Foolish Gospel

Foolish Gospel

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 22, 2017
I Corinthians 1:10-18

Have you ever thought about how many decisions there are when you go out to eat at a restaurant? I don’t know about your family, but in ours, this is always a discussion. We’re lucky to have May; she’s a big reader of restaurant reviews. We have our own preferences, of course, favorite places we’ve been to and go back to over and over again. Once you get seated at the restaurant, they hand you a set of choices, a menu, that lays out your choices. This is where it gets interesting. Some menus have pictures and the pictures never match the food delivered? I used to be a food photographer and I’ll tell you a secret: the reason is that the stuff for photography often isn’t real: it gets sprayed with things and it’s fixed up in ways never part of anyone’s order. Maybe you’re an optimizer; that means someone who has been there before and figured out their best choice and automatically orders it. That’s me: every morning I go to the same coffee house, get a small coffee made from Nicaraguan dark roast beans and an everything bagel toasted with cream cheese. Out of the dozens of coffees and teas and the various pastries, I’ve settled on this as my best choice. Maybe, on the other hand, you look over the whole menu and choose something that looks good. And finally, there are those wonderful people—none in my immediate family but I’ve seen this—who just say, “Bring me whatever looks good.” I mention all this because today I want to talk about choices and how we make them. That’s the heart of First Corinthians.

Who to Follow?

These Christians are trying to figure out issues that range from how to do a potluck dinner to how to serve communion; from how to deal with misbehaving members to how to keep themselves together. Remember that this is a diverse congregation. Priscilla and Aquilla, who hosted Paul, were refugees from Rome, driven out by persecution; others members are lifelong Jews, some are former pagans, some are well to do, some are poor. Now they have all chosen to live in Christ, like people going into a restaurant. How will they make choices on the menu of daily life?
In their brief history, these Corinthian Christians have had several pastors. Paul is the church’s founding pastor. Cephas, the apostle we know as Peter in the gospel stories, also spent some time preaching there as well as a man named Apollos. One of the issues this brings up is different ideas. This often happens in churches. I’m always aware that in this church there is a big brass plaque with the names of my predecessors; I kid Joan Dennehey sometimes that my goal is to last long enough here to get my name on the plaque. I know from my own experience how a new pastor can change things and how relationships change.

My mother was mostly a Methodist and Methodists have a culture of changing pastors after five or six years. Mom had a predictable cycle. She always hated having a new pastor. She’d sputter and complain to me over the phone about “the new guy” even when I pointed out to her that I often was “the new guy” in churches. Time would go on. She’d get to know the new guy and he would get older. When it came time to change, she’d be up in arms again about how much she loved her pastor and busy being mad at “the new guy.” My mother died in June of 2014, a few days before a new pastor, a new guy, became the pastor of her church. When I talked to him about her memorial service, he apologetically said he hadn’t had a chance to meet her; I replied, “That’s ok, she wouldn’t have liked you,” and explained about the new guy thing; we laughed, we’d both been there. So Paul is a founding pastor writing back to people who have dealt with some new guys. And as always happens, some of the people liked the new guys better. Some liked Apollos; some liked Cephas. Some preferred Paul. There are people here who would rather have Ray Palmer still in charge; I appreciate that and try to accommodate them.

Finding Unity

What does Paul say? Well, first he calls them to their essential unity. He wants them united in the same mind and the same purpose. I remember reading this at a Bible Study years ago and one of the long time members sniffed and said, “Obviously these people aren’t Congregationalists; no one would say that to us.” We celebrate diversity; we encourage difference of opinion. So how should we receive this command to be of one mind? What Paul seems to be doing here is moving the Corinthians from making decisions based on the “I” to the “We”. This is a hard shift. Over and over when I meet with church committees over the years, I hear people speaking from their own desires exclusively rather than from a sense of the larger we.

Paul goes on to move them even further. He gives this marvelous gift to all of us pastors who are less than great at record keeping. Here’s a stunning fact: Paul has no record of whom he has baptized, no list, no report. He says no one then he has to go back and mention the house of Stephanas. I think what he’s doing is gently pointing out by sharing his own weakness as an administrator the weakness of claims by leaders.

Who’s In Charge?

For when we make decisions, one of the great temptations is to listen to others. We do it in small things. Our family orders lots of things on Amazon; I always read the reviews. May reads restaurant reviews for us, as I mentioned. It’s natural to ask someone else’s experience. But when one person dominates decisions, there are problems. Every autocrat begins with the premise that if we just trust them, they will do great things, the right things. Apocalypse Now is one of the great movies of the last generation. At its heart is the story of one of the best and brightest military officers in the US Army in Vietnam. Frustrated with the inefficiency and lies of his chain of command, he goes off on his own to demonstrate how the war should be fought. But at the end he’s left in darkness, mumbling over and over again, “The horror, the horror.” All autocrats end like this: confronted by ultimate failure, confronted by horror. No one is enough.
Contrast this with Christ. Paul is clear: he was sent by Christ to preach Christ, to let Christ show through him. “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.” [1 Cor 1:17] What he seems to mean is that his actions as a pastor aren’t the main thing: the main thing is the one he points toward, the image of Christ, the power of Christ to transform lives through love. Later on in the letter he will explain this love, saying,

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Here is the opposite of autocrat: a love that doesn’t claim, but instead invites. We often focus on the stories of people Christ calls in the gospels but there are just as many stories of someone he heals or calls who doesn’t respond, doesn’t follow him. I often wonder: was he annoyed? was he disappointed? was he angry? The gospels are mostly silent: he simply moves on. Love doesn’t command; love invites. Love doesn’t compel; love offers.
A friend on one of my preacher’s lists said recently,

I can understand someone who has had a terrible life ending up being miserable and bitter. I can sympathize with that. And I have learned that, often, folk who seem to have everything going for them but are still not happy, and who find life terribly hard, are actually carrying trauma and griefs hidden from the rest of us. I understand that.
What I don’t understand is the miracle of the person who lives a stellar life. The person for whom things have been really tough, who… you would expect… would be soured and bitter, but who has turned adversity, trauma, poverty… into triumph. What sets such a person free to fly in life? []

The Cross and The Gospel

The ultimate example of this, of course, is the cross. Suffering for all, even on the cross we’re told Jesus could still think of others, still find compassion for others. Whether it is comforting those crucified with him, connecting his mother and his disciple John or speaking even about his executioner to say, “They don’t know what they are doing.” Part of the lesson of the cross is to move away from I to the ultimate we, to the vision of God of the whole of creation and of every person as a child of God, a member of the family.

Paul is calling the Corinthians to this compassion; Paul is lighting the candle of this love. And in our church, in our congregation, we are meant to listen and love in the same way. It doesn’t matter what I want here; honestly, it doesn’t matter what you want. What matters is what God wants. When the Roman armies won a victory, the news of it was called “gospel”; that’s where the word comes from. Christians used it to refer to the story of Jesus because that story is how the wisdom of the world—that some person can through smarts or violence or power bring us life—was vanquished by the ultimate victory of God in Jesus Christ. When we come to our own cross, when we take up our own cross, when we ultimately know that what matters is what God wants, then indeed this foolish gospel is kindled and the world is lit. And the darkness cannot overcome that light.
© 2017 James Eaton • All Rights Reserved