The Big Upset (I Corinthians 1:1-18)

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–The Oregonian

Like millions of sports fans who are about to undermine the nation’s productivity this month, I really enjoy the NCAA college basketball tournament, March Madness. One of the things true fans always hope for is at least one Big Upset, like the improbable victory of the nine hundredth seed over number one.

You know—the skinny kids from the small rural campus of a poorly-funded State University who wear really ugly uniforms and are coached by a rumpled old aw-shucks guy from Central Casting who’s toiled in obscurity for forty-seven years and who now, on the brink of retirement, has finally got a team in the tourney and is coaching what everybody knows will be the last game of his career because his first opponent is… Duke.

And then the magic happens. Out on the court the scrawny scrappers are in The Zone. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. Everything they throw up goes in. Meanwhile the Blue Devils have been replaced by aliens from outer space who don’t know how to run in sneakers, and before you know it, the bumpkins from Podunk have pulled even with a second to go, and they have the ball. Of course the desperate heave from half court goes in at the buzzer—nothing but net!

Ozymandias, king of kings, look upon these ruins and despair! O how the mighty have fallen! Depression settles over Durham, delirium breaks out in the heartland, and you are out six hundred bucks in the office pool. Games like these become the stuff of legend, and no matter how much money you lose when a loser wins, it makes you glad to be alive. All the way to debtor’s prison you bless the day you were born to see it.

‘Fess up, all you sophisticates who profess to be indifferent at best to the world of sports—even you choke up when the water boy finally gets in the game and makes the play that saves the day. When David beats Goliath, Cinderella gets the Prince, and the Cubs win the Series, you know that someday, somehow, everything is going to be all right.

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The apostle Paul put his money on the underdog. And he urged the church at Corinth to follow his lead. The Corinthian church was a small congregation struggling to survive in an ultra-cosmopolitan social environment in which there were plenty of opportunities for the wealthy and the talented to become Somebody.  Made up mostly of low status members, the church did have a few who were people of means and influence and these ‘number ones’ were demanding a disproportionate share of attention. They insisted on enjoying inside the church the same privileges and deference they enjoyed outside. Their sense of entitlement kicked up a good deal of resentment in the less affluent and influential members of the church.

Others in the community had become devotees of a charismatic teacher who rose to prominence in the church after Paul’s departure, and these groupies were going around condescendingly dropping their guru’s pearls of wisdom all over the place, shaming the hoi polloi who did not possess their superior knowledge or their gold standard of faith.

A woman named Chloe ratted them all out to Paul, who was horrified by the way pride of status and knowledge was driving a wedge into the unity of the church. For Paul, lording your Lexus or your Ph. D. over the high school dropout and the welfare mom was not just bad form, it was a theological failure, a fundamental misreading of who God is and the way God works.

Paul didn’t tell them simply to cut it out and be nice to each other. He wasn’t going to settle for superficial friendliness. He grounded his vision of right Christian conduct in the pattern of God’s own conduct—the God who habitually chooses the things the world discards to show up the things the world values. In other words, Paul wanted to imprint on the Corinthians the sign of the cross.

The prize should always go to the sleek and the strong, the smart and the influential, right? Don’t bet on it, Paul said. What looks like wisdom to the world is in fact foolishness. And what looks like foolishness to the world is in fact wisdom. If you don’t develop a discerning eye capable of penetrating this mystery, you will bet on the favorites and lose your shirt every time.

Paul knew that the cross is a tough nut to crack. He admitted that it is a ridiculous thing to preach allegiance to a savior who was executed, and in such a humiliating way. Because we do not, most of us, live in a shame and honor culture, it may be hard for us to grasp the shock to the system that Jesus’ death caused among his contemporaries. It does not even seem odd to us to wear that little electric chair around our necks to accessorize our fashionable outfits.

But cultured pagans found the cross disturbing. The claims being made for the man who died on it struck them as shockingly absurd. And it was not only the sophisticated who found it outrageous. One of the earliest depictions of Christian beliefs comes to us in a mocking bit of graffiti found on a wall on Rome’s Palatine Hill. It dates from around the year 200 and shows a cross upon which hangs the body of a man who has the head of a donkey. Underneath, the artist scrawled a caption, “Alexemonos worships his god.”

Paul noted that his preaching kept the attention of Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles right up until the moment he came to the stubborn fact of the cross. Then they balked. But Paul could not silence the centrality of the cross: for him it is the key to healing and wholeness, to a right relationship with God, and to a new and revolutionary way of life—a life in the Body, the church. For Paul, the church has a shape, and it is cruciform.

Because this is its shape, the church vulnerably and unwisely opens itself to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue. It deliberately looks foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who are not blood kin, wasting its resources on the stranger. It chooses to look weak by offering forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy is a luxury few prudent persons can afford.

For Paul, the church is cross-like in its form and practice—everything it says and does in the world seems futile and out of joint. But this is the way God acts, this is the pattern God chooses, and in this odd way God is working the miracle of reconciliation promised from of old.

But the world—smart, self-sufficient, sleek and strong—does not think it needs anything. And so it does not place any bets on the scrawny team and its outrageous mascot who have come to town to play. Paul believed that if the church retains its cruciform shape; if entitlement and elitism and the lust for security and power do not erase the sign of God’s foolishness from the church’s body (which was Paul’s fear as he wrote), the world will be in for a Very Big Upset.

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Every Sunday most of us worship in the presence of a cross somewhere in our sanctuaries. In my former congregation, the cross was enormous, suspended from the ceiling. It cast a long shadow: there was no way you could miss it. I preached under that cross every Sunday, and I often wondered whether we saw it as the folly it is, whether we understood that it was meant to mark us as hopeless underdogs; or whether we saw it more as a sign of triumph and victory, or whether we saw it at all.

There’s an old canard among Protestants that Catholics have crosses with Jesus’ dead body affixed because Catholics are morbidly preoccupied with Christ’s suffering and death; and Protestants have empty crosses because we are correctly focused on the good news of the resurrection. That’s all very nice—if it were true, and if it didn’t slander our Catholic neighbors, if it didn’t so blithely clean up the awful violence at the heart of our tradition, if it didn’t so neatly let us off the hook for wrestling with that scandal, and if it didn’t hide from view the underdog savior who had so little interest and even less skill in playing the world’s games accroding to the rules of the number ones.

Martin Copenhaver has observed that “one of the dangers of being in church as often as we are is that it all starts to make sense to us. We speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that we begin to think, ‘Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.’ And yet week after week we talk and act as if we believe all sorts of things in church that we wouldn’t let anyone put over on us in the real world. Stuff you would choke on in everyday speech, you somehow swallow in a prayer or a hymn or a sermon. ‘Blessed are the meek. . . .’  ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘Love your enemies’ ‘Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.’” We have what Copenhaver calls a “tiresome tendency” to transform the Christian faith from “a sign of outrage and contradiction, insubordination and usurpation” into ho-hum everydayness and “the cement of social conformity.”

Not everyone has this tiresome tendency, of course. I remember standing near a cross a few years ago, a cross much smaller than the one that hung in the sanctuary of my former congregation. It was no match for the gusty wind out on the Cambridge Common where the Rev. Jed Mannis set up a little communion table every week, rain, snow, or shine, serving the homeless women and men of the Outdoor Church. I had gone out there, just a few yards from our church door, to deliver the sandwiches that our kids made for the members of that Church each month, and which we consecrated at the table along with the bread and wine of communion.

I was going just to drop them off, but I decided to stay. I was glad I did, because apart from Jed and a seminarian, at one o’clock when the service was supposed to start, I was the only one there. Not a homeless person in sight. And I thought to myself, “Now this is ministry. This is selfless service. You show up perseveringly week after week, and offer the gifts you have. Of course, nobody actually comes, but it doesn’t matter. After all, it isn’t about numbers, it’s about being present. It’s an offering, pure and simple.”

This would have been a meditation wholly acceptable to God had I not also been subtly congratulating myself for being out there in the first place—it was very cold—and if in the back of my mind I was not also at the same time thinking that even ‘though numbers don’t matter, it was too bad that more homeless people were not there. With bigger numbers it might feel more like a successful ministry, and I would have something tangible to point to when I asked people to continue supporting it financially.

It was at that moment that I jumped off the Podunk bus and ran straight into the Duke locker room. Off the cross and into busy, self-sufficient, downtown Corinth. And it was also at that point that six homeless people (who do not have as many places to go as important people do and therefore do not care quite as much what time things are supposed to start) showed up and the service got underway. Jed invited me to read the scripture of the day. It was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

You have not heard that story until you have heard it outside with a nasty wind whipping everything around, and a small wooden cross repeatedly crashing to the frozen ground. In the company of people who live in a vast outdoor wilderness of indifference and violence every night and every day, I read the story of Jesus and his forty-day struggle with the demons, while six heads nodded knowingly. And when Mark noted that Jesus was “with the wild beasts” all that time, two of the men exchanged glances. Yes, they knew about that too. And when we came to the part about the angels ministering to an exhausted, anguished Jesus, one of them interrupted and said to Jed, “You are my angel.”

Afterwards, Jed told me that earlier that morning, at the Outdoor Church in Porter Square, when he read the part about Jesus leaving the wilderness and preaching that “the time of salvation is now”, the people had interrupted and asked out loud, some with tears and loud voices, “Now? Now? What does that mean, ‘now’?

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What shape are our churches in? That’s a question we usually answer by counting heads, poring over budgets and spreadsheets, checking the roof and the boiler, and wringing our hands over the nominating slate for the upcoming year. What if we looked instead at the pattern of our life together to see whether it resembles a cross? Are we living in a cross-shaped way, or have we gone over to the Duke Side?

On whom or what have we put our money down—on ourselves, our plans and skills, our sense of entitlement, the standard of living we cling to or strive for, our common sense, education, liberal platitudes, timid generosity, limited hospitality, and our busy, talkative, anxious and sleep-deprived lives?

Or have we wagered everything on the foolishness of a savior who vulnerably and  unwisely opened his arms to people of every status, to the educated and the ignorant, to women as well as men, to the Jew, to the Greek—to people of every color and race and tongue; who deliberately looked foolish by creating new forms of family, caring for people who were not blood kin, wasting his grace on the stranger; who chose to look weak by offering healing and forgiveness in a violently stratified world where mercy was a luxury few prudent could afford?

Are our congregations in the best shape they could be in—the shape of Jesus’ cross, working miracles of reconciliation and service and and healing wisdom? When the world casts a glance our way, does it see the nonsense it should see—frayed uniforms, no tall guys, a losing game plan, a pathetic coach? Or does it see only a reflection of its own superior winning ways?

Are we the Big Upset in the making so many people long for, so many people need? If those folks bet on us, staked everything they have, would it be a safe bet, even a sure thing?

The cross of Jesus is the foolishness of God, Paul claimed, the hope of every living thing. But this is a hidden mystery. We need eyes of faith to see it. We need discerning hearts to embrace it. We need to reveal it to each other as we pray with open spirits, as we read our stories and eat our meals at open tables, and as we give and take the grace of Christ through open doors onto the open road, out into that hard and frozen world where underdogs hardly ever win.

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