I Corinthians 1:10-31
April 24, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I’d like to begin my sermon with an apology to all of the little people.
Last week, I preached on a scripture passage that I referred to as coming from “Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.” I was using biblical scholarly convention, but even as I used the phrase, “Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians,” I was aware that I was giving short shrift to two other men in the room at the time of the writing of that letter, namely Timothy and Silvanus, or as the book of Acts calls him, Silas. The letter to the Thessalonians begins with greetings to the Thessalonian church from all three men and throughout the letter, it says, “We hoped for this… we did that…” making it clear that the work in which Paul was engaged in Thessalonica was shared by Timothy and Silas. Moreover, according to Luke’s account in the book of Acts, Silas had endured just as much persecution as Paul during his time in Thessalonica and had shown just as much strength of character and faith. When they were attacked by unfriendly mobs, it was both Silas and Paul who were thrown into prison, and it was both Silas and Paul who sang hymns in the night leading to the conversion of their jailor.
“We hoped for this… we did that…” the letter says making it obvious that Paul was not alone in its writing … and yet it is Paul alone to whom we give the credit: “Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.” Timothy at least gets awarded the honor of two letters in our Bible written in his name, but poor Silas gets nothing. For all that Silas endured in his work for Christ, for all of his travel and his teaching and his faithful endurance, Silas is listed only in the credits of the church as “supporting cast,” one of the “fellow apostles” of the main star, Paul. Poor Silas…. or is it Silvanus? The Bible doesn’t even agree on his name. Poor whatever-his-name-was: he dedicated his life to Christ but he earned only a footnote in the church’s memory.
And so I begin this sermon with an apology to all of the little people out there, the ones who are working your tails off on behalf of Christ, trying to do what is right, making sacrifices for others, but never getting the recognition you deserve. This is for you who trudge along and too often alone, enduring the world’s questions as to why you still go to that antiquated outdated institution called the church, who are using time that you could be using to lie in the sun to instead volunteer at the Comfort House or serve at the Wellsville Community Kitchen. This is for the little people who quietly watch out for the neighbors’ kids because the neighbors aren’t into the whole parental responsibility thing, who continue to buy extra peanut butter every week for the food pantry long after the Thanksgiving feel-good collections are forgotten, who go to committee meetings to try to figure out how to squeeze a few more dollars out of people in order to build a home for the working poor, who give without asking what you will get in return, who forgive no matter how high the cost to your own pride, who take seriously this thing we call the gospel and who try to live your lives in a meaningful way for the sake of others…. and whose names will be forgotten 100 years after you are gone.
“Remember that guy?” they will say of us one day. “Old what’s his name? Was it Silas or Silvanus? Yeah, I seem to remember that he was kind of a good guy. He worked with the great apostle Paul. Oh, and that Paul! Now there’s a man worth talking about!” and our moment in the limelight will be gone as quickly as it came.
This is for you. Thank you for your work for the Kingdom.
I know it’s hard to be a member of the supporting cast. Not only do we get overlooked, but sometimes we begin to believe ourselves that what we are doing is not nearly as important as the work of the stars who get top billing. Harold Kushner, in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes:
“Some good people are good on a relatively modest scale. They are charitable; they visit the sick; they help a neighbor change a flat tire. Others are good on a grander scale. They work diligently to discover a cure for a disease, or they fight for the extension of the rights of the poor and the powerless.”
The people who are good on a grand scale are the Paul’s of the world. They are the Mother Teresa’s and the Martin Luther Kings. The people who are good on a modest scale are the Silas’s of the church. They are frankly, you and me. And honestly, to be good on a modest scale feels like being damned with faint praise. How would it feel to walk in on your own funeral and hear someone eulogizing you as a “modestly good person, always willing to change a flat tire for a neighbor?” Who wants to be remembered as “good on a modest scale?” We want to believe that our lives will have an everlasting impact; that will be remembered as a person of profound love for others, as a paragon of virtue and irreplaceable in the world.
There was once a boy who desperately wanted a little sister. He spoke to his parents about his desire and his father said to him, “Well, Josh. Maybe if you pray really hard, every night, God will listen to you and give you a little sister in about two months.” (Obviously, the boy’s father had some inside information.) Well, Josh began praying in earnest and every night for a month he asked God to give him a sister, but when nothing happened, he became discouraged and eventually he stopped praying. Another few weeks went by and one day his father called Josh upstairs. There was the boy’s mother lying on the bed with a large bundle near her. Josh’s father pulled back the blanket and lying in his mother’s arms was not one, but two little baby girls — she had had twins. His father, smiling said, “Now aren’t you glad Josh, that you prayed?”
Josh looked at his Dad and said, “Yes, but aren’t you glad I stopped when I did?”
What would it be like to be one of the saints whose very prayers can change the world? Surely it is the men and the women of God’s favored inner circle who are the ones of great account in the church’s history, we think: the Abrahams and Sarahs, the Deborahs leading armies, the Moses’es parting the seas, the Peters — the rocks upon whom the whole church is founded — and the Pauls, who carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.
But we are not them. We are the Silases, the supporting actors who are destined to fade into the fog of the church’s history. We’ll be lucky if in a hundred years anyone can even get our names straight.
But if we are to be the Silases of the church — and we are — we should also take our inspiration from this man, Silas. The book of Acts says, “….Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.”
We don’t know what Silas said to strengthen the believers; we don’t know what kind of work he did among the churches; and we don’t know how he expressed his call. We see nothing more of him after Paul leaves him behind in Corinth. Maybe Silas stayed there for the rest of his life setting up chairs and tables for the Corinthians’ fellowship meals, teaching Sunday School, and changing his neighbor’s broken chariot wheel. Maybe his life was a life of modest goodness, but what we discount and damn with faint praise may be the work that God needs done in that particular moment at that particular time. Paul himself says to the people of the Corinthian church, “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; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” It sounds like Silas would have fit right in there in the Corinthian church.
The history of the church is written in the lives of people whose names have been forgotten. Their faces will never grace our twenty dollar bills, and we won’t even remember that they were in the room when the gospel was being written but their acts of goodness and love will live on because when we give our lives to expressing the goodness and love of God to others in small ways and in all ways, we glorify the God who is without end and so our love will last forever, no matter how insignificant we may feel at this moment.
Back in the days of desegregation, a white family lived in a school district that was ordered to open their doors to African-American students. There were many violent protests and boycotts on the first day of integration, but the family chose to support the move and sent their little first grade daughter to school. Nevertheless, her mother was anxious all day and nervously awaited her daughter’s return, and as soon as she arrived home, her mother quickly asked, “How was it?”
The little girl said, “Mommy, I sat next to a black girl all day.”
Her mother asked, “What happened?”
The little girl replied, “We were both so scared, we held hands together all day long!”
Those two little girls weren’t saints. They weren’t Joan of Arcs courageously enduring the flames of persecution and challenging the forces of evil. They were simply scared little girls with good and kind hearts who could see the fear and the humanity in the eyes of one another. They reached out their small hands and God’s reconciling love poured forth in that place.
Not many of us are wise by human standards, not many are powerful, none of us are of noble birth. We are the Corinthians; we are the Silases; we are the foolish who don’t know what we are doing half of the time and the other half of the time when we think we know what we are doing are probably wrong. We are the weak who are tired and frustrated or just looking around for someone to hold our hand. We are the nothings and the nobodies who will not be remembered in 100 years but who still insist on getting up morning after morning determined to be good, to find beauty in the world, to care about our neighbor a little better today than we did yesterday, to move the earth a little closer to sustainability, to speak a word for justice, to argue on behalf of peace, to pray and believe and love one another as Jesus first loved us.
You are Silas…. or is it Silvanus? Whatever your name is, thank you for your work in God’s Kingdom. Thank you for your modest goodness, your persevering kindness, for soldiering on, for noticing others, for your quiet gifts, and your humble service, for reaching out and holding someone’s hand when life got a little scary, for insisting and persisting in faith. Thank you because in your lives of modest goodness God has been glorified and your work will endure forever.