Sermon of the Week
A Foolish Message.
Keywords: Concord, Unity Not Uniformity, Foolishness, Guthrie.
I’m glad that the lectionary planners
have turned our attention back to First Corinthians.
I’ve always liked this letter, which one of my seminary professors described as
“Paul’s plea for concord.”
She got that description from today’s reading,
where out of the gate Paul points out
various diverse groups in this church he founded, and urges them to come together
not under the most plausible argument they can muster,
not on which side has the most votes,
but under the “foolish message of the cross”
the power of God to save and to enliven us.
I invite you this morning to open your hearts and your minds
to this reading of God’s Word.
10 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.
11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people
that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
12What 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.’ 1
3Has Christ been divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,
15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.
16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas;
beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
17For 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.
18 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.
And may God bless our reading,
and our understanding,
and our applying of this word,
to how we live our lives. Amen.
I love this letter because you can almost picture Paul writing it,
or maybe dictating it as he paced back and forth from where ever it was he was,
having first received a note from the Corinthians
who were concerned about all sorts of things.
He cared for that church, there in Corinth,
the people he came to know over several months
the people who came to know what it meant to love God
because of Christ’s foolish gift of selfless love.
And so, when he heard from them and saw that they were stressing out
about how to be community together, about what to do next,
about where to go, collectively, into an unknown future,
he sets about to respond, out of compassion for them,
and out of the conviction of faith.
What you get is this letter which we call First Corinthians,
this appeal for concord.
What we get is Paul appealing to the sensibilities of those he has come to know
that, yes, they each have their own perspectives, their own passions,
their own biases and yearnings and ways to do things.
Paul isn’t going to denigrate that,
in fact, just a few chapters later, he’ll celebrate that:
there are many gifts, but one spirit, he will say,
some are teachers, some speak with spirited tongues,
some might be plumbers or mechanics or preachers or bookkeepers or singers
but all of you are gifted, in different ways,
with different perspectives and passions and yearnings,
for a common purpose:
which Paul called the common good,
or which we might call the Kingdom of God.
Paul wasn’t pushing uniformity,
which is something we get wrong sometimes when we hear today’s reading
this “be of the same mind” part.
Unity and uniformity aren’t the same thing.
What gives us our unity, instead,
isn’t our all being the same.
Our unity comes from the one who unifies us,
the one who calls us, and who sends us.
Our unity comes from our following God on the path of Jesus Christ.
And so Paul is pacing back and forth
trying to figure out how to help these beloved people claim that calling.
It’s not about me, Paul says.
(So he rambles a bit about baptism,
knowing full well how people seem to follow the one who does the baptizing;
just ask John, as we peek at our other reading from Matthew,
John the Baptist:
whom many would turn to as their leader,
John who was trying to point to Jesus instead…
I am glad I didn’t baptize many of you, Paul says,
except one or two, or maybe five or six or ten or who knows,
but it wasn’t about me…
right, my Corinthian friends?”).
And it’s also not about you, come to think of it,
not even about the other ways you’ve clustered yourselves,
–belonging to Paul
–belonging to Peter
(That’s Cephas, right, the rock on which the church would be built,
the popular leader of the predominantly Jewish followers of Christ in Jerusalem).
–belonging to Apollos (he was more out there, think the Andrew Yang of his time)
–or even quote “belonging to Christ”….
if that is a way you separate yourselves from the others.
Christ is not divided, Paul says.
We don’t do this, not in the church,
not the way the world does.
(Paul would likely look at all the various denominations
over the years and wonder what happened)
The world does not get this,
but, then again, the one who died for you and for me
is not really something we have gotten our heads around yet.
Even today, 2000 years later.
Its foolishness. And we know that.
And still, we are amazed by what it means for us and for the whole world.
Paul’s appeal for concord.
But it is also a call for each of us to follow, right,
to work together for the realm of God.
Many years ago, when I was in Chicago,
I heard a sermon on this passage from a pastor at Fourth Church in Chicago.
She told the story about a religious community, a monastery,
going through uncertain times.
The abbot of the monastery agonized
over the many changes and ambitious intentions of his order.
The world around them was changing.
Their church was changing.
And change is, as we all know, a scary thing.
In the woods surrounding this particular monastery there was a little hut,
and a rabbi from a nearby town would use the hut for his hermitage.
Rumor had it that the rabbi in the woods was very wise.
He was known for his discerning insights into leadership.
One day, it occurred to the abbot to visit the rabbi in the woods.
To ask him if he could offer any advice
that might guide and direct the monastery into its future.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut and invited him to share some tea.
But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit,
the rabbi could only shake his head and wonder with him about the future.
He had no answer.
The abbot and the rabbi commiserated together,
reading Scripture and quietly praying together.
It was truly a remarkable display of interfaith devotion and friendship.
When it came time for the abbot to leave, he embraced the rabbi,
asking in a wistfully way,
“Is there no advice you can give me as I help my congregation face the future?”
“No, I am sorry,” responded the Rabbi. “I have no advice to give.
The only thing I can tell you is that the messiah is shining through one of you.”
The abbot returned to the monastery to find the other monks eagerly awaiting.
“Well, what did the rabbi say?” they asked.
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot replied.
“We just read the Scripture together and prayed.
The only thing he did say, rather cryptically just as I was leaving,
was that the messiah is shining through one of us.”
In the days that followed,
the monks wondered if there was any significance to the rabbi’s words.
“The messiah is shining through one of us? If that’s the case, which one?”
“Do you suppose he meant the abbot?”
“Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbott.
He has been our leader for more than a generation.”
“On the other hand, he could have meant Brother Thomas.
Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man,
and he is most likely to succeed Father Abbot someday.
Everyone knows Thomas is a man of God!”
“Certainly he could not have meant Brother Eldred.
Eldred gets crotchety at times.
But, come to think of it, even though he is rather thorny,
Eldred is virtually always right. He’s very wise.
Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Eldred.”
“But surely not Brother Phillip.
Phillip is so passive, not much of a leader.
But then, Phillip has a gift for always being there when you need him.
He just appears by your side, as if he knew you needed help.
Maybe Phillip is the one through whom we see the Messiah.”
“Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me.
I’m just an ordinary person. Yet, supposing he did. Suppose I am the one?
O God, not me. You couldn’t possibly be in me, could you, God?”
One of the greatest invitations of our faith
is the invitation to find your own place within God’s story.
In the story Sharon read for us today,
you see Jesus reaching out to Simon and Andrew,
James and John,
ordinary people just going about their business, fishing at the Sea of Galilee.
Come, follow me, says Jesus.
Perhaps that day, when he walked by the Sea of Galilee and called to the fishermen,
Perhaps Jesus knew the rabbi’s secret,
or perhaps, somehow the rabbi knew Jesus’ secret:
that those fishermen, each one of them,
had some unique God-potential in them,
that in each of them, something of God’s power could shine forth.
Jesus held no audition; he asked for no resumes.
He didn’t ask them who they planned to vote for.
He simply invited people to “Follow me.”
And their WILLINGNESS was ENOUGH of a credential.
“Follow me,” Jesus said to the would-be disciples,
“and I will make you fishers of people.”
He said to them, “Focus on me and I will help transform your life’s work.”
And as they followed, they began to see the messiah in Jesus Christ
and began to see HIS life and HIS light reflected in their own lives.
Now, Jesus’ disciples were not uniquely pious or holy people.
They weren’t the crème of the crop, so to speak.
The best of the best, the elite of the religious class of that age.
They were fishermen.
The good news for Simon and Andrew, and for us …
Is that Jesus works with raw material.
Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie once said,
“The CHURCH is the only club in the WORLD that accepts
only members that are not qualified to join it!”
Shirley Guthrie goes on to point out three qualities of church members:
First, we church member types are people who know we are sinners
that we fall short, that we don’t measure up all the time,
and freely admit that we are not good or superior or better than others.
Membership isn’t about that. This life of faith, isn’t about that.
Its not about having all the answers,
Or having all the faith,
Or even being right most of the time.
Second, for that reason, we are dissatisfied sinners,
people who are not satisfied with ourselves or with the world around us;
In short: we are the people of God not because of what we have or are,
but because of WHAT we are seeking to receive and to become.
And whose call we are seeking to follow.
Shirley’s third quality of church members is this:
we are called and collected in the name of Jesus Christ,
not for our own benefit, but for his.
It is not about us. It is all about God.
You may have heard it said in one of our church creeds
that we believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
You’ll hear it again, in a bit,
when we ordain and install our new leaders for the year to the session.
That phrase, the holy church: It sounds so much different than what it means.
As a church, we call ourselves holy,
not because WE are, but because we belong to the one who is.
We don’t proudly argue or declare our own goodness, strength, purity, or wisdom.
And we look with a leery eye those that do declare that.
The church, when it is true to itself, is more humble than that.
We can only do our best to follow Jesus Christ
and to focus on God’s goodness, strength, and wisdom
trusting somehow that these qualities can be reflected in us and transform our lives.
And, more than that, can transform the world.
Truth be told, I can see why some people can hear all this
and think that it is foolish.
In this world where one minute we think we’re going to war with Iran
and the next minute we’re worried about the coronavirus from China…
In this world where we feel stuck in endless battles
for what truly feels like the soul of our nation…
Is it foolish to look at one another and to say,
you know, we can all work together for something bigger, more hopeful,
more beautiful than ourselves?
Maybe it is. By conventional standards alone.
But not by God’s standards.
In God’s world,
fishermen (and fisherwomen) can find their calling in their everyday lives
and seek to live by the values of faith and hope and love.
In God’s world,
the different factions might seek to come together to solve our great human problems
by serving one another, and seeking to be in community with those different from us.
In God’s world,
the hungry will be fed with good food,
the thirsty will be given water to drink,
the poor will find resources shared and opportunities to help them rise up
those experiencing racism and homophobia will find the power to break that bondage
people who live in communities of violence will find swords broken into ploughshares
and everyone, everyone, will find a place of rest, a room in God’s house,
fish to catch and share with our neighbor and our children
and even those once considered our enemies.
Whatever happened to the monastery?
As the monks contemplated the rabbi’s mysterious comment,
on the off-chance that one among them might be the one reflecting the messiah,
they began to treat each other with extraordinary respect and love
and to enjoy one another’s company in new ways.
And on the off-chance that each monk himself might be the one,
they began to treat themselves with extraordinary love and respect
and to enjoy themselves
and in so doing
to find new joy in living.
People occasionally came to visit the monastery,
to enjoy its beautiful grounds, to stroll in its gardens,
or to meditate in its sanctuary, to attend the Sunday services.
As they did so, they sensed the aura of extraordinary love and respect
that began to surround the monks
and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the place.
Hardly even knowing why,
the people began to come back to the monastery more frequently
to relax, to play, to pray.
They began to bring their friends to this special place
and then they would tell others and with their praise, word began to spread.
Then it happened that one of the visitors talked to a monk
and after a while asked if he could join.
And then another asked if he could volunteer.
And then another made a gift.
Rumor spread that the messiah truly lived in this place.
When people came, they felt his presence.
The Father Abbot watched, amazed, as within the next few years,
the monastery began to thrive in new ways,
to do expanded mission and ministry.
In all this, all because of the rabbi’s gift,
the monastery became widely known as a community alive
in the presence of the living Lord.
Like the monastery, this church, The Kirk has decades of history.
Like the monastery, The Kirk is facing change and an unknown future.
And like the monks and the disciples, we are ordinary people,
some crotchety, some passive, some ordained as elders and deacons, some not,
all with God-potential in us.
As we face the future, the secret we can learn from the rabbi
and the warning we can heed from Paul
is that our church will thrive not because of
one person’s leadership or another;
our church will grow and expand and be spiritually alive
based on how we follow Christ,
how we change our focus to see the Christ in one another,
how we learn to recognize that Christ is incarnate
in our midst–
not in any one of us, but in all of us.
I look forward to the days ahead.
I hope we take advantage of the excitement–
to recommit yourself to the humble journey of following Christ
and to being part of his body, the church.
I hope we take the opportunity to open the doors of our faith and our church
in new ways and share the good news.
And, as people come, that they might see messiah in this place.
May we know the Messiah among us, and may our living bring him glory!
So be it, and may it be so.
 This story, and the inspiration for this sermon, indebted in large part to Rev. Sarah Sarchet Butter and her sermon “Called and Collected for Glory” from 1/27/2002.
Image Credit: unknown.