February 19, 2017 I Corinthians 3: 1-9
Prayer: Dear God, we are grateful that you are with us in this place. Please help us to hear a word from you, to understand a word from you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Several years ago, I was signing books at the Barnes and Noble on Haywood Road. Since I was neither Nicholas Sparks nor Gillian Flynn, people were avoiding me as if I had measles.
Most of the shoppers looked like they’d rather face a lobotomy than make eye contact. So I had plenty of time to talk when a woman came up and told me she was about to become homeless.
Tammy was divorced and had a special needs daughter who needed a lot of care. She was living with her ex-mother-in-law, but all three of them were about to lose their house.
The more Tammy talked, the more I could tell that she was educated and motivated. This situation she found herself in was the result of a lot of life blows. So I told her about Triune Circles.
Triune Circles is the crown jewel of our work at Triune. It is a year-long program in which we take people who sincerely want to get out of poverty, get into housing, get better employment – whatever the situation is. And we surround them with four or five volunteers who want nothing more than to help them achieve those goals.
Tammy did come in and apply for Circles. She attended the training session, bringing her daughter Brianna to our childcare room.
At the end of training, we assigned her four wonderful, caring volunteers who walked alongside her and advised her and encouraged her as she got a job, stabilized her housing, and began all the surgeries and treatments that Brianna needed.
I saw Tammy and Brianna two weeks ago when they visited our sixth Circles graduation. And on that night, I realized that the power of Circles doesn’t stop at the end of the Circles year. It doesn’t stop at graduation.
Three of our past graduates attended that night, and we could see how much they’d grown long after their year was over.
Besides Tammy, Alicia came from Columbia with her husband and baby daughter. When we met Alicia, she was newly released from federal prison, living in a transition house. She moved to Columbia halfway through her Circle year, and her team continued to meet and call her weekly on speakerphone.
Last week, she and her husband were getting ready to close on a house.
Russ drove over from the Rescue Mission, where he serves as a Ministry Training Partner. He will freely tell you he didn’t take advantage of his group the way he should have during his Circle year.
But he now meets twice a month for breakfast with a doctor from his Circle for continued guidance. He’s bought a car, established a savings account and is making decisions about his future.
We are now ready to start our seventh Circles cycle, and we are looking for people who are ready to make some changes in their lives. You can be housed or homeless, working or unemployed.
All that is required is that you are sober and truly motivated. Any other obstacles, we are willing to work with. We are willing to help you take those first, fledgling, baby steps toward a better life.
In our work here, we have found that it’s the rare person who was born into homelessness. Usually, it’s the result of an injury, a mental disability, an addiction, a divorce, a job loss, a severing of family relationships.
And so to tackle the situation is to begin picking at a huge tangled ball of issues. That’s what our social workers do. That’s what Nick at Place of Hope does. That’s what David Hanna’s staff at the Rescue Mission does.
Baby steps, we all say. Start with baby steps.
My daughter, Madison, was babysitting for a 15-month-old toddler last week. She had him out in the back yard and didn’t hear his parents pull into the garage.
She let him walk beside the house with that lurching walk that toddlers have. And she said he kept veering off sideways and going off course and circling back and falling down.
By the time she saw his parents’ car and scooped him up to go inside, the dad was frantically searching the house.
When she got home that night, she said, “Man, babies are slow!”
Baby steps can take a long time. Baby steps can take a lot of patience.
Calling them baby steps is not a comment on someone’s maturity. It’s how all of us face something big and new and daunting. We take baby steps.
It’s the same tack that Paul took when he wrote to the troubled congregation in Corinth. He compared them to babies.
We continue reading this morning in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a stumbling, lurching church if there ever was one. If you’d like to read along, please turn in your Bibles to I Corinthians 3: 1-9.
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
4For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.
9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
The issue that Paul is addressing in the church at Corinth is jealousy and division. Some of the church members claimed to follow the different evangelists who brought them the word of Christ. Some followed Apollos. Some followed Paul.
Paul doesn’t answer by telling them to follow him. No, he slams them for making the evangelist an issue at all. As we said a couple of weeks ago, that’s worshiping the finger that points to God – rather than worshiping God.
We may face different issues today. But the basis of Paul’s argument is … baby steps.
A baby can’t eat solid food before his teeth come in. Infants in Christ may not be ready to hear the intricacies of theology. They may simply need to hear that a loving God cares about them.
They may simply need to hear that a circle of friends cares about them.
Experts in human development tell us that a newborn learns to trust the world when he or she is responded to with love. When her cries are answered promptly. When he is cuddled and spoken to and touched. That baby becomes secure and then emboldened – emboldened to crawl and pull up and walk and explore.
So it is with us in the church. If our church is a place where we are encouraged and cared for and loved, we are able to step out further and further in faith. If our church is a place where we are encircled with encouragement and sound advice and support, we are able to succeed in ways both worldly and spiritual.
And like Paul, we believe that God is the one who brings about positive changes. Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God made the growth.
I’d say Triune Circles director Cheri Shumate plants, the Circles water, but God makes the growth.
“For we are (all) God’s servants, working together.”
One of the Circles graduates whom Tammy and Brianna and Alicia and Russ came to cheer on two weeks ago was Tim Turner, who sang for us today. In this portrait by Fred Woods, Tim is pictured as the crystal meth addict he once was. He said when he first came to Triune he was shooting meth every day.
But he began seeing our counselor, Hal. Working on his rehab. Singing in the choir. And then he joined Circles.
Elizabeth Jemison and Andrew Malwitz were two of his five Circle volunteers. They moved here from Boston a couple of years ago so that Elizabeth could take a job as a professor at Clemson. They wanted to make new friends, and they thought volunteering for a Triune Circle might be a good way to start.
But as Elizabeth says, “it turned out that we were less volunteers and more fellow travelers with Tim. Our six-person Circle became an unlikely family.”
The weekly dinner meetings they held here each Monday felt completely ordinary. The group ate pizza or lasagna or grilled chicken, then discussed Tim’s workplace challenges and crunched his budget numbers.
Despite the ordinariness, said Elizabeth, “I can look back on the ways Tim came into his own and took ownership of his life. He made remarkable changes, and I was given the gift of a front row seat.”
And like Tammy and Alicia and Russ, Tim has many more years to grow and thrive.
Because as Elizabeth said, “Tim may have graduated, but he won’t be able to get rid of his Circle.”
Many of you ask how you can get involved here. Triune Circles is the way I’d recommend. We have an informational session on February 27 that you can attend with no commitment.
You know, one of the most surprising things to me as I’ve grown older is not that I don’t feel old. Because I do. The mirror tells me I am. My muscles assure me I am. Headlines in The Greenville News referring to 60-year-olds as elderly insist that I am.
The surprising part is that I don’t feel any more competent than I ever did. I thought there would come a time when I stepped into a role as a seasoned, experienced adult able to dispense wisdom on work and finance and spirituality .
But that never happened.
When faced with lots of things, I think, “I wouldn’t know how to do that.” Or “I could never do that.”
We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s a phrase I’ve adopted over the past decade. Because where I used to think everyone’s pool of knowledge was my pool, I’ve learned that’s not true.
While I may know a little about being Southern and liberal arts education and writing, I know nothing of hunting or repairing motorcycles or flyfishing. I know nothing of living with a mental illness or shopping with food stamps or pitching a tent so that the water stays out.
Any time we are faced with something new, like the Corinthians were faced with this new gospel, we are like infants. We need baby food. We take baby steps. That’s the only way to learn, and there is no shame in it.
A lot of people have told us, “I’m not an accountant or a lawyer or a social worker. I don’t think I’d have anything to bring to a Circle.”
Even Elizabeth said early on, “I’m a college professor, not a social worker or counselor.” But she found out that her job was was simply showing up and being present, communicating to Tim each week that he mattered, that he was worth her time and worth her concern.
Sellers Grantham of this congregation sent me a quote this week from Mother Teresa. It pertains, I think, to our enormous capacity to influence others even when we think we don’t have much to offer. And that influence works both ways – from Elizabeth to Tim, and from Tim to Elizabeth.
“The greatest disease in the West today,” said Mother Teresa, “ is not TB or leprosy. It is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more who are dying for a little love.”
We can give that love – one baby step at a time.
We can receive that love – one baby step at a time.