paradox – a sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent

sermona sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, March 8, 2015

The message of the cross is foolishness…but…it is the power of God…For (as)…the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…(both)…the power…and the wisdom of God.

I reflect first on last Sunday’s gospel; Jesus teaching his followers about his Messiahship and their discipleship…

Even before that, Jesus, journeying throughout Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing, in word and deed proclaiming the near presence of God’s kingdom, senses that the time is ripe, is right to go to Jerusalem to face his final confrontation with the religious and secular authorities. He wants to know whether his followers know who he is. “What do people say about me?” he asks, then the more critical question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers, “Messiah!”

Given the people’s hope that Messiah will liberate them from Roman oppression and restore Israel’s glory as in the time of King David, Jesus needs to make clear who he is, telling them he will suffer and be killed. No surprise, Peter rebukes Jesus, who rebukes Peter in the strongest terms, calling him Satan. Then Jesus, having verified his Messiahship, clarifies their discipleship. “To be my followers, deny yourselves, bear your cross, and follow me; for to save your life, you will lose it, for only in losing your life for my sake, will you save it.” As Peter is troubled by Jesus’ proclamation of the Messiah’s death, this declaration must terrify him.

Even we, two millennia since this word’s first utterance and o’er that time with countless reflections on its meaning, might confess ourselves, at times and at least, confused. For this cross-bearing, self-denying, life-losing to life-saving is paradox. That which, at first glance, makes no sense, yet at its heart embraces, embodies deepest truth.

Today, more paradox. “The message of the cross” – which is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying the heart, verily, the whole of the Christian story – “is foolishness.” No surprise that for many, on first and second view, this story upon which we stake our lives now and forever is laughably fictitious!(*) Exercising some biblical license, allow me to reframe and retell the Christian story, our story from the skeptic’s viewpoint; one of unabashed incredulity:

God, in love, longs to reclaim, redeem a broken world not with a divine display of power, but through an innocent, innocuous baby; born not in prominence, but to an unwed mother in a stable, wrapped in shreds of cloth, laid in a feeding trough for animals, and given the name, Jesus, meaning “God saves” as decreed by (who else?) an angel…

Jesus grew up not in a palace, trained in the art of governance and leadership (even Moses was raised in pharaoh’s house!), but as a common carpenter…

Jesus took part in a seminal rite of passage, not a coronation, but an immersion in a river at the hands of John the baptizer, a lunatic who had come out of the wilderness wearing camel’s hair and eating wild locusts and honey and making outlandish pronouncements that would get him arrested and beheaded…

Jesus was shoved by the Spirit, which had appeared moments before in the pleasant form of a descending dove, not to some prestigious grad school, not even an acclaimed, highly effective on-the-job training program, but into the desert for forty days to talk with (who else?) the devil and to stare into the terrifyingly beady eyes of wild beasts, and to be attended by (who else?) more angels…

Jesus came out of the wilderness, like John, with a vocation, not medicine, not law, nothing as mundane, though as lucrative as that, but some audacious spiritual quest, the heart of which he boldly proclaimed, “God’s kingdom is near”…

Jesus gathered a vision-quest, campaign committee, not skilled fundraisers and speechwriters, not savvy pollsters and strategizers, but commoners, fishermen, even a universally hated tax collector, all who had to be taught and all who demonstrated an inexhaustible and exhausting intellectual and ethical density…

Jesus shared in word and served in deed his kingdom-message not primarily with those in power, but largely with the powerless…

Jesus went to the holy city of Jerusalem to make his case, not by lobbying the religious and secular authorities, but by angering them, cleansing the temple…

Jesus, having incurred the enmity of said authorities, was arrested on trumped up charges, tried illegally, convicted unjustly, and sentenced to death, and, though innocent, crucified.

Concerning the paradox of Jesus’ teaching of cross-bearing, self-denying loss of life, at least we can say he practiced what he preached! Concerning the more paradox of the heart and whole of the Christian story, again many say, “This is ridiculous!”

Yet this is the story – born in a faraway land, long ago, having been told for 2000 years, for each of us perhaps, at times, ineffable, beyond the power of our words to define or describe – that draws us together today.

Why? Here I follow the counsel of 1 Peter 3.15, “Always be prepared to give reason for the hope that is in you.” For me, there are two reasons.

First. This story is counter-cultural. A worldly culture that (after all we have learned about this life as expressed in that Latin phrase, sic transit gloria mundi, so passes the glory of the world) still cultivates power, craves prestige, and curries the favor of the prominent. Therefore, a culture that esteems not the lowly and, thus, blithely accepts, even expects, and so makes peace with the iniquity of systemic inequality.

I read the gospel as a story of the incarnation, the enfleshment in Jesus of love and justice, the unconditional benevolence that acts to make things right in this world for all. So, I rejoice in its inherent counter-culturality. Maybe as we continue to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it will become true enough for all.

Second. This story is counter-characteriological. Counter to my character. I’m from Missouri. The state motto: “Show me”. This makes me, according to the Apostle Paul, Jewish. I like signs. I want things shown, demonstrated, proven to me. I won’t simply take your word. I won’t easily believe you. Why? Because I like my wisdom, my way of seeing things, my way of settling in my mind what it true, not yours. According to Paul, this makes me Greek.

Yet as I reflect on this gospel in my life, I have learned that in order for me to do something, I need to do it. To believe, I need to believe, which, yes, sometimes necessitates the suspension of my unbelief, the relinquishment of my demand for signs and my desire for wisdom. For there is something else I’ve learned. When I choose to exercise my power to believe, then no sign or wisdom is needed, and when I refuse to exercise my power to believe, no sign or wisdom is enough. So, I rejoice in the inherent counter-characteriologicality of this story. For as I’ve continued to tell it enough, do it enough, be it enough, it has become true enough for me, and, I pray, through me, for others.

(*)Two of the fastest growing religious groups in America are the “unaffiliated”, which include the “nones,” the unchurched as in no religion, and the “I’m spiritual, but not religious” (see Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, Religion and the Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/global-religious-nones-on-the-rise/) and Religiously Unaffiliated (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-unaffiliated/) and the “dones”, the de-churched, those who were active, but no longer (see Holy Soup with Tom Schultz, holysoup.com (http://holysoup.com/2014/11/12/the-rise-of-the-dones/).

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