The Rev. Joanna Adams
reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians from the
first chapter beginning with the first verse:
called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God and
our brother Sosthenes, to the Church of God that is in Corinth,
to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints,
together with all those who in every place call on the name of
our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Grace to you
and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give
thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that
has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have
been enriched in Him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just
as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so
that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for
the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen
you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our
Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by Him you were called into
the fellowship of His son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
from Atlanta, Georgia. There has been a book recently published
that is the talk of our town. Perhaps you have heard of it—A
Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. Many Atlantans despise the book, but
almost every Atlantan has read it with relish. We are unable to
resist its deliciously detailed description of life in post-Olympic
Atlanta. It has seven hundred forty-two pages, so you really have
to make a commitment if you're going to read A Man in Full.
named Charlie Croker sits astride the novel as much as he sits astride
his favorite Tennessee walking horse in the book's opening paragraphs.
Croker is a former Georgia Tech football star who has amassed a
great fortune in real estate. He epitomizes the term "self-made
man." He started with nothing and progressed to the point where
he became king of all he surveyed, or so he thought. So confident
was he in himself and what he, Charlie Croker, could do that he
failed to realize that he was in serious trouble spiritually and
in every other way until it was too late. He descends painfully
had been precisely what he had dreamed of being as a young man,"
Wolfe writes. "Living in a mansion in Buckhead, a man whose
footsteps made the halls of the mighty vibrate, and yet, how hollow
it had all turned out to be." To my mind the book never gets
any better than the title, which alludes to an old ditty about a
river boat captain who was legendary a century ago for his prodigious
strength. Charlie Coker was his name. Charlie Coker was a man in
Wolfe's book and today's text from I Corinthians have caused me
to wonder what traits and
attitudes would be necessary for a person, a human being, to possess
so that he or she might legitimately be called "a man in full"
or "a woman in full." I did a silly thing
in trying to answer that question myself. I picked up the dictionary
and looked up the four letter word f-u-l-l. It turned out
not to be so silly after all, I resonated so with the very first
definition given. Full, meaning containing all that is possible,
as in a full pail of water. I think about how Paul begins his letter
to the Corinthians assuring them that they are already full of everything
that is necessary for life and faith, for endurance and for triumph:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace
of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way
you have been enriched by Him. You are not lacking in anything
as you await the revealing of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
It not only describes their current state of being through the grace
of God, but it turns out that they have nothing to fear about the
future no matter what the future holds. Paul promises them the sustaining
strength of Christ up to and through the very end, when the powers
of evil and death will finally be defeated. The strength that sustains
is not the strength they or we find within ourselves. It is the
strength that comes from above as a gift from God.
culture continually gives us the misguided word that human life
is something we make up on our own. I'm a self-made
person. I got what I got on my own. I have no one to thank but myself.
Paul reminds us that we humans have no ground for boasting about
anything, even our greatest spiritual gifts, the gifts of speaking
or healing or speaking in tongues. These are all given to us by
God. "What do you have," he asks later, "that was
not a gift in the first? And if you receive it, why do you boast
about it as if it were not a gift?"
weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Yo Yo Ma play the cello
at Symphony Hall in Atlanta. Often he would bend over the instrument,
making it come to life. Just as often, perhaps even more often,
he played with his head thrown back, as if he were an open vessel
receiving the music, humbly receiving it, letting it pass through
him so that he could give it to us, the audience. He made me think
in a new way about the meaning of the expression, "A Man in
to Paul, there are really two basic ingredients of the complete
human life and the complete human community. The first is the grace
of God. The second ingredient is gratitude for the grace that God
has freely given. So
many in our complex, fast-paced, high-pressure world have forgotten
that there is such a thing as the grace of God. We've gotten into
the habit of thinking that nothing good is going to happen to us
or through us unless we make it happen—Charlie Croker style.
They stride to get ahead, to stay on top, completely losing sight
of the fact that none of us has to earn our right to occupy space
on this planet; because we exist, we have every right to be here
and to be happy about it, too. Nothing is more important to know
more important is to remember
that there is nothing we have to do or can do to earn a place of
acceptance in the heart of God. We transpose our
need to make ourselves into a spiritual need, feeling as if we have
to make a place for ourselves in God's own heart. You would think
that people who tend to look at God that way had never even been
baptized. It is a tendency that I must confess shows up in my own
spirit from time to time, and when it does, I try to remind myself
that one day long ago a minister held me in his arms and made the
sign of the cross on my forehead acknowledging that from the get-go
I was a-ok with God. On my dark days, I take comfort in the fact
that there is nothing that I have done since that day, even the
things that I am most sorry for, that has changed the fact that
I belong to God, that I always have and that I always will through
the grace of Christ who gave his life for me on the cross.
friend tells of a confirmation class that he taught in his church
one year to young teenagers as they were preparing to join the church.
[He said,] "We got to the sacrament section, and so I asked
my usual questions. 'Water? What about the water we use in baptism?'"
(We pastors have a way of asking such brilliantly piercing questions.)
He got the usual answers. Water washes things. We drink water so
we can live, and so on and so forth. It cleanses. It purifies. But
one year he asked the question and a kid in the class said simply
this, "Water holds you up." That is it exactly. It holds
you up. Just thinking about that makes me want to baptize the next
baby at my church by putting her in a great big vessel of water
and letting her float on her back, as a child learning to swim will
float in her mother's arms. The mother would say, "Don't worry,
I've got you darling. You're safe with me." You
don't have to struggle, my friends, to stay afloat in this life,
not with the grace of God beneath you. Your lives are full of grace.
The pail is full of water.
grace of God—in
it we live our lives, and if there is nothing we can do to take
that away, then there is nothing left for us to do except to be
God's grateful people, to offer up an overflowing cup of thanksgiving
back to God, a full cup of gratitude spilling out of everything
we say and do. Gratitude for the good. Gratitude for the good that
can come from the bad. Those of us who follow the pastoral ministry
never cease to be amazed by the gratitude people who have suffered
great loss continue to feel toward God and toward other people who
have walked with them through the valley of the shadows.
C.S. Lewis wrote, "I have noticed that the most balanced minds
praise the most, while the cranks and the misfits and the malcontents,
they are the ones who are the least grateful." When you read
the words of Paul, "And so I give thanks to God always,"
it makes you want to go out and be less cranky yourself, be more
grateful yourself. It makes you want to be less distracted by those
Charlie Croker notions that we have to make ourselves. It makes
you want to hold on for dear life to the notion that we are floating
through this life on the grace of God.
is not to say that God's sustaining saving grace was easily come
by. In the shadow of these Lenten days, we see more clearly than
usual how it was that our Lord, though he was in the form of God,
did not take equality with God as something to be exploited. Rather,
he emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He became obedient
to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has
highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name.
There you have it—a man in full. The peace of Christ and the
power of his resurrection be with you now and always.
us pray. For your grace that sustains us, O God, and the self-giving
love of our Savior, we give you our deepest thanks and ask that
you would hold us close to you now and always. Amen.
©1999 The Rev. Joanna Adams
at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN, March 11, 1999 as part
of the Lenten Preaching Series.