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March 11, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Professor of Urban Ministry, McCormick Theological Seminary
1 Corinthians 1:18–31
For us, in the end, there is only one truth, and it is the Christ. He is the truth about who man really is, about what it means to be truly human, and about who God really is. And his Cross is the truth about what the darkness is, in us and in our world; and his Cross is the truth about what the love of God is, in us and in our world.
“The Two Battles,” The Magnificent Defeat
In one of his most famous poems, Carl Sandburg celebrates the brash energy of Chicago:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding.
(Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”)
“Come and show me another city,” says Sandburg. This morning we do that; we travel back in time to another city that might almost answer Sandburg’s challenge: Corinth.
- Corinth, another city that rebuilt itself on the ruins of destruction
- Corinth, another city strategically located to manage the trade that flowed east and west, north and south
- Corinth, another city that was a major player on the global landscape of its day
- Corinth, another city that was an immigrant destination, ethnically rich and diverse
- Corinth, another city filled with go-getters—entrepreneurs and high achievers who had climbed to the pinnacles of professional success
- Corinth, another city filled with hard-working, imaginative people working to climb that very same height right behind them
Corinth. Corinth might not have had a missile for a mayor, but it was, nonetheless, a city to be reckoned with. It was our kind of town: cosmopolitan, cultured, and competitive.
I underscore the word “competitive.” In Corinth, individuals and households competed to have their place in the sun. That was the way of things, because in the ancient Mediterranean world public reputations and visible achievements meant something. Honor and recognition secured a good place for high-achieving individuals—and if those individuals had a good place, then so did everybody else in their households. In Corinth—in the city and in the church—people fought to get ahead, and they fought to make sure everybody else knew they got ahead.
I don’t know about you, but to me this does not sound like such an ancient story. Many of us here this morning value achievement. We strive after knowledge or the next promotion or the credential we think we need to get ahead or the income we need to make a living. We are ourselves entangled in a competitive world that values hard work, reliability, determination, and ambition. In some ways we have to be entangled in this world simply to survive and thrive. It’s this world that puts food on the table and a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. But if we would be honest, we need to admit that being entangled in this world isn’t just a matter of earning a living. For many of us there is something intensely satisfying about running such a race. I know that. You may know it, too. From his letters, I am convinced that Paul also knew the reality and the satisfactions of competitions. He could do the one-upmanship game as well as anyone.
Yet in our text this morning, Paul flips over and upends this competitive logic we live with, just like Jesus upended the money tables in the temple. Paul repudiates it all. “We preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. . . . This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:23, 25, Common English Bible).
To help us make sense of this paradox, I’d like to turn our attention to some reflections by the author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling. In June 2008, Rowling delivered the Harvard commencement address, which she entitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” In this speech Rowling talked about her own failures and what she had learned from them. More importantly, she talked about imagination, which she defined as “the capacity to envision that which is not” and, “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared” (J. K. Rowling, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” The Harvard Magazine, June 2008). So imagination is the capacity to envision and an ability to empathize. Rowling went on to talk about one of her earliest jobs as a researcher at Amnesty International. This was a pay-the-rent job, not the job of her dreams, yet Rowling looked back on it as an incredibly important opportunity, because in that job she learned about the depths of human depravity as well as the expansiveness of human goodness. She didn’t learn about these things entirely firsthand. She learned about human depravity and goodness in part through her imagination, through the people she met, the letters she read, and the stories she heard.
Her speech is available online, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I hope you will do yourselves a favor and find it and read it.
Right now, I would like to expand a little bit on Rowling’s ideas of failure and imagination and use them as lenses to look further at our text from Corinthians. Failure and imagination.
Let’s start with failure, and let’s be honest. At one level, from the perspective of a cosmopolitan and competitive city, the narrative of Jesus’ life and his death on the cross is a narrative of failure. Jesus was born in a barn; he had no place to lay his head; he got under a lot of people’s skin; and he died an ignominious, lonely, humiliating death. Jesus fell short of all the standards of Jewish messiahdom. He flunked most of the tests of Greek teaching and learning. Jesus was a failure in many people’s eyes. The guy could not compete.
Nor, says Paul, could a lot of his followers, whom Paul describes in this text as low-class and low-life. They are considered to be nothing, he says (1 Corinthians 1:28). Let’s be honest. A lot of people in Jesus’ time, a lot of people in Paul’s time, and maybe even a lot of people in our time think Jesus and his followers are losers. By the standards to which they hold us, we are failures.
Such a conclusion may be understandable from a competitive perspective, but it underestimates God’s imagination. It underestimates God’s capacity to envision and bring to life that which is not. It underestimates God’s ability to empathize with you and me and all human life; it underestimates God’s imagination. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Every week in our church we repeat the Apostles’ Creed together. Admittedly it’s not the most exciting part of worship, but I like it. I like it because sometimes it’s surprisingly revelatory; without warning I hear or understand something entirely new simply by saying the same old words. I also appreciate it because every week it reminds us of what theologians call “the incarnation,” God’s full embodiment in Jesus Christ. He was “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” God did all those things in Christ. In that process, God entered a particular life—a first-century, Galilean, male body—but at the same time God experienced what it’s like to be human.
- In Jesus God experienced the complete vulnerability and helplessness of an infant.
- In Jesus God experienced the annoyance of a young person whose parents got on his nerves and sort of cramped his style.
- In Jesus God felt the throb of whacking your thumb with a hammer because you missed the nail; in Jesus God felt the sting of stubbing your toe or skinning your knee.
- In Jesus God experienced the exhaustion of a long day’s work.
- In Jesus God got hungry and thirsty.
- In Jesus God questioned authority and got in its face.
- In Jesus God got caught in the web of powerful, oppressive systems and structures.
- In Jesus God took joy in friendship, and in Jesus God was abandoned by his friends.
- In Jesus God laughed and cried and took a final breath.
It was a particular life, yes, but God’s incarnation in Jesus was also an extraordinary act of imagination, because through that one life God can now imagine a way into every life and into every corner of life—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And there is a good deal of the bad and the ugly to be encountered. Earlier I quoted from Carl Sandburg’s poem, but I only quoted part of it. I left out the negative stuff, some of which follows. Not only does Sandburg describe the vitality of Chicago, he also describes its depravity:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: on the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
Sandburg wrote that almost a hundred years ago, but except for the part about the gas lamps and the farm boys, he could have written it yesterday. Or he could have written it thousands of years ago. Sex trafficking and murder and hunger are not new phenomena. Despite 3,500 years of living with the Ten Commandments and 2,000 years of Christianity, we have made so little progress in stemming our viciousness. We see such brutality in human life—in family and countryside and city—and we’ve seen it across human history. How can we account for the divine in these contexts of repeated violence and sustained suffering? Have synagogue and church made so little difference? Has God failed? That is one way to look at it, and probably many do.
But naming this as failure misconceives and underestimates God’s imagination. God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ, of which the cross is the primary symbol, is God’s imagination in action. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are God’s imagination in action. And like all imagination, God’s imagination envisions and brings to life that which you and I cannot see. It transcends the boundary between humanity and divinity. God’s incarnation in Christ gives God, the divine, a pathway to imagine and empathize with the fullness of human life, from its glory to its brutality. There then is no place we go where God in Christ cannot join us. There are no heights we can scale that God cannot imagine. There are no depths we can descend that God cannot envision. There is no suffering or injustice from which God turns away. God goes to the cross for us. So there is no loneliness, no betrayal, no violence, no uncertainty, no grief, no pain, no oppressive structure from which God is absent. The cross reminds us that God joins us in life. God commits to humanity. And God makes all things new.
Now in the competitive framework in which we normally live and move and have our being, this makes absolutely no sense. But in the imaginative, divine mystery, God’s foolish devotion to us is wise, and God’s weakness in Christ is strength, and God is in the midst of us, and God will not be moved. This is the good news of the gospel. Amen.