A Sermon for Covenant
You Are Not Lacking
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 19, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Every Sunday when we gather, we all bring stuff into the room with us: our varied joys, sorrows, stresses, fears. Today we all carry into this room a shared story; we all carry the Beardens close to our hearts. I do, and I know you do too. This morning as we worship together, our prayers rise continuously on behalf of Will and Sherry, Josh and Leanne, holding them in the light, asking God to provide, praying for miracle.
And I am reminded that when Paul wrote the encouraging opening of his letter to the church in Corinth, when he wrote words about grace and strength and the faithfulness of God, when he wrote that “you have been enriched in him,” he was not exactly writing to a happy place. He was writing to a people in turmoil. He was writing to a people caught up in conflict and struggle. He was writing of the hope of faith to a people tossed about by the chaos of life.
The way I see it, there are three basic approaches to life and faith. One is to slap the phrase “God is good” like a Band-Aid over gaping wounds, to shout at all costs that everything is okay, even when you know good and well, it is not okay. This is keeping an eye closed to pain, which turns religion into a form of denial, a way to try to avoid pain, to convince ourselves that because we believe, bad things won’t happen, at least, not to us, at least, not for long, at least, not too often.
The second approach is to keep one eye closed to the possibility of God making an entrance into the dark and dismal. To wallow in what is awful and shut God out. “If God were good, God wouldn’t have allowed this, after all,” is what we say to ourselves in this one-eyed phase. “If God were here at all, God wouldn’t allow this.” It is the approach that lets the pain be all there this; after all pain feels so big and all encompassing, how can there be room for anything else?
And then there is the third approach, which says, “I am going to walk through life with both eyes open. I am going to look pain in the eye, see it head on for all its ugliness, but I am also going to keep one eye trained for spotting grace.”
Paul begins this letter to the church in Corinth, a letter where he is going to have to do a little scolding, a letter to a church enmeshed in conflict and bickering, and he begins with this declaration of praise, giving thanks that this is a community that has been enriched in every way. I don’t believe Paul is stretching things to be polite, or saying some nice fluff before he gets to the meat of the matter. Paul is purposefully starting with what is important, and the important thing is that God is faithful, that God has gifted these people, whether they know it or not. Whether they are tapping into that grace or not, the grace is there. Paul is writing to this church with both eyes open. He is seeing their turmoil and he is seeing their giftedness, and he does not set them in false conflict. He sees both/and: they are a community tormented and they are a community blessed by God, and isn’t that the truth about us all? We live pained and we live graced, almost always simultaneously, and this is mystery, and this is hope.
I have been captivated all week by Paul’s phrase, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait.” I am enamored by this promise that seems impossible. “You are not lacking.” And I wonder, how can it be that we are not lacking? I certainly feel there is much I am lacking, so much I am wanting for. I am without.
It is true mystery that we are “not lacking any spiritual gift while we wait,” when we often feel we are lacking just the thing we really need. Having what we need is a spiritual reality that we discover bit by bit as we journey. We learn as we go that we are held up by grace. As Richard Rohr says, “We are not born again. We are born again and again and again.” Conversion continues, and every day has conversion possibilities. The gifts are ours, and the gifts are also not yet ours. We are both enriched and yet to be enriched. It is both promise and call; every day, every trial, every turn of life, we step further in to the grace that was ours from the beginning.
But then, even if we were to muster up faith in our giftedness and the grace that belongs to us, how do we reconcile such confidence in our gifts with other places in Scripture that encourage a sense of spiritual poverty and emptiness? What about humility? How can we accept that we have been enriched in speech and knowledge? Who are we to claim such gifts as our own? Paul is writing to a community mired in feelings of superiority over one another, so he reminds them at the beginning: you (plural!) have been enriched. You (plural!) are strengthened.
The blessing of God is communal property.
You are strengthened by the Spirit of God, and so is your neighbor. And maybe, that is part of the secret of how it is that we are not lacking, for when I am lacking faith, you hold out faith on my behalf. When you are lacking mercy, I will dish it out for you. When you are out of energy for hospitality, your friends will invite you over, and when your friends have lost their generosity, whether of resources or of spirit, you will give them gifts. When one of us forgets how to be kind, the compassion of the person down the pew will wake us up back up to the power of love. There is no one superstar, no one leader, one saint. We are all saints and we are all screw-ups, leading each other and picking each other up when we fall. This is the fellowship of the Son into which we have been called, gifting one another with the grace given to us. This plays out in our lives again and again, in big ways and small ways and medium ways.
This week my friend Chansin was helping me around the house and as we moved the refrigerator out from the wall a bit, the connection from the fridge to the water line suddenly snapped and water began shooting all over the kitchen. “Go turn off the water!” Chansin called out as she grabbed containers from the kitchen cabinets to catch the water. I panicked. “I don’t know how!” I exclaimed. “You don’t know how?!” she cried in alarm. We rushed around, trying to figure out what to do. I ran outside to the water meter, but couldn’t accomplish anything without a tool. I knocked on my neighbor’s door, she grabbed her water meter key, and came sprinting to the rescue. It was difficult to budge, but before too long, she had turned the water off, and meanwhile Chansin had minimized the damage inside by catching most of the water in bowls and emptying them into the sink. I felt silly for not knowing what to do, but more than that, I felt grateful for people who did know what to do.
It can be embarrassing to ask for help, to say to one another, “I can’t do this alone,” but sometimes that humility is just the thing we need to tap into the riches of God’s resources. Swallowing our pride and knocking on our neighbor’s door, this is faith. Faith isn’t being able to muster up the courage and talent to survive everything on our own. Faith is leaning on the gifts of the church, knowing that when the flood hits, someone will help us build an ark, and when our faith runs dry, someone will fetch us a glass of water. Someone will sit with us. Someone will hold on when we can’t. Someone will be the face of Christ to us when God seems absent. It isn’t that people save us, and sometimes we can set our expectations too high, thinking that another person can and should fix it all. Our friends aren’t there to save, but they are there.
These are Paul’s words, not just to the church of Corinth, but “to all those who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ.” He is reminding us that even when we cannot see how it will happen, we will be strengthened unto the end. That the grace has already been given to us, and our spiritual work in life is to keep uncovering the gifts, to accept them into our hearts over and over and over. One conversion couldn’t possibly contain it all. Again and again the love hits us and again and again we are changed.
But this is not a solo task. So often we will find the grace of Christ in the face of a neighbor. What we lack will be filled up by the faith of our friends. Grace will see us through, and the grace we find in another will see us through. We are not alone.
Even when you are physically bereft, there is a spiritual gift to carry you through. This is what I have seen and experienced with my own two eyes: Not everything gets to make sense, but there is no season without its mercies. When I have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, it has been real shadow and I have inhaled the stench of death, but somehow I can tell you that goodness and mercy have followed me, even there, even there. I did not always know they were my companions until later, looking back, but they were there, they were there. I was not alone.
When it comes to humility, you don’t become poor of spirit by trying. Life happens to you and that is enough to empty you out. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” isn’t so much instruction, isn’t about attaining a state of poverty. Rather, when you find yourself empty, blessings from on high are on their way to see you through, though you cannot fathom how. You can open your hands like a beggar to receive the gifts that will come, or you can clench your fists tight in fear that even more will be taken from you. The poor in spirit open their hands and thus are also rich in spirit, while the clenched heart slowly dies.
Again and again we bring our emptiness to God’s table. The manna often only comes in daily doses. But it comes. Every day it comes. Our spiritual work is to find what we have been given, touch and see what is right before us, to gather it up like manna and eat our daily sustenance. Sometimes we cannot see the next day in front of us, but we can eat our share today. We can share bread with our friends, today. We can link arms and link souls, enriching the lives of those beside us, making the unbearable bearable and the heavy burdens a few pounds lighter, bringing the reality of Christ’s love into the here and now.