July 5, 2020
1 Corinthians 16:1-14
Our Scripture today comes from 1 Corinthians.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church is an astounding piece of literature…it contains some of Paul’s most beautiful prose.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
This letter is where we get our communion liturgy:
“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
All of that is lifted straight out of chapter 11
And of course there’s 1 Corinthians 13
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
You’d think that a letter with absolute classic passages like these would build to some grand rhetorical finale – something that would really blow us all away. But instead we get this. A reading from the sixteenth and final chapter:
1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
You would expect something with a bit more pizzazz, right? But instead we get instructions about an offering. It reminds me of that “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” essay they make you write in 4th grade.
I’ll say it. This is pretty boring, tiresome in its detail and not exactly inspiring. It would be like me standing up after the middle hymn and saying “Hey – this is the part of the service where the ushers take up the offering – make sure you bring forward the plates…no, not those with the velvet in the bottom, I want the brass-bottom ones so everyone can hear the clatter of coins in the bottom because they should feel shame…coins really aren’t enough…I was thinking more large-denomination bills. Oh and in case you think I’m not watching – think again.”
That would not be the most inspiring way to ask for your generosity, would it? And yet this seemingly mundane, instructional passage about how to take up the offering – an offering expressly “for the saints” in Jerusalem – makes a profound statement.
The Corinthian Church was a train wreck. They fought about who was the most spiritually gifted. The poor in the Church were abused on the regular. They dragged one another to court. They were engaged in all kinds of sexual immorality. With examples like these, Paul wondered why anyone would ever want to become a Christian. So he spends fifteen chapters instructing, encouraging, sometimes chastising them – desperately hoping they might actually be Christian. Paul believes this church’s integrity is worth fighting for and so he patiently addresses all of their problems and all of their needs with flashes of brilliant rhetoric.
But then – here in chapter 16 – Paul speaks to them about something beyond their struggling church. He speaks to them about the orphans and the widows and the poor in Jerusalem. His last word is not about their need – it’s about the needs of the larger world.
I don’t know about you but as we recently crested 100 days of COVID shut-down, I looked back and realized just how limited my horizons have been. I’ve been so fixated on how my reality was turned upside down; how I was forced to be a home school teacher; how I was trying to be the Church without gathering. I confess that when I look back on these past three months I see a lot of self-absorption.
After George Floyd was killed my gaze lifted to take in all the anger in our nation. But I think what truly snapped me out of this myopia was when I started hearing about Black Lives Matter protests springing up all over the globe. In London and Italy and Switzerland, in Brazil, South Africa and China. I was jolted back to a truth that Paul lifted up in his final words to the Corinthians – that what happens elsewhere deeply matters. From the very beginning, the Church was never allowed to fixate on their own problems. The Church was always meant to lift our gaze from right in front of our own noses and consider all the people of this world. It is crucial that the Church remembers the rest of the world.
Sounds reasonable enough – but have you ever pondered what a radical idea that is. If we are going to truly serve the world, that means we must get to know the world. And that is not as easy as it sounds.
When I was in seminary, I participated in a month-long program where a group of students traveled to Ghana in West Africa to learn about the Church in a totally different context.
After some days of orientation in the capital city of Accra, we went into the more rural areas of Ghana – where life is a bit more traditional – and we stayed with pastors, shadowing them in their ministry and experiencing the Church on the ground. The pastor I stayed with served 13 different congregations.
We spent our days attending Bible study meetings, calling on various elders and lay leaders in the churches, which meant drinking endless cups of tea or perhaps bottles of Malta – which is a yeast-flavored soda (not my favorite). We brought the sacrament of communion to shut-ins. In some ways the work wasn’t all that different from what might happen here in the US.
But one afternoon the pastor informed me that we really must go and visit the Chief. In the more rural areas it was still customary to have a chief for the tribal region. He wasn’t a Church member mind you but it would be bad form not to visit. I said “Great, that sounds good to me.”
And that’s when the pastor popped the trunk of his car, handed me a bag and said “Here – you’re going to need this.” I opened the bag, furrowed my brow and said
“I’m going to need…a bottle of…gin.”
“Yes you will – first we’re going to pour some out on the ground before him – but not too much – because, well, he’ll want to…drink it. It’s just something we do. So I keep a few bottles in the trunk in case I need them.”
I whipped out my little note-pad and wrote it down
“Always take Tanqueray on pastoral visits.”
Okay – I did not know that.
Both of us laughed but underneath the smiles there was a deeper recognition that I really don’t know much about most of the people in this world. We are all so different in so many ways – both major and minor.
Christ may have said go and make disciples of every nation; the Apostle Paul may have traveled half the known world to do just that; so if that’s what it means to be a follower of Christ, then we are going to have to get to know the people of every nation.
In every Church I have ever been a part of there have been some who simply embody that commitment to see and get to know and to serve the wider world.
In Kansas City it was Pamela, Steve, Ginny and Al among many others who worked tirelessly to bring medical care to the sugar cane bateys of the Dominican Republic.
In Virginia it was Rick, Carol, Ed and James and many others who maintained a 30 year relationship with a Church and a network of schools and preschools in Kibwezi, Kenya.
I’ve taken some time in recent weeks to learn about just a few of the folks in this congregation who live out that calling.
Two educators connected to this church traveled to Haiti, spending time in a variety of settings from home for disabled children to fish hatcheries and tree nurseries. But when they visited a school in one of the poorest neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, that is where these two teachers felt a call to serve.
One of them described to me the contrasting feelings of being grateful for this classroom oasis that was clean and safe in an otherwise unsteady environment, but that she couldn’t help but notice that there were no educational materials on the walls; no books on top of the desks.
Thus was born the teacher workshops run by this Church every year. They started looking for books written in Creole – no luck. How about books written in French. Well, there are plenty of those but none of them contained children who looked remotely Haitian at all. So they decided to make their own books…first using magazine clippings but eventually they had the teachers take photos of life in their own community and write stories that were brought back to the US for editing and printing and returned the next year as a full color, bound book written by Haitian educators for Haitian educators.
And that’s how people like Lisa, Sam, Kay and Annette came to know a certain corner of this world and the people therein.
And the truth is – you don’t have to go across the globe to see the world because the world is always showing up right here in our own community.
One of our Sunday school classes saw that refugee families in our community are having an especially difficult time with all of the unemployment right now. Two of the folks in that class started wondering if it might be possible to hire women in these families to cook food that could in turn be given to other folks in the community experiencing food insecurity right now. Through conversations with the Refugee Community Partnership organization, the hope is they will soon be able to pilot a program and see if we can’t build some economic power in a community that is largely cut off from the stimulus funding available to others. That, too, is a way this Church is seeing and responding to the wider world – just like Paul said.
Paul said “Now about the offering – set some aside each week and when I come I will take your offering to the neediest of the saints in Jerusalem.” It certainly isn’t the most eloquent thing the man ever wrote, but it might just be the most important thing he could say to this Church that was so fixated on itself.
Paul lifts their gaze for a moment beyond the problems here at home – which are very real and which need serious attention – but for a moment he asks them to look beyond their horizons to distant lands where there are people suffering just as much if not a whole lot more. Remember the rest of the world.
It’s the 5th of July today. Yesterday we celebrated this land that we love and that we call our home. There’s not one thing wrong with that at all. And, as those who would follow Christ, we extend that same love to all the people of God’s world, no matter their nation. May it always be so. Amen.
 Gratitude to the Rev. Tom Are for some of the phrasing here.