Friday, January 28, 2005

Epiphany 4A: Serious Gospel Foolishness

Today’s readings contrast folly and wisdom. Paul puts it to us most directly. The message of Christ crucified is folly to the Greeks and a scandal to the Jews, but it is the very wisdom of God. The gospel illustrates the point. Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount appears to be sheer foolishness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… the meek… the mournful… those who are persecuted…” The poor blessed? The meek inherit the earth? The mournful will rejoice? In human terms, Jesus’ words make no sense. They are the folly of which Paul spoke.

Micah does not employ the categories of wisdom and folly but they are implied in his words. Wisdom would tell us that the proper worship of God involves elaborate sacrifices and impressive ritual but instead what God desires is humility and justice.

We resist folly. Appearing foolish exposes us and makes us feel embarrassed. That’s what comedy is all about. Why do we laugh at the clown who slips on a banana? One explanation is that we feel relief that we are not in the clown’s place. But too many times we have been in the clown’s place, and we don’t like it. We have slipped on that very banana peel or fumbled the words when we had to speak in public or spilled a plate of spaghetti down the front of our best dress and heard the choked laughter and seen the stifled smiles of the people around us. It didn’t seem funny to us, but the clown’s purpose is to make it safe for us to laugh at our own misfortune.

One of the principal difficulties of the Christian faith for me is that it exposes me and makes me vulnerable; it makes me look silly, stupid, foolish.

Following graduation from college I took a year off to figure out if I wanted to become a priest. I had not done a good job of planning what I would do during that year, so I pieced together a few part-time jobs and more or less made ends meet. My classmates were in law school or med school or working for senators on Capitol Hill or interning at Goldman Sachs. I was teaching piano to children, playing the organ for a small church, and supervising high school kids in a boarding school dormitory. Around Christmastime, my mother, an elementary school principal, asked if I would play the piano for the school’s Christmas program. That was the last thing I wanted to do. Harvard graduates did not play Christmas carols in the lunch room of a rural elementary school! But my mother has a knack for making you offers you can’t refuse, so I went. Sullenly, I played for the first part of the program. Then the special education class came on stage to perform. These children beamed as they stumbled through a few Christmas chestnuts. “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” had never sounded worse… or better, because these children had caught the essence of Christmas. They knew that Christmas (and for that matter Christianity) is not about looking good; it’s about love. And they were singing for love’s sake. I was suitably chastened but learned a lot about Christmas.

If we follow Christ faithfully, we will often look foolish. We will look foolish when we drop what we are doing to play for the special education kids to sing Christmas carols. We will look foolish if we take time to listen to the homeless guy on the sidewalk in front of our office to tell us his story. We will look foolish if try to do justice and walk humbly with God. We will look foolish if we hunger and thirst for righteousness. But that kind of foolishness is the very wisdom and power of God.

Like the clown, Jesus allows himself to be an object of contempt and ridicule. He takes our place. He makes it safe for us to follow him, to endure shame and ridicule for the sake of the gospel. But the joke is on the powers and principalities who nailed him to the cross. Did you hear the one about the empty tomb?