Beautiful, Wild, and Free

1 Corinthians 9:1, 16-23
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
February 4, 2018

The Church in Corinth was a mess.  They had written for help to Paul, who had gotten them started just 10 years earlier.  And in his response, the letter we read from today, Paul addressed at least 15 problems.  The question beneath the questions was harder to ask, “How can we relate to those people?”  Those in early church in Corinth were quite diverse, including the very wealth and the very poor, Jews and Gentiles, men and women together.  They had different foods, languages, traditions, and leaders —all competing for dominance.

Paul himself had a history.  Paul, whose name then was Saul, used to be pretty sure about who was ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’   And on the road to Damascus, he breathed anger and planned murder for those he disagreed with. Light fell upon Saul. And in the light, he heard Jesus call his name, and ask, “Why do you persecute me?” In Jesus, Saul saw God as one who radiates, even into his own closed heart. And Saul realized he couldn’t see, even though his eyes were open. Saul entered three days of prayer.  Saul experienced that God reached out to everyone—not only him but also those he had set out to get.  In his days of blindness, Saul became dependent on the kindness of friends to lead him by the hand.  Even Ananias, whom he had once targeted, came and prayed with Saul that his sight be restored.  Saul’s name changed to Paul, but he remained a Jew all his life.  Hearing the Voice of Love expanded his understanding of who God was and who he was called to be.

The leaders in Corinth to which Paul wrote, valued appearances, money, connections and how eloquently people spoke.  Paul pointed out to them that God in Jesus looked very different.    God in Jesus chose to enter the human condition, as a baby, as vulnerable.  Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for water at the well.  He not only reached out to the despised and marginalized, but he needed the gifts they had to share.  “And,” said Paul, “We’re to follow Jesus.”   This was not quite the answer they were hoping for.

In our reading from chapter 9, Paul began, “I have seen Jesus.”  And then he addressed the Corinthians question about clergy.  Paul said, “Yes, clergy should be paid, but I will not.” Paul chose to support himself with hand-labor, making tents, something that would have repulsed the Corinthian elite.   Paul did not want to be ‘bought’ or ‘controlled’ by them.  He would be ‘free.’

Paul reached out to this group, and that group, and that one too.   To the Jews and those under the law, he became as one of them; to those outside the law, as one of them; to the weak, as one of them.   He intentionally set aside some of his preferences and privilege, hoping he could better relate and be better received.  He did it hoping that at least some might be saved.

Paul said he chose to be ‘free’ and to be a ‘slave’ to all.  The Greek word here is ‘doulos.’  From this word comes doula.  A doula is someone who companions, especially during times of pain and transition.  During childbirth, a doula comes to soothe, sing, comfort, as a woman labors, groans, tears, stretches, and brings forth life.  Doulas also companion in times of death, caring in much the same way. Paul remembered how Jesus, and friends, and Ananias had come to him in his hours of need.  Paul chose to be like them, like a doula.

Paul wrote to the painfully divided church in Corinth, “Don’t mock each other, don’t shame, don’t lock into bitter disputes.”  Remember the love of Jesus. “Love is patient, love is kind. . .  Love does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the truth.” (I Cor. 13)  And remember, we are all part of one large Body, each member is unique, and valued and the actions of one effect all.  (I Cor. 15)

It may be hard for us to understand the specific battles in Corinth around circumcision, food offered to idols, or today’s passage–but we do know divisive times.  It is tempting to huddle with people who believe, talk, spend, eat, sing, and vote like we do.  And we have our moments, when like Saul on the Road to Damascus, we can spit rage and wish those who have it wrong would just disappear.   But is this the call of the gospel?  Sometimes our eyes are open, but we can’t see.

Brene Brown says,

“There are those people in our lives for whom we will disagree—but will for sure be there to drive us to chemo or bring over food with the kids are sick.  And severing those connections seems like the last resort—only after vulnerable, tough conversations, and boundary settings have failed.”[i]

Maybe it isn’t all about our comfort, or appearances, or preferences.  What might we need to sacrifice at the altar?  What freedom might we need to claim?  What privilege do we need to notice and set aside?  Who is hurting?  Who might need a doula?  –or an invitation to coffee?  What is saving? How can we be part of God’s movement in ways that cross barriers and empower?  These are the kinds of questions Paul was leading Corinth, and now us, to be writing about.  And as we wonder and pray, we return to the eyes of Jesus. . .  As we gaze, our understanding of who God is, and who we are, expands.

Every Sunday in the Advent devotional, “Let There Be Light,” author Sarah Are shared a prayerful question and holy response. I share one with you:

“God,” I whispered.  “What if peace isn’t possible?  Then what?”

God was quiet for a minute.

Then God wrapped me up in God’s arms and told me a story.

God said, “In the beginning, I knit you together.  I wove strands of peace into your heart so that you might know and grow love; and your heart was beautiful, wild and free.

That was a long time ago, but peace is part of who you are.  It just gets stuck under fear, doubt, and hurt—like a bird with stones on its wings.”

I don’t understand,” I fussed.  “If peace is part of who we are, then why are we humans so bad at it?”

God held me a little tighter and said, “Little bird, remember how loved you are, and start small.  Remove the stones of anger, hurt, and fear one at a time and peace will surely grow.”

Then God lifted up my arms and set me out to fly, and I realized

That, in God’s love, I was beautiful and wild and free, and peace was a part of me.

So I flew home, and stayed up all night writing love letters and tearing down walls so that the peace in me could fly to the peace in you.

Let me know when you get it.[ii]

About two weeks ago, I drove to Grand Rapids, and met my parents for my Dad’s regular oncology appointment.  Dad has less and less energy, and the Nurse Practioner, Shana, told him that was understandable with his ongoing chemo and age. And then he asked her, “Can I still preach?”

Shana looked at him quizzically.

“Well, the home preacher asked if I would fill in while he’s on vacation, but I told him I’m not up to it any more. I just can’t. . . .But then I went home, and then I got to thinking, people hear so much judgement .  I just have to tell them, ‘God loves you.’   I woke up the next day and realized that I need to do this with my whole being. . .  So, what do you think?  Can I?”

And Shana was quiet, and then she said, “I think you have to.”

“Oh, good,” said Dad, “I already called him back, and told him so.”

This week Dad and I sent each other exegesis, articles and ideas.  And this morning, from two pulpits, in two very different places, Daddy and I preach two sermons from the same text. Without knowing what the other ended up writing, we know. You know.

Paul said, “I have seen Jesus.”  And across time and place the chorus rises, “Jesus loves me this I know . . .”

Beloved, of anger, hurt, and fear.

Proclaim the gospel with your whole being.

Radiate.  You are beautiful, wild, and free.

[i] 50-51, Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness.

[ii] 13, Sarah Are, Let There Be Color Devotional, A Sanctified Art, 2018.