Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-22
I want to start off my sermon this week with a little “audience participation.” I’m going to say a word and I want you to shout out its opposite. OK? Are you ready?
We are living in a time of great pluralism and diversity. But, just in the off chance you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, America’s increased diversity has not yielded an increase in tolerance. In fact, political psychologist Karen Stenner reports that, among those who desire oneness or sameness, such diversity moves them not toward their greatest level of tolerance, but rather, to their most intolerant extremes.[i] And sadly, the Christian Church has not presented a counter-cultural perspective. It was April 17, 1960, when Martin Luther King, Jr., on Meet the Press said: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the shameful tragedies – that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours – if not the most segregated hour – in Christian America.” And more than 57 years later, little has changed.
What is it about our human condition that causes us so often to gravitate toward those most like us and to so often fear those who are different?
Often sermons must bridge a great cultural divide. Often when I preach I point out differences or distinctions between 1st century Mediterranean culture and our post-modern American culture. But today’s scripture from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is remarkably “on target” for post-modern America.
Corinth was a Roman city. In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a colony for veterans, slaves, freed persons and entrepreneurs. Location is everything, as any good real estate agent will tell you. And Corinth was an ideal location. So it grew quickly. By the middle of the first century CE, it was a hub for business, trade, manufacturing and tourism. It was a magnet for those who hoped to rise quickly in their financial or social status. It was the cradle of upward mobility; yet, not everyone made it. There were also many who were poor and struggled to eke out an existence. Corinth was a remarkably cosmopolitan city; yet it revealed tremendous social, cultural and economic segregation. Its way of life encouraged competition and comparison.
And there, in the midst of such social, cultural and economic competition, Paul had come to proclaim the gospel of a Jewish messiah who became savior and lord through something as humiliating as crucifixion… capital punishment reserved for the most despicable criminals. There, in Corinth, in the midst of such social, cultural and economic segregation, Paul had come to proclaim a gospel of equality and unity. And let me tell you, it was not an easy sell.
In this morning’s scripture verses, Paul’s attention has turned to the shameful way in which the church in Corinth is celebrating Holy Communion. In the first century, the Lord’s Supper was set within the context of an entire meal. And dining, in the ancient Mediterranean world, was an extremely segregated and biased practice. Generally, those who were wealthy enough to afford meat and high quality wine only served such delicacies to those who could return the favor and were counted as social equals. That’s why Jesus in his own dining protocol and in his parables is so offensive. He eats with sinners and tax collectors and encourages dragging diners in off the street. Bible scholar Robert Karris writes that “Jesus got himself crucified by the way he ate.”[ii] Lucian, an ancient rhetorician known for his satire pokes fun at this practice of culinary belittling, asking of one dinner host: “Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You eat oysters fattened in the Lucrine Lake while I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell. You get mushrooms while I get hog funguses… Golden with fat, a turtledove gorges you with its bloated rump, but a magpie that has died in its cage is set before me…”[iii]
Meals, in the ancient world, were an opportunity to reinforce the social pecking order and that is exactly what the Corinthians are doing. The congregation in Corinth had a few wealthy members and it’s likely those folks didn’t need to work long hours. They would have had nice homes and ample food to eat. But there were others in the congregation who were quite poor, who likely found it necessary to work long hours and couldn’t have afforded a very well-balanced, healthy diet. In those days, there were no church buildings. Christians worshipped in homes and those homes would have, by necessity, belonged to the wealthier members of the church with houses big enough to hold a lot of people. So when the Corinthian Christians came together to celebrate the “Lord’s Supper” within the context of a meal, here’s how it likely played out: the wealthy folks would show up early since they weren’t the kind who needed to punch the time clock. And, right away, they’d start to eat. They’d over-indulge in rich food and meat and a lot of wine. By the time the poorer folks arrived late from work, the best food and drink had already been gobbled up and there wasn’t much left.
But, Paul makes quite clear to these Corinthians, they all belong to the one body of Christ. No one part, no one individual, is more important than any other. All are bound to one another in one body. The more affluent members of the congregation had been seduced by the culture around them to construct a self-affirming, self-centered, affluent version of the gospel; a cultural adaptation that was an aberration, a gross distortion of the good news; one that rejected the lifestyle and teaching of the humble, crucified messiah they claimed to know.[iv] So Paul admonished them to look beyond themselves and their own recognition and honor and to seek the good of others. This Lord’s Supper is the meal recalling Jesus’ sacrificial death, the voluntary pouring out of his life for those whom he loves, and these Corinthians have distorted it into a fancy dinner party designed to draw attention to their social affluence and influence.
But, the Church is never meant to reflect the world’s social groupings and values. If we succumb to such worldly distinctions, we make a mockery of the gospel and disrespect our Lord. The Body of Christ is to be a body of diversity that honors and celebrates and respects our social, ethnic, cultural, educational and economic differences.
In Corinth, in the midst of such segregation, Paul had come to proclaim a gospel of equality and unity. It was not an easy sell and it still isn’t.
Friends; our Centennial neighborhood, the neighborhood in which our church resides, is a diverse community… particularly, revealing economic, social and educational diversity. We have Ph.D. students living in cheap apartments. We have wealthy folks who have purchased historic homes and spent significant amounts of money to restore them to their former glory. We have “urban nomads” who have no permanent housing of their own but sleep on park benches or LUM’s shelter or hunker down with friends. We have women living quietly in the confines of a domestic women’s shelter. We have empty nesters that have moved downtown and purchased expensive, new condos. We have families – a remarkably high percentage of single dads – living in cheap, often sub-standard, apartments or houses – struggling to provide for their children and keep a roof over their heads. We have section 8, government subsidized apartments. We have folks who have selected this location because they go easily back and forth across the river, taking advantage of our abundant cafes, coffee shops, boutiques, community forums and Purdue sporting events. We have folks who have selected this neighborhood because they rely on the public bus, St John’s food pantry, or the 12 step meetings hosted here and at St John’s. If we look around our sanctuary this morning, we have some diversity here; but not enough. We can do better and that’s what our Ready Set Grow plan is trying to address. This summer we started a community garden. If you didn’t have a chance to work in the garden, I hope you will next year. Talk with our garden guy, Mel Shoaf, and he can tell you about some of the conversations he had with folks here in our neighborhood who came to pick fresh, free, healthy produce out of the garden. This summer we had Garden and Grill meals and they brought together on our lawn people who represented different social groupings to sit together around the table and break bread with one another. This month, we’re launching several new small groups and if you think those groups are just about Trinity, that’s a mistake; a misunderstanding. We want you to invite people to those groups, invite them to come with you, to join us. This summer we redesigned our unused chapel to become a conference room and one summer small group already has included people outside our Trinity congregation and that’s how it ought to be. At least once now – sometimes twice – every week, people gather around the table in that conference room to learn, to converse, to plan ministry, to get to know one another; to encounter the image of Christ in one another.
Tomorrow evening at 7 pm, Ruth Smith, our community engagement coach, will offer a community discussion group to learn more about how we can create a stronger, more compassionate community. Starting Sept. 19, Ruth will host once a month dinner groups comprised of folks from our congregation and our community – a diverse group – to talk together about our neighborhood and strengthening and serving our neighborhood. If you want to know more, talk with Ruth or me. Over this next year, Trinity’s primary focus will be on building community; reaching out to new people; finding the courage and learning the skills to strike up dialogue with people we don’t know; walking around our neighborhood and initiating conversations; even hosting training opportunities so folks can learn more about our community’s needs and how to respond to them. Our office is now in the Lily House. Have you sat on the porch there? Do you know how much foot traffic is in the alley between the church and Lily House? Pack a sandwich and come eat lunch on the porch and greet our neighbors.
Friends; we can’t simply say that we will unlock our doors on Sunday morning and warmly greet anyone who crosses our threshold. That’s not enough. That’s not counter-cultural. We have to all – and by all, I mean ALL – begin to gather around the table with people who might not be like us; people whose differences might cause us some anxiety. But that’s OK. Church isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable; it certainly wasn’t for the Corinthians. Church is supposed to challenge us. Church ought to be as counter-cultural and wildly hospitable as Jesus was. And that’s why this building is here; that’s why we’re here: to be the Church in radical, counter-cultural ways.
And this fall as we talk about stewardship, we want to focus your attention on the opportunities we have over the next year to develop new programs, new outreaches; to redesign the space within our building – spaces like our parlor – to become spaces of radical hospitality and fellowship. And that will cost money; that will require generous giving. It’s not about how well this space and our current programs serve us. It’s about how well this sacred space and our programs serve the people outside our walls who haven’t yet walked through our doors. We want to prepare our hearts, our minds, our programs, and our facilities to welcome them and proclaim the radical good news that Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians: that social, cultural, and economic segregation may very well be the way of the world; but it is not the way of Jesus and it is not the way of the Church. Paul reminded the Corinthians and he reminds us: the gospel of Jesus is one of humility, vulnerability, sacrifice, radical hospitality and unity amidst diversity.
So this morning I want to end my sermon in a very clear way and be perfectly frank: I am asking three things of you for the sake of the gospel. One: your talents. In just a few moments, Bob Lilly will be talking about our building maintenance team. Our building needs to be safe, well-functioning and hospitable and it takes the skills and efforts of many people to accomplish that.
Second: your time. Please pull out the insert in your program that lists this fall’s new groups. I would ask you to pray over that page and to make a commitment to become engaged in a group AND… AND… to invite someone else to come with you. Offer to pick them up and bring them with you.
Third: In a few weeks, we will ask for your estimate of church giving for the 2018 calendar year. Please begin praying about that now. It will take not only time and talents, but also money, for our church to grow in our ability to reach beyond our walls. I hope, I pray, you find that of great value; of so much value that you will be willing to give sacrificially of your time, your talents, and your treasure so that, together, we might live out God’s vision for Trinity of growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.
Finally, this morning, I want to invite you to do one thing to expand your experience of Christian community today. Look around the sanctuary and look for someone you don’t know; maybe someone who seems a little different from you. And when worship ends, invite them to join you for lunch. Now, they might have somewhere to go right after church so, don’t be pushy; just issue a gracious invitation that they have the freedom to accept or decline. Take them somewhere simple (Pete’s Diner, Panera, Fuel, MCL) because if you keep it simple, you can buy their lunch.
[ii] Robert Karris: Luke: Artist and Theologian; New York; Paulist Press; 1985; p. 47.
[iii] Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians; Ben Witherington; Eerdmans Pub; 1995; p. 242.
[iv] For further discussion of this, see The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1; Abingdon Press; 2006; pp. 743-744.
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