Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon for Epiphany IV

Holy Comforter, Drexel Hill, PA--I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

Back when I was in high school, a program was instituted that was considered rather innovative at the time, but is pretty much taken for granted nowadays. It's the whole idea of special privileges for seniors—seniors in high school, that is! Seeing as how they've reached the point of crossing over the line from childhood into adulthood, it's appropriate that there be some outward and visible signs of such a status. So, as it was styled in my high school, the senior "Pride" program meant that, as long as we adhered to certain rules, we could leave campus in the afternoon an hour earlier than the other students, and there was a special room — with a TV and a coke machine —dedicated solely to the use of seniors with "Pride" privileges. I know all this might sound pretty tame by today's standards, but, back then, it was a sign of high status. 

As well it should be. We expect high status to "look" a certain way. Persons of high status are materially secure; they don't want for the creature comforts. They are influential, and, within the worlds they inhabit, they wield power. They may also be admired and well-thought of by their peers. Along with high status comes reduced exposure to various calamities that routinely threaten those of lower status.

Now, the New Testament assures us that, as followers of Jesus Christ, baptized with him in his death that we may share with him in his resurrection, we enjoy a pretty exalted status! We are adopted children of God and co-heirs with Christ of his eternal kingdom. In Christ, God's plan for the renovation of the entire created order is made known to us. We participate in the divine life of God himself. We were chosen before the foundations of the world and destined for this glorious status while we were yet in our mothers' wombs.

All of this could, if we let it, go to our heads, right? Apparently, this is exactly what happened among the Christians of the Greek city of Corinth, in the first century. 
They were quite taken with their status as possessors of divine wisdom, and they became rather full of themselves. They imagined themselves superior not only to their unenlightened fellow citizens who still worshipped the pagan pantheon, but even to their father-in-God, the one who had led them to their high status, a gentleman named Paul. They began to look on him as something of a country bumpkin, not as sophisticated as they were. 

Christians today are certainly not immune to what we might call the "Corinthian syndrome."  Those of us of a certain age remember a time when it was quite unremarkable to speak of the United States as a "Christian nation.” It was just assumed that there would be prayer at all sorts of non-religious public events, and that the prayer would be a Christian prayer. Everything slowed down on Sunday, the Christian "sabbath,” and ground to a complete halt on Christmas, a Christian holiday. 
In the 1960s, Christian leaders had wide access to the corridors of political power, and they kept the fire lit underneath the agenda of civil rights and the war on poverty. In the 1980s, Christian leaders, of a slightly different stripe, had access to halls of government, and wielded their influence on behalf of traditional Christian family and moral values. Such access was simply one of the expected perks that accompanied the status of Christianity in American history and culture. 

Now, since then—yes, even since the 80s—the place of Christianity in our culture has changed quite a bit. We no longer enjoy the status that we once did. But, now that we can look back on the golden era of Christian influence in American society, we might well ask ourselves some critical questions about how that status affected us and our witness as Christians in the world: Was the gospel proclaimed, or was it obscured by the smugness that goes along with high status? Was the good news made crystal clear, or was it drowned out by the tendency of those who enjoy high status to want to be in control of others? Was the cause of Christ advanced, or was it abandoned by those who find that their status doesn't protect them from suffering and adversity? Was Jesus worshiped as Lord, or did those who were complacent about their status as adopted sons and daughters of God forget to render the glory and praise and thanksgiving that they owed? 

One theological conviction that emerges with distinct clarity from any careful reading of either the Old or the New Testaments, is that God is both willing and able to take humankind down a peg or two when it becomes necessary. In the Old Testament, he tends to be rather blunt: "I'm God, and you're not. Any questions?" In the New Testament, God takes a subtler approach. In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find the familiar list of virtues—the "Beatitudes"—that are held up as examples of the sort of thing that God blesses, qualities that please God so much that he directs his special favor toward those who exhibit them.  Listen to the list: "Blessed are the poor in spirit ... those who mourn           ... the meek ... those who hunger and thirst after righteousness ... the merciful ... the pure in heart ... the peacemakers ... those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and those whose identification with God is so complete that people mistake them for prophets and chase them out of town. 

Now, recall the signs of high status: material wealth, power and influence, admiration and respect from one's peers, and reduced    exposure to the diseases and disasters that afflict others.

Is there something wrong with this picture? 

Does it not appear that Jesus turns the whole notion of status upside down? Does it not seem that God honors and blesses ways of behaving that, by the standards that we're accustomed to, are downright foolish?

Indeed, it does so seem.

In his love, love that gives us what we need even if it might not be what we want, God systematically and relentlessly robs us of any basis for pride or boastfulness about our status before him. Remember the Old Testament story of Job? Job enjoyed status in God's sight, so much so that God bragged about Job in front of the assembled heavenly beings. And Job also enjoyed the signs of status that human beings normally expect to see: great wealth, a large family, sterling reputation, and good health. But one disastrous day, it all disappeared. His children and servants were all killed in freak accidents. Thieves made off with his property. And his body became covered with open sores. Anything over which Job might even be tempted to brag, or see as a source of pride, in his standing before God, was pulverized. At this point, Job still did not curse God, but he did, shall we say, "have words" with God. Job was awfully curious. "Lord, I've never let you down. I've been faithful to you in every way. Why have you withdrawn your favor from me?" The answer that eventually floats to the surface is something like, "Job, I love you but I'm under no obligation to even answer your question. You're just going to have to be content with the fact that ... I'm God, and you're not." 

St Paul puts it this way:
                       
                        God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the
                        wise; God chose what is weak in the world the 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. ... For God's foolishness is wiser
                        than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger
                        than human strength.

There are many ways of approaching the gospel of Christ, and many ways of expressing it. But each and every one of these ways ends up at the same place.
They all end up at the cross. The cross — it represents foolishness in the eyes of the world, "but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God." 

The "Senior Pride" program was, no doubt, an idea whose time had come at my high school in the late 1960s. And I don't begrudge high school seniors anywhere the privileges that go along with their high status. But in the light of the gospel, if we're going to seek any status, it should not be the status of seniors, honored in the eyes of the world. The status we should seek is that status of sophomores. A sophomore, literally, is a "wise fool.” Think of it as an abbreviation for "sophisticated moron.”

Our destiny is Christ is to be morons according to human wisdom, but sophisticated—wise—according to the "foolishness of God." Only then will we give up boasting about our status, and rely on Christ alone as the source of our life and our salvation. 
Amen.

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