March 3, 2024 - Third Sunday in Lent

"The Power of God”

Rev. Gary Percesepe

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

You lose stuff in a move and some of it is well lost, things you don’t much care about, but some things that are lost you really hope to find again.

When my mother died the funeral director placed a thin gold cross in the top left corner of the lining of her casket. Just before we closed the casket on that crisp October day in New York, I reached into the casket and took out the cross. I carried it home with me and placed it on the wall closest to my desk, near the computer where I wrote my sermons. In the chaos of our move to Maui, I almost forgot it, but as I swept through the house one last time I spotted it and packed it into one of our bags. I’ve searched for it but still haven’t found it. Somehow, I believe it will turn up.

I believe this because my mother believed in the cross, and taught me to believe in it and every time she thought I was straying from the true path she’d remind me of the cross and say to me, “Gary, I know you’re highly educated, been to seminary, have many advanced degrees, but just remember this, seminary sounds a lot like cemetery, OK? And I know that you’re considered smart by some but let me tell you something: you’re not so smart that you can get by without listening to your mother. I will always be your best critic.”

Right here is where I would shuffle my feet and look at my shoes and feel my blood pressure rise and begin to rehearse my mother’s next lines, and she never disappointed.

“Preach the cross, son. There is no gospel without the cross. Forget your fancy degrees; people die by degrees! Preach the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, and don’t you ever forget it.”

I may have lost my mother’s cross, but I can never lose her words, and all her best words were about the cross and the power of God.

The church at Corinth was an unholy mess. Paul had founded the church years before he wrote the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, and in those years the church had gotten so full of itself that Paul felt compelled to channel my mother’s voice and remind these church folk that they are not all that. In today’s text we find the heart of the gospel message as Paul understands it, and at the heart is the cross.

Paul states the essential paradox of the cross: God has chosen weakness through which to display power.

Jesus became the most powerful person the world has ever known by giving power away. Such is the message of the cross. What humans regard as inexplicitly foolish is in fact a display of divine wisdom.

God’s ways are not our ways. When judged by human standards, God comes up short, but this is an indictment not of God, but of human wisdom.

“Where is the debater of this age?” Paul asks the church at Corinth. Well, Paul obviously never had the opportunity to be on Facebook or Twitter X. The world is full of people who are deeply convinced of their own wisdom.

Time often reveals the foolishness of some of our choices. Think about your first marriage, ha! What were you thinking! We could continue in this vein: Your haircut in 1986!

Human wisdom says: “The answer to gun violence is to give the good guys more guns.” God’s wisdom says: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Human wisdom says: “The one who dies with the most toys, wins.” God’s wisdom says: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

We all need to stop taking the bible literally and start taking it seriously. The Bible is not a dead record of the past, it’s the word of the living God for the people of God.

I hear a lot about the decline and death of the mainline Protestant church in America, but no one seems to listen to the words of Jesus who already told us what’s wrong and how to fix it. Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, “Is this not why you are wrong that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

The power of God is manifest through God’s word, the power that created the church in the first place. It’s the engine that drove the Reformation.

Yet this power today is increasingly less heard in mainline churches, for mainline Christians have largely ceased to believe that God still speaks.

The claim of our faith is not that once upon a time long ago God spoke. If that's it, you're wasting your morning here.

The claim is not that God spoke, the claim is that God still speaks today, to you, right now.

Theologian Stephen Paulson tells the story of one of his seminary students whose first church was out in the hinterlands of Minnesota.

After a few weeks, the newly minted pastor called Professor Paulson to update him on his new congregation.

“How do you fire a volunteer,” he asked his professor.

Dr. Paulson asked what was going on and the rookie pastor replied, “there's this old widow in the congregation. She's here every day sweeping the hallway with her straw broom. She's mean! She's rude. She's unpleasant. She does a terrible job of sweeping and cleaning. But we're not paying her, so how are we supposed to get rid of her.”

“Maybe there's a reason she needs to be there every day, day after day,” the professor told the student. “Try finding out what it is. Don't waste any time. And if you find out, then give her the goods. Lay the gospel on her.”

A few days later, the student called again. “Dr. Paulson, Dr. Paulson, I did it. I asked why she spent so much time at church, but seemed so miserable doing it.”


“And she told me. “Forty years ago,” she said. “Forty years ago, I cheated on my husband with another man. And twelve years ago, he died without ever knowing I had betrayed him.”

“So I did what you told me,” the student told the professor. “I said to her, in the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority alone, I absolve you of all your sins.”

“And as soon as I gave her the absolution, her whole countenance changed. And she said, I have been here Sunday after Sunday, day after day, week after week for 40 years, pushing this godforsaken broom, waiting to hear God say that to me.

Church, please notice that she didn't say, I've been waiting to hear someone say. She said, I have been waiting to hear God say.

And the professor listened to this story over the phone and said, “Amen.”

“Wait,” the student said, “it gets better. No sooner had she told me she'd been waiting to hear God speak than she threw the broom down on the floor and said, I don't have to do this anymore.”

And she walked out the front door, light on her feet, freed of her burden.

The word of God is the power of God unto salvation. Full stop.

All is not lost.

So… What is the word the Lord has for you this morning, I wonder?

Don’t look at me! I don't know what God’s saying to you. I'm not in charge of that.

But here’s what I do know and what I can promise you:

God is alive and present here. The true and living God is not yet finished creating, and part of what God’s creating is a whole new you… if you want one.

It's Lent. Repent and believe the good news. Another life is possible. And that's grace and good news precisely because I am not the one who promises it to you.

This message is offered to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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