Epiphany as a Verb: “God’s Faithful, Foolish Followers”
1 Corinthians 1: 18-31 & Micah 6:1-8 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ January 26, 2020
This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. day for our neighbours south of the border. King would have been 91 years old. And each year, I always find myself drawn back to King’s faith, to his passion, and also to his faithful foolishness. Imagine King…standing in front of ¼ of a million people, in that challenging time in history, amidst the Washington March delivering these words:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together”.
Those words offered in 1963 amidst the growing Civil Rights movement were either incredibly brave or incredibly foolish. 5 years later, on April 4, 1968, his movement became so threatening that a sniper’s bullet took his life. God’s faithful, foolish followers we are called to be…aren’t we? King’s words have been found in others who faithfully and foolishly continue to speak God’s truth to the powers of this world. God’s faithful followers have offered voice to the inclusion of all genders, to the rights of the LGBTQ community, to fostering interfaith harmony, to the needs of Creation and Mother Earth. Have you ever considered the challenging faith call to be a faithful foolish follower in this world?
King was a Baptist minister and the one he followed, of course, was Jesus. And in this morning’s text from 1st Corinthians, we hear the following of Jesus’ way being described as “foolishness”. In this early section of the letter, Paul writes: “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”. For the early Christian community, the biggest hurdle they had was the shame and disgrace found in worshipping a Savior who had been crucified. Crucifixion was more than just state-sponsored execution. Crucifixion was a long, drawn-out method of shaming the victim. It was meant to embarrass the convicted and it was meant to deter any rebels considering future actions against the Empire. And sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters, we find references to the embarrassment and shame the early Christians faced as their Lord met his fate by crucifixion. How could Christians choose to follow someone who sacrificed, who suffered, who was publicly shamed. This was foolishness people proclaimed! Surely, the one who came to liberate from the oppressive Roman way could have escaped this shame and indignity? Or…was there actually a purpose in this fate that Jesus chose to undergo?
Indeed, there was a purpose. Indeed, what Paul calls the “foolishness of the gospel” lifts up this deep purpose of Jesus. What the world deems as foolish – giving one’s life away, enduring suffering for others, sacrificing for others…what the world deems as “foolishness” is indeed the message of the cross. And what Jesus demonstrates so profoundly in his passion. By any of the world’s measures, it does not make sense to give one’s life away; it does not make sense to give away our time…to give of our talents…to give of our treasure. Yet, that is what Jesus’ Way models; and that is what Jesus’ way calls us to live: foolishness by the world’s measure and amazing grace by God’s. As the letter continues, Paul boldly writes that “we proclaim Christ crucified” was deemed a stumbling block and foolishness by others. Yet…to us, living the Way of Christ is the source of life. Living this way of Christ is the Way that Jesus continues to live in and through us. God’s faithful foolish followers do not make sense by the measures of the world…yet they make perfect sense in God’s.
In a recent book by theologian Walter Russel Mead entitled God and Gold, a story is told about a wealthy parishioner who asked his Anglican rector if it was possible to find salvation outside of their beloved Church of England. The priest wrestled with the question because he knew that it was not outside the realm of possibility, that those who were not Anglican might also go to heaven, yet he did not want his socially elite parishioner to be socializing with Christian riff-raff of all sorts. So, after pondering deeply, he replied: “Sir, the possibility about which you inquire exists. But no lady or gentleman would avail themselves of it”. And, we are reminded of the status consciousness that afflicts most religious groups. How foolish we would be to socialize with those different than our own…to help them…to love them…to forgive them. Sociologists from Durkheim to Neibuhr have noticed how often religious affiliations are directly related to social and economic class. Status affected the church at Corinth; it affects us even today. No one wants to be the fool. Consider the motivation behind one’s affiliation with their particular church. Quite often there is a payoff for the individual as their needs are being met: communal needs, spiritual needs, justice needs, the list goes on. Yet…when Jesus gave his life upon the cross, what needs of his were being met? He gave his life completely for us. And as we live into his way, while we do not have to hang upon a cross, there is still a call to offer our lives for others, to endure some of the pains and suffering for others, to live sacrificially and offer light to the world.
This broad call in our faith to be God’s faithful foolish followers is so articulately voiced by Micah, as we come to our second reading. The question in this text is ‘how we might live as God’s faithful’. Micah calls them to task, as a prophet does, for all the ways that they had gone astray, all the ways that they had forgotten their God of liberation, of freedom, of hope. He asks the questions that people have been wondering about how they might restore their relationship and come be in God’s favour. He considers the various forms of sacrifice: burnt offerings of year old calves; the offerings of thousands of rams, or 10,000 rivers of oil; or recalling the story of Abraham and Issac, he even asks about the offering of one’s firstborn. The prophet assures his listeners that God wants none of these things. So, what does God want from God’s faithful foolish followers? The answer is as simple as it is profound…God wants our faithful actions… “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” Doing…loving…walking. This is why Epiphany is meant to be lived; Epiphany is about the fresh living of our faith; it is about allowing God’s light to shine!
To unpack Micah’s guiding call might be helpful. Doing justice is first of all, is an execution of God’s justice. Scholars speak about three forms of interrelated justice that Micah lifts up here. There is ‘commutative justice’ which is a call to strengthening the relationships between members in the community. The valuing and honouring of all members. There is also ‘distributive justice’ which speaks to the call to equitable distribution of the goods, benefits and burdens of all members in the community. This is what we symbolically lift up on communion Sunday when we encourage people to bring in a non-perishable item or two for our food pantry. It is a call to caring, sharing and involving all members in the community in a just fashion. And finally, ‘social justice’ which is the living in ways that affects the social order necessary for distributive justice to occur. Social justice is what was at the heart of Martin Luther King’s ministry; it has been at the heart of our own denomination. Aside from a call to “doing justice”, Micah also calls us to “love kindness”. The Hebrew word for kindness is ‘hesed’ which speaks to a profound form of love that embodies loyalty and faithfulness. To love kindness is both an affectionate and ethical love of neighbor that is founded in one’s fidelity and covenant to the law of God. Loving kindness is a deep attitude of reverence, of cador and honesty in the way one expresses their love to neighbor. Finally, “walking humbly with God” is a significant posture towards one’s faith journey. It is not about walking behind, entirely, and letting God simply lead. Certainly God guides and leads and we put God first. Yet, it is also about ‘walking with’. It recalls the time in the Garden when Adam and Eve walked with God in freedom and paradise. Putting God first, living in conformity with the call of God is the faithful posture that is being called for here. And it is, really, only when one walks humbly with God that they can understand to do the first two. When one walks humbly with God, then they understand to do justice, then they understand how to love kindness.
I guess it all boils down to our human nature of wanting to place things in categories. What are the requirements? The requirements to drive? You need to be 16 and to pass a test. What are the requirements to vote? You need a birth certificate that proves you are over 18. So…what is the requirement to be among God’s faithful foolish followers who actively allow God’s Epiphany light to shine?
Do justice…love kindness…and walk humbly with your God.