March 19, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
When you think about it, Dan Westís idea to send heifers overseas was "udderly" ridiculous. Wouldnít it have been much more practical to send shipments of milk, especially the powdered or evaporated variety? How messy (as well as smelly) the transport must have been when those first seagoing cowboys took those heifers overseas. By the way, some of you may have become acquainted with one of our newcomers, Ellis Shenk. He and his wife are visiting their daughterís family in Texas right now, but Iíve been told Ellis was a heifer project "cowboy." Ask him about it the next chance you have.
It was kind of a foolish idea, though, wouldnít you say? What difference could one female cow have made? When it came to rebuilding Europe after world war II, massive amounts of aid were necessary, a whole Marshall plan to marshall enough resources to bring a whole region back from the brink of oblivion. Itís "udderly" ridiculous to think that one heifer (or one goat, or one pig, or one lamb) could make all that much difference. Why not just stand beside the Eiffel tower and sing, "old McDonald had a farm, e-i-e-i-o?" "Udderly" ridiculous, right?
Well, ask someone who has been on the receiving end of such a gift, given with but one string attached - that they pass on the gift to someone else. Itís as ridiculous as loaves and fishes multiplying. Amazingly enough, however, is the effect of just one such gift. I mean, what difference can one pebble make as it is tossed into a large body of water? But then comes the ripple effect as a tiny splash eventually touches a much larger surface area. Is it really foolish to think that something so seemingly insignificant can make a difference? Not on your life!
The apostle Paul had something to say about this. His words (read earlier) were written to a church with growing pains, a fellowship of believers who found themselves pulled in several different directions. They were in the middle of a conflict, really, which was tearing apart the landscape of their sense of community. They were divided along the lines of key personalities, along the lines of the different social and religious circles from which they each had come, along the lines of the particular spin they each put on the faith they had received, along the lines of the God given abilities they expressed. I share all this just to lift up the context in which Paulís words about foolishness and wisdom were written.
In the middle of that conflict Paul placed, of all things, a "cross." It was not, as our junior youth creatively reminded us last week in their drama, an "upwardly mobile cross," or a "comfy cross," or a "traditional holiday cross," or a "pocket-size crisis cross." Rather, it was the not-terribly-popular "original cross." It was no less a strange symbol among the people in Corinth back then, as it is for many folks today. When you think about it, planting that cross in the middle of such a conflict was an utterly ridiculous thing to do.
Those folks were struggling to make a go of being a minority religious group in a well-established culture. We know for a fact that though there were a number of persons in that church who were living on the edge financially (many of them slaves), there were also some upwardly mobile types as well, people who owned their own homes, influential citizens (one was even the city treasurer). Now, Corinth was not the center of intellectual thought that Athens was, but this was no backwater place. Even today, this city is remembered for its architectural style. Have you seen some houses in this neighborhood which have "Corinthian columns?" How foolish of Paul to figuratively hold up the roof of that fellowship with a dirty, old cross! Utterly ridiculous!
Crosses were a tool used by the Roman empire to maintain order, probably seen by many as a necessary evil with which to handle terrorists in such hot spots as Palestine. The peace of Rome was held in place by such means. The cross was meant to be an example to anyone tempted to disrupt the law and order of Caesar, communicating the message that this punishment is what will happen to you if you break the law, or if you go against Rome. To die in such a way was meant to be painful and take a long time. Otherwise, the moral wouldnít get across: "donít rock the boat. Otherwise, this is your future."
And Paul placed that sucker smack dab in the middle of the Corinthian church. This symbol has become so much a part of our religious landscape that it is almost invisible to us. It does not seem ridiculous at all to us that Paul would have placed the cross where he did. One of the blessings of our culture growing more diverse, perhaps even (as some have claimed) "post-Christian," is that we are forced to look at the cross in a different way. It is no longer as ingrained in our society as it once was, and that may be good for us, for now we might be able to glimpse this symbol for what it is.
Jesus rocked the boat of the world during those all-too-few years in Israel. And he paid the price for doing so. His followers, then and now, are called to rock the boat as well, to change the world in which they live. On the positive side, it must be said of those believers in Corinth that they were living out this mandate. It was not business-as-usual in that society to have the wealthy and the poor together in one community. They were breaking the mold, even though they struggled to do so. They were also rocking the boat of their Jewish connections. Many persons drawn to this fellowship werenít from Jewish background (or to put it a different way, and thus put a squeeze on us today, they werenít dyed-in-the-wool brethren). Placing the cross in the center of that church, as Paul did, was just as troubling for those of Jewish background - it was a scandal.
Utterly ridiculous! Absolutely scandalous! Thatís what the cross was. If we fail to see this, we have missed the message of this symbol. From one perspective, it is foolish to think of the cross as something positive. What, after all, did Jesus accomplish by being crucified? He died, man! What did all his work get him? What did he accomplish? Nothing! Nada! Zilch! Is this supposed to be the path others are to follow? If so, itís a dead end. Literally. Only a fool would take that road.
For those coming to Christ from a Jewish background, this was more than foolishness. If, indeed, Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, surely this was not the way Godís anointed would lead his people to victory. Moses may not have had an army to help him lead the children of Israel out of Egypt long ago, but at least he had a powerful staff which thwarted Pharaohís chariots and parted the waters of the sea - a miraculous sign of Godís deliverance. Furthermore, Moses made it out of Egypt, even if he never entered the promised land many years later. At least he died in his own bed, and not in some jail or upon some means of execution by the powers-that-be. To think of the Messiah as dying upon a cross would be a stumbling block. Itís not a symbol of Godís strength. If anything, it symbolizes weakness, instead. This messiah apparently was powerless in the face of Rome. How could he save Godís people? To be honest, the cross still is a stumbling block to many, just like it seems to be sheer foolishness.
Of course (and there always seems to be an "of course," or a "yes, but," doesnít there?), this story has more to it. What seems to be ridiculous, is not. What appears scandalous, is not. Not utterly, not absolutely. Remember what I said about Cowboy Dan Westís vision. Yes, the gift of a cow seems pretty insignificant in the face of the huge task of helping a society rebuild after a devastating war. However, ask those on the receiving end and theyíll tell you something different. That heifer wasnít just a handout. It became a symbol of dignity. "I" now have something to pass on to someone else. With this cow "I" can feed my family, but "I" can also contribute to feeding others, as "I" pass along the gift. A ripple effect. Out of such seeming weakness comes strength. Within such apparent foolishness is seen wisdom.
In fact, as Paul wrote, "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (1 Cor. 1:25) True of one heifer. True of the cross, and what Jesus did with and through it. Those on the receiving end know this. The cross is, indeed, a pillar for the church far greater than any Corinthian architectural support. It doesnít just sit up front all nice and pretty. It upholds the whole structure. Yes, Jesus died, but his death was on purpose. It wasnít just a random act of violence. It wasnít just an execution to stop a revolution. It became the very means of salvation. Of course there is more to the story. Our faith informs us that the power of this weak symbol is the power of God, who is at work in this world, often at the edges, or in the margins - so often unseen, but nevertheless transforming our world and us. This saving faith changes us, and in the process we are empowered to change our world, even (or especially) in small and often unseen ways.
Think of those folks in Corinth. They struggled with their differences. Godís Holy Spirit was pulling together a whole new people and it was downright uncomfortable. They were nearly at the point of crucifying each other, each trying to get their own way (the world in miniature, wouldnít you say?). All the sin in the world doesnít exist outside the walls of the church, you know. Weíve got just about all of it on the inside. Weíre not perfect people, just folks in the process of being perfected, of being fashioned into what God intends for us to be, individually and together. Let me repeat a well-worn phrase: "weíre not perfect, just forgiven."
Anyway, in the middle of that conflicted church in Corinth, those people ready to go for the jugular to hold up their own way - in their midst, Paul erected a cross. How utterly ridiculous! How absolutely scandalous! How wonderfully appropriate! Here is the way of Jesus. Put aside your own way, Christ says, let go of your stranglehold on your brotherís neck, release your need to control, and receive from the Lord the grace that makes real living possible. It sounds downright foolish, and we may stumble over it, but this is how God changes the world through and beyond us. One person at a time. One heifer at a time. Itís "udderly" ridiculous. Thank God!
©2000Peter L. Haynes
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