Monday, February 23, 2015

What is God doing about all the evil and violence?

                While it may only be the first Sunday in Lent, Good Friday is being experienced right now in many places around the world.  Just this past Wednesday another report was issued concluding that 40 people died in Iraq at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.  And earlier this week 21 men were killed by this group on a beach in Libya because they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ.  When will the senseless violence stop?
                I know that most of you probably came to church this morning hoping to escape the endless news cycles that spell violence, fear, and hate.  Like many of you, the only news I watch anymore is the weather but that’s getting pretty depressing these days too.  It’s all just too sad. 
But as Christians we aren’t called to escape the world of evil and violence.  We aren’t called to insulate ourselves and wait for God to rapture us from evil like too many churches are preaching.  Instead, we are called to endure and persevere.  Even more, we are called to witness to how God is responding to evil and violence. 
This morning I want to spend some time answering, what is God’s plan to rescue us from all this terror and hate?  And how can we be a part of God’s plan to deliver the world from evil?      
                The short answer is spelled out on a church sign on West Dallas Avenue.  The answer is Jesus.  But what does that mean?  How is the answer Jesus?  And if the answer is Jesus, someone who lived and died 2,000 years ago, then why does this kind of stuff still happen?  Shouldn’t all the world’s problems be fixed by now if Jesus is truly the answer?
                Before we can really start to answer these questions, the first thing we must know and believe is that our world has already been rescued from evil through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In other words, even though evil did its worst to Jesus beginning in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and ending with nails driven through his hands and feet, Jesus rose victorious over the cross and the grave.  So what does that mean for us on earth 2,000 years later?
Even though evil and death still exist, Jesus’ resurrection means that we now live in a world where someone has lived beyond the grave.  We now live in a world where someone has lived beyond the fear of violence and death.  Jesus’ victory over the cross and the grave tell us that there is a way to live on this earth where evil and death no longer have the power to tell us what to do. 
As Jesus says to his disciples in a resurrection appearance, he says to us today, “Follow me, and I will show you this way.  I will show you this life without fear.”  Jesus has opened up for us the way to everlasting life—not just in the life to come but in our lives today because we are free from the permanence of sin and death.  As Bishop Murray said at diocesan convention, sin and death are only temporary road bumps.  The scripture is true; whether we live or die we are alive in the Lord.           
                I know this might sound a bit strange but the book of Revelation paints this picture of God’s plan for salvation beautifully.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t resorted to speaking in tongues or snake handling, I promise.  Believe it or not, the book of Revelation offers a picture of hope if you can just get past all the starling language and symbolism.  Before you can see the beautiful picture, you must see past the symbols of revelation.  So here goes your crash course on the book of Revelation. 
The writer of Revelation is ultimately given a vision into heaven.  And in heaven there is a throne where God sits and to God’s right hand is the Lamb that was slain who is Jesus Christ.  In front of the throne is the altar of the Lord.  And around that altar and throne is a multitude of angels and martyrs and prophets and every living creature who stand to praise God night and day—sound familiar?  But there is a pause in the action when God’s plan for salvation is opened by the Lamb that was slain.  The plan for salvation is contained within a scroll and the scroll is sealed with seven seals.
                When the first seal is opened a white horse is revealed which represents Christ.  The white rider is the victorious Christ the King who rides out to defeat the kings and powers of this world.  Seals number two, three, four, five, and six represent some kind of human evil or natural disaster—war, famine, sickness, earthquake, and so on.  And the last seal portrays the faithful in prayer.  What are the implications of this?        
Biblical scholar Eugene Peterson says something beautiful, “evil is bracketed between Christ and prayer…evil is not explained but surrounded…evil is seen as a finite episode and not a total triumph.”  Let me summarize that.  There is no denying the reality of evil but one day evil will come to an end.  Until that day God surrounds evil with Christ and prayer.  Peterson goes on to say, “Christians sing…Any evil, no matter how fearsome, is exposed as weak and pedantic before such songs.” 
This scene in Revelation is not all too unlike a scene in Apocalypse Now.  Apocalypse Now is a Francis Coppola film starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall and depicts the darkness and chaos of the Vietnam War.  There is an unforgettable scene where a priest celebrates the Eucharist with other soldiers in the middle of combat—there is gun fire and bombs exploding all around and a priest and a faithful few stand around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist.

The priest and the altar seem out of place don't they?  Well, at least they do in our world.  But it seems that God is trying to say that the bombs and violence are the things that are really out of place.  God is trying to save us not through more violence but through a faith that knows that sin and death will not last forever, through a faith that knows that evil cannot stand up to Christ's victory over death.  
God’s answer to sin and death has always been to dwell with the people.  God’s answer has always been to plant his everlasting kingdom in our world of death and decay.  And the good news is that in Jesus we get that permanent dwelling.  In order to remind us of that permanent dwelling, God calls us to worship.
This week churches from all over the world are offering prayer vigils in memory of those Christians who were slain by ISIS in Libya—the Coptic Church has already declared these 21 men as martyrs.  And this declaration is well deserved.  These men didn’t so much as flinch as they faced their persecutors.  Only through confidence in the gospel can that kind of stuff happen.  Ask yourself this, who displayed more strength and courage-the men who knelt silently before their persecutors or the men in who executed the innocent?   
In a few minutes, we will join Christians worldwide and gather around the Lord’s Table.  We will offer the Eucharist in the name of the persecuted church, in the name of all those who are killed for their faith in Jesus Christ.  As we gather, we will sing with angels and archangels and martyrs, including the ones who died in Libya, in a faith that believes that whether we live or die we are alive in the Lord.  Standing around that altar is our ultimate witness to our faith that God has rescued our broken world through Jesus Christ.  How can evil win when God calls us to such a faith? 
Jesus has changed the world.  In Christ, there is life everlasting.  Eventually, evil will fall under its own weight.  I know what you are thinking—but pastor it is getting worse?  Yes, I understand that.  I also know we live in a world where our children have to process more evil and violence in a day that most of us have had to do in a lifetime. 
As your pastor, I do know this.  Exactly because things seem to be getting worse the world is hungry for the good news.  Selma is hungry for the good news.  And the answer is Jesus.  How will the people know the answer is Jesus?  Surely not because it is printed on some church sign.  No, you are the sign that Jesus is making the world new.  Your prayers, your faithfulness in worship, your presence around this altar is the sign that Jesus calls us to live in a world beyond the grave. 
Even more, when you leave this place, when you go back out into the world that is torn with hate and fear, you go bearing signs of Christ’s abiding presence, signs that were entrusted to you through this Eucharist—signs of compassion, signs of charity, signs of mercy, signs healing, signs of radical love. 

The world is hungry to know Jesus.  Selma is hungry to know Jesus.  And the good news is that Jesus is hungry to surround the world with his presence.  May we have the grace to stand with Christ and surround evil and death with the power of prayer in a faith that knows that God has already won the victory through his Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.     

Is the church full of hypocrites?

written copy not available
The picture below kind of says it all!!!

Monday, February 16, 2015

The first time I met Jesus...

The First Time I Met Jesus

             This past week I chaired the first official Evangelism Committee meeting for the Diocese of Alabama.  I know, right?  You would think we would form a snake handling committee before forming an Evangelism Committee.  To be fair, the word evangelism carries a lot of baggage because it has long been associated with those who see evangelism as strictly a way to convert as many people to Jesus Christ as possible through less than Christian tactics—through manipulation, through guilt, through bullying, and the list goes on.      
Because of this narrow minded view of evangelism, a part of our committee’s work is to re-brand the word to better capture what evangelism is really about.  And some of this re-branding happens when we recognize that evangelism is less about doing and more about being.  As one author says, Evangelism is about delighting in the wonder of God's new creation given through Jesus Christ.  Fundamentally, evangelism is about naming how God is active in the world.  Evangelism is about articulating how God is acting in our daily lives.  Evangelism is also about having faith that the Holy Spirit will do the converting. 
In order to get the committee off on the right foot, I asked them to do something else that makes Episcopalians squirm.  I asked each member of the committee to give a testimony.  I asked them to give a witness.  I asked each member of the committee to talk about a time when they met Jesus and tell how that encounter changed their heart.
A part of me felt a little guilty for putting these unsuspecting souls on the spot so I promised them that I would testify from the pulpit on Sunday.  So here I am to tell you a part of my story, about a time when I met Jesus, about a time when my heart was changed by the message of the gospel.  And I sincerely hope that I get to hear your story too sometime.  Be thinking about it now because I just might call you up one day and ask! 
My first authentic encounter with Jesus started the day I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at the age of 14.  How theologically correct, right?  While the confirmands were enjoying the reception prepared for them in the parish hall, I found myself feeling a little sad.  While every normal fourteen year old was celebrating the end of confirmation class, I was grieving the loss of this community that was gained through this experience.  
The fact I was grieving the loss of a Sunday school class as a teenage boy should have been my first clue that God was calling me to ordained ministry but then again, I was a teenage boy.  Anyway, I started to name this loss to my youth minister and asked him, “What’s next?”  He said, “We have one more spot on our mission trip to North Carolina with your name on it.”  Like any normal 14 year old boy, I showed my excitement by looking down at my feet and muttering, “Yeah, I guess that sounds fun.”
 In two weeks, I found myself on a church van in route to Valle Crucis, North Carolina.  It was love at first sight.  I stepped off the van and the temperature was in the high-50s in the middle of the summer.  And then we started to play one of my favorite games—ultimate Frisbee.  I knew I didn’t ever want to leave this fog covered mountain.   
The part of the story that I haven’t told you yet is that part about how my home life at the time was not easy.  I was ashamed of who I was and where I came from and this shame was magnified when I went to high school where I thought everyone had a perfect family.  I know now that wasn’t true.  However, at the time, I felt alone.  I locked this shame deep down in my soul for no one else to see.
So I went on this mission trip looking for a message of hope and a message of healing.  At first I thought the trip was just a lot of fun and fun was healing in its own right.  We got to play ultimate Frisbee all the time.  The food was good.  I liked the people on the trip.  The youth ministers were great.  But soon I realized the trip was more than fun. 
The trip gave me a different picture of the world as I lived in a bubble.  My work team was assigned to help a family add a laundry room and a deck to the back of their mobile home.  Not only did I learn basic carpentry skills but also got to see poverty first hand in the United States.  I simply didn’t know that people lived in such conditions.
But something else stood out on this work project.  This family that we served included some of the most grateful and loving people I have ever met.  A part of me wondered, “How can a family who lives in such poverty be so grateful?”
Something else strange happened.  I found myself waking up at 6:30 a.m. to go to Bible study.  I had never been to Bible study in my life, let alone get up before the sun came up, but one of the youth ministers there seemed to really believe in this Jesus stuff.  His lessons were powerful and perhaps for the first time I truly saw the power God’s Word could have on one’s life.
By the end of the week, I was on a high but didn’t quite know how to articulate what all was going on inside of me.  As I was processing everything that happened that week, we gathered for a healing service in the chapel.  After receiving communion those who wished for prayers of healing were invited to the altar rail. 
The deacon who ran the ministry asked what I wanted healing for.  I told him that my parents were sick and that I wanted them to be healed.  He picked his head up and looked me in the eye and said, “You must not have heard me correctly. What do you need healing for?”  I couldn’t say anything and tears started pouring down my face.  I couldn’t say anything because I really didn’t know how to tell someone else what it was like to be me, what it was like to carry around the shame I had.  As Paul said to the Romans, I know now that the Holy Spirit was interceding for me with sighs too deep for words.    
The deacon laid his hands on my head and started to pray, “Heavenly Father, I ask prayers of healing for your beloved son Jack...”  The words beloved son rang through my head for days and weeks to come--and they still ring in my head to this day.  Beloved son.  Was I important enough to be called beloved of God?
You see, the story I lived by in high school told me I had to be perfect and come from a perfect family in order to be loved, let alone loved by God.  According to all standards I knew at the time, I wasn't deserving of God's love.  But God seemed to be saying something else through the gospel of Jesus.  I was beginning to understand that my status as God's beloved wasn't based on who I was or wasn't but based on who Jesus is--God's beloved son.  
My whole experience that week was distilled down into that one moment at the healing Eucharist when I met Jesus face to face.  And the message of the gospel that I received that evening is just as powerful today.  As someone once said, Jesus’ good news never gets old.  It never gets old to hear that God is forming us in a community where we are all valued as beloved sons and daughters not because of what we do or don’t do but because who Jesus is and what Jesus did when the laid down his life for the world. 
I remember never wanting to leave Valle Crucis.  After all, it was the first place I met Jesus.  I wanted to stay as long as I could.  I wanted to preserve that moment in time.  But the van took us back to Birmingham after a week in the mountains.  I had to go back to the real world as they say. 
It took me several years to realize that God wasn’t going to act exactly like that again.  A part of me was looking for God to show up in the exact same way again at the healing Eucharist.  And only when I accepted that God wasn't going to reveal himself in that way again was I able to move on and experience God in new ways.
It has been my experience that when we encounter the divine in a powerful way we are hard pressed to let go of that experience.  We want to hold onto that moment or experience or memory for as long as we can.  We want to hold on because we are afraid that we might not have such an experience again. 
But God is telling us something different, isn’t he?  God is telling us that these mountain top experiences give only a glimpse into God’s final glory, a glory that is a still in front of us.  But we have a hard time trusting that message because, for now, we are called back down the mountain to a world filled with problems.  We are called back to the real world.      
We are all a little like Peter in that we try to memorialize our best moments and memories.  In today’s lesson, Peter tries to preserve this incredible moment in time by trying to build three dwelling places—one for Elijah, one for Moses, and one for Jesus.  In Peter’s mind, the scene on top of this mountain is the completion of God’s plan for redemption and completion.  He never wants to leave this mountain.  He says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.” 
But like any mountain top experience, God calls Jesus, Peter, and the rest of the disciples down from the mountain toward Jerusalem, toward the inevitability of the cross.  In the same way, God doesn’t let us hold onto any moment or experience—not matter how great they are.  Instead, God is always calling us onward to follow his Son Jesus Christ in the way of the cross. 
I read somewhere that the biggest danger to authentic community are our dreams for it.  We will grow to love our dreams more than the reality we are given.  I believe one of the reasons God calls us down from our mountains is because God knows that we will grow to love our experience on the mountain more than the God who calls us to the mountain.   
What do I mean?  For example, this past week at Diocesan Convention a lot of people were wearing “I love Camp McDowell” buttons on their shirts.  I love Camp McDowell too.  I also have one of those buttons.  But a part of me wondered where the “I love Jesus” buttons were. 
As humans, and I am just as guilty, we are prone to love places, events, and memories more than the God who made those places, events, and memories possible.  Ultimately, God is trying to get us to see that we can’t hold onto anything in this world, no matter how good and holy, because in the end the only thing left will be the Word of God in Christ.  The Word of God is the only thing that can be trusted.  But sometimes that is scary, isn’t it?        
Yes, Peter is right; it is good for us to be on these mountains.  It is good for us to meet Jesus face to face.  But God doesn’t call us to these mountains for permanent escape.  Like Eucharistic Prayer C says, God calls us to his nearer presence not only for pardon and solace but also for renewal and strength so we can go back out into the world and witness to Christ’s reconciling love.  So we can move past our fear and tell other’s what God is up to in our midst.  So we can be, dare I say it, evangelists for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And the good news is that we are not alone when we make our journey down the mountain.   Because of Jesus Christ we have a God who dwells, not only on mountains, but in our hearts whispering, “Do not be afraid.  Trust me and believe that whatever happens, wherever you go, not matter how dangerous, no matter how scary, you will always dwell with me.”  We can trust God because through his Son Jesus Christ the world of failure, the world of death, and the world of unmet expectations has been destroyed by a life lived beyond the cross and the grave.  Amen.           


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Danger of a Gospel without Words

"The Danger of a Gospel without Words"

Epiphany 5, February, 8, 2015

You might be familiar with the following quotation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”  This quotation is a phrase that I have resorted to many times especially when I find myself in conversation with our more fundamentalist/evangelical brothers and sisters who sometimes use too many words. 
I also hear this phrase uttered a lot at meetings when fellow Episcopalians start talking about what it means to be an evangelist.  In the Episcopal Church we sometimes prefer to do our proclaiming of the gospel through our actions instead of through our words—actions speak louder than words, right?  While I agree with the intent behind this quotation, I believe the power of the gospel message loses something in translation when it becomes more about our actions rather than about proclaiming what we believe.
What do I mean?  First of all, as elementary as it may sound, let’s unpack what we mean when we say, gospel or good news.  What is the gospel that we preach and proclaim?  Fundamentally, the good news of Jesus Christ is the story of how God is rescuing us and the world from evil.  The gospel means that Jesus is inviting us, through repentance, to live in a world where the powers of evil and death no longer have the power to control our lives.  The good news tells us how God is putting the world back together through the reconciling love of Christ. 
In today’s lesson, the good news is proclaimed when Jesus takes Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her to a life of service.  Through this healing, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into God’s ultimate plan to restore all people to life and health.  This glimpse supports the gospel announcement that Jesus has come to deliver us from evil so that we might live in his everlasting kingdom. 
So what is the impact of the good news in our lesson this morning?  What is the result of the gospel of Jesus?  Well, an entire town takes notice and congregates around Jesus to ask for healing.  Scripture says he heals many, notice-not all but many, and casts out demons before he retreats for prayer.  Jesus’ prayers are interrupted by his disciples who basically tell him to go back to the town because not everyone has been healed.  How does Jesus reply?  He says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus’ response gives us another clue as to what the good news is all about.  Jesus didn’t simply come to be a medicine man.  He didn’t come to make us feel better so we can go on with our lives.  Jesus’ mission is to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.  The gospel message reveals something even more important than physical healing.  Jesus has come to share the good news of salvation and to restore us to a right relationship with God so that we may be one with each other.
At this point, I hope you are starting to see that the gospel is not really about what we do but has everything to do with what Christ has already done in order to rescue us and the world from sin and death.  Preaching the gospel isn’t about making God active in the world through our actions.  Preaching the gospel isn’t about manufacturing God in our midst through good works.  Preaching the gospel is about witnessing to how God is already delivering us from evil through Christ, to how God is already present in the world through his Son. 
Maybe it would be helpful to think of it like this, I don’t make God present in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood with my hand gestures or by reading the right combination of words.  Instead, Jesus is present in the sacrament because Jesus willed himself to be present when he said to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  And that is what the church has done for generations. 
As a priest in the church, I am charged with helping us remember that Jesus is present in world, and one of the ways I do this is through the sacraments.  Yes, those words and hand gestures are instrumental in naming the presence of Christ but they aren’t a part of some magic formula to make God come alive.          
I hope that it is becoming clear to you why this passage from St. Francis can be dangerous.  Fundamentally, the preaching of the gospel is about using words.  It is about naming how God is active in our world.  The gospel is about telling others how God is making us one, about telling others that God is bringing the whole world to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. 
I am afraid that if preaching the gospel is reduced to only our human endeavors, then we are in danger of replacing the gospel with our own good works.  A gospel without words is dangerous because the message of the church will become more about what we do or don’t do instead of about what Christ is doing.   If the good news is replaced by what we do, no matter well intentioned our actions are, then I am afraid we will start to worship our own good deeds instead of worshiping the God who makes good possible through his Son. 
This reminds me of a troubling trend in the church that is gaining momentum.  According to one author, he says that the church should base active membership on how many are active in service in the community versus the traditional measure of counting the number of people in the pews on Sunday morning.  While I don’t totally disagree with the thought, I believe this idea is a symptom of a church that is trying to be relevant in a world where fewer people are sitting in pews on Sunday morning.  Yes service is important, but it cannot replace worship, it cannot replace the hearing and receiving of the good news. 
One article I read recently says, “Worship is the unique, distinct, set-apart thing the Church does and is called to do…Service is important but church must be more than that.”  The reason worship is so important is because it refreshes, renews, and invigorates us with the message of the gospel.  Worship gives us a way to be nourished by the Christ’s Word and Sacrament.  In other words, worship gives us a way to be nourished by the hope of the good news so that we can go out into the world and serve the world in Christ’s name. 
Like I asked earlier, the next question we have to ask is what impact does hearing and receiving the gospel have on our lives?  And I believe this is the question that St. Francis is trying to answer as well.  When we leave these pews today after hearing and believing the good news, our lives and our actions become a direct result of believing in the gospel through the sanctification of the Holy Spirit.
 And the result of believing in the gospel means that we feed the poor, visit the sick and prisoner, cloth the naked, care for the orphan and widow and the list goes on.  The impact that the gospel makes in our daily lives is not the same thing as preaching the gospel otherwise the gospel is in jeopardy of being confused with what we do instead of what God is doing in Jesus Christ.     
I want to end with an example of what kind of fruit the proclaiming of the gospel is doing in Selma.  This past week I met with a group of pastors and church leaders to talk about the upcoming Unity Walk on March 1st.  While the group was trying to name the significance of the walk, it was said that the walk is naming what God is already doing in Selma.  In other words, the walk is the result of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
The spirit of the walk is a direct result of hearing and believing that we have a God who is restoring us to right relationship with God and each other through a relationship with his Son.  The walk itself isn’t the preaching of the gospel.  Instead, the walk is a direct result of a gospel that is being preached in our churches, in our homes, in our reunion groups, in our work places, in our community meetings and so on.  The walk is a sign that God is reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ.
We aren’t making the gospel known through what we do.  The gospel is made known today because of what Jesus said and did 2,000 years ago.  The gospel is made known through only the actions of Jesus, through the one whose words matched his actions, through the one who healed and cured the sick and lame, through the one who cast out demons, through the one who taught in parables, through the one who died for our sins, through the one who rose victorious over the cross.  The consequence of preaching and believing in this good news of Jesus is a people who are committed to the renewing the face of the earth by the power of the Holy Spirit.  
So what might our new motto be?  What can we say that really captures what St. Francis is trying to tell us?  I know this isn’t quite as catchy or easy to remember as the St. Francis quote but how about this?  Believe in the good news so that when others see the impact that the gospel on your life and the life of the world around you, they too may come to believe in the good news.  Amen.     



Monday, February 2, 2015

Together with Love

Together with Love

                I spent my first summer in seminary as a chaplain resident at Baptist Princeton Hospital in Birmingham.  After an exciting spring semester, I was on a liturgical high after taking a couple of courses in liturgy and worship.  I especially looked forward to using the new prayer book I bought especially for the sick and dying.  I was ready to use these beautifully crafted prayers to help reveal the healing power of God’s love.  But my enthusiasm for prayers out of a book was met by some strange responses.      
                This most memorable response came one afternoon when I was making my rounds.  After offering once of those fancy prayers in my prayer book, she looked at me and asked, “Can you just read me something from your Bible?”  Like any good Episcopalian, I thumbed through the pages of my prayer book to find the Daily Office readings.  For those of you who don’t know, the Daily Office provides and index of scripture readings for everyday of the week. 
                On that particular day, the reading from the New Testament was taken from I Corinthians chapter 8.  Without giving it another thought, I turned in my Bible to the 8th chapter of Corinthians and began to read, “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…”  And this is exactly the point when her eyes began to glaze over. 
When I finally finished reading she smiled at me and said, “How about a reading from one of the Psalms?”  When the woman saw that I was thumbing through my prayer book again to find the appointed psalm for the day, she politely said, “Pastor, Psalm 23 will be fine.  And end with a short prayer—one from you heart, not from that book.”  And that was the last time I carried my prayer book in public that summer. 
Even for those of us who don’t find ourselves on a hospital bed this morning, it is hard to see how this lesson from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians on eating meat offered to idols is relevant today.  I know I’ve only been in Selma for five months, but eating meat offered to idols doesn’t seem to be a current controversy.  But this was a real issue for real Christians that had real consequences.
In order to help us understand what God might want us to take away from today’s lesson it would be good to remember that St. Paul was the first church consultant.  Through his epistles or letters, Paul responded to particular issues or crises in particular communities of faith.  He admonished and encouraged churches all over the region in hopes of vibrant and healthy Christian communities.   
The church in Corinth was made up of primarily of wealthy, well-educated, sophisticated members of society.  These Christians were a part of the social elite and they wined and dined with the movers and shakers of the community.  Naturally, these Christians found themselves at a lot of banquets and celebrations.  And because Corinth was a pagan society much of the meat they ate at these gatherings had been sacrificed to idols.
There is a real dilemma for these Christians in Corinth.  Do they refrain from being a part of this society so that they don’t have to eat this meat, so that they can preserve their identity as Christians?  But if they remove themselves from society, how can they have any influence on the pagan community?  How can the work of God flow through this community without a church that is active in the community? 
But if they do engage with the community and go to these parties and eat this meat, what kind of message are they sending to new believers?  What kind of message are they sending to, as Paul calls them, the weaker Christians who are still trying to figure out their identity as members of Christ’s body?  
Paul first appeals to their intellect and basically says, “You are right.  There is no such thing as eating meat sacrificed to idols because we know that idols don’t exist—at least not to those of us who don’t believe in idols.”  But Paul continues and says, “But what good is it to be theologically correct if you lead new believers astray?”  You see, these new believers have been taught not to touch idol worship with a ten foot pole.  So for these new believers, anything that smells of idol worship is idol worship. 
In the end Paul says, “Even if you know you are right about this issue, don’t let it get in the way of your relationship with new believers.  If eating meat is a stumbling block for those who are still trying to figure out how to be Christians, then stop eating meat—not only for their sake but for Christ’s sake.”  Ultimately, Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians that building up the body of Christ is not about knowledge of the law and right belief.  Instead, building up the body of Christ is about sharing the knowledge of God’s grace and love.
A few years ago a prominent leader in the church said that his biggest fear for the church of the future was that too many in the church are focused on justice and not focused enough of on the righteousness of God.  Yes, this phrase is loaded with theological jargon that I need to unpack a little bit.  I think this person was trying to say that too many in the church are focused on being right and not focused enough on a relationship with God and each other.  Too many in the church are focused on being on the correct side of an issue as opposed to doing the hard work of bringing a diverse group of people together in the name of Christ.    
Ultimately, true justice, God’s justice happens when things are made right with God and each other.  As Christians, we are called to care less about the following the rules or the law and care more about reconciliation between God and neighbor, a reconciliation made possible through the blood of Christ.  If we focus on the reconciling love of God in Christ, then God’s justice will be revealed—it might take a while but God is making all things right through our relationship with Jesus Christ. 
But if we care too much about getting it right, then we can’t help but to create division.  If we care too much about being on the correct side of an issue, then all we are doing is drawing lines in the sand where there are winners and losers.  The body of Christ can handle differences in opinion and different ideas as long as we are committed to loving God and each other.  What the body of Christ can’t handle is finger pointing and drawing lines in the sand.
It has been well documented in the Selma Times Journal that the faith leaders in Selma are coming together to lead a Unity Walk on March 1st.  This walk is symbolic of the pastors and faith leaders of Selma joining together to establish honest and meaningful relationships.  We hope that these relationships will help further unite our city and help bear good fruit in a city with so much potential.
At our first gathering, we recognized that we aren't perfect, we won’t all agree on every issue.  The point of the group is not to agree on issues.  This group isn’t about fixing all of Selma’s problems.  It is not about what church has the correct agenda or the right solution to the problem.  The group is committed to building relationships in a common faith that believes God is not done with Selma, in a common faith that knows that Christ is making all the peoples of the earth one through his body and blood.

(photo courtesy of Selma Times Journal)

          Yesterday at the community quilting workshop that we hosted at St. Paul’s I overheard someone talking about how they weren’t sure if they were going to make a quilt square because they didn’t think they could make one that would be pretty enough for the unity quilt.  And the comment was made that a quilt isn’t perfect because of any one individual square.  A perfect quilt happens when it is sewn together with love.
          The church, the world, this community will never be perfect because of any one individual or idea or agenda or group.  Perfection is not attained because we possess the right knowledge about God or the church or government.  Instead, God is perfecting all of creation and his people through the one who loves us perfectly, through the one who willingly gave himself up to death for the life of the whole world, through the one who meets each one of us personally, not with a word of judgment but with a word of grace and compassion, through the one who is builds us up in love who, the one whom we call our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.