02-24-19 Messy Relationships

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

In his book The Price of the Ticket author and civil rights activist James Baldwin says, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” As a man who faced discrimination for his race and sexual orientation during the civil rights era, James Baldwin knew pain. He knew the brokenness of human relationships that led to discrimination, and he knew what it meant to be treated as less than a person. He used his platform as a writer and a professor to fight for equality by digging openly and honestly into the messy, complicated issues that we as society face. While James Baldwin eventually left the Christian faith, he still kept to the message that we as the church know to be true: we are a broken people who have broken relationships with one another. We know we are a sinful people; our sinful choices that point us away from God’s will of goodness, peace, truth, and love causes rifts between us and the people we love. However, we also humble ourselves and confess these sins every Sunday together. We know that God forgives and restores us when we seek reconciliation with God and the people around us. Our messy relationships are a fact of life, but if we turn to God in humility, forgive others, and seek reconciliation then God’s peace can prevail.
As we see in this scripture passage, Joseph and his brothers have complicated feelings toward one another because of their messy, broken relationship. Joseph had been arrogant about his status as the favored brother and bragged about the dream he had that one day his brothers would bow down to him. The brothers had been so jealous that they had become murderous; their bloodlust was satisfied by selling Joseph into slavery, which was only marginally better than killing him. After years of being separated and Joseph suffering from imprisonment from false accusations, Joseph had risen to power over Egypt at the side of Pharaoh. A famine had overtaken the land, and Joseph’s brothers had travelled to Egypt to buy rations of grain. Joseph had the opportunity to use his power to accuse his brothers of their crimes and withhold grain from them; instead he hugged them and they wept together. Joseph had decades to sit with the pain and anger at the betrayal from his family. Instead of holding onto grudges he chose to see God at work in his life to help save people from the coming famine. Instead of adding to the brokenness, he chose to embrace the messiness of the relationship with his brothers by humbling himself, forgiving them, and reconciling with them together. Their family was able to be reunited and made whole again in Egypt; there might have still been tension and pain, but they were able to come together and move forward.
Humility is the starting point for peace. Humility doesn’t mean sacrificing self-worth for the sake of keeping the peace; when someone’s self-worth is unimportant in a relationship, then that is abuse. Abusive parents or spouses or friends are people who manipulate others into thinking that their self-worth is not important, and that they are only as valuable as the abuser says they are. This can be manifested physically, verbally, emotionally, and sexually. We cannot let abusers steal our value; all people are valuable, important, and worthy of love. And true humility recognizes this. Humility means taking responsibility for wrongs done and recognizing that the needs and wants of yourself, and those that you love, deserve to be honored and respected. In her book, Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou describes a time when she travelled to Senegal to visit a friend and learned a lesson in humility. Her friend was throwing a dinner party and her home was beautifully decorated with many guests visiting and enjoying each other’s company. In the middle of the room was a gorgeous, expensive rug that everyone was avoiding stepping on. Maya assumed that her friend had told her guests not to step on the rug, and she wanted to challenge this notion because she believed rugs were meant to be stepped on. So, she went around the room looking at paintings and socializing, while intentionally stepping on the rug several times. As she began conversing with someone at the party, she noticed two maids who came into the room, rolled up the rug and laid out a new one with silverware, dishes, and food. Then everyone was invited to sit down at it and eat. This had not been a rug at all, but a tablecloth. Maya realized her mistake and felt deeply embarrassed for her assumptions of another culture. She is quoted to say, “In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity.” Maya did not have to set aside her value and self-worth in learning humility, but she did have to take some time to open her eyes to the value of the traditions and culture of the people around her. Joseph went from being the favored son, to being enslaved and imprisoned. He learned a hard lesson in humility, but this allowed God to use him to save the people in the land from famine and allowed him to be able to reunite with his family.
Following a lesson in humility comes a lesson in forgiveness. It seems like we, as people and as the church, really struggle with forgiveness because when we are hurt or wronged, we want the person to receive justice. We want them to admit their wrongs and then pay for it. We want them to get on their knees and offering a sobbing apology. If none of that happens, and we all know that in reality it almost never happens, then we hold onto the anger towards them as if it punishes them. Again, this is not reality. We are punishing ourselves when we let our rage burn. Forgiveness does not mean we excuse a wrong done toward us, and it doesn’t mean what they’ve done is okay. It means that we are refusing to allow the bitterness to erode all the goodness that God has placed in our soul. It means we are trusting God with our pain and rage and allowing our souls to reflect the forgiveness that God has extended to all of us through Jesus Christ. When we forgive, we can heal.
Author Jen Hatmaker writes in her book Of Mess and Moxie of a time when her life erupted in pain and anger. Her friends and her church turned against her and her family, and they lost many of their friends. Months, even years later Jen found herself having pretend arguments out loud with the people that she held grudges against, practicing in the mirror so that if she ever encountered them again she would make them feel the wrath of the pain that they had caused her. She would go over old conversations in her head, re-read emails from people who’d hurt her, and just re-open the same old wounds over and over again. One day she decided that she couldn’t remain this bitter and this miserable anymore. So, Jen decided to pray for her enemies just like Jesus wanted us to do. After months of praying for these people, she found that her rage was gone and that she was healing. She had finally forgiven the people who hurt her. She hadn’t forgotten the pain, because there really is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting; but she had allowed her wounds to be healed so that she could finally move on in her life and find peace. Jen was making room for God’s peace in her heart, like Joseph. He was able to make room for peace by forgiving his brothers by telling them not to be angry over the past anymore.
Joseph was able to reconcile with his family. They were able to reunite in Egypt and live through the rest as their days together as a restored family. In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wind in the Door, a fourteen-year-old girl named Meg must save her brother, Charles Wallace, from an evil force that is making him deathly ill. She must shrink down and go inside his body to fight off the evil that is infecting him, but she doesn’t go on this journey alone. Meg must go with the school principal, Mr. Jenkins, who she detests. She doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins because he hasn’t stopped the bullies who beat up her little brother. However, the evil in her brother’s body feeds on the anger and the tension between the two. Meg must find empathy for Mr. Jenkins and see him as a valuable human being before they can work together to save Charles Wallace. Mr. Jenkins risks his life to save Meg’s brother, and this helps her to forgive him. Once the two reconcile their differences, Charles Wallace is saved. This type of reconciliation is the ideal: when we are able to heal from our hurts, repair our relationships, and be at peace with one another. This is a possibility in many circumstances when we humble ourselves and forgive each other; but in some circumstances this is impossible. People who are abused should never be required by anyone to go back and live with their abuser. Some people are rejected by their families for marrying someone they don’t approve of or refusing to go into the family business. In many of those cases, the family remains estranged. In our broken relationships, sometimes even when we do the very best that we can our relationships can’t, and maybe shouldn’t, go back to the way they were before. This is the harsh reality of our messy relationships. When this happens, we try to find reconciliation with ourselves and with God, trusting in the hope that God’s perfect justice and reconciliation will restore the relationships that we cannot heal in this lifetime. God can make us whole in and of ourselves.
Joseph’s story is a messy one: his parents choose favorites, he shoots off at the mouth, his brothers want to murder him, then they sell him into slavery instead, he’s falsely accused and imprisoned, and then he rises to power alongside of Pharaoh. In all of this God was working to save the people from starvation and to heal the broken relationships in Joseph’s family. Whatever situations we might be facing, whoever has hurt us, whatever fight we find ourselves in, this pain and anger doesn’t have to define us. We can learn right along with Joseph that humility, forgiveness, and reconciliation help us embrace and heal the messy relationships that we inevitably find ourselves engaged in. Also like Joseph, may we also trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, so that we might know that we do not face our hardships alone.


Luke 6:17-26

Even though we may love blessings, sometimes they can be hard to see, and sometimes we may be looking for them through the wrong lens. Christian songwriter and singer Laura Story has written a beautiful piece of music that you will hear later on. Called “Blessings,” listen to one of the questions she asks God in this prayer:
What if your blessings come through raindrops,
what if your healing comes through tears,
what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to
know you’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if? What if my contracting Diabetes was God’s mercy in disguise? What if there are blessings in your life that at first seem like woes? What if your glass is really half full, but you see it as half empty? Years ago I took a group from our church on a Holy Land trip with an extension to Rome. On those trips, the hotel rooms sometimes were not uniformly sized. As we were checking into one particular hotel, Mary Ann and I found our room. We opened the door and found a room uniquely decorated, with accents of the region we were in. We thought it was lovely. About 15 minutes later my phone rang. It was one of my passengers. “Our room is completely unacceptable,” he declared. “It is cramped, dark, and I want another room.” “Oh my goodness,” I said. “I am so sorry. We love our room. We’d be willing to trade with you. It’s room 215. Want to come over and look at it?” “Yes,” he said, “I’ll be right there.” Soon there was a knock on the door. In walked the man. As he examined our room, a sheepish look came over his face. “This is exactly the same room as ours.” he said. “I guess we’ll stay put.” Perspective is everything. The lens through which you see the world is everything. Perhaps you remember the Randa Haines film “The Doctor” starring William Hurt. Hurt plays a man who is a brilliant surgeon but is oblivious to the complaints of his patients. He displayed professional arrogance. Then he got sick. He had to have an operation there in his own hospital. He complained about his gown, the food, the treatment, and the nurses. But his experience changed him. More accurately, it gave him an empathetic lens through which he began to view his patients. He became more grateful and more caring. It’s an inspiring film. Likewise, I recently read the true testimony of Dr. Paul Kalanithi in his worldwide bestseller, When Breath Becomes Air. He was a neurosurgeon who held degrees in English literature, human biology, history, philosophy of science, and medicine from Stanford and Cambridge universities before graduating from the Yale School of Medicine. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.” [Back cover, Vintage 2016.] He ended up dying. But before he did, Dr. Kalanithi gained a new lens through which to look at life. He wrote: “God, I have read Job, and I don’t understand it, but if this is a test of faith, you now realize my faith if fairly weak, and probably leaving the spicy mustard off the pastrami sandwich would have also tested it? You didn’t have to go nuclear on me, you know.” [Kalanithi, p. 162] But this doctor turned his feelings of woe into a blessing. How? He wrote about them; he left a legacy for others to appreciate. Reading his story has enriched countless people.

I think Luke, the gospel writer, also had a lens through which he saw Jesus; and I believe Jesus had a lens too, and that Luke captured the way Jesus saw the downtrodden, the poor, and the outcast, perfectly. Go up to any of the displaced homeless men in our city and see how happy they are with their city government officials and with the police. See how suspicious they are of authority. Jesus is speaking to that crowd, I suspect, when Luke includes not only the blessings of physical wellness toward the poor, but also the warnings of woe toward those in power. Luke did not hear that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. No. Luke heard that Jesus said; “Blessed are you who are poor!” What a difference! He was speaking directly to the faces of poor people! And he was saying they will be blessed? Yep. God is going to turn this world on its ear through Jesus. Luke did not hear that Jesus said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Luke heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” What a claim! Really hungry people may have scoffed, but again God has a plan for them If you are poor, you are a Kingdom person. If you are hungry, you are a Kingdom person! Luke told his readers in his first chapter that “since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the event that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. [Luke 1: 1-4]
Luke fills in the gaps in the gospels. He tells the stories of shepherds around the announcement of a child to be born. Shepherds were almost the last and the least in the world. He tells the story of baby Jesus having a feeding trough for his baby bed. What a detail to include! He tells stories that include women—the members of the human race almost ignored in the Bible. He tells the story of a Samaritan (who he called good) and a prodigal son who actually felt more blessed than his wealthy brother! Only Luke decided that these particular stories were important to tell about Jesus. Only Luke! And so when Luke talks about blessing in regarding physical issues, (and not just spiritual issues as Matthew does) I listen. When Luke says he heard that Jesus also describing woes—likely to those who were rich—he was not condemning them; he was holding a mirror up to them saying “Examine who you are; you can still make changes! You can be part of my Father’s plan of feeling blessed and offering blessings to others.”

In the world today most people don’t feel blessed by being dirt poor. But on the other hand, there are people of means who do not deserve the declaration of woes. They give to their churches, to their community, and to worthy charities. So we learn that Jesus—like preachers that come after him—sometimes preaches with hyperbole (exaggerated metaphors) and with dynamic comparisons to keep the attention of his listeners. Jesus had the job of waking up complacent people, and prophetic preachers through the ages have continued his tradition.

Blessings can hide in plain sight; but through the half-empty lens, people miss seeing them; they can’t see them because they believe the grass is greener on the other side of a fence. Look for the grass in your own yard! Look for the blessings in your own life! Imagine God actually being delighted with blessing you! I think God often blesses us with small things, but our eyes are closed to them. People who go on mission trips, or build Habitat houses, or feed people locally or deliver Meals on Wheels, find out there are plenty of people who are struggling with life. And then they come home and take account of what they have, and who they are, and they sometimes change their grumpiness to gratitude. The late Robert Schuller founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove California, once said: “The good news is … the bad news can be turned into good news … when you change your attitude!”
[ The Be Happy Attitudes, Word Books, Waco, TX, 1985, p. 61]

I’ve decided to close with a funny story instead of start with one. The Founding Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Portland Oregon, Dale Galloway, wrote:
Some people today think the whole world stinks. Once a cranky grandpa laid down to take a nap. To have a little fun, his grandson put some limburger cheese on his moustache …. [He] awoke with a snort and shouted “This room stinks!” On through the house he went shouting louder, “This whole house stinks!” He charged out to the porch and shouted, “The whole world stinks!” Galloway said: “The truth is, it was grandpa who stunk.” [The Awesome Power of Your Attitude, Scott Publishing, 1992, p. 1.]

Looking at situations in life as blessings—rather than looking for people to blame—can change your life. Blessed are you, and those around you, if you look at others through the eyes of Jesus.
Let us pray: God Almighty: Jesus found blessings in the strangest places: with the poor, the hungry, with those who weep, and those who defame or defile us! Help us to see blessings even in the corners of our lives as well, and in the world.
Jesus did it; perhaps we can too. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner February 17, 2019

02-10-19 JUST DO IT

Luke 5: 1-11

There are some famous ball players, politicians, and military men who were exceptionally stubborn—some would call them bull-headed—sometimes to their detriment. Here are some examples:
When your commands come from a guy called the commander-in-chief, that pretty much says right there that they’re not up for debate. (No, I am not talking about President Trump. This is about President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur.) The stubborn general sought to bring the Korean War directly to the Chinese via a nuclear bombing campaign. Fearing World War III, President Harry Truman ordered MacArthur to keep his opinions to himself, but MacArthur wanted them in the public debate. So, he mailed a letter criticizing official U.S. policy to the House Republican Minority Leader. When it was leaked, Truman relieved him of command. It wasn’t the first time MacArthur disobeyed a president, either. In 1932, he disregarded Herbert Hoover’s orders by attacking and burning to the ground a shantytown erected in Washington by unarmed World War I veterans demanding an early bonus payment. MacArthur’s stubbornness usually served him well, helping him win several key brave and brilliant World War II and Korean War victories, and the hearts of most Americans. …However, that pales next to what some historians think he would have been able to achieve by dialing down the bullheadedness a peg or two–a presidency of his own. [History.com]
Stubbornness can be a good thing if you’re stubborn about the right things. But stubbornness in the White House, the Senate, and the House also has produced a recent shutdown. Is another looming?
Let’s turn to the Bible instead, for examples of when such attitudes both helped and hurt. In three of the four gospels, the story about a woman who was hemorrhaging blood for 12 years is included.
Now we don’t know anything more specific than what Scripture says, and none of the Gospels give us any clues as to what the ailment was exactly. We don’t even know if she had a rare blood disease that didn’t allow her blood to clot. So she may have had open wounds all over her body….My mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario. For twelve years! Not only was she suffering physically, but this particular constant suffering automatically categorized her as unclean. This meant she was also cut off from all spiritual activities. For twelve years! This is compounded by the fact that anyone who made contact with her would also be unclean, she was also socially outcast….for twelve years! [Word of Life Bible]
And so, she was determined to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak, not letting other’s repulsion of her keep her from reaching Jesus. What rejection she must have faced, but she was determined to “just do it!”
And then there was Simon, later called Peter. Ah Simon; the headstrong, stubborn fisherman that Jesus chose as one of his prime disciples. That fisherman who was told that he would fish for men … and women. “Simon?” we might ask Jesus. “That’s your choice Lord? You know how stubbornness and bull-headedness can break up the best-laid plans, Lord?” Do you know how much chaos can ensue when people choose their own path in a business, in government, or in a family? My son Matt and his wife Vicki have two boys: Shane and Simon. Shane does exactly what he is told to do most of the time. If we are walking down a sidewalk together and Shane asks me if he can run ahead to the corner, if I say yes, I can count on him waiting at the corner. Then there is their other son. With a smile that has mischief written all over it, and a twinkle in his eyes, he will push the boundaries every time. And … his name is Simon! His mind seems to be on his own choices rather than following directions! The Simon of the Bible certainly showed his stubbornness later in the Gospels when Jesus told him that, before morning, Simon would deny Jesus three times! “No!” said Simon Peter defiantly. And yet, he did it. This time Simon Peter showed his respect for authority even in the midst of an exhausting and discouraging night of fishing. Fishing with nets exhausts the whole body, as nets are cast and dragged back in. He was not yet an apostle, but a fisherman. The Twelve had not yet been chosen, But Jesus and Simon were not only acquainted, Jesus had just healed Simon’s mother-in-law from a high fever. Later Jesus went away to rest, and he finally ended up at the water’s edge. The Sea was called Gennesaret; (also called the Sea of Galilee and the Sea of Tiberius.) While Jesus was re-grouping, Simon had been fishing. Jesus, seeing Simon coming to shore with empty nets, got into his boat and asked Simon to take him out from shore. Simon must have wished he could call it a day. But this, time he did what Jesus asked. He owed Jesus a favor. “Go to deep water” Jesus said to Simon, words captured in our anthem today. “Let down your nets to catch fish” Jesus continued. The old Simon replied: “We have worked all night and caught nothing!” Then the new Simon took hold: “Yet since you ask it, I will let down the nets.” Because Simon did what Jesus asked, there was a benefit; a great benefit: his nets were full of so many fish, even two boats couldn’t hold them all! Simon couldn’t believe his eyes. He had a great catch that would bring a good price. More importantly: he had even more belief in the powers of Jesus: he knew he could heal, and now he learned that he could do things that other men could not.
Jesus “called” Simon and the other apostles. We talk about a “call” as if everyone knows what that is. But I learned differently when I was working on a Doctoral project through Columbia Seminary. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor had given us the assignment to interview the religious leader closest geographically to the place where we served, but it could not be a Christian. Just four miles north of Westminster on Peninsula Drive was Temple Israel with a Rabbi named Amy Mayer. I called and set up a time to meet with her. She toured our facility and I toured hers. I learned a lot from her, but one thing surprised me. “Tell me about your call” I asked her. “What?” She asked. What do you mean?” “You know,” I said, “your call to being the rabbi of this synagogue. Your call like Moses was called, or Isaiah was called.” She looked at me and said: “It was not a call. It was a job. I interviewed and I got it.” It was my turn to be surprised! When I was asked to explain my sense of call to Committee on Preparation for Ministry years ago, I knew how to answer that. But a Rabbi, who shared her story, did not.
The Bible talks a great deal about a call. Dr. Alan Culpepper, when he served as Dean of the School of Theology at Mercer University, wrote:
Peter’s call to leave everything to “catch people” is the counterpart [to Paul] in Acts, where the commission is actually communicated through Ananias. [Acts 9:15] Both Peter and Paul were called dramatically, through a miraculous event, while they were in the midst of their routine activities, and both were given a commission to devote themselves to bringing others to Jesus. [New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 118]
When C. Frances Alexander wrote her hymn “Jesus Calls Us” that we sang today, she clearly suggested that Jesus did not just call the Twelve, and Paul, and a few others, but that Jesus calls all of us to invite people; not catch them in nets, but to engage them with an invitation. Many of the new members introduced at our luncheon two weeks ago said they came in part because they were drawn by the beauty of the facility, but stayed because people made them feel so welcome. Whose life might you change for the better, with just an invitation to follow Jesus at your church?
Jeffrey A. Sumner February 10, 2019

02-03-19 A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul

A Conversation Between Malachi and Paul
Malachi 3:1-4
1 Corinthians 12:1-3, 11-13
First and foremost, I want to stress that these two texts are unrelated to one another. They were written for different people in a different time. The Malachi text is a prophetic message to the Israelites after the exile when they were allowed to worship together in their homeland again. The letter to the Corinthians is addressing a diverse congregation established as a church of Jesus Christ with prominent members and members of a lower social class. Malachi’s text is before the Messiah, while Paul’s letter is after Christ has died, resurrected, and has been ascended into heaven for quite some time. But both passages are challenging the audience, pushing them to grow, and making them uncomfortable all so that all who hear might be transformed into a more just and loving community that glorifies God. This is why I have put them in conversation with one another, to examine the similarities and differences between Malachi’s and Paul’s calling for transformation. We are inviting a prophet and an apostle to sit down together and discuss what is required of their audience to honor God. Imagine if you will, these two meeting together to discuss the problems they are facing and how they might address their communities. They are crossing space and time to speak to each other face to face, as friends and colleagues.
In this conversation Malachi might take a seat across a table from Paul and stare down into his coffee deep in thought. Paul would wait patiently as Malachi gathered his thoughts, knowing how hard it is to speak difficult truths. After taking a deep breath, Malachi would begin by telling Paul about the mess that he and his people are in now that they are no longer exiled. They are dealing with the trauma of homelessness and displacement, while struggling to find their identity as God’s people. Just as they have suffered, their worship to God has suffered. Their grain offerings and burnt offerings are not the best that they have to offer, and now God is sending a messenger to set them straight. At this moment Malachi might pause and rub his temples. He’s frustrated and exhausted. He has compassion for his people, and he’s dealing with his own trauma! This is such a heavy load to bear. So, Paul might reach out and give Malachi an encouraging pat on the hand. Malachi would continue on, saying that the day of the Lord is coming! This is good news because that means God is coming to restore the people of Israel. But God’s presence is overwhelming. If God is coming to be among them who can truly stand before the awesome, terrible, encompassing presence of God? If God is going to transform God’s people, then that means they’re going to be judged and changed before being made good. Such a powerful transformation will not be comfortable. In fact, it will likely be painful.
Malachi would then sit back in his chair and shake his head. Paul would nod vigorously and agree. Paul knows what it’s like for God to speak from the heavens and transform him completely. He’s well aware of what God’s judgement, although it leads to goodness, really means. So, Paul might take a quick sip of his coffee, and begins telling of the letter he has to send to the church in Corinth. You see, Malachi, this city has so much promise and potential for spreading the good news of Jesus. Corinth was diverse in culture, ethnicity, and in economic trade. Most of the congregation were Gentiles, which meant the message of Jesus was truly reaching the hearts and minds of new people. This church could really reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom! But diversity meant that not everyone had the same social standing and economic income. There were prominent members of means and comfort, while there were also people who were just getting by. Paul had emphasized that all people were important to God and had gifts to offer, but the people who had fewer worldly possessions were being treated as less essential to the church. They were being excluded from all the meals and celebrations of the church because they couldn’t afford to bring food to share. Their spiritual gifts weren’t being used to bless the church. Paul might take a moment to pause to put his head in his hands. Malachi would stand up, squeeze Paul’s shoulder and pour him some fresh coffee. Paul would take a sip of his coffee and tell Malachi that if Christians act without love, then it’s all just noise. If the church has faith but doesn’t have love, then it’s all nothing.
At this point the two men might take a moment to sit in silence and share a knowing look. This look communicates their desire to honor God, their compassion for their communities, and their frustration with how hard it is to be a leader. Paul would then stand up to stretch his legs and lean against the window. Malachi would stare out the window too, reclining in his seat. He would then tell Paul that as exciting as it is that the day of the Lord is coming, it will be a day of refining fire and fuller’s soap. It will be a day of purification. Being cleansed means checking into habits, being self-reflective of flaws, admitting that there is room for growth and change, and really tearing away all the darkness that’s bound to one’s soul. Are the people of Israel really ready to sacrifice parts of themselves for the sake of the transformation that God brings? Malachi, himself a prophet, may even have doubts about the pain of transformation and the sacrifice that it takes. Malachi would take a break to stretch and take a sip of his coffee. He would then stand up and grab some cheese and crackers from the kitchen counter and set them on the table.
Paul might sit down and finish his cup of coffee. Then he and Malachi would grab some crackers and cheese and munch on them quietly for a while. Paul then would say that people can do mighty acts of faith, they can give away their possessions and even sacrifice their bodies for the sake of Jesus Christ, but if all of these great faith acts are done without any love then there is nothing to gain from it. The church falls apart without love and the church of Corinth is truly struggling to show love to one another! Honestly, the way that they treat people who are rich and have a high social standing as more important than anyone else is childish. Paul would then stand up suddenly, very frustrated, knocking over Malachi’s coffee. How could these people act like children, reason like children, and speak like children? It’s time for them to set aside their childish ways! The future of the church is at stake! Paul would then see the mess he made and grab some napkins to help clean up. Malachi wouldn’t be angry. Instead he would agree that all people are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. God calls all to share what they have with one another, instead of making powerful people even more powerful and impoverished people even more oppressed.
And then as the two are mopping up the spilled coffee, it would click. They would look up each other and nod, coming to an understanding. Both had different people in different circumstances that they would be addressing, but there was an inescapable similarity that both of these messages contained. God’s judgement is never separate from God’s mercy. There is always a way to repent and turn back to God. Malachi was talking to all the Israelites so that their nation would be restored as a whole. Paul was emphasizing the need of unity within the congregation in Corinth so that people in all social classes would be treated with love, honor, and dignity. In both of these scenarios the people of Israel and the church of Corinth needed to be redeemed as a community. Their faith in God was inseparable from their responsibility to love and serve the people around them. Malachi says that this would make the offering of Jerusalem pleasing to God, just like in the days of old. Paul would agree and say that while it’s hard for the church to understand this because they see through a mirror dimly, they would soon fully know that the greatest out of faith, hope, and love is, in fact, love.
Then two men would be feeling a little more light-hearted, ready to speak to their communities about the hard truths, and the good news that come from God. After they cleaned up the kitchen, the two would share a hand shake and a pat on the back and go their separate ways to do God’s work. Malachi would go to prophesy to Israel, telling them that God’s judgment is coming, and it’s not going to feel good; but if they are willing to withstand transformation then God will restore them. Paul would go to write his letter to Corinth, telling them that they must love each other fully with their whole hearts or else it undercuts all the good and faithful work that they do as a church. And both are going to tell their communities that they have to work together, serving one another. It’s not just about a personal relationship between an individual and the Creator of the universe; a relationship with God is inseparable from relationships with others. Now as we come back to our time, out place, and our congregation we have been fortunate enough to overhear this conversation between a prophet and an apostle. Since we have had an inside look and picked the brains of our ancestors, let us learn from the mistakes of the faith communities past, and move forward into a loving, refined future.