This sermon was originally preached by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis at Princeton University Chapel on Sunday, December 8, 2019.
It is an honor to be with you all today in this beautiful and historic house of worship. As a Presbyterian pastor, I am pleased to be bringing the word to the Princeton Chapel this morning.
 
 
 
 
 

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
But despite this beauty, we all know we are living in dark and dangerous days — there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income in the United States, there is normalized violence, climate chaos, policy racism all around. And the only news that the poor are hearing these days is so very far from good.
I want to focus on the passage from 1 Corinthians this morning because I believe it has a lesson for us all in days such as these. 1 Corinthians 1: 18–31 is a challenge to conventional wisdom and the status quo. In his epistle, the Apostle Paul follows a logic of reversals — reversals of who are the moral and political agents of change, reversals of status and political position, reversals in our conception of who God is and what God is doing in the world, what grace and prosperity are, and how to worship and honor God.
1 Corinthians 1 is about understanding and preaching the good news of Jesus. It’s about not just going along to get along with the status quo but marching to a different drum. It’s about giving all that you have to follow the path of Jesus and the will of God. It’s about holding truth and the lives of the marginalized sacred.
Indeed in this passage, Paul reminds us just how revolutionary the work of the early Christians was. Paul is preaching here and in his other letters about Christ Crucified.
And today we are in Advent — waiting for an unlikely savior to be born and reign in justice. Those of us who call ourselves Christians follow a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew who was homeless and a refugee who came to earth to turn over tables and engage in holy disruption. We are waiting for hope and love and life and truth to come from the most unlikely of places — those who have been abandoned in the face of abundance, those who have been rejected as leading the revival. And we know that after Jesus is brought into this world homeless and a refugee, he leaves this world as Christ Crucified.
Separated from its contexts, the idea of Jesus dying is kind of mundane. Indeed as Christians we know this sacrifice of Jesus is necessary to get us to the happy ending of Jesus being resurrected. I mean he has to die (and crucifixion is just as good a way as any) in order to be brought back to life.
But put in its social, historical, political context we realize that crucifixion isn’t an ordinary or mundane way to die — crucifixion is reserved for insurrectionists, social movement leaders, revolutionaries who were openly opposing the power of the Roman Empire.
Crucifixion is a punishment enforced by the Roman Empire, not the Jewish people. It is not used to punish common criminals, robbers, even murderers.
Crucifixion is about stopping radicals in their tracks. It’s about scaring those being oppressed in their society to not rock the boat because things might be bad now but if you stand up to us, we can stop those bread and circuses. We can sick those legions on you. We can criminalize attempts by other poor people from across the empire to come to your service with a collection for the poor.
And crucifixion is vilified during Jesus’ time. It was considered a curse and a shame to the Jewish people to be labeled such a dissident. But Paul in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere proclaims Christ Crucified. And Paul doesn’t just stop there. He valorizes something as shameful as crucifixion and continues with putting more things on its head. He breaks through the fear and shame of crucifixion and encourages the poor and lowly followers of Jesus that they are God’s chosen.
We just read the NRSV translation of it, but I wanted to share a few verses of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 from the Message translation, just to emphasize the radicality of what Paul is proposing. It reads:

This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written,
I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.
Where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb — preaching, of all things! — to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.
Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”?

Wow. This is quite a challenge and it seems to ring quite true to our situation.
We struggle to find anyone wise, moral, intelligent in our public discourse. The experts are crackpots. The nobodies show how corrupt and vacuous the somebodies are!
But this is not the way we are told that society works — business leaders and lawyers and politicians and social workers are supposed to save our world. They’re the ones who are supposed to come up with policies and plans that reduce inequality and make society work.
Not the poor, the low-wage, the dispossessed, the homeless. And religious leaders are supposed to ordain the good work of the somebodies — as religious leaders we are called to preach the good news of wealth and prosperity to the poor. If you stop your sinning, God will bless you.
Rarely do we preach the good news of justice and righteousness of the poor to the whole of society, a good news that says that ending poverty is possible, that the poor and despised will put us on a path of justice.
This good news from the poor sounds a lot like the logic of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign that he launched just months before his crucifixion/assassination. In the Massey Lecture Series in December 1967, King says,

The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty…There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…

And these passages from 1 Corinthians 1 and from King’s Massey Lectures are very fitting of what we are called to be and do in this broken and dangerous world.
We must be interested in wisdom from the bottom.
We should be dedicated to getting at the root causes of poverty and developing the leadership and intelligence of those most impacted by poverty and oppression.
Not fiddling while Rome is burning.
Not participating in education that is divorced from engaged analysis and action.
Not using our education, training, resources to uphold the status quo and unjust structures.
We must be committed to uniting the nobodies to show that another world is possible — that poverty and oppression are not inevitable, that all God’s children have dignity, not that some life is more sacred than others.
1 Corinthians 1 reminds me of another favorite quote of Rev. Dr. King’s about the nature of real wisdom and education that we studied together at Union Theological Seminary. In Where Do We Go From Here?, King writes,

Education without social action is a one‐sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy. Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions. When we go into action and confront our adversaries, we must be as armed with knowledge as they. Our policies should have the strength of deep analysis beneath them to be able to challenge the clever sophistries of our opponents.

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan reminds us that this is true of Jesus’ actions and positions:

In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations. A contemporary equivalent: only the homeless are innocent.((Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 62.)) 

God chose the despised and outcast and those whom everyone thought were nothing to show what God is about and what is good and right and the path of righteousness.
The NIV reads, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
We live in a time when there is great suffering and crisis. And much of what is going on doesn’t make sense. We throw away more food than it takes to feed every man, woman and child in this country.
There are wars and conflict throughout our world and communities. Many are being pitted one against another — with complaints that immigrants are taking the jobs of long-time residents, that the economic crisis was the fault of low-income inner-city families who couldn’t afford their mortgages, that working people are bailing out the unemployed.
But just like Paul celebrates the wisdom of the poor and oppressed, he reminds these Jesus followers of their call to proclaim God’s reign — on earth as it is in heaven — he proposes a collection for the poor of Jerusalem in five of his letters, and he preaches Christ Crucified exposing the violence and oppression of the Roman Empire.
Just like in Paul’s day, in our day many of the people who are suffering in our society are also ministering to each other; they are opposing the cruel and unjust structures and suggesting that this is not the will of God. These despised people are doing what God wants and asks of us all and they are exposing and shaming the injustice of the status quo.
In a time of crisis, and the need to take action, people are making a commitment to each other — blessing others with hopes for security and a good life and answering their call to join the struggle.
We are in election season — at a time when 43% of the population is poor or low-income, when 250,000 people die from poverty each year — more than die from cancer and heart attacks and strokes combined.
We have fewer voting rights today than we did 54 years ago even though ancestors — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, black, white, young, old — died fighting for those rights.
There are 15 million people who can’t afford water and 4 million families that can buy unleaded gas and unleaded paint but can’t get unleaded water right in their own homes, their own communities.
Our nation spends 53 cents of every discretionary dollar on the military and less than 15 cents on health care and education and anti-poverty programs. I was recently in El Paso where US troops are being deployed on US soil to fight the “brown wave,” in violation of the US Constitution.
But in the last presidential election in 2016, although there were 26 debates in the primaries and general election, not one took up any of these issues, not even for 15 minutes.
Our politicians and media have blacked out, have whitewashed the issues that affect the majority of people the majority of the time.
When there is any attention to these issues it’s to pity or punish the poor, not to lift up the stories and solutions coming from poor and impacted people, moral leaders, activists and organizers.
I was reading recently that some of the voters who got Donald Trump elected said they did so because Trump was rich enough to tell the truth. Despite that studies show that only 8% of what Donald Trump says is actually true and accurate, these men equated prosperity with wisdom and truthfulness rather than being able to see how his wealth has been made based on lies and defrauding the poor. Still today, the poor are considered liars and sinners and lazy and crazy and the rich are considered blessed by God.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Poor People’s Campaign has developed an agenda. A couple of months ago we launched a budget. And that Poor People’s Moral Budget tells us that if we cut our military and make our world more secure, tax those who can most afford it, and invest in living wages and health care and free education and housing and de-carceration, the vast majority of people could live better.
We could raise the federal minimum wage to a living wage and experience a ripple effect as that money is circulated back through the economy, faster and further than the billions Congress gave the rich and corporations through tax cuts.
We could gain $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations, and Wall Street.
We could invest in public infrastructure and create more jobs outside of the military that could speed a clean energy transition that would be good for our country and the planet.((Solomon, Hsiang et al., “Estimating Economic Damage from Climate Change in the United States,” Science 356, no. 6345, (2017): 1362-1369, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aal4369.))
We can end poverty, we can stop detention and deportation, we can provide a decent education for all our children. We can have it all! All! But to do this, we need to rise up! We need to come together. We must unite God’s chosen nobodies, this new and unsettling force of people yearning to be free!
We must sign up to be ambulance drivers until the emergencies of voter suppression, welfare, SNAP, HEAP cuts, white supremacist violence and policies, the emergency of low-wages, the lack of health care, the re-segregation of our schools, the climate crisis, extreme storms, the poisoning of water and air, constant war and violence, an immoral narrative of religious nationalism are solved.
Because, you know, the God I follow cries out, “I am the one who led you out of Egypt.”
That God reminds us how we treat the poor, how we treat the immigrant neighbor, is how we honor and worship God.
Jesus starts his public ministry by declaring, “I have been anointed by God to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to all who suffer.”
He proclaims, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.”
He does not proclaim, I didn’t make enough food for everyone to eat. Not, I want Peter to have to rob Paul. Not, Get a job! to the homeless of society. Not, a little charity is as good as you all can do. Not, to build walls and sow division among my people. Not, to charge lepers a co-pay.
The night before he was assassinated, King preached resurrection. The resurrection of the poor.
The resurrection of freedom fighters who have gone before.
He said,

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Indeed people are rising up. Crying out we want to be free.
Building a moral fusion movement of people of all races, and creeds, and colors, and religions, and ages, and genders, and sexualities, and organizing and mobilizing and registering and educating and building power.
We are rising up to fight poverty, not the poor! 
We are lifting from the bottom and everyone is rising!

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Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis in California
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis marches during the Poor People's Campaign's We Must Do MORE Tour stop in San Francisco, CA.

Steve Pavey

I invite everyone here today, if you haven’t already done so, to join the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. We are a direct action movement and we are building power among the poor in this country. And in June 2020 we are holding a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington with hundreds of thousands of people to demand justice for all.
We are compelled in times like these to stand up. To proclaim that these bones must live. To raise our hand and answer the question, who will stand in the gap? Who will come forward and do the work of justice? To say that I lived at a time when people in Lowndes County and elsewhere have raw sewage in their yards, where 1,000 of 16,000 people in Aberdeen are homeless, when kids are being taken away in El Paso or Detroit or Portland, Maine because of immigration status or homelessness or water shut-offs, and I linked arms with others and acted for justice.
I am here to invite you to join this Campaign; to join this moral uprising; to have faith that we can take action together because we are a new and unsettling force and we are powerful, we are a new and unsettling force and we’re here!
We must come together and say somebody is hurting our people and it has gone on for far too long and we won’t be silent anymore. We must sing out everybody’s got a right to live, everybody’s got a right to live and before this Campaign fails we’ll all go down to jail, because everybody’s got a right to live!
I close with the words from “Ella’s Song” dedicated to Ella Baker, written by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Until the killing of poor men, poor mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of rich men, rich mothers’ sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survive.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes