Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Foolish Message

I Corinthians 1:10-18
January 22, 2017

            The Gods Must Be Crazy. Back in 1980, this was the title of a little independent film out of South Africa. It told the story of a bushman named Xi. Xi knew only his particular world, his family, his clan. The way of life that he was born into, and the traditions and customs and world understandings that went back generations, provided his only lens for the world. But Xi was starting to see strange things, such as giant birds that flew across the sky without flapping their wings. One of those strange birds was flying in the early moments of the movie, and while Xi looks up to watch it, the audience gets to see the “bird” up close. The pilot of the small bush plane was drinking a coke. Emptying the bottle, he threw it out of the small opening in the window next to him. A terrible act of littering and environmental recklessness I know, but the bottle drops to the ground near Xi. Xi followed the sound of the bottle meeting earth, and went to find its source. This bottle was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was clear like water, but hard. It did not break when he hit it against the ground. Xi could not fathom what the bottle was or what it might be meant for, but as the narrator said if something drops from the skies it must be a gift from the gods. So Xi took this “gift” back to his people.
            Everyone was fascinated by it. They had never seen or touched something this strange and beautiful. It turned out to be one of the most useful gifts the bush people had ever been given. It could be used to open the hard rind of fruits. Rub some dye on its mouth, and it decorated cloth with perfect circles. It could roll dough into thin, even strips. You could even make music with it by blowing air across the top. The gift was wonderful. Or was it? The people in the clan began to experience feelings they had not known before: jealousy, frustration, anger. Two women began to fight over the gift, each one trying to take it away from the other so she could have her turn. It resulted in one woman hitting the other on the head with the gift. When the woman fell to the ground in pain, the other woman immediately dropped to her knees to hold her and comfort her. What had she done?! What was happening to them? Xi realized that if this was a gift from the gods, then the gods had gotten it wrong. He tried to give it back to the gods by throwing it up into the air. The second time he did it, the bottle fell and hit his own daughter on the head. The gods must be crazy, because this was a gift that only brought harm. The rest of the movie chronicles his journey to return the gift to these crazy gods, as well as the strange new and supposedly civilized world he encounters along the way.
            “Crazy” and “Foolish” are not necessarily synonyms. However, trying to dig into and understand Paul’s words to the church in Corinth made me wonder what someone who had no knowledge about our country or our civilization would think if they suddenly encountered it as Xi did. What would someone unfamiliar with us and our ways think about us if all they had to go on was media, commercials, news, etc? Let’s narrow that question down a bit. What would someone think about our faith, our churches, our denominations, if they had no context to go on, no understanding to draw from? I wonder if they might not come to a conclusion similar to Xi’s. The God we worship is one God, but we proclaim that our one God is three-in-one. We proclaim that God is powerful, omniscient, omnipotent, but this powerful God became like one of us. Not only did our God become like one of us in birth, but also in death. Our God died! Our God died, not in a noble way, but in the way of a criminal. Our God didn’t just die, our God was executed.
            We also proclaim that we are all one in Jesus the Christ. Our unity is in Christ. Because of Christ the barriers and walls that we erect to keep us separate are torn down. The labels and the categories that we place one another in are meaningless and swept away because of our God who we know in Jesus the Son. What Paul seemed to be telling the Corinthians is that they either forgot or misunderstood the meaning of their baptisms. They forgot or misunderstood to whom they belong, and into whom they were truly baptized. They didn’t get it. They were not baptized into the camp of the evangelist or preacher who did the baptizing. They were baptized into Christ. No person’s baptism or evangelist made them superior or inferior to someone else. They were baptized into Christ, and Christ was not divided into pieces and parts.
            We can look at the factions in the Corinthian church and see how they got it so wrong. We can imagine that someone like Xi, a stranger to Christ and a stranger to the church, might see their squabbling as hypocritical and foolish. But let’s be honest, would Xi think any differently of us? Not just our congregation or our denomination but the church universal. What would Xi think of us?
            I realize that I am getting at two different kinds of foolishness here. There is the foolishness that can be seen in the gap that lies between who we are called to be and who we are. There is the foolishness that can be found in how often what we proclaim and what we do are very different. And then there is the foolishness that Paul expounds: the foolishness of the cross.
            “For 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.”
            Why is the cross foolish? It is foolish for all of the reasons I’ve named. It is foolish because an all powerful God should not die like a criminal. It is foolish because it is an instrument of death, but in that cross we find the gospel of life and hope and love. It is foolish because any stranger would see that the cross seems to fly in the face of every value that is exalted in our culture. It was about the power of God, but not power exerted through might. It was power shown in sacrifice. It was about serving rather than being served. It was about a willingness to be poor so that others might be rich in spirit, in hope and in love. It was about love – love of neighbor, love of the stranger, the other; love of those who would remain at the foot of the cross and those who would not. It was about love, even love for those who made the cross possible in the first place.
            The cross was foolish, is foolish, because it upends every expectation, every understanding, every notion that we might have about the world and how it should be ordered. It reverses every category we impose on one another, every label we use, every wall we build, every way we try to divide ourselves. It overturns what we think we know about God, about other people and about ourselves. It preaches a powerful sermon about how we see one another. Do we see one another in the way we desire or in the way God sees us? Do we see one another through our differences, or do we see one another through the cross and through the man who willingly went to it? Do we see one another as God sees us? It seems to me that seeing one another in that way, through God’s perspective, is probably the most foolish thing we could do – at least in light of every standard our world is ordered by. It is crazy. It is nonsensical. It is foolish.
            Yet, that is how God works, in foolish ways through foolish people. God chose and chooses the most unlikely ways and unlikely people to bring about God’s purposes. The cross may be the most foolish message of all, but it is in that foolishness that we find life. It is in that foolish message that we receive grace. It is in this foolishness that we are encircled and embraced in God’s foolish, gracious, merciful, wonderful love. The cross is a foolish message indeed. But thanks be to God for its foolishness. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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