January 22, 2017, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany YR A

Year A, Epiphany 3
January 22, 2017
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was


“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.”

It’s a brave new world.  It is hard to tell what is going to be happening over the coming months and years.  About the only certainty that we have about anything in the world is that it will change, it will continue to change, it will always be changing.  There is a great Collect in the office of Compline, in which we pray that “we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…”  Lord have mercy.

We always need it: a ray of light in the darkness to illuminate our way, a beacon on the horizon by which to navigate, a point of reference in the formless, timeless soup of the universe.  We need something solid, fixed, unmoving, unmoved to which we can orient our lives.  Even if that point itself is not actually static, we need a common point towards which we face, like the way churches face East, or like the ambry there draws our focus; that’s what we’re bowing to, not the altar.  Consecrated host is in there, the real presence of Jesus Christ.  Our point of reference, as Christians, is right there, it is the Cross and the Word, the message that radiates out in the person of Jesus Christ.  And the divine joke, or holy challenge, that we are given, is that that message, the message from which all of reality springs, is foolishness!

“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.”

The foolishness of the Cross is that surrender is victory.  Weakness is strength.  That the ability to bear suffering is immeasurably stronger than the ability to inflict suffering.  That is what Jesus did on the Cross.  Turn it all upside down.  The foolishness of the cross is “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.”  A lamb as a symbol of God.  A lamb?  I don’t know if you have spent any time with lambs, but in my little experience, there aren’t a lot of conventional examples of divine majesty, or almightiness in your average lamb.  They are rather silly, and playful, which could be a refreshing, useful image of God, but being pretty easy to catch and eat?  And that’s whose blood we are washed white in?

The foolish message of the Cross tells us that the last will be first and the first will be last.  This has come to be understood as the “preferential option for the poor,” meaning that God prefers the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the victim.  It might make more sense that you could tell who was elect, who God favors because of good things in this life, wouldn’t that stand to reason?  But no, that is not what we learn at the foot of the Cross.  That is not what we learn from the mouth of Jesus Christ.  He didn’t spend a lot of time with people who were doing well.  And in the time He did spend in polite company, in the homes of the Pharisees, He pushed them, sort of taunted them.  He was a rather rude houseguest.

What Jesus teaches in how He spent His very short time on earth is that it is the least of these who have His blessed attention.  We learn that the more you hurt, the more you need, the more you are depressed and broken and miserable, and feeling utterly unworthy of the love of God the more you are loved by God.  The more stray you are the more God seeks you.  You have to accept that love; you even have to repent, a fancy way of saying that you have to change your ways, but God’s invitation is stronger the further you spiral out from goodness and wellness.  God desperately loves the new leadership of our country.  I pray that they repent, that they change their ways and accept that love!

Everyone deserves the love of God, that is what grace is all about; the radical notion of Jesus Christ is that the more you suffer the more you deserve it.  The shepherd will leave the ninety-nine to seek the one lost sheep!  That is the foolishness of the Cross.

The foolishness of the Cross arises in other ways, too.  It is right here in the DNA of the church, the very nature of how we gather.   That foolishness spans all the way back to St. Paul and the problems of the very first churches.   The lesson of the foolish message of the Cross was first sent to Corinth because they were in trouble.  There was division.  “I belong to Paul!”  “I belong to Apollos!”  “I, to Cephas!” Human ideas and habits and prejudices arose.  That was not Paul’s plan.  The church as Paul envisioned it and built it, was pretty novel.  It broke with, not only conventional wisdom and practice, but with human nature.  Humans are tribal creatures.  We evolved as a species in small bands of closely related individuals.  Our default mode is that we (most of us) are most comfortable surrounded by people that look and sound and act like we do.  The church was founded outside of the patterns that had defined human interaction since the beginning: family, clan, tribe people.  This was the tension between Sts. Peter and Paul.  Was this a radical Jewish reform or a wholly new thing, with Gentiles welcome to the feast as well?  The church Paul built, our church, brought together Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and poor, male and female.  Not perfectly, but what revolution if perfect?  What the ecclesia, the beloved community lacked in the bonds of family or ethnicity, it made up for (or tried to) through a connection with something larger, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The foolishness of the Cross tells us that we need to put aside our instincts, our base nature, for the wisdom of the cross.

Our sexual appetites are very natural.  Watch any barnyard scene for ten minutes and you will see that nature: sexual rules are dictated by physiology, not cognitive or moral decision processes.  But God, through Moses and on through the Cross teaches that limiting, restraining our appetites, overcoming the pull of our instincts is the better path, foolish from many perspectives, but better.

I spoke at the prayer vigil on Friday morning.  In the present moment many of us are feeling a strong instinct of “fight or flight.”  (or knit pink hats… I think that one is ok).  But fight or flight are reasonable instinctual reactions to the developing the state of things, but no, the Cross says that fight or flight is not the right response, rather love is the way, the truth and the life.  “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Are those the words that would be on your lips if you were being tortured to death? I think my instincts would put much less friendly words on mine.  But just because we feel something or think something, that doesn’t mean that we need to act on it.

The foolishness of the Cross teaches us that we can overcome our instincts.  We can accept, join with, love those that are different from us.  We can even go to church with them.  (Though I bet 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains one of the more segregated hours of the week).  Violence, though that may be the first thought that flashes through our mind, is not the way.  Men should not have more say than women.  No means no, no matter how hard it might be to accept.  Urges, appetites of all kinds, all of our instincts must be tempered by our morals, by our understanding of God’s will, by the way it is supposed to be.  And that, by any conventional standard, is foolishness.

I have been learning about another shade of foolishness from Windy recently.  She is a site lead at the Egan Warming Centers.  She got ours started, and this year has started the site up at St. Matthews.  Egan is hard ministry.  It is a last chance refuge from life-threatening cold, and it accommodates the folks least able to be accommodated.  People ravaged by mental illness, a life time of horrendous trauma, addiction, malnutrition, every shade of physical malady, and many coming in with complication on top of complication.  So many are un-helped because they are deemed un-helpable.

So how do you help the un-helpable?  One way, the conventional way, is regimentation.  There are basic, simple rules.  Everyone follows them.  No exceptions because exceptions are unfair and discontent spreads rapidly amongst those for whom everything is dealt unfairly. We see that at Opportunity Village: exceptions to the rules can cause problems.  It’s the Oliver Twist syndrome.  Young Master Twist was hungry at that orphanage.  He wanted more gruel, but the rules, or at least the culture, says no seconds.  But he is hungry and nine; ain’t no reasoning with a hungry nine year-old.  So he approached the Master, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

So the master had a couple of choices.  Spoiler, he said “no.”  And what did that “no” get him, besides being known as a wicked, wicked man probably for as long as the English language is spoken?  Mostly, it got him an aggravated and uncooperative Oliver!  And that little chap riled everyone else up, too.  One little “no” made a great big mess for that entire orphanage that echoes throughout literary history!

Oliver Twist needed more porridge.   If you give someone what they need, everything works out better for everyone.  So there are strict rules at Egan about a lot of things.  And there need to be.  But if someone can’t sleep hemmed in on all sides by sleeping mats, they can make a nightmare of a night for everyone.  But one little exception, let her sleep under that bench off to the side… there is peace in the valley.  Do they deserve an exception?  Deserve is a complicated word.  Will people think it unfair and expect exceptions themselves?  Maybe, but Win has found that if she explains, “If we make them sleep out here with everyone else, you know how this night will go for all of us,” most people will begrudgingly agree and go to their own, unexceptional mat and go to sleep.  Quietly.  Because that problem has been solved.  Like just being nice to people.  Not making them line up like automatons.  Giving them a cup of coffee while they wait to get inside.  Very simple, basic, humanizing hospitality brings the whole temperature down.

If we take care of people’s needs, they’ll need a whole lot less.  FOOLISHNESS!  Maybe logical, but foolishness by all conventional standards.  “That breeds dependence!”  “It’ll take too many resources!”  “They’ll expect special treatment next time!”  I don’t know.  Is it so far-fetched to expect that if someone has the power to give you what you need that they should?  Maybe not give you all that you want, but what you need to get along in this world… Sounds like the foolishness of the cross to me.

When the world seems ridiculous, we need the refuge of what it calls foolishness.  We do not know the trials and tribulations that we face.  Our own lives, the life of our fair city, the life of this nation and the world, all of it.  We all need to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.  And the foolish are at the head of the line.  AMEN.