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Unexpected Power

Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Preached at University Presbyterian, Chapel Hill
January 29, 2017
Rev. Elizabeth Michael

My friend Christine tells a story of when she was running on a treadmill, far from the hallowed halls of the seminary we both attended.  The guy beside her, who to our knowledge had never crossed the threshold of the hallowed halls of our seminary, asked what she did for a living.  No seminarian likes to answer that question.  Explaining what it means to give three years of one’s life to the study of God is a conversation best had with plenty of time for questions and carefully chosen words.  But for whatever reason, these conversations tend to happen on airplanes and in dentist chairs, and, in this story, on a treadmill.  Not coincidentally, I think, places where oxygen is in short supply.

But Christine managed to pant out that she spent her days studying God and serving Christ’s church.  “Ah,” came the response.  “So you’re into all that Jesus-y stuff.” Christine nodded, keeping pace with her eight-minute mile. The guy persisted.  “A couple of weeks ago, I saw a picture of Jesus hanging on the cross.”  Christine prepared herself for a question about atonement theory or the Passion narrative.  But before she could respond, the guy continued, “I noticed that Jesus had these rock-hard abs, like a six-pack. I didn’t know Jesus worked out!”

Paul says Christ crucified is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. But those long-ago inhabitants of the ancient world aren’t the only ones who stand incredulous at the cross.  To hold together in our minds the picture of a powerful God and a beaten and bloodied body left for dead is too much for most of us.  No wonder we zero in on Jesus’ rock hard abs or the doctrine of God’s sovereignty or any of the thousands of places in scripture where God does not look quite so…vulnerable.

Paul writes to a baby church in Corinth, a brand new community of Christ, filled with new Christians who are just beginning to sort out how to live together.  My New Testament professor, Brian Blount, described the Corinthians as “rugrats” in the faith, imagining them as a group of toddlers like those on the Nickelodeon show that was popular at the time…toddlers making their way in an adult world with no small amount of bickering.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, and the church of Jesus there reflected this diversity.  There were Jews and Gentiles, there were the city’s elite and the working class, there were those who came to faith through Peter and others who claimed Apollos as their spiritual father.  It sounds so noble, to gather these colors and classes and creeds of people together and call them Church, but the reality is, all those differences were mostly good for quarreling.

These Corinthian rugrats had been nursing on the milk of the Jesus story, and Paul in his letter is trying to offer them some meat.  And so when he is confronted with the problem of their division, he offers them not a course in conflict resolution, but a paradigm shift grounded in the cross of Christ.  This is what binds you together, Paul says to those bickering children learning how to live together.  Not human power or human wisdom, but the cross of Christ.

It was a perplexing word for the Corinthians.  In the cross, God took weakness to its weakest point…Jesus humbled himself all the way to death.  If ever there was a picture of weakness and power juxtaposed, it must have looked like those Roman soldiers with all the power of the empire behind them holding spears up to the broken body of the crucified Christ.

No community trying to find its footing, trying to find its unity starts with weakness.  Any good leader knows you start with a message of strength.  But Paul looks out at those fault lines running right through the Christian community and says, find your identity, find your common ground in the crucified Christ.  The cross might look like weakness and foolishness, Paul says, but on that cross, the strength of Rome is subverted, and human wisdom is turned on its head.  God’s wisdom, God’s power works through an instrument of torture and death to keep turning the world around. And what appears weak and foolish becomes simply raw material for God’s revolution.

The Corinthians get to see what the disciples gathered around Jesus at the beginning of his ministry can’t yet see.  All those words, all those “blesseds” which lift up the mournful, the meek, the maligned—they make no sense until we see them embodied in Jesus.  Jesus’ life of perfect faithfulness led him to that cross.  In the vulnerability of his body, which bore the marks of human violence, we see true power.  It is a power that chooses not the way of dominance, but of freely-given love.  It is nothing short of revolutionary.

***

Three years ago, when these same lessons came up in the lectionary, Ukraine was erupting into violence.  Tensions between police and protesters in Kiev had been rising for days, often turning violent, and they’d come to a head in the two opposing sides facing off across a small strip of snow-covered no man’s land.  On one side were the protesters, a rather disorganized crowd.  On the other side were the enforcers of the reigning power, who stood in lines five men deep that stretched out for hundreds of yards.  They wore riot gear, each one’s face hidden under a helmet, each one’s body protected by a heavy rectangular steel shield that covered him neck to knee.  For two consecutive nights, tear gas and rubber bullets rained upon those gathered. Molotov cocktails soared through the air without warning; nearby vehicles burst into flames; fireworks burst into the dark night sky.

What happened the third night was captured in a series of photos published by the Huffington Post.[1]  Right in the middle of that snow-covered no man’s land a group of Ukrainian priests appears, walking slowly in prayer.  Their brightly colored vestments shine against the dark smoke billowing behind them; their eyes reflect the fiery embers of violence still smoldering at the edges of the scene.  All around them are heavy metal shields and bullets, bombs, and bottles, but their only armor is the robes of their vocation.  They bare their bodies to police and protestors alike, and the only defense between them and the violence that surrounds them are these small wooden crosses they hold out in front of them.  In one of the most compelling pictures, a priest stands with his arms outstretched, a cruciform posture, while behind him an armor-clad man trains a rifle on his back.  For most of the night they stood there on the frozen ground, fireworks and thunder-flash attacks bursting all around them.  But in the morning, on the third day, there was peace.  A temporary break in the violence as the sun crested the horizon and the weapons of war were, just for a moment, laid at the foot of the crosses those priests kept holding high.

Foolishness to make your defense not a steel shield but a small wooden cross. Utter foolishness to think oneself a peacemaker, to tread into a place rife with violence and division carrying only a prayer.

***

I have a foolish friend.  Her name is Marcia Owen.  I met her several years ago, after I’d read a book she co-authored, called Living Without Enemies.[2]  The book tells the story of how she returned to her hometown of Durham after spending some years working in New York City amid the AIDS crisis.  When she came back to Durham, she got involved with a group doing work with victims of HIV, but they soon hit a wall in helping a family who needed rides to the hospital when the two infected children became sick, as they routinely did.  The group of caregivers was moving along with interest, until someone mentioned the neighborhood this mother and her children lived in, and then the room became filled with fear.  The neighborhood was one in which many residents had fallen victim to gun violence.  Marcia admits she was startled to realize that there was a neighborhood in her own hometown so filled with violence that some people would never enter it.  But she was also a mother of two, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how there were children living in that neighborhood, too.  So while she respected the decision of the others gathered with her to keep themselves safe, she decided for herself to try to love before she feared.  She went over to the family’s house to introduce herself and began to meet other mothers and children in the neighborhood.  One mother took her upstairs in her house to meet her baby and pointed to bullet-holes piercing the wall just above the baby’s crib; another mother told Marcia how at night she put her children to bed in the bathtub, because that’s where they were safest from drive-by shootings.

One thing led to another, and as Marcia made friends in that part of town and met more and more people who wanted to live from love and not from fear, she began holding vigils at the invitation of families who had lost loved ones to gun violence.  So now if you find yourself in east Durham on second and fourth Thursday nights, you’ll find a group of people who call themselves the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham.  They are people of every color and age and faith, from every part of town, who have come together to hold space and silence and prayer for those whose lives have been taken by guns.

Foolishness to think you can make peace by holding hands and singing songs and releasing gold Mylar balloons up to the sky as you release a life to the hands of its Maker.  Foolishness to think those who weep tears of devastation at the loss of life might be comforted.  Foolishness to stand in a circle with nothing but one another while the power of violence prowls all over our earth.

***

One final story: this one from South Africa during the time when apartheid was gasping for its last breaths.  Some Christians had planned a rally to voice their support for an anti-apartheid society.  The government caught word of the rally and tried to shut it down, so Archbishop Desmond Tutu decided to invite everyone to church instead.  Inside the church, the pews were filled with people who knew Christ had come not to create racial hierarchy, but beloved community.  But outside the doors, there were soldiers with guns who said otherwise.  When Tutu got up and started to preach, the soldiers came inside and lined the walls of the sanctuary, hands on their guns, a display of worldly power if there ever was one.  But Tutu knew the power of the gospel and the foolishness of the cross, and he kept on preaching.  Kept on telling the people about the kingdom of God, about how apartheid had no place in it.  And at one point, he stepped out from behind the pulpit, and smiled a broad smile as he turned to address the soldiers.  “You are powerful,” he said.  “You are very powerful, but you are not gods.  And I serve a God who cannot be mocked.  So since you have already lost—for you have already lost—I invite you today to come and join the winning side.” [3] With that, the congregation erupted in dance and song.  And the people danced and sang their way right out those church doors and into the street, passing military forces who, not knowing what else to do, backed up out of the way as the people of God went out into the streets rejoicing.

Foolishness to rejoice while you’re so clearly being persecuted.  Foolishness to dance down the street while the army is encroaching.

God forbid we be so foolish.  Foolishness to think that whatever it is in our lives that keeps us at our weakest might, in God’s goodness, be taken up into glory and used for our redemption.  Foolishness to rejoice in our freedom as children of God when the power structures of this world constrict still more tightly around us.  Foolishness.

 

[1] “In Kiev, Protests Bring Orthodox Priests to Pray on the Frontline,” Huffington Post, 1.24.14, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/24/kiev-protests-priests_n_4660431.html, accessed 1.25.17.  Also see “Ukraine protests: claims that police used live bullets as demonstrators die in clashes,” Telegraph, 1.22.14, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10589160/Ukraine-protests-third-demonstrator-dies-after-overnight-clashes-in-Kiev.html, accessed 1.25.17.

[2] Story that follows is from Chapter 1 of Living Without Enemies, by Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen, Intervarsity Press, 2011.

[3] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, 347-8.

Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor

Email: elizabeth@upcch.org

Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.