The message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
In the last chapter of his book, “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stephenson introduces us to “an older black woman” who “looked tired and wore what [we] used to call a ‘church meeting hat.’” Stephenson, a lawyer, has just won the release of a man who’d been sentenced to life in prison as a sixteen year old boy, whose confession to his crime had been beaten out of him by police. He’d been in prison for forty-five years.
Stephenson thinks he has seen the woman at the courthouse before, but he can’t figure out who she is, so he goes over to her and asks if she is a relative of the man who’s case has been won.
“‘I’m not related to nobody here,’” she says, “‘I just come here to help people. This is a place full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here.’”
She goes on, “‘My sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered fifteen years ago.... I grieved and grieved. I asked the Lord why he let someone take my child like that. He was killed by some other boys.... Those boys were found guilty ... and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse....
“‘I sat in the courtroom after they were sentenced and just cried and cried. A lady came over to me and gave me a hug and let me lean on her. She asked me if the boys who got sentenced were my children, and I told her no. I told her the boy they killed was my child. She sat with me for almost two hours... we didn’t neither of us say a word... It felt good to... have someone to lean on....’”
“‘All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence.... I decided I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.’” (Bryan Stephenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015, p. 306-308)
This is not a sermon about the injustice of sentencing children to a lifetime in prison, or any other aspect of cruelty meted out in the name of Justice. This is a sermon about an older black woman who finds that her grief at the murder of her grandson is compounded, not alleviated, when the children who committed the crime are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Which is to say that this is a sermon about a woman who discovers that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Can you imagine trying to console such a woman? Can you imagine how you would react when she told you that these fresh tears of hers were falling for the boys who murdered her grandson?
These are not even stories about children who were wrongfully accused or punished. There is foolishness aplenty to go around: there is violence, there is cruelty; there is hatefulness and sheer stupidity; there is anger and resentment; there is crime, and there is punishment. And there is precious little wisdom, precious little wisdom in the world... and precious little mercy. But there is a woman with a hat, whose own pain did not obliterate the possibility of mercy, a woman who found that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
“The message about the Cross is foolishness,” Saint Paul tells us. Yes, he does go on; but let’s start with the foolishness. Let’s acknowledge that Saint Paul is correct, and that more and more of the world sees it this way.
“Hopelessly male-dominated and irretrievably patriarchal,” is the way a father recently told me his twenty-something daughters view the church and its texts that transmit to us the story of the Cross.
“Completely un-interested and utterly un-convinced,” is the way a mother recently told me her tween-aged children assess the church and our God.
They might have told me that the message of the Cross is foolishness, as far as their children are concerned.
There ought to be some calculus in the universe that helps us make sense of the world. There ought to be a glass through which we could look to discern the truth, scales we could use to weigh real justice. There ought to be a key one could possess that would ensure real insight. There ought to be a secret you could learn to unlock the mysteries of life, and another that would unlock the mysteries of death. There ought to be an answer to the question, Why? There ought to be a way to know whatever it is that needs to be known. There ought to be a balm to soothe the pain. There ought to be a pattern to unscramble from all this mess. There ought to be a priest who knows the secrets. There ought to be a reason, yes, there ought to be a reason.
But there is no calculus, no glass and no scale. There is no key, no secret, no answer, no way to know, no balm, no pattern, no priest, and no reason that we know of. So often there is no reason. But there is the Cross, casting the shadow of its saving promise over the whole of creation.
The Cross is a black hole of death, drawing all the matter and energy of death toward itself with irresistible power, and challenging every calculus, every glass, every scale, and key, and secret, and answer, and way, and balm, and pattern, and priest, and every reason; and proclaiming by sheer force of power its own foolishness.
What a ridiculous way to save the world: with a man in all his weakness bleeding, suffocating, and dying on a Cross, without so much as stopping to explain to us how this is supposed to work; why it’s good for us. But the Cross is not an instrument of logic; it is an instrument of grace. And it is matter of divine mercy that true grace is not governed by logic; if it was, who of us would be saved? If, at the Cross, where the Son of God flung himself into the black hole of death to overcome death’s power, God had paused to check the receipt and make sure the math added up correctly, the sky would not have darkened, the curtain of the Temple would not have been torn in two, the earth would not have shaken - not without also allowing the man who hung there to leap from his doom and dance on the heads of his persecutors. But, for whatever reason, that is not how God works. Call him a mystery; he is to me. If God were to check the receipt in my case, there is no way he would have sent his Son to die: this much I know. I am a sinner who is in need of mercy, not logic. Maybe you know this about yourself, as well. And maybe this is the crucial insight that allows us to embrace the foolishness of the Cross: when we know we are being saved, because we know we need to be saved.
When I look at the world today so much of it makes no sense to me. About the only thing that does make sense are those videos one comes across on the Internet that tell the stories of the dog that adopted a piglet to care for it, or the kitten who frolics with a crow, or the lioness who raises an orphaned baby antelope as her own offspring. These tiny and comical stories open up glimpses of a world that we think for a moment might be possible, but on reflection we see them for the foolishness they are: you can’t organize the world around the expectation that kittens and crows will play together, or that lions will foster antelopes.
Well, you can’t organize the world around something as foolish as the Cross, either. Which is why we have organized the church around it instead.
On the last page of his book, as Bryan Stephenson is trying to render some meaning from the sorrow, pain, and suffering that he has seen and known, he draws this conclusion, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” (Stephenson , p 314) He could have been writing a caption for the Cross, whose power, liberation, and transformation are always offered to the undeserving: to me and to you, for instance.
Some day, when God’s kingdom is finally established, there will be justice on the earth, and there will be peace. Some day. But until then let us pray that there will be women in church meeting hats who are given the grace to weep for the suffering of their own children’s killers. And let us try to learn from such women. For to do so is to learn about God, and how God’s heart must operate, if God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; and to learn about how God’s fortitude may be given, if God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. To encounter such a woman, and to accept her invitation to lean on her is to realize that she maybe catching stones that were meant to strike you. And to embrace her, and maybe not to say a word, but to allow the tears to flow, is to discover that the message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 March 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia