Rev. George Miller
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Feb 8, 2015
Last week we began our study of 1st Corinthians. I claimed that it’s a love letter written by Papa Paul to the church in Corinth, a letter that explores issues involving sex, rituals and food.
To eat or not to eat meat sacrificed to other gods; to act out of the head or to act of the heart; to care about the other person or to only care about yourself.
On Tuesday our Lectionary Bible Study had a fun conversation about today’s reading and about Papa Paul’s personality.
Paul claims to be free for the sake of the Gospel. Free so that he can follow the Law to win Jews for Jesus. Free to not follow the Law so he can get Gentiles for God. Free to act weak to win over the weary.
This freedom means Papa Paul can shoot pool at the Yogi Bar on Ridgewood. He can play golf at Highlands Ridge. He can eat pulled pork at the County Fair.
He can put on leather chaps and attend Sebring Thunder on the Circle. Put on cowboy boots and two-step at the Watering Hole. He can do the dozens while standing on the corner of Martin Luther and Lemon.
Paul is free to be all things to all people if it means he can share the Good News of Jesus Christ and save them from a world that tells them they are not blessed.
But here’s the thing- if you read all of chapter 9 you get a much more complex picture of Paul.
And, depending on which translation, it can change the meaning behind Paul’s words.
For example, chapter 9 in the Contemporary English Version states “I am free! I am an apostle! I have seen the Lord...” It sounds like a joyful declaration of a life in Christ.
But in the New Revised Standard Version, it asks “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus the Lord?” This sounds like an apologetic, defensive stance.
Do people who truly believe and feel like they’re free act on the defensive, as if they have something to prove to their naysayers?
Then, towards the end of chapter 9, Paul uses a sports analogy. He talks about athletes, runners and boxers and how there can only be one winner.
He says that he punishes his body so he can share the Good News; he enslaves his body so he won’t be disqualified.
Does someone who believes they are free punish and enslave themselves so they can win and not be cast out?
Are we free to run or are we free only to win?
At Lectionary Bible Study the question was asked “Is Paul a Type A personality?” I think it’s safe to say “yes.”
Paul reads like that classic “get 'er done”, “do it right or don’t do it at all”, list making, people pleasing person.
He is ironically proclaiming his freedom while at the same time imposing upon himself what he believes he should do.
If Paul hadn’t been killed, he probably would’ve died of a heart attack or of high blood pressure…it takes one to know one…
I bet there are many here today who can relate to Paul. Who’ve been brought up being told you have to excel, be first, get it done on time, get it right and that rest is for the weary.
Of course there are- you can’t afford a 2nd home or to retire in the Sunshine State if you didn’t know how to work hard, save your pennies, plan ahead and not be idle.
There’s a gift to being an A-type personality because they will get it done and most likely get it done right the first time…
…As things usually go, a few days ago I happened across a quote by G. K. Chesterton that said “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
“If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
In essence what it means is that it is OK to fail. It is OK to be a colossal flop. That it is better to try and fail than to never have tried at all.
Very different from the Puritanical way many of us have been raised. Very different than the musings of Papa Paul about enslaving his body so he can win.
Which is part of what made Sunday’s Superbowl so fascinating. How many people watched the game?
If you’ve been paying attention to the message boards, looking at the Tweets, studying what’s trending, even reading editorials by conservative writer Steve Otto, you’ll know who the MVP was on Sunday.
It wasn’t a team, it wasn’t an athlete, it wasn’t a commercial, or a singer- it was the dancing sharks, more specifically the one that’s become known as the Left Shark.
If you watched the Half-Time show, pop singer Katy Perry put on a spectacular performance in which she came in on a mechanical tiger, rode a shooting star with fireworks all around her, and danced with bikini clad beauties.
But all that people are talking about is the two men in shark costumes who danced alongside her.
There was the Right Shark with choreography that was sharp, clean and on point. You could see each step, each gesture of the fin.
But then there was Left Shark. Left Shark looked like he got caught in the moment and forgot what he was supposed to be doing.
He was moving to his own beat, his fin was here, his fin was there. It was clear he was trying his best and having fun, but he just wasn’t getting it right, he wasn’t nailing it…
…and in the process or being imperfect he captured everyone’s hearts.
In the midst of all the hype and hyperbole of the game, in the midst of the uber-perfectionism on the field, in the midst of all the high-powered testosterone to win the ring,
here was this goofy, somewhat pitiful soul in a shark suit who was trying his best to keep up and he just couldn’t do it.
Yet he won millions of fans because he was more like them than the perfectly precisioned Right Shark.
Instantly there were comments about Left Shark on the internet, there were pictures posted, loving jokes made and within 24 hours there were t-shirts, flip-books and even a tattoo all in honor of Left Shark.
And one of the most consistent comments across the world-wide web was this: “We are Left Shark.”
It’s like overnight there has been a change in the younger American culture. This notion and self-imposed stress over being perfect, of having to do things right, of being on point has been slightly diminished.
What people are saying is that instead of relating to the Right Shark who got everything so right, they can relate more to the Left Shark who tried, tried his best and just couldn’t do it.
But he tried, and he had fun and he brought joy into people’s lives.
There is a wisdom and a theology about this whole Left Shark phenomena, a wisdom that ties into today’s reading and this claim by Papa Paul about being free.
What good is freedom if you can’t fail?
What good is freedom if you can’t flail?
If we look deeper into the NRSV translation of today’s reading, Paul talks about his freedom to share the Good News with the Jews, the Gentiles, the weak so that “I might by all means save some.”
Paul is certainly Type A and is certainly hard on himself, but at least here in verse 22 he is realistic. “I might save…some.”
And I don’t sense he’s being defeatist; I don’t believe he’s being lazy.
I think Paul’s finding his own way to say “Maybe I won’t win every race, but at least I ain’t afraid to run.”
Or in the words of Left Shark “I may not have done the best job dancing, but I sure as heck danced.”
What we encounter here and throughout Papa Paul’s letter is that notion of grace.
Grace is that all important concept that we as Christians, especially as Protestant Christians, are so eternally thankful for.
Grace which states that there is nothing we can say or do to become an MVP in God’s eyes because we already are MVP’s in God’s heart.
Grace which says we don’t have to come in first, or win the ring or cement the choreography to gain God’s favor.
Grace says that through Jesus Christ, the ultimate MVP, the favor has already been gained so therefore we are free.
We are free to run the race, we are free to throw the ball, we are free to dance knowing that sometimes we will succeed, sometimes we will fail, and more often than not we will end up somewhere in the middle.
Grace says it is better to have tried than not to have tried at all; grace says if something is worth doing, it is OK if it’s done badly.
Grace says we are all Left Sharks…and that’s OK.
So with this in mind, I’d like to propose something.
It’s been five years since I’ve been here. Five years and we’ve seen some growth. We’ve welcomed new faces.
Five years and we haven’t had to dip into our savings. We’ve had Vacation Bible School, we’ve had Trunk or Treat, and we’ve brought in some new music.
And we’re still here; we are still alive.
With this knowledge of grace, with this theological permission to be a Left Shark, can this be the year we start doing things that are new?
Can this be the year we stop defining ourselves as an old congregation, or a financially strapped congregation or a church that’s hard to find and off the beaten path?
Can we stop identifying ourselves as the church across the street from Bible Fellowship or comparing their parking lot to ours?
Can this be the year that we really get in the race, we really play on the field, the year we put on the shark suit and dance away?
Can this be the year we are willing to fail if it means we can save some for the sake of the Gospel?
Can this be the year we finally go about setting up some kind of Mission experience, even if it’s just helping to build homes at Habitat for Humanity or going to Back Bay for a week, regardless if we have 4 volunteers or 44?
Can this be the year we really explore the importance of having children and families and go about creating some new programs?
Can this be the year we explore ways to make our campus more inviting to folks of the community, even if it means putting up a basketball net or a playground or actively seeking more outside groups to use our facilities?
Can this be the year in which we unapologetically embrace our UCC heritage and the faith of our founders and not worry what others may think or say when we express our belief that God is Still Speaking?
Of course we can, but we will have to be willing to fail. We will have to be willing to make mistakes. We have to be willing to retry things that did not work before.
We have to be willing to embrace the gift of grace as a congregation and to know that we do not do these things to please others or to placate an angry God.
We do these things because we are truly free. We do these things because in Christ we can.
We do these things because we are all Left Shark and it is better to share the gospel with some then to share it with none.
If we do these things imagine where we can be in another five years.
Imagine all we can be to the community and the gifts we can bring
by knowing and acting that in Christ we are truly fee.
Amen and amen.