Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Foolishness. I confess that sometimes I feel like what we do is foolishness. All the world awaits us outside these walls, and yet here we are, here in this beloved but dilapidated building. There are other people we could see, things that could seem much better. Instead of listening to me, for instance, you could be reading a really good book. Instead of waiting for a bit of bread and a sip of tawny port, you could be ordering some lamb and starting in on a real good cabernet. Or you could be saving the world, going on an adventure. If global warming weren’t so severe, you could be skiing. I sometimes think one of the great miracles of God is that anyone shows up to church at all. Sometimes, when we come up the stairs, Lucy points to the door and says, “Church! Church! Sing!” She wants to come to church. This is a miracle, I think.
I have to confess that I felt a little like the people we heard about from the book of Isaiah: a person lost in deep darkness. And that’s what foolishness feels like, isn’t it—like being lost in deep darkness, so deep and so long that you can’t even remember that you’re in darkness to begin with. You get so lost you don’t even know you’re lost anymore—someone has to lead you out of it. Some light has to shine, some glimpse of a different kind of life.
This past week I was at the Deans Meeting in the Synod Office, and I was presenting on a document just released by our denomination—Called Forward Together in Christ. In my very humble opinion, the document was as bad as it sounds. Our church faces real difficulties: across the nation our average age is in the fifties. Our membership has declined 28% in the past decade or so. We are the whitest denomination in the country. So of course, the church decides to come up with a scheme to reverse all these things, and they release its first form in a series of aspirations and declarations about its values. It is everything the ELCA wants to be, but isn’t exactly. So I presented this document to the other Deans, and I will admit, I got a little snarky. I mentioned that this was the third such plan, and that the ELCA’s own studies suggest that churchwide, nationally-designed initiatives have no impact on church growth. So what does the national church decide to do? The same thing it’s done. It’s as if you’re driving towards a cliff and everyone says, “We’re driving towards a cliff! What do we do? Keep driving.”
And then everyone got their snark on. But then my friend Paul said something that gave me pause. He said he liked the document because it was clear about something—its values. The ELCA wants to work to stop global climate change, sexism, address racism both in itself and in the outside world, among other problems, all because it, as a church, believes that’s what Christ calls us to do. He said, “I’m proud of that. I’m proud that if anyone asks me, I can point to this and say, ‘These are our values.’” Now, what he said doesn’t change my opinion about the document. But it does change my opinion about the national church offices, and really, of the hope that I have that despite all the evidence, our church will survive. But what Paul really did was point out to me my darkness—the darkness of despair, of disloyalty, of deciding that I was better than the people who work for us at our national church. And he helped me see that I was in the darkness of valuing snark and my own amazing insight over the real message of the church: that Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. That light is more precious than any idea I might have.
And he was right about those values. If we are going to be Christians, Christ requires them of us. Today we hear the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, first announcing the time of repentance, then calling disciples, and finally curing the sick. In every moment of this Gospel passage, Jesus shows us what he wants from us, and reveals to us the kingdom he says has come near. God does not reject the unfortunate, but remembers the forgotten. God does not throw away the infirm, but heals them. God does not mock or exploit the poor, but invites them into his home. And if we are going to be followers of Jesus, that is the kind of foolishness we will grow accustomed to doing. And I think it will probably feel like freedom.
Yesterday, a large group of OSA members and friends marched with hundreds of thousands in our city and millions across this country. Yesterday was a pretty good day for those of us that marched—it was good to be in the company of a many of our other Manhattan parishes, even if they got lost in the sea of people like we did, good to know that equality and dignity matter. It was good to walk with others in hope.
But yesterday, Marine Le Pen of France announced that 2017 is the year of the far right, as she leads in the French polls and expects a victory. If this holds, we will shortly be part of a Putin-Le Pen-Trump axis of power. When people make movies of this time, I’m not sure we’ll be the good guys any more.
Yesterday was a good day, but today here we are again, at worship, at the foot of the cross. There is a gathering darkness, and it has strength. Our worship and our values will seem, often, like foolishness. But still Jesus will call us to follow him, so that we can experience the saving power of believing in God.
Today, and tomorrow, and the next, we will follow Jesus. His example shows us what to do: unite with the downtrodden, repent of sin, work for healing, love our enemies. In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he reached out to the South and said, “We must not be enemies. We must be friends.” Even after the Civil War and its carnage, he asked for mercy. Jesus bids us to reach out and love, no matter what, no matter how dark it is. God has not given up on us.
Reverend John Flack