January 20, 2019: What is God up to? by Rev. Beth Hayward (1 Corinthians 12: 1-11)


Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? So asks Mary Oliver in The Summer Day. At the end of the day it’s a question that stirs and rises, even troubles us, not just on summer days when we have the gift of leisure and long nights to ponder such existential questions. It also rises up in our wintertime dark nights of the soul, it rises like spring flowers filled with promise and it comes to us too as we let go like deciduous trees in the fall. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Who will you be? How shall I live? How to carve out a path or a way of being that matters, that contributes, that is grounded in something, something worth living for?

This week I’ve found that question holding everything in some mysterious way. As we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day we’re reminded of someone who lived his one wild and precious life in ways that continue to inspire hope and goodness. As we learned of the death of Mary Oliver, American poet of the people, it’s easy to see how her contributions will live on for generations, inspiring people to see beauty in grasshoppers and fields and so many ordinary things. Some people’s contributions seem so obvious, so significant, so valuable. But most of us aren’t ever to be a Martin Luther King or a Mary Oliver. Most of us are far more ordinary, if we’re lucky. Some us feel like down right failures most of the time. 

It’s shocking really how this letter written to a house church of several dozen people two millennia ago can address something that is so very close to our own experience. That church, which may be better thought of as a loosely knit together community, with slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, an unlikely group to be thrown together, they were arguing over who had the better gifts, who was making a more significant contribution. It seems it’s an ego game as old as time. It would be nice to think we have evolved, that there’s no hierarchy of gifts in our minds but try telling the child who gets picked last for the team that there is no hierarchy of gifts, or the chorister who never gets chosen for the solo. Tell the kid who never makes it on the honour role that all gifts are equal. When did you last see an honour role for the student who stopped in the hall to help a younger child tie shoes?

2000 years on and the idea that every gift is equal is still an elusive ideal more often than an embodied reality. We still live in a world where we are trained young to size up the competition and determine where we stand in the order of things.

Jesus is Lord

It may be easy enough to relate to a community where our insecurities and egos get in the way but with Paul and his letters it sometimes gets more complicated to sort out the heart of his meaning. He tries to explain to the fine folks of Corinth the difference between a spiritual gift and, well, one that isn’t. So he writes: that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Clear right? If you turn it around a bit what he seems to be saying is that the Spirit is working through you when Jesus is Lord in your life. I’m guessing that there are some of us who hear that and think it’s clear as can be but I expect for many of us it causes a little bristling.

Jesus is Lord, in a pluralistic world it’s a bit hard to know what to do with that. It’s messy, because 2000 years on it still tends to elude us, and we think that if Jesus is Lord then we must mean Buddha is an idol and Mohammad a fraud and we can’t reconcile marginalizing, or worse dismissing, so much of the world and their religious beliefs. We’re shy, or we don’t want to offend, or we’re just not sure how it could possibly be helpful to profess that Jesus is Lord of our lives.

We need to remember that this is a statement for the church, it’s not intended to be a judgment on Buddhists or Muslims, and if Jesus is Lord is used as a means to say Jesus should be Lord over everyone’s life, well we are getting into dangerous territory. It’s to a particular community and faith tradition and for Christians Jesus is Lord and that is far more about what has authority in your life than it does about saving a place in some heaven in the sky. 

Jesus is Lord was the very first way that Christians self-identified, professed their faith and it’s hard for us to really wrap our heads around what a daring and powerful statement that was. It was intended as a counterpoint to Caesar as Lord. And to go around in First Century Roman Empire saying anyone but Caesar was Lord, well that could cost you your life. Caesar brought peace to the people but it was a strange sort of peace that was based on fear, and violence. When Jesus is Lord we commit to lives where fear and violence and hierarchies of gifts, these are not the things that inform our lives, our choices. When Jesus is Lord we are committing to a way of life where all life is sacred, where the last are first and where care of one another and earth is paramount. It’s rather counter to culture both then and now.

So if Jesus is Lord and not Caesar then what does that look like today? Where does power lay in our world? When Jesus is Lord it is not at all about what makes us different or unique or better yet what makes us Christian, what do we hold on to and profess? When the church says Jesus is Lord, that this is the way for this community, I think we may have lost sight of the tangible in that statement.

I am more and more convinced that church people, Jesus is Lord people, we are absolutely no better living the love of Christ than anyone else.

Living it

There is this odd paradox these days where we understand so much the value of inclusion of welcoming the stranger of being so open to the other. But we sometimes mistake that for permission or necessity to not stand too firmly for anything. I wonder if we could get our heads around the life changing commitment those first followers made by proclaiming Jesus is Lord, would it change anything for us? Yes, you may need to change the words a bit. It may not resonate to sit back and evaluate how you didn’t live up to your faith when in any given moment by calling yourself out as slipping back into a Caesar is Lord moment. It may not, in our context, be the most helpful thing to invite a friend to church by telling them how Jesus is Lord in your life.

At the same time those in follow in the way of Jesus, at least here in the West, we are in this beautiful moment where it’s okay, it’s expected for us to be thoughtful about who we are. As Christianity becomes ever more pushed aside we have an opportunity to think long and hard about why we’d want to be part of this community. At the end of the day we all long to live our best lives, to have something other than the latest fad or our own impulsive ideas or our own long held beliefs to guide our lives, religion is a container that helps to give a bit of form to the deep and timeless spiritual quest inborn in us all.

We start to practice what it means for Jesus to be Lord within a particular context. Because Jesus is Lord is about relationships, respect, healing wholeness holding more sway over our lives than money or power or people’s opinions of our worth or any of that. This is the model we have with the early church and it still holds some truth today. I think of Paul writing those letters to and just trying to help people stick with it, in a difficult situation and it seems to still resonate so clearly today. We too need the encouragement to stick with the vision that Jesus offered. We need to be continually brought back to trusting that love is more powerful than hate, that deep care for the other will ultimately get us further to peace than violence or fear. And the model given to us all those years ago of sorting all this out in community still makes sense. Church should be a place where we begin to practice living in every arena of our lives, living from this place or love and care and justice.

Go ahead and leave the church after one bad sermon or because they music seems to be in a rut lately or leave because someone at coffee hour said something callous, or because the bathrooms always seem to be out of toilet paper or because we said we were inclusive and then went and piled chairs by the wheelchair ramp or didn’t think to put a potty seat in the bathrooms for your toilet training toddler or we used the word God when you relate better to higher power.  Walk away if you will but you’ll miss the opportunity for the good stuff the stuff that arises from the ruins, the long slow harvest that can’t grow without the mulch and compost. You’ll miss the opportunity to practice, to struggle through to witness that when Jesus is Lord things are by no means easy but by all means worth it.

Jesus is Lord I think we make it more complicated than it needs to be as in a sense we don’t mean a historical figure is Lord but the Christ that which shone through Jesus of Nazareth, was so very much revealed in his life death and resurrection and it stands in stark contrast to all the other things we name as Lord as having power in our lives, In stark contrast to money and fame and prestige and honour roles and getting picked first for the team and what class you are defined by.

As Martin Luther King said: the quality not the longevity of one’s life is what is important. Each day we have opportunity to practice getting the quality just a bit closer to love and care and justice. If you think your gifts are better than your neighbours well you must be having a Caesar is Lord moment. Take that with you this week, not to shame yourself or anyone else but simply to bring to consciousness those times when we slip into comparing our gifts against another’s or determining the value and worth of someone based on stuff that is not core to our faith.  And trust that you too have spiritual gifts and dare to use them. Amen