Yesterday marked the beginning of my final semester of seminary. Graduation is just fourteen Saturdays away. I’m ready for the ending. I also grieve it, in that bittersweet way that often accompanies an accomplishment. This finish line seemed so far away as to be unreachable back in August 2019. So many moments when I wanted to quit. So many good memories. So much that I’ve learned. So much I have yet to learn.
The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca is supposed to have said that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. (Now you may have Semisonic’s Closing Time running through your mind. You’re welcome). In many ways, gain and loss occur simultaneously. More of a circle than a line from Point A to Point B. It’s a mystery of time and experience that you can’t really explain, but you know happens. I may be too melancholy or even pessimistic for some, but I think it’s normal for there to be just a tinge of blue sorrow to the bright yellow of celebration. Not enough to dim the yellow. Just enough to make you know it’s there.
I’m looking back and forward today. Forward into an unknown future. Back into four years of hard work and holy relationships that sustained me in a long season of turmoil. Looking up, too, and into Heaven. Profoundly thankful for who God is and what God has done in and for me.
As I think about all this looking, I decide that I’d like to share with you the first sermon I ever preached on a Sunday morning, back in early 2020 just before the pandemic hit. I’ve learned a lot about how to structure a sermon since then. This certainly reads like a blog post. But you know, I don’t think it’s awful. God uses these words of mine today to remind me of what is truly important. May you be encouraged.
In 1846, Englishman Charles Frederick Worth moved to Paris. He spoke no French and had little money in his pocket. All that he had going for him was the fact that he could sew. His expert tailoring skills caught the eye of wealthy clients, and the House of Worth, acknowledged as the first haute couture brand, was born. Other designers sprung up in Worth’s wake, and soon Paris was buzzing with a new level of creative activity. Within a decade or so, the City of Lights was deemed the world’s fashion capital, and it was the dream of many to own a piece of clothing stitched together near the banks of the River Seine.
Fast forward into the twentieth century. Tanks roll through the streets of Paris. Once the sound of accordions and the scent of fresh bread mingled in the air. Now the harsh click of combat boots on cobblestone streets fill the ears of the city’s residents. The stench of fear clouds their noses. It is the fall of France to the Nazis and the rise of the hated collaborative Vichy government. Fashion houses are forced to give their supplies to the occupiers. Hands that once created beautiful dresses out of delicate fabric now produce uniforms. Rationing is so strict that a year’s clothing allowance afforded women only one cotton blouse, one wool skirt, and one pair of stockings.
The fashion capital of the world, reduced to humble rags.
But the women of Paris don’t take this lying down. They choose to make do. To reuse. To recycle. And in this choosing, they find a way to communicate. They find a way to hold onto their culture, their identity. And this way, it seems strange to us: They painted their belts. From a distance these designs look innocuous. Geometric shapes and floral patterns. Up close, one discovers that those geometric shapes are musical notes, and those musical notes are snippets from patriotic songs, such as La Marseillaise, the national anthem. Those floral patterns are fleur de lis, a traditional symbol of France.
These women choose hope. They choose tenacity. They choose to find beauty in a world falling apart all around them. They choose to remember who they truly were.
They engage in the subtle art of rebellious love.
It is upon that art which I would like us to place our attention this morning.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
– 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NRSV)
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This is the first Sunday of “ordinary time.” We’ve walked through the season of Advent, the weeks leading up to Christmas. We spent time celebrating the Incarnation of our Savior. We considered what it meant for the wise men to follow the light. Weeks of busyness and parties and programs have come to a close, leaving us to sigh with relief. There is something about returning to routine, to the ordinary. Even the most spontaneous among us need the rhythm of the mundane.
Except, somehow, life is never quite completely mundane.
Maybe there is nothing “ordinary” about “ordinary time” at all.
The Apostle Paul spent roughly a year-and-a-half in Corinth and the surrounding area, supporting himself as a tentmaker while establishing a community of believers. This was no easy or simple task. No sliding into town and announcing a new church-plant. Acts 18:9 alludes to this:
“One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.’” (NRSV)
It is no wonder that Paul needed this encouragement. Corinth, the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, located on a narrow bridge of land connecting the Peloponnesus to the Greek mainland, was a sophisticated place. It’s people were accustomed to having and hearing about the latest and greatest. Ships from all over the Mediterranen came and went, bringing with them practical goods like cloth and spices, as well as less-tangible items like reports of governmental issues and of encroaching foreigners along the frontier borders. This was a city teeming with philosophical, political, and religious ideals.
In the midst of all this bustling and newness and competing ideals, people did listen to Paul, and his compatriots Priscilla and Aquila. People did come to saving faith in Christ. And maybe it wasn’t in spite of all the noise that people believed. Maybe it was because of the noise. Maybe there was something in the message of grace that invited the listener to stop and breathe. Maybe there was something in the preaching of mercy and redemption, something in the simplicity of holy love, that appealed to a people bombarded by complexity. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I do know that God revealed Himself, and people responded.
Paul moved on eventually, as he always did, driven by the Spirit to share the Good News of Christ in other places.
But he did not forget about the believers in Corinth.
Despite his success in establishing that community, that community had issues.
And they’re issues that we grapple with today.
The body of this letter begins with verse 11, when Paul begins to address problems shared with him “by Chloe’s people.” We don’t know who Chloe was. We don’t know who her people were. All we know is that they told Paul all about what was going on. These problems that they shared with him were interrelated ones of division and spiritual elitism. (If you think about it, the one always seems to follow the other). Some of the believers were claiming that following Apollos’ teaching was the best idea, and they were better for it. Others disagreed, saying that it was best to follow Paul. Somehow Peter got thrown in there, too. Paul tells them that they’re missing the point. It’s not about Apollos, or Paul, or Peter. It’s about Jesus.
That’s what makes the introduction of this letter so beautiful.
These first nine verses are a call for the Corinthians to remember who they are. Paul will spend the rest of the letter fleshing out in great detail exactly what it means for them to live as Jesus-people in a chaotic world. He will, in the words of John Wesley, teach them how to address the “alienation of affection from each other” that they are experiencing.
Remember: there is little that is mundane in the average day. We may not be faced with an occupying force, as the people of Paris were. We may not live in a city on the cutting edge of fashion and technology. We may be a people living in a relatively quiet part of our country, content with our lot in life.
But make no mistake.
We, just like the Corinthians, forget who we are.
In our contentedness, we fail to see all the ways in which we are distracted. We fail to honestly examine the ways in which we experience alienation of affection from each other.
Consider these nine words from verse four:
“I give thanks to my God always for you.”
Can we say that? Can we in this room look each other in the face and honestly say that we thank God for each other? Have we taken hold of, really gotten a grasp on, the fact that we belong to each other? In reality, that we’re stuck with each other? That’s what it is to be the church. People who might not have a whole lot in common on the surface, but are glued together, bound to each other, belonging together, because of our shared faith in Christ.
Or do we give each other side-eye and cold shoulders? Do we allow, as the Corinthians did, personal preferences to eclipse and even drown out our love for each other?
I think we all know the answer to that. Certainly I don’t want anyone to feel condemned. I simply think that, regular human beings that we are, it’s easy for us to get wrapped up in things that are practically designed to divide and separate us from each other. Because we know what kind of world we live in. None of us in this room is ignorant of national or world events. None of us in this room is without opinion on those events and the personalities involved.
Our “ordinary time” is infused with extraordinary anxiety.
And that anxiety leads us into combat with each other.
Whether it’s economics or family issues or politics or social media, there’s always something. Always a metaphorical tank rolling through the streets. Always a voice calling for us to view anyone with even a slightly different take on life as the enemy. And my dear friends, we so often fall for that lie. We so easily leap into “us versus them” thinking, even finding the feared “them” among the ranks of our brothers and sisters sitting all around us today.
We forget who we are.
So like those Parisian women who refused to allow their culture to be obliterated, we must learn to make different choices. We, too, must engage in the subtle art of rebellious love. Subtle, because many of the things Christ calls us to – graciousness, peacefulness, gentleness – will not be heralded or even noticed by others much of the time. An art, because the way we navigate each relationship and situation requires thoughtfulness and wisdom, which we can only find in communication with God. Rebellious, because living into the identity God bestows upon us is the exact opposite of the way the world demands we live.
And love, because that’s the bottom line. That’s the point. Love is the foundation of everything we are, do, have, and say.
So what does that look like? What is our identity, our culture? Who are we in this ordinary time of extraordinary anxiety?
In verse two, Paul applies three labels to the Corinthians, ones that I think we do well to apply to ourselves:
- Sanctified: In the simplest of terms, to be sanctified is to be set apart. We’ve discussed this before. We’ve heard of the example of a shovel. When it is used to pick up things, like snow, it’s sanctified. It’s being set apart and used for the purpose for which it was designed.
- So we get that. We track with that. Our trouble is we often think of sanctification, when seeking to apply the concept to our daily lives, as more about what we don’t do than what we do. And make no mistake; there is validity in that. We need boundaries, we need to know how God does and doesn’t want us to live. But we can get so wrapped up in the “doesn’t” part, that we forget the “does.” We can become so consumed with rule-keeping, even without meaning to, that we miss the adventure, joy, and freedom found in relationship with Christ.
- Do you realize that it’s a sanctified thing to smile at a stranger? That’s an act of love that might turn their day around. Do you realize that it’s a sanctified thing to refuse to allow differences of political opinion to destroy relationships? That’s an act of love, too. Do you realize that it’s a sanctified thing to care for and welcome the immigrant and the refugee, regardless of how they got here? That’s an act of love during a time that encourages fear and unkindness.
- I’m sure you can think of many more examples. The point: Sanctification is far more about being the person God wants you to be, about doing the things God wants you to do. Sanctification is about becoming more like Jesus, a slow and painstaking work that He does within each of us.
- Called: Jesus chose every part of you yesterday, while you were still sinning and had no clue. Jesus chooses every part of you today, right now, while you’re listening to this message. Jesus will choose every part of you tomorrow. He calls your name, specifically. He calls you to come to Him, to fall into the arms stretched wide on the Cross, to come home, to the place and the people where you’ve always belonged.
- And then He keeps calling you. We can always grow in our relationship with God. There is always something God has for us, some new depth of intimacy or a way to serve. As long as we are still breathing, we are still on mission, with and for God.
- Called to be, what, exactly? Paul says “saints.” Think not of marble statues or impossible standards. A saint is just someone with skin in the game. Someone who is so entirely convinced of the goodness of God, so utterly grateful for the mercy of Christ, that they are willing to do what God asks. It might be cleaning a toilet. It might be changing a diaper. It might be refusing to cut corners at work. It might be standing in the front of the sanctuary, knees knocking, giving your first “big church” sermon. What it is doesn’t matter. We’re all called. We all have a role to play.
- Together: You’ve heard it before, but today I hope you really grab onto this truth with me – God never intended for any of us to walk alone. No, this local church is not perfect. Connect is not perfect. The global church is not perfect. And I think we need to get over that. We need to stop using that as an excuse to disengage. Because the fact is: Nobody in this room is perfect. Not one of us. But that lack of perfection does not mean that we don’t need each other. We do. Desperately. There are times when I am tired, when I am weary in my very soul, and I need my brothers and sisters to hold onto me. To help me to keep going. To remind me that all is not lost. You need that, too.
When we realize who are…when the fog of distraction lifts…when we deliberately remove ourselves from the incessant noise all around us…that’s when we begin to be able to thank God for each other. That’s when we begin to be able to genuinely wish each other grace and peace. That’s when we begin to be able to work through the conflicts that will inevitably arise, the conflicts that the Corinthians experienced and every community of believers has experienced since. That’s when we begin to possess this vital element, this necessary thing, called hope.
And that hope is a key ingredient that keeps us going in an ordinary time that is never very ordinary.
So let’s paint our belts. Let’s choose to wrap ourselves in the colors of Christ. Let us be a people of faith, grace, patience, and understanding. Let’s refuse to be overtaken by the anger, the anxiety, the jockeying for position and power that occupies the society around us. Let’s remember who are. Remember that we are rich in Christ; that there is nothing greater that this world can offer us. Remember that we are lacking nothing; no matter how we feel in a given moment, we have what we need, we do not have to look to governments or money to save us, because we have God, and He is always for us. Always. Remember that God will strengthen us to endure to the very end. Remember that God is faithful, no matter the tanks, real or otherwise, rolling through the streets.
Let’s engage in the subtle art of rebellious love.
Not only for and toward each other.
But for and toward all those outside these doors.
That’s what Jesus would have us do.
GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,
Image Courtesy of Julia D.