I Corinthians 1:1-9
When his letter arrived, Christian community at Corinth must have been surprised by Paul’s opening words. “I am grateful for God’s work in your lives, God will keep you steadfast, you have every gift you need.” Some must have thought, he’s being ironic or he’s got to be kidding. The Corinthian church was in trouble, it was collapsing from within – everyone had their favorite spiritual teacher and disparaged anyone who followed another path, the norms of moral behavior were being pushed to the limit, some had substituted Caesar for Jesus in their loyalties, and the ties that bind were being threatened by divisions between the wealthy and poor. At the church’s agape meals, we would call them potlucks, the wealthy whose schedules were flexible, ate all the good food, had several glasses of wine, and were lounging contentedly when the working poor arrived weary from a long day’s work.
“We’re a mess! How can he say we have every good gift and God is working in our lives?” the more perceptive members of the community asked. And they were a mess! And yet Paul saw something in this troubled community. God had blessed them. They just hadn’t realized it. They hadn’t claimed the blessings right in front of them.
We don’t know how the Corinthian community responded to Paul’s letter. But, two thousand years later, we still read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, suggesting that Paul’s challenge convicted them of their faithlessness and divisiveness, and that they eventually overcame the problems that threatened to destroy their congregation.
Here at South, our potlucks are dry, everyone gets more than enough, and we have a live and let live attitude toward diverse opinions. And, yet, if Paul said, “you have every gift you need, you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” we might think, “he can’t be talking about us, we’re not a megachurch and we have a budget deficit.”
It seems as if the church always falls short. It seems as if the negative is always more obvious than the positive, our faults magnified and our gifts minimized.
In contrast, the Apostle Paul had an affirmative faith. He believed that nothing can separate us from the love of God, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, and that God will supply all our needs. But Paul wasn’t a naïve positive thinker. If you read the totality of I Corinthians, it’s clear that Paul recognizes that this community is in trouble and on the verge of splitting. He knows what’s wrong, he’s heard all their excuses, he recognizes their limits, but he sees something more important, more profound: God is present in each person’s life, God’s grace is greater than their sin, and that if they turn their hearts back to Jesus, they will flourish despite their struggles.
My parents were teenagers during the Great Depression. And, it was commonplace in looking back on those difficult years for them, and their friends to say, “we weren’t poor, we just didn’t have any money.” Life was difficult, my father was the primary breadwinner, supporting his ailing parents, by the time he was twenty. My mother was an unwanted child, who woke up each day dealing with depression and low self-esteem, but in the 1930’s and throughout their lives, these humble people were generous, even when they didn’t have much. I remember my father letting migrant workers sleep in our parsonage garage much to the chagrin of the church board and he allowed peace marchers to sleep in the fellowship hall, despite the small town conservatism of the church. Though an Eisenhower Republican, he knew right was right and that if folks needed a place to stay, you had to respond. They were generous, sometimes going without, because they knew that God would supply their needs and that faith meant taking a chance on God, even when you have your doubts.
Now I believe that Paul is right. After struggling with scarcity thinking for years, I don’t worry about finances. but I confess that I worry in other ways. Time is the most precious reality to me. I treasure my time for writing and sermon and lecture preparation and family, and my initial response when I get an unexpected call or when one of my grands gets up an hour early is to think “I won’t have enough time or how will I get this done.” (Now keep calling and to be honest I welcome every call and request – so keep those calls coming in!)
But, I have discovered something – when I let go of my strangle hold on my schedule, when I listen to what God wants rather than what I want, I have all the time and energy and creativity to flourish – in fact, those days I sacrifice my time, I end up being more efficient, effective, and creative than I ever imagined I could be. I discover that God is always willing to give me more than I can ask or imagine, when I turn my schedule over to God rather than my own self-interest.
This is true for us at South Congregational. We celebrate another year and lean toward our 225th anniversary celebration in 2021. The past year has been amazing in many ways – becoming Open and Affirming, the growing ministry with the homeless, a lively church school, great adult faith formation activities, new friends coming to church, meaningful worship, music, and preaching, outreach to local schools and Angels Place in India, a great Christmas stroll – and yet we have a budget deficit. We can accentuate the negative but need to look deeper. If we are open to God’s vision, follow God’s guidance, are willing to make changes when necessary, we will discover that God is steadfast and that we have every spiritual gift we need to flourish, expand our mission, and reach out to people in need of Jesus’ love.
Let us give thanks for God’s presence this past year, and say “yes” to God’s future, knowing that God will respond to our deepest needs and that we have the energy and creativity to share God’s mission, regardless of the challenges we face.