Hi, everybody. I’m here! Now what? I’m reminded of that great scene from the movie The Graduate. Not that scene. The final scene of the movie. Ben and Elaine have been working to disengage themselves from their parents’ expectations, and, for Elaine, from her soon-to-be-husband. As Elaine and her groom are taking their vows at the church, Ben rushes into the balcony and begins shouting, “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine! Elaine!” A clamor begins from the groom, from Elaine’s parents….but all she can hear is Ben’s voice. “Elaine! Elaine!”
Then, a flurry of activity that borders on the madcap ensues—Ben elbows Elaine’s father and heads butts the groom, then he grabs a cross from the table in the narthex, and runs it through the door handles from the outside the church. Having rescued Elaine, Ben grabs her hand and they run to catch the city bus that just happens to be passing by at that moment. They race down the aisle of the bus and fall onto the back bench…exhilarated.
Then, after a brief moment, the couple grows still. Sitting about a foot apart, each stares straight ahead. If they’d done pop-ups in the movies in 1967, the bubble above each head would have read, “Now what?”
Oh, we have been in a flurry of activity the last several months. Does November feel like years ago to anyone else? We’ve been working so hard to get together! You’ve said, “Kim! Kim! Kim! Kim!” I’ve said, “FCUCC!” (If I try to say that four times in a row, I’m going to get in trouble.) We’ve run and hopped the bus for our new journey together. Everything has been leading up to THIS moment!
When I read today’s assigned reading from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, the “what” got clarified for me.
No one’s more surprised than me that the first Scripture text I’m preaching is from Paul. I’m reminded of the title of Karen Armstrong’s book, Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate. That title sums up my relationship with Paul for most of my life. I confess, though, that the longer I pastor, the more I “get” Paul…especially his words to the church at Corinth.
The people in the church at Corinth had a gift for getting on each other’s nerves. One person didn’t like what another person ate. Some people were eating such large quantities that other folks didn’t get anything at communion. They had implemented a hierarchy of gifts that prioritized the holiness of some—like speaking in tongues—over others.
As you read I Corinthians, you get the sense that Paul is pulling his hair out—or pulling at where his hair used to be. He begins in the first chapter naming deep divisions in the church. “Someone says, I belong to Paul, or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Apollos, or …” “No!” he says. “We all belong to Christ. Period!”
Before I became a pastor, I thought Paul to be a very grumpy person. The longer I pastor, though, the more I feel Paul’s exasperation. “Come on, church!” I’ve wanted to say on a few occasions. “We all belong to Christ!” As a community of Jesus’ followers, if we let anything—including dissension in the community—get in the way of our communal calling to follow Jesus by sharing God’s love in the world, to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name, then we’re missing the point.
Among the grumblings at the church at Corinth were complaints about Paul himself… Isn’t this a terrific passage for a pastor’s first Sunday? God has a wicked sense of humor! The verses from today’s Epistle lesson are part of Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians of the point of his serving among them… Hear these words of Paul to the church at Corinth.
16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. This might be a good time to let you know that I am not a complete biblical literalist. J
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. Okay. Did you bring your to-do lists? In Friday’s newsletter, I invited everyone to create their own personal to do list for me…things you’ve been waiting for a settled minister to do. If you created a list, go ahead and pull it out. We’ll come back to it shortly.
20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
In my previous life, we’d conclude readings of Scripture with a line taken from Professor Jack Ashbrook at Rochester Seminary: “If you respond to these words, then for you, they have become the word of the living God.” Then the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God!”
So…does this mean that in order for this passage to become the word of the living God for us, I have to become all things to all people? If you have a list, raise it high in the air. How many items are on your list? (Responses) What do you think? Based on the number of items on your lists, do you think I’m going to be able to be all things to all people? Even if I wanted to be all things to all people, I wouldn’t succeed. It’s not physically possible. Every single one of us has a different expectation of what a pastor’s job entails. Even those of you who have been pastors will have different ideas about what a pastor’s work entails.
What does that mean? It means I’m going to disappoint you sometimes. I’m going to frustrate you sometimes. I might even make you angry sometimes. I suspect the reverse will be true as well. You’ll disappoint, frustrate, and anger me sometimes, too. Here’s what I want you to know. When we ruffle each other’s feathers, it’s not the end of the world. If we ruffle each other’s feathers, it’s a sign that we’re all taking this church thing seriously…that we’re all deeply committed to each other, and that we’re all committed to working things through together.
When people join the Church for all Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says she tells them that, “This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.” (Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint)
I doubt Paul actually was all things to all people. His rhetoric occasionally dips into the hyperbolic. I suspect this is one of those cases.
I do hear, though—and feel—his passion for preaching the gospel. That’s the whole point of what we’re doing here, isn’t it? We’re here to share the Gospel, to proclaim the good news that God’s love is for everyone. Christian ethicist, Beverly Harrison, offered a terrific description of love. She described love as “the power to act each other into well-being.” So, when we preach the Gospel, that’s what we’re doing—we’re loving the world, we’re acting it into wellbeing.
Of the two graphics included on the bulletin, the first—of course!—is the most important. The words are attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”
I included the quote on the back to be a bit playful. As one who is called to preach the Gospel with words, I get Rev. Sproul’s point.
Francis’ point, of course, is much more to Paul and Jesus’ point. We all are called to preach the Gospel, using any means at our disposal to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name. As it happens, the means at my disposal to act the world into wellbeing is the role of pastor, the words of a preacher. I have come here to Asheville to preach the Gospel in the traditional sense of that word. But all of us are called to share God’s love in the world. So, how will you share it? What role will you play in this community as we seek together to act the world into wellbeing? That list in your pocket…How might you accomplish those tasks? Who might you invite to help you accomplish them?
So…now what? Now, I have come to preach the Gospel…with words. I will try to meet you where you are. Unfortunately, I can’t work for free and it’s not possible for me to be all things to all people. But all of us together, answering the call to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name, working together actively to share God’s love in the world…If we all work together, each of us using our individual gifts and skills, all of us imagining together the world of which God dreams and doing what we can to create that world…if we do these things—and keep doing them—Y’all! This church will be transformed! Asheville will be transformed! And the world will become just a little more whole…which is the whole point, right?
First Congregational UCC: I have come to preach the Gospel! Won’t you join me?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2018