May I Have the Envelope, Please? 1 Cor. 8: 1-13 1-28-18
There was a sea Captain who was revered, respected & loved by his entire crew. The main reason was that he always brought his ship and crew safely into harbor, regardless of the seas & the weather. One day his first officer noticed through a porthole, quite accidently, his Captain going back to his stateroom/office right after breakfast. His Captain went to the safe, turned the tumblers, opened the safe, pulled out a well-worn envelope, opened it and pulled out an equally well-worn paper and read the contents on the paper. He then folded the paper, placed it in the envelope, closed the safe door & locked it.
The first officer noticed that his Captain went through this same routine every day after breakfast, when they were at sea: turned the safe tumblers, opened the safe door, pulled out the well worn envelope, pulled out the equally well-worn paper, carefully read its contents, folded the paper, put it back in the envelope, placed the envelope in the safe, closed the safe door and locked it. Every day, when at sea, this same routine.
The Captain suddenly died & his first officer was promoted to Captain of this vessel. The very first thing he needed to do was to read the contents of that well-worn letter that was in the safe. He turned the tumblers, opened the safe’s door, pulled out the well-worn envelope, pulled out the equally well-worn piece of paper and read these words: Starboard is the right side of the ship.”
This story was told by my former Bishop, the late Cliff Lunde, Bishop of the previous North Pacific District of the ALC. When he finished the story he said, “I have an envelope in my drawer that I take out every day when I’m in the office. I open the envelope, take out the note and read what’s on the well-worn paper: ‘Cliff, you could be wrong.’” Ever since I heard that story I have placed an envelope in my drawer, & have taken it with me to whatever congregation I was serving at the time, opened it every morning and read the contents on the paper: “Maynard, you could be wrong.”, folded it & placed it back in the envelope. Now, it is sitting in the desk in our den.
Every now & then, Darleen finds it & lays it out for me to open & read! Why is it, I wonder, that insistence on being right can also come out to be so very wrong? That’s when I need my envelope. May I have the envelope, please?
Paul understands this conflict & sees it as a wonderful opportunity & teachable moment. Being right, one could still be wrong. What a conundrum, in which one is placed. So sure of the rightness of your position, you may stomp all over people who don’t “get it” & aren’t enlightened as you are.
Paul is responding again to another worry expressed in the letter from people in the tiny congregation in Corinth. He writes to a community of Christ-followers, whose common life was beset by factions and conflict. Throughout the letter, Paul directs one of his main concerns toward people in this church who elevate their own importance or spiritual vitality over others. A bustling seaport and cosmopolitan city, Corinth gained a rather notorious reputation as a place where all things could be found and all things could be done. Sort of the Las Vegas of the ancient world, I guess.
According to Paul’s letters, the Corinthians were a bit arrogant, had a tendency to argue with each other a lot. Apparently, some in Corinth claimed their superior knowledge and spiritual strength as a warrant to boss around or belittle others who appeared less gifted in supporting the work of the church, who were less confident in their faith, or who had more scruples about what it meant to live the right way. There were a lot of issues they disagreed over & the many letters to Paul resulted in these 2 letters from him to them.
Our reading centers on one of those “hot-button” issues. So, this little congregation was smack-dab in the middle of this notorious Greek sea port, where anything goes, & on top of that, was loaded with various temples dedicated to the many Greek gods. In addition, many of the church members probably had family members who still worshipped at these temples. So, my guess is that talk about religion around the dinner table or at family gatherings was a little tenuous, at best. Some of you may be able to relate. I’m guessing that since not everybody in your families are Lutheran, let alone go to church, subjects like religion or faith & life are rarely talked about.
At issue in the Corinth congregation was if there was a problem with eating meat which came from the butcher shop, located outside one of the Greek god temples, where the meat was probably offered to an idol. It may have been difficult to get meat, which had not been through such a process. For some, it would be easy to say: “We eat this meat & we see no problem because we don’t believe in idols anyway.” For others who have recently given up Greek god worship, they aren’t so sure. Perhaps Paul himself liked his primed rib or leg of lamb medium rare in Corinth, and from that one could point to Paul’s theology of freedom. But such freedom belongs, for Paul, within a setting of responsibility and especially of love. I sense that Paul is never happy with absolutes. Knowledge and insight are always relational. People are always in focus.
Underlying Paul’s thought constantly seems to be what does this mean for those around me and for my relationship to God? The relation to God and to people are inseparable for Paul. Correctness, according to the law, or correctness in knowledge or even doctrine must be considered in the setting of the overarching doctrine of multidirectional love. The problem at Corinth seems to be not that those who do not believe in idols are wrong, but that there is always more to consider than being right. Many people still struggle with this problem.
And this issue is no stranger to this congregation, to which I believe you would agree. When getting it right on some of the “hot button” issues in the church – the calling of our new Pastor; or the areas surrounding interpretation of scripture, to the issues concerning abortion, sexual orientation, & even the economy & politics; speaking truth to political power; or currently & uppermost, congregational group conversations and decisions regarding possible co-location for mission, or not, with the University Temple Methodist Church; — when getting it right is foremost, people usually get relationships wrong. It can also express itself in intolerance & insensitive.
There is a criterion of truth that concerns itself with faithfulness to my neighbor. I can be right but fail really to listen & engage. Most people in marriages & similar relationships will have had such experiences. Winning the argument & working through the relational issues can be quite different things.
Paul doesn’t attack either side of the debate. He attacks both sides of the debate. Or, more precisely, he attacks everyone, regardless of which side of a debate they stand on, who focuses on showing that “I’m right. You’re wrong. And, it’s unwise of you to think and act the way you do.” Paul goes after both sides and says, Tape this up on your mirror so that every time you see yourself you also see these words: ‘Sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions….we never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows all.'”
I think Paul is not happy with people having to be right. He wants relationships to be right, too. In fact, I think he would not have separated the two. But for him, relationships matter most. Relationships, as in the body of Christ, such as University Lutheran Church. If we think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions/issues I dare say we are not fulfilling our call to ministry in the U District living with humble hearts that tend to help more than our proud minds. Whatever the issues are that have arisen or could possibly arise in the future, they need assessing in each new situation, focusing upon the building up through god’s love in Christ. It cannot & should not be used as a weapon by individuals or groups to hold others hostage. We are better to come at such situations from the center, not from rules. The center is truth in love, Jesus Christ, crucified & raised for us. The center is compassion & understanding.
The issue is always relationships, seen in the context of God’s will of wholeness for people. It can never just be about being right or about getting people, by hook or by crook to do things our way.
We will never be in a congregation where we all agree, and that’s a good thing. But it also provides us with a challenge to let love inform our knowledge before we act, to let respect for our neighbor be a factor in our decision making, and to exercise some humility and peace making skills by letting others act in accordance with their conscience, even if we don’t quite understand where they are coming from. Rather than puff ourselves up with that feeling of once again being right, let us build one another up with a love that is willing to take the ways of others into account.
Paul is suggesting, even encouraging, that we risk limiting our sense of freedom, given to us through Christ, for the sake of the other. Thus, love for the community is what should guide one’s actions. The believers’ freedom is limited first of all because the believers belong to Christ, but also because they are part of a community, University Lutheran.
This is indeed how love should be understood in the Christ believers’ communities. Love in this understanding is of course not a romantic feeling, but it is also not some sweet, affectionate type of feeling. Love, when it comes to this community of faith, is an active feeling that must be translated into acts and actions rather than in good feelings towards the others.
For Paul, love in the community does not necessarily mean that you have to socialize with other people in the community, or that you have to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. Paul calls us to a ministry that welcomes & accepts those with a differing point of view in ways that honor & reflect the lord’s love, welcome & acceptance of each one of us.
May we as God’s children continue to live within the limitations imposed by love, both in our homes & in God’s house & may we be blessed with a continuance of God’s crucified love that is big enough to hold all the pain in the world. May we, as Dod’s children, let the love of god, through Christ’s cross, strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless & restore the penitent. May that love never let us board up the narrow gate that leads to life with rules or doctrines that god dismisses, but may that love give us a spirit to welcome all people with affection so that Christ’s Church may never exclude any friends of his.
May we be willing & receptive to welcome the new things Christ is doing in this world & to respect the old things this same Christ keeps & still uses. And when we fall into old patterns, may the love of Christ forgive us & encourage us to get out our envelopes & read what is on the paper inside. May the love of Christ, which builds up all things, give us the courage to ask, “May I have my envelope, please?”
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 1-28-18” name of the sermon.