study for about an hour before he opened fire. They were at that moment that tragedy struck working on building up the church on the foundation of Jesus Christ. They were doing the same thing we’re doing here this morning. We are all working toward the same purpose!
1 Corinthians 3 says that the church – the congregation of the people of God – is the temple. God’s temple is a sacred place and that sacred place has been violated. We should be outraged by this violence against people who are our family – people who are working toward the same purpose as we are. Our sisters and brothers are hurting. They have suffered a great violence and we cannot remain quiet. A terrible violence has been committed against God’s own people because of the inexcusable sin of racism.
            Friends, one thing you know about me by now is that I’m a planner. I plan out liturgies and scriptures for services a month or so at a time. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit can move in that sort of preparation just as much as in spontaneity. This service was planned out weeks ago. Hymns and prayers picked and everything. As I was writing my sermon and thinking about this terrible tragedy that hit this week, I couldn’t think of a better scripture to explore together today. This, friends is where the rubber meets the road.
            Our next hymn that’s been in the bulletin for weeks, is “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” It’s long been a favorite of mine. As you sing it, I want you to stay in your seats. Don’t stand. I want you to think about the responses of the family of the victims of this tragedy during the bond hearing the other day for the man who killed their loved ones. These folks wrote God’s Word on their hearts and when stuff got real, they responded in what cannot be described in any other way than to say it was Christlike love. When other people are calling out to respond in violence and unforgiveness, they responded only in love. To the man who brutally shot their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, grandparents they said:
"I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.”
“And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you."
"As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you."
"I forgive you, my family forgives you,"
"We would like you to take this opportunity to repent.”
"Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof — everyone's plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won't win,"
            That is what Paul is talking about when he talks about the foolishness of the cross. The media is going nuts over this unusual reaction of the families because this is not what the world’s wisdom looks like. This is the foolishness of the cross: to be attacked brutally and respond by praying for the salvation of the attacker. And this is where we have an opportunity to live out what this passage talks about from our end as well.
As we are singing and thinking about how writing the Word of God on the very fibers of our being changes how we interact with the world, I will be passing around several sympathy cards for everyone to sign. If they are still circulating during the prayers of the people, that’s ok. That is a perfectly appropriate time to continue signing these cards. Whoever winds up with them by the time we get to the offering can simply put them in the plate. They’ll be mailed to Emmanuel AME tomorrow. I sent one upstairs with Linda for the kids to sign. We may be 641 miles away from these brothers and sisters, but we can show them, and everyone else around us, that we take seriously our unity in Christ. We can tell them we love them and we will not stand silently by as this sort of violence is carried out against other Christians. And we can tell others how we mourn with them. We can speak out against this sort of unfounded hate. And they will know that we are Christians by our love. 

[1] Original translation, Charissa Clark Howe 2015

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