Sermons


“Has Christ Been Divided?”
By Teresa Anderson Franklin
for Mount Hermon Presbyterian Church
January 22, 2017
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Over the past few months, I have come to understand better than ever before the implications of a word often used as descriptive of our culture – polarization. Yesterday, I looked it up. Google quickly delivered me this simple definition: “division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.” (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=polarization%20definition)

But then Wikipedia offered a broader array of options, providing me different meanings for a variety of contexts: polarization is relevant to the physical sciences, mathematics, and social sciences. The social sciences are further subdivided into smaller categories – economics, politics and psychology. The psychological definition of polarization is the one we’ve heard so much about in the news recently. It is “the process whereby a social or political group is divided into opposing sub-groups.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polarization) Polarization isn’t just about division; it’s also about opposition. 

The church in Corinth apparently had become polarized. And Paul wrote to them to discourage their divisions and to encourage unity instead. When Paul pled with them to “be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you,” I doubt the Apostle was impractical enough to think that they could be in agreement about everything. All members of a community being of one mind on every topic isn’t reasonable. It’s probably impossible, but at the very least it’s improbable. And I don’t think it’s what Paul expected. I think Paul was asking them to agree on something – on one main thing that they could unite around. And that one thing was Christ – they all belonged to Christ. No matter through what teacher or evangelist they came to belong, Paul reminded them, they all came to belong to Christ. Christ was their unifying factor.

Like the Corinthians, we too live in a polarized society. If Paul could write to us to encourage unity among us and discourage our divisions, what unifying factor do you think Paul would choose to draw us together? (Pause) Let’s assume for the moment, that again he chose Christ. Paul might say to us, “Why not unite around the claim, ‘We all belong to Christ’?” And if he did, what would that mean to our contemporary American society?

I dare say, it would mean a great many different things to different kinds of people – to people from various backgrounds and faiths. To Muslims and Jews, it would be offensive, because it would seem to exclude them completely, since they don’t call God ‘Christ.’ To some Christians, it would suggest a certain, and possibly rigid, doctrine – an established set of beliefs and practices to which a group of people adhere. To other Christians, it would mean something less specific:  possibly a set of social and spiritual principles that were lived and taught by a First Century Jewish prophet by the name of Jesus. To nonreligious Americans, the suggestion may have no meaning at all.
The point is, if someone wishes to unite a group of people around a common factor, the factor itself has to be something that’s common and relatable among all the people to be united. Otherwise, it won’t serve the purpose. Today, if we’re talking about strengthening unity within the Church, we can do that around the name of Christ – just as the Apostle Paul did almost two thousand years ago. But if we want to rally all Americans around a common goal or ideal, ‘Christ’ doesn’t work for that purpose. And possibly, it never did.

Not all Americans are Christians. That is true today, and it has always been the case. Never in the almost 250-year history of the United States of America has there ever been a religious test for citizenship. In other words, to affiliate with this nation has never required a person to be of a particular religion, or of any religion at all. Officially, America is open to people of all religions, or of none. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=religion+in+the+us+constitution)

This is what I mean when I use the term ‘religious liberty.’ I’m talking about the fact that our government doesn’t discriminate against people or groups based on their religion, and actually makes laws against its citizens doing the same thing across a variety of circumstances. I think that’s a good thing and an American ideal worth defending.

Because not all Americans are Christians and not all Christians are Americans, Americans won’t and can’t be united around the name of Christ. It’s a name that has actually become divisive, because we don’t all share it in common. So if we as Americans are to rally around a common principle on which we can agree, as Paul urged the Corinthian church to unite around the idea of belonging to Christ, we would have to be drawn together by an ideal that’s both common and fundamental to all Americans – like liberty and justice for all.

Even in a perfect society – a utopia – the extent of liberty must necessarily vary from person to person. Someone who’s recently been found guilty of a serious crime couldn’t expect to enjoy the same degree of liberty that a law-abiding citizen enjoys. A ten-year-old child wouldn’t be held to the same degree of responsibility as a thirty-year-old adult, but likewise couldn’t expect the same degree of freedom, either. The extent of liberty an individual citizen enjoys in any country will be conditioned by age, mental and physical abilities, legal records, and other criteria and circumstances. But in a country that values “liberty and justice for all” above most other ideals, I think it’s reasonable to expect that as much liberty and as much justice as can reasonably be afforded an individual citizen or group is the extent provided. In other words, liberty and justice aren’t for sale to the highest bidder, aren’t the exclusive rights of certain groups, and aren’t withheld from particular citizens without just cause. A fundamental right like access to a free public education wouldn’t be withheld from a certain group of children based on their religion, or race, or national origin or native language. A nation that agrees upon and rallies around the ideal of liberty and justice for all would provide for a quality public education for all children regardless of their circumstances, wouldn’t it?

I’m a Christian, and I humbly claim the name of Christ. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask Americans of all faiths, or of none, to rally around that name. It isn’t common to all of us. And Christians have made it divisive. The name of Christ divides Americans now more than it unites us. Within the church, yes, we all belong to Christ, and his name is and should be our rallying cry. But outside the walls of this building, we’re citizens of the broader world, and the broader world isn’t universally Christian. And we shouldn’t live our lives as if it was. Personally, I’m the kind of Christian who is happy to let Muslims be happy Muslims and Jews be happy Jews and Buddhists be happy Buddhists. More power to them. I don’t intend to offend people of other religions with the notion that I think my religion is the only true religion or that my Christ is the only true version of God. To do so, I believe, would be to unfairly discriminate based on one’s religion. And my understanding of the principle of religious liberty simply doesn’t allow it.

I’ve never preached a sermon with the intent to shock or offend or inflame tensions. I don’t think that is what being a Christian is all about. But I do feel called to preach in such a way as to provoke deep thought and essential conversation. First Corinthians speaks of an effort to create unity where divisions are a problem for a community of people who have come together for a common purpose – to follow Christ. Paul commands them not to get side-tracked by all the things they don’t share in common. Some were baptized by Paul, some by Apollos, etc. Paul urges them to come together in the one important identity they all share, and that is Christ. Following Christ was their common purpose, and the name of Christ was their unifying factor. But as Americans, our common purpose is the role and welfare of the United States of America in the world. We follow Christ as we demonstrate the love of God for all persons, regardless of race, religion, national origin, native language, gender or gender identity. But we mustn’t use Christ as a litmus test for whether or not a person is worthy to be called neighbor, or brother, or friend, or human being – or good American.

As brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, in this place and in this time, it isn’t reasonable to expect that we might agree on everything about which we think and talk. And Paul isn’t asking the church to agree on everything. He’s asking them to agree on something – the main thing - the common, unifying factor, in their case Christ.

And let us here, inside the doors of the Church, unite under the name of Christ but also under the principles Jesus taught – love, compassion, service, sacrifice, acceptance, mercy and grace – both for ourselves and our neighbors.

And outside the doors of the church, let us live and teach tolerance for all differences, defects, deficiencies, and difficulties of all the human beings with whom we come in contact. For if we cannot or will not agree in tolerance for our differences, we will fail to survive as a community, a nation, a world. Essential ties will be severed by inevitable conflict, disagreement and discord. For that is what happens to communities who refuse to be in agreement about anything.

Amen.



Blessings and Woes
By Teresa Anderson Franklin
for Mount Hermon Presbyterian Church
November 6, 2016
All Saints’ Day Celebration

Luke 6:20-31

Then (Jesus) looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that the future is our ultimate undiscovered country, and we’re always on our way there – like it or not. This morning I want to talk a bit more about the future, and what we should and shouldn’t expect of it. And I’ll attempt to use this morning’s Gospel Lesson from Luke 6 as a jumping off place.

I realize many in the past have interpreted Jesus’ blessings and woes teaching in Luke 6 as the revelation of a kind of divine justice system that somehow turns earthly sorrow into heavenly blessing and earthy riches into hellish torment, because those are what we’ve earned for ourselves in life. But that isn’t the way I read them.

Rather I think Jesus is inviting us to question the shortsighted assumptions that cause us to jump prematurely to faulty conclusions. And reminding us we’re easily fooled into assuming what we see in the present as indicative of the future. Jesus spoke to the poor as if he understood they’d concluded they were cursed by God because they were poor, and to the rich as if they assumed they were blessed by God simply because they were wealthy. But Jesus calls all such interpretations into question when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is essentially saying to the poor, “You may consider yourselves unfortunate now, but God may indeed be leading you into righteousness.” And to the rich, “You may consider yourselves fortunate now but may realize in the end that your material riches were meaningless - even unhelpful - in leading you to the righteousness of God”. Jesus’ teaching on blessings and woes seems to me to be an indictment against current vision, that it’s so limited we easily fall prey to false interpretations of it.

Have you ever noticed that present circumstances have an overwhelming influence on our outlook for the future? If my life is going badly, I tend to see tomorrow in drearier terms than when my life is going well. And when my life is going well, I tend to view my future in brighter terms than when things are going badly. In other words, human beings depend too heavily on present circumstances to dictate our expectations of what will be. Jesus advises against such assumptions, insisting that present circumstances simply are not that reliable in predicting the future.

Jesus’ teaching on Blessings and Woes, part of his Sermon on the Plain in Luke, invites to take a step back from our present circumstances and to consider them from a broader point of view. Suggesting we avoid concluding that we understand and can rightly interpret God’s intentions for us based on our circumstances. Maybe we can’t. Perhaps present circumstances are poor indicators of future satisfaction. Ultimate blessing may be well beyond our foresight, and our ability to determine the future based upon the present is so limited as to be nonproductive. We can’t even tell blessings from woes in the present, because we can’t see the outcome of either. We can’t see what the future will bring.

Jesus reminds us we’re better off inferring meaning from what can be observed of the past rather than the present. In drawing a conclusion about past circumstances, Jesus says our righteous forebears – the prophets - were persecuted by their enemies but blessed by God.

The world needs prophets but rarely appreciates them while they’re living. They’re just too darn forthright, and we’re never ready to hear what they have to say. That’s why we call them prophets – they’re able to accurately characterize the future before we’re ready to accept it as reality.

Consider a few famous prophets from the past. Remember Joseph, who dreamed as a young man that his brothers’ sheaves bowed down to his, and they sold him into slavery for it? Remember Moses and how the Israelites railed against him for bringing them out of Egypt to die of starvation in the desert? Later we’d remember both Joseph and Moses as deliverers. The ones they’d deliver just had trouble seeing them in that light.

The same could be said for other significant leaders, whose revolutionary ideas weren’t particularly popular when they first presented them – Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Only in retrospect are we able to see that all were prophets – indeed deliverers – whose messages were at first rejected as radical, even heretical, because they were so different from the status quo. Just as in the instance of Joseph and Moses – and Jesus.

The uncomfortable truth about human beings is that we often attack, and sometimes kill, our deliverers, because they engender such fear in us – fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of the undiscovered country that lies uncharted before us.

My hope and my prayer is that humanity would, in the future, evolve to the point of becoming able to kill the status quo rather than the prophet who arrives to challenge it. I don’t know that we’re there yet. On this observance of All Saints, let us give thanks to God for sending saints to serve the public good – even the ones we attack and kill because we can’t bear to hear what they have to say.

Amen.




Anointed
By Teresa Anderson Franklin
Revised for Mount Hermon Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2016
5th Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I can’t let you this morning get by with hearing only one Bible story. Today, I intend to challenge you with three, all from the Gospel of John. It isn’t that I’m trying to be hard on you. It is because the interpretation of the three together reveals larger truths I think the author intended us to see. But that we won’t see if we consider the stories only separately.

The first story is from John 12:  Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and wipes his feet with her hair. According to John, this event occurs in the last week of Jesus’ life, in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Judas, the keeper of the purse, objects to Mary’s extravagant action, voices his opposition, and is rebuked by Jesus. “Let her be.” Then Mary proceeds with her anointing.

The second is from John 13:  Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel tied around his waist. The event occurs on the evening of Jesus’ arrest, in Jerusalem, following supper, when Jesus and the Twelve are gathered for their last meal together, before going to the garden where Jesus will be arrested and taken prisoner. As Jesus gets to the feet of Simon Peter, this disciple is offended that his Lord would bow before him and wash his feet. So he resists, saying, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus rebukes him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Then Jesus proceeds with his washing.

Story 3 (John 18): In a garden, Jesus is willingly arrested by soldiers and guards of the chief priest and Pharisees. In doing so, he submits himself to imprisonment, trial, and suffering at the hands of unjust authorities. But not before Simon Peter again attempts an intervention. At the moment of Jesus’ arrest, Peter draws his sword and attacks the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. But Jesus rebukes him immediately, “Put your sword away, Simon. Will I not drink the cup that has been given me to drink?” Then Jesus proceeds with his sacrifice.

I won’t suggest that these three events occurred exactly as the Gospel of John reports them. As a matter of fact, I assume that the author took liberties with the details in order to convey certain ideas and suggest certain meanings. I think that is what we’re seeing here in the three parallel stories of John 12 – 18:  John has laid out for us a series of narratives of extravagant offerings, over-the-top sacrifices, made in different settings, in particular ways, by different characters, but following the same pattern, I think, for a reason. We are to notice their congruity, because in their consistency we discern additional meaning which the author wants us to consider.

Insight #1: The fact that Mary, a disciple, makes the first offering of the three, when she pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, tells me that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus isn’t the only one capable of extravagant self-sacrifice. Mary does it first. Maybe God calls all disciples to honor others with self-giving. 

#2: The fact that the twelve disciples are the objects of his honor when Jesus stoops to wash all their feet tells me that Divine Beings are not the only appropriate recipients of our service.  Perhaps we are called to serve one another.

#3: The fact that, in these parallel stories, both Judas and Peter fail to understand what is happening, and even intervene to try to stop it, tells me that all of us - good and bad, sinful and righteous, well-meaning and self-serving - are capable of misunderstanding and misdirecting our attempts to control what goes on around us. Misinterpretation happens to us all.

I have been known to call myself a Bible-nerd, because I can get pretty excited about hidden meanings suddenly revealing themselves from old, familiar Bible stories. But there is even more here to be uncovered.

John goes on to make one of these three points explicit in Jesus’ words to his disciples following the foot washing. Jesus asks:
“Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example; that you also should do as I have done to you. …I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:12-35)

John has now set us up to see what I consider the best and most startling point of these parallel stories of extravagant offering, and interestingly enough, it’s grounded in the feet.

To anoint someone with perfume is to honor that person – their identity and their destiny - as a new king might be anointed in distinction, for instance. But to anoint someone’s feet is to give honor with extreme humility, lowering oneself to the position of a servant, even making oneself vulnerable to attack while knee and head are bowed and defenses are lowered. In John, this is the position Mary takes before Jesus as she pours costly perfume onto his feet then leans her body lower to wipe his feet with her hair. But more significantly, it is also the position Jesus takes before his disciples as he kneels to first bathe and then dry each one’s feet with the towel he wears around his middle. Consider how low you’d have to stoop in order to wipe a person’s feet with a short towel attached to your waist, assuming, of course, the feet are in their customary position, that being on the ground. That’s awfully low, and it’s exactly how low Jesus is teaching his disciples to bow themselves before one another. He tells them, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example; that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

This point John’s Gospel makes perfectly clear:  Christ’s followers are to humble ourselves before one another, loving and serving one another, even making ourselves vulnerable to one another as we lower ourselves and our defenses to place ourselves in position to give honor to one another, even to our lowest extremities – the weakest and poorest among us.

But then in the final story, Jesus goes even further. In the Gospel of John, he goes all the way to the cross, pouring out his very life in sacrifice. And for what? For lowly feet – humanity – us – that we might be honored, when we deserve no honor, that we might be anointed, when we’ve earned no such distinction, and that we might be cleansed of the guilty grime that clings to our souls and holds us at arm’s length from the noble and loving God who created us – who breathed life into us so that we might live together on earth in love, and peace, and humility, even when we lack understanding. After all, understanding isn’t everything, but love certainly is.


Thanks be to God.