(a sermon for October 9, 2016, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5)
The Reverend Peter J. Gomes was, as you might know, a well-known author, professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School, and over the course of 40 years until his passing in 2011, the pastor and teacher of the Memorial Church at Harvard University. Gomes was and is considered to have been one of the seminal preachers of his generation; a powerful and compelling speaker in the middle of one what continues to be one of the most fascinating mission fields of this past century: the Ivy League!
I always had great admiration for Peter Gomes; in large part because for all those years in the midst of that academic, progressive and largely secular jungle, he led a congregation that positively thrived, which wasn’t too bad considering the man was not only ordained as a Baptist, but was also a lifelong Republican! Indeed, in his years filling that Cambridge pulpit, the pews were routinely filled to capacity and the sermons that Gomes preached were discussed as fervently as any topic on campus. Which in and of itself served as an impressive legacy; but I think what always moved me about Peter Gomes’ work at Harvard was in how he himself described his ministry there: as the work of “prophetic embarrassment and rebuke.”
Prophetic embarrassment and rebuke! Now there’s a job description you won’t often see listed on a pastoral profile! But in a place like Harvard, it makes sense: this community teeming with the some of the greatest minds and thinkers of our time, this virtual storehouse of formulas and theorems and treatises that would seek to reveal all the relevant answers for our life and living; and yet also a place, despite its own history and for all its accumulated knowledge and abundance of “truth,” has often stood utterly uninformed about the truth of the gospel. It was said, in fact, that Gomes had a “dogged determination to articulate the Christian faith in an environment that [knew] many things except Jesus.” For his part, Gomes used to say that that Memorial Church stood “as an embarrassment to a community that assumes that its own learnedness is sufficient for the way, and [as] a strong rebuke to those who treat truth as something to be shopped for at Quincy Market.” I always loved that quote; because in the end, you see, what always set that ministry apart was precisely that it refused to assimilate itself to dear old Harvard; right there in Harvard Square was this old, historic church that was unashamedly, unambiguously and joyfully Christian, and guess what? In an environment when you might have thought such a thing to be irrelevant and antiquated, it flourished!
I lift this up to you this morning because it seems to me that there’s a great deal to be said for a ministry of “prophetic embarrassment and rebuke;” most especially in these days when there is just so much for us, as persons and as a people, to be embarrassed about! Once again, it seems to me that when the world around us just keeps on spiraling out of control there is this profound call for the truth of our Christian faith to be spoken in a way that is clear and unalloyed; that there is a deep need in this culture for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed boldly, firmly and lovingly by those who know it best. Or to put this a bit more succinctly; now, perhaps more than ever before, someone needs to speak up! Someone, right here and now, needs to stand for the truth of faith and to be that strong, prophetic, faithful embarrassment in the world!
But the question is… is that someone you?
That’s what I want to ask you today: are you an embarrassment? At least where your faith is concerned (!); in other words, are you living out your Christian faith in a way that it actually creates some consternation amongst those around you? I’m not asking if you’re being judgmental or hard to get along with because of what you believe; but I would ask if your own personal concept of what is ethical, moral and faith-centered become so blatantly tantamount to your life and living that just the example of it ends up a rebuke to those you know who may have gone down other roads? It’s one thing to be known by your faith in church on a Sunday morning; but when you leave this sanctuary today, do others look at you and see for themselves that you are unabashedly, unambiguously, and joyfully Christian?
One morning some time ago I received a phone call from a woman trying who was trying to track down a family in the community, and in explaining this to me she said that she knew that these people were devout Christians, and she thought that perhaps they attended our church; and if not, then maybe I would know where they did. Well, after I hung up the phone I got to thinking about that and was struck with the realization that these days you really don’t often hear people primarily described as devout Christians! We might talk about someone as a “church-goer” and we often refer to people as being religious; we might also say they’re “fanatical” about their faith, or worse, that they’re “holier than thou.” But devout is something different. Devout, to me, suggests a rather holistic approach to faith, meaning that one’s relationship with Christ touches every part of a person’s life, so much that the rest of us can literally see it and feel it from him or her; and in fact, serves to set that person apart from the mainstream of human life. And let’s be honest: the people like that who come into our lives are fairly well few and far between!
I don’t mean to sound judgmental here; it’s just the reality that most people tend to assimilate to their surroundings, and sadly, all too often so do we. Rather than bringing to the world what’s unique and powerful and devout about ourselves, we seek to quietly meld in with what’s going on around us, maybe for the sake of not being noticed or to cause a stir, or maybe so we’ll be accepted by the people and the institutions with whom we’ve chosen to associate ourselves.
This is particularly true with faith: though, as Paul tells the Corinthians and us, our faith rests not “on human wisdom but on the power of God,” and though we do find our comfort and strength in faith, we are nonetheless reticent to bring that faith into our “real world,” for fear of being labeled or set apart. So what happens is that instead of letting our faith guide the course of our daily work, our decision making or the nurturing of our relationships with others …we assimilate. We let ourselves become different from who we know we are.
Several years back I remember reading a piece by Chicago author and teacher Carol Noren, who was lamenting the fact that on its anniversary, her local church had put a banner out in front of their sanctuary which read, “Celebrating 100 Years of Community Service!” “Community Service? What’s special about that,” wrote Noren. “Is that anything distinct from what the Lions Club or [the] Junior League do? …the name of Jesus [was] conspicuous by its absence …as though by loving people enough, Jesus Christ [would] be absorbed by osmosis. When Jesus’ name is not proclaimed, his power to heal and forgive is not experienced by his people.”
You’ve heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: the church is not merely another club or another social service agency …the faith that you and I claim as our own is not some trendy bit of pop psychology on the cutting edge of the self-help movement! This is the church of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen; and the message we espouse as his disciples is one of divine love and forgiveness, personal redemption and global reconciliation. The truth we proclaim is about a world turned upside down for the sake of God’s love; it’s about God’s plan for a heavenly kingdom on earth. It is a bold and radical message; and friends, it’s …foolishness, at least where the world is concerned. It always has been: as Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” that is, to those for whom truth and salvation rests on the extent of human wisdom or achievement. “But to us who are being saved,” Paul goes on to say, the message of the cross is “the power of God” that shames the strong and destroys the wisdom of the wise.
That message, that good news is ours …but you see, when we let ourselves become assimilated to the world’s agenda of politics and pop culture, then that news risks getting watered down to the point where there’s nothing left. And that’s a tragedy, because we do live in a place and time in dire need of the church of Jesus Christ being what it’s meant to be: as Paul puts it, a community boasting of the Lord, ordering itself and living “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” In other words, if indeed it is true that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” then it seems to me that you and I could stand to be a bit more “foolish” for the sake of Christ.
Sometimes it does come in, as they say, “speaking truth to power;” boldly going against the grain of whatever happens to be currently “trending” in the world’s opinions and its ever shifting list of priorities, providing that much needed “prophetic embarrassment and rebuke” in these times that do need changing! But that said, I would also add I would also say to you that it can also happen with great validity in the smallest and most ordinary moments of life and living: from the ways that we seek to care for one another and the least of those around us; to the warm welcome we extend to the stranger in our midst. Even in those fleeting times when we engage in little “random acts of kindness,” these are the times and places where our faith in Jesus Christ is professed, and God’s important work of love is done.
Foolish to think even the most casual and inconsequential of actions can change a life for the better? Foolish to believe that our “putting ourselves out there” and doing what’s unlikely and uncomfortable could bring someone else to faith and further the cause of Christ in the process? Maybe… but then again, in faith, foolishness is where salvation begins. Sharing who Jesus is to us, allowing ourselves to become an embarrassment in his name creates other opportunities for sharing and opens people to the ongoing power of Christ’s Spirit in the world.
Ours is a swiftly changing world; I don’t have to tell you that. Moreover, change is inevitable; and the question is… the question always is… how will we deal with that change when it comes? Do we ignore it? Do we maintain the status-quo? Do we assimilate? Or do we move into that change, resting “not on human wisdom but on the power of God?”
Beloved, I believe that more than ever before, as persons, as a people, and as the body of Christ we need to be in the business of “prophetic embarrassment.” Even as the ground shifts beneath our feet, you and I need not only need to stand on something solid, we also need to stand for something solid: something unique, something powerful, and something divine. And it’s more than our just being the white clapboard church on Mountain Road, a quaint reminder of an earlier and simpler time. No it’s much more than that; it has to do with each one of us here living out of what this church building represents: a community of faith, a gathering of people who truly know “Jesus Christ and him crucified” and risen, and who are committed to serving as a bold and bright beacon of light in the midst of an increasingly dark world.
So I ask you again: are you an embarrassment? Are you willing to shine brightly and become a “fool” for Jesus Christ? What a privilege to bear that name and to become a vehicle for his saving, healing power; may each one of us take on the challenge gladly!
And may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry