March 8, 2015, Lent 3 Year B
The Rev Dr. Brent Was
“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.”
Last week we spoke about the cross. Maybe more precisely we spoke about the pedagogy of the cross, the cross as teacher. And what does it teach? That God is often not what we want God to be. Really, who wants a God that lets bad things happen to good people let alone allows an only son to be crucified? Who wants a God that requires the sacrifice of an innocent for the sake of the whole? But that is the God that is; and that is the God that we need and the cross teaches, ever teaches that this is the truth of the matter. “The cross does not deny the reality of death. It reinforces it,” says the great H. Richard Neibuhr. It does not deny death, no, not in the least, but rather, in his words, “It denies its finality.” That is what is meant when we pray on Christ conquering death. You are going to die. Everyone you know and love is going to die, but that is not the end of the story. We don’t know how or even if the story ends, but Jesus Christ’s arms stretched upon the hard wood of the cross teach us that death is not the final answer. This is maybe not what we are looking for in God, but goodness, God is what God is. Just ask Moses.
But the wide arms of Christ embrace a field of realty broader even than death, and much more immediate in most of our lives and maybe even more disconcerting. I am talking about what Paul calls the foolishness of the cross.
It is so absolutely essential that we pause on occasion, that we step back and look at our religion, that we look through refreshed eyes at the primary symbol by which we, as Christians, are known: the Cross. There is nothing glorious or triumphant in an image of a device of torture and execution. Think of an electric chair or syringe, modern means of execution as a religious symbol. Ridiculous. In the same vein, we use the word “Lord” a lot, but there is nothing lord-y, nothing noble about being poor, oppressed, and then tortured to death. (Well, there is nothing actually noble about aristocracy or anyone embracing the title “Lord,” but that’s another sermon). Our understanding of reality is centered on the fact that 2000 years ago a homeless Jewish prophet was cruelly executed by the Roman empire. Our primary symbol of faith is not one of an all-powerful God, but one of weakness and failure by any earthly standard. But that is the point, because as Christians we endeavor to transcend earthly standards and live by God’s standards. That’s kind of the idea of the 10 Commandments that we heard earlier. It is demonstrated in the story of Jesus purifying the Temple. It is precisely what St. Paul is addressing when he writes, “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.” Earthly standards, the standards against which the cross doesn’t measure up, those are perishing things, perishing standards. But for those of us in the process of nearing God, trying to embrace God, or in the words of St. Paul, those of us in the process of being saved, the Cross and Christ Crucified are in fact the Way, the Truth and the Life. Or in other words, foolishness!
Take the 10 Commandments… There a lifetime of preaching in these seventeen verses, but for today, we’ll stick with the improbable, foolish side. It would be reasonable, wise, even, to look at them as a set of rules issued by God. “Don’t do this!” “Do that!” There is that, but that might not be the whole story. One of the great modern Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggeman says that they might not be takes as a rules, as expectations of behavior, “…but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God is to be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.” It is not a rule book, it is a vision of way of life. God’s faithfulness to us is not contingent to us following those rules, but at the same time they are not merely suggestions. It is not the code of God the firm parent, switch in had, but rather the commandments draw a picture of life as it should be, that is in line with the will of God. Following the commandments is the way of life, not following them, the way of death. And death is not doles out as punishment, but as the natural consequence of un-Godly choices. But that can sound kind of out there, kind of foolish, though.
One commentary used two examples of this reading of the Commandments that descend into foolishness. Take coveting. Much of our capitalist consumer economy is based in coveting, certainly all advertising is. And what harm is there, really, in wanting a little more? Or observing the Sabbath. Our culture values productivity, accomplishment, success over most anything, so getting some work done on Sabbath, there’s no harm done, it is good, actually. But the foolishness of God arises in saying that conventional wisdom like that, conventional wisdom of any age is not the wisdom of God. Those things seem good, or at least harmless, but God is telling us otherwise. The reality of God, the foolishness, challenges the wisdom of those who are perishing, those of the culture. The commandments are God’s instructions to us on how to practice living as God intends. Barbara Brown Taylor describes God’s foolish intention thus: “Trust me, God says. Those other teachings are not good for you. The life you think they bring you is not real life.” No it is not.
And there is Jesus, driving the sheep and the cattle out of the Temple with His whip of cords, turning over the tables of the money changers. “Stop making my Father’s house a market place!” That’s some high foolishness. Well, there’s reality to think of. The Temple needed money. All temples and churches do. We do. The folks needed to purchase sacrificial animals, that was part of the practice then. We have to pay for the bread and wine and bishops and me and the musicians and lights and the rest of it to make our worship happen. Those bulletins don’t exactly grow on trees. The money changers of those days are stewardship campaigns of today or credit card swipers in some post-modern collection plates I have heard of. Are they so bad? Well…
Buddhist monks are forbidden by vinaya law, their monastic code, to handle money. Like even touch money, let alone manage it. Hmmm. There was a monastery very close to a place in Western Massachusetts where Windy and I used to live. The main building was burnt down many years ago, and a process of rebuilding began. The thing is that they built a beautiful new temple and not a single dollar changed hands. Everything was donated, labor, materials, everything, no money was spent by the institution. It is beautiful. Now, they are at least fifteen years into the project and it is not quite done done. I’ll tell you what, though, the holy, unmonetized mortar holding those blocks together is more gorgeous than the 18 month from start to finish, goodness knows how many million dollar project that fixed-up the monastery where we used to work near Boston. Everything in our culture, every stitch of conventional wisdom says that the monks in Western Mass were foolish. That was not the way to re-build. I don’t think God would agree.
This is all foolishness! You can’t organize a people with a code of practice, no, you need rules, laws. You can’t fund a religious institution on faith alone, no that is not how the world works. “…self-preservation is the first law of life.” We need to be active. “God helps those who help themselves.” That is common sense. That is conventional wisdom, or what one might call perishing thought. And it is the very exact same species of thought that brings us such human innovations as empire, genetically modified corn, preemptive wars, climate change (and its denial), Christianity as a state religion, polyvinyl chloride and so on and so on and so on.
No. This is not what we are supposed to be doing, not as Christians. We’re supposed to practice foolishness, the foolishness of a people whose God is revealed in the weakness and failure of the cross and not in strength and power. We’re supposed to lift up the lowly, making decisions and giving people responsibility based on whether it is the right thing to do and NOT if it is the right thing to do for the institution. That’s why we have church time, why things always take longer in church systems than they should. Read the nightmare stories of Dorothy Day and the foolish shenanigans of the Catholic Worker movement. They could have gotten so much done if they had just asked a few of the really difficult folks, at least the violent ones, to leave. Or if they had hired a few better organizers. Or evicted those folks who sort of occupied and stole that farm in Pennsylvania from them. Fools they were. Fools whose footsteps we should try to follow in. Fools whose ways provide a vision of the Commonwealth of God much like the one laid out in those 10 Rules to Live By, like the one St. Paul describes to his urbane friends in Corinth, impressed as they were with the grand orators that their hip city was famous for, like the one Jesus Christ declared in cleansing the temple of worldliness, in dying for us on the cross. “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.”