19 August 2018

"You Are What You Eat" (sermon)


Sunday August 19, 2018
Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Scripture:  John 6:51-59


CC BY-SA 4.0
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sampion_cultivar.jpg

In our Story for All Ages earlier in the service, we talked about what it means to say "You are what you eat."  What is the difference between eating apples and eating jellybeans?  What is the difference between drinking water or drinking Pepsi?  What might it mean if we could eat and drink Jesus?



True story:  a couple of years back when I was at the Atlantic School of Theology, I took a semester-long course on the Gospel of John.  Our homework on the first week was to read through the full gospel of John and choose a passage of 10 verses, give or take, that we were going to “adopt” and work with for the rest of the semester.  We could pick any 10 verses.  Now, since I am an auditory learner, I learn better by listening than by reading; and so I decided that instead of reading the Gospel of John, I was going to listen to the Gospel of John on the Bible app that I have on my phone.  So that week I had a long car drive, and at the beginning of the drive I plugged my phone in to my car sound system and began at Chapter 1.

When I got to Chapter 6, I listened to the story about feeding the 5000 people that we read three weeks ago; I listened to Jesus talking about how he is the Bread of Life like we’ve been reading for the past two Sundays.  And then I came to this week’s reading and I had an almost visceral, gut reaction.  Instead of the nice, metaphorical Bread of Life, we have Jesus saying four times in a row:  “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

This passage that we read today jumped out at me.  What – is Jesus promoting cannibalism?  How is this any different than the brain-eating zombie movies; and blood-drinking vampire books that are so popular these days.  And so this passage that we read today is the one that I chose to explore for the rest of the semester.

The most obvious interpretation that comes to mind is that this passage is teaching about the meal that we call today Holy Communion or the Eucharist.  The sacrament where we offer each other the bread and remember that Jesus said, “This is my body, given for you.  Each time you do this, remember me.”  The sacrament where we share a cup of grape juice or wine and remember that Jesus said, “This is the cup of the new promise in my blood.  Each time you do this, remember me.”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” – (you are what you eat) – “so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Remember back to how Chapter 6 of John’s gospel begins – Jesus is facing a crowd of 5000 hungry people and a bunch of confused disciples, “then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (John 6:11).  Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is no story of the Last Supper in John’s gospel; but many people believe that this miracle of feeding 5000 people is John’s equivalent.  The wording is so similar – “Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying…” vs. “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated.”

And if this miracle is meant to echo the meal of Holy Communion, then everything that follows in this chapter can be understood to be teaching about the meal of Holy Communion.

But if that’s the case, why does Jesus need to use such graphic language, and believe me, it’s even more graphic in the original Greek – our English translations have toned it down a bit!  In the original, the verb that is translated as “eat” doesn’t mean eat as in consume, but refers to the physical act of eating.  It might be better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.”  “Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

When we celebrate Holy Communion, we don’t just distribute spiritual bread and spiritual wine.  We don’t say, “Imagine that you are eating bread and remember Jesus.”  No.  We use real, physical bread.  We actually chew or gnaw on the bread that we have been given.  Communion is a physical meal.  As I said last week, God thinks that our physical selves are so important that God became a physical being, “the Word became flesh,” in the person of Jesus Christ.  Matter matters.  The physicality of our Communion meal matters.

The idea that a god would become human – not just appear to be human or pretend to be human, but actually BECOME a human is a sacrilege to many if not most religions; and then add to that the overtones of cannibalism that one of our central sacraments includes, and it is indeed a scandalous message that Christianity proclaims.  I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, the very graphic language here in John’s gospel might reflect the early church’s attempt to define themselves against the world around them.  Maybe along the lines of, “the rest of the world considers us to be cannibals, so let’s embrace this language and use it to define ourselves.”

But I also think that there is more to this language than just the shock value or how we identify ourselves as a community.  If we turn back to the question I asked at the beginning – how is this reading or our celebration different than flesh-eating zombies or blood-drinking vampires? – I think that the answer is in the effect.  The end result of vampires and zombies is death.  The end result of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus is life.

Really, what we talked about in our Story for All Ages is the core of the message.  We are what we eat.  If we were to eat only junk food (like in that documentary that came out several years ago, Supersize Me), our bodies will eventually become junk due to the lack of nutrients.  If we eat Jesus, we become Jesus.  We are being transformed by our faith.  We are being turned into the Body of Christ – the very flesh of Christ.

Our faith isn’t just something that we can haul out on a Sunday morning then pack back up again at lunchtime.  What we do together is transformative.  We are being shaped by our worship of Word and Sacrament for everything else that we do during the week.  We are changed people.  The thing about eternal life is that it isn’t just for after we die.  The changed life, the abundant life begins in the here and now.

There is an ancient communion practice that goes back to shortly after the Gospel of John was written.  After the bread is broken, the following words are said:  “Behold what you are.  Become what you receive.”  You are what you eat.  We become what we eat.  There is more to the bread than what we can see.  Eternity is present in the here and now.  Thanks be to God for the Bread of Life!

13 August 2018

"Taste and See" (sort-of sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 12, 2018
Scripture Readings:  Psalm 34:1-8 and John 6:35, 41-51

(A quick note:  This sermon was experiential rather than word-based.  It likely won't work as well as a script, compared with experiencing it in person.  Sorry!  K.)
 

So here we are – the third week in a row where Jesus is talking about bread.  This week’s reading from John’s gospel begins with the same verse that we finished up on last week – “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  But the reading ends in a slightly different place.  Jesus says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  And that word “flesh” starts setting off all sorts of connections in my brain.  One of my favourite passages of scripture, one that we often read at Christmas time, says, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This is the mystery of the Incarnation.  The word incarnation means “enfleshment” – God’s Word becomes human flesh.  Jesus didn’t just appear to be human – Jesus was fully human.  In the person of Jesus, God was able to move and touch and see and hear and taste and smell – just like all of us.

And so God speaks to us using all of our senses.

So we’re going to be doing things a bit differently this morning.  Instead of talking about God, I want us to have the opportunity to experience God, using all of our senses.

But lets begin by reading a story.

[Read Mom Pie.[1]]

Think of the boys in the story.  Their Mom didn’t use words to tell them that she loved them – instead the boys knew that she loved them by touch and by taste and by smells.  In the same way, God is like a loving parent, and God tells us that we are loved using all of our senses.

So let's begin with our sight.

Have a close look at the picture in front of you.  Take a minute just to look at it closely.



Where is you eye drawn to in this picture?

What do you see?

Do you see hope in this picture?

Do you see joy in this picture?

Do you see peace in this picture?

Do you see goodness in this picture?

Where do you see love in this picture?

Where do you see God in this picture?

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

We can also experience God through our hearing.  Think of listening to waves crashing on the beach, or hearing a baby laughing, or listening to a piece of glorious music.

We’re now going to sing a song – it might be a new song to you, but it is easy to sing, and we’re going to sing it over and over several times.  As we sing, I invite you to listen to the melody.  I invite you to listen to the words.  I invite you to let the words sink in to you, so that you can hear God whispering to you – “peace.”

The song is found in More Voices 95 (words on the screen) and it is called “How Deep the Peace.”  We’ll stay sitting down as we sing.

Let us sing.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And now, let us use our touch to share God’s peace with one another.  I invite you to offer these words to one another – “May the peace of Christ be with you”; and as you do, share a handshake, or a hug, or a holy high five.  I will just ask you to respect each other’s comfort level with touch – if someone is not comfortable hugging, please don’t force a hug on them, and share a handshake or a high five instead.

“May the peace of Christ be with you.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And finally we turn to our psalm reading which tells us, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”  God speaks to us through our senses of taste and smell too!  We’re going to be passing around plates/baskets of bread for you to taste (and there is a gluten-free option on each plate/basket).  When you take the bread, I invite you to smell it, I invite you to taste it, I invite you to savour it as you eat it.  Taste the goodness of God who sent the sun and the rain so that the wheat and other grains could grow.  Taste the goodness of God who gave humans the creativity to turn the flour and water and salt and yeast into bread.  Taste the goodness of God who gives us different senses that allow us to experience joy in the world.

As you pass the plate/basket to your neighbour, I invite you to offer it with the words, “Taste and see that God is good!” 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And so we have a God who thinks that our humanity, our very flesh and our senses, are so important that God became human in the person of Jesus – God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us.

And so let us live in the world, noticing all of the ways that God speaks to us, and lets us know that we are loved.  Thanks be to God!


[1] Lynne Jonnell, Mom Pie, illustrated by Petra Mathers (New York: B. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001).

6 August 2018

"Are you Hungry?" (sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 5, 2018
Scripture Readings:  Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35


Have you ever been hungry?  I mean really, really hungry?

The time when I think that I was the hungriest was on a canoe trip 6 years ago.  It was day 4 of what would be a 7-day canoe trip.  It was a beautiful sunny day, right about this time of year.  My friend and I got up in the morning and packed up our tent and the rest of our gear and we started paddling.  It was calm in the morning, and even though a bit of a wind picked up in the afternoon it didn’t slow us down by much.  We were paddling the length of a long lake.  At lunchtime we pulled up to a rocky ledge for our lunch and we watched a couple of loons play as we ate.  After that brief pause we hit the water again.  It was such a big lake that it took us the whole day to paddle the length of it.  We don’t wear watches when we’re canoeing so I can’t tell you how many hours we paddled for.

Towards the end of the day, we reached the end of the lake and had a short portage to carry our gear into the next river we would be traveling down, and when we got to the mouth of that river, we found a site where we would camp for the night.

I still remember the feeling that I had when we got to the campsite.  I couldn’t think straight.  I remember that I knew we had three things to do – set up the tent, make supper, and go for a swim; but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to do first or what order to do them in.  I felt myself getting more and more frustrated – not at anything in particular but just at the world.

Eventually everything got done, and I think that the two of us wolfed down our dinner in about 2 minutes flat!  And once we had eaten, everything became easier.  I could think clearly, the frustration was gone, and the world was good again.

Later, once I got home at the end of the trip, I got a string out, and the topographical maps, and used the string to measure just how far we had traveled each day.  It turns out that we had paddled 32 km that one day.  With all of that energy spent, no wonder we were so hungry at the end of the day!

Which brings me to the story from Exodus that we just read.  Like my friend and I on our canoe trip, the Israelite people had been traveling, but instead of day 4, they were now 6 weeks into their journey.  6 weeks of traveling on foot across the desert.  Take that hunger that I just described, and multiply it by 6 weeks –  42 days.

Remember that the Israelite people had been slaves in Egypt.  Remember that God had called to Moses from a burning bush, telling him that he would be the one to set the people free.  Remember that Moses had gone to the Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go!”  Remember that God had parted the Red Sea so that the people could cross to safety on the other side.  And then the journey began – the journey that would eventually last 40 years.

So here we are, 6 weeks into a journey that would prove to be so long that most people who left Egypt wouldn’t still be alive when they reached the land that God had promised to them.  But of course the people didn’t know that yet.  All that they knew was that they had been traveling for 6 weeks, on foot, through the desert.  They knew that whatever food supplies they had been able to bring with them were either shrinking fast or they were gone completely.  They were able to remember back to Egypt where, yes they had been slaves, but at least they had had some food to eat.  Like me on my canoe trip, I suspect that they were getting frustrated and angry and unable to think straight.

And they came to Moses with their complaint:  “Why didn’t we stay in Egypt?!  Why have we come out here to the desert to die of starvation?  We’re hungry!  Either feed us, or take us back to slavery where at least there was food!”  We aren’t always at our best when we’re hungry.  We can’t think clearly when we’re hungry.

And the hunger of the Israelite people is echoed in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel.  This reading takes place right after the story that we read last week – the story where Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  Right after that, Jesus and his disciples crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and then at the start of today’s story, the crowd follows them.

And Jesus questions their motives.  Jesus accuses them of following him, not because they wanted to become followers of Jesus but because they wanted more bread.

If we were to take this reading in isolation; if we were to take this accusation of Jesus out of context, we might think that Jesus didn’t care whether the people were hungry or fed.  But if we look at the broader context – if we consider that this teaching happens right after Jesus had fed a crowd of 5000 hungry people – we know that Jesus does care about our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs.

If we look back to the story from Exodus, we see again that God cares for our physical needs.  God didn’t tell the people who were traveling through the desert, “Become desert hermits, and let your physical hunger draw you closer to me.”  No – God tells the people, “I am going to feed you.  In the evenings, flocks of quails will come to where you are camping and you will have meat to eat; and in the morning, manna will fall from the sky, bread from heaven for you to eat.”  God cared that the people were hungry; and God fed them.

So getting back to Jesus, after he accuses the crowd of following him only because of their physical hunger, and not for the message that he is teaching them, the crowd answers back.  They ask Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  And Jesus answers with what I see as the key to understanding his message.  Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you may believe in the one whom God has sent.”

Now when you get to know me, you will know that I am a bit of a language and grammar geek.  I think that grammar is important, and in this verse we have an example of this.  There is a little two-letter preposition in that statement of Jesus that is so important in shaping the meaning of what he is saying (and I did go back to the original Greek to make sure that it was well-translated).  Jesus doesn’t say that we must believe the one whom God sent; he says that we must believe IN the one whom God sent.

So here’s a question for you to consider.  Who do you believe in?  If your child or grandchild is going off to a sports competition, or if they have a test at school, and you tell them, “You’ve got this.  I believe in you,” what do you mean?  We are usually trying to tell the person, “I’ve got confidence in you,” or “I trust you.”

OK Jesus, I believe in you.  I’ve got confidence in you.  I trust you.  What do I mean when I say this?  What are the implications?  It means that I believe the words that come from him, but I think that it also means that I trust that my needs will be met.  My physical hunger will be fed, as well as my spiritual hunger.  It means that I trust Jesus’ message of God’s abundance more than I trust in the world’s message of fear and scarcity.  It means that I have confidence that God hears us when we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

So who do you believe in?

OK Jesus, I believe in you.

Let us pray:
God of the loaves and fish,
God who satisfies all of our hungers,
Give us this day, our daily bread.
Feed us –
            feed all of us –
                        in body and in spirit.
Help us to know that
you are the one whom we can trust,
you are the one in whom we can place our confidence,
you are the one whom we can believe in.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the Bread of Life that you send.
Amen.


The campsite where we started the very hungry day -
the north end of Dryberry Lake, somewhere
between Kenora and Sioux Narrows (northwestern Ontario).
(No end of the day pictures, because of hunger!)

29 July 2018

"What If?" (sermon)

July 29, 2018
Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
(This version recorded at Westfield United Church)

Scripture:  John 6:1-14 

This week I decided to record my sermon (audio only) - after all, a sermon is an auditory event rather than a written script.  So sit back, turn your sound on, and here goes!




 

22 July 2018

"A Bouquet of Memories" (Sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
July 15 (Westfield and Long Reach) and July 22 (Bayswater-Summerville)
Scripture Readings:  Matthew 6:25-33 and Romans 6:3-9

(For more background on the Flower Service, please see last week's post.)


Today is the annual Flower Service in the middle of July, so what better time to talk about one of my favourite Christmas movies!  The one that I’m thinking of is The Muppet Christmas Carol.  If you haven’t seen it before, I highly recommend it – you could wait until December, or you could watch it now in the middle of the summer.  But even if you haven’t seen this particular adaptation of Charles Dickens’ book, there’s a good chance that you are familiar with the story.

It’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and as the story unfolds we see how a lonely little boy ends up growing up and living a life that is focused on only one thing – making more money.  He studies hard so that he can get a good job; when he has a good job, he works harder to earn more money; but as he earns more money it is never enough and he always craves more and more.  His single-mindedness ends up pushing away any sort of love or companionship.  He pushes away the other students who try to be friendly with him at school.  He meets and falls in love with a young woman named Belle, but his quest for money ends up pushing her away too.  His nephew Fred tries to draw him in to the family circle, but again Ebenezer’s quest for money pushes his family away.  His employee, Bob Cratchit (played by Kermit the Frog in this version) tries to act with love towards Ebenezer despite his miserable working conditions, but he gets pushed away too.

And so here you have Ebenezer, rich in money (which he could use to buy himself nice clothes or good food though he chooses not to spend it); but he very poor in love and very lonely.  The story of Ebenezer’s life to this point is a heart-breaking tragedy.

And that is where I see the connection to this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus asks, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

This passage is found in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount – chapters 5, 6, and 7 in Matthew’s gospel – and all through this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is presenting an alternative world-view to his listeners.  In the passage that we read today, Jesus contrasts the Scrooge world-view – the constant worry about acquiring more and more; more food, more drink, more clothing – with God’s world-view of trust and love.

Jesus uses images that fit well with this time of year in New Brunswick – birds of the air and flowers of the field.  These are parts of creation that can’t live by the Scrooge world-view.  They live in partnership with God, not worrying about the future.

But this analogy breaks down at a certain point.  The flowers out in the field, no matter how mild the winter, won’t survive past a single season.  These beautiful flowers that were cut for our flower service, even if we take exquisite care of the bouquet, won’t last beyond a week or so.  The flowers live a vibrant life, but it is short and then it is over.

But we aren’t flowers; and this is where I turn to our reading from Romans.  In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul reminds us that we have an eternal source of hope – a source of hope with no limits; a source of hope with no ending; a source of hope that is greater than we could ever imagine.  Jesus Christ is our eternal source of hope.

Baptism is one of God’s gifts to us – a gift that is freely given.  And, as Paul writes, in our baptism we are united with Christ.  We are welcomed in to the family of the church which is the Body of Christ.  We are invited to join with the life and work of that body – to be Christ’s hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart in the world.  Paul goes on to write though, that we are also united with Christ in his death.  But the good news is that even when Jesus died on the cross and it seemed as though the world had won, the story didn’t end there.  Jesus’ death includes his resurrection; and so when we join with the Body of Christ in death, we also are invited to join the Body of Christ in resurrection.  And this is our eternal, endless source of hope.

We can see hints of God’s resurrection message throughout all of creation.  The flower of the field may die, but they leave behind seeds that will grow into flowers next summer.  The birds of the air lay eggs that will hatch and grow into the next generation.  Even in the middle of winter when the ground seems dead and frozen, there is life in the leafless trees that will spring forth to new life in only a few months.

We even see hints of God’s resurrection message in The Muppet Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer realizes that he is living a much more limited life than he could be; and he is resurrected from the graveyard of Christmas Yet to Come into a new life of love and generosity.

At this flower service, we gather each year to remember our loved ones who have died.  We remember those whom we love who are buried outside in this cemetery; but we also remember those whom we love who are buried far away from here. We remember our family members; we remember our friends; we remember those who are known to the world; we remember those whose names we carry close to our hearts.  We remember parents and siblings and children and spouses; we remember aunts and uncles and cousins; we remember babies who died at or before birth, and we remember people who lived for more than 100 years; we remember members of our church family and members of the wider community.  It’s amazing to think of how many memories we are carrying together in this room.

We remember our loved ones with these flowers, whose beauty represents the vibrancy of the lives that were lived, no matter how long or how short; but we also remember God’s promise of resurrection so that even in death we can be confident in new life.  Just as the flowers growing in a field hold the seeds to new life; our lives hold the seeds to our new life through Jesus Christ.  As we live, the seeds that were planted in us by a God who knew us before we were born, are tended and nurtured by the Holy Spirit as we move ever forwards to this new life in Christ.

And so today, we remember our loved ones who came before us; we celebrate the new life that they and we receive in Christ; and we look forward to a day when the whole earth is made new.

Thanks be to God!


(The Bouquet of Memories we built at Bayswater-Summerville United Church.
 Somewhere in the middle of this bouquet is a poppy in memory of Mum.)

16 July 2018

Flower Service

Yesterday I did a thing.  It wasn't a thing that they teach us in seminary - in fact, it was the sort of thing that they teach you not to do in seminary.  In my third Sunday at my first call, I messed with a beloved tradition.

The churches here have an annual "Flower Service" which is probably best described as a cross between a Memorial Service and All Saint's Day.  At the two smaller churches, this service is second in importance only to Christmas in the liturgical year.  (It is a newer tradition at the big church, but one that has been enthusiastically adopted.)  We remember everyone in the church who has died in the past year (or who has been buried in the cemetery) as we build a "bouquet of memories" at the front of the church after the sermon.  In previous years, this has been done by having a bunch of flowers added to the bouquet for each name that we are remembering, and then by adding a bunch of flowers to represent the different generic groups of people that we are remembering - mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, neighbours etc.

My one concern with this though, is that no matter how comprehensive the list of groups that we are remembering, someone is going to get missed.  And so instead, I invited everyone in the congregation to participate in building the bouquet, adding flowers to represent the people that they themselves are remembering.  This involved people getting up from their pews and moving forward to place their flowers in the bouquet.

And it was a holy moment.  At the service at the first church, I was one of three people accepting flowers and adding them to the bouquet, and when we compared notes after the service, all of us found that some people were sharing with us the name of the person that they were remembering.  Sometimes different generations of the same family came forward together to offer flowers.  Sometimes the flowers were offered with smiles; and sometimes the flowers were offered with tears.

And the feedback that I heard after the service reflected my reason for modifying the tradition.  People felt more personally connected with the service and with the remembering; and people told me that they thought about people whom they hadn't thought about in a long time.

I was a bit nervous before the service - not lie-awake-unable-to-sleep nervousness; more like I-hope-that-I'm-not-breaking-trust-with-these-people-I'm-already-learning-to-love nervousness.  But it worked out well.  And we agreed after the services - at least those with whom I shared my nervousness - that a tradition that can't be messed with is a dead tradition; and changing things up for a good reason (and not only for the sake of change) is a living tradition.

The life-giving Holy Spirit was moving in these churches yesterday.

(I will be sharing my Flower Service sermon next week, after the Flower Service at the third church.)


Some of the flowers made their way to my office after the service

8 July 2018

"Power in Weakness" (sermon)


July 8, 2018


So confession time… I’m not much of a sports fan.  Sure I will cheer on the Habs when they’re playing, but I won’t go out of my way to watch football or baseball.  But I do enjoy a good soccer match, so these days I’ve been following the FIFA World Cup which is happening in Russia – the semi-finals are this week, with the finals happening next weekend!

So in honour of the World Cup, I want to try a little game that I’ve entitled, “Sport Slogan / Not a Sports Slogan.”  The way that this will work is that I will give you a phrase, and I want you to try and figure out if it’s a Sports Slogan or if it’s Not a Sports Slogan.

Ready?  Let’s start with an easy one:

“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Power is made perfect in weakness.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“Faster.  Higher.  Stronger”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

“I will not boast except of my weakness.”
Sports Slogan or Not a Sports Slogan?

So you might have guessed where I’m going with this.  Some of the things that Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church are the opposite of the things that athletes and sports teams work for every day.  And if you think about it, the things that Paul was writing to the church in Corinth are the opposite of the message that we get from the world every day.

Every day the world determines our value by how much we have achieved or succeeded.  Think of who becomes famous – who the world worships.  Athletes who win become famous; politicians in power become famous; movie stars become famous – but only as long as they are acting in successful films.

So living in a world that worships and celebrates fame and power and wealth and success, how can we hear these words of Paul when he tells us that “I will not boast except of my weakness,” or “power is made perfect in weakness” or “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Now you might think that things were different back in Paul’s day almost 2000 years ago – the world was a less busy place, there was none of this modern pressure to succeed.  But if you look closely at the city of Corinth – the city where the church was that Paul was writing to – you will actually find a lot of similarities between that culture and our culture.

Corinth was located in what is modern-day country of Greece.  It had deep roots in the ancient Greek culture, but at the time when Paul was writing, it was a modern Roman city.  The old city had been destroyed by the Roman Army – razed to the ground – about 200 years previously; but then re-built by the Romans about 100 years later.  By the time that Paul was writing to the church there, it had a population of over 200,000 people, and it was a major point of trade, commerce, and manufacturing.  There was a big discrepancy between the small group of rich and elite, and the much larger group of people living in poverty.  And there were stories of people who managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak; but there were also stories of people who tumbled in disgrace from positions of wealth and power.

Now in addition to being a busy and bustling city, every two years the city of Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games – a big event where people competed in sporting and artistic activities.  In terms of importance, these were second only to the Ancient Olympic Games held west and slightly south of Corinth in Olympia.  At the Isthmian Games, winners were celebrated with poetic odes and statues and money – they were the celebrities of their day.

Now the early church in the city of Corinth that Paul was writing to was more like a network of house churches.  The church would meet in the homes of wealthier members of the community, and their friends – the other elite members – would be invited to join them early to share in a meal and to get the best seats before worship began, leaving the poorer members of the community sitting out in the courtyard.  The class divisions, and the celebration of wealth and power that you saw in the city as a whole were reflected in the church.

And to this group of people, Paul dared to write, “Power is made perfect in weakness … whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  These words were likely heard in ancient Corinth in the same way that we hear them today – that’s crazy-talk!  How can we get ahead by being weak?!

But then you have to look at the one whom Paul worshipped, the one who was worshipped by the early church in Corinth, the one whom we worship today – Jesus Christ.

We worship a God who found power in weakness.  In the story that we re-member every year on Good Friday, when God-in-Jesus was brought before Pilate and before Herod, Jesus didn’t respond with flowery speeches or great feats of oration.  Instead he replied with the power of silence; the power of weakness.  When God-in-Jesus was tortured and nailed to the cross, Jesus didn’t reply by throwing lightning bolts at his tormentors or by blasting the cross into splinters.  Instead he replied with the power of vulnerability; the power of weakness.

The God that we worship is a God who embraces vulnerability; who embraces weakness.  I receive a daily meditation by e-mail from Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr, and one of his e-mails this week expressed this very well.  Rohr wrote, “We worship this naked, homeless, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.”  But Rohr continues.  He writes, “We worship this naked, homeless, bleeding loser, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem … but we want to be winners.”[1]

And I think that this might be the key to Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, and to us today.  Even though the world tells us that we must be winners, we must always be better (after all, just look at all of the self-improvement books in every bookstore); and that it is only by doing our best and trying harder pursuing strength and power and wealth – even though this is the message that the world bombards us with every day, we don’t need to listen to the world.  We follow a different path.  We follow a path where we don’t have to be strong or powerful.

Instead, God invites us to let go of our vain attempts at strength or power.  God invites us to embrace our weakness – to acknowledge the fact that, next to God, we really have nothing.  And by letting go of all of this baggage, we open up space for God.

We don’t have to be “all that” – we have God instead.  Paul had to go through this process too.  He asked God to take away his weakness – what he referred to as a thorn in his flesh – but eventually he had to embrace his weakness, he had to accept that this unnamed weakness wasn’t going anywhere, and he had to hear God when God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

The church is a place where we can acknowledge our vulnerabilities – a place where we can acknowledge our human-ness – a place where we don’t have to be perfect – a place where we can be vulnerable together before God.  And there, in our weakness, in our human-ness, God’s power is made perfect.


[1] https://cac.org/changing-sides-2018-07-04/



"Silver Jug - Isthmian Games"
CC-BY-2.5 © Marie-Lan Nguyen
What sort of power are we chasing after?