— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 3rd Sunday after Epiphany ~~~
I Corinthians 1:10-18
When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum, nestled at the base of the Zebulun and Naphtali hills. This move completed Isaiah’s sermon:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
road to the sea, over Jordan,
Galilee, crossroads for the nations.
People sitting out their lives in the dark
saw a huge light;
Sitting in that dark, dark country of death,
they watched the sun come up.
This Isaiah-prophesied sermon came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”
Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.
A short distance down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, Zebedee’s sons. These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father.
From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government!
(from The Message translated by Eugene Peterson)
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.
I bring this up because some from Chloe’s family brought a most disturbing report to my attention – that you’re fighting among yourselves! I’ll tell you exactly what I was told: You’re all picking sides, going around saying, “I’m on Paul’s side,” or “I’m for Apollos,” or “Peter is my man,” or “I’m in the Messiah group.”
I ask you, “Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul’s name?” I was not involved with any of your baptisms – except for Crispus and Gaius – and on getting this report, I’m sure glad I wasn’t. At least no one can go around saying he was baptized in my name. (Come to think of it, I also baptized Stephanas’s family, but as far as I can recall, that’s it.)
God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center – Christ on the Cross – be trivialized into mere words.
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense.
(from The Message translated by Eugene Peterson)
Over the years I’ve been invited once or twice a year to speak at the chapel services of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. One time is the most memorable for me. It happened years ago and included a visit to a religion class taught by my friend Jeff Reynolds. At that time the students all met together for the chapel service – sixth through twelfth grades and faculty and staff were there as well. I was not given any directions other than to preach something that would be helpful to the spiritual life of the community. It was not too far before exam time, so I decided to preach on the theme – “Belonging to God.” It seemed to me to be an appropriate topic in the midst of exams. We do not belong to the school, to grades, to the college that accepts us or declines us, we do not belong to the SAT or the ACT; rather, we belong to God.
One of the nice things about preaching to other groups is that you can use stories that maybe have worn thin in your own congregation. So I told them the story of me being lost in Woolworth’s store in Tallahassee, Florida. I won’t tell it here because you all have heard it more than once – I was Pepper Prim when I was six and did not like my initials … so we changed my name to Bobby and when I got lost in the store I had the woman at the information desk use all my names to make sure my mom would know it was me who was lost. So the voice went over the intercom – “Would the mother of Robert Warden Bobby Pepper Prim please come to the Customer Service counter?”
And the point I made to the students and faculty at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School was that when I was lost I knew to whom and with whom I belonged. I was a Prim, and I belonged with my mom. This, I said, was the first leg of an ongoing journey of recognizing that I am a part of something bigger than myself. It began with family and continues to move in the direction of recognizing and trusting that I belong to a divine reality that loves me. I am journeying in the direction of truly understanding that I belong to God. And the glorious good news, I said, is that you belong to God too! And I closed my sermon by saying that if God could only write one word on our hearts it would be – M…I…N…E! Powerful message, I thought, and funny to boot. Went over great with the gathered group, or so I thought.
After chapel service I joined Jeff Reynolds for one of his religion classes, and I sat down next to a young, African American girl – not more than fourteen – who looked me in the eyes and said – “I had problems with your sermon today.” “Oh, yea,” I said, “good; tell me about it.” She said – “I didn’t like that God would write MINE on my heart. It reminds me of slavery as if I am a piece of property or something.”
I was a little taken aback. It had not occurred to me that the message could be taken that way. It also, in the thinking back on it, makes sense that it would be taken that way. This young woman was African American and she was an adolescent. It is tough for an adolescent person to think of belonging to God or anyone else. Adolescence is the time in life when we begin to differentiate from parents, church, from anyone who claims to have authority over us. It is a healthy thing to begin to define yourself for yourself and not simply be the child of, sister of, brother of, member of, citizen of, owner of, girlfriend of, boyfriend of, etc…. It is a healthy adolescent precaution to be leery of anyone who would lay claims of ownership on you. It is a healthy adult precaution as well. We must be careful not to be owned by the job, the house, the status, the car, the hobby, the political party, the President, by … whatever, except for belonging to the One who made us, redeemed us, sustains us.
This precaution with only belonging to God was needed in Corinth. Those folks were into being a part of the in-group. “I belong to Paul,” they would say, or “I belong to Apollos, or Cephas, or Messiah.” Each one wanting to identify with the most prestigious preacher, the most powerful group, the most elite caucus. Those Corinthians were ready to be owned by their needs to feel superior to other people within the church, so they sold their souls to the highest bidder. And Paul was left wringing his hands and speaking of the cross of Christ being foolishness to those who are perishing. The Corinthians did not get it.
I was on solid Biblical ground and solid confessional ground when I spoke of belonging to God. The first line of the Brief Statement of Faith in our Book of Confessions (and now included in the new hymnal) is: “In life and death we belong to God.” This was said earlier in 1562 in the Heidelberg Catechism in Germany with this question and answer – Q) What is your only comfort, in life and in death? A)That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ… The deep conviction of our faith tradition is that the world and all that is in it belongs to God and as we live our lives into this conviction we are made whole and will find ourselves experiencing more and more deep connections with God and all God’s creatures.
We belong to God. If God could write only one word on our hearts, every heart, it would be MINE. I stand by the sermon. I do not remember what I said to the young woman who had the problem. I remember being impressed by her sensitivity and her thoughtfulness about the message. I do not know what I said; I doubt it was very profound. I don’t know that this is profound, but what I wish I would have thought to say is this:
We belong to God like trees belong to the ground.
We belong to God like birds belong to the sky.
We belong to God like fish belong to the sea.
We belong to God like the baby belongs to her first breath.
We belong to God like ashes belong to earth in death.
We belong to God like our world belongs to space.
It is foolishness, really, of the highest order, to believe
that we belong to God;
if we could but read what is written on our hearts
we would know it is true.
Thanks be to God.