Fooling Around (sermon 3/8/15)

“…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  - 1 Corinthians 1:25

(In order to understand one reference in this sermon, you need to know that part of the Children’s Message earlier in the service included dancing and wearing foam rubber clown noses)

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For 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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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The character of The Fool is a time-honored tradition in plays and other theatrical presentations. It goes way back, to biblical times and earlier, and it continues even now into our own time. The Fool is always a person who doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the crowd, they’re a bit of an outsider, who can make discomforting observations that everyone else seems to have missed, or who can make criticisms or poke holes in the puffed-up egos of their superiors, that no one else could get away with. A prince or a bishop could criticize the king and lose his head for it; the Fool could make the exact same point, just in a more crafty way, and all he’d have to do is smile as he said it, and the king would let it slide. Today, the Fool might be the quirky sidekick to the main character in a movie or TV show, but whether you find them at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or the Auburn Movie Plex, their role is basically the same – to bring laser-sharp wisdom in ways that everyone else considers foolish, and to wield power from what others would consider a position of weakness.

In today’s Epistle Lectionary text, Paul is writing to the small church in Corinth. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly commercialized city in ancient Greece, and the Greek love of wisdom and learning, at least their version of it, was a very important thing there. And the Christian message that God shows love for all people, and saves all people, by way of an unschooled Jewish peasant, a nobody, who’s convicted and executed I the most humiliating way imaginable, and who then is supposed to have risen from the dead… well, it was just a ridiculous thought. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was monstrous, and insulting to a person’s intelligence to even think about. It was pure foolishness.

The members of the church in Corinth seem to have been wavering in their faith, starting to worry about whether it stood up to public scrutiny and conventional wisdom and the proper rules of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. They seem to have been worried that staking out a position for the church that the rest of the city considered one of weakness was the wrong path. Maybe they should adopt a strategy, a different mission plan, one that sounded more consistent with the way most of their neighbors understood the world.

But Paul’s point was that God is wise enough to not teach the great truths of the Kingdom of God by way of the supposedly wise, or rich, or powerful. Instead, God makes the point, reveals the truth, offers the real wisdom, in a way no one would expect. It was the greatest of wisdom originally seen as foolishness, the greatest of power originally seen as weakness.

We often face the same kind of concerns. I mean, we want to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent people, and let’s face it, our faith is focused on the life of Jesus, a story that’s quite unusual to say the least. And the whole emphasis that the Christian faith places on meekness, and peacefulness, praying for our enemies and turning the other cheek and not returning violence for violence, it really is a hard pill to swallow sometimes.

But Paul says to stay strong in the faith, because the wisdom and power in the message of Christ crucified is more wise and more powerful than the wisdom and power understood by the world. That strength put into action through love – which was often seen, in ancient Corinth and today as disgusting weakness – is actually the greatest wisdom and strength of all. It’s capable of moving mountains in the effort to make the world more like Christ, more like the kingdom of God.

That was how the church originally spread so rapidly, you know. The one thing that people in the first years of Christianity noted about Jesus-followers was their seemingly unbounded way of peacefulness, forgiveness, and love for others, even their most dangerous enemies and persecutors. Even their enemies said that about them. When the church keeps true to those characteristics, it always grows. When individual Christians are true to those characteristics – put another way, when they play the role of the Fool, as the world would see it – their faith always deepens and they always become powerful forces for the gospel and all good in the world.

This isn’t just how the church grew, either. The exact same principle can be seen in many different times and places throughout the history of the church and the world. The strength and wisdom of Christ crucified was exactly what empowered those people who, fifty years ago yesterday, walked unarmed, peacefully, two-by-two over the narrow sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge into the face of state and local police armed with guns, and billy clubs, and dogs, and horses, all literally hell-bent on preventing them from advancing any further. These were people who knew what was likely to happen to them. And yet, they still marched over that bridge and into the living rooms of people all over this country and into history. They had been trained to turn the other cheek, to remain peaceful in the face of violence, to not return evil for evil. Many of them paid a heavy price for doing so. But by remaining peaceful, and not returning violence for violence, the images of that horrible, brutal day made a far more indelible impression on millions of people who finally said “enough!” and who began to accept the idea of racial equality. It was utter madness in the eyes of the world. They were Fools. They were, indeed, and thanks be to God for it. The wisdom of their foolishness, grounded in the message of the gospel, changed our country, and the world, forever.

Fifty years later, in addition to the ongoing fight for equal rights for all, there are other battles, other issues, other missions that the church, collectively and as individuals, is being called to take up in the name of Christ, too. And time and again, history has shown us that the greatest strategy to achieving gains in those battles is the way of the cross – taking up, and focusing on, and implementing the wisdom of the cross as opposed to the wisdom of the world. As we continue through Lent, and as we continue to reflect on the full meaning of taking up our own cross as we follow Christ, let’s realize that God is calling each one of us, in some way, to advance God’s will by concretely implementing the wisdom of the cross – by being a Fool for God, as a witness to the world. Let’s take the time to pray, and ask, where it is that God is calling us to speak the wisdom of the Fool into the world around us. And once we know where that is, let’s not be afraid. Be bold. Stand up in whatever way God is calling you. For the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God, don’t be afraid to dance when the world says not to. Don’t be afraid to be a Fool for God. Foam rubber nose is optional.

Thanks be to God.

You Think You Know (sermon 1/18/15)

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(This sermon is a tribute to the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic proclamation of the equality and justice of the Kingdom of God. In a secondary way, it’s also a tribute to Dr. Phil Hazelton, a mentor of mine who once delivered a different sermon by the same name, and who somewhat loosely, and until now, anonymously, makes an appearance near the end of the sermon.)

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The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” – John 1:43-51

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 It had been a rough day of selling his fish in the marketplace. Nathaniel worked long, hard hours catching the fish, then hauling them to his stall in the market in Bethsaida, then having to smell all that unchilled fish all day long while he tried to schmooze and smooth-talk the customers to buy his fish that day instead of someone else’s. It could get frustrating. People just didn’t realize, or care, how much it actually cost him to get these fish to market. What he had to pay his workers, and the maintenance and upkeep on the boat and his nets, and the slip fees at the lake, and the health department inspections and the monthly rent for the stall in the market itself, and then all the taxes and fees on top of that, and the fact that he had so much competition in this little town where almost everybody was a fisherman; he was barely making a living. And even at the rock-bottom prices he was able to charge, people would still try to haggle him down further. There was one customer in particular who showed up every few days, a very shrewd and hard-bargaining man who’d moved to Bethsaida from further inland in Galilee, from Nazareth near the big city of Sepphoris. Nathaniel swore that if he’d set the price of the biggest, freshest tilapia he had at just two cents, this guy would try to get him to drop the price to a penny.

All the haggling, all the bruised shins Nathaniel had gotten through years of conducting his business, and from life in general, had made him jaded and suspicious of people. He was sitting there on that hot, late afternoon in the shade of a fig tree trying to enjoy his dinner of lamb, or chicken, or anything but fish, when his friend Philip came running up and started going off about something he was excited about. Ah, Philip. So naïve. Always the dreamer, always ready to believe whatever anyone said. Last week, it was some health food craze; the week before that it was the Ginsu steak knives. Now today, it was… what? The messiah? Really? Again? This was the third would-be messiah Philip had gotten worked up over in just the past year. And when Philip said this latest one was from Nazareth, Nathaniel could only think about his annoying customer and almost snorted as he spit out his scornful answer to Philip about people from Nazareth. Really, Philip, they’re all alike.

But Philip was persistent, and mostly just to get him to shut up, Nathaniel followed him to meet this man. As they got near, Jesus called out to him, “Ah, here’s truly a good and honorable man, a man in whom there is no deceit!” And immediately, Nathaniel’s BS meter spikes. It just sounded like the same kind of smarmy, insincere flattery he doled out to the people in the market all day long, and this particular day, Nathaniel wasn’t having any of it. “How do you know that? You’ve never met me before this very minute. You don’t even know my name!” And then Jesus smiled and very calmly answered, “Actually, I know all about you, Nathaniel, whose very name means gift from God; and in my mind’s eye I even saw you sitting under that fig tree having your diner.”

Jesus’ words hit Nathaniel like a lightning bolt. He realized that his preconceived notions about this man were wrong. He thought he knew; he just didn’t know.

We all do the same thing, of course. You, me, each of us, almost every day, in one way or another. With next to no real evidence, we’ll make snap judgments about a person based on the flimsiest of reasons. Skin color, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, net worth, education level. My list won’t look exactly like yours, or yours, but still, we’ll pre-judge others based on meaningless things – often on things that are simply inherent aspects of their creation; no more the person’s doing, and holding no more moral content, than the color of their eyes.

You confide in your long-time friend that you just don’t like people who get piercings or tattoos; that you just don’t get it, and that you think anyone who goes in for those things is ignorant, low-class, trashy; and she gets a funny look on her face and doesn’t say much after that, but when she says goodbye and turns to walk away, fir the first time ever you notice through the thin white fabric of her top a beautifully colored butterfly tattooed between her shoulder blades. You think you know; you just don’t know.

You’re the president of the high school athletic boosters club, and one day you’re having a nice conversation with one of the kids – a big, strapping guy, first-string quarterback, captain of the wrestling team, maybe the best all-around athlete the school’s ever produced. An academic all-American to; a really great guy, and a real “man’s man,” you figure. And in the course of the camaraderie and joking around, you let your guard down, and you put on a swishy, effeminate voice and tell a “fag joke,” and then you go on to say to him that you think the gays are all a bunch of immoral, ungodly perverts, and they ought to all be thrown out of the locker room. And he laughs because he thinks he’s supposed to laugh, but what he’s really wondering in his mind is if he finds the courage to come out, will his intensely homophobic parents throw him out of the house? You think you know; you just don’t know.

Conservative guy who likes to go hunting? Must be one of those gun nuts; little education, hateful, racist, bigoted, probably from the south, too, if I had to guess. High school student? Must be shallow, self-centered; dumbed-down academically and spiritually; probably wastes the whole day texting, tweeting, and video gaming. You think you know.

This is the three-day weekend that we honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – I’d argue the most significant prophetic voice speaking God’s truth to the world and our culture over the past century. A man who ended up giving his life to spread God’s truth that you can never know what’s in another person’s heart by judging the externals. God’s truth, God’s good news – the gospel – that in God’s eyes those distinctions are meaningless. Because of the reconciliation that God has shown us, all of us, and made possible for us, all of us, through Christ, there is no longer east or west, north or south. There’s neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female. The gospel, God’s good news, is that we’re all created and loved as the very image of God. I can’t just point to myself and say that I’m created in God’s image. You, alone, aren’t created in God’s image. But you and you and you, and me, all of us, together, in all of our diversity and difference, are created to show the fullness of the very image and nature of God. So if we dismiss or discriminate against *any* of God’s creatures on the basis of those meaningless distinctions, those externals and incidentals, just as Nathaniel did with Jesus, then we not only harm the person we’re pre-judging, and we’re not only harming our own souls in the process, but we’re also harming and frustrating God’s intention of revealing more about God’s own self by having created us with all that diversity to begin with.

You’re church shopping. You’re looking for something different from the stuffy, boring church you grew up in; something current, something relevant, something that speaks to our time and place. But this Sunday you blew it, because there in the pulpit is the most old-fashioned minister you could imagine. He looks like a Hollywood caricature of a boring, ineffective minister. Just a few wisps of hair left on his head, hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses sitting in front of steely eyes that have that extra-sharp intense look that some near-sighted people have. Not in jeans and rolled up shirtsleeves like Rob Bell or Landon Whitsitt or some other hip young preacher, but a drab, black robe; he was even wearing those goofy little white “preaching tabs” like Henry Fowler or one of the Puritans used to wear. Probably the most un-hip, un-relevant, whitebread, hypocritical, part-of-the-problem-not-the-solution minister you could ever imagine. This Sunday is going to be a disaster; this sermon is going to be a waste of time, you think.

What you don’t know is that the very un-hip looking minister was actually a star athlete in his day. Went to college on a football scholarship, then decided to go on to seminary. And one day when he was in seminary, he turned on his little black=and=white portable TV to watch the evening news. And as he watched, he saw a large number of unarmed, non-violent African-American protesters in some godawful place called Selma, Alabama, trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He didn’t know who Edmund Pettus was or why anyone would want to name a bridge after him, but he did know that the violence, the beatings, the sheer brutality that the police unleashed on the protesters that day was gut-wrenching, disgusting, a crime against God and country and humanity. Outraged, and inspired to make a statement and to further the real, radical, inclusive nature of the gospel, he decided that day to head south, where he was a Freedom Rider, and worked in several states in the civil rights movement. He became, to borrow a phrase from Dr. King, one of those “men of God and good will” who felt called by God to work for equality and justice, and for an end to prejudice and bigotry, for all of God’s people. Afterward, he’d go back to seminary, and out into the church, where he continued to proclaim that gospel of God’s love, and justice for all of God’s people, for many years. That was the man who stared out at the congregation that morning through the hopelessly out-of-style wire-rimmed glasses.

You think you know; you just don’t know.

Thanks be to God.