We begin today reading Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In green seasons, which don’t have the focused themes of Lent and Easter, or Advent and Christmas, the Church invites us to read straight through some of the letters in the New Testament. So in green season, the second lesson will always find us going through a letter in order. This is intended as a way of keeping before us that the Bible isn’t little snippets for worship services – it’s a wide and rich book that we need to imbibe deeply on its own terms.
Standing here together at the start of 1 Corinthians is sort of like standing in front of the Alps - chapter 1, verse 1. We’ll be reading along from the early chapters of this letter until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, except for February 2nd which happens to be the feast of the Presentation, Emmanuel’s Name Day. It’s Paul’s second longest letter, and perhaps his most thorough in showing how Christian truths address the kind of issues and struggles that every church in the world seems to get itself into now and again.
You can see the beginning right in front of you on the insert. Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The way you start a document, or start anything, what you put first and what you prioritize, is going to determine a lot about what comes after. You maybe have seen productivity or time management experts use that image of life being like a jar which has to be filled up with sand, pebbles, and big rocks. They point out that the only way to get everything in your jar is to put the big rocks in first, and then place the pebbles and pour the sand around them. It’s like that in your individual Christian life, it’s like that in the life of a church, and it’s like that in every epistle of Paul. The major priorities, the major truths, the big rocks go in first. He never starts with pebbles.
What are the big rocks here? Well, you could name the way Paul states his identity and the identity of the people in the Corinthian church - people who have been called by the will of God. That’s who we are, not anything else. Paul called to be an apostle, them and us called to be saints. You could name the way Paul states who the leader of this enterprise is: Jesus Christ, his Lord and ours. We’re not in charge, Jesus is. You could name the way Paul packs in vital theological concepts: the will of God, the experience we have of being in Christ, the power of the Name of Christ, and the availability of a grace and peace that God gives through Jesus. Those are boulders – they’re the major grounding that anchors the letter, already in the first paragraph.
He continues with a prayer for them: I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind-- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This shows that Paul knows enough to speak to the good things in this congregation before he moves on to the problems, but you can see him subtly, even now at the beginning, trying to redirect their focus. Like many of us, the Corinthians are prioritizing the pebbles and the sand: themselves, what they prefer, who they are upset with, their families, their friends, their personal goals. To really live the Christian life as God offers it, all of that has to come second, and Paul is trying already to help his readers, including us, realize and accept that.
There is, though, one more big rock coming in these opening verses, and it’s at the very end, the last sentence. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. You see that notion of calling return here – we already heard it twice and here it is again. God calls, we respond to the call. But the big rock I want us to spend some time on today is this core Biblical assertion about the nature and character of our God. God is faithful.
Nearly 30 years ago when I was in seminary and particularly stressed out from both taking intensive Greek and completing the medical, psychological, and group work to ask the Bishop to consider accepting me for ordination, this verse reached out and grabbed me by the – I don’t know, the spine, the lungs. God is faithful. I learned the Greek spelling of it and wrote it in the sand on the beach. Pistos ho Theos! I said it to myself over and over. God is faithful, God is faithful. All the stressors cried out to be put first, but that big rock -- God is faithful, God is faithful -- pulled me over and over again away from the mistake of focusing on the pebbles and the sand: myself, what I preferred, who I was upset with, my families, my friends, my career and academic goals.
What does it mean to say that God is faithful? It means that he is absolutely trustworthy. Even when we are not faithful or trustworthy – and I hope we can admit that none of us is always faithful or trustworthy at every point – God steadily, unremittingly continues to be faithful to us and trustworthy for us. The word faithful in the Bible is linked to being reliable and truthful, and back into the Hebrew which is a more concrete language, to being solid, firm. Solid like a rock, in fact, a big rock that goes first into the jar.
I had to smile when this major truth about God’s character was presented in the lectionary for this weekend. If I were going to be stressed out and lose focus, it would be this month. As I said in the Mini-Messenger, there is a lot going on at Emmanuel with preparation of the Annual Report and of all the aspects of Annual Meeting a week from today at 9am, plus the key final vestry meeting of the year tomorrow evening. Plus the deadline for applications for our next curacy coming up soon. Not to mention the preparation for Emmanuel's first gathering with the community Advisory Committee for the Asset-Mapping process we are bringing Partners for Sacred Places in to facilitate. There will be 13 top-tier community leaders and a consultant from Partners here Tuesday morning, touring the space and hearing about Emmanuel’s mission, story, and assets as we look towards redeploying our rectory space in accordance with God’s calling. --And, oh yes, I got elected as President of the Standing Committee and had to take over the launch of our diocesan Bishop search, which will be a ferocious time commitment and I’m sure subject me to all kinds of criticism and attacks from people all over the country who never even met me, if the experience of clergy friends who’ve had this role is any indication.
So what should we be doing at a time like this? Big rocks. Pistos ho theos. God is faithful. See, if we approached this stuff like we weren't Baptized Christians, like we hadn’t been called by God into his own life, like we didn’t have all the resources that God’s trustworthy love offers, we would probably be freaking out right now. Just on a personal level of course it's a bit overwhelming to have all this coming together at the same time, and I ask your prayers, but for crying out loud God is faithful. We can trust him. He is competent and trustworthy in a way you and I can never possibly be.
If God is faithful, nobody who is a Baptized Christian and has the big rocks in the jar needs to head into the Asset Mapping process, for example, focused on anxieties about whether Emmanuel is impressive enough or wanting to control some outcome that we think we should get. Nobody who is a Baptized Christian and has the big rocks in the jar needs to be wondering whether the Bishop search process will work out, or worrying how the Diocese of Springfield is seen by other dioceses, or obsessing about the idea that nobody’s going to apply. For crying out loud God is faithful. We can trust him. He is competent and trustworthy in a way you and I can never possibly be.
And that goes for everything. What’s going on that could make you get stressed out or anxious or controlling? Is there a job search, a new schedule, a potential diagnosis? Is something off-kilter in your extended family? Are you just way too busy? If so, what do you think would happen if you looked at what God has revealed about his character and decided, first, if you think it is true. Do you believe that God is faithful? Do you believe that God can be depended on absolutely? Do you believe that he can be trusted better than you with the ins and outs of your life, that he is more competent than you to know what course of events will turn out for your ultimate good (please notice that I didn’t say will turn out the easiest or most comfortable!)
Do you believe that God is faithful? Do you believe that God is trustworthy? If you think you believe that, then try deliberately making it one of the big rocks in your pragmatic, ordinary life today. Put it in the jar first, before you focus on your family time and your binge-watching and your task list. Nothing else is big enough to take priority in your life. Only God can be absolutely counted on. Let that be one of the precious, divine truths that goes in the jar first. God is faithful. God is faithful. God is faithful, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.