"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for March 2015

Chronic Pain and Hidden Burdens

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As I’m preparing for a Good Friday talk on what chronic pain has taught me, I came across an older article I wrote 9 years back…this was published in the Edmonton Journal in June 2006.

“… to keep me from being too puffed up, a disability was given me…” (2 Cor 12:7)

I’ve had several recent encounters with those bearing the burden of chronic, but unseen health conditions. It has sparked my own reflection as I search for a gospel and grace perspective to understand my own chronic pain. Just moving through Lent and Easter brought to mind some ideas to wrap around suffering to bring some greater perspective to pain.

Just as there are “hidden homeless” there are “hidden disabled”, those who suffer from chronic pain or chronic health conditions. Unless you meet one of these on a bad day you will likely never know what burden they carry. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind not judging: we rarely know the burdens of others.

Witnessing the miraculous healing of others creates conflict. Why not me Lord? Why must I suffer? Even worse is intrusive compassion, to be asked to do something and then told, “Oh, I forgot, you can’t do that.” This was made clear when my help for a severely disabled man led to anger when I took away one of the few things he could do, opening a container of chocolate pudding.

When sleep escapes through discomfort or exhaustion, and you sit alone, the real understanding of loneliness comes to keep you company. In a sleepy world a person too sore to sit and too exhausted to read or pray waits alone for the dawn. That time before the morning watch stretches forever.

It is not hard for me to place that dark time before dawn in Gethsemane with Jesus (Luke 22:40-46). His companions receive the gift of sleep, but there is no sleep for Jesus as he wrestles with the coming trials. Jesus was alone in the pre-dawn and wracked with pain. In the end he is strengthened, not because the burden was removed, but because he becomes prepared to continue the journey.

For those who sit in the dark of night, alone and suffering, it is some help to know that Jesus has been there too. What comes with the dawn may not be healing but the strength to see the journey through another day or another hour. But, even this consolation is limited for saying, “Jesus suffered too” is too distant from this night alone in my world, in my time, to help.

When dealing with pain that your painkillers barely touch, that loneliness comes again. How do you explain to your young child that the tears in your eyes are not from sadness or even happiness but just because the exquisite pain brings forth unbidden water? So you are left again unable to pray, unable to read and perhaps only repeating, “God, keep a smile on my face for another hour!”

The fatigue is another thing entirely for pain, like grief, is exhausting. Sometimes my only prayer seeks not relief, but energy to remain awake to complete a board game or for the focus to play catch with a child. That exhaustion deepens through endless arguments with caregivers and insurers about treatments often denied.

The trite answers, “Jesus suffered worse” or “Jesus wept” do not help. To know that my Saviour has suffered does little to remove the intense isolation of a chronic condition today. Like that useless adage, “What would Jesus do?” those thoughts are all in the past tense and of little use to me in my present torment. My solace comes only from the immediate thought: Jesus is suffering with me now.

Lofty thoughts about pain keeping one from arrogance worked for Paul but help little when today seems impossible. My hope is in the gospel account of another chronic sufferer, Jesus. He left the garden with friends but was still very alone for His last hours on earth. Jesus rose into the glorious tomorrow through the crucifixion but still bore the marks of that torture on his body (John 20:27). Jesus came through the pain, not because he knew there was relief in sight but because he accepted what he was to be for the next hour.

The gospel shows us that great grace exists through just continuing the journey. For those with chronic health issues, God’s grace is sufficient to help place one foot in front of the other to struggle until the finish line of this race comes into sight. If continuing that race means sitting, alone, in the early morning dark only able to mouth the word ‘Alleluia’, than so be it. I know my Saviour sits with me and that is enough.

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Written by sameo416

March 26, 2015 at 6:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Fool for Christ

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Here is the completed sermon…

Sermon preached at SJE, March 9, 2015 Lent 3B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (foolishness for Christ), John 2:13-22 (clearing temple), Ps 19

So, I’m standing before you prepared to preach on Paul’s words today – to literally talk about Paul’s statement that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach”, and to do that through the folly of what I preach. Hard to do so with a straight face, and without cautioning you to beware of the foolishness of my words. Let’s Pray.

So, through the foolishness of preaching, we’ll talk today about the wisdom of the world versus God’s wisdom, and look at some of the absurdity that underlies our faith. We are part-way through our Lenten journey to the cross of Christ, and beyond to the glory of the resurrection, but before that can become real for us we must continue to walk deeper into the darkness of Lent. This is one of the things that traditional Christianity brings for us, if left to our own devices we would shed the hair shirt of Lent for endless Sundays singing of God’s glory, “Jesus Christ has Risen Today” and the like. So, we spend time in this season each year, not because we enjoy feeling poorly about ourselves and our frail faith, but because there is no way to understand the light and power of Christ’s rising, if you do not first understand the darkness of the grave/can be no resurrection without first descent to Sheol.

That sort of an idea should come across as shocking to your modern sensibilities. Our culture spends much time attempting to ignore the grave, or to defeat the grave with science. As our Supreme Court recently ruled, our latest attempts to defeat death is to attempt to bend it to our will: If I must die, I will decide how, and I will decide when. And yet death holds sway over this world, and our victory in setting the how and when is, in the end, empty. We know that death and decay are not part of God’s ultimate will for us and for his kingdom, so why do we spend this time of Lent in the darkness?

Paul tells us something of that why, and also explains why Lent is offensive to modern sensibilities. You may have chosen as a Lenten discipline to give something up, or to take on something new. If you’ve given something up – coffee and chocolate are always popular choices – and you mention it to a non-believer friend, how did they react? // I remember a discussion with a dear friend, a highly spiritual person who rejects Christianity outright. She exclaimed one day, “next you’re going to tell me you believe in Jesus as the son of God!” When I replied that, yes I do, and that as an engineer I come at faith as an empiricist – someone who measures and weighs everything, all she could do was stare at me with her mouth hanging open. It had never occurred to her that engineering, the rivet and steel and rail, could be a path to belief in a God she rejected. She was too polite at that point to call me a fool, but that was what I read on her face.

Now, I can tell my friend of the things I’ve seen and heard and experienced that make my belief in God a matter of fact, but without her understanding the language of God I would be forced to use, it would be as if I was speaking a foreign language. It would be as foolishness to the wise. And yet, in spite of just tying my belief to my measuring of things, there was still the point when I had to ascent to the existence of paradox and scandal as an act of faith, to believe that which is so often contrary to our human sense of the way things should work. Belief and faith are not ultimately questions with objective answers. As Kierkegaard pointed out, at its heart, “Christianity is paradox, and paradox requires but one thing: the passion of faith.”

This is exactly what we hear Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians. Corinth was a city of diverse learning, following the Greek wisdom traditions, and loving the pursuit of entrancing ideas and thoughts. Sounds a lot like the internet today, doesn’t it? A few minutes on facebook or pinterest or snapchat or any news site reveals to you that one of our favorite cultural pastimes now is to toy with interesting ideas, while rarely ever doing anything about any of them. If you read the full first chapter of 1st Corinthians, you hear just before our reading the problem of division in the Christian community. Paul writes this:

10 I appeal to you, brothers by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

And not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. The point of the passion of faith is not assenting to some bit of human wisdom that appeals to us, but rather that God’s Word brings into sharp focus the truth that all human wisdom is suspect, and that the Cross of Christ highlights the foolishness of even our best. Harkening back a few weeks to Ash Wednesday, recall what was spoken as the ashes were applied: who am I? I know only this, that I know I came from dust, and to dust I shall return.

Jesus stepped into the Temple and cleared it of the money lenders, the sellers of sacrificial animals, the capitalists and entrepreneurs of the temple system, with a whip of cords. Instead of just “getting along” with what had become a cornerstone of the big business that was the Temple, filling the treasury with gold so that the physical thing that was the Temple could be continued, Jesus stood apart and physically preached a prophetic message of folly. When challenged about his authority for doing so, Jesus instead pointed to himself and said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” This was rejected outright by the wise because everyone knew that the temple had been under construction for 46 years, and would stand forever. Little did they suspect, Jesus was speaking of something much different.

The clash is clear – human wisdom hold aloft a great work of humanity as the blessed assurance that we will live forever, against the foolishness of the resurrection. Our call is not to trust in the physical of this moment, but instead in the eternal promise made real in Christ’s resurrection and death. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. And those who know that they are wise walk away shaking their heads, faced with the foolishness of a madman. Even the disciples only remember the reality of that promise after Christ had died and risen – their great ‘ah-ha’ moment only comes in the foolishness of hindsight.

The argument Paul sets out pivots between sentences at verses 17 and 18. At verse 17 Paul states that Christ sent him not to preach the wisdom (Sophia) of words (logos) but rather to preach The Word (logos) of the Cross. The wisdom of our words is such a subtle trap…and it is easy for my human mind to conclude that because, for example, I can parse biblical Hebrew verbs, I am somehow made wiser in God’s estimation. (although certainly not in the eyes of most employers in Alberta!) When this is really my advanced knowledge that convinces me I am wise, and Paul reminds me that to measure one’s worth in those terms is the exact foolishness of the world that Christ came to undo and make foolish. So who do I preach? I preach Christ crucified. And what is Christ crucified? A message that attracts all to its bright light, made manifest by my subtle use of the English language and my personal charisma? No, because in Paul’s words, Christ crucified is a ‘stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’

This idea, being foolish for Christ, is one that hasn’t received much traction in the western church. We draw highly on the Enlightenment traditions, and the earlier philosophical wisdom traditions, which place a premium on gnosis, knowing and knowledge. One of the reasons this tradition doesn’t have traction in the western church, is because we like to consider ourselves respectable, rational Christians. Contrast that with the foolishness Paul speaks of – that God chose “what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in” God.

Saint John Chrysostom wrote this in the 4th century, “Only a fool would attempt to change the world with a simple message of love and peace. So we can conclude that Jesus was a fool. Only fools would agree to follow such a man…So we can conclude that all of us are fools…So let all happily admit that we are fools. Then we will happily commit ourselves to change the world.” Contrast that message of foolishness with the way the church normally meets the world, through business meetings, respectable people and a self-confidence that makes non-believers stay away because they cannot equal our saintliness.

This orthodox tradition celebrates the holy fool, in Russian the word used is yurodivi. These are holy people who abandon the pretense of polite relationship with society to manifest Godly folly. You may have heard of the great Orthodox cathedral of Moscow – St Basil’s. St Basil was not an uptight and proper saint, but rather a holy fool. Basil, fool for Christ, was known for shoplifting from merchants to give to the poor, and walking around naked except for heavy chains that he wore about his neck. Saint Simeon, the patron saint of fools, spent decades in the desert as a hermit. He returned to town pulling a dead dog behind him on a rope. During Sunday services he would throw nuts at the priests and blow the altar candles out.

Author Leo Tolstoy wrote about a holy fool named Grisha he encountered as a child. Tolstoy’s father considered that Grisha was lazy, untrustworthy and should be thrown into prison. Tolstoy’s mother replied that, “…It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life . . . it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.” The holy fools were called to intense foolishness so they would be rejected by the society, because it was only through that rejection that they could truly minister to the truly needy. The rule of life of the holy fool was, “no healing without solidarity, no salvation without participation.” (Bp Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, St Vladimir’s Press, 2000, p. 175) That foolishness allowed them to minister beneath the attention of the worldly wise, to avoid being co-opted into a worldly agenda by being in solidarity with the discarded and the marginalized.

The holy fool stands as a witness to the same principle that Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” They remind us that the path to salvation is not one that rests on the foundation of our status within our culture, or based on the merits we earn through hard work, but rather on the folly of the cross. Our salvation is not based on our respectability, but rather on the absurdity of God come to be with us, to die with us, and to break apart the shackles of death for us. In some ways our salvation is based on our willingness to be unreasonable and disrespectful.

The holy fools remind us that the proposition of Christianity is not one that appeals to those who seek the wisdom of this world. You can see this clearly if you have ever tried to explain to a non-believer why it is you spend your time in a community of faith – there is something fundamentally irrational about the undertaking. That’s reinforced when you think about Christ’s ministry, not one that worked from the power structures of the time but rather in spite of them, and using people that all those in the swim of the culture, those who were certain about their place and importance of things, would have rejected as not worth their time, for, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22) It’s easy to imagine being respectable for God, but what about being foolish with abandon – much like David dancing with so much abandon before the Arc that people were scandalized and some despised him – that was not how a Godly king was supposed to Act. (2 Sam 6:16)

In the words of New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, “…the cross stands in absolute, uncompromising contradiction to human wisdom…it is God’s folly, folly that is at the same time [God’s] wisdom and power.” (Fee, NICNT, 66) Human wisdom demands objective truth, and yet in the story of Christ we have nothing but the absurd: God coming into physical existence within time and space, as an individual human being. It is on this point that the majority of the great heresies take off, in an attempt to remove God from the flawed physical creation, so painful is that thought to human wisdom. That is the folly of God’s plan for salvation, built around the paradox of the Cross.

It is hard for all of us, conditioned as we are to see the image of the cross as something good and holy, to understand how offensive and absurd this would have been to the cultures of Christ’s time. (Fee, 76) The crosses that many of us wear around our necks, pretty and sparkling, are images of an instrument of torture and murder. The image of the cross to a person of the ancient middle-eastern world would be akin to one of us wearing an image of a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, the executioner’s axe or the apparatus used for lethal injections proudly on a chain for all to see.

Even once we are within the community of faith, we must be cautious that we do not let our familiarity with this place, with the symbols and the motions of our worship don’t lull us into a comfortable casualness where we accept the absurdity of salvation as something as somehow reasonable and common. Is it any wonder that so many reject this message outright? The danger is that we hear these things here, and accept them, but fail to carry that message of absurdity out into our lives for the remainder of the week. Our ascent to the reality of the Cross and the path of salvation opened as a result, is a fundamental challenge to the reality that governs our world, and it is too easy for us to live as normal people during the balance of the week…and not to carry that paradox out into our daily lives, where it should rightly inform the way we live all week-long. Do we place our blessed assurance with God, or within our trust of the ability of humankind to make it on our own…do we trust in God with us who died upon the cross, or upon our military might to fix all of the evil facing us globally?

So we are left with a choice, in Fee’s words, “we can trust God and be saved by his wise folly, or keep up our pretensions and perish.” Our challenge in that decision is that God’s great plan of salvation appears, to human wisdom, as scandal and paradox. God’s plan of salvation is worked out with no need for help from us, and no need to conform to our ideal of how a saving God should actually go about his work. God’s gift to us, is our forgiveness instead of the death we deserved. That gift, freely available to us, rests only on our willingness to ascent and to admit that without God there is nothing redeemable about us. To many, that step of accepting God’s gift freely given is hateful, and particularly to those trapped in the idea that it is their self-worth or earned righteousness that God should acknowledge. Who will you chose to follow? Amen


 

I owe some debt to Bishop William Willimon’s sermon on 1 Cor 1 titled, “Looking Like Fools”

My primary commentary was Gordon Fee’s excellent New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on 1st Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1987. I have to say that the commentaries written by scholars practicing in the evangelical tradition continue to offer the greatest blessing to a preacher. It is clear in Fee’s text that he actually believes what it is he is writing about.

I also read Kierkegaard’s essays, “Passion and Paradox” and “The Greatest Danger” which are echoed in parts of the sermon – both from Provocations (available for free download).

Matthew Woodley’s book, Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon had some influence, including the quotation from St Chrysostom and introducing me to Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware.

Written by sameo416

March 7, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Complete Lack of Critical Thought

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I was reading through facebook posts some of the ongoing saga of Gabi Schiller, and her father’s battling to bring to light some absolutely horrific social media commentary concerning a post he made about her scholarship to play softball. Originally I had linked that post on my facebook page but took it down when I looked again at some of the language that was displayed. Although the article was highly critical of the language, it was awful enough that I could not leave it up.

My first thought was disgust – I worked in a rather male-dominated world for two decades, including attending a military college, being an engineer and (the great honour) of being an armament officer for most the latter 15 years of that career. Armourers were a group I won’t even attempt to categorize except to say that most of my really memorable experiences in uniform came through working with that amazingly skilled (and sometimes quite crude) group. I recall my first armament mess dinner when the guest speaker (himself an armament officer of many years) concluded his talk to great cheers when he said, “If you ain’t an armourer, you ain’t sh-t.” Even coming from that world, where my 19th birthday present was being dropped in a bag, naked and painted white, at the downtown McDonalds in Victoria, I never encountered the type of language I read in the social media posts about Gabby Schiller.

I hope no armourers take that up as a challenge…(and while the fitters were often out there too, I never heard that type of language from that group either)…

How is it possible that public figures (one is now suspended, and the other fired for these comments) feel it is appropriate to joke about rape on social media?

Today I ran across this article in the New York Times, titled “Why Our Children Don’t Think there are Moral Facts” that perhaps explains why social media is at times a complete cesspool of immorality and evil.

The philosophy prof that wrote that article, Justin P. McBrayer, discovered this when he observed two signs on the wall at his son’s second-grade open house ( a binary universe where everything is fact or opinion):

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

McBrayer went on to observe that most of the rules in the school’s code of behaviour would fall into the school’s definition as ‘opinion’ and therefore only relative truth.  What does it mean when the teaching of moral behaviour in a grade school is immediately undercut by their efforts to emphasize that opinion is not an authority?  That sort of intellectual duplicity is only possible within a thought system that allows mutually countradictory assertions to hold equal validity.  (for example, A and not A cannot occupy the same space at the same time)

One of the articles referenced laments the great lack of engagement with great literature, and how this has produced a generation of morally relative students whose best argument for anything is, “Everyone should be allowed to do whatever they want.”  Lord have mercy.

I won’t even attempt to summarize what are excellent articles written by people who have given some deep thought to the question.  I will lament that the trend I saw identified in an older article, “Samantha Shrugged” seems to be even more firmly in place than before.

Take note specifically of that second article’s critical comment on post-modernism.  In spite of encountering impassioned defences of the usefulness of post-modern approaches, I have to say that the overall impact on the culture has been to completely gut any concept of truth, objective, absolute truth, in common discourse.  Read “Samantha Shrugged” to see what I mean, particularly the line about it being one’s right to believe what is objectively not true (like the earth is flat).

The writer draws this out as the logical extension of developing thought from the Englightment onwards:

Over the last three centuries, however — a span of time that witnessed the rise of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the dawn of Naturalism and Modernism, and the dominance in our time of Post-Modernism — the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of Western Culture have been shaken, eroded, and ultimately rejected altogether by new, man-centered ways of viewing reality. The rise of science and the unrivaled hegemony of the scientific method — advancements that undeniably increase technological and material comforts for countless billions of human beings — also destroyed the very premises on which moral truth and consensus had been constructed. …

Thus there can never exist the possibility that a professor or student might take seriously the faith claims and moral injunctions of Judeo-Christianity. To do so would immediately expose the “believer” as illogical and absurd.

This commentator links the two issues together, as I do, that a complete lack of any ability to critically think is the starting point of an open door for amoral behaviour.

This also reflects my daughter’s experience at a defensive driving course.  This was a part of her driving training, but she discovered that almost all the other course attendees were there to avoid losing their driver’s license due to excessive demerits.  The one consistent facet of her experience was the willingness of all those others (who, you have to note, were there because they had objectively been repeatedly assessed as not understanding traffic laws) to argue points of law with the instructor.  “Well, that’s just stupid.” was the common rebuttal.  There are some stupid laws, but a thinking person’s approach is not to argue, but to follow the law because it supports the greater good, and acknowledging that their opinion on a law might very well be wrong.  As CS Lewis pointed out, failing at that sort of basic level of reasoning is just like the lunatic sitting in his cell with his eyes tightly closed chanting, “There is no sun.”

And on that note, a word from Lewis’ The Silver Chair on the importance of being able to think critically:

Then came the Witch’s voice, cooing softly like the voice of a wood-pigeon from the high elms in an old garden at three o’clock in the middle of a sleepy, summer afternoon; and it said:

“What is this sun that you all speak of? Do you mean anything by the word?”

“Yes, we jolly well do,” said Scrubb.

“Can you tell me what it’s like?” asked the Witch (thrum, thrum, thrum, went the strings).

“Please it your Grace,” said the Prince, very coldly and politely. “You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room; and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.”

“Hangeth from what, my lord?” asked the Witch; and then, while they were all still thinking how to answer her, she added, with another of her soft, silver laughs: “You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.”

“Yes, I see now,” said Jill in a heavy, hopeless tone. “It must be so.” And while she said this, it seemed to her to be very good sense.

Slowly and gravely the Witch repeated, “There is no sun.” And they all said nothing. She repeated, in a softer and deeper voice. “There is no sun.” After a pause, and after a struggle in their minds, all four of them said together. “You are right. There is no sun.” It was such a relief to give in and say it.

Suddenly Gabi Schiller’s experience, and the dental studies on our east coast (who also thought it appropriate to make rape jokes about their classmates), along with the growing attractiveness of jihad tourism (on either side), and all of the college cheating scandles we’re hearing of…all start to make more sense.

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38, ESV)

What is truth, indeed.

Written by sameo416

March 4, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Foolishness of Faith

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I’m busy next Saturday, so I’ve prepared most of my notes for Lent 3 this weekend.  This is the unedited first draft, that needs about two pages of material removed and some of the transitions and development tightened up.  I thought I would post it a week early.


 

Sermon preached at SJE, March 9, 2015 Lent 3B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (foolishness for Christ), John 2:13-22 (clearing temple), Ps 19

So, I’m standing before you prepared to preach on Paul’s words today – to literally talk about Paul’s statement that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach”, and to do that through the folly of what I preach. Hard to do so with a straight face, and without cautioning you to beware of the foolishness of my words. Let’s Pray.

We are part-way through our Lenten journey to the cross of Christ, and beyond to the glory of the resurrection, but before that can become real for us we must continue to walk deeper into the darkness of Lent. This is one of the things that traditional Christianity brings for us, if left to our own devices we would shed the hair shirt of Lent for endless Sundays singing of God’s glory, “Jesus Christ has Risen Today” and the like. Indeed, some modern branches of Christianity no long pay much attention to the liturgical year, and in that lose much helpful teaching and rebuke of the soul. So, we spend time in this season each year, not because we enjoy feeling poorly about ourselves and our frail faith, but because there is no way to understand the light and power of Christ’s rising, if you do not first understand the darkness of the grave.

That sort of an idea should come across as shocking to your modern sensibilities. Our culture spends much time attempting to ignore the grave, or to defeat the grave. As our Supreme Court recently ruled, one of our latest attempts to defeat death is to attempt to bend it to our will. If I must die, I will decide how, and I will decide when. Yet death still holds sway over this world, and our victory in setting the how and when is empty in the end. We know that death and decay are not part of God’s ultimate will for us and for his kingdom, so why do we spend this time of Lent in the darkness?  There is something fundamentally foolish about much of what we’re doing.

Paul tells us something of that why, and also explains why Lent is offensive to modern sensibilities. You may have chosen as a Lenten discipline to give something up, or to take on something new. If you’ve given something up – coffee and chocolate are always popular choices – and you mention it to a non-believer friend, how did they react? // I remember a discussion with a dear friend, a highly spiritual person who rejects Christianity outright. She exclaimed one day, “next you’re going to tell me you believe in the virgin birth!” When I replied that, yes I do, and that as an engineer I come at faith as an empiricist – someone who measures and weighs everything, all she could do was stare at me with her mouth hanging open. It had never occurred to her that engineering, the rivet and steel and rail, could be a path to belief in a God she rejected. She was too polite at that point to call me crazy, but that was what I read on her face.

The problem in bringing that faith to non-believers, like my very spiritual friend, is that I can’t even begin to explain why, as an engineer, my coming to faith was in many ways the same as my coming to respect Maxwell’s equations as the means to describe all electromagnetic phenomena. That statement was intended to be unintelligible, as an example of my point about my friend. I can tell her of the things I’ve seen and heard and experienced that make my belief in God a matter of fact, but without her understanding the language of God I would be forced to use, it would be as if I was speaking a foreign language. It would be as foolishness to the wise or to those who see themselves as wise. And yet, in spite of just tying my belief to my measuring of things, there is still a point when we must ascent to the existence of paradox and scandal as an act of faith, to believe that which is so often contrary to our human sense of the way things should work. Belief and faith are not ultimately questions with objective answers. As Kierkegaard pointed out that at its heart, “Christianity is paradox, and paradox requires but one thing: the passion of faith.”

This is exactly what we hear Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians. Corinth was a city of diverse learning, following the Greek wisdom traditions, and loving the pursuit of entrancing ideas and thoughts. Sounds a lot like the internet today, doesn’t it? A few minutes on facebook or pinterest or snapchat reveals to you that one of our favorite cultural pastimes now is to toy with interesting ideas, while rarely ever doing anything about any of them. If you read the full first chapter of 1st Corinthians, you hear in the text just before our reading that the problem Paul was writing about was division in the Christian community. Rather than turning to focus on the one Cross that unifies all those who follow Jesus, they instead argued over the wisdom of different ideas and aligned themselves with different teachers. Paul writes this:

10 I appeal to you, brothers by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

And not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Those words are a worthy caution to anyone that presumes to stand in a community of Christ and preach the Word – a reminder that my best offering is a mere shadow puppet compared with the reality of God’s living Word. In honesty, the reason I continue to undertake the task of preaching is not my trust in my wisdom, but because I trust in God’s wisdom to overcome my own frail and poor thinking. The point is not which bit of human wisdom we believe is the most Godly and therefore correct, but that God’s Word points to the truth that all human wisdom is suspect, and that the Cross of Christ is powerful for exactly that reason – that it highlights the foolishness of even our best. Harkening back a few weeks to Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded of what was spoken to me as the ashes were marked on my face: what do I have to offer you today? Only this, that I know I came from dust, and to dust I shall return.

The too-human reality is that we have continued to divide the body of Christ, being the church, to the tune of some 300 new Christian denominations per year globally. That’s not done by God’s will, but by the same thing the Corinthians were arguing about: which bit of human wisdom do we think is the most Godly? “The fragmentation of our church is both a shame on our house and a cause for deep repentance.” (Gordon Fee, NICNT, p. 66) To that, Paul points to God’s answer…the folly of the Cross.

Jesus stepped into the Temple and cleared it of the money lenders, the sellers of sacrificial animals, the capitalists and entrepreneurs of the temple system, with a whip of cords. Instead of just getting along with what had become a cornerstone of the big business that was the Temple, filling the treasury with gold so that even more elegant furnishings could be procured, Jesus stood apart and physically preached a prophetic message of folly. When challenged about his authority for doing so, Jesus instead pointed to himself and said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” This was rejected outright by the wise because everyone knew that the temple had been under construction for 46 years, and would stand forever. You might recall here Jesus’ disciples marveling over the grandeur of the Temple, and Jesus telling them that not one stone would remain stacked upon another (Matthew 24).

The clash is clear – human wisdom hold aloft a great work of humanity as the blessed assurance that we will live forever, against the foolishness of the resurrection. We do not trust in the physical that is here today, but instead in the eternal promise made real in Christ’s resurrection and death. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. And those who know that they are wise walk away shaking their heads, faced with the foolishness of a madman. Even the disciples only remember the reality of that promise after Christ had died and risen – another example of the foolishness of human wisdom. It is only sometimes after the fact that the way we have walked becomes clear to us.

The argument Paul sets out pivots between sentences at verses 17 and 18. At verse 17 Paul states that Christ sent him not to preach wisdom (Sophia) characterized by words (logos) contrasted with what Paul was sent for at verse 18, to preach The Word (logos) of the Cross. The wisdom of our words is such a subtle trap…and it is easy for my human mind to conclude that because, for example, I can parse biblical Hebrew verbs, I am somehow made wiser in God’s estimation. (although certainly not in the eyes of most employers in Alberta!) When this is really my advanced knowledge that convinces me I am wise, and Paul reminds me that to measure one’s worth in those terms is the exact foolishness of the world that Christ came to undo and make foolish. So who do I preach? I preach Christ crucified. And what is Christ crucified? A message that attracts all to its bright light, made manifest by my subtle use of the English language and my personal charisma? No, Paul goes on to tell us that Christ crucified is a ‘stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’ What do I realize reading this passage again? That it pleases God when, through the folly of what I preach, people hear of the Logos, The Word, whom came to bring foolishness for us all.

This idea, being foolish for Christ, is one that hasn’t received much traction in the western church. We draw highly on the Enlightenment traditions, and the earlier philosophical wisdom traditions, that place a premium on gnosis, knowing and knowledge. One of the great lies of that tradition is that there has never been an era in human history when we have been so wise – where we make the same error I just talked about, confounding a multitude of knowledge with wisdom. I might be so bold as to say that an excess of knowledge is, in some cases, a factor that prohibits the existence of wisdom. One place where foolishness has been celebrated as a part of the church is in the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, and this is worth a word or two, as this can tell us something about what Paul speaks of – that God chose ‘what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in” God.

This orthodox tradition celebrates the holy fool, in Russian the word used is yurodivy. These are holy people who abandon the pretense of polite relationship with society to manifest the Godly folly. You may have heard of the great Orthodox cathedral of Moscow – St Basil’s. St Basil was not an uptight proper saint, but one considered a holy fool. Basil the blessed, or Basil fool for Christ, was known for shoplifting from merchants to give to the poor, and walking around naked except for heavy chains that he wore.

Saint Simeon, the patron saint of fools, spent decades in the desert as a hermit. It is told that he asked that God allow him to serve others without anyone knowing that he was the one helping. He returned to town pulling a dead dog behind him on a rope. During Sunday services he would throw nuts at the priests and blow the altar candles out. At least a part of this was done so that people would not know about his work for God, healing, praying and caring for the poor.

Author Leo Tolstoy wrote about a holy fool named Grisha he encountered as a child. Some thought Grisha a holy man, others a lazy beggar. Tolstoy’s father considered that Grisha was lazy, untrustworthy and should be thrown into prison. Tolstoy’s mother replied that, “…It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life . . . it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

The holy fool stands as a witness to the same principle that Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” They remind us that the path to salvation is not one that rests on the foundation of our status within our culture, or based on the merits we earn through hard work, but rather on the folly of the cross. Our salvation is not based on our merits or our worthiness, but rather on the merits of Christ, and the infinite worthiness that flows to us from that relationship.

The holy fools remind us that the proposition of Christianity is not one that appeals to those who seek the wisdom of this world. You can see this clearly if you have ever tried to explain to a non-believer why it is you spend your time in a community of faith – there is something fundamentally irrational about the undertaking. That’s reinforced when you think about Christ’s ministry, not one that worked from the power structures of the time but rather in spite of them, and using people that all those in the swim of the culture, those who were certain about their place and importance of things, would have rejected as not worth their time, for, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22)

In the words of New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, “…the cross stands in absolute, uncompromising contradiction to human wisdom…it is God’s folly, folly that is at the same time [God’s] wisdom and power.” (Fee, NICNT, 66) Human wisdom demands objective truth, and yet in the story of Christ we have nothing but the absurd: God coming into physical existence within time and space, as an individual human being. It is on this point that the majority of the great heresies take off, in an attempt to remove God from the flawed physical creation, so painful is that thought to human wisdom. That is the folly of God’s plan for salvation, built around the paradox of the Cross.

In our text for today, Paul talks about the two different groups and the different wisdom sought by the Jews or the Greeks. Paul sets out the two fundamental idolatries of humanity. The Jews demand miraculous signs – asking that Jesus repeat the mighty signs that God had performed for His people in the past. They knew how God would properly bring the Messiah to them, and you see this repeatedly throughout the Gospels in the demand for signs, for miracles and the questions from the disciples about when Jesus would assume the throne of David – meaning expelling the occupying army and restoring the Jewish theocracy. The Greeks demand wisdom, befitting of their position as an exceptionally learned society, who wanted to see God as the ultimate reason, meaning reason in the human sense of course. (Fee, 74-75)

Paul sets out the reality that humanity is often willing to consider assenting to the existence of a god, but only if that god comes in on our terms and fitting in tightly prescribed limits that satisfy our need for safety and control. Paul’s point is that the actual answer to that question is much different, because God demands are all, and will not be satisfied with only a part of us. Our path of salvation is not a mighty show of power that the world understands, but rather the saviour who comes to die on a cross. This is a dangerous proposition for us, because God demands nothing less than our death to sin so that He can raise us again in Christ. This message was scandalous to both Greek and Jew, so offensive was it to the cultural idea of greatness and power that they each embraced.

It is hard for all of us, conditioned as we are to see the image of the cross as something good and holy, to understand how offensive this would have been to the cultures of Christ’s time. (Fee, 76) The crosses that many of us wear around our necks, pretty and sparkling, are images of an instrument of torture and murder. The image of the cross to a person of the ancient middle-eastern world would be akin to one of us wearing an image of a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, the executioner’s axe or the apparatus used for lethal injections proudly on a chain for all to see.

Even once we are within the community of faith, we must be cautious that we do not let our familiarity with this place, with the symbols and the motions of our worship don’t lull us into a comfortable casualness where we accept the absurdity of salvation as something as somehow reasonable and common. Is it any wonder that so many reject the message outright? The danger is that we hear these things here, and accept them, but fail to carry that message of absurdity out into our lives for the remainder of the week. Our ascent to the reality of the Cross and the path of salvation opened as a result, is a fundamental challenge to the reality that governs our world, and it is too easy for us to live as normal people during the balance of the week…and not to carry that paradox out into our daily lives, where it should rightly inform the way we live all week-long. Do we place our blessed assurance with God, or within our trust of the ability of humankind to make it on our own…do we trust in God with us who died upon the cross, or upon our military might to fix all of the evil facing us globally?

So we are left with a choice, in Fee’s words, “we can trust God and be saved by his wise folly, or keep up our pretensions and perish.” Our challenge in that decision is that God’s great plan of salvation appears, to human wisdom, as scandal and paradox. God’s plan of salvation is worked out with no need for help from us, and no need to conform to our ideal of how a saving God should actually go about his work. God’s gift to us, is our forgiveness instead of the death we deserved. That gift, freely available to us, rests only on our willingness to ascent and to admit that without God there is nothing redeemable about us. To many, that step of accepting God’s gift freely given is hateful, and particularly to those trapped in the idea that it is their self-worth or earned righteousness that God should acknowledge. Amen


 

I owe some debt to Bishop William Willimon’s sermon on 1 Cor 1:23 titled, “Looking Like Fools”

My primary commentary was Gordon Fee’s excellent New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on 1st Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1987. I have to say that the commentaries written by scholars practising in the evangelical tradition continue to offer the greatest blessing to a preacher. It is clear in Fee’s text that he actually believes what it is he is writing about.

I also read Kierkegaard’s essay, “Passion and Paradox” which is echoed in parts of the sermon.

Written by sameo416

March 1, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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