3rd Sunday in Lent
The teacher asks the fourth graders to write an essay about their favorite place to
go. Carlita wrote that her favorite place to go was the library, where she could
check out books and use a computer. As she read her essay aloud some of the
kids scoffed and said, “The library!? I’d rather go to Disney or Sea World,”
places Carlita’s family cannot afford to go.
The middle school boy is being taunted by his friends, who stole his baseball cap.
If he chases after them and cannot catch them or if he tells the teacher, he will
probably get even more ridicule, so he just lets them go, feeling impotent to do
anything about his situation.
The thirty-five year-old man has just lost another job – the third one in this year’s
terrible recession. Should he tell his parents, his friends, his sister? They will
blame him, like they always do. They will think he is at fault, but this time, it
really had nothing to do with him.
The seventy year-old woman cannot remember anything anymore. She cannot
even remember whether she’s told someone she can’t remember. She’s scared
and confused by her own mental status, but she doesn’t want her family to put her
in assisted living – not yet.
Nobody at any age wants to appear foolish or weak. That’s why it is getting
harder and harder to be a Christian. Because Christianity in our post-modern
culture is much weaker institution. CNN.com reports that America is a less
Christian nation than it was 20 years ago, and Christianity is not losing out to
other religions, but primarily to a rejection of religion altogether, a survey
published last week found. Seventy-five percent of Americans call themselves
Christian, that’s down from eighty-six percent 20 years ago, according to the
American Religious Identification Survey from Trinity College in Hartford,
Many agnostics and secular relativists think we are crazy, foolish to keep
proclaiming Christ, in a pluralistic world. How dare we make such a claim!
We’re just narrow-minded, arrogant Christians. Foolish and weak. Stuck in a
first century world of substitutionary atonement. Most of you have family
members who have drifted away from Christian faith. Don’t need that
foolishness. Don’t want to be associated with the 1/3 of American Christians who
call themselves Evangelical – co-opting a very good adjective which could and
should be used for all of us who follow Jesus and believe that the Gospel is good
news for all people. Instead it has been narrowly defined.
So here I am, standing in front of you trying to say something intelligent about the
message of the cross. Foolishness to Greeks and to many Americans. How many
of us don’t talk about our faith to others for the simple fear of looking foolish or
narrow-minded? How can we talk about sacrificial love which inspires us to give,
which gives us life in ways that doctrines of atonement cannot sufficiently outline.
Struggling to understand the mystery of a sacrificial death and miraculous
resurrection, is not a new thing. This “foolishness” connects us to the early
church, the pre-Constantinian church.
Hear the struggle of the Apostle Paul in convincing the power-brokering, leader-worshiping church in Corinth that this message of the cross was God turning
the world upside down. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
There is something inherently paradoxical about the cross. At the heart of the
gospel is a "sense of absurdity—an instinct for paradox—a conviction that truth is
never bland but lurks in contradiction." (William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of
Faith) To lose your life is to save it. Unless a grain of wheat dies, it can not bring
life. To take up the cross is to embrace the power of God. It doesn't make sense;
it's foolish—unless you see it from the eyes of faith, from the converted heart. For
believers, it is the very power that transforms lives.
After describing the foolishness of the cross in verse 18 of 1 Corinthians, Paul
goes on to quote from the end of Isaiah 29:14. Hear verses 13 and 14 from that
The Lord God said: Because these people draw near to me with their mouths and
honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of
me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things
with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning shall be hidden. When following God
becomes rote lip action without any heart, then get ready for God to shock.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, addresses this point beautifully.
"Christianity," he writes, "has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from
Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a
tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing
them. It's when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to
worry." He goes on to name a few of Christianity's shocking, absurd assertions:
"Blessed are the meek; thou shalt not kill; love your enemies; go, sell all you have
and give to the poor."
The life of Christ was a paradox. He had all the power of God, yet he chose to
align himself with the weakness of humanity, emptying himself, giving up his life
for the sake of others. To whom did Jesus show special attention but those who
were the outcast of society – the poor and sick, the cheating tax collectors, the
unclean lepers, the lowly of society then – women and children. Jesus’ life was
offensive, even shocking to those in power because he did not play by their rules.
Even among his closest companions, Jesus was mysterious and unpredictable. “If
any of you would be great, then you must be the servant of all.... If you want to
save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose it for the sake of the Gospel, then you
will save it.... The first will be last, and the last, first.”
“The message of the cross discloses that God is deeply and lovingly involved with
humanity and with humanity predicament. When God becomes one of us, God’s
freedom looks very different from aloofness and autonomy.” (Texts for
Preaching, Brueggemann, et al.)
If I’m honest with myself—perhaps if we are all honest with ourselves—there are
ways in which we, each in our own way, resist the foolishness of the cross. The
cross, Paul says, seems like foolishness to the part of us that is attached to the
world, the part of us that is perishing. The cross is God's foolishness and is wiser
than our wisdom. The cross is God's weakness and is stronger than our strength.
Yet to the part of us that is inculcated with the assumptions and values of our
culture, the cross doesn't make sense. Rarely do we choose to be foolish or weak.
Will Willimon has asked some good questions about this foolishness of the cross.
What kind of sense does it make to worship a God who, instead of rescuing us out
of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us? A God who, instead of
helping us to avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain
with us? A God who, instead of fixing things for us, addresses them by becoming
weak with us in our weakness?
But this is the foolishness of the cross. All of us know pain and grief and
disappointment in our lives. Our human wisdom wants a God who will heal us and
make us feel better. The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain
and bears our pain with us. To the part of us that is human and perishing, this is
incomprehensible and we want something more. But to the part of us that is being
saved, it is the very power of God.
And even more foolishly, God expects us to do the same with each other: to enter
into each other's pain, to bear each other's burdens and those of the world around
us. To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace
the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their
lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live. It is the power of God within us.
It’s like the little four year-old who won a contest for the most caring child: The
little boy had an elderly gentleman living next door who had recently lost his wife.
Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's yard, climbed
onto his lap, and just sat there. When his Mother asked what he had said to the
neighbor, the little boy said, "Nothing, I just helped him cry." It is a Christ-like
thing – to suffer with, to have compassion.
If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we
must follow in the way of God's foolishness. That's where God calls us to be.
Living generously even in a recession. Reaching out to people with invitation to
church, with a message about Christ that they might think is narrow-minded but
instead is the most broad, deep, and wide message of love there is. Loving
beyond the boundaries of what is socially acceptable and makes common sense.
As Frederick Buechner writes: "In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect
fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the
same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a
delusion." I pray we all risk being fools for the love of Christ, embracing
weakness – both ours and others’ enough for God’s strength to shine through us.
(I am indebted to a Sojourners article by Joe Roos, then head of religious
education department at Kodaikanal International School in India for the quotes
from Stringfellow, Kierkegaard, Willimon, and Buechner in this sermon.)