In the movie Sandy Bottom Orchestra, based on the novel by Garrison Keillor, Norman and Ingrid Green relocate to Sandy Bottom in Northern Wisconsin from Minneapolis. Norman operates the locale dairy, while Ingrid is choir director at Bethesda Lutheran Church. The choir struggles through a number of challenges and differences as they prepare for a classical concert to be performed at the annual Dairy Days festival.
Ingrid’s harsh attitude and approach leads to conflict with Pastor Sikes who fires her. In the aftermath of her firing, she pours herself into a campaign to save a historic old building that the mayor wants to tear down. At a campaign rally she discovers that Pastor Sikes’ wife is hospitalized in Minneapolis for severe clinical depression, leaving the pastor to care for their three sons.
Despite her anger at being fired, she is deeply impacted by the minister’s plight. Secretly she prepares a week’s worth of food and leaves it at the minister’s door. She doesn’t know that the minister was home and witnessed her kindness.
In church the next day just before the worship service, Rev Sikes says, “Before we begin today, I would like to take a moment to thank you all for your concern about Miriam. I have communicated your cards and your calls to her, I believe they are helping.”
He struggles to find the right words before he continues, “I’d like to tell you about one generous act in particular that has surprised me. I thought, having ministered for 15 years, there were no more surprises. But I was wrong. Last night, somebody left a week’s worth of meals for me and my boys on our front porch. There was no note, just the reassurance in that lovely act of kindness that we are not alone. In my deep distress I had come to believe we were. How wrong I was. We misjudge each other if in the heat of argument or disagreement or in the simple routines of daily life, we fail to see that God is in each of us always – struggling to love and be loved in return. We are none of us alone. We belong to each other.”
Then, looking at Ingrid who is sitting in the congregation, he adds, “I thank you my anonymous friend for refreshing my faith.”
We all belong. We are each one a part of the Temple of God. Paul wants the church at Corinth to recognize that they all belong to one another, and that it is foolish to divide and polarize around certain leaders. Paul argues that there is no place in the church for petty jealousies and pride.
Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Then he warns, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
I’m not sure what Paul had in mind when he issued that warning; I doubt if he did either. I suspect it was a hyperbolic threat, like saying to a child, “If you do such and such you will die an old man in your room.” It’s an exaggerated warning, which doesn’t initially sound like love, but those of us who have issued such threats to our kids care deeply about their wellbeing don’t we? Paul is telling them that when they attack one another, when they say and act in harmful and hurtful ways toward one another, they are harming and hurting God’s temple, which is holy, and that is a serious offense to God.
In this context “holy” doesn’t mean morally righteous or perfect, but rather, “set apart as special.” Paul believed that the churches formed “in Christ” constituted the body of Christ in the world, and they were set apart for a special purpose, they were set apart to be an expression of and witness to God’s kingdom on earth. Jealousy, envy, arrogance, elitism, selfish actions of one kind or another were injurious and damaging to God’s temple. Such attitudes and actions should never characterize a community of people who claim Jesus as the foundation of their fellowship.
Paul’s plan for the churches he established and ministered in was that they would function as colonies of God’s new world, harbingers and portents of what life will be like when God’s dream for the world is realized. Paul’s goal for the churches he established was that they would embody and manifest the kind of community life that would be realized universally when the future kingdom of God arrived.
If there is one thing that the letters of Paul demonstrate quite clearly, is that the churches he held in such high esteem as models of kingdom life failed time and time again to live that ideal. And as it was then, so it is now. We fail in numerous ways as “in Christ” communities to embody the ideal of love and justice reflected in the life of the Christ in whom we are united and joined together.
Some in the Corinthian church thought they were better than the rest, more spiritual and special, which resulted in the church splitting into factions. Paul warns them about injuring God’s temple.
Paul employs irony in the closing verses of this passage to make his point. In their pride over human leaders, the Corinthians were settling for far less than God’s best. Paul declares, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you.” “It’s all yours,” says Paul. And we can add, “And ours, as well as everyone else’s, because we all belong.”
Paul is using the temple imagery quite specifically of the Corinthian congregation, but there is no need to limit it to them or Christian churches in general. As Paul says to the philosophers and intellectuals in Athens in Acts 17 we are all God’s offspring and God’s Spirit resides in each one of us, “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This earth, this world and everything in it, constitutes God’s temple. We all belong.
In our modern context, where we live in a global village, I wonder if we are not guilty of the same pride and sin as the Corinthians when we proclaim a triumphant Christian exceptionalism that seeks to convert the world to our way of believing and thinking.
When Paul says, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Christ,” he is speaking to the Corinthians who were rallying around Christian teachers who were called to build on that foundation. That need not mean that Jesus Christ is the only way one can experience and encounter God or participate in God’s kingdom. For Christians to claim that Jesus is our Lord and that he alone is our foundation, is not to deny that other people of other cultures and traditions can experience the divine-human relationship and cooperate with God’s purposes in other ways and through other means.
Sisters and brothers, if in the coming years we cannot move past this triumphant Christian exceptionalism that has dominated Western Christianity for centuries, then I don’t know how we can even hope to create a just world and realize God’s will on this earth. And we face great challenges to overcome this.
An illustration of the difficulties we face can be found in the recent reaction to a 60 second Coca-Cola advertisement that aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial showcased a series of diverse voices representing different ethnicities singing America, the Beautiful over a montage of different scenes. Nine different languages were highlighted. Intending to celebrate America’s beautiful diversity, the ad sparked the most controversy of any of the commercials that aired. Many citizens blasted Coca-Cola for daring to sing America, the Beautiful in any other language than English. The implication was that true Americans speak English.
Christian exclusivism and exceptionalism contend that the true children of God are Christians. God’s true people only speak the language of Christian faith. But if the world is God’s temple and we are all God’s offspring and the Spirit lives and moves in each of us, then surely God can speak in other ways and through other means. If we cannot come to a place where we can accept others outside our Christian tradition as our sisters and brothers in the family of God, how can we hope to create a world of equity and equality, of justice and peace?
In the original story of the wizard of Oz, the Emerald City is actually not any greener than any other city. In one of the original illustrations from 1900, the scene shows Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and everyone else, even Toto, wearing green colored glasses. When the little group of travelers discovers that the wizard is just an ordinary man, he explains, “I put green spectacles on all the people so that everything they saw was green.”
Sisters and brothers, we were taught to see the world through Christian colored glasses. Our parents and teachers and other respectable folk who taught us this were not being deceitful. That’s all they knew. That was their world. They were just passing on to us what they had been taught. But we now live in a different world, and the wizard has been exposed. We must take off our singular colored glasses so we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world with diverse traditions. Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted and multilayered and multidimensional. We don’t need to abandon our faith, but we may need to rethink it, renew it, reconstruct it, and transform it so that it is capable of renewing, reconstructing, and transforming us to live as God’s coworkers and partners in accomplishing God’s will in a diverse world.
For us gathered here, Jesus Christ is our foundation – and on his life, death, and resurrection we construct our community and personal lives; he is our Lord – the one in whom we trust and to whom we pledge our allegiance. He is the way we follow into the truth and life of God. For us, there is salvation in no other name. That’s who we are as a community of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
But God is not limited to the Christian way and path. The world is God’s Temple. The Spirit can work in numerous ways. Truth is truth is truth wherever it is found. There is a perennial wisdom that transcends religious beliefs and traditions. In our own Christian Scriptures one writer said that God is love and where love is God is. Whenever love is present, God is present.
The fire that consumes is the fire of love. Paul employs the language of building in the text. Paul speaks of a day when our work on earth will be disclosed. It will be revealed for what it is: wood, hay, straw, or gold, silver, and precious stones. The fire consumes the one, and purifies the other. I like the hopeful word that Paul offers even for the one whose work is consumed: “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through the fire.” God’s love is strong enough to even love the one who, for whatever reason, never learned how to love.
This is the basis for Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies in Matthew 5. God showers God’s blessing on both the good and the evil, on the righteous and the unrighteous. God has no favorites when it comes to pouring out his/her gifts. God doesn’t select some over others. God just scatters them all around. God gives the same grace and extends the same generosity to those who ignore, resist, and curse God as God gives to those who love God. We live as God’s children when we do the same.
Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father or Mother is perfect.” The word translated “perfect” does not mean flawless; it is not referring to moral perfection. It could be translated “mature.” Jesus is calling upon his followers to be complete and mature in their love, the way God is complete and muture in the way God loves. The way we do that is by loving those who do not love us; loving those who even want to do us harm. Surely this is a kind of wisdom that is regarded as foolish by the world, but it is in truth the very power of God that saves us from our little, ego-driven selves and that forms in us God’s very nature.
Sisters and brothers, we are not exceptional because we are chosen and others are not, or because we are loved and others are not, or because we have the truth and others do not, or for any other reason. But as disciples of Jesus, we should be exceptional in the way we welcome, accept, and include those who are different. We should be exceptional in the way we stand with the most vulnerable and work for social justice and the common good. We should be exceptional in humility, honesty, integrity, and forgiveness. We should be exceptional in the ways we engage in deeds of mercy and acts of kindness and in the ways we care for the suffering. We should be exceptional in the way we treat one another and love those who would wish and work for our harm. Why? Because we are led by the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of this world. Because Jesus Christ is our foundation and the whole world is God’s temple. Because . . . we all belong.