Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Job: trust and comfort in hard times

Job 13:1-12
“Look, my eye has seen all this, my ear has heard and understood it. 2What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you. 3But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God. 4As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians. 5If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom! 6Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.

7Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? 8Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God? 9Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another? 10He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality. 11Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you? 12Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.

Job 15:1-6
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: 2“Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? 3Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good? 4But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God. 5For your iniquity teaches your mouth, and you choose the tongue of the crafty. 6Your own mouth condemns you, and not I; your own lips testify against you.

Job 16:1-5
Then Job answered: 2“I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. 3Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? 4I also could talk as you do, if you were in my place; I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you. 5I could encourage you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips would assuage your pain.

Job 19:1-6, 19-27
Then Job answered: 2“How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? 3These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me? 4And even if it is true that I have erred, my error remains with me. 5If indeed you magnify yourselves against me, and make my humiliation an argument against me, 6know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me.

19All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me. 20My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. 21Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me! 22Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?

23“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! 24O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! 25For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, 27whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

Job 40:6-14
6Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 7“Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. 8Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? 9Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?

10“Deck yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor. 11Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on all who are proud, and abase them. 12Look on all who are proud, and bring them low; tread down the wicked where they stand. 13Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below. 14Then I will also acknowledge to you that your own right hand can give you victory.

Job 42:1-8
Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

7After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”
            We talked last week about how hard it is to hold together the truth of faith with the challenges of the world. Today we dig a little further into that in two different directions. In the passages I just read, Job argues that his friends are tormenting him, pursuing him like God to make him suffer. He puts the blame for his suffering squarely on God’s shoulders.

            At the same time, even while facing all the horror of his suffering and the sense of being pursued instead of cared for by God, Job also longs for God to be his redeemer. He trusts that despite everything going on, despite all the suffering he has to deal with, one day he will still see God face to face. Even though God has tormented him, Job trusts that God will build him up in the end.

            That’s an amazing act of faith. Even though Job didn’t know anything about the cross, his faith fits right in with our faith that centers on Jesus and the cross. On the cross we see Jesus, innocent and suffering for us by God’s command. Jesus says in the same scene, “God, why have you forsaken me,” and, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” The true faith of Jesus, the faith of Job, and the faith of the church at its best is a faith that can absorb great suffering honestly and still cling to the hope of God’s love triumphing in the end.

            That’s not a rosy, cheerful faith that denies trouble or suffering. It’s not a cynical faith that just gives up on the world and on grace as the ultimate truth. Instead, it’s a strong, honest, durable faith that sees all the pain and trouble of life, and still holds on to love.

            Job has been wishing for an opportunity to confront and question God for much of the book, and in the last few chapters he finally gets his wish. God appears and questions Job. God points out the unimaginable scope of his power and knowledge. On one hand, this discussion doesn’t really answer Job’s question about why God is making him suffer. That’s frustrating from a perspective of justice and fairness. We want God to explain why Job has suffered so much, but God doesn’t deliver.

            On the other hand, the discussion does give us one important answer, which is that there are some things, many things even, that are simply beyond our understanding. The human hunger for understanding is an important part of our make up; we need to seek the truth in many areas of our lives, including in our spiritual life. At the same time, we are not going to understand everything.

            More importantly than that, God vindicates Job against his friends’ accusations. Instead of condemning Job for asking questions, he condemns Job’s friends for blindly defending God’s justice. God does want us to ask our questions. And God values our honest engagement more than saying what we think God wants to hear. We’re called to love God with all our heart and mind and strength; that means we can bring all our questions and fears and emotions to the altar.

            Our lesson from Job’s part in this passage is that he’s right to bring his full honesty, his unfiltered feelings to God. He also shows us how to trust even when he’s angry and sad and confused. Those are all lessons we need to hear, because there are plenty of times we are sad and angry, confused and afraid. We can bring all those feelings to God without worrying that he will reject us for that. We can learn to trust even when we don’t understand.

            The other important lesson in these passages is how to be a friend when someone is going through hard times. We get this lesson especially from Job’s argument with his friends. Job’s friends argue that Job’s extreme anger and his harsh words threaten faith in God. Job, on the other hand accuses them of being dishonest in their defense of God. Instead of listening to Job’s version of the truth, they are saying whatever they think will make God look good.

            When I’m honest, I know I sometimes do the same thing Job’s friends. I try to make God look good. God doesn’t need us to defend him. We don’t need to talk people out of being angry with God. When people are suffering we just need to be with them, to be compassionate and show that we care. That will do more to help people see God’s love and justice than any amount of intellectual defense of God we could ever do anyway. More importantly, it will help our friends get through hard times and know they are not alone.

            Job says if he were in the place of his friends and they were suffering it would be easy to condemn them, but instead he’d use his words to build them up and comfort them. That’s our calling when people we know are suffering. We can’t always help in a practical way: we can’t take away the pain when someone’s child or parent dies; we can’t hire them when they lose a job or cure them when they face a terrible illness. But we can comfort them. We can sit with them and hold their hand. We can listen to them cry or scream or complain. We can pray with them, if they want, or we can just be quiet and remind them that they are not alone.

            Suffering isn’t so much an intellectual question to be figured out; it’s an emotional situation to be lived through and cared for. When someone asks, “Why does God let me suffer like this,” in some ways they are really asking, “Am I alone when I suffer?” We often don’t know the answer to the “Why” question, but we can show them that they are not alone. As Job points out, the isolation that goes along with suffering is as bad as the suffering itself.

            That’s why our care ministries in the church are so important. Illness and aging can both be very isolating. As people get into their late 80s and 90s, they lose friends to death and often lose some of their independence in terms of driving and being able to do the activities that have meant a lot to them. As people stop being able to do things, they also see fewer people and feel more alone. It takes more energy for them to get to church, and so they manage to get here less often. That means they miss major opportunities to see people and their relationships weaken. That, in turn, makes them less likely to make the effort to get to church and a vicious cycle begins.

            Extended communion, home visits, cards and phone calls to our members who have a hard time getting to church helps keep them connected. It reminds them that they are not alone, that their community hasn’t forgotten them. That’s a critical part of being the church in the world and being a friend for someone who is suffering.

            The same is true for our Saturday morning café and other ministries of fellowship. Our society today is very isolating in general. Many of us drive to do most of our errands, park in a drive way or garage and go right from our car to our house. That means we don’t often interact with our neighbors, so those relationships are pretty weak. For those who live in less safe neighborhoods than this one, there are even more reasons to stay in the house, but the less people know their neighbors the more crime.

            Imagine your life without family, without work and without a church. First, you might say, “Wow, that sounds relaxing; think how much free time I’d have.” But imagine the isolation of giving up those relationships. Now imagine the extra financial pressure to stay home created by unemployment. Many of our neighbors feel these pressures, and they feel alone as they face that uncertain future.

Our Saturday Café steps into the picture by offering people a safe, warm place to hang out. We offer friendly faces and good food. For some folks the meal makes a big difference, but more importantly, it provides real community for many people who spend much of their week alone. Community is so important, especially when we suffer, and of course, we all suffer.

            We see a vision of the church emerging as we look at what Job and his friends do right and wrong. The church is called to be a community where people are supported to explore faith. Even when we don’t agree with how someone sees God, we’re called to give them space to express and explore their faith. As we explore openly, even expressing anger, confusion and pain, we see glimpses of God’s truth and we grow in faith.

            We’re also called to be friends to those who suffer. We do that at Laurelton through ministries of care, through outreach and fellowship activities and through direct service ministries like mission trips, tutoring, Habitat, serving at Cameron and sharing Christmas baskets with neighbors in need. A lot of our best care happens informally as we simply get to know each other better by spending time together. As we deepen our relationships we’ll move from sharing polite conversation to sharing deep concerns with one another.
            The more we truly engage with our neighbors and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the more we will deepen our own faith. That will enable us, like Job, to trust God even when everything is going wrong. From that place of deep faith we can bear witness to our hope in God even as we listen to people in deep pain without trying to defend God or talk them out of their sorrow. With Job, we will be able to say, “I know that my redeemer lives.” And we will be able to share that redemption with a community in need of love.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Job, suffering, faith and truth, 10.20.13

Job 3:1-7, 10-11, 20-22
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2Job said: 3“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ 4Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. 5Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. 6That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. 7Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it… 10because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.

11“Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?... 20“Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, 21who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; 22who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave?

Job 4:1-11, 5:12-19
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered: 2“If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? 3See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. 4Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. 5But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. 6Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?

7“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? 8As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same. 9By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. 14They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope at noonday as in the night. 15But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth, from the hand of the mighty. 16So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth.

17“How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. 18For he wounds, but he binds up; he strikes, but his hands heal. 19He will deliver you from six troubles; in seven no harm shall touch you.

Job 21:1-14
Then Job answered: 2“Listen carefully to my words, and let this be your consolation. 3Bear with me, and I will speak; then after I have spoken, mock on. 4As for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals? Why should I not be impatient? 5Look at me, and be appalled, and lay your hand upon your mouth. 6When I think of it I am dismayed, and shuddering seizes my flesh.

7Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? 8Their children are established in their presence, and their offspring before their eyes. 9Their houses are safe from fear, and no rod of God is upon them. 10Their bull breeds without fail; their cow calves and never miscarries. 11They send out their little ones like a flock, and their children dance around. 12They sing to the tambourine and the lyre, and rejoice to the sound of the pipe. 13They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol.

14They say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We do not desire to know your ways. 15What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit do we get if we pray to him?’ 16Is not their prosperity indeed their own achievement? The plans of the wicked are repugnant to me.

            Job is a challenging and wonderful book. It’s got a beginning and an end to tell the story and the rest of the book is basically poetry. The different characters argue with each other, or rather, Job’s friends argue with him. They come to comfort him, but they can’t take the raw emotion of Job’s grief and they worry that his claims of injustice go against God.

            Religion taught that good people were rewarded and bad people were punished. We still generally think that in some way. We may call it Karma or say “what goes around, comes around,” but some part of us wants to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. It’s not just a religious belief, but a cultural one as well. We know it’s not true all the time, but we still want to believe it will all get sorted out correctly in the end.

            Job and his friends all make good points. They all make good points that echo other parts of the Bible and resonate with our own experience. I remember the first time I really read Job was in college. I wrote down a quote from almost every page. There’s some really wise stuff being said in this book and powerful poetry to go with it.

            That’s the irony of the book: each speaker makes good points, but they never come to an understanding. That’s the irony of suffering in general and why it’s so difficult for us to deal with. It just doesn’t make sense. We can’t understand it; we feel like serious, innocent suffering makes a mockery of everything holy we want to believe in.

            People of every religious background and level of commitment get hung up on this question. How can God be all-powerful and loving and still allow such terrible suffering? It doesn’t make sense; we can’t wrap our heads around it.

            So we try to figure it out. We come up with explanations like Job’s friends. Maybe your kids sinned, so God punished them. Maybe God is using this experience to lead you away from sin and make you even better. Maybe it’s a test of your faith. Maybe you’re not as innocent as you claim to be, after all, everyone sins. Everything happens for a reason.

            There’s truth in all the discussion. Scripture often talks about how God’s correction and discipline leads us to greater faithfulness. And we know the best of us still fall short sometimes. Job’s friends have their heart in the right place. The first seven days they spent with him they simply sat with him in silence to comfort him. Even in our second passage, when Eliphaz responds to Job for the first time, we can see that he wants to be encouraging and comforting. He tries to be gentle, but he’s also afraid.

            He’s afraid because grief as powerful as Job’s is hard to face. Job is in such despair he not only wishes he were dead, he wishes he had never been born and wants to erase his birthday from the universe. It’s hard to face raw emotion like that. More than that, Job’s deep suffering threatens the theological order of the universe. There are a few questions like that, questions that have the potential to shatter our understanding of the world or God or faith. Questions like why is there suffering? Is God real? Is the Bible true? These questions shake the foundations of our world, so we turn away from them.

It’s much easier to face the world with certainty. It’s much easier to get up in the morning if we understand the basic rules. For Job’s friends one important rule of the world was that living a righteous life led to success. And that rule had been working really well for Job too; he was very righteous and very successful. He was someone a parent could point to and tell their children, “If you follow God’s commandments and treat other people with justice, God will take care of you like he takes care of Job.”

            So when all that falls apart; when Job’s world collapses, what is the parent supposed to tell the child? What are the friends supposed to tell themselves? It’s much easier to look for a reason for Job’s suffering; so Job’s friends keep looking for a fault in Job with increasing desperation. Without a reason for Job’s suffering they are faced with a world that doesn’t make sense.

Job refuses to accept those answers. He says, “Look at me and be appalled.” He is exhibit A. As much as his friends want Job’s suffering to make sense, he hasn’t gone off the path of God’s commandments. The narrator confirms it too; right from the beginning we’re told that there was no one as righteous as Job. Even God lifts up Job as an example of what a human should be.

            Now, of course, in real life Job’s claim is dangerous because none of us is perfect. And Job’s friends are on to something: the first thing we should take a look at when things go wrong for us is how we might be contributing to the problem. But the truth of Job’s complaint is inescapable too; sometimes terrible things happen to people for no good reason. Sometimes suffering is simply unfair, unjust and incomprehensible.

            Too often the wicked do prosper. We see so many examples of people getting ahead by cutting corners or taking advantage of other people that it doesn’t even surprise us anymore. We see companies profit by destroying the environment. We see corrupt leaders who live out a comfortable retirement even when they are removed from power.

            Too often the innocent suffer. Ask the mother whose two year old was killed by a random bullet through the window. Ask the children starving in the mountains of Syria or the toddlers growing weak from malaria in South Sudan. Too often the innocent suffer, and too often the wicked thrive. The easy answers don’t do justice to the heartrending facts.

            So what are we supposed to do with all that? Honestly, I don’t have a great answer, at least as far as airtight logic goes. We can sympathize with Job’s friends who try so desperately to uphold the rules of religion as they have been taught. They are afraid of offending God, so they argue on God’s behalf, defending God’s justice. They are also afraid of the possibility Job’s suffering represents, afraid that if the rules they trust of reward and punishment aren’t really true, then maybe the whole foundation of their life is false too.

            That fear leads to rigid faith. It leads to a fear that if we allow any questioning of our core beliefs, we will lose everything. It’s a fear of looking closely at the world because we’re afraid what we will see is not what our religion tells us should be there.

On the other hand, we can imagine a universe ruled only by the laws of physics and biology but no moral law. We can imagine a universe where evil goes unpunished and good goes unrewarded. There’s a logical appeal to that too because then what we see is what we get. There are no mysterious forces at work and no ruler at all; we’re on our own. That view can easily lead to cynicism, resigning ourselves to the worst possible view of the world to protect ourselves from disappointment. We can give up our sense that the world should be better.

            The trouble is those theories don’t do justice to the moral light we know is in us. We can’t prove it, but we feel deep down the desire to do good. We feel better when we help each other than when we hurt each other. We have a sense of right and wrong at our core, and our instinct tells us that moral intelligence reflects our creator. When we read in scripture that God is love, it strikes a chord in our soul; it makes sense to us. We long for it to be true and it is. We see that love in the goodness of creation at the beginning, and in the full redemption of the world promised at the end. We see God’s love especially in the amazing, grace-filled ministry of Jesus and in his courageous, innocent death on the cross.

            Instead of being rigid in his faith and refusing the evidence or being cynical about the world and giving up faith’s power, Job takes a brave middle way. He sees the world as it is, but also as it should be. He proclaims that what is happening isn’t right. He calls out for justice and refuses to be silenced even by his friends telling him he is wrong.

            Job wrestles with the painful uncertainty of not understanding. He doesn’t resolve the tension by letting go of his faith or his grasp of the truth. He doesn’t understand why these terrible things have happened to him, but he knows they are. He refuses to adjust his sense of reality to religious teaching to make things clearer. Instead he demands truth and justice from God.

            He holds on to his faith and to his sense of right and wrong. Even as voices his rage about the wicked at peace, he goes on to say that the way of the wicked is repugnant to him. Even if it does work, even if evil isn’t punished and good doesn’t profit Job, he holds on to good and turns away from evil. Whatever happens, he knows God calls him to be righteous. That’s who he is; that’s the character he has build on a foundation of faith. It’s not the rigid foundation that needs to be right and fit reality to it’s vision. It’s not a soft foundation that goes along with whatever is going on, right or wrong. Instead it’s a firm foundation flexible enough to absorb that the world is not always what it should be, but solid enough to push away from cynicism or relativism.

            Job’s courage is a model we need now. It’s the courage to face the world without having all the answers. It’s the courage to hold on to faith and to hold on to truth. It’s the courage to speak out against injustice even without having all the answers. Job’s courage doesn’t free him from trouble, and our courage won’t either, but it will allow us to face trouble with integrity and to stay faithful even when the way isn’t clear. That’s a courage we need today and always.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The body of Christ: breaking down the walls, 10.6.13

Ephesians 2:11-22
11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

1 Corinthians 10:15-17, 11:17-34
15I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

1117Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. 19Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.

20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. 22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

23For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 33So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
            Paul’s words can come across as harsh, and I think and hope that my sermon is going to be challenging. To set the stage for that I want to remind you that when I’m preaching to you, I’m also preaching to myself. We all have room to grow together. Another thing to remember about Paul with the Corinthian church and about me with you is that I love you. Challenge is meant to help us all grow.

This sermon series is about the church. The Bible uses different images for the church because it’s a community that’s not quite like anything else. Susan preached about how the church is a family two weeks ago. Last week I preached about the church as an ambulance base or a mission station where we get what we need for our calling in the world.

This week we’re talking about how the church is the body of Christ. That means that as different as we are, everyone around the world who belongs to Christ is part of one body. We are united and connected to people we will never meet. And together we are not just a community, not just an organization, but the living, breathing body of Jesus Christ. That is amazing and mysterious. It means the church is much greater than any one of us, and it means we owe more to our fellow members than we might think because we are one, holy body together.

            Raise your hand if you’ve been a part of the church, this church or another church, for as long as you can remember.

Now, raise your hand if being part of a church is pretty new to you. Great.

            In the first century, when Jesus walked the earth and the church first began Jews and gentiles were about as far apart as they could be. The passage from Ephesians that Donna read talks about how the gentiles who became Christian once felt. Before they came to faith in Christ they were separated from God. The way people connected to God was through the rules and rituals that defined the Jewish community, and they were not part of that community.

            Then Jesus came, lived, died and rose again, and everything changed. The wall between Jews and gentiles was torn down. The Old Testament rules and rituals no longer defined who was in and who was out of God’s community. Now Christ’s call and Christ’s cross define the community of faith. It doesn’t matter where we come from, it only matters that Christ called and we answered. All people who follow Christ are one.

That means we have no business looking down on other Christians. The divisions that used to matter are overcome in Christ. Christ died to reconcile the division between Jews and gentiles. He took two very different communities and made one community in his body, putting the hostility that divided them from each other to death on the cross. That means when we are hostile towards other Christians, we’re going against the cross of Christ, and frankly, that’s not something I want to do.
            Of course, the early church’s division between gentile and Jewish Christians isn’t really an issue now, so for this passage to speak to us we have to think about other divisions that the church faces today. Maybe the best comparison is old and new members. As we saw a minute ago, some of us are new to being members of the church and others have been part of the church their whole lives.

            Our experiences and differences shape us, and the different perspectives that come with being a life long church member or a brand new Christian make this church stronger. At the same time, those differences do not define us, and none of us has any right to look down on anyone else. Jesus Christ himself welcomes everyone here today. Jesus’ welcome and grace is the only ground any of us has to stand on, not our background, not our parents, not our pledge or our tenure or our volunteer hours. Whether know it or not, without Jesus we are lost. We are found now because of his love, whether we accepted that love 40 years ago or just this minute. We are all one and no one is better than anyone else.

            It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative; if you’re black, white, Latino or Asian, if you know the Bible well or are just reading it for the first time, if your faith is rock solid or you have lots of doubts and questions. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD or a fourth grade education. It doesn’t matter if you’re Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic or agnostic. Christ has broken down every dividing wall that threatens to separate us and he is the one who makes us the church. We are one in his body with all our differences and all our unique personalities.

            In our passage from Corinthians Paul focuses on class divisions, which continue to challenge churches, including ours, today. Of course, class isn’t just about dollars and cents. Class is about culture and expectations and experience. The social and economic group we grow up in shapes how we see the world in ways we can’t even see. Unless we have some experience that moves us out of the class in which we grew up, we don’t even know how limited our perspective is, because however we grow up seeing the world is normal to us.

            People who grow up in the middle or upper middle class probably have parents who put a high value on education. Those parents probably succeeded in school and a big part of their parenting was helping their kids succeed in school too. Throughout their life they saw a connection between education and success. In middle class culture there’s often a strong sense that people control their own destiny and that they are responsible for what they do and what happens to them.

            For people who grow up in a family struggling to make ends meet the world looks very different. Often, they grow up without knowing many people who have succeeded in school. That means parents don’t emphasize school because they haven’t seen any benefit from education in their own lives. Sometimes they believe that education is the school’s job, and the parent’s job is surviving, not helping with school work. Since people who have struggled to survive have had a lot of things go against them, it often feels like success is more a matter of luck or fate than education or choice. The world feels threatening and totally beyond their control.

            Obviously, there are plenty of people who straddle those two worlds and I’m oversimplifying things to make a point. The point is that where we come from impacts how we see the world in ways we don’t even recognize. For example, for an upper middle class person it makes sense to take out student loans because they believe education is a good investment that will allow them to succeed and pay back the loan. For people who grew up struggling to survive, the risk of that loan feels too threatening to make sense and the benefit seems uncertain at best.

For working class families it’s often obvious for adult children to stay with their parents because that makes it easier to survive together. For many upper middle class people the expectation is that when children grow up, they move away from home. For each group those decisions can seem obvious, while for the other they seem strange.

            In some ways rich people and poor people live in different worlds. Society separates us from each other, and we don’t often even have the chance to see the world through different eyes because we spend most of our time with people like us. And like most social organizations, the church is often divided along the same lines. There are black churches and white churches, country churches, suburban churches and city churches, wealthy churches and poor churches.

            Paul reminds us that that is not how it should be. In Jesus Christ all human divisions are conquered. The divisions that matter so much to people don’t matter at all to God. The church is the body of Christ, so however different we might look or seem, we are one in Christ. That means when we allow human divisions to divide us in the church we are tearing Christ’s body apart. When we look down on people because they don’t act how we think they should act, we are spitting on Christ’s body. When we resent someone because they see the world differently we are rejecting part of Jesus. We are one body, and when don’t act like it we turn away from our Lord.

            It’s easy to talk about unity and equality, but it’s hard to live it. We say we believe that people are equal and that everyone is welcome, but we don’t always truly believe it in our secret hearts and we don’t experience it in our lives. We won’t know how deep our differences go until we start overcoming them in real life behavior. It will be harder than we think, but we can do it because we are already one in Christ.

            Paul’s argument is theological; he’s talking about what the ritual of the Lord’s Supper means in a spiritual sense, but he’s also talking about the practical nuts and bolts of sharing a community table with people who are different. In Paul’s time the Lord’s supper was both a religious ritual and an actual community meal, think sacrament and potluck rolled into one.

The rich people in the church could start the meal whenever they wanted, and they didn’t have to worry about having enough to eat and drink. The poor members of the Corinthian church couldn’t get to the gathering until their boss let them go, and by the time they got there, there wasn’t anything for them to eat.

            Paul says that we aren’t really eating the Lord’s Supper unless we’re eating it together as equals. It is the responsibility of members of the community with more resources to look out for those with less. It’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough, that everyone can share at Christ’s table. The church is Christ’s body and the communion meal is Christ’s body. If we allow our differences to divide us we tear Christ’s body apart. When we do that, this amazing meal that is a sign of Christ’s love and death and salvation will condemn us instead of bless us.

            The church is one of the few places where we have the chance to build genuine community with love, honesty and real sharing among people who are very different. Our community is more diverse now economically, politically, and religiously than it was 5 years ago. That’s going to be challenging sometimes. There are times when we are not going to understand each other, times we get frustrated because some one else just doesn’t see things the same way we do.

But difference is an invitation to a conversation. It’s an opportunity to see the world from another perspective. For this to work, for us to really be the community we are called in Christ to be we need to be willing to question ourselves. Paul tells us to judge ourselves, to examine ourselves to see if our mind is in sync with God’s truth. I guarantee if we really start learning about each others experiences we will learn some uncomfortable things about ourselves, but real growth is often uncomfortable.

When we don’t understand someone we should ask them about their perspective, and listen to each other without judgment or defensiveness. We need to open our hearts to each other and really treat each other as beloved brothers and sisters. That’s the way God sees us, that’s who God calls us to be not only when we are in this space but, most importantly, when we leave this building. We are one because we are Christ’s body together. As we let that spiritual vision shape our real life together we will have uncomfortable moments and holy transformation. As we share life with each other, we’ll discover what it really means to be the body of Christ.

So taste and see, the Lord is good. Happy are all who are called to God’s table. Thanks be to God.