Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A || Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12 || The Rev. Margot Critchfield
“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…Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
How do we—-a congregation in which I dare say most of us are pretty well-educated—if not wise; many of us are influential—if not powerful; and at least some of us come from well-healed, if not “noble” families–how are we to hear today’s lessons? How do we hear these lessons in which Paul proclaims that the weak, the foolish and the despised are saved, and Jesus teaches that the meek, the poor in spirit and the persecuted are blessed?
If these readings make you a little uncomfortable, they should. It is natural to wonder if there is room for relatively successful, relatively well-to-do Americans in the Kingdom of God.
Paul is a very black and white thinker. Everything’s either foolish or wise, weak or powerful, saved or doomed to perish. Paul loves to point out the paradoxes of the Christian life and attack them head-on, beginning with the greatest paradox of them all, the paradox of a crucified Savior. To the Jewish scribes—the interpreters of the law—it was an unthinkable stumbling block, a scandal, that the powerful and mighty God they worshipped would send a weak and powerless Savior to be mercilessly humiliated on a cross. And to the great Greek minds of the day, the Sophists–or “debaters” as Paul refers to them–it’s just plain nonsense that defies all logic.
So Paul wants to be very clear with the Jesus followers in Corinth that while the idea of a crucified Messiah may seem like foolishness to the culture around them, the so-called foolishness of the cross is, in fact, the ultimate revelation of God’s profound wisdom and unsurpassed power.
Paul explains that God deliberately chose what is foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called wise, and chose what is weak in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called strong, so that no one would be tempted to boast of themselves before God. No one could make the mistake of thinking they had an inside track with God because they were powerful scribes, brilliant philosophers, successful money managers, influential attorneys, or successful CEOs. No one could make the mistake of thinking that God placed any special value on the wise, the well-educated, the powerful, or the affluent.
No, God wanted to make sure everyone understood that those are not the things that matter. So God, in all God’s wisdom, chose to reveal God’s self in the mighty strength of utter powerlessness, and in the awesome power of weakness and vulnerability. God chose to reveal God’s self in as the child of an oppressed people, who would spend his early years a refugee in a foreign land. Then God called as his own the “low and despised” of the world: Those of humble origins, low social standing, and no political power. “Consider your own calls,” Paul writes, “…not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.”
So what about us? Is there room for us, even if, when we consider our own calls in relation to the Corinthians, we have to admit that we like to think we have at least some modicum of wisdom by human standards, that we are at least moderately powerful, or that we come from relatively “good” families? Is there room for us here?
The answer to that depends on where we position ourselves in relation to what Paul calls “the foolishness” of his proclamation: Christ crucified. Because the real question for us today is whether or not we’re willing to live into the so-called “foolishness” of Paul’s proclamation by living into the demanding realities of the cross.
Do we stand with the foolish faithful who proclaim Christ crucified, or do we– like the wise Greek philosophers– think a crucified Savior lacks intellectual credibility? Do we proclaim Christ crucified, or do we, like the powerful Jewish scribes, find the idea that God would be revealed in weakness and powerlessness beyond credulity?
Funny how such questions survive the test of time, how two thousand years later our human intellects still insist on dogging our God-given faith. Maybe the problem is that like Paul, we think too much in black and white. After all, does the reality of a crucified Messiah have to be paradoxical? Why is it so difficult to recognize the divine strength in Christ’s utter powerlessness, and the awesome power in his submission to weakness and vulnerability? Must it seem like a contradiction in terms that God’s power was revealed in Christ’s powerlessness? I don’t think so.
Because in Christ, God chose to be powerless.
In Christ, God chose to be vulnerable.
In Christ, God chose what was foolish in the eyes of the world to reveal his love and wisdom.
And frankly, that’s very good news for us. It means that while we may be powerful, we can choose to be powerless in Christ; while we may be strong, we can choose to be vulnerable by loving as Christ loved; while we may be intellectual giants, we can still be “fools for Christ.”
When we position ourselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, and accept the demanding realities of the cross, we open ourselves to a world where opposites do not necessarily conflict, a world where contradictions are not mutually exclusive, a world of “yes, and…” instead of “either/or.”
It’s a world where powerful politicians are meek and poor in spirit: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know who’s got the real power and who doesn’t, so they’re humble enough to admit their powerlessness before God, listen to His word, and seek His will.
It’s a world where influential lobbyists mourn: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they see the heartbreaking difference between the world as it is and the way God created it to be, so they work to represent God’s interests, not just their client’s.
It’s a world where successful businessmen and women are righteous and pure in heart: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they have moral and ethical integrity and are true to their ideals, even when it means a reduction in profit.
It’s a world where high-powered attorneys are peacemakers: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know that justice and reconciliation is more important than winning a case.
God revealed God’s power in weakness and His wisdom in folly, and we are called to do the same. It’s not meant to be easy. But it’s not impossible. History is peppered with powerful, wise and successful leaders who were also deeply faithful, humble, and compassionate.
So where do you choose to position yourself: with the wise and the powerful, or with the foolish faithful? Because,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. Amen.