Monday, January 31, 2011

What's the State of Your Union?

This past Sunday I was at Shepherd Of The Hills Lutheran a mission development church is Western Maryland to preach and provide a presentation on the world of Corinth in the time of Paul after my trip to Greece and Turkey- here is the sermon.

Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ in the name of the Triune + God. It’s a blessing to be with you this day. As you’ve heard, I’m a senior at Gettysburg Seminary, recently returned from 15 days in Greece and Turkey where I visited sites connected with the churches of Revelation and part of Paul’s missionary journeys. It seemed like an easy decision to commit to preaching on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians- but of course there’s much Paul says that is more about challenge than about “wow it sure is great to see you!” We hear that the cross brings redemption, but are also reminded that we’re not called to pick up our old life but embrace a new one even though it seems foolish. Words for Corinth and for us.
I’m still trying to grasp that ten days ago I was literally walking the same streets and places where Paul is said to have appeared before Gallio, the governor, in Acts. Seeing the agora, the marketplace where Paul would’ve lived and worked with Priscilla and Aquila. Trying to imagine the former glory, while seeing it today in ruins, hearing little bits of terracotta from another age, crunch beneath my feet. Knowing Corinth was destroyed within a hundred years of Paul’s time there, and is now just a sleepy remnant of its former self. I’m sure no one then believed that possible amidst so much wealth and power and wisdom.

Corinth had just been rebuilt in the time of Paul. Corinth’s location on a strip of land offered not one, but two seaports-greater trade possibilities and strategic location. They hosted the Isthmian Games- kind of like the Olympics where thousands of people flocked bringing lots of tourist money. Imagine a city of brand new gleaming marble buildings and bronze statues. Corinth had developed a special way of crafting bronze producing a pinkish-gold metal that became a collector’s item. They were rolling in money. And to top it off, the philosopher Diogenes had come there seeking a larger audience for ideas, to create an intellectual center as well. Emperor Augustus launched a massive building campaign, with lots of investment to create a city to envy, offering land to soldiers and others. Offering those with no chance of upper class status the ability to become “self-made men.” This is what is challenging for those early Christians- who wouldn’t want a better life? It must have been almost overwhelming to be there in that time swimming in all that

If you were the right person. But the good life wasn’t for all, and not for tradesmen, like Paul- with a government imposed seven day work week- think about how to fit in worship much less relaxation. In a world with thousands of people per acre, with a raucous lifestyle perpetuated by the sailors and others. It may have been the first “city that never sleeps.” Many lived in extreme poverty, the kind we see in global slums and our inner cities today. How hard it would be not to do what it took to get ahead. These are the people to whom Paul said, “not many of you were wise by human standards, powerful, or of noble birth.” And while Paul’s trade allowed him a steady stream of conversation partners in the marketplace, tradesmen by their very occupation were reviled, the bottom of the food chain. It would be foolishness indeed that a church would be started by an upstart tradesman causing trouble in the name of a man who had been killed in the most degrading way. A newcomer who had the nerve to mock the higher ups in every way with “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the expert? Where is the debater of this age?”

But we in the here and now can still ask these questions and still hear that the message of Christianity is such foolishness to a status-driven, techno-savvy 24/7 world. Each year in this country, our elected leaders gather for the State of the Union address which happened again a few days ago. An occasion for leaders to boast about how our wisdom, power and strength will be our salvation. What if we as Christians pondered the state of our union- our union with the Christ of the cross? What would we find?

Our lessons in the season of Epiphany serve to reveal, to make known to us something of the nature of God in Christ Jesus, and of what it means to be in union with this Christ. Paul’s words today remind us again that no matter what the world suggests, the things generations prize- wisdom, strength, or power, things we find ourselves drawn to- are not the focus at all. AND that God knows that we cannot know God in these ways.

We can’t. Two words we don’t like to hear- “we can’t.” We too demand signs and desire wisdom, but in the face of this, God’s response still is instead to seek to re-shape our vision because the cross changes EVERYTHING. If we really intend to proclaim this new vision, our calling is to proclaim not the key to glory, but Christ crucified- in all its challenge and redemption. It’s a challenge because the effect of the cross, in reality, is still is a stumbling block. God’s power, wisdom and purposes don’t square with our expectations. After singing about the glory and joy of Christ’s birth, we now stand confronted with the fact that that our focus should be always on the cross- on God’s vision, not ours. And to commit ourselves to union with the work and meaning of this cross of Christ in the world, in all its liberation and foolishness.
It’s not about us. Can we really walk away from our efforts and boasting about our wisdom, strength and power, and admit that nothing we do can match the work of the cross? And if it’s not about us, what should we be about? Our response instead should be praise and thanksgiving embodied in those well known words of Micah we heard today that start with the prophet proclaiming it’s not about showing what we can bring or do that will be visible to others and bring glory to us. Rather what God deems good and desires is how we internally live our lives- to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God as our leader.

Purposes in tension with the reality of our world and that call us to proclaim that the world’s way of doing business is flawed. That call us to abandon self interest for the interests of those standing in the shadow of that cross. This is how the lowly, the meek and poor in spirit are to be lifted up. To make real commitment to people whose lives and needs will require us to sacrifice something of ours in ways we might not want to imagine.

Martin Luther spoke of this way of the cross and discipleship-“Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend- it must transcend all comprehension…This is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself…It is not you, no (hu)man, no living creature but I myself (God says) who instruct you by word and my Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work that you choose, but the road that is clean contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire- that is the road you must take. To that I call you.” This is the radical challenge of the cross.

Now might be a good time to remember I started out with the word “redemption.”The cross speaks redemption. God knows we’ll still want to rely upon our own capabilities and take charge. The good news is that nothing we do, or don’t do, is the basis for our salvation or redemption. It’s still about the cross. We don’t have to conjure up wisdom, power and strength to master the world. Because of that same cross of a crucified and humiliated Christ. We cannot live but for this cross- it’s always about the cross-our message and our mission. This week, take time to stand in humility and awe and praise for the grace of God’s vision and ask how God is calling you to deepen your union with Christ.