Monday, April 14, 2008

Audio from April 13

Sunday, April 13, 2008

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Sermon from Sunday, Apr 13

On 1 Cor 1:10-17, 2:1-5; kicking off a 1 Corinthians sermon series. Audio above...

You may have noticed from the back page in the bulletin this week that this week marks the beginning of an extended sermon series on the book of 1 Corinthians. I won’t be preaching through the book, exactly, but for the next twelve weeks I will be picking out key passages in the book that sort of form the shape of the book, that give us a sense of its contours.
Now some of you may be wondering why I chose this particular book. Why 1 Corinthians? I mean, if you’ve got to preach through a book, it might seem logical to preach through one of the gospels, tell the story of Jesus; wouldn’t that be a better idea? In some ways, of course, that’s true; but there are a couple of factors about this book that make it I think a very good choice for us to look at in our modern context.
The first factor is the location of the city of Corinth. The book of 1 Corinthians is a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church which was located in the city of Corinth, and that city was in a very interesting location. Corinth was located on a narrow strip of land that connected the mainland of Europe to the north with Achaia to the south. Now of course in those days there were no airplanes; any goods to be bought and sold had to be shipped by boat. Now, to sail around the southern land of Achaia was very dangerous; it was a rocky coast, and to avoid the rocks, you had to go way out of the way. So most often merchants would choose to stop in Corinth and just ship their goods by land a few miles across the little strip of land to a waiting boat on the other side. It was much cheaper and much safer. So anything going from east to west traveled through Corinth; and in addition, if you were traveling from Europe to Achaia or Achaia to Europe by land, you had to pass through Corinth.
So Corinth was located right at the intersection of major land trade routes, and major sea trade routes. People would come to Corinth and spend short amounts of time there, a few weeks, a few months, and then they would return home. There was a constant transition in Corinth’s population; people were always moving in to do their business, and moving out when their business was through. So it was a community at the crossroads with lots of transitional, short-term residents.
Now maybe you understand why I say that the book of Corinthians might have something to say to us. Because the fact is that the place that we live and worship, Exton, has a lot of similarities to Corinth. We, too, are located at a crossroads. When I first arrived here and was looking at old documents to try to get a sense of the place, I saw that on some old, old letterhead: “The Church at the Crossroads.” Almost as far back as it was decided to plant a church here, it was done with the recognition that the church was located at a crossroads.
And like Corinth, the result is that there are many people in town for just a short period of time. The world we live in is increasingly mobile, and fewer and fewer people stay in one place or one area for their whole lives. And that’s especially true of Chester County, and especially true of Exton. Look around you as you drive home and you will see apartment complexes, townhomes, and other short-term rental places. Maybe some of you even live in those places; I did for a couple years in West Chester when we were getting our financial feet under us. Exton is a lot like Corinth; it is absolutely full of people who are here for just a short time, until their business is done, until their job moves them, and then they move on.
Now this has good sides and bad sides. The good side is that you always are meeting someone new. We sort of take it for granted, but you forget how many churches in our country are lucky ever to get a visitor that walks in the door. Almost every week at our place we have visitors who join us. The bad side, of course, is that people are always leaving. I did a bit of research for this sermon and I looked back over my time at the church, just about 5 ½ years. Do you know what I found out? I bet this will surprise many of you. Do you know how many new people have become regular attendees of our church during that time? 72. I have the list right here. And that’s the kind of thing that happens in Corinth. New people come in all the time. Now I didn’t do the opposite to see how many people have left, but I would bet it’s around 50 or so. In fact, I did see that out of the 72 new people, 25 have already moved. 25 people have come and gone from our church in just the last 5 years alone; there are 25 people who came under my ministry and who left under my ministry. Most of the leavers haven’t left because they were disgruntled, although there are always a few people who choose to do that if they have a conflict. On the contrary, though, I hear from some of these folks sometimes and they miss us, they miss me, they miss our church. But this is the reality of life in Corinth, and life in Exton—there are some people who were born in Corinth and will always stay here; but there are also many people who are here for a short time, at the crossroads.
That can be a frustrating thing for a church, and to be honest, a frustrating thing for a pastor. I know how it weighs on our church that we have a hard time growing, because just when you build momentum, someone moves. I know how it can be difficult for the longterm members of our church to not recognize some new faces at times, and I know what it’s like to be new here and not sure if the person next to you is a longterm part of the church or maybe just visiting here like you are. It’s hard for me as a pastor to have made many new friends, just to have them move away, and it’s hard for me because pastors always worry about helping the church to grow, and you feel like it’s not happening so quickly because so many people move.
While it can be frustrating, the truth is that there is something incredibly exciting about being part of a church like this. Because churches like Exton and churches like Corinth have a very unique role in the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul knew this, which is why he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. He knew that if the church was strong in Corinth, it could touch the world. If the church was strong in Corinth, then when the short-term residents moved back home, or moved on to the next port of call, they could take the gospel of Jesus with them. A good experience with a healthy church in Corinth meant worldwide impact for the gospel, Paul had a passion not just for winning Corinth for Christ, but for spreading the gospel all around the world, and that’s what could happen if the Corinthian church was strong.
I sort of think our church has the potential to be like this. In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s part of our church’s calling. Part of the special blessing and special obligation of our church is to be a safe place for people to come and worship and serve, even if they can only be here for a short time. God has given us the gifts to minister to people like this, and God expects us to do it. For me, as a pastor, I’ve had to lay aside my vision of the church growing by leaps and bounds to say, “Ministering at the crossroads—even though it’s difficult—is part of what this church is called to do, and I want to help us do that the best I can.”
Because if our church is strong, if this is a safe place for people to meet God, then even if they only spend a short amount of time here, they leave here ready to touch the world with God’s love in a new way. Out of the 25 people who have come and gone in the last five years, some are in Bucks County, some are in Lancaster County, some are in Massachusetts, some are in Texas, some are in North Carolina, one is in Israel and one is in Brazil. And everywhere they go they are prepared to touch the world with God’s love in part because of how they experienced God here. If the church is strong in Corinth, it can touch the world; and if the church is strong in Exton, it can touch the world too. To me, it’s an exciting thing because even though we can’t see it every given Sunday, our ministry can touch the world. Maybe I should say it will touch the world, whether for good or for ill. If our church is strong, it will touch the world for good; and if it is not spiritually strong, people will go around the world and say, “What was wrong with that church back there?” So it seemed to me that Paul’s advice to that church at the crossroads might just have something to say to this church at the crossroads.
In the text that Jeff read for us this morning, we saw something that is often true of a church at the crossroads: divisions. Chloe had mentioned to Paul that there had been divisions in the church; that people had lined up behind specific leaders and were quarreling with each other. Some people said they were followers of Paul, some said they were followers of Apollos, some said they were followers of Peter, and some took the moral high road and said that they were followers of Christ. But these four factions were all at war with each other.
We know how easy it is for a church at the crossroads to be divided. Or any church, really. Churches divide because people have different expectations of what the church is; and when it appears to one part of the group that the church is no longer meeting its expectations, conflict arises. Now in tight-knit small town churches, there are not so many conflicts over expectations; because the church membership is so static, people generally have the same expectations for their church. And when new people come into the church, they generally get a pretty united front from the longterm members about what the church is all about. But in a church at the crossroads, where people are always coming in and going out, different expectations of what our church is can flourish.
I sometimes notice these different expectations of me as a pastor: this is a great church to pastor, I really love it. One of the things I most appreciate about this church is that you allow me to be a pastor and have a life too. Some churches have unrealistic expectations of their pastors, that their pastors are supposed to do everything. Now, none of you have those unrealistic expectations of me; but all of you have different expectations of me. In other words, none of you want me to work 80 hours a week, but many of you have different expectations about what I’ll do in my 40-45 hours a week. Some people think I’m doing my job if I’m visiting the sick; some people think I’m doing my job if I’m preaching well-researched, well-thought out sermons; some people think I’m doing my job if I’m providing visionary leadership for the Leadership council; some people think I’m doing my job if I’m providing Bible studies and other learning opportunities. Because we’re a church at the crossroads, because there are always people moving in and moving out, I know that it’s difficult for the church to come up with clear, consistent expectations of me as a pastor.
And by extension, it’s the same for the church. People’s expectations of the nature of our church are different and difficult to communicate because of the transient nature of the church. Ask people what one word describes us as a church and I bet we’d get at least 30 different answers. Are we welcoming? Friendly? Biblical? Faithful? Inclusive? Holy? Each of us experiences the church differently; and that can be healthy, but it can also lead to division when things turn ugly. It can happen in Exton, and it did happen in Corinth.
The other piece to this: as a pastor in a church at the crossroads, the temptation is to always be on your game, to try to sound smart. When you’re dealing with lots of different people with lots of different expectations, and when you’re dealing with lots of new people, it’s tempting to always try to be impressive; to use big words, to come across polished and perfect.
Paul felt that temptation, too. This is why he said, “Christ sent me to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of his power….When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” said Paul, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified….so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
In the middle of this church at the crossroads, which so easily divides, Paul is tempted to try to sound smart, to be impressive, so that his words will have lasting impact. But he ends up saying the most important thing is to live out this simple faith. The most important thing is not to try to say impressive things, or to blow people’s doors off with how amazing you are, but to be simple and humble and proclaim the simple Gospel of Christ crucified—because that message has its own power; it generates its own power and doesn’t need human wisdom or impressiveness to sustain it.
Now I recognize that I’m not speaking to people who preach the gospel often, though I hope the preachers are paying attention. But I think that the temptation for the preacher is just an extension of the temptation for the church. In a transient culture, in a church at the crossroads, we often feel cultural pressure to be a certain kind of church. Respectable. Impressive. Good at marketing our message, good at reaching potential religious consumers. Inasmuch as we do these things well, we tend to feel good about it, and inasmuch as we fall short of those goals, we tend to feel anxious that we’re not doing good enough. I’m always amazed at this in our church, how often we feel good when we feel we’ve done a good, professional job at carrying something off, and how often we feel anxious when we feel something has gone off half-cocked. In a culture like this, with people moving all the time, we feel pressure to excel in everything.
Perhaps some of this is a survival mechanism; after all, if people are always moving out, we feel pressure to have new people come to church so we can keep the doors open. But Paul’s message here is important, I think. Intentionally, he says, I came to you not showing off human wisdom but reflecting a simple life with the crucified Christ at the center of it.
I think that this is part of the call of our little church at the crossroads too. I know it’s the concern that animates my heart as your pastor. We live in a world that values excellence; and I value it, too; I want you to notice that I take worship seriously, and I think you notice it in part because I work to make it excellent. But when people come to our church, I want them to see in us a church that is not merely involved in a pursuit for excellence. I want them to see more than a church that has lots of programs and does them all well. I want them to be impressed when they come to our church—but not impressed in that everything went off well, without a hitch, that Donna sounded perfect and the choir was perfect and the pastor was witty and relevant. I want those who come to our church to see a group of people humbly living out simple lives with Christ at the center of our individual lives and our lives together. I want them to see people living lives that are centered in Christ and where the crucified Christ animates us to do his good work in the world.
The Biblical test of whether a church at the crossroads is doing a good job has not changed. Before the Bible calls us to be excellent, it calls us to this simple faith, and this simple life with Jesus at the center. If we live out that calling, this church at the crossroads can truly touch the world with God’s love beyond anything we have done before.