The Rev Rilla Barrett
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Today is a Sunday that we often expect and experience low attendance at church. It is a day in which my clergy colleagues seldom plan annual meetings – at least if they hope to see many congregants attending…and few clergy or laity would even contemplate planning a meeting of any kind after the service today. No, today is holy and set aside and regarded sacred as The Feast of Super Bowl Sunday. Liturgically, the color green, turf green, I think, is appointed, and the lections - well you heard it from Isaiah. “Shout out! Do not hold back. Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” So, whether you are pulling for Atlanta or New England, Shout Out this afternoon. Go Teams!! At any rate, I wish you the blessings of food, friends, and feasting on this Super Bowl Sunday, or alternatively, I hope you enjoy a good nap, an energetic walk, or a movie with a friend.
Some of us lean away from sports, and some of us toward. Some of us prefer one sport over another. Several years back, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Changing Room.” Author Michael Lewis opined that there is a great difference between a National Football League Locker room and a Major League Baseball locker room. According to Lewis, walking into a MLB locker room, as a sports reporter, gives one an unwelcome feeling. Baseball locker rooms, I guess, are like private sanctums where an outsider like a reporter immediately feels like an intruder, and the players all act like the next person coming to talk to them is coming in to tell them they are being demoted…or sent back to the farm teams. Interestingly, when the same visitor walks into an NFL locker room, no resentment is sensed. Nobody makes a guest feel unwelcome in that football locker room. If anything at all, there is a sense of curiosity about visitors to the locker room…a sense of friendliness which leads to many of the players doing their best to help one out.
Lewis’ explanation for this observation? Size. Size matters…even in a locker room. His theory is that in professional sports, it’s all about pecking order – or who’s more valuable than the other…and that usually comes down to physical size and ability. In a baseball locker room, a reporter may be a physical match of the player…maybe even bigger, which can lead to ambiguity and insecurity. But, in a professional football locker room, there is no question as to which bodies belong and which do not. Everybody knows it, observes it, and that, according to this writer, puts everyone at ease.
This sense of peace, this sense of fragile peace simply in the knowing who is in power, this acknowledgement of hierarchy – is not unlike the Pax Romano - or the famous peace of the Roman Empire in the days of the apostle Paul. Everyone knew about it and acknowledged it…but it did come with a price. Everyone also acknowledged that living in the Pax Romano was peaceful because of the very real threat of military action or other punitive actions, which, of course, ensured individual and communal submission and cooperation. The Empire, as you know, was very stratified, with the emperor and members of the elite class at the top and everyone else was tiered downward in a way that kept the hierarchy in place. This stratified layout was very evident in the city of Corinth, BUT Paul was mortified to see that it was also exhibited in the church there…the very church he founded, and Paul found this in opposition to what he had taught them…the very thing Jesus had taught them. It seems that in their very real quest for honor…and power…. These followers of Jesus were dividing up into groups based on the status of designated leaders. And so he wrote, “When I came to you…I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” In other words, Paul did not come as power broker, and he reminds them that they have one leader, Jesus, the Christ. The elite of the church in Corinth did not like hearing about their failings, because people in power, in any system, church or any government or social systems…any system you can think of don’t like talking about any of the faults of holding power – especially while they are holding that power, when others can see. And perhaps there is a great deal of this that is applicable in our country today. Perhaps we are the ones to whom Paul wrote this epistle. We live an elite and powerful lifestyle, by world standards. Do we do enough of what Jesus of Nazareth taught us to do or do we get caught up in perpetuating the power structures?
Paul was dismayed that this power structure existed in his church, because the church was meant to be radically different than the power structure of Rome. Paul was reminding his followers, that he was referring to a radical alternative to that power structure. One in which all were equals, and that the followers of the one who was crucified, the disciples, ought to stand with the oppressed and work for justice, reconciliation, and restoration. For Paul, this was the Christian way and it ought to be for modern disciples too. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way, “Jesus did not come to be a ‘competitor for space in the world.’ Rather, in his life, death, and resurrection, ‘The human map is being redrawn, the world turned upside down,’ and ‘the whole world of rivalry and defense’ is put into question.
Unless we have been living in a cave, I think that we all are aware of the divisive nature of today’s political world and its effect on all of us…but, more important, on those who are powerless. Today, I would suggest that we, gathered together here at St. Stephen’s, choose another way. First, that we acknowledge the different ways we each see things, and accept, with grace, God’s love for each of us, no matter where we are on the political spectrum. Thus, we must drop the need for branding ourselves with labels such as progressive or conservative or democrat, republican or independent. The only identity needed is Christian – and that entails loving our neighbors as ourselves…and, at the same time, continuing to talk and, more important, listen to one another…in love. Second, I suggest that we pay careful attention to today’s admonitions from Jesus in today’s gospel lesson from Matthew. To his disciples…that is us too…he gives a distinctive ability to elicit goodness on the earth. Two worthy metaphors are offered.
To engage in these two metaphors is a monumental task, but we are up to it. To let go, as much as is possible, of labels and power structures and with it, our innate sense of privilege or power is the thing we must all aim to do. How? Perhaps traveling into the darkness is the only way to do that, and, again, who wants to do that? But, to truly follow our baptismal covenant, we must go into the places where Jesus leads us. Two favorite quotes apply here:
In order for light to be seen, we must be willing to go into other places where darkness – or lack of light - may well exist, to engage with those who are there, to walk with them through it.
And, author Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”
Jesus of Nazareth lived in a world of stratification of power. Those on the bottom of that stratification are still there…the immigrants, the homeless, the hungry, those injured by war, by human violence, by oppression, and it is our job, as followers of Jesus, to join them, to engage with them, to aid them, to do as Jesus would have done…to treat them as equals…no comfortable hierarchy here.
Righteousness, which is living in right relationship with God and with others, is the bottom line in all of this, and it is best carried out apart from man-made hierarchies and power structures. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
During the civil rights movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee provided, in what they did, an illustration of what I see as a modern lean to, a hope of righteousness. John Lewis, now Representative John Lewis, spoke of the bodily dimension of their work at that time, and of a different type of moving and dwelling with others – one borne out of mutual love and respect and not hierarchical power structures. Lewis said, “We were meeting people on their own terms, not ours. If they were out in the field picking cotton, we would go out in that field and pick with them.” Where and how they placed their bodies was critical for their work. So also for Christians (not D nor R, but Christians), our work, our ministries come in how we move and dwell with others. It is what unites us… and that makes the difference in the world as we follow the Risen Lord. Amen.
 Michael Lewis, “The Changing Room,” New York Times Magazine (February 3, 2008), 32-37.
 Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 6, 52, 69.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: harper Perennial, 1992), 43.
 Stanley Hauerwas and Romand Coles, Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2008), 69.
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