by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, together with our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified, consecrated, in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God, together with all those who, wherever they may be, call on the name of Jesus, the Christ, who is both their Savior and ours:…” — 1 Corinthians 1:1-2.
I have at least several other occasions started my Sunday comments in the way I am about to start them. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
To be clear, a long time ago would be somewhere between thirty and forty years in the past— that certainly seems like it’s a long time ago. A galaxy far, far away would be New York City— that certainly seems like it’s at least a different planet.
And in that time long ago, that galaxy called New York City, among the many jobs which kept food on my table while I was also working as a writer in professional theater was that of being a tour guide at South Street Seaport Museum. As a tour guide there I needed to know a lot about the museum and its grounds.
Yes, a seaport museum is about ships, but South Street is more than that. A significant part of the grounds are on dry land.
One section of the waterfront is a group of buildings known as the Schermerhorn Row. This set of six brick structures was built by one Peter Schermerhorn in 1811 to serve the growing seaport called New York.
These buildings were counting houses. What are counting houses? When cargo came off the ships which were right there it moved into these structures and was accounted for— counted there.
A more modern term for a counting house is warehouse. Please note: each of these structures is quite small— only four stories tall. Each took up only a tiny section of a city block. Put the other way around, these brick buildings are not at all big, at least not big the way we think of about the size of a warehouse today.
Today a warehouse can take up what is the equivalent of several large city blocks. So a little more than 200 years ago what they thought of as quite large— a warehouse where cargo was processed— we, today, think of as quite small, even tiny. Now, in 1811 the population of this country was just over 7,000,000. Today it’s about 319 million.
That’s more than 45 times larger than in 1811. In drawing this parallel I am trying to help us understand how different things are— small verses big— and how different things have become in just 200 years. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in First Corinthians: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, together with our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified, consecrated, in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God, together with all those who, wherever they may be, call on the name of Jesus, the Christ, who is both their Savior and ours:…” (Slight pause.)
Today we live a society that is used to big. The seating capacity of stadiums used for major sporting events in this time is now often more than 50,000. Big is what we like. Big is how we think. In one sense, a cultural sense, we are uncomfortable with small.
The same was true of Roman society in New Testament times. That society thought big. That society was used to big. Big is what they liked. The population of the city of Rome— that’s the city of Rome not the Roman Empire— population in the city of Rome was about one million. In fact, the seating capacity of the Coliseum was about… 50,000.
All that sounds pretty modern, does it not? Indeed, in one sense, a cultural sense, the Romans were quite uncomfortable with small.
To be clear, at least 90% of that population of 1,000,000 in the city of Rome lived under conditions that you and I would call slavery. Hence, the economic system could only be described as an economic system based on domination— humans enslaving humans. When you get down to it, it seems to me humans enslaving other humans might simply a by-product of big— it lacks intimacy— big. (Slight pause.)
And so, Paul writes to this church in Corinth in this society. How big is the church in Corinth? How many people made up the membership of that church? Hundreds? Thousands? Did they gathered in some large amphitheater to listen to Paul? (Slight pause.)
No one really knows how big that church was. But we can and do have a very educated guess. The church in Corinth was not just small. The church in Corinth was very, very small— tiny. It would have had less than 50 people.
And we can make an educated guess like that because Biblical scholars and secular historians are fairly confident about two dates and one fact. The two dates: we are fairly confident this letter to the Church in Corinth was composed in the year 54 of the Common Era. We are fairly confident Paul died in the year 64 of the Common Era.
The fact: we are fairly confident that in the year 100 of the Common Era— 36 years after Paul dies— the number of Christians in the entire Mediterranean basin is also very, very small— tiny by any standard. Biblical scholars and secular historians are fairly confident the number of Christians in the entire Mediterranean basin in the year 100 is still less than… 10,000.
Please also note and as was already stated, population of Rome was about 1,000,000; the seating capacity of the Coliseum was about 50,000— big. The Christian population in the Mediterranean basin in the year 100? 10,000— small. (Slight pause.)
At the end of this reading we hear these words (quote:) “For God, through whom you have been called into intimacy with Jesus, our Savior, is faithful.”
Intimacy— now there’s an interesting word, especially in reference to God. One of several definitions of the word says intimacy is an interpersonal relationship that involves emotion. Intimacy, therefore, demands one on one relationship. Intimacy demands closeness. Intimacy demands looking someone else in the eye. This is obvious: you do not have lunch with 50,000 of your closest friends. Closeness demands small. (Slight pause.)
This weekend we remember the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Often what we remember about Dr. King is big— the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the “I have a dream…” speech, the Nobel Prize and the speech King gave on that occasion. Those are big things.
But I think King’s most important contributions had a much smaller feel, such as the one on one interactions it’s likely this pastor had with parishioners in times of crisis. That is what pastor do often, you know— one on one.
So perhaps what we need to realize today is things may become big, may make a splash, may make noise. But often making noise results in us losing our voice… our real voice. Why? I think big requires that we get too loud.
And when we get too loud, we lose our real voice because we lose intimacy. We lose our one to one touch with others. As I suggested, intimacy is not about having lunch with 50,000 of your closest friends. Intimacy is more real than that. (Slight pause.)
All that leads me to a question: what is our real voice? What is our true self? Well, Paul says Jesus is faithful. And perhaps that is a key.
You see, I think we need to emulate Jesus in faithfulness. We need to be aware the call of God on our lives is to walk in the will of God, to express the love of God, to know the path of God.
I think the path God would have us trod, the path to which God calls us is intimate, small, one on one. Therefore, instead of thinking about issues of justice in big ways perhaps what we, each of us, needs to do is to seek the justice God seeks one on one, person to person, one step at a time.
Indeed, as Paul tells us, we are called to be saints, a people set apart for the work of God. And I believe that work means faithfully— faithfully seeking justice one step at a time, one person at a time.
So, this is where I’m at: seeking justice is a small act. And it is small act because it is done one on one, face to face. Indeed, it is hard to deny another person justice when you are looking them in the eye, when you know them.
And when each of us seeks the justice of God— each of us acting in small ways, each of us doing our own part, each of us taking personal responsibility to seek justice— that— that is when seeking justice becomes big. Indeed, I believe when we seek justice we become faithful disciples of Christ. Faithfulness— now there is a big thought— faithfulness. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Scripture tells us— First Kings 19 to be precise— Scripture tells us the voice of God comes in a gentle whisper. I, myself, tend to be wary of loud. So, please do listen for a gentle whispers. And please don’t reject small simply because it’s small.”
BENEDICTION: Let us learn as faithful disciples of Christ. Let us know that God is available to us at any time and in any place. Let us give thanks for the grace of God in Christ, Jesus. Let us trust in God for all time and for all eternity. Amen.