Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon: "Rich Corinthian Leather"

Scripture Intro - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

When Paul was establishing the first Christian churches in 50AD, Corinth was the largest and most influential city in southern Greece. 
Its key geographical position on the sea route between Italy and Asia Minor made it not just a thriving commercial center but also a perfect location as a center of missionary activity.
In a city of many different cultures, beliefs and social norms, maintaining and growing a Christian presence was challenging. The early church struggled to contend with the influences of a secular society, but it also had to contend with competing factions of Christians, each of which had aligned itself under a different teacher. 

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tackled this problem of divisiveness.
Some in the church lifted up Paul as the true teacher and the one to follow. Others had chosen to follow another Christian teacher and church planter, named Apollos.
Paul makes it clear from the outset that the church in Corinth was allowing itself to be guided not by the word of God but by secular norms and thinking. By giving in to quarreling and jealousy the people have shown they are not ‘ready’ to be the church.  They are still clinging to worldly and not godly standards. Paul assigns the title ‘servant’ to both himself and Apollos, and reminds the people of Corinth that none of us can claim personal credit for our God-given work.

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
February 12, 2017 – Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

“Rich Corinthian Leather”

We are a tribal people.
From the time humans first gathered in family groups and clans, we looked at each other and said, ‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.

And then we looked across at the people standing on the other side of the river, or the field, or the canyon, and said ‘they are NOT us.’
And we planted flags, and put war paint on our faces, and circled the wagons to keep our clan separate and safe and solitary.

Even as we pushed beyond our primitive instincts and learned to live together in communities, and cities, and cooperative endeavors where we all contribute to the greater good regardless of our differences,
we still have within us the need to identify with a particular tribe.

Most of our modern tribal affinities are directed towards our sports teams.
And most of it is in good fun, as we wear our team colors, celebrate the victories and commiserate over the defeats as if we were on the team ourselves, and hold a general feeling of disdain for certain fans of certain rival teams (*cough* Yankees).

And while we may hold no ill will towards the people of Atlanta, or Seattle, or Pittsburgh, you can bet there were a whole bunch of people in those cities who were praying those of us in New England would wake up unhappy this past Monday morning after watching our Patriots lose in the Superbowl.
Thankfully, that did not happen.

Beyond our sports affiliations there are a multitude of ways in which our tribal instinct rises to the surface. 
Ethnic and national pride is the obvious example, as is feeling an allegiance to the region of the country where we were born, the city and state we call home, the school we attended, even which side of town we live on.

Nowadays the tribal distinctions go as far to include our consumer preferences – we divide ourselves into groups and express a sense of superiority or contempt based on whether we prefer Mac or PC, Starbucks or Dunks, Ford or Chevy.

I think most of you are old enough to remember the 1970’s marketing campaign done by Chrysler Automobiles, where actor Ricardo Montalban told us that people who drove Chrysler luxury cars were much more savvy and sophisticated than people who drove other luxury cars, because the seats in Chrysler’s cars where upholstered with rich, Corinthian leather.

In an interview many years later, Montalban admitted that there was no such thing as Corinthian leather. The marketing people at Chrysler made up the name because they wanted something that sounded exotic and would roll off the tongue when Ricardo said it.   (Corrrrinthian!)

Corinthian leather was actually a mix of ordinary leather and vinyl.
And it came from a supplier located in Newark, NJ.

It’s hard to say how many people came to insist that they were superior to others because they owned a car that had Corinthian leather,
but you know there had to be some.

The Apostle Paul was running into this same tribal instinct in the church he established in Corinth.
The people had divided into factions – FOUR factions to be precise –
based on which teacher they revered as the one true leader of the church.

Some had lined up behind Paul – As the founder of the church in Corinth he naturally carried a lot of weight with those who were there from the beginning.  He had earned their allegiance.

But others were followers of Apollos – a teacher in the same vein as Paul who came later to water the seed that Paul had planted. 
He appealed to the newcomers and those who were excited by the work he was doing to grow the church while Paul just sent letters from afar.

Still others reserved their reverence for Peter– the apostle who actually knew Jesus, and of whom Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

Finally there was a small faction that looked beyond any of these second-hand disciples and pledged their allegiance to Jesus himself, as he alone was the one true teacher. No one else had any authority over them.

If Paul felt the need to write to the church in Corinth and address these growing divides then the situation had likely gotten pretty bad.
Perhaps to the point where people were hesitant to sit next to one another at worship and work together as a church.
Perhaps they had begun to distrust one another and actually fear one another.
Not just because they disagreed on who was their rightful leader.
But because they were so focused on the differences between them, they lost sight of the commonalities.

They looked out across the divide and said, “They are not us.”
Because they felt like their pain wasn’t being acknowledged by the other,
their fears were being dismissed or not heard,
their voice was being silenced.

Paul’s response to the church in Corinth may be surprising to some.
Especially to those of us who think Paul had much too high of an opinion of himself at times.
Paul doesn’t say to these warring factions, “You must reject the teachings of Apollos and adhere to only what I have taught you.”
He didn’t say, “It’s fine to revere Jesus, and Peter, as the rock upon which we build Christ’s church, but God has chosen me, Paul, to do the building, and therefore you must do as I say.” 

No. Paul didn’t use this as an opportunity to lift himself up.
Instead, he deflected the attention back towards God.
“God is the one we all serve,” Paul said to the people of Corinth.
“Apollos and I are just planters and waterers.
Think about how you can best serve God,
Not how you might serve the one who is merely pointing you towards God.”

Put the focus back on God.

That’s good advice for divided factions in our time as well.
We know all too well how divided we’ve become as a people in the wake of the the last Presidential election.
In our country, in our families, in our churches.
Some of us may be tired of hearing about it and wish it would just blow over and go away.
We can’t get away from it out there, and we may question why we keep hearing about in here as well.
Shouldn’t we check our political opinions at the door and get on with the business of serving God, just as Paul said?

But denying that there is division – denying that there is pain –
on both sides - is to deny that we are human.

We are people of the flesh.
We can’t get away from that, as much as Paul pokes and prods the brand new Christians around him to focus more on the longings of the spirit rather than the longings of the flesh.
As much as we look heavenward and immerse ourselves in all things spiritual – all things of God – we can’t escape our humanity –
our biological and emotional fleshiness.
We get hungry.
And cold.
And tired.
We get angry, and frustrated, and impatient.
We can be judgmental, spiteful, and just plain mean at times.

And sometimes we feel so much pain – so much sorrow and grief –
we feel like we’re going to crack open from the strain of enduring it.
We are flesh.
There’s no escaping that.

But when we come together as a community, God calls us to resist feeding energy to the aspects of our humanity that tear us down and drive us apart,
and to instead celebrate and cultivate the aspects of our humanity that bring us together and build us up.
Our love.
Our compassion.
Our empathy.
Our ability to offer mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Even to those who cause us pain.
Our ability to laugh at ourselves and the absurdities of life.
And our ability to cry with and for one another,
And push ourselves beyond even our own capabilities, comfort zones, and resources,
to ensure that no one among us is left alone or left behind.

A week and a half ago, I was down in our church kitchen with a group from our congregation making meatballs for our monthly Community Supper.
As we did our best to roll the meatballs so they were all roughly the same size, and made sure they were all lined up in uniform rows on the giant baking sheets, I remember looking around the group and pondering how what we were doing would seem impossible to some.

Out of the 10 or 11 of us who were there, I can say with some certainty that we didn’t all vote the same in the last election.
We each would likely cite different issues that were important for us personally, and from our perspective, important for the future of our country.

We each were driven by different concerns – different passions – different fears, both prior to and since the election.
Yet there we were, rolling meatballs together on a Thursday afternoon,
with one common vision in mind – to be a source of hospitality and light for members of our community in need.  
Whether that need was for a free meal, friendly conversation, or a chance to connect with others and feel a little less lonely in the world.

In that moment, while rolling meatballs, while being church, together,
we were not Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives,
Trump supporters and Trump opposers.
As individuals we were all these things, and that’s okay, but as a community our common goal was be a welcoming presence to others.

Because we are all made of flesh.
And we all feel pain, we all are driven by our fears,
And we all strain against our urge to point to the people on the other side and say, “They are NOT us.”

Because we know in our core –
in the divine spark within us that originates with God –
that they ARE us.

I invite you to look around the sanctuary this morning.
Really look at the people sitting around you, at the person sitting next to you.

‘These are our people’ - these are our stories, these are our rituals and customs and beliefs, this is who we are in the world.
We are God’s people.
And we are bound together in love.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians so long ago,

"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.”- (1 Cor 13:4-6)

Thanks be to God. Amen.