(1Corinthians 3: 1-9)
Piper’s mentor and former high school English teacher, Mac, is one of those rugged guys that I associate with rural health and vitality. He is 70 years old and still leads dogsledding and canoeing trips regularly. When he retired, he decided to celebrate by hiking to his son’s house. To be clear, Mac lives in Bethel, Maine and his son lives in Hanover, NH. He walked out his front door and then hiked more than 100 miles through the White Mountains before arriving on his son’s doorstep. Inevitably, when we go for a visit, Mac ushers Piper outside, explaining that he has been saving a project for her arrival: re-building the compost, hauling heavy things out of the barn, weeding the giant garden, splitting wood or clearing a trail. The first few times that we went to visit, I assumed that Piper’s enthusiasm was feigned and was just a way to help Mac out without stepping on his pride. But, somewhere along the way, I realized that those satisfied smiles they walked in wearing (under the layers of dirt or grime) were genuine. This is utterly baffling to me.
And the confusion, it seems, goes both ways. You see Mac has two sons: Jay and Kevin. Mac describes Jay as a kid who was born on the balls of his feet–hyperactive and yet always eager to do anything he can to help out. Kevin, on the other hand is the introvert: thoughtful and sensitive with a rich interior life. Well, one day back in high school, the boys were hauling firewood in from the woodpile. The family heats entirely with wood, so this was a regular chore—often requiring multiple snowy trips to the woodpile each day. The boys usually tackled this task differently. If Mac asked Jay to go get a load of firewood, he would run outside and carry in as much wood as he could, and then do it again and again until the wood box was full. Kevin on the other hand would look at his father wearily and ask a clarifying question, like: “How many pieces would you consider to be a load”—trying to workout how little he could get away with doing. On one particular day Kevin came in from hauling wood and declared, in the way that only a teenager can:
“It’s not fair! It’s not fair that I have to haul wood.”
“What about that is not fair?” Mac asked, “Your brother has to carry wood too?”
“Yeah,” Kevin said, “but the difference is, he likes it!”
Mac was caught, smack dab in a sibling rivalry—with a son who was sure he was about to take sides. Was he going to call one son lesser and the other greater?
In our text for today, we see Paul facing a similar rivalry growing amongst the Corinthians, and he is irritated. The community in Corinth is still in its early phases, trying to work out the kinks of what it means to be one of the very first Jesus-following churches in history. Paul has gotten word of division forming in the church over whether to follow his teachings or those of Apollos. Both are teachers and apostles, traveling the region and promoting the Jesus path. Paul, it seems, was the more passionate preacher, and more overtly focused on welcoming gentiles. Additionally, as he states in Romans 15:20, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” In other words, he was the planter of the seeds of Christianity in a wide range of communities who had not yet heard about Jesus. Apollos, on the other hand, was more of the intellectual, trained in the allegorical style of Philos (a Jewish philosopher of that time). His more classical teaching style appealed to the highly educated among the congregation. Also, because he was from Alexandria, he had access to the library there, which was said to have over half a million scrolls. In other words, Apollos was well positioned to field complex questions from even the most educated in Corinth. His lectures dove deeper into some of the concepts that Paul had first introduced—thus watering those seeds that Paul had earlier planted.
But while Paul and Apollos were able to see the ways that their skills were complementary, the church used these differences as grounds for division—creating dichotomies and hierarchy where none needed to exist. Paul, in his frustration, scolds the Corinthians, replying to their complaints by suggesting that perhaps he hadn’t gone further with his teachings because they were not ready—too much like infants in their faith. He points to their divisive behavior as proof of their spiritual immaturity. Exasperated, he explains that while he and Apollos both bring gifts, it is ultimately God who makes the garden grow.
And even now, thousands of years later, we STILL have to struggle at times to figure out what it means to be a church—sharing space with people who express their faith differently than we do, people who we think should talk less or tithe more, people who we think are over-involved and power-hungry, or under-involved slackers. People who we think don’t understand the importance of tradition, or people who we believe are stuck in the past and unwilling to change. And yet, none of these issues is new—nor are they unique to any one church community. They are just the natural negotiations of any group of people living in and creating community.
But Paul holds sees something greater than either he or Apollos: “Is Christ divided?” He rhetorically asks the church. Of course not! Through the radical acceptance that Jesus modeled, Paul saw that all people belong in the love of God. There can be no division. This is the vision of the church: no one enslaved or free, no gender inequity, no national or ethnic hierarchy. Paul is calling the church to overtly model—not what COULD be—but what is ALREADY true that most of us just can’t see!
Mac’s struggle when confronted by Kevin, and the church in Corinth’s struggle to decide who was the “better” teacher, are grounded in the same problem of perspective. In both cases, the differences appear to separate us by forcing us to declare a side. But, if we read a little bit further, Paul addresses this in the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians, the climax of the book… the “love chapter.” “If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels, but have not love,” he says, “I am nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And then, a few lines later he defines what that love can be expected to look like: “Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others and it is not self-seeking.” In other words, love is not about picking favorites or valuing one thing over another. In love, we are able to see the value in things, just as they are.
Toward the end of this chapter Paul describes the distorted way that humans view the world, saying: “Now we see through a glass, dimly.” Because dimly was the only way to look through glass at that time. You see, ancient glass was cloudy, and while it could let in light, it was still hard to make out form with any clarity—if looking through such dim glass, it would be easy to mistake what you think you are seeing. And Paul is suggesting that ALL of our points of view are like this, at best cloudy or partial.
BUT if you, like Paul, were instead to accept the unity of all people as a core premise—than perhaps you would begin to interpret those dim shapes differently. For Paul it is this unity that must take primacy over all of our differences. We must make space in our thinking, in our community, in our lives, to discover how it is that all of these different people belong. Not IF they belong, HOW they belong—because if you believe that, you will search differently for their gifts.
Like Paul, we must understand that God is the ultimate gardener, and we can be sure God knows what any good gardener knows: which is that every plant in the garden thrives under different conditions. Some plants need ample sunlight and very little water; others need lots of water and grow well in the shade, while others still thrive underwater with only the light that filters from the far-off surface. You can’t expect to treat each of these plants the same way and have them all flourish equally. The same is true in our spiritual communities: some of us encounter God in prayer, others in singing hymns as a community, others find God most easily when out walking under the open sky, and still experience God in the silence of meditation. The problem is NOT the diverse botanicals that the gardener planted; the problem arises when we assume that these inherent differences are grounds for judgment and division.
At South Church we are lucky to be in a healthy church that, by and large, gets along beautifully, so perhaps Paul’s letter doesn’t feel relevant in that regard. But I encourage you to think about other aspects of your life: your workplace, your extended family, your relationship with your spouse or kids. Where are you making assumptions about the way someone else is living? Where do you continually butt heads with people because you are sure that you are more-right than they are?
Confronted by Kevin’s exasperation, Mac did not roll his eyes. He did not snort and shake his head. He did not politely listen, but inside think that this kid was such a slacker. Instead he made space to really think about what Kevin was saying, and in so doing, he realized that Kevin had a good point. You see, Mac’s other son, Jay takes after him closely. In fact, since leaving home he has gone on to become an educator (just like his father) and runs the “outing club” at Dartmouth. Chopping and hauling wood—or really any type of hard physical exertion, is STILL, to this day, something that Jay enjoys. But Kevin, on the other hand, has other talents and passions—that have led him to live in DC and work as council to a US Senator—a job that engages that hungry mind of his. Though he is a super-fit guy, for him hauling wood was and will always be a chore. Once Mac was able to see Kevin’s side of things, he realized that just because the boys were doing the same activity didn’t make it equal. That Jay enjoyed helping out with chores and Kevin didn’t wasn’t proof that Kevin was a whiny complainer who couldn’t work hard—it was just that he gravitated to different things—and being constantly compared to his eager brother or rugged dad made him come up feeling inferior. Everyone isn’t called to contribute in the same way—and Kevin had gifts of his own. This realization helped Mac to see Kevin more clearly, and saved them from many a future argument.
But for the story to end this way it also took Mac being open enough to listen to and TRUST Kevin when he explained that his experience was different than Mac’s or Jay’s. Instead of telling Kevin that he was wrong, or lazy, or bad, Mac had to be willing to hear that Kevin might have a truth different from his own. And THEN, he had to be willing to accept that that OTHER truth might be just as valid.
Writer Audre Lorde says about diversity: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Now I am not trying facilely suggest that every conflict is as simple as the one I presented today. Sometimes it is not as simple as hearing someone out and realizing that you have been missing how hard they are trying—even while doing something they hate. Sometimes it is not as simple as noticing the ways that your friend, kid or partner IS showing up and loving you, even if it looks different than you expected. Sometimes there are real, deep conflicts that feel irreconcilable. Your child makes a choice that goes in direct opposition to the values with which you raised her/him. Your spouse cheats or lies to you. Your co-worker goes behind your back and takes credit for something you did. Your employee was embezzling funds…
BUT, even in these complicated scenarios, there is value in stepping back and remembering the unity of all people. There is value in admitting that, even in this moment that feels SO clear, you may still only be seeing through a glass dimly. What would it take to gain some distance and try to understand the other person’s motivation. What would happen in you did not jump to conclusions or rush to judgment? Can you enter into what this other person may be experiencing? What did they think was happening? Why did they behave this way? What if I trust what they are telling me about how they are feeling? If we step away from there only being ONE truth or right answer, we make space for the possibility that several different experiences might valid, all at once. It doesn’t mean you have to force reconciliation—or accept something that was hurtful. But rather that curiosity and admission of our limited view often leads to a fuller, more nuanced emotional landscape. And once we can see each person’s vantage point more clearly, and understand what they were trying to accomplish, a new clarity and way forward might emerge.
Paul is frustrated, but he is frustrated because he CAN see that creation is a verdant garden planted by a skilled gardener—with the single purpose of growing toward love, peace and justice. He wants this unity modeled by the church. Consequently, in the mature faith he is encouraging, if one person is right that does not make the other person wrong… it might just make them different. And sometimes if you can make space for that different perspective, it can expand the ways that you experience God, which is to say, expand your experience of love.
Mac, rather than favor one son over the other, discovered a love that ran deeper and farther than his own limited point of view. It is not that Kevin got to stop hauling wood, BUT each time that he begrudgingly carried in one of his scant armloads of wood, Mac could see the effort Kevin was making in that action… so he made sure to acknowledge and thank Kevin. And Kevin? He felt seen and appreciated by his dad—which in turn made having to haul the wood feel a little less terrible. Without even changing the chore, the love was deepened. What could be better than that?