Rev. Teri Peterson
The Corinthian Dream
1 Corinthians 1.10-31
21 June 2015, P1-5 (Moved by the Spirit)
four days after the terrorist shooting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
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. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’
This past Tuesday, I woke up and went strawberry picking, and thought about wisdom and foolishness and beauty.
And Thursday morning I woke up to terror in the news.
Nine bodies, each a reflection of God’s glory. Nine faces, each the image of God. Nine stories, immersed in God’s story. And one young man, also made in the image of God, a child of a mainline protestant church, also hearing God’s story, but his head filled instead with lies our culture has been telling for centuries—lies about what he deserves, lies about “them,” lies about crime.
I want to say this is unimaginable, that I can’t understand. But the thing is, I’m not sure it is so unimaginable. We have become used to this kind of violence—it is a tragedy now and in a couple of days we will have the privilege of forgetting about it until the next time it happens. We don’t want to talk about underlying issues, don’t want to name it for what it is, instead insisting that it was one guy, one mental illness, one person who never grasped the message that God is love, and that love is for all people. Over and over, several times a year, we make those same claims. Charleston is the next chapter in our repeat of our history, the logical next step in a past that we seem doomed to re-live because we refuse to look honestly at it and then decide to be different.
Which was, sadly, the exact situation in Corinth when Paul was writing to the church there.
Corinth was a Roman colony, and was populated by two classes of people—the newly wealthy, and the poor. The city was known to have lots of money but no class, heavy on ostentation and low on cultural depth. The city and its people lacked charm and grace, and they tried to make up for it with show and power. It was the Corinthian Dream, really, to move there and work up the ladder to get into that elite upper class.
Unfortunately, the way they did that was by openly stepping all over the poor. The Corinthians had no qualms about pushing other people down so they could climb up, no difficulty with ignoring the needs of their neighbors because they didn’t have the status or power to matter. It was a classic rich-get-richer-and-poor-get-poorer kind of situation. Some people were kept down, others were buoyed up, and there was very little social mobility…though that didn’t stop the dream.
We always hope the church will be different—it will be the place where divisions fall away and all that matters is that we are together worshipping God. But then as now, the church was not terribly different from the world. The rich came early and feasted before the poor could arrive for worship. The church was divided, with some following one preacher and some another. The people still seemed to seek the kind of philosophy that would help them reach their own goals, which had primarily to do with prosperity and security.
And this is not the first time they’ve corresponded with Paul. Though we call this letter 1st Corinthians, Paul references at least one prior exchange of letters. So the discussion is ongoing, and Paul is beginning to get exasperated.
Why are there divisions? He writes. Why do you seem to believe that one preacher or another is as good as Christ, or maybe better? Does the preacher die and rise for you? You can practically hear the other preachers thinking “I hope not!”
As if calling out their celebrity preacher crushes was not enough for the introduction of a letter, Paul turns immediately to the point: the Corinthians look for wisdom that will confirm what they think they know, that will support them in their division and their warped understanding of themselves and the world. They look for a philosophy that will make them look good, even if it has no depth…and bonus if it helps them socially or economically.
But we proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, the wisdom of God. And the idea that God’s wisdom could involve a cross is stupid, at best. That God’s wisdom would also involve peasants, subverting the economic and political system, and nonviolence is beyond the comprehension of philosophy or common sense.
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 to bring to nothing the things that are revered.
Those are hard words for those of us who unwittingly occupy the cultural space of strength, wisdom, and power.
Can you imagine being the church in the year 53, hearing these words directed at you for the first time, as Paul’s voice calls out from the page, saying “you think you’re not a part of the problem, but you are—you have bought into the wisdom of your world, wisdom that says it is perfectly reasonable to keep going along with the invisible system that benefits you. But God chose what is foolish and weak and despised, and all that foolishness and weakness is stronger and wiser than anything you can dream up. Wake up and see…and when you see, you can be changed. It’s not too late to seek true wisdom rather than the culture’s wisdom.”
Of course, it is too late for Cynthia, and Clementa, and Sharonda, and Daniel, and Depayne, and Tywanza, and Myra, and Ethel, and Susie. It is too late for Dylann. It is too late for countless other people who have been sacrificed to our wisdom. They rest from their labors, and their works follow them.
Paul writes to remind the Corinthians, and us, that there is just the one way to life—and that way involves almost none of the things they pride themselves on. That way does not step on people. That way does not trample God’s creation. That way does not allow for some to be in and some to be left out—in just a few chapters he will tie us together as one body, insisting that those who seem to be weaker are to be more greatly honored. That way is not wide enough to accommodate all the things we want to bring with us, including our unexamined privilege. The way is wide enough for exactly one thing: a cross. The symbol of all that is despised and shameful, the instrument of torture, the method of erasing people. The cross, which so briefly held the body of our Lord but now stands empty to the sky, connecting the world God so loved to the kingdom of heaven.
It’s Foolishness, of course—let go of the assumptions that allow me to be comfortable in the world? let go of the behaviors that make me feel good about myself? let go of the things I love about my life and personality? Why would I do that?
Foolishness—love my neighbor? what can they do for me? love my enemy? that will just get me killed. lay aside weapons and resist with cunning and peace? sounds like a recipe for disaster. love God more than anything? does that include my security? my home? my great hair? Who is my neighbor? What does love mean anyway?
Foolishness—be in the same mind and the same purpose? But I was promised freedom. I was told I was responsible for myself, and only myself. I was told I could do whatever I wanted when I grow up. I was told that our founders intended for me to pursue my own happiness, not to be bogged down with other people, especially people who impede my happiness and constrain my freedom.
And the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. We who are continually shoring up this world’s system, we have no free hands with which to take up the cross, and we have too much stuff with us to walk through the narrow gate.
To those who are being saved, though—being saved, in the process of living into God’s call and promise—to we who are being saved, the cross is the wisdom and power of God. To we who are earnestly seeking God’s path, the cross offers a map and invitation—lay down your burden and come, follow. Lay down the burden of blinders that keep us from owning our history and moving forward in a new direction. Lay down the burden of self righteousness that shadows our good intentions. Lay down the burden of helplessness that paralyzes our faith. Then pick up the cross—knowing that it might hurt, and that it is the only way.
Richard Rohr wrote that “To pray and actually mean ‘thy Kingdom come,’ we must also be able to say ‘my kingdoms go.’”
This is a hard prayer—“my kingdoms go.” The wisdom of the world is something we can understand, hold on to, and point to when we want to insist that none of this is our problem and we had nothing to do with it. Regardless of what I think about it, the system of this culture works for me, as a white middle class woman with a world class education and a strong loving family.
And yet every day I pray “thy kingdom come.”
There is a comic strip that shows a man sitting on a park bench with Jesus. He asks Jesus “why do you allow so much suffering, hunger, violence, and hate in the world?” and Jesus answers “I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
So why do we allow it? Do we truly believe we can’t change anything? Do we secretly believe everyone is on their own in the world and it isn’t our job or problem? Or do we not want to, because it might be uncomfortable or even dangerous? Are we worried about what happens when we lay down false wisdom and embrace God’s foolishness?
I am worried about what happens when we don’t. The members and pastors of Mother Emanuel church have paid the price already, alongside the four girls in their Sunday School class in 1963 and countless others over the years. 52 years ago, at the funeral for the girls killed by the bombing of their church, Martin Luther King Junior begged us all, of every skin color, to substitute courage for caution, and to be passionate in unmasking not only the murderer but the system, way of life, and philosophy that allowed him to be created in our midst. He pointed out that when we of the majority are silent, it is the same as consent and approval for these horrific acts and mindsets. How long will we believe that somehow they and we are not part of the same body of Christ? How long will we, subconsciously or blatantly, insist that we are different, separate, not responsible? How long will we renounce sin and evil with our words, while we continue to unconsciously benefit from the racist systems built by those who have gone before us? Or worse, to pretend we have no part in this sin of racism? For if we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves and there is no room for truth in us.
Friends, when even the church that has been the symbol of freedom for a people, a sanctuary, is a place of terror, then it is well past time for us to take up the cross that our sisters and brothers of color have been carrying for so long. Otherwise we run the risk of being salt that has lost its saltiness, and leaving the world to the kind of wisdom that reigned in Corinth and still reigns today.
It’s hard work. Uncomfortable work. Standing up and saying no more, refusing to stand by when stereotypes are perpetuated, standing beside people rather than over them—sounds suspiciously like Jesus. And as Baptist preacher Vance Havner wrote, “Salt seasons, purifies, preserves. But somebody ought to remind us that salt also irritates. Real living Christianity rubs this world the wrong way.”
And we are the body of Christ, and we have seen the still more excellent way—the question is whether we will walk it into abundant life for all, or choose the easier path that leads only to destruction.
So this week, pay attention to how this kingdom benefits you, and then pray “my kingdom go.” Find a way to stand up for justice, for equality, against racism and sexism, for nonviolence, for hope. Pray “my kingdom go, your kingdom come” over and over, and allow God to use your life as a candle that lights the darkness, a conduit for the Spirit to move the whole world, one step at a time.
May it be so. Amen.