By Rev. J.C. Austin
There are always limits to parental understanding. My formative childhood years were mostly in the 1970s, and my mother was determined to raise her two boys to be what is now called emotionally intelligent: able to be aware of the full range our feelings, to manage and articulate them, and to understand their impact on others. She encouraged us to watch Sesame Street, with all of its lessons on cooperation, and Mr. Rogers, who always helped us understand and share our feelings. She had us listen to Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be…You and Me album, which included a notable song by Rosey Grier.
Grier was a football star who was an defensive tackle first for Penn State, as some of you may recall, and then for the Los Angeles Rams, where he was part of the dominating defensive line of the 1960s and 70s known as the “Fearsome Foursome.” But he was also a talented singer, and his track on the Marlo Thomas album was called “It’s All Right to Cry,” a surprisingly sensitive ballad for such a big and tough guy (which of course was the point) about how crying helps you to express being sad or mad so you can feel better. So my mom thought she was doing a bang-up job on raising two emotionally healthy boys, and for the most part she was right.
Which is also why she just couldn’t understand us sometimes. She talked about it later when we were grown up. “I just couldn’t understand why you would start intentionally provoking each other for no reason at all!” It wasn’t because she didn’t understand boys; it was because she was an only child. She simply had no direct experience with anything like even our relatively mild form of sibling rivalry. We’d be sitting quietly in the back seat of the car, or playing happily in one of our bedrooms, or running around out in the yard.
And then one of us would say something obnoxious or poke at the other one because we thought their reaction would be funny, and things would escalate, and suddenly my mom would be pulling us apart. “I don’t understand, you were playing so well together!” she would exclaim, exasperated; “now listen to me: apologize to each other and start cooperating again.” And for the most part, we would.
At first, Paul sounds a little bit like an exasperated parent who doesn’t understand why his kids won’t play well together and wants them to make up and start cooperating again. “Finally, brothers and sisters,” he says pointedly, “…put things in order. Listen to my appeal; agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” And there’s a good reason for that. The Corinthian church was simultaneously a great joy and a great pain for Paul. It was a vibrant and large congregation, with people from many different walks of life, diverse theologies, and a wide range of practical skills and spiritual gifts for ministry. Which was also their problem.
In fact, they were a congregation that was being ripped apart by factionalism arising from the very things that were their greatest gifts: the strength and differences of their socio-economic status, theological perspective, and spiritual gifts and practices. Much of that division is related to socio-economic class, theological perspective, and spiritual practice. And it is a bitter and conflicted set of divisions, into which even Paul himself was drawn, with factions lining up for and against his authority and teachings.
That’s why he tells his “children” (he actually calls them that multiple times elsewhere in the letter) to put things in order, listen to his appeal, agree with one another, and live in peace. In that context, I can’t help but hear Paul the parent admonishing his children to clean up their room and stop fighting, two classic bits of parental instruction to any group of siblings. “Put things in order” sounds like put everything back in its place, put things back to the way they are supposed to be. That’s what we usually mean when we say we’ve gotten our house in order or put something in working order or even called a meeting to order.
But that idea is not what Paul is actually saying here. Paul is not telling the Corinthians to clean up a mess; he’s telling them something much more involved and important than that. Now, I’m going to geek out for a minute or two on the language here, but it’s important, because the English translation you heard is misleading and takes us away from the truth and power of Paul’s message in directions that are either irrelevant or downright dangerous. The most literal translation of the Greek word here is, “to join with,” as in to join or fit two pieces of something together.
I just finished re-installing the window air conditioning units in my house for the summer; that did not involve putting things in order in the sense of cleaning up a mess (though that was at least partially by the grace of God). It did, however, involve joining things together, fitting them with each other. I had to fit those little plastic wings that go out to each side of the air conditioner to block the outside air into their slots in the correct direction. Then I had to take these tiny little screws and join the wing to the air conditioner unit so it wouldn’t pull apart. Then I had to slide the whole unit into the window, bring the window flush with the top of the unit, and then spread the wings out to each side of the window sill.
That’s how I actually installed the air conditioner in the window: I made it fit with the window so that it not only stays in the window, but is completely snug in both keeping hot air outside and blowing cool air inside. That’s the first meaning of the word Paul uses: it’s about joining or fitting things together, not cleaning things up.
But it has two still deeper meanings that are relevant for the Corinthians and for us, especially in the extraordinary time in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we can’t “put things in order” simply by joining them together. Sometimes things are not simply in separate pieces, but they have been broken, ripped apart. And so they need to be not simply joined, but mended; repaired. The word here is used elsewhere to describe when someone mends fishing nets whose links have snapped apart from age or from an unusually heavy catch of fish, or both; it’s used to describe how you mend a broken bone. It means putting things together that should never have been in pieces in the first place: mending what has been torn, repairing what has been broken.
And finally, it can mean to train or prepare, in the sense that we say we are “getting fit” when we start eating well and exercising, when our excess weight and our blood pressure go down, and our energy and strength and stamina go up. That requires us “getting our act together,” as we sometimes say: figuring out what we need to do over time to make ourselves more healthy and more capable of meeting the challenges and opportunities that are before us. Nobody runs a marathon or climbs Mount Everest without training and preparing. You have to spend time and energy getting fit, acquiring the equipment you need, learning and developing necessary skills that you didn’t already have, talking with people who have already mastered what you intend to attempt.
I think all those meanings are at work in what Paul is telling the Corinthians and us. He is telling us to fit together what is supposed to be connected; to mend what is torn and repair what is broken; and to get fit ourselves by training and preparing for the challenges before us. And he says that first in his instructions in this conclusion to his letter, because he must know that neither we nor the Corinthians can agree with one another and live in peace when what should joined and repaired and prepared still lies in pieces.
Friends, this is the moment we find ourselves and our church and our nation in right now. We are not called to put things in order by putting them back to the way they were before the pandemic, before George Floyd was murdered, before the protests and riots and uprisings began. We are called by God to join together what was always meant to be connected: our common humanity, our equality with one another in the midst of the beauty of our God-given racial and ethnic diversity as those who bear the very image of God. We are called to mend what is torn and repair what is broken, and there is much in our society that has been torn and broken and simply left that way.
Our beliefs and ideals and laws that insist that all human beings are children of God, that all have equal standing before the law and protection by it, that all should have equal access to opportunity and “the pursuit of happiness” are regularly torn and broken. Our individual relationships and interactions with people of other races are still refracted through the broken prism of racial prejudice in our eyes and ears and minds and hearts no matter how hard we try to remove it. And the bodies of black and brown and Native people have been systematically torn and broken through race-based slavery and exploitation and oppression and abuse, from more than 400 years ago right up to today. So we are called to train and prepare ourselves, to get spiritually fit and equipped for the marathon of taking up and living out Christ’s ministry of justice and peace in our lives and faith.
It would be so much easier if we just put things in order, wouldn’t it? If we just treated all this like we were kids who broke our parents’ precious heirloom vase and just pushed the shards under our collective couch, tried to sweep away the dust, and hoped that nobody asked us about it and our role in it? But that is not what Paul is telling us to do; that is not what Christ is calling us to do. We are called to mend and repair what has been torn and broken. And that is hard work, work that we need to train and prepare ourselves for, which is why we are starting here in this congregation with the “Faith in Living Color” class that I will start teaching this Wednesday on Zoom, and that is very much just the start.
But in taking up this work, we are devoting ourselves to something that is not just hard work, but a kind of holy art. In Japan, there is an art form known as either kintsugi or kinsukuroi. Interestingly, given what I said about the multiple meanings of Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians, kintsugi means “golden joinery” and kinsukuroi means “golden repair.” Regardless of which meaning you want to emphasize in the choice of a name, they both refer to the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by joining together the pieces using a gold dust lacquer. In doing so, the artist not only refuses to hide the breakage of the pottery when it is mended, but illuminates it with what appears to be golden lines coursing through the surface of the repaired pottery where the pieces are joined together. In other words, the visibility of the repaired brokenness doesn’t detract from the beauty or wholeness of the pottery; it enhances and redefines its beauty and wholeness.
That is the ministry we are called by God to take up in repairing the broken pieces of our hearts, our communities, our country, our world. We are never going to erase the lines where those things have been broken by racism and white supremacy, any more than Jesus’ hands and sides erased where they were pierced after his resurrection, and we neither need to try nor should we.
But, in training and preparing and devoting ourselves to joining those pieces back together, to repairing what was broken and mending what was torn apart, we can work for hearts and communities and a country and world that are all the more beautiful because they were once broken and no longer are. For then they will glow with the beautiful golden light of the justice and love and peace of the kingdom of God that Christ brings, so that we may truly agree with one another and live in peace, as the God of love and peace is with us.