not in vain

Tomorrow I’m preaching before our presbytery, which is more than a little intimidating.  But I’m encouraged, knowing a former presbytery colleague who has moved will be preaching before his presbytery on the same day!

Here are some sketches from my sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  Even after the sermon is over, I believe I will still be thinking about these issues.

Mostly, I’m thinking about the mainline church.  I have the privilege of working with people (i.e., young adults) that are much coveted by mainline congregations, who have seen their numbers declining over the past few decades.  Many folks in the mainline church just come across as  sad … but it doesn’t have to be that way.

a child in Guatemala checking out our 2008 college group

Some key words from Paul really strike me as I get ready to deliver this sermon.  Here, Paul is writing about the basic Christian message, which is something that gives him great joy.  But, if you read carefully, a lot of pain seeps through the page.  He keeps emphasizing how he was “the least of the apostles,” and he uses the phrase “in vain” twice.  Somehow that strikes an off note here.  Why write about all the great things God has done and then muse about God’s work being in vain?

I wonder if Paul was at the edge of what he could take from various people:  people who insisted on everything looking good, people who said that anyone who was less than perfect was not of God.

I wonder if that’s why we mainline American Christians are in so much of a mental and spiritual tangle:  for a long time, we looked darn good, and it got the best of us.

As a campus minister, I go on a fair amount of mission trips, and every time the participants get upset at how things look wherever we go.  Why aren’t there more social services in Country X, so that the streets wouldn’t be full of beggars?  Why aren’t the buildings better constructed?  Why is there a dirt floor here–there are babies crawling on it!  No one actually says it, but the truth is, we have a lot of trouble seeing the work of God unless everything is new and shiny.

Thankfully, by the end of the mission trips, most people learn to see things differently.  They learn to see that God’s grace is not in vain.  They learn to see the hard work God does in the most strenuous of circumstances.  (Sort of like the hard work Jesus had to do with Paul!)

Anywhere we might go, whether far away or next door, someone is yearning for a word from the Lord.  Someone is feeling like (to borrow from Paul and Matthew) “the least of these,” “untimely born”, or that everything has been in vain.

Can we still be used for God’s purposes?  Isn’t there still work for us to do?  Can we, the people who used to look great, allow grace to shine through our tarnished shell?

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