A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, upon the installation of the Rev. Cordelia Strandskov at FCC Santa Cruz.
For a moment, if you will, wander outside the boundaries of the biblical canon and join me in the Gospel of Thomas (97). I think Cordelia will recognize this little parable from the Lenten series she’s designed for us at FCC. Here we find Jesus, playing once again with language, turning faith upside down, dancing in a strange kingdom. And he says this:
“The kingdom of the father is like a certain woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking on the road, still some distance from home, the handle of the jar broke and the meal emptied out behind her on the road. She didn’t realize it; she had noticed no accident. When she reached her house, she set the jar down and found it empty.”
That’s all. Woman on a road. Jar full of meal. Handle breaks off. Empty jar. The kingdom of God is like that.
Now we’ve got some loving to lift up this afternoon: this great love poem in First Corinthians. Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And Cordelia understands her call to ministry in this community in terms of that kind of love. She gets it. Without love, all this extravagant welcome is just hot air. Without love, all this edgy exegesis is just posturing. Without love, we are nothing. Cordelia gets that.
But here’s the thing. I wonder if we can really hear what Paul’s saying about love if we don’t risk emptying that jar first. You know what I mean? Can the church, can those of us who love the church—can we really love one another with heart and strength and soul if we hang on too tight? To theological convictions. To political persuasions. To grievances and resentments. Love demands a kind of emptiness, what friends in other traditions might call nonattachment. And maybe this parable has something to do with that.
So reel it into your heart, this little parable, and hold it there for a moment. The kingdom of God is like a woman, Jesus says, and she’s carrying a jar full of meal, presumably a decent distance, from market to home. It’s important to her, this jar full of meal, it has to be. It represents food, sustenance, careful planning and hard work. Her family depends on her.
So it’s hard to imagine that she’s careless, that she bears this jar mindlessly. She hardly seems irresponsible. But somehow just the same, somewhere along the way, the handle breaks, the meal empties out behind her, and she notices nothing at all. No snapping pieces. No broken handle. No accident. And no meal trailing off behind her.
Only when she arrives at home, only when she sets the jar down on a table or a bench, only then does she find that it’s empty. A broken handle. Nothing left inside. An empty jar.
And the kingdom is like that, Jesus says. Like her. The kingdom has something to do with emptying out, with letting go, with loosening our grip on the things and ideas that seem most important. I guess it bears repeating that this was an important jar: it represents hard work and diligent preparation and careful budgeting. But eventually, Jesus says, eventually the handle breaks, we’re not in control, and the jar has to empty out. The kingdom has something to do with broken vessels and empty jars and grace we can’t control. Strange parable, flying in the face of so much religion, earnest religion. The kingdom is about emptying out, and letting go, and loosening our grip.
But don’t you wonder what she’s doing out there on the road? Don’t you wonder how it is that she misses the snapping of the handle, the leaking meal? Is she singing her heart out? Is she mesmerized by cloud formations passing by? Is she chanting some ancient prayer? Somehow she settles into the rhythm of her journey, feels the dusty divinity beneath her feet. Somehow she lives so fully, so completely, so faithfully in each step—that everything else empties out. The meal in the jar. The worries back home. The hard won certainties in her heart. Everything empties out. And Jesus says the kingdom’s like that.
Now these beginnings—a new pastor for an eager congregation, an exciting congregation with exciting dreams—these beginnings are most often ripe with expectation and big plans. There are projects in mind. There are hopes for growth. There are committees and teams to build. We install a new pastor and we feel surging hopes for achievement and mission and touching souls.
And there’s nothing wrong with surging hopes and exciting dreams. There are plenty of both in the room this afternoon. And God help us when we lose track of surging hopes and exciting dreams. But this little parable in the Gospel of Thomas—Jesus dancing in a strange kingdom, Jesus turning faith upside down—this little parable reminds us to hold those plans lightly and loosely. Embrace impermanence. Listen for shifting winds and prepare to change course if need be. And don’t attach a whole lot to success and failure. The church ought to be a place…this ought to be a place for emptying out, a place for loosening our grip on everything that seems to matter, a place for letting go when we need to. Because that’s how gospel happens.
And oddly enough, Cordelia, that’s what we’re calling you to do: to move among us as an empty vessel; to encourage all of us to do the same; to loosen our grip on truths we think we’ve figured out; to open our eyes and ears to the unscripted Spirit of God. We haven’t called you here as an expert, as a jedi master, as a spiritual surgeon or a middle manager. We’ve called you here as a disciple among disciples, as a minister among ministers, as an empty jar among other jars on our way to figuring out what it means to be empty. And whole. Empty and whole. There’s the paradox again. The paradox of Christian life and Christian ministry. Empty and whole. Show us how. Believe that we can. And help us strive for the greater gifts.
So here’s what I’m thinking about First Corinthians this afternoon. When Paul preaches love, I think he’s really preaching a kind of emptiness. He’s preaching the kind of love that releases privilege and releases certainty and releases resentment. He’s preaching the kind of love that makes generous space for difference, and allows for disagreement, and reconciles broken pieces and broken hearts. No emptiness, no love. No humility, no love. And—no love, no church.
And really, for Paul, that’s where the rubber hits the road. No love, no church. We can get the theology right. We can get the politics right. We can get the stillspeaking stuff down and the social networking all fired up. But if we have not love, we are nothing.
But. If we love, if we release privilege and certainty and resentment, if we loosen our grip enough to love, well, then all things are possible. Even the Body of Christ. “When one member suffers,” he says, “all suffer together with it; and when one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” I kind of think of this as the church in a verse. Someone asks you why you go to church every week. What’s that about? Someone asks you why this church stuff is a priority for you. It’s all right here. Pretty much. “When one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together with it; and when one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” The church in a verse. We’re all in this together.
It hasn’t taken long, Cordelia, for you to feel the sweet weight of this verse, here in your ministry, at First Congregational Church. When a young man returns safe from a year in Afghanistan, it’s not just him we weep for, not just him we embrace, but his family, his mother, his sister, all the rest of us too. And when a sighted seven-year-old in Sunday School makes cards in Braille for a blind friend in the church band, it’s not just the little guy that’s honored, but the whole church community, the gospel that makes love happen. And when budget cuts hit even a few of us, they impact all of us. We all feel that pain. We’re all in this together. The church in a verse.
Not exactly conventional wisdom these days. Can you imagine preaching this verse, this Paul, at a Tea Party convention? Or an Al Qaeda conference? We live in a world that seems to want nothing to do with shared suffering or shared joy. It’s a dog-eat-dog world; and the point seems to be taking care of your own and letting the rest fend for themselves. To be honest, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Osama bin Laden all preach the same thing. Take care of your own and let the rest fend for themselves. They’ve got it coming anyway.
But Jesus has something else in mind. And Paul’s got something else in mind. In his new book, Thomas Moore puts it this way: “Today it is tempting,” he says, “to numb ourselves against the horrors that are reported in the news every day, to disown our mutual interdependence. But the Jesus way is to feel the despair and, out of the resulting disturbance, make a difference in the world.” Love begins in our willingness to suffer together. To be disturbed together. Love begins in my choosing to be my brother’s keeper. To be my sister’s keeper.
So it’s more than a feeling, this love, this agape. Paul calls it a “still more excellent way.” It’s an orientation of the heart; it’s a kind of radical openness to whatever happens and whoever comes along; and it’s a courageous commitment to the kingdom of God. Not in some never-never-land. Not in some heaven light years away. But here. Now. In us. We’re calling you, Cordelia, to teach us, to show us that still more excellent way.
And you could do a whole lot worse than First Corinthians and Rumi’s marvelous poem, “A Community of the Spirit.” Paul says LOVE. And Rumi says “Drink all your passion, and be a disgrace.” Paul says LOVE. And Rumi says “Close both eyes to see with the other eye.” Paul says LOVE. And Rumi says “Open your hands if you want to be held.” This is the kingdom of God. This is the kingdom we see only with Rumi’s ‘other eye.’ It takes practice and courage and love to see it: it requires a willingness to be empty and broken and wounded with the world.
Cordelia, we need you. There’s just no doubt. The Santa Clara Association needs you. The United Church of Christ needs you. And God has called you to us, and us to you. So that we might love one another, so that we might risk extravagant welcome together, so that we might dare to lay aside weapons and creeds and resentments, so that we might take up agape and the cross together. Help us let go of everything else. Teach us to see with Rumi’s ‘other eye.’ Help us to open our hands and then to be held. Teach us the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.