After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
A story is told, now and then about an old man who had three children. Each child had a strong work ethic and was quite good at solving practical sorts of problems- if left to their own devices. Put them in the same room, though, and give them the same problem to solve, and you’d have nothing but a fight on your hands.
Each child (and I should note here that the “children” were probably in their fifties or so) was absolutely convinced that he or she was the smartest of the three, that his or her solution was the best, and that anyone giving the situation a fair analysis would be forced to conclude that the other two siblings had nothing much to offer.
Their father, of course, saw them differently, as any good parent would. He saw their individual gifts, and celebrated them. He saw their weaknesses, too. But sadder than that, he saw their total unwillingness to collaborate- that’s what brought him grief.
The old man fell ill, and he knew that soon these argumentative siblings were going to have to start working together without his refereeing skills. So, one morning, he went out into the woods and collected forty sticks. He separated the sticks into piles of ten, tied each pile in a bundle, and then called his children to him.
The old man kept one bundle of ten sticks on his lap, and handed one bundle to each of his children. He said, “Children, I have a challenge for you. Which of you can break these sticks in two the fastest?”
All three of them were quite quick to untie the sticks and break them. If you had been there, you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell who finished first. Predictably, as soon as they were done with the task, they began to argue with one another about who had won and whose strategy was superior.
The father cut them off, saying, “Dear children, the game is not over. Now I will give another bundle of sticks to all of you. You will have to break the sticks as a bundle, not as separate sticks.”
One stick is easy to break, usually, but a bundle of sticks is a different story; it’s the difference between tearing a piece of paper and tearing a phone book. The siblings didn’t like working together, but they were competitive enough to like failing even less, so they did everything they could think of. They pushed, they pulled, they tugged, they twisted, they dropped the bundle out the window onto the concrete patio just to see if that would help.
(This was all long, long ago, in a land far, far away, where saws and hatchets didn’t exist yet.)
So. Nothing worked. Nothing. Deflated, the old man’s three children (who, I will remind you, were full grown adults and had no business fighting the way they’d been carrying on) returned with the bundle of sticks to their father, to admit that they had been unable to break the sticks together.
They worried that their father would be angry with them, but instead he looked ever so slightly self-satisfied. He said, ‘Dear children, look! You could easily break the single sticks into pieces, but you were not able to break the bundle! So, if you stay united, nobody can make any harm to you. If you quarrel every time with your siblings, anyone can easily defeat you. I ask you to stay united.’
That was a fable, so of course the grown children immediately took the lesson to heart, vowing to remain unified, a vow which they never forgot or found inconvenient in any way, and so they lived happily ever after.
This being the real world, it takes us a little longer to learn the lesson.
Last week, we followed the story of Paul starting the first church in Thessaloniki. He and his friend Silas were run out of town on a rail, after which he wrote the fledgling church a letter filled with encouragement and blessing.
Paul went from there to the city of Berea, then to Athens, and then to Corinth. At Corinth, another port city in Greece, Paul became acquainted with two tentmakers named Prisca and Aquila. Since Paul was also a tentmaker by trade, and since no mobs coalesced to drive him from the city, he ended up staying there for around eighteen months.
But after Paul left town, the situation started to devolve. Factions formed, each justifying their claims to leadership by identifying with a chosen leader: some with Paul, some with Peter, and so on. Paul finds this situation not just unfortunate but theologically intolerable, and we’ll get to why in just a second.
First, though, let’s take a moment to consider how Paul addresses the people. Roman letters of this time generally included an introductory space for expressing gratitude and goodwill, but Paul here does some very particular things with it.
Paul addresses the Corinthian church as sanctified people, as people who have been called by God, as holy people, as people living in essential unity with everyone else being transformed by the story of Jesus’ resurrection- and that’s just verse two! Paul goes on to affirm both that the members of the church in Corinth have been given every gift that they need in order to thrive, and that God will be completely faithful to them.
It’s only having laid that foundation that Paul goes on to make an appeal. He writes, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
Now, taken out of context, that sounds a bit creepy. What we find, though, in this first chapter and throughout the whole letter, is that the members of the Corinthian church are allowing all sorts of things to divide them- from eating habits to gender roles to understandings of the resurrection. They can’t seem to get along about anything!
That’s unworkable in any organization, but Paul argues throughout his letter that for those of us who bear witness to the work of Christ in the world, this kind of division is untenable. He asks the Corinthians: Is Christ divided?
If Christ isn’t divided, then we can’t be divided either.
Look at it this way. When we talk about the Incarnation, usually back around Christmas time, we focus on how Jesus shows us a picture of God. We’re good at inventing and worshiping false gods, gods that refuse to forgive us, gods that grant us licence to mistreat one another, gods that condone or even demand human sacrifice.
(And if you think we aren’t still worshiping those gods, spend some time this afternoon googling the island nations that are disappearing under the rising seas. We sacrifice people to our gods all the time.)
Jesus corrects all those false images. Jesus is quick to heal those who need it, and just as quick to remind us to love our enemies, and willing to forgive even from the cross. Through Jesus, we learn what God really looks like.
And what are we? We’re the Body of Christ! So, ideally, when people look at a Christian community, they see what God looks like. We continue, in a different way, with this incarnation project- with shining the Light of Christ in the world.
How are we going to do that, if we’re fragmented and arguing among ourselves? How are we going to talk about making peace around the world if we can’t live at peace with each other?
Now, Paul was clear that the Corinthian Christians weren’t going to agree about everything- that’s not the point. In his letter, he even addresses situations in which people who disagree have to learn to live in community together. No community is stocked with people who agree 100% of the time. That’s not heaven; that’s a cult.
What Paul advocates for is not a community in which we agree on every detail, but rather a community in which we can passionately disagree and yet still hold that love is more important. He uses the cross as his example, here, because it’s the clearest story of someone saying “you may not agree with me about the path of love, but I love you anyway, and I will prove that love to you.”
Jesus was completely in the right, but he laid down his life anyhow. His choice to lay down his life in love was vindicated in the Resurrection. It got dark for a bit, but love won out.
If that’s true – if that’s the truest thing in the universe – then you and I, knowing that we’re never completely in the right, can choose to lay down our lives for others as well. We can choose to love people, even when they’re in the wrong, knowing through Jesus that that’s the path of life.
It’s foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Each one of us, we’re like sticks. Alone, we break easily. Life is constantly forcing us to team up with our friends for help. Learning to reach out, even to those folks who were baptized by Apollos, or who eat weird food, or who’ll put a different sign than yours in their yard come November, is finding salvation. It’s living in the power of God.
That’s what a family looks like. That’s what friendship looks like. That’s what a church looks like. That’s what participating in wider Quaker organizations looks like. I’m a stick and you’re a stick and they’re all sticks, and we may not always be on the same page but together somehow we can stand firm.
Organized religion gets a bad rap these days, much of it deserved. Just the same, though, I’m thankful for each of you who gave up a perfectly good Sunday morning in the garden or at the grill or sacked out in front of the TV just to be here. I’m grateful, too, for all the folks who went somewhere else, because they may not agree with me about much but I love the possibility that love prodded them out of bed this morning to join with other sticks, to remember that they have to be bundled.
I read an article by an Episcopal priest named David Henson, this week, comparing the church to the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. (I do a lot of heavy theological reading like this, don’t act surprised.)
He writes that, “The Falcon looks like an old and busted piece of garbage with no hope of flying or of being any use to anyone with any real needs.” For anyone who has paid attention to our 2000 year history, that comment makes some sense. Furthermore, as he points out, the ship is always staffed with a ragtag team of ruffians, it’s not clear who even owns the thing, and it’s constantly breaking down.
And yet, somehow, this is the ship that did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. A lot of things that look broken turn out to be valuable indeed- there’s that foolishness again.
“The Falcon” he writes, “always seems to bring together the most unlikely of people to do the most impossible of tasks against insurmountable odds. That actually wouldn’t be a terrible definition of the Church.
Scruffy, nerfherding scoundrels fly alongside royalty. Ardent believers join together with diehard skeptics. New converts hoping to change the world ride in the same space as refugees hoping to escape it. It’s a place to hide, to recover, to heal, and maybe to find a place, even if reluctantly.
Few of the passengers are experts or have the exact right training, but together they come together, discover hidden talents that are put to use for the common good. The Falcon always requires a team effort, unlike an X-wing where there’s only enough room for a pilot who makes all the decisions. The Falcon is at its best with too many people crammed in the cockpit, voicing their doubts and their certainty, confessing their guilt and their mistakes, discovering the ability to do things they only remotely thought were possible.
It’s a place where people come fully alive to their mission and their purpose, a place where they find direction.”
It’s a foolish ship, in other words. And perhaps it is foolish to trust that your brother and your sister will stand with you like sticks in a bundle. It’s foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.