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I’ve been reading the laments of Scripture–expressions of grief over  how the wicked flourish and act with impunity, how the poor are crushed, how the world is broken down.  One weary lament has resonated with me during this season:  “How long, O Lord?  How long?”  Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of the kingdom of heaven.  It is a season of waiting and wanting.  We long for and (in the words of Charles Wesley) pine for the day when our exile will be over and God will intervene to make all things new.  When I hear the news of war, when I watch the clashes on our streets, while I feel the sting of death, I want to cry out, “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

I have also found myself praying the Lord’s prayer frequently.  According to the early church discipleship manual, the Didache, believers were expected to repeat this prayer three times daily.  I’m already up to four times and it is only 11:00 am.  I keep repeating the phrases, “Your kingdom come; your will be on on earth as in heaven” and “deliver us from evil.”  Yesterday, we prayed in the middle of Fullerton Avenue as we marched: “Your kingdom come; your will be done in the 14th Police District, throughout Chicago, throughout the suburbs, in Ferguson, MO, in New York City, on earth as in heaven.”  We prayed: “Deliver us from evil ‘cuz black lives matter, latino lives matter, all lives matter.”  We cried out in the midst of our wilderness.

I find great hope in God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I have seen the misery of my people; I have heard their crying out; I am concerned about their suffering.  So I have come down to rescue them.”  God sees; God hears; God rescues!  God sent a deliverer–Jesus.  And Jesus sends us.  “As the father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  So we cry out–not in despair, but in great hope and deep faith and persevering love–“The Kingdom of heaven is coming!”

O God, Yours is the kingdom.  Yours is the power.  Yours is the glory, forever and ever!  Amen!

And so begins Charles Dickens’ tale, A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I have a confession to make.  I’ve seen the play and I’ve watched the 1951 Alistair Sim movie version and (dare I say) the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, but I’ve never read the book.  Until this year. I understand why the beloved story of transformation has become such an embedded part of the Christmas tradition.  However, during my reading, I realized that our depictions of Scrooge’s transformation from a hard-hearted, greedy miser to a joyful, generous philanthropist on Christmas morning are quite shallow.  By keeping the story safely contained in the nostalgia of the Christmas season, we can keep it from truly confronting our own hard-hearted greed.

The parallels between Dickens’ 1840’s London and our own time are striking.  Scrooge was a part of the 1% of his day.  While the few at the top thrived, everyone else just barely survived.  The wealthy elite viewed the unproductive as “surplus population” that needed to be decreased–if by disease or disaster, so be it.  The poor, the jobless and the homeless were a drain on resources.  The solution?  Criminalize and incarcerate.  Sound familiar?

The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge is profound.  He wakes up on Christmas morning not merely happy that he is alive nor with some vague resolution to be nicer to others in the new year.  Through his encounter with the three spirits, he understands the ways in which his classism and narcissism–and the structures of social order–have brought great harm to others.  His transformation is not about becoming more kind, but about becoming more just.  His actions go beyond merely giving a goose to a poor family for Christmas dinner or giving his employee a small Christmas bonus.  His actions are radical.  He gives Bob Cratchet a living wage.  He arranges for family healthcare.  He redistributes his wealth.  He seeks the common good.  We see more than just an attitude adjustment; we see true repentance.  Now humbled, we watch a liberated Scrooge actively participate in the creation of a new community where everyone’s needs are met and everyone shares in the abundance–not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.

I suspect that Dickens wanted to challenge the status quo and suggest that Christmas has the power to transform us–a process which begins with honest reflection and repentance and ends with our becoming a Beloved Community.  This is the transformation we need.  This season, I pray, “Come, Holy Christmas Spirit, and confront us all with who we are and what we will become apart from being filled anew with love for our neighbor–a love that does justice, loves mercy and walks humbly.”

Thoughts from Bruce Ray, Pastor

All Saint’s Day is coming in just a few days and I have challenged my congregation to tell stories of saints that have impacted their lives or who inspire them.  I want to identify several of my spiritual heroes.

My Hero Saints

I’ve always been drawn to stories of courageous people who stand up for what is right no matter what the consequences and of people who do unexpected things that challenge the status quo and even change the course of history. These are a few of my spiritual heroes:

I am inspired by Elijah P. Lovejoy, a Presbyterian who refused to be intimidated by pro-slavery mobs and continued to publish abolitionist materials in Alton, IL—action that ultimately led to his murder in 1837. His murder galvanized the anti-slavery movement in the north.

I am inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune, a Methodist who defied Jim Crow Laws, teaching people how to pass literacy tests and going door to door to collect money to help people pay poll taxes so they could vote. Because of her activities, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn down the school she had established for African American girls.  She stood her ground.

I am inspired by Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican priest who fought South African apartheid. Without him, it is unlikely that there would have been a Bishop Desmond Tutu. Bishop Tutu first met Huddleston on the street as a nine-year-old boy.  It was expected that black children and adults would step into the gutter to allow white people to pass by. Before Desmond and his mother could step off the sidewalk, Huddleston, a white man, stepped into the gutter and tipped his hat to them as they passed. Bishop Tutu identified the experience as the defining moment of his life. He decided at that moment that he wanted to be a “man of God” and an Anglican priest. Of course, Tutu went on to become one of the most outspoken leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

I am challenged by their courage and determination and I thank God for their refusal to live by the dictates of their cultures, and I aspire to follow in their example. Because of them, the light of Christ shines more brightly than ever.

I hear this all the time.  You probably have too.  “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t God stop the murder of little children, and starvation, and the rape of the environment and the ebola outbreak.  And, damn it, why doesn’t God eliminate toenail fungus while he’s at it?” 

The world is a #&%@ mess and God doesn’t seem to notice or care.  The idea of a loving God seems ludicrous and cruel.  Then, last Sunday, we read this passage from Exodus 3:  “Then the Lord said (to Moses), “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the nations. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”  

It hit me.  The problem is not God.  The problem is us.  God sees the suffering, the misery, the oppression and God hears the cries.  God sees and hears what we see and hear.  And God is deeply touched and moved by what God sees and hears.  Unfortunately, we are often untouched and unmoved.  Instead, we identify the problems and then put all the responsibility of fixing the world on God as if God is the cosmic maid–cleaning up the mess.  God IS ready to fix the mess.  “I have come down to deliver,” God says to Moses.  But God then calls Moses to join God in the process of bringing about justice in the world–justice that will bring deliverance.   God expects us (as God’s representatives) to do God’s action in the world.  We cannot divorce ourselves from the solution.  No, if we want things to be different–to be made right–then we need to come out of hiding and engage the powers that are creating the nightmare of injustice.  God calls us to boldly go to the source of the oppression, suffering and misery–to Pharaoh.  And it’s not like we are on our own.  We go in the power and presence of God, I AM.  

Moses was faced with a choice: Join God on God’s mission or stay in Midian (comfortable and safe and detached).  We too are faced with the choice.  But only one option will change the world with God.

“On this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This statement of Jesus assumes something that I had never considered. The church is meant to be on the offensive. “Gates” are not offensive, but defensive. The gates of hell prevail when there is no force that threatens it. The assumption is that the church is on the advance and knocking down the gates. The church is on a mission to take over hell for heaven. Whenever and wherever hell unleashes its destructive force, the church is there to counter it and overcome it by the authority of Christ. Injustice, violence, abuse of power, oppression are all exposed and overcome in Jesus’ name.

It seems that the church hasn’t gotten the message. The church frequently is either unengaged (that’s not our mission) or in retreat (let’s hold on to what we can). If the church is engaged, it often uses the offensive weapon of prayer. While this is appropriate, prayer must lead to action that coordinates with God’s purposes and plans. The church has often been criticized for hiding inside their buildings and staying safe while the world burns. This is not the church Jesus envisions. An unengaged church is an irrelevant church; a retreating church is a pointless church. The church Jesus envisions is a church that makes the gates of hell tremble; a church that moves to bring light and love to the places of deep darkness and hatred.

This is not a time for timidity. This is not a time for retreat. The poor are crying out for deliverance. The marginalized are crying out for justice. The captive are crying out for freedom. It is time for the church to march straight to hell.

On Palm Sunday (April 13, 2014) the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (LSEA) will be hosting its 3rd annual public witness at the Logan Square monument from 12pm—1pm. As in previous years, we will be gathering to celebrate the very public and political nature of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his call to people of faith to resist the values of empire and seek instead “the kingdom of heaven.”

Building on the success of our December 2013 “Posada for Public Housing,” we will be focusing on issues of housing in Logan Square as we hear testimony from people experiencing eviction and foreclosure and campaigning for quality, affordable public housing. Participants will be invited into conversation with one another about faithful responses to our neighbors’ needs, and provided opportunities to get directly involved.

All are invited to participate in this neighborhood event, regardless of religious affiliation or congregational membership. LSEA congregations will be processing from their respective houses of worship carrying palm branches. People are encouraged to bring snack foods, enough to share with one or two other people, so that no one goes hungry as we listen to our neighbors and dream together about God’s preferred future for our community.

No previous notice is required to attend this event, simply come! More information online at: http://logansquareecumenical.blogspot.com.

Edited text from Pastor’s Message on March 2, 2014

Emphásis on the Wrong Sylláble  1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Accent marks don’t seem like much, but in many languages an accent mark can change the meaning of the word entirely.  I am attempting to increase my Spanish language skills through an application called Duolingo.  Sometimes, I forget to include an appropriate accent mark when I’m completing a writing assignment and the program will inform me I’ve used the wrong word and deduct points.  ‘El’ means ‘the’; ‘Él’ means ‘he’.  ‘Si’ means ‘yes’; ‘Sí’ means ‘if’.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  I get confused.  The point is that an accent mark is all it takes to distort communication.  When I put the emphásis on the wrong sylláble, I fail to express myself clearly and I might end up writing something that would be confusing or worse.

The Church at Corinth not only had communication problems (i.e. ‘speaking in tongues’ without interpretation), they were putting the entire congregation at risk by putting excessive emphasis on possessing spiritual gifts.  They loved the gifts–especially the most sensational gifts like “tongues”.  They held certain gifts and their recipients in high regard while minimizing other gifts and reducing their recipients to second class Christians.  They used the gifts to bolster their spiritual status.  The most excellent gifts were their highest priority.  The results of the wrong empháses were harm to relationships and the mission of the church.

It is in this competitive and destructive context that Paul writes, “I will now show you the most excellent way.”  It is not the way of showmanship or boasting or the way of destruction of the body.  It is the way that will result in the common good and the edification of the church.  It is the way of love.  Love must be the priority. 

First Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture.  We usually associate it with wedding ceremonies.  In fact, it is so common at marriages that Owen Wilson bet Vince Vaughn in “The Wedding Crashers” that the first reading would be 1 Corinthians 13.  It was.  Vince Vaughn lost.  However, by lifting 1 Corinthians 13 out as if its context within the dysfunctional relationships within the church at Corinth, we miss how important this passage really is.  Paul did not write this beautiful ‘love’ chapter to instruct brides and grooms.  He wrote it to shift the direction of the church at Corinth away from self-centeredness to “body” awareness and mutual edification.

LOVE IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT.  It is not that skills and gifts and abilities aren’t important to the functioning of the church.  They are necessary for the accomplishment of the mission.  But if gifts are used without consideration for the common good, they are only so much noise and worthless.  Gifts and talents and abilities are not given to you for you.  They are given to you for the sake of others.  Love is always about the other.   It is a question of benefit.  Who benefits?  When the gifts are used in love, everyone benefits.  When only the one using the gifts benefits, it is not just unhelpful, it is harmful. 

I work with young children every day.  Children are not born with an awareness of others.  They are completely self-centered and absorbed with their own wants and needs.  Part of our job in early childhood education is to help children to “de-center”.  In this process, children become aware of other children’s feelings, sharing, helping each other and not hurting each other.  It is not a quick and easy process and there are many tantrums and time-outs along the way.  Children want their own way; want their needs met first; want everyone else to pay attention to them.  They have not grown up.  Part of becoming a mature adult is to become unselfish–to live a de-centered life.  Such an adult can appreciate and meet the needs of others; can feel empathy in the face of suffering.  In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is implying that the church has been stuck in early childhood.  It is time to grow up and become adults.  It is time to de-center and make love the highest priority.

In the church, it is love that sets us apart.  Jesus told his disciples, “By this, all people will know you are my disciples.”  By love.  Not by gifts.  Not by spectacular healings.  Not by speaking unknown languages.  Not by supernatural strength.  Not by intellect.  But by love.  The church God wants us to become, emphasizes the common good, shifting the emphasis from self-interest to the interests of all.  The church built on the foundation of love will seek the welfare of the weakest among them knowing that the health of the weakest will ensure the health of all.   The early church understood this and acted from the beginning to take care of each other’s needs–providing assistance to the poor, eating together, practicing Jubilee.  They acted like a community that sought the common good–not individual glory.  

How different from our culture that emphasis self-actualization, personal fulfillment, individual goals, and selfish pursuits, climbing the ladder of success.  Unfortunately, what we experience daily and what is idealized in our culture tends to walk through the church doors.  The result is a church that acts out of similar priorities with a veneer of spirituality.  Such a church quickly degrades into the church at Corinth.

But there is a more excellent way.  There is Jesus’ way of love.  The results will be a church where everyone is valued, everyone is accepted, everyone is edified and where everyone uses their talents, abilities and spiritual gifts to accomplish the mission to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  And such a church will live out God’s alternative vision for the world–a world where the emphásis is put on the right sylláble–the sylláble of LOVE.

betterEdited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 23, 2014

“Body Dysfunctions”  1 Corinthians 12:1-31

I grew up in a church where every Sunday was pretty much the same.  We sang  old hymns.  We read the Bible.  We stood during the (long) congregational prayer.  We sat still and listened to sermons (though I frequently wrote notes to my friends on my bulletin).  And after a closing blessing, we solemnly filed out of the sanctuary.  We all knew what to expect.  But then I went to college and I was introduced to a very different church experience.  There was freedom and excitement and enthusiasm.  People lifted their hands, the music was joyful and sometimes there was even dancing in the aisles.  Sometimes people were healed.  Often, people would speak in tongues that no one seemed to understand–except occasionally when someone would interpret.  And there was no bulletin!  Each week, there was a sense of anticipation and wonder.  One never knew exactly what would happen next.  The experience was liberating for me and I wanted to experience more.  

It was during this time that I was told about the “baptism of the Spirit”.  All the joy and exuberance was because people had been filled with the Spirit.  I wanted it.  So some friends of mine gathered around me, laid hands on me and prayed that I, too, would receive the baptism of the Spirit.  We waited.  We continued to pray that God’s spirit would fall.  We waited some more.  We were waiting for me to receive the evidence that our prayers were answered.  I was supposed to speak in tongues.  I didn’t.  I wanted to.  I was told that I needed “just let it happen.”  Honestly, I tried.  I followed all their instructions.  I babbled to “prime the pump.”  Nothing happened.  I needed to persevere.  I persevered.  Still nothing happened.

Since I didn’t receive the gift of tongues, and God says, “ask and you shall receive,” obviously something had to be wrong with me.  Maybe, I didn’t have enough faith.  Maybe I was blocking the movement of the Spirit as a result of some sin.  I confessed every sin I could think of.  I read the Bible cover to cover so I would better know God’s will.  I learned all I could about the gifts of the Spirit.  I prayed–hard.  I still didn’t speak in tongues.  Though no one said it, I felt like a second-class Christian.  There were other gifts of the Spirit, but speaking in tongues was THE evidence I expected.  It was the evidence that everyone else around me expected.  It was the one gift above all others that mattered; that made my infilling of the Spirit valid.  

Now that I have matured in my walk in the Spirit, I realize how dysfunctional my college experience had been.  Because there was so much focus on what I had not received, no one could appreciate what I had received–gifts that ultimately propelled me into pastoral ministry and prepared me to help others on their spiritual journey.  The problem was not that people were speaking in tongues–a legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence in person’s life, but that speaking in tongues was held up as the only legitimate expression of the Spirit’s presence and as the pinnacle of personal spirituality.  Along the way I discovered that God had much more to say about spiritual fruit as evidence of the Sprit’s presence.  An over-emphasis on spiritual gifts–especially elevating one gift above all others–was evidence, not of spiritual maturity but of spiritual dysfunction. 

The church at Corinth exemplified this very dysfunction. They too were exalting one gift over all others and were minimizing the other manifestations of the Spirit.  And they were minimizing those members of the church that did not show evidence of greatest spiritual gift–the gift of speaking in tongues—especially “angelic tongues”.   Those who spoke in tongues were more spiritual than those who did not.  Those who did not speak in tongues were inconsequential and unnecessary.  Possession of THE gift led to spiritual pride and social arrogance.  They might as have well worn “I’m better than you” buttons.

Such dysfunction ultimately destroys the church and prevents it from fulfilling its God-given mission.  Paul writes to clarify in no uncertain terms that there are MANY spiritual gifts from God and ALL gifts are necessary to the healthy function of the church.  AND the Spirit distributes the gifts not on the basis of some maturity hierarchy, but as the Spirit wills.  Not every member will be a prophet.  Not every member will speak in tongues.  (Why hadn’t my college friends read that to me?)  Not every member will have the ability to heal.  Therefore, we need each other and the full range of spiritual gifts. 

There is unity within the body of Christ, for we are all baptized by the Spirit into one body, but that does not require uniformity.  In fact, it requires many parts.  To illustrate his point, Paul used the analogy of the human body–a single body made up of many parts–some visible, some protected inside the body, some covered out of modesty, some seemingly inconsequential.  However, ALL parts are indeed needed.  To exalt one gift or one calling or one perspective over all others will only result in spiritual disability. To denigrate certain parts just because they are not visible or because they are small; to say to any part, “I don’t need you,” is the height of arrogance.  

Their hierarchical understanding about spiritual gifts had also led them to a hierarchical attitude toward those who possessed the lesser gifts.  The church had once again divided itself into a group of “haves” (they have the gift) and the “have-nots” (they have not the gift).  This was beyond social class structure–another issue in the church.  Now the church was creating a spiritual class structure!  And the “haves” had little concern about the well-being of the “have-nots”.  

The purpose of spiritual gifts–all the gifts–is for the upbuilding of the entire church.  It is for the common good.  Mutual edification can only occur in an atmosphere of humility and love (the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13).  For the common good to flourish, we must treat each other as though they are God’s gift to us.

The church that God means for us to be is a church that values diversity of gifts and diversity of people demonstrated through respect, mutual care and equality.   Unfortunately, many churches, while giving lip service to diversity, have actually pursued segregation.  One of the foundational principles of the Church Growth Movement is that churches can only grow in homogeneous groupings of people.  In a book entitled, Our Kind of People, C. Peter Wager wrote, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers”.  Therefore, segregated churches based on socio-economics, education, race, language, generation and even spiritual gifts have been (and continue to be) planted throughout America.  Rather than the church embracing diversity and the gifts of different cultures, experiences and perspectives, the church has chosen instead to organize itself on the principle of “separate but equal” (which is never truly equal) and on the de facto statement, “I don’t need you.”  This structure has resulted in mega-churches and mega-church wannabes that have little power to challenge the status quo.  And because the body of Christ is not engaging the gifts of all the members, the result is a church that has actually lost its voice.  We can hardly speak about systemic injustice when our own systems mirror the injustice.

The church needs a reformation which affirms the need for all gifts, experiences and perspectives.  The church needs to make new choices about welcome and inclusion.  The church needs a structure that allows for those of “lesser gifts” to do their part with great respect and honor.  While diversity of people and gifts within a denomination or a local church is challenging, it is what God desires.  Isn’t that why God gave us the Spirit in the first place–to empower us to do God’s will in the world and to be God’s witnesses across all lines of division?

 

ImageEdited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 16, 2014

“We’re A Classy Organization!”  1 Corinthians 11:17-34

What class are you?  Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, Working Class, Lower?  We even define an Underclass–people who are no longer connected to the normal support systems such as employment, housing and even public aid.  According to a 2012 Gallup survey, a large majority of Americans define themselves as Middle Class.  But Class in America is nebulous since it is a self-definition and self-perception in relationship to others.  Besides, who wants to self-identify as “low class”?  Often, class identity is related to levels of education, profession or job choice, ethnicity and race.  But most often it is determined by wealth.  Historically, Class and privilege go hand in hand.  If you’ve seen the movie “Titanic”, you will remember the defined boundaries of class.  One may go down the decks (if one so inexplicably chooses), but never up and there are locked gates to remind you of your class.  The higher one’s class, the more rights and privileges one enjoys.  The higher one’s class, the more access one has to participation in corporate life and all the benefits participation affords.  The higher one’s class, the more power one has to set the rules for full participation.

In the US Constitution, we say that all men are created equal and that all men have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But equality has never been equally distributed.  Initially, it was reserved for white males property owners.  African Americans were 3/4 of a man.  Women didn’t count.  And it has taken long battles to expand the definition of equality.  Less than 100 years ago, women finally got the right to vote, and women have come a long way (Baby!).  But women still don’t have the economic security that men enjoy.  Lass than 50 years ago, African Americans were included in the right to vote, but despite the election of an African American to the presidency, they continue to face economic and social marginalization.  “Equality” has never been a given and class and economic status continue to determine where one lives, what job one does, where one shops, what one wears, what one eats, what kind of education one’s children receive and what one considers “possible” for the future. In a supposedly “equal” America, we have a very unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity which results in very unequal health, housing, education—virtually every aspect of life.

Class is not a new idea.  According to James Jeffers, author of The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, Roman society was extremely stratified with very clear “class” lines that could not be crossed. You were born into a specific class of people and you likely died the same class. “The Romans evaluated a person’s status based on whether the person was a citizen or a foreigner, patron or client, free or slave, ethnic Roman/Latin or not, voluntary ally or conquered enemy, male or female, and married or unmarried” (p. 182).

In Rome, one literally wore their class. In high school, I took 2 years of Latin—don’t ask me why.  In that class, I learned two things.  First, I learned the phrase of Julius Caesar, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”   The second thing I learned was how to wear a toga—basically a sheet wrapped around the body that had to be held up by one arm.  I had to wear one for a day to be initiated into “Latin Club.”  It was quite embarrassing because if I didn’t hold it up exactly right, I could end up…um…bare assed.  Besides learning to hold up my toga, I learned that only male citizens of Rome could wear a toga.  (Women wore Stolas.) The toga identified one’s class.  In addition, not all togas were created equal.  Togas with 2 thin purple stripes down the sides (purple was the “power color” of the day) were reserved for the “equestrian class”.  These were not horse owners, but men of “noble birth”.  A wide purple stripe down the middle of the toga was reserved for the senatorial class—the ruling class.  Class within a class.  Upper middle, Lower middle…we understand the concept.

If you were not a citizen, you were likely a freedman—a former slave (and you got to wear a simple tunic–without colors.  Freedmen could never become citizens and remained dependent upon a “Patron”—the head of the household.  You were the “client”—basically hired help.  You became a member of the household (which gave you some security—a place to live and some income).  But in exchange for the security, the client lost all privileges and was under the control of the paterfamilias (the father of the household).

If you were not a freedman, you were likely a slave.  The slave class had no rights whatsoever and was considered property. The best they could ever hope for was to be given their freedom so they could become a “freedman.”  Unlike slavery in the US, it was not race based, and often took the form of indentured servitude.

Women were a subset in each class.  In Rome, citizen women had the right to divorce their husbands, but not much else.  It was a male-dominated society.  In everything, pater potestas was the order of things—the power of the father.  Even adult married men with children were under the power of their fathers or grandfathers until his death.

Benefits of being in the “toga” class included getting the best seats at shows, entitlement to bigger portions and better quality portions of food or wine than the lower classes, and greater access to courts and justice. Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of caste and class. For instance, if a patron had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high class to be served more and better food and drink than others sitting at the table of less social standing.  If you weren’t part of the “toga” class, you would likely be served the leftovers (or the crumbs) in a separate location after all the guests had been served to their fill.  All this was as natural as breathing.  It was the way the world worked. It was just accepted practice.

So let’s go to church in Corinth.  The First Century church met in a home—probably the home of a patron.  The church likely included everyone who was part of the household—the “clients” and the slaves–and the guests of the patron.  The weekly “church service” probably included a meal that concluded with the Lord’s Supper.  So far, no problem.  But there is a problem in the church that has been reported to Paul.  Not everyone was being given access to the meal!  The social stratification that was so “normal” was shaping the practice of the church.  When the Lord’s Supper was being served, the ‘haves’ were getting gorged and drunk and the “have nots” got the crumbs that were left on the plate.

While this way of behaving might have been “normal” in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it was completely unacceptable.  His response, “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this! 

Why is Paul so incensed by the behavior of the upper class?  Because their behavior toward the poor is a complete mockery of the work of Jesus’s death remembered at the Lord’s table and of the new community God had created through the baptism of the Spirit.   Paul reminds them in 1 Corinthians 12:13,  “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  The Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (I Corinthians 10:17) The inequality being practiced in the assembly at Corinth during the Lord’s Supper was a denial of that unity.  Whatever was “normal” outside the church was not to be replicated inside the church, the Body of Christ.  The church at Corinth had turned the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions and claim higher “approval” from God based on their class.   As a result, their assembly was doing more harm than good.

To maintain the social class structure within the way the church organizes itself and practices its communal life is an affront to Christ and an affront to the brothers and sisters who have been mistreated and humiliated.  To marginalize those of lower economic or social status is to bring shame to Christ and act as one who betrays Christ.  Eating the Lord’s Supper while maintaining the inequities is eating in a manner that is unworthy of the Lord.  It is to fail to discern the body of Christ.  The church in Corinth has continued to structure itself along the same lines as the caste system of Greco-Roman society.  And they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves.

The Church we were never meant to be practices the social hierarchy of the culture. God wants the church to be a place of equality where the lines of class and caste are completely eliminated.  Whatever you are on the outside should no longer make a difference on the inside.  It should be revolutionary.

Wow!  I never heard this growing up in the church.  The “words of communion” were lifted out of this passage so I always thought that the commands about self-examination and taking communion unworthily were about introspection about my personal sins.  Taking communion without first doing a self-assessment related to my wickedness was a dangerous thing.  It might lead to sickness or even death.  The self-examination that Paul commands is about assessing how the church treats those who do not have the privileges of the upper class.  To celebrate a class based Lord’s supper to to eat in an unworthy manner.  The church is unhealthy because of inequitable relationships within the church. The church is dying because the poor have been humiliated.  The church is dying because the church has maintained the divisions of social class.

The solution?  First, eat at home!  In other words, don’t bring your social biases and structure into the assembly and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  And secondly, wait for one another.  The word “wait for” can also mean “welcome” or “include”.  In other words, make sure that you eat with those who have been marginalized.

It’s a good thing we’ve learned from Corinth!  We’ve got celebration of the Lord’s Supper down.  We all get a little piece of bread and a little shot of juice.  All about the same size–tiny.  Then, we all eat it and drink it at the same time.  And we all go home hungry.

But are we really that different from Corinth?  If we look deeper than the logistics of communion, the church in America has a long history of marginalization and unequal treatment based upon class or status.   We have Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists because of slavery.  We have churches we perceive for the wealthy and churches we perceive for the poor.  “High Church” and “Low Church” often refers as much to class as it does to liturgical structure.  We still make distinctions and we still practice those distinctions in the life of the church.  We have denominations that ordain women and other that refuse based on an restrictive view of women’s spiritual capacity–a view Jesus never shared.  We have churches that are open and affirming and those who “hate fags” based on a restrictive view of gender and sexuality–a view the early church never shared since those of undefined sexuality–eunuchs–were fully included in the life of the church. In making the distinctions, we continue to fail to “discern the body of Christ.”

I can hear Paul saying to the 21st century church:  “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this! 

What is the solution for us?  “Eat at home!”  Check your biases and class consciousness at the church door.  Whatever is ‘normal’ outside the church MUST be ‘abnormal’ inside the church.  Don’t bring your preconceptions of class (either your own or other’s) into the assembly of the church because it is incompatible with the unity of the body of Christ.  “Wait for each other.”   If we are going to preach the “one-ness” of God’s people where in Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no gay or straight, no black or white, etc, then we must practice a radical welcome and a radical inclusion that gives the full rights and privileges of being members of the household of God to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, irrespective of their caste or class or status.  Otherwise, we will remain the church that we were never meant to be.  Class dismissed.

food fightText of Pastor Ray’s message on February 9, 2014

“Food Fight!” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Food, glorious food!  We love our food.  Years ago, Kimball Church had a reputation for enjoying their food and eating—a lot.  We had some amazing cooks and it always seemed that we were having potluck meals or special dinners to prepare and eat.  The eating tradition continues.  We still have great cooks and I look forward to potluck meals.

We all need to eat.  It is basic to human survival.  So one would think that food would be the last thing human beings would fight about.  Long before the current controversies about ‘organic’ vs. ‘non-organic’ or “GMOs” vs. “non-GMOs” or “farm raised” vs. “wild caught” or the foie gras debacle or the “transfat bans”, there have been food fights that usually center around the statement: “Here’s what you cannot eat.”   Every culture seems to have its delicacies that others find disgusting.  “How can you eat that?” is a question I’ve asked more than once—most recently at a restaurant that served raw quail eggs atop raw oysters.  I don’t like my eggs over easy, so I could not bring myself to try raw eggs.  It looked disgusting.  Religious traditions also have their rules and regulations around food.  Maybe it all goes back to that little situation involving a piece of fruit that Eve took from a banned tree and gave to Adam.  Though it is not recorded in Scripture, I’m sure the first couple had a “food fight” after being banished from Eden.

Food gets quite a bit of space in the Old Testament Law.  The dietary laws give strict guidelines about what God’s people can and cannot eat.  The list of dirty foods includes pork rinds and lobster tail.  And good observant Jewish boys and girls never eat bacon double cheeseburgers.

While God permitted the eating of meat after the flood, God seems to lean vegetarian.  Daniel and his friends—God’s good guys—were given the finest cuisine in Babylon, but they rejected it, choosing instead a vegetarian diet of vegetables and water.  Everyone expected them to wither away.  But after a few months, Daniel and his friends were found to be in better physical and mental shape then their carnivore peers.  Vegetarians love that story.

Because of the strict Old Testament dietary laws, it is not surprising that food caused a stir in the New Testament church.  I’m sure the Gentile converts were relieved when the gospel of Mark recorded Jesus’ statement that it is not what goes into one’s mouth that defiles a person.  Mark added the interpretative statement, “In saying this, Jesus declared all food clean.”  (Mark 7:19)  “Whew!  There.  Jesus has given us the definitive word.  I don’t have to change my diet.  I can still enjoy my blood sausage and bacon. ” You would think that Jesus’ words would end the food fights.  It didn’t.

Food continued to be an issue in the early church as evidenced by the Scriptures we read today from Romans 14:14ff and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.  Some Christians ate meat, others were vegetarian.  Some Christians maintained the OT dietary laws.  Others openly ate pork and shell fish.  Some Christians imbibed in alcoholic beverages.  Others abstained.  And each group looked at the other group suspiciously.  Those without any dietary restrictions were viewed with suspicion by those who observed some boundaries.  They were undisciplined and unspiritual.  Those with restrictions were viewed with the same suspicion.  They were weak brothers and sisters with overly sensitive consciences who needed to loosen up a little.

Nowhere was the fight over food more pronounced than in Corinth.  And the fight was over whether Christians should eat the meat that had been sacrificed in the pagan temple rituals or eat at the temple.  Now it is important to consider that in Corinth and other Roman cities, the temple was the main slaughterhouse.  Worship included making an animal sacrifice to the gods, barbecuing a portion of it for the gods and the priests (they got the prime cuts) and then enjoying the rest of it with other worshipers in a feast.  Going to temple was a little like us going out to a restaurant with our friends.  Purchasing meat was tricky too.  Large amounts of the temple sacrifices were not eaten and were sold in the meat markets located next door to the temples.  One never knew if the meat on sale had been a part of the temple sacrifices that day or not.  Some Gentile Christians who had come out of pagan religion had trouble eating meat because they couldn’t verify where it had come from.  They could not separate the act of eating from the act of pagan worship.  Their weak consciences did not allow them to enjoy a nice steak dinner with their friends because it was too much like returning to idolatry.  Other Gentile Christians didn’t have a problem and continued to eat meat and some may have continued to join their friends and relatives for a nice dinner out at the temple.  So there was a question:  Is it alright to eat the meat sacrificed to idols?  Food Fight!

Before Paul answered the question, he addressed a deeper attitudinal issue at the heart of the food fight–the Corinthian’s emphasis on gnosis (knowledge) and exousia (rights/freedom) to guide behavior rather than love.  Knowledge and freedom was being placed in higher importance than relationship and connection to one another within the body of Christ.

“We all possess knowledge,” they said.  Paul cautioned them: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  The old adage is true: The more you think you know, the less you really know.  And Paul says, in essence, that their lack of love indicates that their knowledge is incomplete.  Knowledge is not the correct basis for the decision about food; love is.

So what about the food?  Those who had no trouble with eating the meat offered to idols based their decision on the knowledge that the idols are not really gods at all and there is only one true God.  So the food offered to idols is no different than any other food.  “We can eat the food because we know the sacrifice is meaningless.”  Logical.  True.  Theologically correct.  In one of the most powerful theological statements in Paul’s letters, he affirmed, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”  BUT….  “not everyone possesses this knowledge.”  There are still many people who have come out of paganism that still think of the idol as having a reality.  For them, eating the food offered to idols is a return to pagan religion.  And their faith in Christ is compromised as a result.

Knowledge may lead to freedom and the “right” to eat, but that does not make eating right.  Love supersedes that knowledge.  Love for the other person–demonstrated by concern for their spiritual well-being–should lead us to give up our “rights” and limiting our “freedom” in order to build them up and protect them in circumstances where they may feel vulnerable.   Knowledge does not give anyone the “right” to be destructive of others.   If continuing to demand the “right” to eat food offered to pagan gods because of their superior knowledge led to the faith of others being destroyed and leading them into sin against their conscience, then it is better not to eat.  Again, Love supersedes knowledge.  Love supersedes freedom.

Placing knowledge at the top of our values demeans those who do not share our knowledge and we live in denial of our unity in Christ.  The “weak” Christian is our brother or sister.  We are a community, and as a community we take care of one another and sacrifice for one another to ensure that everyone progresses in their walk with Christ.  And we recognize that not everyone is at the same place in the journey.  An “us” and “them” mentality ultimately destroys the body of Christ.   An attitude that says “I’ll do whatever I have the right to do,” is antithetical to Christian community.  Love is patient.  Love is not arrogant.  Love always protects.  Love sacrifices.  That is the model of Christ, who though he was in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to.  No, Jesus took on the role of a servant, giving himself up for us all in death.  (Philippians 2:6) Jesus did not come to be served (demanding that his “rights” take priority) but to serve (giving up his “rights” for the sake of others).  

As Paul reminds the Philippians, “Have this attitude that was also in Christ Jesus.”  We are to humbly look out for the interest of others.  If my freedom leads another believer to compromise their walk with Christ, then it is good to limit my freedom for their sake.  True knowledge of Christ will lead us to the love that gives up.

The church God wants us to become is a church that places community and love for each person–no matter how “strong” or how “weak”–as its highest values.