15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
1 Corinthians 3:1-3
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
St. Paul was a loser.
He says so himself. It’s right there at the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians – off to speak to the folks in Corinth and terrified:
I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else.
The traditions say Paul was a tentmaker, someone who made tents from scratch…probably a lucrative occupation in a world where everyone traveled slowly, where lots of people simply migrated along the food and water supplies with their flocks, and where the motels (well, they called them caravanserais) were not on every block. So, we might deduce that Paul, in his work with tents, was good at what he did, at least good enough for folks to remember his skill…just as we might well deduce that he was very good at his other occupation – starting religious communities to live in the way of Jesus Christ.
But Paul thought he was a low-talent, poor-speaking nobody. He hadn’t met Jesus in the flesh, after all. He was not one of the “elite” living in Jerusalem and running the main organization.
So, you know what should have happened when he stood up and spoke, especially when he spoke to crowds who didn’t want to hear his message. Their rejection should have destroyed him. He should have slunk away in shame from his performances.
Instead, he kept on speaking. Instead, he founded churches all over Turkey and Greece. Instead, in his letters, he wrote words so powerful they still bring wisdom to our lives today.
The Old Testament lesson . . . is part of Moses’ final words to the children of Israel. Moses has led them through the desert, led them out of slavery in Egypt, led them through forty years of wandering, and now, as they approach that land, the focus of their hopes and dream, Moses is dying. He will never reach their goal; he will never see for himself what God has promised.
But he knows that the land toward which they are heading will be easier in so many ways than where they’ve been. He knows that in this new place, doing things the “easy way” will be baked in. He knows that, having settled down, it’ll be harder for them to adjust to change, harder to accept that, somewhere along the way, they’ll have to set aside beloved old habits in order to maintain God’s way in this new land.
Who are we?
Some years ago, I was working with a church that had just been through some difficult times. As part of our work together, we had a Conference person come to help lead us in a conversation about who we are. She wanted to hear from us as to what we’d been doing, and who we thought ourselves to be.
At one point, she said something like, “well, we all know you’ve been through so much; where are you now?” Our members responded with what they thought was going on, and the Conference person looked at us and said something like, “you’re not a troubled church; you’re a resilient church. You folks are survivors.”
And suddenly the church’s picture of itself turned around. We’d been the church that had been through several unhappy settlements in a row; we thought we couldn’t keep a pastor. We’d been the church with a pastor who went to jail. We were bad at choosing pastors. But our Conference person heard us talking about all that and what we’d done since, and turned our picture of ourselves on its head. We were not victims. We were not losers. We were resilient; we were survivors.
Back in the day it seemed as though all you needed to do to be a successful church was to call an attractive pastor, preferably one with a wife, two children, a Chevrolet station wagon and perhaps a cocker spaniel dog. And people came. Every Sunday, new people came. They brought their families; the Sunday schools bulged; there were wonderful, life-changing youth programs. It made us feel like the winners of life.
But today we live in a different world. It’s not just that hordes of new people are not breaking down the doors to get in –what success means has changed. It’s no longer about having the best looking pastor, or the forty-member choir. Today it’s more about how well we build community, how honestly we look at our own strengths and challenges
Who do we want to be?
When I was a small child, my grandmother first exposed me to an ancient Connecticut proverb.. I bet the older folks here learned it too. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. That’s why I have a braided rug fragment that grandma made, using my mother’s wedding suit.
Of course it’s about more than re-using clothes or recycling this or that. It’s about how open we are to taking what no longer works and moving in a new direction, one more suited to our current needs. When we hit a wall in one direction, we cast about for a new way to get to where we want to be, where we think God is calling us to go.
But you know, it doesn’t matter if that’s who we are, or who we can be, if we don’t know it.
For years and years, I had springer spaniel dogs. You might know that springers get their name because they are capable of springing (jumping) straight up, maybe 3-4 feet, when they’re hunting, to catch sight of the birds. This means that, at least in theory, most springers are more than capable of springing right onto a kitchen counter.
But they don’t know it. If they see another dog do it, they’ll try, and succeed. But even if you train them to jump, like in canine agility, they don’t generalize, and they don’t realize they could get on the counters (thank heavens).
Because they don’t know they can do it, they don’t do it.
St. Paul didn’t know at first that he was a great thinker, a great speaker, a great leader. But faced with new opportunities, he took a chance, gathered up his courage, and grew into what was needed for this new time and place.
How are we doing that today? What choices will we make, going forward? How will we grow into what’s needed in today’s world to help people learn about a this way of life?
How will we proclaim justice? Practice mercy? Live inclusively? Be open to new ways of understanding? Share and spread God’s love in all our days?
© 2023, Virginia H. Child