Sunday, January 29, 2012

It Takes a Church (Sermon Sunday January 29, 2012

It Takes a Church
Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
January 29, 2012

You may have come to Worship this morning and listened to the scripture reading about consuming the meat sacrificed to idols and were bewildered. You have never been confronted with worrying about eating food sacrificed to Zeus, Apollo, or Baal. It doesn’t really seem to apply to us very much.

Underlying all of this was a complex issue.

In Corinth there were many temples to idols and people made animal sacrifices to those idols. The temples would then sell the meat to people to consume in a meal or something like that. For followers of the idols the meat was sacred; for others it was merely good meat. People often sacrificed their finest to the idols and so the meat sacrificed to the idols was merely a delicious commodity. So there was the question. Was eating this food a sin?

Many of the Christians in Corinth availed themselves of this. Many things in life change, but people’s love of a good steak hasn’t changed all that much over the centuries.

The problem was, for some within the Christian community, this had become a problem. They saw Christians eating this fine meat and they thought that the people were somehow sinning by worshiping multiple gods. So Paul was presented the problem. Is it a sin to eat this meat that was sacrificed to the idols?

His answer is a brilliant one. Since people had the knowledge that these idols were false idols and since people weren’t worshiping those idols, theoretically they were doing nothing wrong. They were merely enjoying a fine cut of meat. However....

If the people in the community were scandalized by this, if people in the church family didn’t have the knowledge or understanding of this, and if it threatened people’s faith, Paul goes on to say, don’t eat the meat that had been sacrificed to the idols. It was, he states, the responsibility of the strong to support the weak. The church was a family and everyone was responsible for the well being of one another.

There are several lessons in all of this. The first lesson is this. It takes a church to raise a Christian.

There is an old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. This imagery became somewhat controversial because Hillary Clinton used this proverb as a title for her book and the concept became politicized. I will leave that issue up to everyone to discuss among yourselves or debate over lunch.
However, whatever your opinion is about children and villages, please note that it takes a church to raise a Christian. In 2000 years of Christianity, this hasn’t changed very much.

St. Paul wrote this letter to the people in the city of Corinth around 55 AD. The Christian Church of that era bore very little resemblance to the Christian Church of now.

Any organization of the Christian Church would not come until the beginning for the 4th century, almost 250 years later. Early Christianity did not have much of a structure, no real hierarchy, or organization. There was no set way to Worship, there were no hymnals and the New Testament didn’t exist. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, the first Gospel to be written, was actually not even written yet when St. Paul wrote these words. Whenever Christians of our era compare themselves to Christianity of that era, we need to do so recognizing the world and the Christian Church was vastly different.

But there was a constant and it was the need for a community, a family of believers. People needed to take care of one another then, and they need to take care of one another now. The people who are strong in faith are responsible for the people who are weak in faith. That is Paul’s point. We may be people strong in faith, but we are responsible for the well-being of those who are weaker than we are.

It is one of the reasons we raise children in church. It’s interesting to note something.
Several years ago someone wrote to an advice column written by Billy Graham. They said that their 18 year old daughter was going away to college. The parents confessed that they had not paid much attention to their daughter and had not done a really good job raising her. What, they asked, could they do now to assure that their daughter would do well and conduct herself well, when she was out of the nest.

Billy Graham’s answer was really pretty jolting. He said, “Nothing.” They had missed their opportunity to do this. It was now too late and their only hope was to pray that their daughter had learned good values along the way.

One of the reasons we raise children in church is because it is a place where values are taught and lived out. It takes a church to raise a Christian. If we want to live out our Baptismal promises, however, and if we want children to grow up with the values we can teach in church, then it’s important that we see the value of it taking a church to raise a Christian.

And, of course, Paul’s point is this. We are responsible for one another, in church, and responsible for not doing things that negatively impact the faith of others. Which goes back to the food sacrificed to idols.

If the people in the community were scandalized by this, if people in the church family didn’t have the knowledge or understanding of this, and if it threatened people’s faith, Paul goes on to say, don’t eat the meat that had been sacrificed to the idols. It was, he states, the responsibility of the strong to support the weak. The church was a family and everyone was responsible for the well-being of one another.

The second aspect of this is a lesson from St. Paul to know what we are about as a church.

The Christian Church exists and has always existed for one reason. We exist to bring people to Christ. Our Mission Statement about reaching up, out, beyond, and within is built on the premise of bringing people to Christ. Every church in the world, if it’s remotely faithful, exists to bring people to Christ. When we forget this, we forget who and what we are. The world of commerce has taught us huge lessons.

Eastman Kodak, a historic blue-chip American company, recently filed for bankruptcy. The problem is that the company failed because it didn’t adapt to the digital age. Ironically, it was Kodak who developed digital photography but they failed to capitalize on it because they forgot who and what they were.

The problem with Kodak is that they were the leading manufacturer of film. Eastman Kodak thought they were in the yellow film box business. In truth, they were in the picture business and people stopped buying film because most of the cameras on the market were digital. Kodak fell so far behind in making digital cameras that they got crushed. The forgot who and what they were.

They weren’t the first to make this mistake. In the late 1800s, no business matched the financial and political dominance of the railroad.

Then a new discovery came along — the car — and incredibly, the leaders of the railroad industry did not take advantage of their unique position to participate in this transportation development. The automotive revolution was happening all around them, and they did not use their industry dominance to take hold of the opportunity. They couldn’t figure out why people would ride in a car when they could ride on a train instead. They forgot their real purpose----transportation.

In the 1980’s one company in the United States was primed to be the largest manufacturer of computers and software. If I told you that you had to guess, there would be three probably answers over and over again. They would be Microsoft, Apple, and IBM. Microsoft and Apple benefited from the mistake of this company and IBM completely missed the boat.

The company that was primed, however, was Xerox. They had developed the graphic interface system that became the underpinning for the Windows operating system and the Mac operating system. They developed a Word Processing software with a design that was ‘what you see is what you get,’ along with the machines to run it.

They, however, got rid of it because they saw themselves just as a copy machine company instead of a document producing company.

Which brings me back to a point of this lesson.

Paul was making a point that, as a people of Jesus Christ, our priority is to win disciples for Christ. It is not about pushing the envelope of our lives, but living our faith as an example for others. When we cause scandal for others, just so we can have fun, we are missing the point.

This passage is not about Zeus, Apollo, or Baal or even just the people in Corinth. It is not just a lesson for a people in a church vastly different from our’s, but a lesson for all generations, reminding us the joy of being together, but also, more importantly, the responsibility of being a family of faith who never loses sight of who and what we are about.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Honor and Shame and A Poor Choice

There is a video which has surfaced with is alleged to have several Marine urinating on the bodies of killed Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. It is unconfirmed, at this time, that these were, in fact, Marines. Most people are hoping this is not the case, but that may just be hopeful thinking at this time.

Our military does, for the most part, an amazing job. Many of them suffer grievously for being placed in harm's way and even after they come home they often suffer trauma. They deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. The vast majority of those who serve our country in uniform do so in a way that makes and keeps us proud.

The Marine Corps has had a long and incredibly proud history. I have had the privilege of knowing many people who served in the Marines. No branch of the military seems to inspire more loyalty than the Marines. The are the proud and the few..deservedly so.

And then this video showed up.

Combat and war inspire hate. Engaging in mortal combat is not a dispassionate event. Combat is personal with people aiming and shooting at one another. The combination of fear and violence and mortal combat inspires hatred in most human beings. That hatred often continues when white flags of surrender are waved or even upon the death of one's enemy. We have cringed seeing the bodies of our troops desecrated and now we cringe again. It appears like American soldiers are desecrating the remains of their enemy.

It's bad and I wish the Marines, if if turns out they were Marines, had thought about their brothers and sisters in arms. They have raised the temperature of battle and inflamed people against them and against their colleagues.

In the Middle East, among those we are fighting, there is a world view of honor and shame. We can be humiliated and often overlook it, but their culture does not. It is a culture rooted with an ancient concept of honor and shame. Their is nothing worse than being dishonored and being shamed. Nothing. By bringing shame to the bodies of their enemy, these soldiers have brought shame to the people they fight. It was a bad decision and a bad move.

We can only pray for peace to prevail and for God's grace to remind us to never demean others. Even our enemies.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Taking the Plunge: Baptism (Sermon for 1/8/12

Taking the Plunge: Baptism
Text: Mark 1:4-11
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
January 8, 2012

Several years ago I was at an ecumenical clergy meeting and one of the ministers in the group announced that he had never been Baptized.

The group was, needless to say, quite surprised. Here, after all, was an ordained minister, a man who had Baptized many people, who presided at weddings and at funerals, a man who was a leader within the Christian community.

And he had never been Baptized. His parents were not church goers and he had never gone to any kind of church until he was in college. He joined a church and became involved and no one ever asked him if he had been Baptized. As time went on he decided he wanted to attend seminary and was interviewed extensively and asked 1001 questions, but was never asked if he had been Baptized. He went to seminary and was ordained three years later, again, without anyone ever discussing Baptism with him. And, in every church he ever served, lots of questions asked, but never asking him if he had been Baptized.

So here he was, years later, the pastor of a church, and he had never been Baptized. And he shared this information with a group of clergy.

The group all decided that we had to Baptize him.

Some of us wanted to sprinkle some water on him and say the words--after all, that was a part of our tradition. The Roman Catholic priest in the group wanted to pour water, as was the Roman Catholic tradition.

There were a couple of ministers from the Church of the Brethren. They wanted to immerse him, facing forward. Two Baptist ministers in the group wanted to immerse him falling backwards, as was their tradition.

We laughed a lot and remarked on how we all had different baptismal traditions--some we somehow missed something.

Our colleague left the meeting and was not Baptized. We were too busy debating on how Baptisms should be done, that we never got around to Baptizing our colleague. I look back on this, some 27 years later and think about how we had failed our colleague and friend so badly.

Sadly, that is what Baptism is often about. Several years ago I was called by a member of the clergy in another state where a person who grew up at St. Marks was now attending. The pastor of this church wanted to know the exact wording of the Baptism performed by Rev. Trnka in 1980 would have been because if Rev. Trnka had not used the precise wording, the Baptism didn’t count and the person would have to be Baptized----correctly this time.

My thought was, really? This is all Baptism means? We have to get the method and the words exactly right in order for it to count?

We debate on how to do it and when to do it, to the point that we miss exactly what Baptism actually is all about. Let’s look at what some of these things really are about.

The first is about submission to God.

Now I say this, take a breath and a pause, because we in the United Church of Christ are not noted for being great submitters. We generally answer theological questions by starting, “Well, in my opinion….” Submission does not come easily for us but when we look at this passage, we note something that is incredibly profound. Jesus submitted to John the Baptist in order to be Baptized. It is an action of God submitting to a person. Jesus did it again when he washed the disciples’ feet. God submitted to people in order to serve people.

And God invites us to submit to His will. This, of course, requires time, patience, prayer, and study. A lot of what passes for God’s will is our own wills that we give God the credit or the blame for. Not everything that we say or anyone says is God’s will is really God’s will.

I’ve used examples like this before, but it’s worth repeating.

When we lived in Ohio there was a bakery in town with wonderful jelly doughnuts. I’d often say to myself, if it’s God’s will for me to have a couple of jelly doughnuts today, there will be a parking space open in front of the bakery. In every case I wanted jelly doughnuts there was a space open. It often took three or four trips around the block for God’s will to show forth, but it always did.

And that is often how we deal with God’s will. WE want something, WE desire something, and WE do everything we can to make it happen. And then we give God the credit….or the blame. God’s will is something we all grapple with a great deal and we need to learn to submit to it when it requires us to change and grow. Sometimes God’s will is not consistent with our own desire or our own will. Submission is something we need to learn and grow into.

The second aspect of Baptism is about cleansing. It is a time of cleansing us of our sins and our short-comings.

There’s a great story about a church, a Roman Catholic Church, where the pastor, Father Jones, was celebrating his 10 Anniversary as the pastor of the church. They planned a nice dinner and one of the speakers at the dinner was one of the state’s two Senators who was a member of the church and was flying home from Washington to help honor the pastor.

There were several people scheduled to speak with the Senator being first. However, his flight was delayed so he had not yet arrived when people began to speak. After a while, the pastor spoke. He said:

“When I arrived here one of the first things I did was listen to confessions from people. The first person who came into the confessional told me that he had cheated on his wife repeatedly during their marriage; he had embezzled money from two businesses, and double-crossed his partners in another business. I was wondering what kind of place I had come to. It turns out, whoever that first person was, turned out to be an exception and that the church was filled with wonderful people.”

Everyone applauded and it was all fine. After a little while, the Senator finally got there and was invited to speak. He stood up and said:

“I have always had a special place in my heart for Father Jones. He doesn’t know it, but he and I have always had a special bond. I was the very first person to go to confession to him although I’m sure he’s long since forgotten.”

Reality is, most of us aren’t as bad as this Senator, but we all struggle with issues, short-comings, and sins and the reality of life is that we all want and all need to be forgiven of sin.

There have been parts of church history where people waited until the end of their lives for the cleansing action of Baptism. Their aspiration was to have their sins forgiven without having to make any changes in their lives. They wanted the forgiveness aspect of Baptism without the submission-----whereas both are significant.

Baptism is a reminder that this cleansing God gives to us is not a one-time thing, but something we ought to seek over and over again. We don’t need to come to the water for forgiveness, but come to God praying for forgiveness. We don’t need to confess to any person, but we need, on occasion, simply to come before God’s presence and unburden ourselves. Baptism is an ongoing reminder that God offers us cleansing and we need to avail ourselves of this. No one is perfect and God’s grace offers us forgiveness every day.

The last thing is this. Baptism gives us a gift that most people seem to miss or ignore. Baptism gives us a family; a group of people who claim us as one of their own.

I have noticed something about myself over the years I have lived. Whenever something good happened to me, I had to talk to my family and whenever something painful or difficult took place, I had to talk to my family. Families gather for celebrations such as weddings, and heartaches such as funerals. We need people who love us around us in joyful and difficult times of life.

When we are Baptized we are Baptized into a family of faith. And it’s not just the family of faith where we are Baptized; it is a family of faith that stretches to all the ends of the earth. Baptism is a reminder that we are part of something far bigger and far greater than ourselves.

We are part of a family that has lived in this house for many years. The DNA of the people of faith, who have founded this church and whose memory and spirit live with us, is something we are bound too. It is a family that stretches into every church in every nation, both far and close by. It is a bonding to a family of faith that goes back to the apostles, and to Jesus standing in the river, submitting to John the Baptist. St. Paul says it so beautifully in Galatians when he says:

27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Baptism reminds us we are not alone. We have family and nothing is more beautiful than that.

Baptism is a rare and special gift to us from God. Let’s move beyond petty debates, and celebrate it is a chance to submit to a magnificent God, be cleansed from the times we fail, and delight in being part of God’s family.