Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or well-born when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose the low-born, the things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Paul has gotten word that the members of the congregation in Corinth are fighting amongst themselves: they’ve been taking sides in a multi-faceted conflict over the right method of baptism. Some were baptizing in the name of Paul, some of Peter, some of Paul’s co-worker, Apollos, and some in the name of Christ. Religious factionalism appears to have started as soon as more than one preacher attracted followers. Paul asks them, who was it, who had been crucified on their behalf: himself, or Apollos or Peter? No – no, it wasn’t. It was Jesus, the Christ.
Paul tells them, the message of the cross is foolish to those headed for destruction. As a long-time New Yorker, I can’t help but think of Wall Street – of the day of reckoning on October 29th of 1929 – Black Friday, the official start of the Great Depression. As the “boom years” inflated the stock market, so too did the rise in the percentage of suicides. Like today, the stock markets grow and grow, and a few get richer and richer, while an increasing number of people live in poverty. 34% of the United States population lives in what is politely called “material deprivation;” that means the family doesn’t have enough income to cover basic housing, food and clothing needs. Stock market booms are counted as success. That they come hand-in-hand with increasing poverty on the other side of the street; well, it’s not talked about much – at least not in substantive, problem-solving terms.
The wisdom of the cross contradicts the wisdom of the forces that drive our financial markets and our politics, that informs church bureaucrats who seek to “store up their treasure on earth,” securing their pensions and impoverishing congregations. If we followed the wisdom of the cross, what would that look like?
Some 50 or so years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified for having the audacity to publicly proclaim a peaceful and just kingdom of heaven among us – that is, on earth; within us – the writer of what we call the Matthew Gospel envisioned a final reckoning. In this vision, the inheritors of the kingdom are sorted out from the crowd. This vision is an image of the wisdom of Jesus, of the cross in action. We probably all know how it goes: God says, I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. Of course, the real punch line of this scenario is that the one group had no idea they had done anything extraordinary, while the other group had no idea of what they had done wrong. They were just doing what came natural – either seeing or failing to see their fellow human beings who were in need. It amounts to owning responsibility for one’s little corner of the world.
Here’s something else the wisdom of Jesus tells us to do: stop worrying so much:
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but God already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom above all else, and live in a decent, worthy way, and God will give you everything you need. Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Well, that’s for sure…
There is absolutely no doubt that, in the thinking of the worldly wise – or if not wise, of the ones in positions of power - the wisdom of the cross is idealistic nonsense: imagine no countries, nothing to kill or die for, no religions tearing us apart; imagine no greed or hunger – a fellowship of humankind. Imagine all the people living for today. Thanks for those words, John Lennon…
But today turns into tomorrow, and we are still, often at a loss to imagine anything but the rut we are in. Take Ageism, for example. Ageism is the assumption that, at a certain age, people begin to rapidly lose their usefulness to society. This prejudice is pervasive here in Germany. It is insidiously and spiritually erosive to society and to individuals. Over the 4-plus years in which I’ve lived and worked here, I have been moved and frustrated by the number of people, ages 30 to 50, or even older, who are unhappy in their work, but whose employment status is respected by their families and by society; a status that will allow them to retire with varying degrees of security and then – then what? Most of them have no idea. Many already feel the rage and disappointment of living and sacrificing for a retirement, which, for health or any number of unforeseen circumstances, they may never reach.
I’ve stopped counting the times people have asked me why in the world I would start something totally new at the advanced age of 55, when anyone with sense would, at my age, be planning where they’re going to live when they can’t climb the stairs anymore. It’s always a hard question for me to answer – there is no way I can make it sound sensible, because it isn’t. Selling real estate in Manhattan was sensible, but studying theology – emptying my retirement fund to pay for my education? Ridiculous; irresponsible; unwise – Paul calls it foolishness. A nice thing about roaming around in the Bible is that one is far from alone in being foolish: Abram was 75 years old when, his wife Sarai and their entire household left for a new life elsewhere. Sarah was 90 years old when she gave birth to Isaac – I would want to draw the line there.
And Jesus – well, in his time, 40 was the average age of mortality. At age 30, he was the comparative equivalent of my age when he left home, family and the attending responsibilities to become an outspoken conscientious objector to the Roman Empire culture of violence and oppression.
Just after I thought I had finished this sermon, I clicked on an article in the New York Times on the pursuit of happiness versus knowing one is doing something useful. The article cited various studies: no, lottery winners are not happier than the rest of us. As for physical and mental health, even happiness was not the overwhelming factor: even the grumpy folks who are regularly engaged in doing something meaningful for other people – even they live longer, stay healthier, and are less likely to suffer from dementia. So maybe the message, the wisdom, of the cross is not so foolish after all. Maybe this really is the wisdom that has the power to save the world.
So here we are, dear brothers and sisters: at the beginning of a new year. Every year, we call this beginning – in our greetings to each other and in the promises we don’t keep to ourselves – the start of something new. What is it that you expect from this year? Do you know? The fact is, 2018 is not capable of giving us anything we are not prepared to experience, to strive for, to stay in contact with our own consciousness day after day after day. That doesn’t mean being driven; it may mean learning to relax and take in the small things. It may mean breaking with external expectations and listening to the foolish wisdom of your spirit. Does your heart call you to do something foolish? I know – health and responsibilities draw perimeters around possibility. But don’t assume too little of yourself: we ought not make our one God-given life smaller than it is.
The poet Lucille Clifton wrote:
i am running into a new year/and the old years blow back
like a wind/that i catch in my hair/like strong fingers like
all my old promises and/it will be hard to let go/of what i said to myself
about myself/when i was sixteen and/twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but/i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
Rosalind Gnatt serves as a long-term volunteer with the Evangelical Church of Hesse-Nassau. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.