Sunday February 2nd 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
1 Cor. 1:18-31
James Lawson, and the Tuesday Evening Bible Study
In 1958, the Rev. James Lawson was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, pursuing ordination as a Methodist Minister, and leading a Bible study for a small group of college students in the basement of a church. Lawson had been born in Ohio in the year 1928, the son and grandson of African-American Methodist ministers. After college, Lawson had spent 3 years in India as a campus minister and teacher, where he was introduced to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent direct action.
After returning to the United States in 1957, James Lawson accepted an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to come to the South to train others in nonviolence. Lawson traveled around teaching for a while, and eventually landed in Nashville, where he enrolled as a divinity student at Vanderbilt. And it was there that James Lawson began leading weekly Tuesday evening Bible Studies for a small group of ten college students in the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church.
During those weekly Tuesday Evening Bible Studies, Lawson and the students studied Jesus’s teachings about loving your enemies found in the Sermon on the Mount, and they learned practical approaches to loving and forgiving those who had wronged them. One of the nonviolent tactics that Lawson taught the college students was to imagine their enemy as an infant. Exercises such as this helped them to have compassion for those who might try to hurt them, and helped make them less prone to retaliation.
As more and more college students began attending the meetings, Lawson began leading workshops for the students, where he would have them role-play various scenarios. One of Lawson’s innovative teaching techniques was role-reversal: White students would play the role of Black demonstrators, and Black students would play the role of white law enforcement officers.
U.S. Representative John Lewis was one of the original ten students in Lawson’s Bible Study. Looking back on those trainings and exercises, Lewis said, “it was strange – unsettling, but effective, and very eye-opening as well.” The students practiced nonviolence until Lawson felt sure that they would be able to endure violence without retaliating.
The “Foolishness” of the Cross
In 1 Corinthians 1, the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), and Paul goes on to say that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).
The nonviolent methodology of Rev. James Lawson and his small group of Bible-believing college students was the exact opposite of human wisdom. But it was indeed the way of the cross. And it ended up being a very effective way to bring about social change.
During the trainings and workshops that James Lawson led, Lawson would talk with the students about the various issues and problems facing the African-American students in their community, and what could be done in response. One young African-American woman highlighted that segregation in downtown department stores disproportionately affected women. She told the group,
You men don’t really know what life is like in segregation. We are the ones who shop. When we go into downtown Nashville. There is no place that we can stop with dignity and rest our feet…There’s no place that one could sit down and have a cup of coffee.
Hearing similar sentiments from many other African-American women in their community, Lawson and the students decided to focus their efforts on desegregating the lunch counters in the downtown department stores. Lawson and the students eventually launched a successful and peaceful sit-in campaign during the Spring of 1960, which resulted in the eventual desegregation of the lunch counters all over the city of Nashville.
Love Is Stronger than Hatred
Human wisdom would tell us that “might makes right,” that those with the most power should be the ones to make all the decisions. Human wisdom would tell us that if someone disgraces us or disparages us, we should come back at them with force or a display of power that puts them in their place. Human wisdom would tell us that violence is the way to solve the world’s problems.
But the message of the cross of Jesus Christ is that love is stronger than hatred, that the most effective way to conquer our enemies is to love them, and that the path to greatness is through humble service.
Consider Your Own Call
As an example of how God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthians to “consider your own call” (1 Cor. 1:26). Paul says,
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 (1 Cor. 1:26b-29).
If God chose only to work through the wealthy, the powerful, or the elite – they might think that they did it on their own strength. And so, most often, God chooses to work through average, everyday people. God chooses to work through seminary student like James Lawson who lead Bible studies in church basements, and through small groups of young adults who study the teachings of Jesus and decide to commit themselves to loving their neighbors across racial and ethnic lines. God works through everyday average people who accept the call of God on their lives and open themselves up to be used by God in whatever way God sees fit.
Now, I’m sure some of you were “straight A” students, or star athletes, or the prom king or queen in your high school. Some of you excel at everything you do, and everything you touch just turns to gold!
But most of us are probably prone to wonder whether God can even use us at all? And if so, how? How could we possibly make a difference in the world? What special purpose or unique role could we possibly serve?
But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to be powerful, or wealthy, or elite in order for God to use us. All we have to be is available. Available to be used by God, available to be molded and shaped into Christ’s image, available for God to work in and through us.
As the Apostle Paul goes on to say, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
In the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount, in which he said, in part,
Blessed [or “happy”] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:3-12).
According to the wisdom of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are “poor in spirit” and those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The meek will inherit the earth, and the peacemakers are the children of God. Those who extend mercy to others will receive mercy, and those who are pure in heart will get to see God.
This is not the wisdom of the world. This is the way of the cross.
These are beautiful promises for those of use who wonder how God could possibly use us, who worry that we’re not good enough, and who feel like we’re just not that special.
It’s good news, because you don’t have to have a lot of money to be poor in spirit! You don’t have to be strong to be meek. You don’t have to be powerful to be merciful. You don’t have to make straight A’s to become a peacemaker, and you don’t have to be perfect to be pure in heart.
But you do need to be willing, open, and available. Willing to be used by God, in whatever way God sees fit. Willing to follow Christ’s example of self-sacrificial love. Willing perhaps even to look foolish for God.
Some might look down on us or ever despise us. Some might even persecute us or revile us. But in the end, Christ promises that we’ll be blessed if we do these things. We’ll be blessed if we’re meek. And we’ll inherit the earth! We’ll be blessed if we hunger and thirst for righteousness. And we’ll be filled. We’ll be blessed if we are merciful. And we will receive mercy.
This is not the wisdom of the world. But it’s the life that Jesus has called and invited us into. Consider your own call. It’s a way that may seem foolish to many, but in the end it’s the only way to true and everlasting life.