4 Epiphany, Year A, sermon for January 29, 2017: Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Where is the debater of this age? This is not a serious question that Paul is asking in today's epistle. If it had been, the answer would have been: "Down the street, Paul, there is probably a debate taking place right now in the public square." Oratory was very popular in the ancient Roman and Greek world. Although certainly much older, classical oratory really took off in 5th and 4th century Greece and continued through the time of Jesus and Paul and beyond, at least for a few hundred more years. Demosthenes and Cicero were certainly some of the most famous, but oratory was an activity that all (men, at least) in the educated classes studied. It was as fundamental as the 3 Rs are today. Oratory was a hugely popular activity. Paul asking "Where is the debater of this age?" would be a bit like saying "where is the runner of this age" in 21st century Eugene! There are dozens running along Pre's trail right now. Paul isn't seriously asking, but rhetorically, to almost dismiss his opponents, to mock them. Now, I have nothing against speech and debate. I enjoy it. I used to be a competitive debater in High School and College. I learned so many valuable skills from the activity. And Paul doesn’t really have any problem with debate either. I think another serious answer to this question might have been: "Behind the pen of this letter, Paul, for you are quite the debater yourself." He made an argument that has withstood the test of time.
Debate is ultimately about success and winning. You want to convince everyone - or at least the judges - that you are right and that your opponent is wrong. This was as true then as it is now. There are winners and losers. To win, to convince people, as Aristotle taught and as every orator would have known in the first century because they most certainly would have read his work, you use some combination of your own ethos (your presence, your expertise, your position) and the pathos of your audience (their fears, their worries, their anxieties) and your logos (your words, the carefully structured logic of your words). Ethos, pathos, and logos. But Paul wants to remind his readers, this relatively young Christian community in Corinth, that what really matters is not the logos of our arguments, but the Logos of God. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Logos became flesh. Paul points to the true Logos. Not the debater’s logos, not Aristotle's logos, but the true and ultimate Logos, the incarnate Logos, the incarnate Word: Jesus Christ.
And the image of the logos that Paul wants to start his argument with – remember, this passage is from the first chapter and Paul is setting the groundwork for what will come later in the letter- is the Logos hanging there on the cross. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." This is counter to everything that the debater - of Paul's age, of our age, of every age - cares about. Losing instead of winning; failure instead of success. The cross: that shameful tool of execution of the Roman State, designed to publicly humiliate the victim to make a point to the whole body politic. The cross: the ancient equivalent of the electric chair or the needle of lethal injection or the gun of the firing squad or the hangman's noose or the lynching tree. The cross, this horrendous thing, is the foundation of true wisdom, of true knowledge, of true discernment, of true boasting. The cross is the foundation of Paul's argument that is going to take him into his audacious claims later in the letter about what it means to be a baptized member of Christ's body - when he will claim that even the weakest, lowliest member is not only necessary, but often the most valuable - and his audacious claims about the primacy of love over every other gift that God could possibly give us. Paul is laying the groundwork for his argument about what life in Christ is really about.
This argument is an echo what we hear Jesus proclaim from the mountain today: blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Jesus lifts up the lowly and puts them on the pedestal of blessing.
These are not blessings as the world understands them. These are not things that the typical debater is going to use as proof for blessing. But these are the way of Jesus, the way of God. These are the way of the cross. "Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." Winning, success, power: these all pull at us constantly. They are seductive. And yet, as Paul reminds us, winning, success, and power are nothing compared to God. The foolishness of God is greater than our wisdom; the weakness of God greater than our strength. Winning, success, and power are all useless in the light of the cross.
It's foolishness. It really is. Paul knows it. He says it. It's foolish. It is foolish to set the cross before the values of the world. But, it’s a similar foolishness to the foolishness of calling the old and barren Sarah and Abraham to be ancestors of great nations. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the murderer and poor public speaker Moses to lead a movement of liberation. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the foreigner Ruth to be the grandmother of David and calling the greatest sinner David to be the greatest king. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the much too young Jeremiah and the impure Isaiah and the contrarian Jonah to be God’s prophets. It's a similar foolishness to God's words recounted by Micah in our first reading to plead our case before mountains. Why would you ever plead your case before something unmovable? It’s foolishness. It's foolishness. It's foolishness. It’s foolishness for the Messiah to go to the cross, to be slaughtered like a lamb. It’s all foolishness. But it is the foolish wisdom of God. "Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God."
And this is the foolish wisdom that we have to continue to proclaim to this world. The foolishness of the cross we have to proclaim in both word and deed. Micah lays out for us what the proclamation looks like: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. What foolishness it is to do these three things in our world that seems to delight in injustice, love meanness, and run arrogantly from our God, run arrogantly as if we were God. What foolishness to do this in a world that prioritizes boasting and greed, and rewards bullying. This is nothing new, it is the way it has always been. It was so when Micah recorded those words from God. It was so when Jesus proclaimed the beatitudes from the mountain and again when he was nailed to the cross. It was so when Paul proclaimed the foolishness and wisdom of that cross. And it is so today.
But we have to keep doing this: Keep proclaiming this foolish wisdom. Keep proclaiming justice, kindness, and humility. Keep proclaiming the way of Jesus. Keep proclaiming the love taught in the words of the beatitudes. Keep proclaiming the cross. Do not weary of this of this proclamation. Even as the world calls you foolish for prioritizing service over power, humility over arrogance, love over fear. Do not weary. For this is "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God." Do not weary. For that power of God will carry you through to the end. Amen.