The Sermon Mall



Preaching: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

This excerpt from Paul's defense of his behavior as an apostle raises three issues of interest for the preacher: The understanding of the vocation to preach the gospel as a compulsion, the universal outreach of this vocation, and the suggested strategy of becoming all things to all people. Given that this is the season of Epiphany with its emphasis on Christ as a light for all nations, Paul's words call to us both as individuals and as communities of faith to enter more fully into and to spread that light.
Ours is an age of endless confession of human obsessions and compulsions in the public fora. Channeled to us by such TV personalities as Sally Jesse, Phil, Oprah, Maury, Jennie, and Montel, the American public tune in for their daily injection of "I confess...." Titillated, appalled, fascinated, intrigued, we turn away...until tomorrow. Paul's obsession for preaching the gospel can seem quite tame, even place him in the category of a benign or, at most, pesky religious nut, someone you would move away from on the street or at a party. Or it can be presented in a way that challenges each listener and the community to let the compulsion enter and influence their lives.
Paul's compulsion to preach makes sense when you place it alongside the other readings chosen for the day. The Catholic and Lutheran lectionary chose texts from Job which speak of the dreariness of life and the pain of the human condition. The Common lectionary offers the image of the Holy One contrasted with the weakness and exhaustion that affects even the young and strong. The Episcopal lectionary offers an episode in which the situation of two women, one a widow and one married but childless, is the arena in which God's word is effective. In all these texts, the human situation is revealed as wanting and in need. Furthermore, the common Gospel for this Sunday presents Jesus as the incarnate Word who brings the healing power of God into human life, lifting up, restoring, casting out what destroys. It is from knowing this Jesus, the embodiment of God's mercy and love in the flesh, present by the power of the Spirit, that Paul's compulsion springs.
What gives us grounds for being a community that needs to preach the gospel? What headlines from the paper, urgent words from the radio news broadcast, opening segment from the evening televised news report call to us to recognize the need in our world for contact with the power that Paul had come to know and was compelled to preach to the Corinthians? Just last night, another tourist was murdered in Florida; this morning's front page carried another tragic scene from Africa—this time from Angola. Young Americans are being killed in Somalia and even younger ones in our city streets. For those who see and those who hear, is there ever a day when there is not a need to hear the voice of a witness to the power of God revealed in Jesus? Woe to us if we do not proclaim this gospel.
For Paul, the audience was universal—the Jew, the Gentile, the weak, and the strong. In an age which respects all systems, in which preachers can be caught between the pulls of the exclusive, the inclusive, and the pluralistic, how does one speak of this Jesus and God's redemptive work for the good of the world? Is it not to be located in the universal desire for freedom from bondage? There are the demons that continue to hold us, and we need to name them. There is the power that continues to offer the promise of liberation, and we need to name it with the name that is above every other.
That is the ongoing power of the Pauline strategy to enter the world of those in bondage. The purpose is to win some through offering what one has come to know as life-giving. Becoming all things to all people can mean to enter the world of one's aging parents and know the desperation that comes of loneliness and alienation due to sickness or the waning power of sight and hearing. To become all things can mean to enter the world of single men and women struggling to make sense of a faith commitment or the world of teenagers unable to formulate even the terms of their confusion. To become all things is to reach out to the weakest, whether we find them on the social, economic, or ethnic margins of our world.
To enter into the world of the other is not easy. To go into neutral territory may be the beginning. Or at least apparently neutral territory. I think of the top news event of this week captured in the picture of two hands clasped. They belonged to Itzhak Rabin and Yasar Arafat. These two leaders could not go into each other's world to do this but came to a neutral space, the rose garden of the Clinton White House. Sometimes one begins with an apparently neutral space as a first move into the world of another. Of course, the geography of the heart is far more expansive than the geography of the soil. So this contact between palms and fingers was a mutual entry into the world of the other by these two men.
One moves wherever one can so that some might be won. A recent work, The Culture of Disbelief by Stephen L. Carter,1 reminds us that in the United States there has been a growing tendency to exclude religion from the public arena. In our national fear that religious beliefs might be imposed on those who do not share them, God has been relegated to the status of a hobby. The separation of church and state which was intended as a way to protect religion from the state and not the state from religion can end up being destructive to both. Mr. Carter calls for putting a few doors into the wall of separation.
Believing communities live with this wall on a daily basis. We pass through it into worlds of vastly differing values, perspectives, and strategic plans for how to live in the world. The vision that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ can become less and less audible unless believing communities become preaching communities who enter in some way into Paul's compulsion and invite others to share it. On the strength of this text, preachers are challenged to call forth preachers.
James A. Wallace Washington Theological Union 1. Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993).