God's foolishness

Sometimes, when I am bored and channel-surfing, I’ll stop on the station which is showing a television evangelist preaching and watch for a few minutes. More often than not, the evangelist is preaching to thousands of people, wearing a $2,000 suit, and generally the message is something like this: “God has a plan for your life, and if only you will follow that plan, you will be happy, you will have good things happen to you, you will have good relationships, and you will probably have enough money, as well.”

It is not a bad message. It sells well. It draws in thousands and thousands of people. There is only one slight problem. The Scriptures are full of examples of people who follow God, who do the works that He sets before them, and their lives are shortened, they are mocked, excoriated, and isolated. Their lives get worse because of what God asks of them.

Which should, if we are being honest with ourselves, make us feel slightly uncomfortable. Somehow it doesn’t seem right, or fair that by being open to God, we get punished. “The way it should be,” we say to ourselves, “is that people should be rewarded for doing the right thing.” That is the way it works in the wider world. Why doesn’t it work that way with God?

There is, it seems, a different system of logic operating when it comes to the divine.

Think about our Gospel this morning. Peter is back to his old trick of attempting to fit both feet into his mouth. He was doing quite well there for a moment. Years of hanging around with Jesus have finally begun to penetrate the block of wood that Peter keeps where his head should be and finally last week we heard Peter get the right answer. After some subtle prodding from Jesus, Peter comes up with the answer that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of Israel, the one that they had been expecting for all those long years of bondage and exile. So when Jesus starts to speak to his disciples about what it means to be Messiah, about his coming crucifixion and death and resurrection, Peter in his new role as the head of the class pulls Jesus aside to give him a lecture.

Peter is looking for a political figure, a Messiah who can restore the fortunes of Israel and cast out the Roman overlords. He looking for a leader who can swoop in, restore the balance, right the wrongs, make his people great again.

(If this is sounding vaguely familiar, it should, we are in a charged election year, and Presidential candidates are set up as political, power saviors, much in the way that Peter wants Jesus to be.)

Jesus rejects that vision of Messiah, of Savior, utterly and harshly. He says to Peter fiercely: “You are not on the side of God, but of men.” He does not want to be the King of the Jews. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he proclaims while standing trial for his life, and indeed it is not. In rejecting what Peter and the disciples want for him, Jesus opens up and points to a great divide in the world. There is the way of humankind, the way of political structures, of wheeling-and-dealing, of success rewarded, of brute power and thinly veiled violence, and there is the divine way, the pouring out of innocent blood, the utterly foolish.

If Jesus was operating as a political messiah, he would have gathered a team of savvy advisors (not rough fishermen); he would have put together an exploratory committee composed of members of the Sanhedrin; he would have hired pollsters to take the temperature of the masses. He would have gone around, holding town meetings in the swing towns, not wasting time in that backwater Nazareth. He would have courted the religious leaders and the wealthy, and his sentences would be as subtly vapid and nuanced as ever a politician could make them, rather than the rough, raw rhetoric of “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Jesus will have none of running for Messiah. To run for Messiah would be to enter into the logic of the world, and he has not come to enter into that logic, but to destroy it.

There is a divine foolishness which winds through the world. It is not just Jesus, as he sets his face to Jerusalem and goes down to meet his ignoble death. There is a divine foolishness in choosing Israel, in choosing Moses and David, in choosing the prophets who begrudgingly speak God’s words, and all of this is foolish because God chooses the most inefficient and flawed people and families and tribes to bring about His purposes in the world. The divine logic is such that a carpenter becomes the Lord of All, death becomes redemption, failure the only means of triumph, poverty a blessing.

Even here, even today, we can see this divine logic at work. Even here, God chooses the foolishness of this place, of St. Mark’s to bring about that glory which is being revealed to us. It is foolish by the standards of the world to think that by feeding 150 people soup on Saturdays, we as a parish will have any effect on the societal structures which result in poverty, homelessness and hunger. It is foolish to think that what goes on at this altar, in complex and medieval ways, has anything to say into the iPhone, Internet culture which passes so swiftly outside our doors. It is foolish to think that by adopting St. James-the-Less as a mission, we can have any affect on the deep blights of racism, classism and poverty which inhabit areas of our city, our country and the world. It is foolish to think that by preserving this parish for the next generation we will have any effect in stemming the growing secularism which is creeping over our culture.

But we follow a foolish God. We follow a God who works in the small things, the inefficient places, the people who are difficult and unwise, the ludicrous, the pyrric, the more-than-a-little-bit mad. We follow a God who doesn’t take the path of least resistance, but the path of greatest resistance. We follow a God who was foolish enough to pick us and place us here, with all that we need to completely alter our city and our world, and who expects us to be foolish enough, to be mad enough to know that it cannot be done, that the obstacles are almost insurmountable and to radically, powerfully, set about doing it anyways.

Would that I could tell you, like the television evangelist, that we will be happy and wealthy and long-lived for attempting these foolish things that we are called to do. But I think it unlikely. Often, to do the works of God is to become a lightning rod and a stumbling block and an offense to many. Yet still we must do what we are called to, for in the divine logic there are only two options: lose our lives for God, or lose our lives trying to preserve and extend them. Either way, we lose our lives.

God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise; He has scattered the proud, he has exalted the humble and meek, He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

Let us be equally as foolish as God, as we work to speak into and bring about the redemption of the world. Amen.

Preached by the Rev'd Andrew Ashcroft

St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia

August 31st, 2008

Posted on September 2, 2008 .