In November of 1989, one month after Chelsea was born, Maureen and I closed on what was the first and only house we have ever owned. The house was built in the late 20’s and was, shall we say, in need of some work. Well actually, lots of work! In fact, the house needed a new roof, chimney, front door, updated electrical, not to mention removal of old paneling that was buckling in the front hall and stair way, and the stained glass panel window in the dinning room needed new glass panels. I don’t think we will ever forget the first time my parents came to see the house. It was evident my mother was fighting back tears because the house she saw was in such bad shape. I was surprised my mother could not see what we saw. . . The possibility of what the house could be transformed into. Somehow when we walked into the house we could see through the old blackened woodwork to the natural chestnut below, under the stained carpet we knew we could resurrect the original oak floors. As the years past and each project was completed, the house we saw the day we moved in slowly emerged as Maureen and I breathed and sweated new life into this old house.
In today’s reading from Paul, he tells us “we walk by faith and not by sight” and then goes on to talk about the limitation of the body as we await the total transformation of this world into the kingdom of God. Paul then sums up his discussion with the words, “so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, everything old has passed away, see everything has become new!” What Paul conveys to his audience is, even though we cannot see anything different on the outside, through Christ the transformation of both the individual and the world is taking place, and we have to live as if we can see this and have faith in what is happening.
In many ways, it is like the sad old house Maureen and I bought twenty-five years ago. We bought the house on faith. My mother could not see what we could see hiding behind the buckled paneling and old rusted Venetian blinds. We, however, believed a warm and inviting home was ready to emerge.
The transformation began the day we signed for the house. We started the process by removing the old blinds and ripping up the old worn carpeting.
In this morning’s letter to the Corinthians, one could argue Paul is attempting to arouse the troops with the glass is half-full argument. I believe Paul’s argument goes beyond the half-full discussion, to looking at what appears to be an empty glass and arguing that it is actually full. As Paul writes this letter, he is writing during a time of persecution, a time when the survival of the fledgling church is in question. If there ever was a time to see the glass as empty in the history of Christianity, this was probably it. But Paul tells his people not to look at the world through human eyes but through the eyes of Christ.
For Paul and those who wrote the Gospels, all one needs to prove is the world really was being transformed into the Kingdom was the crucifixion itself. Syracuse University Professor of Religious Studies, Dr. Tony Bartlett argues, what made Jesus divine was his compassion, a compassion that culminates in his willingness to be crucified by Roman authority. This act of compassion, Dr. Bartlett writes, so greatly shook the world at its very foundation that it has changed the course of human history ever since. To prove his point, he encourages others to look at modern literature and how often the theme of sacrificing self for others as well as the theme of death and resurrection play out in story lines. In the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore sacrifices his life to save Draco Malfoy, then finds new life in the painting that hangs at Hogwarts. J. K. Rowling pushes the theme even further in her final book when Harry realizes that he must allow Valdemort to kill him in order for the great wizard of evil to be killed. And yes, Harry does allow Valdemort to kill him, and yes, Harry literally returns from the dead and defeats Valdemort once and for all.
This is but one example of how the theme of sacrificial compassion, death and resurrection play out in the modern media and serves as proof to Dr. Bartlett’s argument of how Christ’s act of compassion on the cross continues to ruminate and influence the human psyche. It is, I believe he would argue, proof of the unseen transformation Paul is speaking of in this morning’s reading from Corinthians.
But the real question we are called to grapple with is, what is Paul hoping his reader’s are going to take away from this discussion. I believe it is how we view each other and the world. Just before today’s final statement Paul says, “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.” As I read this statement, the baptismal vow, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, immediately came to mind. As followers of Christ, we are not to judge another based on what we see on the outside, but to find the Christ that resides within.
How many of us remember the block buster movie of the mid-eighties ET. In this movie, Steven Spielberg uses the occasion of an extra terrestrial’s arrival to remind us to look beyond the external. In this movie, it is a young boy who first discovers ET and befriends him. While on the outside he sees the extra terrestrial, the child looks beyond and sees the potential for a bond of friendship and an entity in need of a home. His younger sister sees a fellow playmate, almost pet like, to dress up as if ET were a doll. In the adult world, all that was seen, or in this case, presumed, is an entity from outer space that needed to be contained and quarantined.
Who really saw ET? According to Spielberg, it was the young boy, who saw the similarities between himself and the creature from afar. It was the young boy who ultimately connected with ET’s loneliness and desire to return home. And it was the young boy whose compassion lit ET’s heart.
Dr. Bartlett would argue it is when we demonstrate compassion for others that we reveal the divine within ourselves and each other.
My first job out of seminary was with the Dixwell Community House in New Haven, Connecticut. During the eighteen months I worked for this African-American Institution, my grandmother regularly worried about my safety. “Those people are dangerous” she would often tell me. And to some degree she was right. During my tenure there, gang violence was at an all time high. From my grandmother’s perspective, the African-American population was not only dangerous but had ruined the neighborhood she grew up in during World War I. (Never did she consider the issues of urban decay were due to aging buildings, absentee landlords and a poor economy.)
What I experienced was totally different. The people I met. . . were people of great vision, courage and resilience. Yes, there were the gang bangers and those who were terminally addicted, but there were also in this sea of poverty and frustration, people struggling to find the compassion and support they needed to get out and make a better life for themselves and their families. And there were leaders who believed the neighborhood could rise from its despair.
What my grandmother saw in the Dixwell neighborhood was a community of people that threatened the safety of the world she lived in, what I was eventually able to experience was the heart-light within the darkness of the community seeking to be transformed by the compassion of the Divine.
Imagine. . . if we all followed St. Paul’s instruction to walk by faith and not by sight by viewing all things from the perspective of the divine . . . Willing to seek and serve Christ in all persons. How differently would we approach our enemies or those we fear? How different this world would be, because it would be that which we cannot see yet, the kingdom of God , the place we walk to by faith and not by sight.