A Sermon Preached on the 44th Anniversary of
Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church, Richmond, California
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Text:  1 Corinthians 1:26-29; 2:1-2; 3:1-9

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

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. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Let’s face it: If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that for as long as humans have existed there has been division.  As much as it must grieve God’s heart, human beings, created in the image and likeness of God have had a hard time finding unity. And even if common ground is discovered, staying unified is a nearly impossible task.

Witness this litany of division:
Cain separated from Abel.
Abraham, Sarah and Isaac from Hagar and Ishmael
Jacob from Esau
the sons of Jacob and Leah from the favored son of Jacob and Rachel

And that’s just the first book of the Bible.

When the Israelites wandered in the desert with Moses, factions emerged – let’s call them tribes  each with different interests, different strengths, different gifts. Some were warriors, some were shepherds, some were farmers, some were priests.  And when they began to move into the Promised land, together they faced one fight after another.

At first, the battles have to do with the claiming and expressing their identity as God’s people.  There was a lot at stake:

  • their religious and cultural heritage,
  • their claim on a land that was already populated,
  • their self-understanding as righteously chosen people. 

But as geocultural disputes were resolved and God’s people settled into life in Palestine, even a united monarchy couldn’t hold things together and soon enough division erupted once again.  This time, in the form of the separation of Israel into two warring kingdoms – one made up of the northern tribes and the other of the southern tribes.  This separation began with the fight for wealth that came from the land; and power from political and trade associations and ended with the complete annihilation of one kingdom and the utter devastation of defeat and exile for the other. 

(Isn’t it interesting that what I’ve just described are the glory days that the followers of Jesus think of when they imagine his reign as the Messiah, as the Savior of the people, when they shout:  Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord! But that’s a sermon nugget for next week’s Palm Sunday considerations.)

A close reading of the prophets, major and minor, reveals the truth about those so-called glory days – when God’s people dwelled in the Promised land and God’s goodness filled their days. But if those days had been so glorious, it makes me wonder:

Why would the people need a woke 20 year old Jeremiah to speak God’s grief-stricken words:
I am forsaken
at the end of all the paths to peace
that are supposed to lead to me.
You changed your course to seek other lovers.
There is no peace.
I accuse you.
I eliminate peace from the vernacular of your lives.
I leave you among the pottery shards
The abandoned fields
The sour grapes
Even the covenant has a cost you seem unwilling to pay.

If those days had been so glorious, it makes me wonder: What happened to the people that would make Amos risk his life to call out the crimes he saw:  ordinary citizens sold as slaves; the needy sold to repay very small debts; oppression/trampling of the poor; unfair treatment of the poor in courts; sexual abuse of female household help; the wealthy using the coats of the poor for picnic blankets (it’s in there!); payments meant for restitution consumed by those who have more than enough; worship was motivated by a desire for recognition and self satisfaction

And before we get all up in our self-righteous justification of church vs. the world around us today, we need to remember that Amos was speaking God’s judgment to God’s very own chosen people.  These crimes were being perpetrated BY God’s people on their very own brothers and sisters – equally created in God’s own image and equally chosen by God’s own hand.

Amos called out the true motivations of the people, calling them to turn around from their desire for national recognition, urging them to see worship as an opportunity for self-sacrifice rather than as a place to demonstrate their self satisfaction. Jeremiah was given the impossible task of calling out the lies God’s people told each other, reminding them of how far they had wandered from God’s ways – so far that even though their world lay in shattered ruins around them, they still thought of themselves as righteous bringers of peace… as God’s chosen healers of a broken world.

I say all that to say this:  When it comes to factions and fiefdoms, when it comes to internal strife, when it comes to disruptive division, the Corinthian church seems to have done an excellent job at learning from those 12 tribes and 2 kingdoms. 

When Paul wrote his letter, he was speaking to a vibrant church at the heart of an exciting city that was a hub for communication, a crossroads for transportation and the epicenter of commercialization that fueled the engine of the Roman empire in that region.  This band of Christians – this Corinthian church was poised to be a powerful influence on the lives of the people in their community.  They were perfectly positioned to be a gift of mercy for the marginalized, the weak, the outcasts – for all those left behind in the great plan for prosperity that created enormous wealth and which placed the majority of the wealth in the hands of the power elite – some…many of whom were Christ-followers and members of that Corinthian church.

It sounds like just the kind of work a church ought to be doing – calling out the powers and pouring out God’s power.  But not the Corinthian church.  And that’s why they were in trouble – so much trouble that Paul called out what was at risk:

  • disruption of the good news
  • disembowelment of a movement
  • dismemberment of the body of christ

The trouble at the heart of the Corinthian church,  like the trouble in ancient Israel, like the trouble we find ourselves in today – is power.  Who has it… who wants it… and who or what will be sacrificed in the pursuit of it.  Power. 

Paul takes an interesting approach – and as someone who thinks of herself as pretty smart, fairly woke, and trying to work on God’s side of things, I can find lots of reasons to take offense.  I mean – for starters, how patronizing can a man get? 

“I fed you baby food because I knew you weren’t ready for solids.”
“I pureed God’s word for you so you could take it in little bites that were suitable for you at your present state of spiritual development.”
I can almost see Paul’s fatherly hand patting the Corinthian church on it’s little head.

But in reality, while Paul may sound arrogant and patronizing, it was pretty obvious that the Corinthians clearly weren’t ready for more because they had failed to digest even the most basic “food” of God’s good news. They had failed to remember that God chose what seems foolish – the care and nurture of the weakest in the world – to set the model for a way of life that flies in the face of the wisdom of the world that says: “Only the strong survive.”  “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” “Get your act together.”

The Corinthians had forgotten that God took the form of weakness – setting aside divinity and heavenly power to share life and love with humanity – making a lie out of the kind of strength that behaves like a toddler trying to put on her own shoes for the first time and declaring I can do this by my own self.  They needed to be reminded that God chose to pour divine favor into the lives of the lowest of the low, to give value where there had been none, to make lives matter that had never mattered at before, and to replace suffering, degradation and enforced social contracts with the kind of creative chaos and live-giving disorder that disrupts the powers that were.

Once again, before we trot out our social justice street cred, before we launch into the “I was there when”  or “I was at this or that march” or “I occupied this, that or the other”  we need to hear Paul’s words and put ourselves in the place of the Corinthians.  Because it’s not for nothing that the First Letter to the Corinthians is in our Bible – the foolishness in that letter still speaks.  Paul’s fool’s errand, Paul’s foolish word was a stripped-down message we still need to hear:   The baby food of the gospel is this:  I know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

This word was anathema to the Corinthian church – it was unthinkable, it was disgusting, it was the last thing they wanted to hear.  They believed themselves to be living out the good news in a way that made sense in terms of the community’s history and their current context.  Surrounded by wealth and power, with neighbors who believed their status and situation meant that they deserved to be served, the Corinthian church simply replicated the prevailing social model instead of taking up the alternative lifestyle of servanthood and self-sacrifice.

Paul followed a long line of prophets when he called out the flawed logic that led the Corinthians to believe that power should be recognized by sycophantic devotion represented by the cult of personality. Apollos, Paul, Christ – these weren’t role models of faith, they were simply names to be dropped when all the right people sat at all the right tables.  The sacrificial logic of the cross had no place in that conversation.

Paul drew from the best of his Jewish wisdom tradition and confronted the broken logic that wisdom comes from power, offering Christ’s wisdom of welcome for all, healing for all, hope for all.  Paul challenged the Corinthians to lean into the way of Jesus, calling them to embrace the foolish logic of good news for the oppressed, for those in prison, for those who were bondage to sin. Paul revealed the vain logic that nobility has to do with wealth, replacing it with Christ’s own incarnational logic of giving away the wealth of good gifts provided by God’s own hand.

As we hear Paul’s call to the Corinthians, we need to remember that word is for us, too.  Until we can digest the basic food of the gospel, until we can truly receive the foundational gifts of grace and mercy and forgiveness, until we can absorb that fundamental way of being into our lives, until we can make the most foundational sacrificial choices, we aren’t ready for more.

It might seem like a strange thing – to talk about baby food and division on the anniversary of the church.  But on this, Anniversary Sunday – while we do want celebrate the founding mothers and fathers of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church – the name of this church carries the message of Paul. 

Sojourner Truth.  We celebrate a woman who claimed and proclaimed God’s strength from her unique and difficult social position.  Living in a time and place where being a former slave, being a female placed her at the bottom rung of a ladder buried in the swamp of 19th century life for a black woman in this country, she lived the foolishness of the cross. 

Presbyterian. We celebrate the wholeness and connectedness that calls us to be one in purpose, one in vision , one in the sharing of God’s good news.  It means that when we disagree, we are not shattered in fragments, celebrating personalities or ideals, but that with one mind we foolishly take up the cross and follow Christ. 

Church. We celebrate being part of the body of Christ, which by definition cannot function without all its body parts.  Accepting every one of the unique gifts God has given to this church for such a time as this is to embrace the foolishness of God’s wisdom that says: what looks weak is actually my strength.

So today, we can celebrate.  We should celebrate.  We MUST celebrate – but in our celebrating, we need to hear to Paul’s call to wake up and to grow up.  We need to embrace the call to set aside whatever power we have for the sake of the weakest in our world.  We need to step out with faithfulness, trusting that the Spirit’s power will enable us to pour out the mercy, the healing, the peace, the love we have received into the lives of anyone in need – friend, enemy, family member, stranger.  Living as fools for Christ, we will see the next 44 years filled to overflowing with an abundance of the meat and bread of the good news, not just for the members of this church, but for a community and a world where that good news is almost never proclaimed.

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