Matthew 5:38-48, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
One of the good things I occasionally hear from someone after church is a comment such as, “Thanks for that sermon. It really made sense to me.”
I always take that as a compliment. After all, we preachers work pretty hard to take these ancient texts and get them to “make sense” for us today. But sometimes when I hear that I get a little nervous.
Should I really be working so hard to “make sense” of these texts? That assumes that all of us share this thing called “common sense” and it’s my job to use whatever skills I can muster to shoehorn some pretty strange lessons into our view of things.
Common sense runs along the lines of “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Work hard and you’ll make your way to the top. Don’t trust strangers. Be practical and prudent.
The problem is that Christian faith is often about anything but worldly wisdom and common sense. If you’ve been listening to our lessons over the last few weeks you’ve been hearing some things that by any formal standards sound downright strange. It’s hard to find the worldly wisdom, for example, in the Beatitudes we listened to a few Sundays ago: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn. It’s not easy to “make sense” of that.
And over the last few weeks the New Testament lesson has come from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth where week by week he celebrates what he calls “foolishness.” Listen to this reading from a couple of weeks ago:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles… For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Or in our lesson today Paul writes,
If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you many become wise.
What’s going on here? On the one hand the wisdom of the world is foolish, and on the other we need to become fools so that we can be wise. Paul is saying, I didn’t come to you with some eloquently spoken everyday wisdom. I have brought you something so strange as to seem completely foolish. It will ask you to see your life through a completely different lens, by gazing at of all things a cross.
Common sense likes bigness, strength, success, clarity. Common sense would suggest that wisdom resided among the Caesars who ruled the Roman Empire, not the troublemakers in backwater Palestine. It sees wisdom in the best and brightest of our finest universities, the halls of Congress, and in the boardrooms of corporate America.
No, in place of all the clever wisdom of our day, Paul is saying that Christ and his cross have turned our whole sense of what matters and how the world works upside down.
The center of Christian faith is a cross—a humiliating instrument of torture. Crucifixion was not only agonizingly painful, but it meant being hung up naked for all to see and mock. Christians worship a crucified Messiah—an appalling notion. And yet—it’s in this embarrassing, even repulsive figure on a cross that we see the one thing we most need to see—a God who will stop at nothing to love us, who comes to us in our weakness in the sin, the mistakes, the brokenness of our lives, who suffers with us when we suffer, and will never let us go.
Foolishness, that’s what this is. One of the earliest crucifixes we know shows Jesus on the cross with the head of an ass, showing him a fool. Erasmus, one of the great humanists of Western civilization, wrote a little work 400 years ago called “In Praise of Folly” to show just how strange Christianity is. After listing all the forms of human foolishness, he says, “No morons so play the fool as those who are obsessed with the ardor of Christian piety to the point that they distribute their goods, overlook injuries, . . . make no distinction between friends and enemies, . . . What is this if not insanity?”
Holy fools. That seems to be our calling as Christians.
And this cross-shaped foolishness is everywhere in the New Testament. What do you make of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel today where he is turning everything on its head too:
You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other…
If anyone sues you for your coat, he says, give your cloak too; if anyone forces you to one mile, go a second; and if anyone wants to borrow from you, don’t turn them down.
Sounds like impractical idealism, doesn’t it—just caving in to evil. But in fact, Jesus is acting as a savvy community organizer advising followers who are having to contend constantly with the oppressive roman rulers. When you have no power you have to find ways to stand your ground and maintain your dignity. So over-respond, Jesus is saying, and show your oppressor for who he or she is. Let them overplay their hand, and you will be the one who walks away with his dignity. Civil rights leaders knew that when they sat down at segregated lunch counters.
David Ignatius, journalist and close friend of this Cathedral, wrote a column in the Washington Post last week reflecting on the stunning events that brought an end to the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. In the tradition of the civil rights movement, the Egyptian protesters chose to wage their struggle for liberty and democracy not with guns and bombs but with bold, peaceful resistance.
The secret of the Egyptian revolution was that it was inclusive [Ignatius wrote]. The street protest brought together rich and poor, secular and religious, Muslim and Christian, socialist and capitalist. Demonstrators and troops embraced in the street, and even now the crowds in Tahrir are climbing over tanks as if they were in an amusement park… The uprising that toppled Mubarak was one of those Utopian moments that bring a suspension of normal politics… And the genius of the organizers was to insist that the protests remain peaceful, no matter what the provocations.
Foolish? It doesn’t look like it . An oppressive government of 30 years was brought down by a nonviolent people claiming their dignity as human beings and children of God. And this has been only the latest manifestation of a remarkable shift taking place in the human saga. According to theologian Walter Wink, the miraculous years 1989-1990 were the greatest in human history for political transformation toward greater freedom and democracy. In 1989 alone thirteen nations comprising 32% of the human race experienced nonviolent revolutions that succeeded beyond what anyone imagined. The list includes the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Brazil, Chile. And since that banner year there have been many more.
Jesus wasn’t the first to practice nonviolence, but the way he taught his disciples to bear simple, unyielding nonviolent witness marked a breakthrough in history that is still changing the shape of our world and bringing freedom and hope.
In a nation where ownership of assault weapons continues to grow rapidly, and where violence is built into our culture, Jesus’ nonviolent way should give us pause.
But then, Jesus takes this cross-shaped foolishness to the extreme:
You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
It seems as if we’ve gone from the foolish to the impossible. Sometimes I’ve wondered if we really take these words of Jesus in when we hear them. Or is it maybe that we don’t think of ourselves as having enemies? We are good decent people, and yes we need to worry about an Osama bin Laden, but by and large we don’t think about enemies. Sure there are people with whom we disagree, there are people whose politics we think are terrible, there are people who irritate or even hurt us, but we don’t normally call them enemies.
But my guess is that there are alienations aplenty. We are seeing a great deal of bitterness and intolerance in our country these days. There are people and groups and political parties we don’t like or trust. And we each carry wounds and grudges that we haven’t been willing to release—in our families, or among friends, or at the workplace.
And so for Jesus to call his disciples to love these seemingly unlovable people, for us to pray for the very ones who hurt us, can seem nearly impossible. And he seems to recognize how hard this command is so he drives home the point: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” No, he says, you are called to love the way God loves, this God who makes “the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
“Love the person you hate more than anyone in the world,” he might say. But wait a minute, you might answer. Don’t you think the word love is a little excessive? How about showing good will instead? Can we have an exception or two? Not a chance, he says. And about this love. . . It isn’t a vague feeling. It’s an action, a commitment, a giving, a forgiving.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a young woman named Beth Savage who in 1992 was in a South Africa golf club when an African terrorist bomb exploded and she was gravely injured. She went through open-heart surgery and was in intensive care for months, and even when she was discharged she was so disabled that her children had to feed, clothe and help her in every way. But many months later, when she testified before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she said this:
It’s not important to me, but . . . what I would really, really like is, I would like to meet that man that threw that grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.
As Archbishop Tutu put it, “That ought to leave people quite speechless with the wonder of it all and make you want to be still in the presence of something so sublime, . . . that nearly all the victims black and white possessed this marvelous magnanimity.”
How do we start to love someone who has betrayed a trust, or who has inflicted pain on us or someone we love, who has done something in the past that seems unredeemable? Loving our enemies with God’s love takes time, it takes slowly letting go of the power of our anger, it takes seeing our “enemies” as human beings who are finding their way and making bad judgments as we do, but every step in that direction is a step toward greater freedom for us, the ones who have been hurt.
An Episcopal priest named George Ross, who struggled mightily with his own demons of alcoholism and AIDS, left behind a picture of this foolish God:
We come, all of us, to Christ in our loneliness and need; and we find that He is lonely too. We show Him our scars; He shows us His. We show Him our crown of thorns; He tells us the story of His. We thirst and so does he. It is upon the basis of our common humanity that God comes to us. As we share our sorrows and pains with Jesus, He shares God’s love and grace with us.
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
May we all be cross-shaped fools.