March 4, 2018

Lent 3B

Fools for Christ

GOSPEL

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.   John 2:13-22

SERMON

In his letter to the Corinthians Saint Paul speaks about wisdom and foolishness – the wisdom of this world and the foolishness of God – the divine foolishness that confronts and confounds the wisdom of this world to reveal the grand deception that it is.

The world is forever offering us its wisdom. The world presumes to identify for us the most important ingredients for living the good life.  It defines what we need to be happy.  And it lets us know and indicts us when we fail to meet its expectations.

The world measures people by their wealth, by their power and by their success.

Using these yardsticks, the world makes it so easy to be found wanting and to be judged as less than.   And so the “have’s” are few and the” have not’s” are many.

The world’s wisdom can be very seductive in determining the way we order our lives, and give direction to our children for the ordering of their lives.

If we examine our motives and scrutinize our priorities it becomes readily apparent that, at some very deep level, we have all absorbed some of the world’s wisdom.  We don’t normally find ourselves in conflict with it.  We buy into it for the rewards that come from doing so.  And we even send our children to die for it.

As an example of a culturally ingrained bias, consider the degree to which we value capitalism.  The majority breaks out in a rash when something appears to look like economic socialism.   Curiously the economic model advanced in the gospel is socialism.  We read in the Book of Acts this description of life in the early Christian community, “No one was in need because they shared all they had.”   

We are children of our culture both with regard to what is to be esteemed in it, as well as what must be identified as perverse.  And the greatest damage comes when we are schooled to believe that what is perverse, is to be esteemed and vice versa.  Or as Jesus puts it, “When we call good evil and evil good”. 

Recovery from such distortion is always so very difficult.  Culture is after all the very sea in which we swim.  It is the unquestioned matter-of-factness of our day-to-day lives.  And recovery from what is toxic in our moral or ethical world-view becomes near to impossible when religion is used to sanctify the distortion.

I don’t know if you caught this bizarre tidbit in this week’s news, but apparently some religious sect in Scranton, that identifies itself as Christian, held a group renewal of marriage vows for its followers.  Each of the wives carried an assault weapon. These folks believe that the biblical reference to “the iron rod of God” is to be understood, in our time, as a semi-automatic assault rifle.  The members of this sect religiously ritualized what the head of the NRA preached at the Conservative Political Caucus earlier in the week.  He declared, “God has given us guns and the right to bear and use them to defend ourselves”.  God has given us guns!  You can’t make this stuff up.

On another front, Billy Graham was laid to rest on Friday.   Upon his death the engines of civil religion went into full gear. They conferred upon him the dubious accolade  – Pastor to the Nation, as if a nation as religiously diverse as our own could confer such a title on any clergy person and especially on one as obviously sectarian as Graham.  A decision was then made to have his body lie in state in the Capital rotunda. His lying in state is testimony to the success of influential fixers to use him as the poster boy for moral commandments and the utter, sad emptiness of the results.

No doubt the dead preacher did some good for some people, but it can also be argued that he did significant damage to the public presentation of Christianity.

His legacy is in fact conspicuously hollow. He had a generic sermon.  He preached a fundamentalist gospel of personal salvation that was religiously simplistic, fear-based, and essentially exclusionary  – you are either in or out, saved or not saved. He effectively eviscerated the gospel of its prophetic call for social transformation. You can get saved and not really give a thought to the systemic injustice that vanquishes the lives of the poor and oppresses people of color.  At the height of the civil rights movement he remained but a shadow, but was a front and center chaplain to the civil status quo.

His accomplishment aligned closely with his mission of spreading an Americanized gospel, mingling with the rich and powerful, and steering clear of the social protests that put personal security at risk for the sake of justice.

He took it as his calling to enshrine the myth of a divinely blessed America. His American flock bought the ideals and the promises contained in this myth.  It was good for propping up patriotism and the “American way of life”, while ignoring the deeper challenges of the Gospel itself.

History will remember him as a champion of “civil religion” and not as a spokesman for a genuine encounter between authentic Christianity and the American Dream.

By distinction, his contemporary, Blessed Martin Luther King, saw and preached the essential connection between being in a right relationship with God and challenging social evils. One lived to a ripe old age while the other was cut down in his prime. No thought was ever given to Martin’s body lying in state in the capital rotunda.

Graham drew the crowds he did because he preached a distortion. He would not have filled an outhouse in North Carolina if he challenged its racist culture. That culture continues to thrive in too many of the hearts of those who would honor him.

Billy’s son, Franklin, the apple who did not fall far from the tree, advances his father’s brand and supports all the worst impulses of the current administration.  He is outspokenly anti-Muslim, anti-gay and anti-immigrant, as his father was anti-communist. He even voiced anti-Semitic sentiments for which he apparently later made profound apology.  Franklin is a disciple of the American dream of greatness that is necessarily the world’s worst nightmare.

Franklin is on his crusade to return God to our government, God to our schools, God to our courts, God to the public square and God to every place from which he believes God has been jettisoned.  He does not seem to get the Good News that the God of Christian faith cannot be jettisoned.  He is always with us.  In Him we live and move and have our being and nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. God dwells among us – period.

It is not by accident that Graham’s followers, those who today identify themselves as evangelicals, are the base that supports their messiah in the White House – a fake messiah who daily tweets the wisdom of the world in defiance of the foolishness of God.  But the tweeter-in-chief will surely die and God lives.

For Christians, Jesus is the real Messiah who dares to mess with the world’s wisdom and to turn its tables upside down. In the face of the world’s temptation to live by its wisdom, He invites us, instead, to live our lives as fools – fools if measured by the standards of the world – fools who embrace the way of the cross as the way of life.   He invites us to disown the wisdom of the world.  He invites us to choose instead what the world considers foolish and to discover there, God’s wisdom for living – not the good life but the best life – a holy life – the abundant life of which Jesus speaks.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple as a sign of God’s judgment upon the exploitation of the vulnerable poor, those for whom the world has little to no regard because they have achieved neither wealth, nor power, nor success.

In God’s foolishness, life is less about having more and more about sharing and giving away what we have.

In God’s foolishness, life is not about protecting ourselves, but about believing enough that God alone is our defense, such that we make daily choices to become ever more vulnerable, even to those who could harm us.

In God’s foolishness, success is not secured by competing and winning, but success is already achieved in being faithful to the Lord’s will, even to the point of failing according to the standards of the world.

In God’s foolishness, justice is about the restoration of relationships through the agency of boundless forgiveness.  It is forgiveness and not retribution that restores wholeness.

In our personal and shared life may we find grace to live as “fools for Christ” ever mindful that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.   We can be sure that God is offering us that grace.  Perhaps it is our unquestioned or unchallenged commitment to the wisdom of the world that stands in the way of our embracing the gift that is always being offered.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna

March 4, 2018