Monday, February 11, 2019

Changed for Good

Changed For Good
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11[1]
Many talk about the Christian faith as if it’s the simplest thing in the world. That kind of approach may lie behind the fact that we “Christians” don’t look very different from anybody else. From how we spend our money to what we do with our free time to whether or not we stay married. The statistics don’t really show much difference between those of us who identify as Christians and those who don’t. Part of the problem is that most of us are afraid of real change, change that makes a difference in the way we live. In order to make that kind of change, we have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves. If don’t like what we see when we look that closely, we don’t look and we don’t change.
Part of the problem is that changing the way we live can be incredibly difficult.[2] We’ve all been programmed with the way we’re supposed to live our lives. We’re supposed to do well in school. And afterwards we’re supposed to get a good job. And get married, settle down, and have children. And raise our children. And be successful enough that by the time our children are having their children, we’re ready to enjoy retirement. But as most of you know, that “script” for the way life is supposed to go doesn’t always work out. And yet, it’s incredibly difficult to change the mindset that our lives are supposed to follow one of these “scripts.” And so it’s incredibly difficult to change the way we live.
I’m not excluding myself from this challenge.  Here I am—I’m up here doing my best to relate the teachings of the Bible week after week. Sometimes I have an insight into my own life that makes me think that all these years I’ve been preaching and teaching I’ve just plain missed it myself. It’s very humbling when we see our own shortcomings. Many of us don’t much like to feel humbled. We don’t like the discomfort of feeling like we’ve missed the point. It can be unpleasant to really expose our lives to the light of God’s truth. When we do, we see the flaws and weaknesses that remain inside.
Our scripture lessons for today are about two people who encountered God, and that encounter left them changed for good. Both Isaiah and Peter encountered God in a way that left them feeling exposed. And they responded to that encounter in the way that people typically respond to an encounter with God in the Bible: with fear! When Isaiah experienced the glory of the LORD’s presence while serving in the temple, he cried out, “Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isa. 6:5). When Simon Peter realizes that in Jesus he has encountered the presence of God, he responds in his typically blunt way: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Lk. 5:8). We find this pattern reflected throughout the Scriptures—whenever anyone experiences the presence of God, their first response is one of fear!
I think what these encounters from Scripture shows us about ourselves is that we’re not really very comfortable getting that close to God. One contemporary prophet says that we’re comfortable fishing with Jesus of Nazareth who teaches us wisdom about life, and even occasionally points out our social injustices. But when the Risen Lord rocks our “dead and dying world” with yet another demonstration of God’s saving power, we’d rather not be around for that.[3] And yet, whenever and wherever we truly experience the presence of God, we must expect the foundations of our lives to be shaken!
The truth about us all is that we prefer to keep God at arm’s length. We like our religion good and shallow. We’re very happy with God as long as we don’t really have to undergo any real change. We want to do all the “religious” things we’re supposed to do, as long as it doesn’t really affect the way we live our lives. We want a God who is “domesticated” enough that we can stand before his presence without having to endure any kind of “fear and trembling.” But that is not the God we encounter in the Bible.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that the point of Epiphany is about celebrating the good news that in Jesus the promise of Christmas has been fulfilled that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). What that means is that in Jesus we encounter God’s presence, God’s power, God’s redeeming grace and love in such a way that it transforms us completely. The glory of God is finally revealed “over all the earth” not in some religious setting but with God’s being present with us so as to enable us all to experience God’s grace and mercy and love.
The glory of God that fills the whole earth with grace and mercy and love is a glory that will not leave us where we are, but instead radically changes us all. It convicts us where we need convicting; it cleanses us, and it commissions us all, just as it did the prophet Isaiah and Simon Peter the fisherman. Yes, we celebrate the glory of God in the process of filling the whole earth with God’s grace and love even as we speak. But we must also remember when we come face-to-face with this kind of experience of God, it will leave us trembling as we are being changed for good.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/10/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 6: “What the ego hates more than anything else in the world is change ... . Instead, we do more and more of what does not work ...”
[3] Will Willimon, “Get Out Of Here,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004): 21.

An End to Childish Ways

An End to Childish Ways
1 Corinthians 13:1-13[1]
Children can be wonderful. The beauty of the unconditional love they give so easily is almost indescribable. Their natural exuberance for life is a joy to behold. And when they utter those magic words “I love you” for the first time, it naturally melts our hearts. At the same time, children can be challenging. After all they are people, just moving at something that can seem like the speed of light to the rest of us! And moving that fast means that they get tired and grumpy and want what they want right now! We call it being “childish,” but in reality, we can all be demanding when we get tired and grumpy!
One of the greatest challenges as a parent is to allow your children to grow up. The process begins with what we call “the terrible two’s.” For the first time they are discovering their own identity, separate from mommy and daddy. It’s hard on the parents, and it’s hard on the children. But as we help our children through the various passages from childhood to adulthood, it can be a fulfilling experience. I find that the greatest challenge for parents is to learn how to let go just enough for our children to mature in a healthy way. As they do so, we find them leaving behind their “childish ways,” and becoming responsible adults.
As we’ve been taking a look at the church at Corinth, I think we’ve found that the process of putting “an end to childish ways” is one that doesn’t necessarily happen for everybody in the same way. This troubled congregation was struggling in part because some of the members were behaving in rather “childish” ways. Some of them were insisting that they were right and all the others were wrong. Others were demanding recognition of their spiritual superiority. Others were simply doing as they pleased, without much thought to the way it would affect others in the church. Though they may have been adults, they were behaving in “childish” ways.
As we have seen, one of the causes for this childish behavior was confusion about “spiritual gifts.” These were the various abilities that Paul said the Holy Spirit had given to the members of the church in order to build it up, gifts like preaching, teaching, leadership, and service. One gift in particular was causing problems: “speaking in tongues.” While there has been some confusion about what this means, it would seem that, in this context, it was some kind of non-rational prayer language. Unfortunately, those who practiced this gift at Corinth seemed to have developed the attitude that because they could speak a “heavenly” language, they were on a higher spiritual plane than others. As we have seen, St. Paul was trying to bring some balance to the church by pointing out that all of the gifts are important for the common welfare.
In our lesson for today, St. Paul says he is showing them “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). I think what he means is that this way is “more excellent” than squabbling over whose “gift” is most important. In fact, he begins by stating rather bluntly that even the most impressive spiritual gifts are as useless as “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” if they are not practiced in the right way. And the “more excellent way” that St. Paul advocates for the church in Corinth to work together is the way of love. St. Paul’s view was that no matter how significant we think what we do may be, when it’s not motivated by love, it is “vain, selfish, [and] fruitless.” In other words, it is an example of “childish ways.”
By contrast, St. Paul describes the kind of love that he has in mind in profound terms: “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” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). The kind of love St. Paul advocates in our relationships with one another in the church is the kind of love that Jesus embodied. It is the kind of love that God has freely given us all. He describes it further in this way: it is a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). He’s not talking about love as a feeling, but rather love as a way of life, love as a basic attitude toward others. It is a love that sacrifices for the sake of others. It is a love that is unselfish and giving and generous. It is a love that bears with others despite all their flaws and shortcomings. It is a love that goes beyond the sweet but unpredictable love that belongs to “childish ways.”
St. Paul calls us all to put “an end to childish ways” by practicing sacrificial and unselfish love. This kind of approach to relationships with others is not something that comes easily or naturally. It is a way of life that has to be taught and learned. And I will be the first to admit that it’s not something that we learn easily. While some of us may get it earlier in life, it takes a while for it to sink in for most of us. When you really pay attention to the way St. Paul describes love, it becomes painfully obvious that the process of putting an “end to childish ways” is one that takes place over a lifetime. I would have to admit that I’m still in the midst of that process. I haven’t arrived yet. But fortunately, in the church we all get to keep learning how to do this with the help of friends who are farther down the road. They offer us encouragement and hope as we continue to learn to put an end to “childish ways” and to relate to one another with a love that is unselfish and generous.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/3/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Many Members, One Body

Many Members, One Body
1 Corinthians 12:12-31[1]
Most of us typically like to spend our time with people with whom we have things in common. It’s a feature of life that is customary across all kinds of lines: race, religion, political affiliation, regional customs, and personal interests. This tendency is reflected in the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” The history of that adage in the English language can be traced at least to the mid-16th century. But almost 2000 years before that, the Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that “like cleaves to like.” It seems that our inclination to associate with those who are like us is one that has defined the human family for a very long time.
Unfortunately, in the church, that trait has led to the observation that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Most of us prefer to go to church with people who look like us, who talk like us, who dress like us, who share our beliefs and values, and who practice the same lifestyles as we do. While this preference is understandable, it flies in the face of the biblical vision of what the church is meant to be. Despite the fact that the Bible can use the language of “chosen people” for a certain group, the intent of the church is clear from its founding on the day of Pentecost: it is to be a church of all nations, all races, all languages, all ethnic groups; in short, a church of all peoples.
As I mentioned last week, the church at Corinth was a church that was badly divided, not least by their differing views on spiritual gifts. And it would seem that they had a problem with people forming factions and cliques with others in the church who were like them. In fact, this problem showed up in their observance of the Lord’s Supper. It is likely that they shared a meal prior to the Lord’s Supper. But in the church at Corinth, this was not a time for the whole family of faith to gather and share their bonds of fellowship. At least not for them all. Paul chides them for the fact that the wealthy members of the congregation came early and enjoyed a feast, while those who were not so well off came later, very likely after work, and only had meager fare.
It’s hard to imagine a more blatant demonstration of the division in the church at Corinth than a meal at which some feasted and others were left to make do with bare necessities. And St. Paul tells them off quite plainly. He says, “it is not the Lord's supper that you eat” because they are despising the church as the body of Christ and “humiliating those who have nothing” (1 Cor. 11:20-22). In fact, he goes so far as to say that those who distort the Lord’s Supper in such a way “eat and drink judgment” on themselves (1 Cor. 11:29)! It is clear that Paul believed it should not be so among them!
The challenge was how to balance the differences between them with the unity they were meant to embody in Christ. As in any group, there were many differences among the church at Corinth: they came from different ethnic groups, they had different religious backgrounds, they practiced different customs, and they even represented different classes of society. While those differences affected their lives in practical ways outside the church, within the church, St. Paul insists that what united them in Christ was more significant. They had all received one and the same Spirit; they all placed their faith in one and the same Christ; they all belonged to one and the same body—regardless of what their lives outside the church may have looked like.
On the other hand, it’s not as if St. Paul was opposed to diversity in the church. In fact, he viewed the diversity among the members of the church at Corinth as a good thing. He recognizes that just as our bodies have many different parts, so it is a good thing for the church to have members who have different strengths and backgrounds. The members of the church are not all the same; in fact, they are not meant to be all the same. Difference is good; it can be healthy. It is necessary for our bodies to function properly, and it is necessary for the church to function properly. But that difference must never be allowed to invalidate the fact that all members of the body of Christ are one (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
Rather than granting different levels of honor to individuals in some kind of “spiritual” hierarchy within the church, Paul insists that all of the members are equally important. In fact, he says that, just as we show greater respect for “less respectable” parts of our own bodies, so also in the church “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor” to members that might seem to be “inferior” to others (1 Cor. 12:23-24). I think St. Paul has already made it clear that he doesn’t believe that anyone in the body of Christ is “inferior” in any way.
I think St. Paul’s comments also make it clear that, as the body of Christ with all its different parts, the church’s purpose is to function together as one. He says that the way that God has “arranged” the members of the church is so that “there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25). While it may be a practical reality of life that people naturally associate with those who are like them, our lesson from St. Paul for today teaches us that this is not God’s purpose for the church. It is to be a church in which people from all races, nations, ethnic groups, political persuasions, and economic classes may join together as one. The fact that there are many different members in the church is a good thing. But while there are many members, we must always recognize that we are all part of the one body of Christ.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/27/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman NE.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Called to Serve

Called to Serve
1 Corinthians 12:1-11[1]
One of the preoccupations we have in this culture is with “reaching your highest potential.” It has taken different forms over the years, from “I’m Okay and You’re Okay,” to the “Feeling Good Handbook,” to “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” to the “Kaizen Method” of getting one percent better every day. I would say that all of these contributions have helped people in some way to improve their lives. I have personally benefited from some of them. And I applaud anyone who is trying to do what they can to effect personal growth. I think one of life’s most important tasks is to continue growing as a human being all of our lives.
But one thing that concerns me is that at the heart of many of these self-improvement methods is the belief that our identity, and perhaps even our worth, is measured by how much we achieve in life. That’s great if we have a nice list of accomplishments that we can use to bolster our ego. But if we think that we have somehow fallen short of our potential, or are lacking in terms of what we could have or should have done with our lives, it can be a big problem. When we measure ourselves by how well we perform what we do, we can wind up in a downward spiral of self-criticism. After all, no matter how much we may achieve in our lives, there’s someone out there who’s done more. Even when we’ve done the best we can, it’s easy to look at someone else’s “best” as “better.”
To some extent, our lesson from St. Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth for today addresses this problem. This was a church that lived literally at one of the major cultural crossroads of the ancient world. You could find just about any of the expressions of the human spirit in Corinth. It was a genuine melting pot for the various cultural currents in that day. More than that, the church at Corinth is a fascinating case study. They seem to have experienced all the “normal” challenges most churches still struggle with, and also some of the more “extreme” problems. Because of that fact, Paul’s letters provide pastoral advice that is still relevant today.
One of the challenges they dealt with in the church at Corinth was interpersonal rivalry. In fact, the struggle for power in that church was so intense that they actually had four different factions. One claimed loyalty to Paul, one to Peter, one to Apollos (a teacher who had spent some time there), and the last one claimed to belong to Christ. Perhaps the last group saw themselves as “above the fray” of all that dissension. But the reality was that they were a congregation badly divided by loyalties, by questions of morality, by the extent to which they believed they could or should interact with the culture in which they lived, and by the divergent lifestyles of their Greek and Jewish members.
One of the ways in which this rivalry apparently played out in the church at Corinth was in the area of spirituality. Some of the folks in the church were convinced that they were more “spiritual” than the others. And the way they measured their spirituality was by the particular “spiritual gifts” they had. Interestingly, the “gift” that found its way to the top of the totem pole was “speaking in tongues.” This was not the ability to understand other languages, but a kind of unintelligible prayer-speech that was uttered in a trance-like state. Why this particular gift was valued above all the others was probably due to a combination of false teachings they encountered and the religious environment in which they lived.
Again, the upshot of all this was that those who had this particular gift claimed to be at the top of the spiritual “food chain” in the church of Corinth. But St. Paul wouldn’t hear anything of it. In response, he emphasized clearly that there was no “hierarchy” in the area of spiritual gifts. He makes it clear that all spiritual gifts come from the same God, Father, Son and Spirit: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). And rather than claiming “credit” for their spiritual gifts, Paul reminds them that they are the work of God, “who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:6).
But, perhaps equally important in our day is the message that St. Paul had about the availability of spiritual gifts. He makes it clear that these abilities are given to everyone in the church. In fact, he says that they are “allotted to each one individually as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor 12:11). That doesn’t leave anyone out. St. Paul also makes clear the reason why the Spirit distributes these gifts to us all. He says plainly that they are intended “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The gifts God gives us are for the purpose of building up the body of Christ. That eliminates any kind of spiritual “hierarchies” or any kind of spiritual pride about certain gifts in comparison to others. Everyone in the church has a gift of the Spirit to share for the benefit of the whole body of Christ.
As I reflect on this Scripture, it occurs to me that the point of the Christian life isn’t any kind of “self-fulfillment.” In fact, it’s not about us at all; rather it’s about what the Spirit of God is doing through us. And the intention isn’t about being able to total up our accomplishments. The purpose of all this is to enable us to serve others. Whatever ability the Spirit has given you, it’s there for you to use “for the common good.” It’s a very specific means by which you can give yourself away in service to the body of Christ and the world at large. After all, that’s what Christ called us to do. He called us to serve. As we make use of the gifts we have from the Spirit, I think we reach our highest potential by serving others in love.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/20/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.