So, three powerful, evocative texts from the scriptures this morning. Isaiah offers the image of “wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1); Paul lectures the church in Corinth about idolatry with examples about the various and horrible ways the Israelites died in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-13); and Jesus interrogates the given assumptions about why bad things happen to some people, calling those who follow him to repent before they perish (Luke 13:1-9). The obvious choice would be Isaiah, right? Let’s go back to that invitation to feast on rich food, or at least the parable of the gardener who advocates for the unproductive tree. But no, I think I’ll try my hand at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, with its haunting reminder of the more than twenty-thousand who died in the wilderness because of sexual immorality, because, you know, Lent.
Before we can dive into the prickly thicket of these particular verses, let’s just remember for a moment the audience to whom Paul was writing. They were a church divided for a multitude of reasons. The community included some Jews, but mostly Gentile converts. They were poor and working people, some of them were slaves, though a few were wealthy, possibly even nobles. They were women and men who were deeply at odds with each other, while somehow remaining fairly comfortable with the dominant culture’s practices of excessive litigation, the commodification of women’s bodies, and feasting on food sacrificed to pagan gods. In other words, they were a microcosm of the surrounding world whose conduct toward one another showed very little evidence that their experience of God in Christ had made any difference in how they lived their lives.
In his letter up to this point, Paul has called on the community to transcend their petty factions where some claim to be following Paul’s teachings, while others are following the teachings of another Jewish Christian named Apollos, yet others are following Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, and a final group claiming to follow Christ — though Paul fails to understand how one can claim to follow Christ while continuing to divide Christ’s body. While the Corinthians put their trust in their interpretations of various teachers and leaders within the church, Paul flips their argument on its head by proclaiming his own faith in “God’s foolishness” by demonstrating power through a cross, choosing “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Cor. 1:27)
Having re-established a common foundation for Christian faith and life, something deeper and more trust-worthy than all their self-interested rationalizations and accommodations to the dominant culture’s dysfunctions, namely the witness of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of love, Paul begins to try and reunify the church, stating, “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Cor. 3:9)
By the time we get to the passage we just read this morning, Paul had tackled head on the issues that were dividing the church, from issues of morality and advice on marriage to methods of conflict resolution and finally the matter of eating food offered to idols. Now, as we join this argument already in progress, he is using language powerfully, masterfully, to implicate this divided community in a shared reality. Let’s tease it apart.
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (1 Cor. 10:1-4)
Paul is writing to a community that is mostly Gentile, but still partly Jewish. Yet he says to them, “our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” He’s telling them the story of the Exodus, the story that belongs to the ethnic minority in their congregation, the ethnic minority Paul himself is a member of, and he’s asserting that it’s everyone’s story. It’s hard for us today to hear how shocking that is, because Christians have been reading Jewish scriptures for two thousand years as our story, so it seems perfectly natural. But it wasn’t always. I don’t think it was here.
It would be as if Martin Luther King, Jr. — but the MLK from 50 years ago, before he was a saint with a national holiday — were to write a letter to a community of mostly white people, with perhaps a few people of color, you know, like Lutherans, and say, “our ancestors gathered in the woods beyond the plantation fields and sang songs from the old country, songs of freedom, songs that gave them the courage to steal away in the dark of night and wade in the river waters as they made their way north toward freedom.” Would we even hear the message, or would we be like, “Wait a minute. Did that Black preacher just call me Black?!”
Except it doesn’t stop there, because Paul also said, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Now Paul is talking to the Jewish minority, as one Jew to another, saying that their foundational stories, their crossing at the Red Sea, their water from the rock, their pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, was Jesus all along. It would be as if … well it would be just exactly that, as if a rabbi were to walk into a synagogue and say, “all your sacred stories are really about Jesus.” You can actually imagine exactly how that would go, because we’ve been living with the rift it caused two thousand years ago ever since as ethnic prejudice made enemies and oppressors out of people and communities that Paul called sisters and brothers.
Because what he’s saying is your story is my story. My people are your people. The body of Christ is not divided but one, and anything that harms one of us harms all of us. These horrible stories he references from Hebrew scriptures about the twenty three thousand who fell in a single day (v. 8), or those who were destroyed by serpents (v.9), or who were destroyed on account of their complaining (v. 10) — well, they’re horrible stories, which we can unpack some other time, because the reason Paul cites them here is not to terrify the church with threats of an angry, vengeful God, but to point out that we do not live or die alone, that we are all in this together. He is telling stories from Hebrew scripture about times when the idolatry that caught hold of a few had devastating consequences for the entire community. And while that may not sound fair, doesn’t it strike you as actually being very, very true?
Doesn’t it seem as though we are living in precisely such a moment, when the idolatry of a few might bring about the ruin of us all? When our inability to confront the false gods that some of us have turned to to provide the illusion of safety in the middle of a wilderness of chaos and doubt might be the very things that finally kill us all?
And, what’s worse, is that we are all so sure we know what the false gods are! They’re the ones those other, crazy people are following! You know, the unrestrained gun culture; or the racism and xenophobia that rules our borders; or the austerity that has gutted public services to the most vulnerable of our neighbors; or the denial of death as a fact of life that has paralyzed our healthcare system. Our story about what is wrong with the world, which is generally just our story about other people.
But what about their story about us? What truth is there to the accusations leveled at us by brothers and sisters we refuse to acknowledge as members of the one human family to which we all belong? How offended would we be to hear them tell our story of oppression as if it were their own, as if they had a right to the same kind of longing for a better world, even if their better world is one we would never want to live in, and the path to getting there is one we would never want to walk?
Can we afford another two thousand years of unresolved family feuds? Do we even have the luxury of another two thousand years?
Paul writes, “so if you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” (v. 12) It’s a warning against the false pride of the self-righteous, and I will confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I am the worst of all sinners when it comes to this. I am so self-righteous. I am so convinced that I see clearly what others are too dumb or blind to understand. I won’t ask you to tell me I’m wrong, because you know me too well, and we both know it would be a lie. And I won’t say that we all suffer from the same sin, because we don’t. Some of you possess a humility that puts me to shame. You live from a place of selfless love and genuine compassion that sees people before politics or positions. You minister to me, because I see Christ in you, and it calls me to repent.
And repentance is not synonymous with feeling bad about one’s self. It isn’t rehearsing a feeling of guilt. Repentance is turning to face the God who never wearies of forgiving us so that our minds can be renewed and our broken hearts can be healed. Repentance is the dawning epiphany that God’s foolish love is so much stronger than our “smart” self-righteousness. Repentance is a thirsty person finally realizing that they’re standing knee-deep in water, or the exhausted worker finally asking what might truly feed them. Repentance is a rejection of the logic of ownership, which throws away anything or anyone that doesn’t produce the thing we want to see, to have, right now, in favor of the logic of the gardener, who is willing to wait, to be patient, with all that is still possible for you and for me and for those who do not look, or think, or talk, or vote like you or like me. Because God is faithful, and will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but instead will give us another year, and another after that, and another after that, until we realize that our strength is each other, and that together we are being made new.
And what is it that you need to repent of? What false gods have you put your trust in? Whose story are you refusing to hear as your own? Which community do you hold at arm’s length? Who is too different for you to love? How has your heart grown hard, and when did it happen?
There is a reason we hear this hard scripture halfway through Lent, this season when the church prepares people to be baptized, and calls us each to be honest about the ways we have all fallen down in our baptismal vocations. Because if we cannot be honest about our failings, then we cannot experience the relief of forgiveness or the joy of a new beginning. And that is what God is always offering — a new beginning. God, whose first act was to plant a garden and populate it with life, is always granting the extra year, the year of the Lord’s favor, the year Jesus proclaimed when he unrolled the scroll and sat down to teach. We are living our whole lives in that extra year.
Let’s not spend another minute of it despising or condescending to another another. Let’s tell our stories. Let’s listen to each others, imagining that they could be our own.
Let’s fall in love with each other like long lost relatives.