Summit Presbyterian Church
March 15, 2009
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Consider Your Call
Today's reading comes from a letter the apostle Paul wrote to a church in the Greek city of Corinth. In those early days of the church, letters from Paul were read out loud in the congregation to teach and encourage, and Paul often addressed the challenges facing that particular church. So when scholars or preachers read these letters today, we do some detective work. We try and figure out what was going on in that particular church by gathering clues from the letter. Because, for example, Paul spends a lot of time talking about sexual immorality in this letter, we suspect - we don't know but we suspect - that they had some pretty wild parties in Corinth. We can also deduce that there was a lot of conflict in congregation. There were tensions at the communion table between those who came hungry and those who had plenty. There was disagreement on what was lawful or unlawful to eat. There were disputes over speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts. It seems that questions of status, and power, and right knowledge were at the center of the congregation's life, causing division within it.
It is to this divided and fractious congregation that Paul writes. And he reminds them of a basic, shocking truth of the gospel: that God didn't reveal God's self in a way that anyone expected. God's good news didn't come through a powerful statesman, an accomplished religious scribe, an eloquent debater or a renown philosopher. God was revealed through a lowly one of the world: a humble Jew of Galilee who didn't even speak Greek - the language of educated people - and who was killed on a cross as a failed and foolish pretender to power. He was killed by that weapon of the Roman state meant to humiliate the prisoner and frighten the people. God chose one who was weak and low and despised says Paul, in his dramatic way, to shame the powerful and wise and strong. Paul seems to be playing a zero-sum game here, raising up the weak and lowly and those who are being saved at the expense of the powerful and wise and those who are perishing. But he lands us all in the same place: God has done this, he says, so no one may boast in the presence of God. So that neither the strong nor the weak, the wise or the foolish, the Jew or the Greek, can claim the advantage - but that all the glory, and all the boasting, belong to God.
A pastor friend once told me a poignant story about a conversation she had with a member of her church near the end of his life, when he was ill. The man had been a deacon in the church, on and off, for over 40 years --- most of his adult life. He was reflecting on that when he began crying. And he said, "I guess I just wasn't Session material."
We don't know for sure why he was never elected an elder. But my friend had a guess. The church was a large one in the suburbs, with many professionals and successful business people in the congregation. The man was a blue-collar worker, perhaps with a high school diploma. In that church, as in many churches, Elders on the Session were professionals or businesspeople. They were among the more educated in the congregation. It's a pattern followed by many churches - not so much at Summit in case you're getting nervous about where this is going - but it's common. There are good reasons for this: the Session is in charge of religious education, so it helps to have people with formal education on that board. The Session is ultimately in charge of the finances, so it helps to have people with knowledge of the banking and financial system on it. Likewise, when there's a Board of Trustees commissioned to handle the property, it's good to have people who know something about boilers and negotiating leases. When the deacons are commissioned with ministries of hospitality, they need people of a warm and compassionate nature who know how to cook. But there's a danger in this typecasting. In our world, people with degrees or wealth, with knowledge of finance and real estate - especially if they have money and real estate - have more power. They have more status and respect - and if they're white or male that power is magnified. Therefore, if those are the only people on Session or Trustees, we're likely to give more status and respect to those boards, perhaps even power beyond their elected authority. On the other hand, the traditional work of the deacons - hospitality and cooking, caring for - not curing - the sick, sympathetic listening, feeding the hungry - is accorded less status in the world. Deacons and their work are often held in lower esteem. (It's worthy noting that much of the work of the deacons has historically been women's work. And despite progress and exceptions, women have less status and power than men. It's no accident that deacons were the offices open to women in the church).
Now, like I said, this is less true at Summit than it is at many churches. I've been impressed, looking through the annual reports, at how much people rotate among the boards - that folks who are deacons now have been trustees and vice versa. But in our status conscious, class driven society, we have to be vigilant: and I include myself here, as pastors tend to be the worst offenders in this regard. There's always a danger that in our church life we'll reflect the hierarchy and the power relations that exist in our world -- and the esteem and respect that go with them. There's always a danger that we'll violate the law of love and honor some of God's people more than others. The rich more than the poor, the highly educated more than the less educated, men more than women, whites more than blacks. There's always a danger that we'll forget God revealed God's self through one who was weak and low and despised in the world - a crucified Jew in the Roman Empire. There's always a danger we will give the message that so hurt the man who was never elected an elder - that some people are more valuable than others. I should add that danger plays itself out on the other end as well. People who are wealthy or powerful - or perceived as such - may wonder if they're being welcomed, or elected to office, for their spiritual leadership and love of God -- or for their pledge. There's always a danger that we'll forget no one can boast in the presence of God. To God belongs all the glory and the boasting.
The Nominating Committee will soon begin its work. This is the committee that will present a slate of possible elders, deacons and trustees to be elected by the congregation at the annual meeting in June. They'll be asking everyone for suggestions - and it's perfectly appropriate to suggest yourself. But when you consider your call - or the call of someone else - consider the unexpected. Consider someone you might not have thought to be deacon material or session material at first glance - and our witness will be stronger for it. Not only will we be counter-cultural. Not only will we witness to God's leveling love. But we'll be opening another avenue for the Holy Spirit to speak to us -- and it's more practical. It's great to have teachers and principals on the Christian Education Committee. But it's also helpful to have people who can say, "let me tell you what happens when non-professionals take the children to Sunday School." It's necessary to have people who are comfortable with numbers on the finance committee, but some of those charities who invested with Bernie Madoff might have avoided trouble if they had non-experts on their boards to keep asking: tell me again how you make that much money each year without doing anything? It's important to have people informed and passionate about social justice on the deacons, but it's also helpful to have someone who likes to keep their eye on the church budget. Now, of course, it's possible to have formal education, budget-mindedness and compassion all in one person - but most of us are a little more lopsided. We also want to enjoy the work - some people who like the hands on work of the deacons might consider a term on session as a jail sentence. But as we consider our own call and the call of others, for elected office or for any kind of church service, let's move out of our comfort zone. After all, most of the church's work and mission doesn't depend on any expertise. It depends on willing hands, an open heart, careful thought and prayer.
And our work on a church board or committee is only one part of our call. We are called, in all of our life, both inside and outside the church, to live in a way that gives glory to the God who chose what is weak and despised and of no account in this world. We're called to honor all people, regardless of wordly condition. We're called to stand with those who are poor, in jail, or otherwise looked down upon by the world. We're called to witness to the Kingdom, where all the boasting, and all the glory, belongs to God.
The commentaries by J. Paul Sampley in the New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) and Richard Carlson at www.workingpreacher.org were used in the preparation of this sermon.