lenten journal: foolishness

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On evening this week, I rewatched Serendipity, one of our favorite movies. At one point, Jeremy Piven’s character encourages John Cusack’s character to be a jackass—to be willing to be foolish for love. Today’s sermon centered around 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, a pasasage in which Paul admonishes the struggling church in a similar fashion: to embrace the foolishness of God’s love. Here’s how it went down.

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I learned something this week. Well, a couple of things.

The fact that February had an extra day this year sent me searching for information about how we mark time. The basis of our calendar comes from one that Julius Caesar put in place in 45 CE—named the Julian calendar—and it has the twelve months we know, but it lost time somehow. In the late 1500s Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use now. (That’s what I learned: the Pope was powerful enough to set the calendar for the Western world.) Protestant countries were slower to implement it, since the Reformation had just happened, but, as you know, it became the way we number our days.

I tell you all of that to remind us that Christianity has not always been in a place of power. Gregory XIII might have been able to tell the world how to mark time, but Paul wrote to a small, struggling congregation in a city that either ignored it or disparaged it and under a government that oppressed it.

Our other lectionary passages for this morning carry the same tone of Paul’s letters. Lynn read about the handing down of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew people who received them were nomads at the time, wandering the wilderness looking for home. The gospel passage we did not read this morning is the account of Jesus turning over the tables of those who had turned the Temple into a merchandising opportunity, but he had no real power to make them stop. It was a brave and courageous move that probably looked foolish to most, to use Paul’s word.

As he said, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are involved in a dying world, but for us it is the power of God.” Foolishness. Absurdity. Which begs the questions: Have we staked our lives on nonsense? and Is it so wrong to be foolish?

“The message of the cross” is one of those phrases that sounds as though everyone should know what it means, but the definition is not that clear—like home fries. Almost every breakfast place has their own version and they use the same name, so it’s hard to know what you’re going to get.

One of the loudest definitions of the message of the cross through church history is one soaked in shame: Jesus died and it’s our fault. The depth of our sin—of our “fallen” humanity–required the blood of Christ to be shed in sacrifice. Though it is a prominent explanation, it is not what Paul was saying. That theology had not yet come into play. For Paul, “the message of the cross” was another way of saying the life of Jesus because he saw Jesus’ death as an extension of the way Jesus lived—speaking truth to power, caring for those at the margins, calling people to justice and compassion.

Paul was writing to a divided congregation that had chosen sides in any number of power struggles. After Paul founded the church, a man named Apollos picked up the ministry and people separated over which minister they liked better. In our passage we read about a clash between Jews and Greeks. The earliest followers of Christ were all Jewish. As the church grew, people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds followed Jesus as well. In Corinth, they weren’t mixing well.

People dug in on their stances. They wanted to be right, or they wanted to be in charge, or they wanted things to be done the way they thought they should be done, and so they chose ideas or doctrine or background over relationship. Remember, this is the same congregation that had divided over whether a Christian could eat meat that had been offered to idols. If there was a way to disagree about something, they found it. They wanted to be in charge, to be in control, to be the Ones Who Decided Things.

Paul wrote to say, remember our origin story: remember the message of the cross, which is God poured God’s self into human form not to stage a blazing conquest but to show us who we were created to be. Jesus showed us the extraordinary power of a life lived in love, and the love he lived out was so extraordinary that it threatened those who fought for power to the point that they killed him.

This is the absurdity, the foolishness that draws us together down all the days since then: God is love and we are God’s people, loved by God and called to love one another. We trust that love can change the world. We trust that love can save us.

The Ten Commandments read like a don’t-do-that list, but they are fundamentally about how to live in loving and trusting relationships. Jesus flipped the tables to say worshipping is about belonging, not profit margins. In a world that is obsessed with power and wealth (I’m talking about our world now, not Corinth); in our world that has become accustomed to being constantly at war; in our world that categorizes people rather than understands them; we are called to trust the foolishness of God, the absurdity of the words Paul wrote later in this same letter:

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who lived around the same time as Paul. He wrote, ““If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” We might paraphrase his words to say, “If we want to be faithful to our calling to love God and others we must be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

It doesn’t make sense to say it is enough to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Living like that will not keep us safer, or make us richer, or put us in a place of power. It will give us courage to trust that to gather here each week to invest in one another’s lives actually matters.

And that is why we keep coming back to the Table—to feed one another and tell the story of the magnificent foolishness of God’s love—to trust, once more, that we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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