I would not read this text in worship unless I planned to preach on it. If one wishes to do so, then the preacher needs to refer to the brackets Paul places around this section of the letter. In verse seventeen, Paul writes, “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God has called you. This is my rule in the churches.” This is the thought that conditions Paul’s counsel that people shouldn’t make any radical career moves because things may be changing soon.
That brings us to the other bracket, in verses 31b and 32a. “For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties…” Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on the reign of God free from distractions. He wants their undivided attention devoted to the work of the Gospel. Not even concerns about the nature of the Resurrection should shake their vision, as we read in chapter fifteen, verse fifty-eight. “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
The preaching challenge, therefore, is twofold. On the one hand, we must translate Paul’s apparently “conservative” view of the need for social and personal change into our contemporary key signature. On the one hand, the present form of this world is always passing away. Jesus is Lord!
On the other hand, it has been passing away for two millennia and may continue to pass away for millennia to come. We have rejected enslavement of other human beings (at least officially in most nations). We have begun to embrace some measure of equity for women and people of color (at least officially in most nations). We are beginning to chip away at white male supremacy as the cornerstone of our cultural and political systems (well, perhaps in theory, anyway). We need to help people see that all that change that is consistent with Paul’s overall view and that this view does not require a static social structure.
I find Arland Hultgren’s words in his workingpreacher.org commentary helpful here.
“Amidst these examples, it is helpful to put side-by-side two words: “disengagement” and “engagement.” In his ethical thinking, and in our passage for today, Paul calls upon persons of faith to disengage from the world and its ways of living. One should step back and see how being entangled with it can be a captivity preventing one from living the new life in Christ. But that is not the end of the matter, for we continue to live in this world and have to deal with it. In Paul’s way of thinking, disengagement is not an end in itself. Rather, being disengaged and set free, a person can engage the world from the perspective of being one who is “in Christ.”
Perhaps Paul’s counsel to us is to “hold lightly the present form of this world.” We invest ultimate concern in things that are of limited value. For example, we maintain a death grip on our settled certainties and our limited worldviews. We grasp power, privilege, and position as if they would guarantee us anything. We are witnessing a fight to the death to maintain the hegemony of white male supremacy, not only in our politics but in our culture as a whole. All of these forms of this world are passing away. In our anxieties over that passing, we double down on our idolatry and make the temporary permanent.
This discussion is certainly consonant with the accounts of Jonah and the first disciples, even though their responses are diametrically opposed. Can we allow ourselves to be changed by events and experiences? Can we relinquish our self-interest, self-absorption and self-centeredness for the sake of God’s reign? Can we release our settled views of the world in favor of God’s desire to have mercy on all? Can we surrender our power, privilege, and position for the sake of faith, hope and love? This is how we can apply Paul’s perspective in the here and now perhaps.
I think of the story of Ray Christensen as an inspiring example of one who held lightly to the present form of this world and was willing to be changed by events and experiences. Ray Christensen became, unintentionally, one of the “stars” of the 1966 American documentary film, A Time for Burning.
The film, directed by William C. Jersey and commissioned by the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) explores the efforts of Pastor Bill Youngdahl to engage his all-white congregation of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, in exploring real, person to person relationships with members of Hope Lutheran Church, an all-Black congregation just three blocks away. The film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in the 1967 Academy Awards and remains a chilling indictment of our denomination’s failed efforts at real multi-racial partnership and ministry.
Ray Christensen “became fascinated with photography in high school and pursued his interest in the U.S. Navy,” his 2016 obituary reads. “After his service, he returned to Omaha and began a career in photography and animation. In 1966 Ray shifted his focus to filmmaking after appearing in A Time for Burning. Ray was a member of the social ministry committee at Augustana and became an advocate for the efforts to foster personal conversations between willing couples in the white and Black congregations. The effort was soon rejected by the congregation, and Youngdahl left not only Augustana but also the Lutheran Church in America. Youngdahl continued to advocate and work for racial justice in another denomination for the rest of his life and ministry.
The experience reported in A Time for Burning, changed Ray Christensen for a lifetime. Bill Jersey became his mentor and lifelong friend. Christensen created documentary films in Omaha and then moved to Minneapolis to continue his work. Let me quote his obituary for a summary.
“Ray’s passion for telling human stories took him around the world — to Africa, where tribes worked to preserve their precious water supplies; to East Germany, where he brought to life the historic impact of Martin Luther; and to Bethphage Mission in Nebraska, where developmentally challenged people strove to reach their incredible potential. One of Ray’s favorite films, The Wilderness World of Sigurd F. Olson, captured the beauty of northern Minnesota with Olson, the noted author and environmentalist. Ray’s films inspired people to see the ordinary in new and unexpected ways.”
I didn’t know the story of Ray Christensen, but I used his work in my own efforts to bring change to congregations. Ray partnered with the author and futurist, Joel Barker, to produce a film called The Business of Paradigms. This was an outstanding training film to help organizations understand the imprisoning power of existing paradigms and the liberating energy that came from getting outside our current boxes. His obituary notes that the film “became one of the most influential training programs in the world.” I can testify that it helped hundreds of parishioners and dozens of congregations to consider different ways of being and doing church.
Christensen is an example of someone who was able to hold the forms of this world lightly. He understood that our power, privilege, and position are always passing away. My heart breaks every time I see him growing in his awareness of his own complicity in a racist and unjust congregation. It breaks even further and starts to heal a bit when I hear him wonder what will happen if and when the church fails to let go of our broken and sinful racism. “Ray’s legacy is summed up in a belief he shared throughout his life,” his obituary concludes, “’Never lose your sense of wonder. Always be curious.’”
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, is now one of the most progressive and justice-oriented of our congregations in the metropolitan area. We can let go of the forms of this world and begin to make constructive changes if we are willing to face who we are and allow the Holy Spirit to transform us. While Bill Youngdahl was not permitted to lead the congregation into a different future, he and Ray Christensen (and other brave folks in that place) began a process that has born the fruit of faith, hope and love.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out the work being done in our own Nebraska Synod by the Racial Awareness, Reconciliation, and Engagement (RARE) team in the synod. They have produced study materials connected to the film that are available on the Nebraska Synod website.
The film also features a much younger Ernie Chambers, before his days as a Nebraska state senator. Chambers tells the truth about the church and white people. Even as we can celebrate the changed hearts of some folks in and through the film, we can see that the great majority of us haven’t let go of a thing yet. In manifold ways, our grasp of white supremacy and the accompany privilege, has tightened even further.
To cling to our views of the world in the face of contradicting narratives is a violent act and requires violence to sustain it. That was true in the film, even if that violence was couched in the gentlest of terms. It resulted not only in the ouster of a faithful pastor but in the maintenance of systems of segregation and oppression that continue to the present moment in Omaha, Nebraska. That violence has invaded the halls of our federal congress in ways that Black people and people of color have known intimately for four hundred years and more.
If we maintain our death grip on the forms of this world even as they are passing away, then other people will die to pay for our delusions and denial. That is the state of things in United States of America as I write. There will be no peace without the repentance that results in relinquishing our narratives of white supremacy. There will be no peace because violence is required to cling to and sustain those narratives.
“For the present form of this world is passing away.” Will we release our white supremacist death grip on these dying systems, or will we die with them?
References and Resources
A Time for Burning (Full Documentary). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMuguX7J42A3
A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORZvA4pQU4&feature=emb_title
Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources. https://nebraskasynod.org/learn/rare-resources.html.
Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen. https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/129874/
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).