Monday, January 10, 2011

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Denise Levertov a very fine poet has a poem that talks about a wishing well. She said when she was young there was this beautiful spring--it bubbled out of the ground--it was less than three feet across. She said she and others would come there to dream their dreams. To stretch their imaginations and to warm their hearts. Nobody threw money in the pool back then. Maybe money was too scarce--even pennies. So when they made a wish they would throw a stone into the water. She said, for her, it was magical place. A place of wonder and glory. It became a launching pad from where she would journey forth into a larger world. Years later she went back home and visited the wishing well. To her horror--she found the well clogged with bottles, tin cans, paper and plastic. She wondered who would throw rubbish in such a place? Who in their right minds would destroy the stream? She wondered if the stream could be cleaned out--and if so, if it might live again. She wondered if yet another generation of children just might find some magic and wonder and hope as she too had found in that special spot.


Word came to Paul in Ephesus that the Church he had started in Corinth was having a terrible time. On his second missionary journey Paul had established a church there with the help of Priscilla and Aquila and Silas and Timothy in that port city of 600,000. In about 50 AD they built a strong church--you might even call it a wishing well. In that wildest of secular cities--where immorality was rampant--they damned up this little stream. And, in time, it became a place of healing and wholeness. Paul stayed there a year and a half before he moved on. Five years later--word came that the stream he had worked so hard to build--was clogged. The church was broken into factions. There were incredible problems. Incest, they were divided over leadership, split between rich and poor, slave and free. They were suing each other in the courts. They got drunk at the Lord's Table. They couldn't agree on anything. And so the stream once pure, fresh and magical--was clogged with the sins and debris of that age.

And so Paul wrote First and Second Corinth in the hope that they just might unclog the stream. That they might once again rediscover the wonder of the wishing well. It was a personal  word to the church. After his opening remarks found in the first three verses of First Corinthians 1 He began the letter with a Prayer of Thanksgiving. Fred Craddock has called it a Pastoral Prayer. The old first Pastor lifted up his longings for his beloved people. In the prayer he articulated the church's needs in Corinth. That prayer dealt with practical concerns. This prayer would serve as a table of contents for the whole of First Corinthians. But this prayer was more than all that. It was a careful prescription for how Corinth might carefully and tediously stoop down and begin to clean out the debris, the clutter that clogged the healing stream.

Paul gave Corinth five suggestions in his prayer. To this troubled, troubled Church, in grave danger of extinction--he writes a prayer of hope. This is what he says.


"I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus..."(vs.1). You have been graced. As Corinth muttered and complained and fought and whined--Paul called them back. His approach was interesting. No looking over his glasses and saying: "You are wrong." No tut-tut. No shaking his head. No judgment at all. He called them back to the heart of their faith. Grace. Without this grace, this amazing grace, there would be no church and no stream.

So our binding tie is not doctrine--important though it is. Not history--rich though it is. Not culture or law. Not "Thou Shalt Not..." What keeps us together, Paul said, is this grace of God--given to you in Jesus Christ.

Garrison Keillor underlines this point in his book We Are Still Married, "To know and serve God, of course, is why we're here, a clear truth that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word." And then he adds: "Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers and small talk, music and books, raising kids--all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through."
Paul says you unclog the stream when you begin with grace.


The second thing the Apostle said was "that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge."(vs.5) Not only have you been graced but you have been enriched. Paul wrote you begin to unclog the healing stream when you remember you are wealthy. He told that shabby little church that could hardly pay their bills that they were rich.  Now I would not have said that. That troubled fussy group. Saying nasty things about their former Pastor. Sounds like to me they needed some: Why don't you clean up your act. Change your ways. Don't you know you are tearing the church to pieces. Give them hell. Let 'em have it. Not Paul. He said if you want to unclog the stream in Corinth you must remember you are wealthy. From the words of your lips to the understanding of your hearts you are a wealthy people.

Russell Conwell was a great preacher of another day. He went all over the country preaching one sermon that made him famous: "Acres of Diamonds." Do you know what he said? In your own backyard there are all the treasures you'll ever, ever need. Corinth had forgotten that as we forget it, too. We unclog the stream when we rediscover the wealth, the riches of our lives.


The next thing Paul said was that: "You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ."(vs.7) You have been gifted. Corinth was divided over spiritual maturity. Who was a first class Christian? Those whose character was impeccable? But there were those others. Newcomers. Slaves, Poor. Not aware of the traditions in Corinth. Why they didn't know a Doxology from a Benediction. Paul says: there is no pecking order in church. Generals, Colonels, Sergeants and Privates. And Paul wrote: None of you are lacking in the gifts of God.

Isn't that what brought this church into being.? Not only was it a problem of race. It was also a problem that there was this pecking order. And their former Pastor reminded them:  Everybody has a gift. And our job is to uncover those gifts and call them forth.

At a community meeting not too long ago a black man stood up and told us that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He lived under a bridge. He was utterly destitute. But somebody at the Firehouse Shelter took an interest. Loved him. Listened to him. Took him seriously. Had his teeth fixed. Helped him sober up. He now runs an office supply company. He said every time I see some homeless person walking down a street I say: That could be me. But somebody believed in him. There was not a dry eye when he got through telling his story. Do you see what call said? We all have a gift.


Paul wasn't through. He had only started, really. He wrote to Corinth: "...the Lord Jesus Christ...will sustain you to the end...God is faithful...:(vs.7b-9a) Graced. Enriched. Gifted. And now: You have been strengthened by God. I love the way Clarence Jordan translated it in the Cotton Patch Version: "He will stand by you come what may." Or another translation says: "He will see to it that you will be able to hold out to the end." You want to unclog the stream and let the water flow, Corinth? Then remember God is faithful. He'll give you all you need.

You know remember the Y2K anxiety. As we approached the year 2,000 gloom and doom was everywhere. Why computers were going to shut down. Planes would fall from the sky, cash registers wouldn’t work—our Visa bills would be a nightmare. Doctors would lose your records--you'd never get your Social Security stuff straightened out. It went on and on. Put all those fears down beside the 2011 fears. The country is in a mess. The economy has tanked. We can’t seem to resolve anything in Washington. People are scared and many are saying our best days are behind us. As 2000 happened the sky did not fall and we moved into a New Year and millennium. Don’t we need a reminder for our time, too?

But down beside all this madness, Paul says: He will see to it that you will be able to hold our to the end. This was the ground of Paul's confidence. Not in some computer. Not even in the vast talent in Corinth. No. We are strengthened by the grace of God as God’s people have always discovered in hard times.


Paul said the water, the pure water would begin to return to the stream. "By him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."(vs. 9) If the stream flows pure and clean--we will know that we have been called into a fellowship.

This is no private matter. The stream belongs to everybody. Everybody. We have almost forgotten the common good. Later, speaking of divisions, Paul would say: "The hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you..." If one part hurts, all hurt.

The last thing Jesus ever prayed was that they, scattered and different, would be one. That you might be one as the Father and Son are one. It means that we are all included in the family. We all have a place at the Table. It means that you and I have some responsibility to every member of the family. Anything that hurts the body is wrong. It clogs the stream. It blocks the flow of water that everybody needs. It hinders the work God dreamed for Corinth.

Let me tell you a story. It helped me see once more how vital and important this stream really is. I went back to the second church I ever served some time ago. And they had videoed the service that day and gave me a copy when I left. It was a little tiny church on a busy highway. If you were driving by chances are you would miss it. In that visit back we had a wonderful time. It was just as Baptist and predictable and country as any place you have been. A little choir of about twelve people sang off-key and loud on every song. Over the choir was the round window of Jesus praying in the Garden.  As the video started Frances strode up to the pulpit. She had been nine years old when I was there. She was raised back of the store by a mother with five children and had nothing except food stamps. She stood and talked about how the church how helped her come to know that God loved her and she was important. “I’m still here,” she said, “and I still believe God loves me.” Virl followed her and talked about how her husband would never set foot in the church. ”We had all these kids,” she said, “and nobody to help me. But one day Junior came to church and he walked down the aisle and became a Christian. Now he’s a deacon. This church changed our lives,”  Rob came and talked about how his father and mother had been charter members of that church. His Mama had been President of the WCTU and quite a force to be reckoned with. Her husband was always there fixing and helping and working and loving. Always a deacon. The video panned across the room and there was Beulah and her five children. When her husband died and she didn’t think she could make it—the church was there and helped. Roy came to the platform. He was a big road contractor who said, “During the hard days when I was shot at by the newspapers for political reasons, I couldn’t have made it without this church.” He would come by my office when I was there and say, “Preacher, what does the church need?” And I would tell him and he would take his check book and write a check, hand it to me and say, “Don’t tell nobody.” It was an all-too-human place but somehow  these people as human as you and me came togerther. And in the coming they discovered a well of water deep and pure and it kept them going.

They ended that service by singing the old gospel song, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine…” It may have been a mite off key and very loud but it brought tears to my eyes:

“Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

If drove down that highway this morning and pulled into the parking lost around eleven o’clock the doors would be open and the bell would ring and church would start. And the wishing well will be in full operation. It will be far from perfect, but the well will be working. Isn’t this what Paul had in mind? There is some place where we really are graced and enriched and gifted and strengthened and called into a fellowship. That is no small thing.

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