Together In Every Place
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 15, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Hear the Sermon Preached
When my brother David was born, he wasn’t like us. I already had a brother, Allan, and we both had brown eyes; so did my mom and dad. David had blue eyes. We all had dark hair; David had light hair. He wasn’t like us. Then, my parents took us to visit my father’s family back in Michigan. My grandmother, my father’s mother, took one look at David and said, “Oh! Little Elmer!” Elmer was my father’s brother but long ago my father and Uncle Elmer had fought over a shotgun and never made up; we didn’t know Uncle Elmer. Nevertheless, with that one declaration, my grandmother had done something permanent. David was one of us, after all. We were family. We still are. How do we connect to each other? How are we together? We sing, “Bind us together, Lord”, but what’s the glue?
The Corinthian Church
The little church in Corinth, Greece, was just a few years old when Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians. It’s not really first; later on, we learn this is Paul’s second letter to them. He was their founding pastor, the Ray Palmer of the place, and in his letter we get a picture of one of the first Christian churches struggling with many of the issues we face today. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear a series of readings from this letter as a way to think about our own life as a church together. The letter itself was written about 20 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Paul will say later in the letter, some of the people who were present for the resurrection are still alive.
Corinth itself is a bit like Albany. The great center of culture, Athens, is not too far away but Corinth has its own history. It sits on a narrow peninsula and has a bit of a reputation as a party town. It’s Greek but it’s also full of people from all over, different cultures mixing, not always matching.
How Do We Share God’s Love?
How do you share the love of God in such a place? How do you do it here?
It’s important because if we are going to move forward and move our community forward, we have to stay together. We know that when politicians want to distract us from the truth, the first thing they do is divide us. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking for the last time in Memphis, Tennessee, he began by saying,
…we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm]
We know that just as my grandmother looked at that baby David and saw the connection we had missed and said he was one of us, God is looking at us, seeing beyond what we see and calling every single person a child of God.
Paul Has a Partner
Listen to what Paul says to that church in Corinth where the demons of division has begun to take hold. He begins by reminding them about the how important bonds are. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…”, he begins. It’s easy to rush past this greeting but an important point is being made right here. Paul is an apostle, a man who has seen the Risen Lord himself and yet he isn’t alone; he doesn’t work alone, he doesn’t preach alone, he does nothing alone. Sosthenes is his partner in his work.
He goes on to describe the congregation in Corinth as “…those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, and then he notes that they are not alone either; they are, “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” He wants them to remember, as we should remember, that they are not alone. Just as he has partners in preaching Jesus Christ, this church has partners also: “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of these, in every place, are together. Together, in every place, they are a family, related and bonded together by the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are part of that family as well; right here, centuries before we were born, already Paul was speaking about us.
So what he says to the Corinthian church applies to us also. This is what he says:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. [ 1 Cor 1:4-7]
Now he’s speaking to a small church; he’s speaking to a church roiled by divisions, arguing questions, wondering how they can go forward together as a little congregation in a big city.
All the Gifts We Need
I know that feeling. Like every person, I have a mental list of things I’m good at and things I am not. I can’t speak Spanish or Italian or French. I can’t catch a ball reliably which when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the great New York Yankees baseball teams with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris was a serious disability And I can’t sing well. I’m not a very musical person. In ninth grade, they held a competition in band to determine who could hear differences in pitch; I came in last. Normally, it doesn’t matter; I try to keep my voice down when we’re singing hymns, so what comes through are the beautiful voices of those who sing well. They inspire me and I know the beauty of their music pleases God. When I worked in a church where we recorded the entire worship service, I turned my microphone off when there was singing; sometimes I’d forget, and there it would be on the recording, the voice of a man singing without a tune. My family always enjoyed those tapes, laughing with me at my failure.
I’ve been blessed over the years as I am today with some fine music leaders. One of them shared in leadership at a Wednesday chapel service for preschool kids. I’d do the prayers and the talking; she led the singing and it was great singing. Then one day she became ill with one of those long term illnesses and suddenly I had to do the whole thing every week. It was me that had to stand there and get them started on “This Little light of Mine”; me that had to start up “Oh What a Miracle”; thankfully that one had an electronic version I could hide behind. I had to lead the singing and every Wednesday I was like a bird that flies into a window, crashing into what I couldn’t do. Have you ever felt like that? But then I came up with a solution: I’d call a few of the kids up front and you know they had these beautiful voices and they would start up and we would all sing and you could just feel God smiling. You see, the solution was simple: we had all the gifts to praise God, we just had to share them. We had to act like people together.
Everyone Needs a Helper
When we think of the whole cast of characters that make up the sacred story of spiritual progress, it’s important to remember they didn’t always look like the best ones to accomplish God’s purpose. Sarah laughed when God announced she would bear a child; she was too old. Moses was a terrible public speaker. When Esther is afraid to go to the Persian King to prevent a pogrom, a massacre. Jeremiah complains God deceived him. Just like me with my inability to sing, every one of these people thinks they can’t do something. Just like us, they often are so aware of their limits they almost miss God’s call to lead the spiritual parade of progress. The way forward comes from faith that as Paul says God will strengthen us to the end. One way God strengthens us is by giving us each other. Sarah isn’t alone, she has Abraham; God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him. Esther is strengthened by her uncle Mordechai, Jeremiah has an assistant. Together, we have every spiritual gift needed to do what God hopes.
Sailing on the Chesapeake, it’s common to look off into the distance and see the dark gathering clouds of a storm. We have been through a long political campaign that has among other things darkened our national life by lifting the voices of the demons of division. It’s tempting at such a moment to look around, see how small we are, see how great the challenge of living into God’s justice is and act like the chipmunk that lives in our garage. The chipmunk has one response to every threat: run and hide.
But God will not accept hiding; God hopes we will be like a city set on a hill, like a star with to the light of God to the grace of Jesus Christ. All those people I mentioned, and so many others, shared that light because they were together in sharing God’s love and God’s Word. They lived from this faith: that together with all God’s children, together with all God’s love, God would go from victory to victory. So though they feared, they persevered; though they knew their limits, their lives went beyond the limits.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words I quoted earlier, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, not home in Birmingham, Alabama. He was there to help with the struggle for justice of a group of sanitation workers he’d never met. He was there because despite the fact these were not his immediate neighbors, he knew they were his neighbors in the landscape of God. To get there, he flew on an airplane that had to be reinspected because of the hatred of some threatened the safety of all. He was threatened every day. Yet he could say, “Tonight, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory.” The next day he was killed in an act of violence that shocked a whole nation. It seemed as if the power of darkness was victorious.
Yet his work, his light, have continued to shine. His work, his light, continue to show us the path forward. It was not his strength that made the difference; it was the light of God’s love shining in him that allowed him to sing, and others with him, “We shall over come.” We shall overcome: not me, not you, not one of us, not a few of us, but all of us. We shall overcome.
We Shall Overcome
Now I look around this church, as I know you do. Just like Paul, I give thanks for every one of you and sometimes I wonder what we can do. I know we are small in number. How can we overcome? And I believe the answer is right there before us: it is when we learn to look at others the way my grandmother looked at David and see our connection, see that though they may look different, we are one family. We are, together in every place, as Paul said, God’s children. The demons of division may be loud but our faith in God’s love can bind us together. The demons of division may be visible but the invisible grace of God in Jesus Christ can bind us together. The demons of division may seem victorious but if we live with the simple prayer that our lives may be dedicated to letting God’s love shine, they will be defeated. That’s the faith that allows us to sing, “We shall overcome.” We sing it not because it is true today but because we know in the fullness of God’s time, it will be true and in that time we will, in every place, together, see the glory of God and the justice of God pour down like mighty waters.
Hear it: Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome