Each week, the lectionary provides four Scripture texts for worship. I’ve heard that in the Episcopal Church, priests are able to touch on all four texts in sermons that last only 10 minutes. It’s, like, a miracle!
I’m going to focus on only one text this week (You’re welcome.), but I’m intrigued by the four texts taken together. The first three–from Isaiah, Psalms, and Matthew–focus on light, which is appropriate in this season of Epiphany. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah says. Matthew quotes those verses from Isaiah, then promptly introduces Jesus’ ministry…as if to say, Jesus is the one who brings this light to the world. Earlier, the psalmist says, “God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”
On the face of it, the fourth text–our focus for today—doesn’t fit. “Quit your fighting!” Paul writes to the church at Corinth…because fighting, they were. First, Chloe’s people come tattling on everyone else. “Apostle Paul, Apostle Paul! Everybody’s fighting! I’ve written everybody’s name on the chalkboard!” We soon learn that Chloe’s not the only one with “people.” There are also Apollos people, and Peter people, and Christ people.
Back 2,000 years ago, churches were messed up, weren’t they? Everybody going off with their own people, sniping at other groups who’d gone off with their own people. Thank goodness we’ve grown past all that communal divisiveness in the last 2,000 years!
The longer I pastor, the more I love Paul. For several decades, mostly because of what he wrote about women and same gender-loving people, I contemplated excising Paul’s letters from my Bible. Certainly, you have to dismiss some items in these letters, because the cultural context in which Paul was writing was so vastly different from our own.
But the things Paul writes about communities? That resonates. He’s so frustrated! Perhaps, especially, with the believers in Corinth. “Has Christ been divided?” Paul shout-asks. “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name. Oops. Wait. Strike that. I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t know whether I baptized anyone else.”
Why is Paul so frustrated? Was he just a cantankerous old man? Well, yes. That’s likely. But reading Paul’s letters, he seems to reserve his greatest frustration for communities who refuse to get along with each other. Why is that? Why is Paul so concerned with how people in those communities treat each other?
Here’s what I’ve decided–about Paul and about what the lectionary folks were thinking when they included this text about fighting Corinthians with three texts about God’s light. Are you ready? Here goes. What if it is through the community that God’s light now comes into the world? Maybe Paul got so frustrated with communities not getting along because he understood that it is through healthy communities that God’s love becomes manifest in the world. If the broken world we’re living in right now needs anything, it’s a community where people love each other and work with each other for the common good… don’t you think?
We’re pretty intentional here at FCUCC about doing community. Guests often comment on how welcome they feel. The sharing we do during prayer time, in friendship time, and in faith formation classes is heartfelt and authentic. From my own experiences with recent surgeries, I can attest to just how nurturing a community this is. I am grateful.
How might we build on that? How might we become even more intentional about living as a community of Jesus followers? If the best gift we have to give to the world is our community, what might we do to strengthen that gift?
This next bit is going to require some imagination. Ready? Imagine there are factions in the church. Chloe’s people are over there. Apollos’ people are across the way. Those Peter people–they always keep to themselves. And the Christ people? Don’t even get me started!
Why all the factions? Why has each group built a wall around itself? What would it take to dismantle the walls? What would it take for the people in all those groups to become one authentic community?
In a book called, The Education of Little Tree, a Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson, Little Tree, that, “back before his time ‘kinfolks’ meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with,” not just blood kin…what Tom and Arni call “biological and logical kin.”
“Granpa said when he was a little boy his Pa had a friend, an old Cherokee man named ‘Coon Jack. ‘Coon Jack was continually distempered and cantankerous. Little Tree’s granpa couldn’t figure out what his Pa saw in old ‘Coon Jack.
One Sunday, at the little church down in the hollow, at testifying time “‘Coon Jack stood up and said, ‘I hear tell they’s some in here been talking about me behind my back. I want ye to know that I’m awares. I know what’s the matter with ye; ye’re jealous because the Deacon Board put me in charge of the key to the songbook box. Well, let me tell ye: any of ye don’t like it, I got the difference right here in my pocket.’ “Granpa said, shore enough, ‘Coon Jack lifted his deer shirt and showed a pistol handle. He was stomping mad.
“Granpa said that church house was full of some hard men, including his Pa. He said his Pa stood up and said, “‘Coon Jack, every man here admires the way ye have handled the key to the songbook box. Best handling ever been done. If words has been mistook to cause ye discomfort, I here and now state the sorrow of every man present.
“‘Coon Jack set down, total mollified and contented, as was everybody else.
“On the way home, Granpa asked his Pa why ‘Coon Jack could get away with such talk, and Granpa said he got to laughing about ‘Coon Jack acting so important over the key to the songbook box. He said his Pa told him, ‘Son, don’t laugh at ‘Coon Jack. Ye see, when the Cherokee was forced to give up his home and go to the Nations, ‘Coon Jack was young, and he hid out in these mountains, and he fought to hold on. When the War ‘tween the States come, he saw maybe he could fight that same guvmint and get back the land and homes. He fought hard. Both times he lost. When the War ended, the politicians set in, trying to git what was left of what we had. ‘Coon Jack fought, and run, and hid, and fought some more. Ye see, ‘Coon Jack come up in the time of fighting. All he’s got now is the key to the songbook box. And if ‘Coon Jack seems cantankerous…well, there ain’t nothing left for ‘Coon Jack to fight. He never knowed nothing else.’
“Granpa said, he come might near crying for ‘Coon Jack. He said after that, it didn’t matter what ‘Coon Jack said, or did…he loved him, because he understood him.
“Granpa said that such was ‘kin,’ and most of people’s mortal trouble come about by not practicing it; from that and politicians.’ “I could see that right off,” Little Tree says, “and might near cried about ‘Coon Jack myself.” (38-39)
“After that, it didn’t matter what ‘Coon Jack said or did…he loved him, because he understood him.” That’s what it means to be kin…to practice kin.
To a large degree, that’s what seems to be missing in our world today–in Washington, in Chile, in Yemen, in Myanmar…we seem to have forgotten that we’re kin, that we’re all connected, and that the way to strengthen those connections is to get to know each other, to work at understanding each other…to sit back and listen, really listen to each other. The last line of a poem by Elizabeth Alexander asks: “Are we not of interest to each other?”
I wonder if, after reading Paul’s letter, Chloe’s people started taking an interest in Peter’s people. And maybe Paul’s people took an interest in Apollos’ people. What might happen if Republicans and Democrats took an interest in each other? What might happen if the top 1% took more interest in the bottom 1%? What might happen if the northern hemisphere took more of an interest in the southern hemisphere?
What might happen if we here at FCUCC took more interest in each other? What if, when some of us got a little cantankerous, the rest of us got curious about the source of that cantankerousness? What if we listened to each other more, and worked even harder at understanding each other?
If we did these things, might we better reflect God’s love? If we did these things, might people who are walking in darkness get a glimmer of light? If we did these things, might we become an even stronger community…and might the world through us become a little more whole?
What I’m wondering is, might the broken world be waiting in darkness for the light that is us?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2020