Gospel of the Outsiders: Homily for the New York State Council of Churches Ecumenical Advocacy Days

This homily was given by Rev. Emily McNeill at the New York State Council of Churches First Annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days.

1 Corinthians 1:18-20, 26-28: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

We are gathered this morning in a state and nation that is divided. To say we are divided has become almost a cliché. The news and our social media feeds are full of people talking about our divisions - between red states and blue, left and right, between religion, race and nationality. In the last few weeks two New York State Senators have even proposed dividing New York in two, because - they say - upstate and NYC are too different to co-exist. (There are a lot of dog whistles embedded in that plan, but that’s a topic for another day.)

There is no doubt that our state is divided, but I think many of us would see those divisions differently. And this morning I want us to think about the division as based in two competing narratives, grounded in two divergent realities.

On the one hand, there is the New York that is prosperous and progressive - with a growing GDP, a falling unemployment rate, and some of the best schools and hospitals in the country. This New York is multicultural and cosmopolitan, with access to culture and capital that is second to none.

On the other, is a New York that is in crisis. 50.5% of New Yorkers - almost 10 million people - are poor or low income. That includes 60% of children and 66% of POC. 92,000 New Yorkers are homeless on any given night - up 40% since 2010. One million New Yorkers lack health insurance, and millions more with insurance can’t access affordable care. New York has some of the most racially and economically segregated schools in the country and black New Yorkers are incarcerated at 8 times the rate of white New Yorkers.

Both these descriptions can be supported by facts, but they tell contradictory stories. What we see and which story we tell about New York depends on where we choose to look and to whom we choose to listen.

This morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians also speaks to a clash of world-views, in this case between the narrative proclaimed by the early church and the dominant political and religious views of the day.

The Apostle Paul describes those in the early Christian movement in Corinth this way: “Not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were upper class.”

This community of outsiders preaches an outsider message, which Paul says is confounding to the conventional wisdom of the day. To those with political, social and economic power, the message of Christians - and particularly the story of a crucified Christ - is foolishness and a stumbling block.

From the perspective of the elite, how could a crucified man – one who had suffered Rome’s most excruciating and humiliating punishment – be revered? How could someone so wretched be the Son of God? How could a crucified Christ be understood as “good news”?

For those invested in the Roman system, who trusted that system, this Gospel made no sense.

But for those on the receiving end of Roman oppression, it was different. The early church - a community that included the poor and outcast - was familiar with being beat up by the system. They too had experienced the Roman empire as unfair, oppressive and violent. So for them Christ crucified was good news. It was an affirmation, an expression of solidarity. Christ was crucified as so many others were before and after him.

There is power in the revelation that in Jesus, God chose to take a firm stand, not as part of the systems and structures of this world that are killing people, but as part of this multitude that is being killed. The cross proclaims to the victims of empire that God is with us even to the darkest, most humiliating, most painful places we will ever go.  In Paul’s words, the cross shames and makes foolish the conventional wisdom that upholds or ignores these systems of domination and those they harm.

We are all here today because we have seen these systems of injustice and the harm they have done and are doing.

We know that there are unacceptable levels of poverty in this state, and so we are calling for a state budget that taxes the rich and invests in marginalized and vulnerable communities.

We know that immigrants are being demonized and marginalized and so we are advocating for the protection of drivers licenses and accountability when our neighbors are kidnapped by ICE.

We know that the poor and New Yorkers of color are being incarcerated unjustly and unnecessarily, and so we are demanding an end to cash bail.

We know that the quality of healthcare a person gets in this state depends on their wealth and privilege, so we are calling for single-payer universal health care for all New Yorkers.

We know that climate change is a ticking time bomb that will impact all of us, but especially poorer communities, and so we are demanding bold action to end our reliance on fossil fuels and support a just transition to renewable energy.

Today we’re bringing those messages right to the seat of power. And that’s important. In most cases, we will be engaging with leaders who are entrenched in the wisdom of the world- who see New York as prosperous and progressive, and need a reality check about the crises most constituents actually face.

As we move through today, I also want to encourage us to be thinking about what comes next. The transformation that we want to see will require that more and more people recognize the harm being done by unjust economic and political systems. It will require more and more people committing to action.

All of us - whether lay or clergy - are here as leaders in our churches, and so we share the responsibility of preaching, teaching, and living out the Gospel in our own contexts. It’s up to all of us to continually uplift the wisdom of the cross, that calls us to see from the perspective of the oppressed and outcast. We are the people who must continually preach and teach and act in response to poverty, racism, xenophobia and environmental destruction. We are the people who can and must heal the divisions between left and right, upstate and down, black and white by boldly offering a moral vision of a New York that leaves no one behind.

This is Gospel work, faithful to our call to preach good news to the poor and release to the captives. It's work that resonates with the wisdom of the cross that turns the logic of the world upside down.

By ordinary human standards, not many of us are wise, not many are powerful, not many are from the upper class. But even we – especially we – can be witnesses to the good news of justice, healing and love for all who’ve been excluded and oppressed. Thanks be to God.