Sermon – February 5, 2017

by The Rev. Edwin Chinery

Lessons

You can read the scripture for February 5, 2017 here.


Audio

      Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Roughly nine months prior to my call to serve here at Church of the Ascension, Hurricane Sandy struck, hitting the Jersey Shore and a great number of locations on the shores of the five boroughs. The storm hit very hard. At the time I was serving in a small mission parish situated less than half a mile from the shores of the Raritan Bay in a little town called Keansburg. Keansburg had, and still has I believe, a disproportionately high incidence of both poverty and addiction. Within only a few days of the storm we turned our parish hall into The Center for Community Renewal at St. Mark’s. We fed displaced neighbors, at first with frozen foods that were thawing in other neighbors’ freezers – there was no electricity for about a week. And as soon as we began to run out of food, the Red Cross and other rescue organizations stepped in with all the supplies we could ask for.

And just as our program began to thrive, rock star buses began to show up in our neighborhood. They were painted yellow and black with letters three feet high proclaiming Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. Those wonderful relief workers had heard about our food. We settled quickly into a rhythm of feeding as many relief workers as we could, seating them, and ourselves, amongst the regular guests (many of whom lived under the nearby boardwalk), and temporary guests whose homes had been flooded (or even knocked down by the wind – so many dwellings in Keansburg had started out as summer bungalows, built on sand, and not of the most solid construction). One of the local newspapers came in and took photos and ran a short piece on our work, captioning a photo with something like, “Episcopalians and Baptists talk theology together and no one gets hurt!” Well, there was no physical hurting going on, but I must admit what happened next gave me pause. A young local guy who had signed on as a volunteer at first and then, when we identified some grant monies, became a paid staffer, approached me after lunch was over and we were all bustling about cleaning up. With a wry smile he shared an anecdote I don’t think I’ll ever forget. He recounted a conversation he’d had over lunch with a table full of women in yellow t-shirts and ball caps – the uniform of the Southern Baptist Relief Workers. When the meal was nearly through, one of the women thanked our young staffer for the great food. He responded with thanks for their work and the fact that they’d traveled such a long way from home to serve. With a slight edge in her voice the woman replied, “Well…we’ve been thinking that the Lord has been trying to get your attention up here in the Northeast for some time now!” My eyebrows went up about as high as they can as I asked him, “…what did you say to that?” He told me that, after a brief pause, he quietly said, “…It’s always so good to meet someone who knows exactly what’s on God’s mind.”

“We have the mind of Christ”, according to St. Paul.

Paul uses this expression as he addresses the community at Corinth – a community at odds with each other over the value of conventional religious and philosophical wisdom. Paul’s words seem to undermine elitist assumptions about favored teachers – assumptions that had been dividing the community. (Remember, “I belong to Apollos, I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Paul…”) His desire for the Corinthians is that they come to understand true wisdom and power as a revelation from God – a revelation designed to lead them into a mature participation in God’s glory – “so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God”. Wisdom, for Paul, is primarily a “who” rather than a mere body of knowledge or a human capacity. Just as the Fourth Gospel celebrates the Logos made flesh, here Paul pictures Jesus as God’s own wisdom, among us at last, and with transforming power.

Neither human wisdom nor human works are sufficient to the tasks of proclaiming the mystery of God, and so, woven throughout his words to the Corinthians Paul refers, in various ways, to his own human weakness. He does this in order to accentuate God’s power. Later in the letter, he will even warn his followers not to place too much emphasis on mighty acts – or, miracles – because doing so risks placing the focus on something other than the glory of God.

What I find most helpful, in terms of understanding how Paul’s writings to the Corinthians speak to us in this day and age, is how telling it is that his method of addressing conflict among them does not include a detailed explanation of which factions may have been incorrect. He doesn’t spend any time articulating how “the others” are wrong. He doesn’t even speak in terms of others. Instead he shifts the community’s focus to the power of God, regardless of differences.

And throughout this section Paul subtly points up the corporate nature of community, which gains power as we notice the use of first-person plural and second-person plural pronouns. He develops his argument in this passage by reflecting upon how the Holy Spirit brings faith to people – how the Spirit has access to God’s innermost thoughts, and how consequently, when that same Spirit is at work within us, the very thoughts of God are within us. “We have the mind of Christ.”

The significance here lies in a very different understanding of the relationship of human beings to God than what is so often encountered. Like the early churches in Corinth, we may conceive of our connection to God as something fundamentally external: Christ presents us with teachings and an example that we, then, strive to imitate fully and faithfully. The picture Paul paints is that of a more internalized connection, one that involves participating in Christ, rather than outward imitation. Having the mind of Christ, then, is about our faith being a sharing in Jesus’ own knowledge and love of God. This translates to an understanding that even simple acts of generosity and caring – acts we might be tempted to regard merely as people being nice to each other – these are, in fact, the appearance of God’s own love bubbling up in the lives of people in whom the Spirit dwells. And doing so without investing our thinking and feeling in what makes us different may be exactly what is meant by loving our neighbors – even our enemies. Knowing this, and making it into a form of light that we intentionally bear, is essential if we are to try and heal the world as it is today. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt (perhaps one of the patron saints of this nation), “It’s better to light candle, than to curse the darkness!”

Let me finish with a word or two about how I’ve very recently come to a fuller understanding of what our community looks like.

By the grace of God and the mind of Christ as it is so often made manifest in Mother Liz, I received an invitation to attend Friday worship at the Manhattan Masjid (or Mosque) downtown just off Fulton Street. Sheikh Mostafa, the community’s leader, has shown a great interest in interfaith dialogue, extending invites to at least us and a Synagogue uptown – a community called Anshe Hesed, or People of Loving Kindness. It’s hard to explain just how moving my time there was. The warmth of the people, the shaking of hands, smiling into each other’s eyes and kind greetings and blessings abounding, all of which filled my heart. The small building had about six floors, each of which held about a hundred people for worship that began with silent prayer – the room I was in filled with men who knelt facing the same direction and periodically touched their heads to the floor. After about ten minutes of prayer, a lengthy chant was offered by an older man. It was electrifying. After this, the Sheikh took his place and began what he referred to as his lecture. Others called it a sermon. Because he had so many guests – the people of Anshe Hesed numbered about twenty – I was the only Christian – we may have to do something about that! – the Sheikh offered a good deal of information about Islam and what it means to be Muslim. He spoke of submitting oneself to God, and doing so through acts of justice and loving kindness. He spoke passionately of the understanding in true Islamists of the utter absence of judgment – how Judgment is God’s province alone. He called me by name – and did the same with Rabbi Jeremy – almost pleading for our understanding as he said, “I am from you, and you are from me. We are the same. We come from the same and go back to the same, and that is God”. And he went on to say express his deep gratitude for our presence because he knew it was a sign of the beginning of greater understanding of each other. His delight in finding an opportunity to come to know each other was irrepressible.

The Sheikh spoke for about forty-five minutes, after which there was another ten minutes or so of silent prayer. When prayer was through, we were invited to share in fruit and milk – kefir, actually – and the Sheikh called upon myself and Rabbi Jeremy to come forward for a question and answer period. Each of us had a chance to speak, piggybacking on each other’s scripture references and affirming our joy and togetherness in ways that used our own faith traditions as doorways into knowledge of each other. It was amazing. So many smiling faces.

Over and over the Sheikh expressed his gratitude and hope, and the discussion reached its apex as he spoke of the use of the term, “Muslim Terrorists”. His highly spirited cadence and tone fell into a new kind of tenderness as he shared a sense of violation he felt. He spoke of how much he and all Muslims deplore terrorism in all its forms, suggesting that use of the term Muslim Terrorists is, in itself, a form of terrorism – that slanders any Muslim who is not. In closing he returned once again to expressing his hope that our time together would continue and grow into a solid foundation of mutuality, shared respect and loving relationship as together we get about doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God – the God we all share – the God who has been so generous and loving to us as to have given us so many paths to the Divine Presence.

I felt close to God in a new way last Friday. It really seemed like the Sheikh and the Rabbi each understood in their own way what it means to have the mind of Christ.

And as I recited Compline at bedtime that night, knowing I’d somehow been moved to explore what it means to have the mind of Christ, I recalled with joy how that moment in Keansburg had continued. The young man and I, after smiling and shrugging, had gone back to work. I picked up my mop – it was my job to mop the Center – and he went back to his checklist of tasks for the following day – making the calls necessary to confirm our volunteers, food, and other resources. I’m happy to say we went right back to serving as best we could. We didn’t spend any time at all blaming or judging. It makes me happy to think we spontaneously behaved as St. Paul might have liked. And happier still to know that, regardless of what might have been an unfortunate comment, that’s just what the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Workers did too!