Delivered at Ames UCC
on May 22, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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GO TO SEMINARY
There’s a pastor in Harlem named Michael Walrond. I first met him in seminary when he did a fireside chat about his church. Rev. Walrond had served as chaplain at Duke Divinity School, I think, but was called to bring First Corinthian Baptist Church back to life.
And he has. They have gone from a couple of hundred parishioners rattling around in a huge multi-floored sanctuary to multiple Sunday services with lines literally around the block.
I went into seminary with the death knoll of mainstream Protestantism ringing in my head, so I was eager to learn how Rev. Walrond had transformed that bell into peals of joy.
His message was simple: Take your people to seminary.
Rev. Walrond described a lock-in for adults, meaning an overnight event where they went through all of Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.” He said he had 80 year-old grandmas with fourth grade educations who were absolutely starved for, and perfectly capable of doing, intense intellectual and spiritual engagement, not just some sappy “put Jesus in your pocket” sunny Pablum. Trust that your people can handle deep theology and unanswered questions, he said. Give them the history and the geography. Do not doubt that the people who walk into your sanctuary want to wrestle with the contradictions and truths of our faith.
In addition to being simple, this suggestion was somewhat bold. Not all Christian denominations require theological education. Some even discourage the practice, calling it “cemetery” instead. The implication is that learning history and language and theory will kill your faith. Instead, the pastor and congregation alike are to take the stories as they are received in a chosen translation of the Bible just as they are, trusting that the Spirit will guide them all to truth.
As a preacher, I know there can be no sermon without Spirit. We don’t talk about the trickster divine much in the UCC, not that I’ve seen, but it/he/she/they is what gets me through the week. I have no other explanation.
But I don’t think faith development and nurturance is an either/or proposition: seminary or Spirit, inspiration or education. They go together. They need to go together. And for the next six weeks that we are with Paul in 2 Corinthians we will see why: His writing was not in a vacuum of context yet his writing also transcends that context.
So let’s start with some seminary coursework today.
Paul founded the church at Corinth in the 50s. One author states that Paul did so in order to ensure the existence of a community exclusive to himself and his expression of the good news of Jesus Christ.1 Let me say that again: The church at Corinth was intended by Paul to be loyal to Paul and exclusively profess Paul’s gospel expression.
What are the potential pitfalls there, for the Corinthians? It presumes that the other disciples and apostles fell short in their own evangelism and story-telling. Paul’s message becomes about Paul, not the power that converted him on the road to Damascus. The risk is that Corinth becomes a church of Paul not God-in-Christ.
It turns out, though, that the Corinthians were more independently minded than that.
The letter starts out pretty typically with Paul identifying himself and his scribe, Timothy. Then he names the intended recipient of this letter, the Corinthian church. Paul offers grace and peace, followed by a section about the comfort of God-in-Christ.
This is not a generic treatise on the nature of suffering and God’s role within it, though. Paul is not writing them a sermon or an essay. Paul is responding to real crises. First, the crisis he alludes to in the letter: the threat of death while in Asia (by which he means Turkey). The second crisis is that his own church got mad at him.
The Corinthians were upset with Paul for raising money for the poor in Jerusalem. There was a movement within the church to, if not replace Paul’s leadership, then supplement it with that of others. So this entire letter is an effort on Paul’s part to regain control of his church and gospel.
Over the course of the letter, Paul will do so through (1) reframing them as a new, non-Jewish religion and (2) reminding them of why he is a more legitimate leader—because even though he has the same talents and marks of faith as these new guys, he makes use of them “properly.”2
By his assessment.
In historical and practical terms, Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is an effort to address the political and spiritual turmoil in a historic community in Greece rather than a timeless myth or fable like Eden or the flood.
That’s what going to seminary can teach you.
But what about the Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit invite us to know about God today despite the letter being from so many tomorrows ago?
As I think about the life of our church, and more specifically the lives in our church, I am grateful for Paul’s naming pain and suffering.
In polite company, that isn’t always welcome. We aren’t supposed to talk about our child’s drug addiction or our own job loss. In my experience, churches can easily chat about the crucifixion of Jesus, and with gory detail, but the domestic violence perpetrated by one congregant on another? No way. That is either none of our business or too shameful for the victim and perpetrator to speak out loud.
Churches like ours—predominantly white, predominantly educated, and predominantly stable of employment—can become places for maintaining appearances rather than allowing for painful personal revelation.
But the pain is there. It is here. And it is acknowledged in sacred text. Sacred text shows us that our church is a place to name our pains. It then invites us to seek comfort in
the Source of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles
I know that at times of crisis this can sound trite and empty.
God does not smite the people we think need to be smote. God has not fixed the economy or rewired our brains so that meth cannot take its cruel hold. And we still have cancer.
So how does God offer compassion and comfort? Let me read the whole sentence:
Praise be to the God and Creator of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Source of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
Most often we know the compassion and comfort of God through others. Others who have sought God out, others who have a reserve of strength from what they have found and are able to share.
Sometimes the compassion and comfort of God is in the familiar rituals we have developed in God’s name. We may take comfort in knowing that when we gather at God’s table, we do so with the living and the saints in light. We may take comfort in knowing that when we sing “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Amazing Grace” today, we do so with millions, billions, of others who want to live in love.
The comfort and compassion of God is most visible and tangible in the love we gather here to share with each other.
That is the universal truth the Holy Spirit draws out from this historic artifact. It is Holy Ghost Power which allows Paul’s letter to his church at Corinth to become a living Word, a Word we bring to life, from God to God’s church at Ames.
Obviously I think Rev. Walrond is right, especially in this day and age. Christians and those considering Christianity need scholarship and should be recognized as scholars. Going to seminary, learning the backstory to our scripture, cannot kill our faith. Instead, our integrity as a religious movement hinges on our honesty about who we have been and where we come from.
So does our willingness to be as vulnerable as Paul, to allow the Spirit to help us resist a lethal politeness and to exercise God’s compassion and comfort with each other.
One of the most common critiques of faith is that God doesn’t stop the bad things. My response:
It is God that inspires the good. And, my God, when your heart is empty and your soul is frayed and your body is hurting, how powerful that good can be.
1Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 315.