For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. Is there a more powerful word in all of scripture? There’s a lot packed into these short eight verses from the pen of Paul and we’ll dive into it shortly. It’s great to be with you this morning for week three in our current series, “You Have My…” We started with “You Have My… Word” and everyone in worship that day was invited to draw a word, their very own unique word that might focus their prayers for the year. We have some more words available for you to draw today if you didn’t draw one in the last two weeks – now, it’s not a trade-in-your-old-word-for-a-new-one-because-you-didn’t- like-your-word opportunity. Give your words some time – pray on it, with it, around it, and see what God may move within you this year through the letters of that one word. Last week we said to God, “You Have My… MESS.” Everybody has one… a mess that is. Anne Lamott wrote about this saying, “Everyone is messed up… broken, clinging and scared. Everyone. Even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe so try not to compare your insides to their outsides.” Give your mess to God. Now, I know that’s not easy. It’s a daily challenge. I saw this little clip from the movie Austin Powers this week that someone had titled “trying to turn my life around like…”
Have you ever felt like that? You want to turn things around but it’s never as easy as you hope it will be. Nonetheless, we give our word, our mess to God and we keep after it every day and the Way opens at some point… we’ve just got to be prepared to recognize it and step through the opening with courage.
Today? “You Have My… People.” Every time I say that the first thing I picture is Al Roker towering over the crowds on the Today Show’s Friday concert series yelling, “My People! My People!” as the adoring crowd below him goes nuts. They were always cheering for Cher or Blake Shelton or the Hanson Brothers – whoever was doing the concert that day but Roker capitalized on an easy cheer. We all want people. Sometimes we use that language about our spouse or somebody we love: “You are my person,” we say with deep affection. We talk about our posse of friends – the boys, the gals, the crew, the gang – “Those are my people.” And when we get too big for our britches we say things like, “Have your people call my people.” But what are we talking about here, “You Have My… People?”
Paul’s writing to the Corinth Church which was full of interesting people. When Paul got together with other ministers to talk about their lives (because ministry can be a lonely life oddly enough), Paul talks about the Corinth Church saying, “That was the one. That was the church.” Some pastors say, “There’s always that one church in your career in ministry that really worked you over.” Paul surely said, “Yep. First Church Corinth. Man!” The city itself had quite the reputation. It was sort of the “What happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth” kind of thing. Lots of messes but Paul comes, spends a year-and-a-half with these people and many come to faith. But when people become Christians, they don’t at the same moment become nice. This often comes as a bit of a surprise to us but it makes sense. It takes a while to get that life turned around like Austin Powers in the narrow hallway. So as Paul moves on from Corinth to spread the Gospel elsewhere, the church runs into some issues including some major factions. Paul’s response is pastoral. It’s affectionate but firm. He doesn’t waver from his belief that the movement of Christ in the Spirit of God is active and present among them. Paul doesn’t disown them or throw them out on the basis of bad behavior or altogether flip out. He doesn’t totally shout, “Get it together people!” Maybe he does a little bit. But he takes it more or less in stride and keeps pouring the message of God’s love into their midst. After a word to say, “God’s got you. God will never give up on you,” he starts into our passage set aside for today.
Paul says, “I write about a serious matter and I say it as urgently as I can – ‘You must get along with each other. You’ve got to find agreement, cultivate a life in common, or the tires of the movement are going to fall off.” Agreement is hard, isn’t it? We’ve all been shaped and molded differently by various backgrounds, experiences, hardships, traditions… and we come together to attempt something beautiful for God and we’ve all got a little different slant on how that looks; how that comes to life. Sometimes the things you hear and say even make you tilt your head like a dog who is thinking deeply about something and wonder if we’re even telling the same story.
Dr. James Bonk, who’s now in the resurrection, was a legendary chemistry professor at Duke University. He taught at Duke for 53 years. Over the years he had instructed more than 30,000 students and many of them came to call his general chemistry classes, “Bonkistry.” Sort of a term of endearment. One of the legends that grew over time was a famous story about Dr. Bonk and a few of his students. Four of his top students who had performed well all semester decided they were on top of things enough that the weekend before the final exam they could handle a weekend of partying in Virginia. They made it back that Monday just before the exam but because they’d had a ‘full and hard’ weekend they weren’t really of clear mind to take the test. So they contacted Dr. Bonk and told him they had gotten a flat tire, had no spare and no way of getting back in time to be ready for the exam. They asked if they could take it later and though Bonk was skeptical, he agreed to accommodate their request. Their test day came and he put the four students in four separate rooms to take the exam. They looked at the first problem which was something simple about free radical formation and it was worth five points. “Cool,” they thought, “this is going to be easy.” They did that problem and turned the page. They were not prepared for what turned out to be the second and final question on the exam. It was worth the remaining 95 points. The question was simply, “Which tire?” These four young men had not even considered such a possibility when they concocted their story and with conflicting answers, they all failed the test.
The Corinthian church has a flat tire problem and the nail causing this particular puncture was factionalism. The community had fallen to cliques. Some were partial to Paul’s teaching. Others to Peter. Others yet Apollos. Some said, “We’re above all of that stuff. We only follow Christ.” But they were causing other problems with their holier than thou attitude which only deepened the schismatic atmosphere in the church. All of this was news to Paul. I’m kind of surprised that he was surprised actually. The text doesn’t suggest the leaders were seeking allegiance from the people but the people were making it a point of contention. And poor Chloe’s family. Paul rats them out as the tattle tails. “They’ve told me the most disturbing thing and I’ll tell you exactly what they said: ‘You’re picking sides and causing divisions.’ “Paul’s my guy.” “Peter’s our man.” “I like Apollos’ sermons best.” And all a sudden they’re a divided people and nobody wants to sit with Chloe’s family at the church potlucks.
We inaugurated the 45th President in the history of our country on Friday and I couldn’t help but hear many of the same things: “I’m still with Hillary!” “Obama was the best.” “Trump’s the only one who’ll make America great again.” Some have claimed during the last eight years: “Obama is the antichrist.” Now the other side is saying, “Trump is Satan.” Another friend asked, “Remind me why Gary Johnson didn’t win?” Another yet: “Biden should be President!” and others are still feeling the Bern. Some are just hoping George W. can get his rain pancho-situation squared away. The Pauline voice in all of this, (who would that be, Tom Brokaw?) might say, “What do you people want? Do you want to chop America up into little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?” It’s so bitter. And I get it. I have my own feelings about what is fair and just and honorable and what I want for the country I love but the bickering is not helpful. Whether Trump is your guy or you see him as enemy, Jesus says, “Pray for him.” I pray for our new President to lead with wisdom, compassion, and justice but I’m with Richard Rohr who also says, “We can’t simply sit back and watch whatever unfolds.” Rohr details further, “We the people have a tremendous responsibility to work together, to speak truth to power, to peacefully advocate for the rights of all beings and the earth.”  This would be true no matter who put their left hand on the Bible at noon on Friday. President Trump was not elected to do this for us. We are to do it because the ultimate leader of our faith showed us such a way. Let us move forward with the courage of our faith without allowing cynicism to sour our efforts. I can still hear the echo of Martin Luther King Jr, who said, “Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.” King said this even stronger when he said, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.” President Obama was so gracious this past week and when pressed by the media over and over for a negative sound bite, he’d say things like, “This isn’t the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world.” None of this changes what is required of us. If we answer to our Ultimate Authority – the loving God of all the world – then our mandate remains the same: “Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.” Now let’s just be honest with ourselves for a minute – we’re sitting in worship after all – how well have we done those three things this past week? Lord knows I fell short.
But we aren’t to wallow in our shortcomings. We rise above. We rise again. I don’t care if you’re registered Red, Blue, or Purple, the Book of Life registry is asking for much more than our politics can ever ask. The cross doesn’t let us off the hook that easily if we truly proclaim to value what the depth of what the cross means to us. Paul says, “Shall I just cut up the Messiah in little pieces so you all can be satisfied with your little part of his way?” The commentary then gets a little funny. It’s got parentheticals and all sorts of caveats. Paul says, “Was I crucified for you? I didn’t even participate in any of your baptisms… well, except for Crispus and Gaius and come to think of it – maybe the Stephanas’s family – but that’s it.” Ultimately it doesn’t matter. He says, “God didn’t send me here to build a name for myself or to create a community of Paulians. I came to point to God; to build a following of Christ.” ‘Can’t we all just get along?’
Tom Bandy is President of Thriving Church Consulting and one who has watched the movement of the church for decades now. He wrote as we launched into the New Year this potent statement: “The public no longer assumes that the church is the primary unit of God’s mission.” Churches are closing right and left. A bustling Christian Church was a given several decades ago. It was even a given as a statement of whom you were in the public life. If you wanted to be somebody in the corporate world or have any impact on the community, you better be a member of a church. That was expected. Not so any more. Why? Is it because we’ve accepted that the church should be a given? That’s just not going to fly anymore. We’ve got to live in such a way, treat each other in such a way, demonstrate unity in our beautiful diversity in such a way that people outside of the church can peek in and say, “Huh. There’s something different about them. They’re not as judgmental as I thought. They’re not as cliquish as I thought. They’re still hypocritical sometimes but they acknowledge it. They don’t proclaim perfection. They truly care for the poor, the marginalized, the persecuted. Huh.” Sometimes we have to detox from all of our dysfunctional embeddedness; unlearn some things so that we can re-learn Christ and Christ crucified. Are we helping the cause of Christ or are we hurting it? When you get ready to post something on social media do you first pause and think, “Am I helping the cause of unity or am I only creating further divide with my clever, little, sometimes snarky post?” Paul knew the movement was in a critical state – it was young and new and fresh and wouldn’t survive in-fighting. There would be differences, yes, but unifying around Christ would strengthen the movement.
At our staff meeting this week we were talking about this passage and the hostile division we are experiencing in our country and beyond. One from the team mentioned a child who had said something to them of this effect: “Orange? I’m supposed to hate orange.” It was an OSU/OU sort of embedded hatred that was to be generationally reinforced. And we get that. We laugh about these sorts of bitter rivalries… some laugh I guess… for some it couldn’t be more serious. I’m as competitive as the next person. But I wonder if we emphasize this sort of thing in our children that causes more harm than we might think. “I’m supposed to hate orange and I don’t even know why?” At some point, it becomes “I’m supposed to hate gay people and I don’t know why?” “I’m supposed to hate Muslims and I don’t know why?” “I’m supposed to hate democrats or republicans, white people, black people, brown people, old people, young people.” “I’m supposed to hate people that aren’t my people but I’m not really sure why.” The church, now more than ever, is called to show a different way. God looks at all of humanity and says, “These are my people.” When we hurt or hate another, we do so to God’s beloved.
How do we come up for air? For Ruach – the Holy Spirit breath that elevates the church not deflates it. Remember that we are all a work in progress. Err on the side of leaving more room than less for one another as we work out our salvation together – and it is a together-work. Your faith can be personal but not individual. We need each other. This is why we drive in carpools. The faith is not for single-occupant vehicles. We journey together, sharing what God is doing in our lives, sharing our vulnerable moments, our concerns, our fears… demonstrating courage amid adversity, testifying to how we’re growing from our diverse experiences of the Spirit. And perhaps more importantly now than ever, we must avoid spiritual elitism. A church running on four good tires will never succumb to a sense that “My spirituality is deeper than your spirituality.” We’ve all got much to learn about discipleship and we must be humble enough to grow together – growing into Christ. Nothing short of that will shine light into the dark corners of our lives, our city, our world. Are we up for that?
Monasticism is a way of life, and monasteries are full of real people. One monk, asked about diversity in his small community, said that there were monks who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes; monks who are scholars and those who are semi-literate; chatterboxes and those who emulate Calvin Coolidge with regard to speech. “But,” he said, “Our biggest problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.” The cross is foolishness to those who want to argue over potatoes, or politics, or anything that is my-way-or-the-highway. But to those who are being saved, welcomed, fed, served, loved, forgiven, reconciled, honored, humbled… the cross – well – it’s the very deepest servant-power of God. “God, you have my word, you have my mess, you have my people.” And God, this week especially, may very well say the same to us, “You have my people”… all of them. Love them. Love them.
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 Much of the Corinth Church background was inspired by Eugene Peterson in his introduction to 1st Corinthians as found in The Message version of the Bible.
 This story about Bonk and his students has been told for years and in many different places. I found it in Bob Kaylor’s work “The Run-Flat Church”. Homiletics Online. Jan 22. The other connections to “flat-tires” in this message are inspired by this work as well.
 From Rohr’s daily meditations which come from the Center of Action and Contemplation. January 19.
 This quote came from a piece a friend had shared from a recent Outreach Magazine article, “Stuck”. Bandy’s contribution came under the title, “Ask the Uncomfortable Questions.”