Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-7
When I was a child, TV and radio commercials made a fuss about enriching things: milk was enriched when they added vitamin D; flour was enriched with other vitamins, and so were breakfast cereals.
I thought the word had gone out of style – it certainly was not the compelling marketing term I remember from the 1960s. Then I looked it up while preparing this sermon, to discover that the educational field still believes very strongly in enrichment courses and activities, to the extent that some people are prepared to offer systematic advice on how to enrich the lives of your farm or zoo animals, or your dogs at home.
Some of this shift has to do with the usual changes that come with language. Words are trendy in marketing for a time and then get replaced with the next hot topic. Or, words can transition from being broadly-used, into something highly specialized.
In this case, though, I think something deeper is also going on. The idea of enrichment has hit the obstacle of a society that has been thinking for a long time in terms of scarcity: “We’re running out of resources; We have to cut back and make do”.
It even feels that way when we talk about climate change. In reality, the thing we are running out of is time. We have plenty of other resources. We just have to learn to be responsible with them.
The language of scarcity can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. When we talk about resources being scarce, we respond by planning to do less. This challenge has haunted the wider church since the late 1960s when people started turning away from traditional religion and churches started to see a decline in attendance.
That dates back to the early years of Knox – this congregation responded very well, by building a sensible little sanctuary and sticking with it, when other churches were finding their huge buildings echoing in emptiness.
Scripture, like our lesson in the first letter to the Corinthians today, invites us to talk about abundance, about enrichment.
Sometimes that has been turned into a joke, like the minister who addressed his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to pay off our debt; the bad news – it’s still in your pockets.”
There is also a darker side, like the so-called “prosperity gospel” that was popular a few years ago. It used a corrupt reading of scripture to declare that if you were faithful, God would reward you with riches and good health providing, of course, that you gave 10% to the church. The inverse logic of that is that if you are sick and poor it must be a sign that God has condemned you. It’s a dreadful theology, completely opposed to my understanding of Jesus’ words.
Part of the problem is the fact that “enriched” has the word “rich” at the core of it and that makes us think about money.
But look at the way Paul talked about the church at Corinth. He said they were already enriched by God, working through Jesus Christ. Paul says the Corinthians are enriched in grace, in speech and knowledge of every kind, so they are not lacking in any gift.
The Corinthian church was not “rich” financially. Like most early Christian churches, they drew most of their people from the common folk including a lot of slaves. There might be a handful of wealthy people and when they were generous, they might be held up as examples. Some are mentioned in scripture and a very large percentage of them were women.
But that’s clearly not what Paul was talking about. He was referring to riches like wisdom, kindness, a willingness to share and to help others; an ability to see what really matters in life; to look at the person in front of them and see someone of value.
Paul was talking about being enriched in ways that cannot be purchased; that cannot be bought, sold or traded. That’s why he said that they were not lacking in any gifts. He doesn’t mention investments or resources or treasures. He talks about gifts meaning things we are given.
This is at the very core of Christianity, that we offer alternative values to the rest of society. Jesus was always talking about turning expectations upside down: the meek inheriting the earth; mourners becoming joyful; the weak becoming strong; and the last becoming first.
These are the kinds of gifts the Corinthians had acquired. They had learned them from Paul and other Christians originally and continued to learn them from each other in an ongoing way by practising what they believed, by becoming living examples of God’s way of valuing the undervalued people of the world.
This is one of those areas where I truly believe it is possible; to “create wealth” as the expression goes.
When we work with each other in the church, we find within ourselves, and we witness others finding within themselves, untapped skills and abilities, hidden treasures that we didn’t know were there and which might have remained hidden except that someone was prepared to take time, offer encouragement and take the risk that things might not be perfect, only to discover an unexpected talent.
There are many examples of musicians who discovered their talents in churches. I am aware of people who first stood up to speak in public, or to do some simple acting in the loving, safe space that a church creates. I have seen people discover skills in interpreting the Bible as they have been in Sunday School or in an adult study; skills that have allowed them to look critically at what they are told and to weigh it in light of the values they have learned. They have gained an ability to look for the justice in a situation because they have learned what justice looks like, that it is something more than a set of rules – the profound idea of God’s justice, which is inspired and shaped by love.
That’s the kind of enrichment Paul was talking about 2000 years ago and it is the kind of enrichment we still practise today. Except that we don’t talk about it much, do we? We go along, quietly doing this and when we talk it’s to fuss about other resources, the kind that everyone in the world worries about.
I think it’s time to talk about enrichment again, to remind ourselves of the work we do in the church every day: the sharing of values; the building up of people; the transforming of lives one small step at a time; the creating of a safe and sacred space where love is the law and where we can encounter God when we meet each other.
There is profound value in all of this. We should remind ourselves that this is the kind of enrichment that we gain, and that we share, when we come together as God’s people.
In this place, people can grow in grace without having to take anything away from anyone else. We enrich each other and we are enriched simply by being God’s people for each other.
These are the gifts and values that will carry us forward into the years ahead. Let us never lose sight of them.