January 30, 2017

The Purpose of a Parish


Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters....”

Something unusual happens in the readings this week. You would have to have been here last week to pick it up, and even then you might not have noticed it.

We’re in a season of the lectionary in which we’re reading Paul’s mail to the church in Corinth. We only really get one side of that correspondence—Paul’s side. But even from just one side of the story, you can tell this wasn’t an easy relationship.

What’s unusual about what we heard in the Epistle this morning is that part of it we heard last week, too. The people who choose the lectionary wanted to make a point, somehow—to weave together last week’s lesson with this week’s one. So the very last line of last week’s reading is the first line we heard this morning: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the wisdom of God.

That’s a little opaque, and it almost requires us to do a little work figuring out just who Paul is talking about. We can imagine that maybe some folks in that early church were confused, or more likely outraged, by something that Paul had told them was at the heart of the whole story—Jesus, this man from Nazareth, was actually the very presence of God in the world with us; and that same Jesus had been executed in a way that was reserved for the most disgusting and reviled criminals.

So this was the problem. How could someone who had been so degraded have anything to do with God? It would be like saying that the person we proclaim as God among us was a homeless woman who died in a drug clinic, or a refugee who died in a detention center.

It would be foolish, just plain foolish, to claim that the wisdom of God was revealed in any circumstances like that. That is not exactly the sort of God we would be eager, or proud, to proclaim to our friends and neighbors.

That must be the tenor of the conversation in Corinth. The city itself was a mixed bag. It was pretty large; it was a Greek city with a strong Roman presence, but because it was a port city it also had many trading communities, and that included a fairly sizeable Jewish community.

We’re not sure who in the church that Paul founded was arguing that the whole story of the cross was better left out. But they were there, and Paul is trying to tell them that they’re missing the whole point.

So what is the message of the cross? Just what is packed into this line of Paul’s?

The message of the cross, the wisdom of God, is what we hear about in the rest of the readings today. The message of the cross, the wisdom of God, is that

  • the kingdom of heaven will be given to the poor in spirit;
  • that the bereaved will find hope;
  • that the things of this world will come to the timid and meek;
  • that the people who seek justice will actually see their goals fulfilled;
  • that the weak losers who show mercy to others will themselves be shown mercy;
  • that those people who actually work at putting a relationship with God high on their priorities will in fact have God revealed to them in ways large and small;
  • that the people who try to stop us from resorting to violence—whether of weapons or of words—will turn out to be the closest thing we ever see to actual saints;
  • and that we, when people call us fools for thinking all this is wisdom, when we find ourselves doubting that any of this makes sense, should know that we’re on the right track.

The message of the cross, the wisdom of God, is summed up in this bit of foolishness we heard at the end of the first reading: Do justice, and love kindness, and be humble, and try to stick with God. Where in our world today is any of that regarded as the path to anything that matters? It’s stupid. It’s just... sad!

And it is the wisdom of God.

Today we arrive at that moment in the church year where we sit together to govern the church. Almost seventy years ago a former rector of this church summed up the purpose of the Annual Meeting beautifully: To take stock of the past; to plan for the future; to express our constitutional right of self-government in our democratic church; and to have fellowship with one another.

But as we gather this morning we do well to remember what the purpose of a parish is—what the purpose of our parish is, and what our purpose is in being here. It is to hear the message of the cross. It is to learn the wisdom of God. And it is to find the strength in ourselves to live by that wisdom, and to advocate for it, even when—especially when—it puts us at odds with the wisdom of the world.

The purpose of a parish is to help each one of us be better bearers of that message, and to do it by being together. The purpose of our parish is to give us the friends, the support, the guidance, the examples to help us see and feel and be touched by the wisdom of God—so that we can be bearers of that message when we are not here, and in places where what we know to be true is ignored, or ridiculed, or worse.

That is what the place is about, and that is the work we are called to do when we gather here—no matter what day of the week or what time of the day. And it is to that purpose that we rededicate ourselves today, as for the one hundred and twentieth time we gather to take counsel together about the ways in which God is calling us now to speak in our own day, in our own places, to our own children and our neighbors and our coworkers and our friends, in ways that they can hear from us or see in us, the message of the cross. Amen.