We begin in the middle of the conversation. Paul had visited Corinth, planted a church among this mixed group of gentiles, those who were formerly used to being firmly established in the middle of society and who were now beginning to understand what it means to stand alongside the outsider, and as one might expect problems arose. Scholars suggest that Paul wrote as many as four or five letters to the Corinthians, we have only two. So we join the conversation in the middle, Johnny come lately trying to make sense of what is going on within this conversation, within this community. Some of it makes us raise our eyebrows a little, man have they lost their way! Sexual immorality, eating food sacrificed to idols, power games, name dropping, etc.
They had begun with promise and wound up wandering in the wilderness. How to live this odd, promising, but strange life that held so much promise, but was, well different. It wasn’t how they were raised, it wasn’t how they had played the political games of society, it was, just very different. They were wandering in a wilderness of conflict, abuse, searching for a promise that had seemed so very evident when they first set out, when they left the safety of belonging and middle class life.
Last week we spoke about the trauma, loss and crisis that often precedes someone entering into a wilderness journey, but for some it is a promise, a promise that if you walk this path something really, truly wonderful will happen. It’s that moment, when you are out on a hike and you can see the top of ridge you are climbing and you finally surmount that ridge only to see that the trail curves and moves further uphill. It’s exhausting to realize that more is demanded, that you have not reached the top but only a way station and the pause that is a momentary enjoyment of rising all the way on top is delayed. Not. There. Yet. Uff.
The Corinthians began their journey with hope and dreams of wonderful things and found themselves embroiled in common conflict and disputes. If you spend much time talking to unchurched people at some point you will hear someone say, “Oh those churches, they say they are good, kind, loving Christians, but they are filled with conflict and power games and lot’s of shoulds, “it should be this way,” “you should dress like me” “you should, you should, you should” it’s no different than anything else.” There is a Buddhist saying that, ‘before enlightenment one chops wood and carries water, after enlightenment, one chops wood and carries water.” It reminds us that our daily tasks and the events of our lives do not change much. We still have the same labors, the same weather, the same bills and live with the same people, whether we are Christian or not. We will still wander the badlands of life at some point, times of conflict, loss, trauma, these will come the rain falling on the good and the bad alike.
So we meet Paul in what scholars believe is his fourth letter to this conflicted congregation. He speaks to reassure them and to help them stay the course, to keep on track, to remember to make the most important things first and foremost, not letting them drown in the sea of so many small things that tend to fill our lives. In today’s passage Paul points them to the beauty that lives within us, that passes by unseen and unnoticed every single day.
“Remember who you are, he says, remember what great beauty lies within you, for you were made to shine, you were created in the image of the most high God. You are wondrous. Remember who you are.”
He says this even though the conflict is only in an ebb and soon flows again. It’s one of those things you can’t say to someone in the heat of the moment, but something that we need to hear again and again during those quiet times. “Remember who loves you. Remember how wonderful you and those around you are.” He reminds us how important it is to really see one another, to remember why we are engaged in relationship in the first place, that we are all part of the body of Christ. He reminds us how important it is to see beyond what is happening in the moment or outward appearances and look beneath, to look for the image of Christ, the light of God, shining in each person we meet.
There are two stories that came to mind as I studied this scripture, and I’d like to share them. One comes from the book, “The Half Has Never Been Told” and it’s the story of Liza Jane. Liza Jane was a young girl who was sold away from her family, sold down the river, and arrived at the plantation beaten, brutalized, and dissociating. She was almost zombie-like, moving through the day more dead than alive she did the bare minimum to avoid the attention of the overseer. The story that was passed down, that comes to us now, is how the men and women in the field, working alongside Liza Jane would sing to her, ‘Come on home, Liza Jane, come on home” and as the days passed it woke something in her, and she began to sing back to them, “I’m coming home, I’m coming home.” They sang her back to life when she was lost in despair. They refused to give up on her and just kept singing.
The other story is the story of Dr. Ted Stoddard. His fifth grade teacher relates how he came to be in her class. She had noticed him the year before on the playground and he wasn’t the kind of student she looked forward to teaching. He was disheveled and needed a bath, he was quiet and withdrawn and when he did engage in class activities his behavior was odd and put the other students off. He would blurt out inappropriate things and his actions were simply discordant, unsettling. When she sat down to review the students class histories she read his last. She didn’t want to be prejudiced, but he just rubbed her wrong.
As she read his former teacher’s notes she was surprised and shocked. The first grade teacher said he was a delight and charming. The second grade teacher described him as bright and sociable, a quick learner. The third grade teacher said his year had begun well enough, but his mother’s illness was clearly taking a toll on him. His fourth grade teacher said he was withdrawn and tended to isolate, he seemed distracted and had difficulty learning, the teacher speculated that the death of the young boy’s mother was the cause of this change.
She put the papers down and prayed for the young boy, and herself. She told herself she would give him extra attention and a little more care. Still, she felt ashamed of her quick judgment.
When Christmas came and the students brought little gifts this boy brought a half used bottle of perfume, clumsily wrapped, sort of disheveled not unlike the boy. She thanked him and made a big deal of putting some perfume on. When the day ended she wished her students a good Christmas break and said goodbye to them, only to notice this young boy lingering. “You smell like my mom,” he said, and then he left.
She began to see him with new eyes, eyes that looked for the treasure hidden beneath the depths of his grief, his loss, his pain. We are called to the very same mission, to see each other through the eyes of Christ, to look with love and to believe the very best in each other especially when it’s hard.
Paul spoke to a church that was in the middle of it’s own wilderness journey, one that was trying really hard to figure out how to live this new life in Christ and who sometimes just wanted a charismatic leader to tell them what to do. To these people, Paul said, “remember who you are, remember that we have this treasure in clay jars, not in fancy, gilded jars, or shining crystal, but in common clay, chipped and broken, yet within each one is a treasure.” He asked us to look beneath the surface and search out the image of Christ, the light of God, in each person, not to sit in judgment, not even positive judgment, but to put our hope, our trust in the image of God shining from each person.
Things may be hard, they may be difficult, we may wander in the desert, not sure if we are heading in the right direction, or even the same direction, but we remember who we are and whose we are. We have this invitation to pause in our travels and notice the beauty, the grace, the love, the kindness, all around us, and to find, even in, especially in, our most difficult circumstances cause for gratitude.
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
We have this ministry, to see in each other the treasure buried beneath the clay, beneath all that life heaps upon us. To sing each other back to life when we are lost and in pain. To see with the eyes of Christ that we might love like Christ. May it be so.