Wednesday, September 24, 2014

2014 Opening Convocation Message

On Thursday, August 28th, ESR and Bethany Theological Seminary shared their opening convocation in Bethany's Nicarry Chapel. Students, faculty and staff joined together to worship and listen to the message presented by ESR Ministry of Writing Professor Ben Brazil. A recording of the convocation can be found here.

Paul and the Corinthians:  A Creative Rearrangement

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.

It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What!?!?

 “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans;

I do not want to seem as though I am trying to frighten you with my letters.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant. … What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?  Fool!

“I have been a fool!  You forced me to it.  Indeed you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.  The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs, and wonders and mighty works.  How have you been worse off than the other churches, except that I myself did not burden you? <<sarcasm>>Forgive me this wrong.  <<sarcasm>>

Even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it -- though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly.  Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved but because your grief led to repentance.

Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. 

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all of the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.


I would like to begin today with a confession, an explanation, and a warning.   First, the confession:  I put together the mash-up of first and second Corinthians you just heard.  Second, the explanation:  I used to be a journalist, and one of the skills I bring to Biblical interpretation is the ability to take quotes out of context and sensationalize conflict.  And First and Second Corinthians is like shooting fish in a barrel.  Headline for First Corinthians: “Corinth Scandal:  Love, Lawsuits, and Sexual Immorality worse than pagans.”   

You’d keep reading, right?

Third, a warning:  I suspect that if you try this in your Biblical studies or preaching classes you will fail to credit the course.   In my creative non-fiction class, you’d be fine.  There’s my pitch.

Before I try to explain, let me say the most important thing today:  Welcome.  To our returning students and faculty, welcome back.   To our new students, welcome to what I hope will be the most spiritually rich, intellectually thrilling, and personally transformative educational experience of your life.   I still remember what one professor said at my orientation at the Candler School of Theology at Emory.  “Theology,” he said, “is not just about God.  Theology is about everything.”   Let me say again, “Theology is not just about God.  Theology is about everything.”  I hope that’s as thrilling to you now as it was to me then.

But living in a community that’s about everything can be absolutely maddening.   That’s what I wanted to get at in the Corinthian mash-up – for better or for worse..  One moment, Paul is telling the Corinthians that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  A few chapters later he is threatening to come to Corinth with a stick.   No doubt, part of his style is simply the way people wrote letters and argued back then.  Still, it’s striking that Paul’s letters to the Corinthians can be so warm, generous, and loving, but also so sarcastic, wounded, and angry.  What’s more, he moves between these emotions with dizzying speed and frequent reversals.  It’s as if he’s in throes of love.

Which, of course, he is.  Paul loves God and Jesus, but he also loves the infant Christian community in Corinth.  He loves it too much to let conflicts destroy it, or to throw his hands up, cut his losses, and move on.   And it is Paul’s bull-headed dedication to the hard, holy work of Christian community that I want to hold up today.  I think it’s an important subject.  In my short time at ESR, I know that community – desires for it, frustrations with it – have been a frequent subject of conversation.  And here at Bethany, you’re launching a wonderful experiment in community with the Bethany neighborhood.  For those of you living there, as best I can tell there is no escaping each other, ever. 

May God have mercy on your souls.

So what can we learn about community from Corinth?  First, that community involves defining who we are together – of what makes us an “us” rather than a collection of I’s.  This may sound pretty basic, but it’s actually an extraordinary complex question -- not just for seminaries and churches, but for entire societies.  Sociology, political philosophy, and Christian social ethics are just a few of the disciplines that ask how diverse people should organize our collective life.  Good news – you can explore those questions here. 


For Paul, as I read him, the answer involved worship of the God of Israel and the new covenant of grace in Jesus.  But if that were enough to hold together communities, he wouldn't have needed to write all those letters.   Daily life brought other questions with theological implications:  Was it really a big deal to eat meat offered to idols, considering those gods didn't exist anyway?  If Christ’s return was imminent, as Paul believed it was, should unmarried Corinthians stay single and focus their energy on God?  Should churches bankroll their apostles? 

Want answers? Read the book.  Or take Dan Ulrich’s class.  As Nancy Bowen will tell you in her courses on the Really Long Testament, it’s complicated.

It’s also complicated in our time.   For example, denominations exist – and split – because people do not agree on how we should live together as church.  How should we understand communion?  How do we govern ourselves?  How, exactly, does one properly wash a foot - Brethren? More recently, may gay people marry or be ordained?   Do we need institutional churches at all? You are here, I suspect, because such questions matter to you.  I hope they do.  Theology is about everything.

The second lesson from Corinthians is trickier.  It goes like this: community involves an inescapable tension between loving openness and meaningful boundaries.   Let me say it again:  community involves an inescapable tension between loving openness and meaningful boundaries.

Here, I suspect that it’s the “boundaries” side of things that makes us most nervous.  We don’t want to exclude or hurt . Rightly so.  And – let’s be honest – Paul isn’t making us feel any better. In First Corinthians 5, Paul rips off a list of sinners – the sexually immoral, drunkards, idolaters, and more – and tells the church to “drive the wicked person from among you.”  When he notes the rich are getting drunk at the Lord’s supper while the poor go hungry, you can almost hear him slap his forehead. “What!”  he interjects.  “What?”  Or so reads my translation, anyway.  Then in First Corinthians 4:18, he asks if he should come with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness.”  Is that a trick question?

So Paul is not afraid to argue about boundaries.  He can be angry, bitter, and sarcastic.  I don’t think he even credited pastoral care.  

But that’s not the whole story. First Corinthians chapter 13 – the chapter that includes “Love is patient, love is kind” was not written for weddings, but for a community in conflict.  Paul is actually reminding the Corinthians that their many different gifts –tongues, prophecy, leadership, teaching – should not clash and compete.  Instead, they should merge in one diverse body, united by love.  So let’s hear the Corinthians 13:4-8 again:

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends. 

Look around you.  Those are words to us.  And I think we can all get behind them.  We celebrate our gifts!  We support each other in our struggles!  We study our traditions, deepen our faiths, strengthen our writing, and learn to be ministers together.

But I also want to insist that loving communities also require boundaries.  If we believe in peace, we draw the line at violence.  If we believe in equality, we oppose racist and sexist social structures.   This is really just another way of saying we try to be true to the values and traditions that make us who we are.  Brethren and Quaker seminaries will differ from Southern Baptist seminaries, Catholic seminaries, and, for that matter, Hindu Ashrams.   To say that is not to demonize the other or to say there’s no common ground.   But it is to own, to proclaim, the values that define us.   And no less important, it’s to respect others enough to believe them when they say that, no, they see things differently than we do.

But boundaries don’t exist only at the edges of our communities.  As Paul’s Corinthian letters show, communities have internal standards and expectations, too.  Here, some of these are obvious.  We expect students to read for class, think critically, use gender-inclusive language, and avoid plagiarism.  Look – it’s a review of orientation!  But these rules – these boundaries – are not arbitrary – they show that intellectual seriousness, gender equality, and academic integrity are essential to who we are as seminaries. 

We could stop there – with rules that will get you to graduation.  But we might also add more.   For example:  If we believe in kindness, we stand up to cruelty.  If we believe that forthrightness and integrity matter, we stand up to gossip and backbiting.   We care enough about the health of our community to lovingly confront what is toxic.  And we care enough about others to help them mature.  For example, at my house, we define “big boy” as someone who regularly and exclusively  uses a potty.  And trust me when I say it leads to conflict.

Which, conveniently, is the third thing I think we can learn from Paul’s letters to Corinth:  Community requires commitment to work through conflict.    A major part of First Corinthians is Paul’s attempts to mediate conflict.  We've already seen some of these conflicts, but there are even more! Corinthians worship services had become chaotic messes, with multiple people speaking in tongues and talking over each other.  People seem to be threatening lawsuits.  We know that a church member was openly sleeping with his step-mother.
            Man, Corinth had issues.
            But here’s the thing:  healthy, vital communities always have issues.  Healthy, vital communities always have conflict – they just get better at working through it.  Conflict is unavoidable because God made us gloriously different and because we all have limitations – we al. see through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it in I Corinthians 13:12.    It’s also unavoidable because, like the church in Corinth, we come from different places, social locations, and life experiences.   It’s not just that theology is about everything; it’s that everything about us affects our theology.

So let me say again – to commit to community, then, is to commit to working through conflict.  And, in spite of all highly questionable pastoral care, Paul excels here.  He doesn’t only write to mediate conflict.  He’s neck deep in it.  When he himself is so hurt, so wounded that he cancels plants for visit – as he mentions in 2 Corinthians 2 – he still writes a letter that he says is “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”  Whether or not Paul was giving himself too much credit,  I admire the sentiment.

Look: I don’t agree with all of Paul’s theology, especially when it comes to gender and sexuality.  Like other Christians of a peace-and-justice bent, I tend to prefer Jesus and the prophets.   But in an era when social media and cable news have led so many of us to live in echo chambers of the like minded, when its more common to shop for religious communities than to build them, I want to hold up Paul’s commitment to the hard, frustrating, holy work of building community and working through differences.  We often say we need prophets.  Guess what:  we also need Pauls.

So, as we open this new academic year – I want to begin with a call to all of us – faculty, students, staff -- to build the community we want.   For those already doing it – and there are many of you – keep up the good work, and invite others in.    Let’s not neglect the basics that are already here – shared worship and common meals.  No, you’re not going to make all of them.  Me either.  Have you seen how many worship services we have? But worship and shared meals were central to the Corinthian community, or else they wouldn't have been worth arguing about.  They can be foundations for our communities too, but only if we show up, and join in.

It doesn't require extroversion or perfection. Look at Paul - hat guy became a saint!?  The bar is low.

Community building matters.  Look around you.  Look at Israel and Palestine;  Look at Ferguson, Missouri;  Look at Congress:  do you see any evidence that our world suffers from too much community, from too much commitment to working through difference and conflict?
It seems hopeless.  It does.   But it might also be that building community matters now more than ever.  As peace churches, as seminaries full of people who teach and practice alternatives to violence and conflict resolution, perhaps we can be living witnesses to the fact that another way is possible.  If I pray and squint a little, I can even believe that Christian community can seed new social movements and nudge the arc of history toward justice. 

In the process, we may find ourselves transformed, too.   As the Quaker writer Phil Gulley writes, healthy communities are like a blacksmith’s forge – they permit us to be sharpened by the pressures of life, if we let them.

So, welcome to this forge.  Welcome to these seminaries.  Welcome to this semester of being together, of studying theology, of studying everything.

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