March 7, 2021

Lent 3B

The Foolishness of God

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 expose it for 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, to be judged as less than, and to be branded as a loser. And so, the “haves” are few, and the” have nots” remain 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, and maybe even most, 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 is made to look like economic socialism.

Is not the battle currently being waged in congress a battle between protecting assets and protecting people, between conserving money or conserving human lives, between sustaining the hegemony of the wealthy or giving priority the needs of the poor?

Curiously, the economic model advanced in the gospel is, in fact, economic 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 what is to be esteemed, is what is perverse. 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 worldview becomes near to almost impossible when religion is used to sanctify the distortion. But the third commandment remains, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name”.

In our time so called Christian nationalists, their evangelical supporters, and anti-Francis Roman Catholics are the chief advocates and proponents of this distortion. If something is branded as “Christian” how can it possibly be bad much less reprehensible?

In the January 6th assault on congress, one of the rioters carried a picture of Jesus wearing a MAGA hat. And the threats of continued insurrection fly under the banner of a religious crusade to restore a Christian America, as if one ever existed. We conveniently forget that our so-called Christian story is scarred with the slaughter of indigenous people, the institution of slavery, the waging of countless wars of economic exploitation, and the dogged refusal to legislate a real living wage for workers. Yesterday, during his historic and courageous visit to Iraq, Pope Francis said, “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are the betrayals of religion.”

Christian nationalism bears little resemblance to Christianity. Christian nationalism works in a decidedly un-Christ-like manner by supporting policies that marginalize those who, through their beliefs or identity, don’t conform to a biblically ordained order that reverences the traditional family, militarism, closed borders, and white supremacy.

For Christian nationalists keeping refugees on the other side of a wall or border takes precedence over caring, feeding and seeking social justice for migrants. Those acts of love that many would associate with Christianity. Indeed, Christian nationalism is a hollow and deceptive philosophy that depends on human wisdom and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.
The key deceit of Christian nationalism is that it is about religion. Though a seemingly religious passion underlies its claims, Christian nationalism merely uses the Bible to impose its conservative political agenda. By asserting that they are true followers of Christ in a country that is founded on Christian principles, adherents of Christian nationalism can brand their political opponents as both ungodly and un-American.
By playing the role of an oppressed minority, Christian nationalism adds moral strength to its position while hiding the truth that its ideology is aging out and driving young people away through its intolerance.
In other words, Christian nationalism is a political power broker masquerading as a religion. And the power wielded by the adherents of this movement is great.
Christian nationalism resonates with many as it taps into fears and uncertainties that the global pandemic has only exacerbated.
People easily fall prey to faith leaders who, preaching a conspicuously hollow sermon, mask their lust for power and privilege with the cunning of wolves. They advance a gospel of personal salvation that is religiously simplistic, fear-based, and essentially exclusionary – you are either in or out, saved or not saved.

In preaching that is anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-immigrant, these charlatans enable a nationalist dream of greatness that is necessarily the world’s worst nightmare.

They are on a crusade to return their false god to our government, to our schools, to our courts, to the public square and to every place from which they believe God has been jettisoned.

They enshrine the myth of a divinely blessed America and worship at its altar. This myth is good for propping up misguided patriotism and the “American way of life”, while ignoring the deeper challenges of the Gospel itself.
They effectively eviscerate the gospel of its prophetic call for social transformation. You can get saved and not really give a second thought to the systemic injustice that vanquishes the lives of the poor and oppresses people of color. You can be saved and not support the Excluded Workers Fund Act, which would ensure food and shelter for children whose parents do not have the right piece of paper. And, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, these preachers of a false gospel, remain chaplains to a civil status quo that would secure injustice.
By distinction someone like Blessed Martin Luther King, saw and preached the essential connection between being in a right relationship with God and challenging social evils.

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 of the religiously righteous 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 7, 2021