The foolishness of Christ...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 25, 2010. They are grounded in both our on-going considerations of Paul's insights in Romans for 21st century people of faith as well as my own conviction that being a "fool for the sake of God's love" is essential. It isn't any MORE important than at other times - think of St. Francis or the prophet's of Israel or Rumi - but it has certainly taken on an urgency for me. To be sure, my guiding theological text has long been Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools - and the Godspell music it inspired (along with my doctoral work) - but living into this alternative to the wisdom of this world rings more and more true to me these days. If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 am for worship.

There is something radical, offensive and even crazy about following Jesus – something morally scandalous and intellectually challenging, too.
When the disciples ask for signs of security, Jesus tells them to pray only for daily bread because this is a one day at a time operation.

• When they ask him the best way to know the will of the Lord, he says first imagine what the earth would be like if God were king and Cesar was not – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – and take it from there.

• And when they question him about the content of God’s heart he says there is only one word you need to remember: generosity. Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are broken know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

See what I mean? This is an upside down kingdom that upsets most of our traditional ways of thinking about the sacred, morality and what is important in life. Jesus is clear that his way is about being awake right now so that we can savor our daily bread – it’s about right relations among all people and creation so that God’s will is realized here on earth as it is already being done in heaven – and it’s about social, spiritual, political, ethical and moral generosity – or grace. I love this quote – and have shared it with you before – that Douglas John Hall uses to open his systematic theology:

Jesus says that in his society there is a new way for us to live: you show wisdom by trusting, you handle leadership by serving, you handle offenders by forgiving and money by sharing and enemies by loving; and you handle violence by suffering… In all things you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in a Jesus society you repent not by feeling bad, but by thinking and acting different!

And it is precisely these radical, offensive and crazy notions about faith that St. Paul asks us to embrace in today’s text from Romans. Much to his surprise, Paul has discovered that faith has more to do with living into the powerful discontinuities of Christ than intellectual clarity or assent to doctrinal truth. In a word, faith is about trusting and following God even when the ambiguities are stronger than the certainties. In Peterson’s translation of Romans 4 he puts it like this:

Look, people, we are those who call Abraham the "father” of our faith not because he got God's attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. Abraham was first named "father" and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn't do but on what God said he would do. And so he was made father of a multitude of peoples. God said to him, "You're going to have a big family, Abraham!"

And Abraham didn't focus on his own impotence and say, "It's hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child." Nor did he survey Sarah's decades of infertility and give up. He didn't tiptoe around God's promise asking cautiously skeptical questions. He plunged into the promise and came up strong, ready for God, sure that God would make good on what the Lord has promised.

Which makes it essential for us to know the highlights of the story of both Abraham and Sarah, because as Paul suggests, they are the key to unlocking the mystery of faith: in fact, Abraham and Sarah show us what it looks like to live the Lord’s Prayer. So let’s do a quick survey of some of their highlights – something like those TV shows that say, “Previously on… Lost or The Good Wife or Rescue Me” – so that we, too, can hallow God’s name with our lives, ok?

Now the story of Abraham and Sarah is rich – and our survey will only scratch the surface of a complicated journey by faith – and yet I think if we are careful, we can lift up four key elements that will be helpful in naming what true faith looks like for those who seek to follow Jesus as Christ.

First is the call of Abram found in Genesis 12: The Lord said to Abram “You are to go and leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house and move into a land that I will show you. If you leave behind what you know, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing to others… So Abram went.” What do you notice about faith in this story?

What does it look like or mean to you based upon what’s going on? There is nothing doctrinal – or overly intellectual – right? God invites Abram to set off on a journey – whose destination, we should note, has not yet been revealed – which suggests an element of trust and mystery. And the only assurance Abram has about the journey is that God will be with him – Abram will not be alone – for God will be his guide into the mystery. He doesn’t know how and he doesn’t really know why; all that is clear is that God is calling him to set out and trust.

And then we read these fascinating and simultaneously frightening words: so Abram went. The Quaker spiritual teacher, Richard Foster, writes that the essence of faith, “… is a journey where God calls and we go forth without a map, never quite sure where we are going but trusting in God’s promised presence.” Invitation, trust, mystery and journey are our first clues about authentic faith in our tradition, yes?

The second essential story of Abram happens in Genesis 15 where the old, wandering not yet Jew starts to really worry and question the Lord: “How am I going to become the father of a great nation when my wife is as ancient and worn out as I am – and I seem impotent to boot! To which God replies: Look toward heaven and count the stars… so shall be your descendants… so Abram trust and God considered him righteous by this faith.”

So what do you find taking place here that tells you something about faith? Sometimes we have more questions than certainty, yes? More fear and doubt rather than courage and clarity – so it must be ok not to have it all figured out – so that our confusion and hesitation can teach us something about God’s love.

In the world of spiritual direction this is called the via negativa – the dark or obscure way into God’s grace – that honors the questions and hard times as much as the bounty and blessings. Perhaps this poem by Rumi, the great Sufi mystical poet of Islam, will help:

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of our souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.

What does that tell us about faith…? So, faith has something to do with mystery and questions, invitation and trust, an unclear journey where the darkness is just as honored as the light.

There are two more stories in an abbreviated form: God promises Abraham and Sarah a son in Genesis 18 and God considers Abraham and Sarah to be a sign of creation’s fresh start in Psalm 32. Genesis 18 is a funny and fantastic story about three angels of the Lord visiting the tent of a wizened old Abraham. As is the Bedouin custom, the travelers are welcomed into his protection and offered the gift of hospitality, food and shelter.

And during the course of their meal, they tell Abraham that despite all the odds, God will honor the sacred promise and bring fertility to both he and Sarah in the form of a son. At which point Sarah, who is hidden away from the male guests, bursts out laughing at the absurdity of this promise. “Why did Sarah laugh and question my promise,” said the Lord. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

In time, it comes to pass that they indeed do have a son – the fulfillment of the sacred promise – and what is his name?

• Isaac, because…? Genesis 21: Sarah said, “The Lord has brought laughter to me and everyone who hears of this child will laugh with me… so we will call him Isaac which means laughter.

• Do you see how this story is shaping up and what it tells us about faith? Abraham and Sarah listen and respond to God’s invitation – they embrace a life of pilgrimage rather than clarity – they ask questions and doubt knowing that even their anxiety will reveal something of God’s grace to them and the world…

And they laugh – and sometimes cry – and live life fully trusting that God is in control so that they don’t have to be. Psalm 32 puts it poetically saying:

Count yourself lucky, how happy and blessed you must be— you get a fresh start and your slate's wiped clean. Count yourself lucky—the LORD holds nothing against you and you're holding nothing back from God. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder and my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. (Sound like anybody we’ve been considering?) But then I let it all out and said, "I'll make a clean breast of my failures to GOD." And suddenly the pressure was gone—my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.

Now let me pause to see if you have any questions so far: Have I been clear in distinguishing how our tradition defines faith? How it is more about the journey than the destination? Our questions as well as our clarity? Invitation and listening and mystery – and joy? Anything you want to say so far?

I love the way Paul pulls it together in Romans 4: That is why it is said, "Abraham was declared fit before God – he trusted God to set him right." But it's not just Abraham; it's also us! The same thing gets said about us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life when the conditions were equally hopeless. The sacrificed Jesus made us fit for God, set us right with God.

He’s saying: Just as Abraham and Sarah trusted God’s promise in their time, so, we trust God’s promises now through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not asked to fully comprehend this faith: how could we ever get our minds around a love that can raise the dead into new life or offer forgiveness and grace when we ourselves are so often spiteful, petty and violent?

No, comprehension is not faith – now we see as through a glass darkly – only later shall we see face to face. Faith is about trust and starting the journey without knowing anything more about the conclusion than that God will not abandon us regardless of what we think, feel or know. Like Jesus instructed his disciples:

• We walk by faith asking for daily bread – not a full freezer of goodies. We walk by faith seeking right relations with other wounded people even when we are in the shadow of the valley of death.

• We walk by faith trusting that our often small and unnoticed acts of generosity set in motion a whole network of tiny ripples that bring healing and mercy to creation far beyond our abilities or our comprehension.

Which, as I said at the outset, is a radical, offensive and even crazy way to live for those who don’t walk by faith, don’t you think? Paul said as much in I Corinthians reacting to the philosophers and sophisticated cultural critics of his day: The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the walking the way of faith it makes perfect sense. For this is the way God works… I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head and I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.” (I Corinthians 1:23-27)

When Jesus gathered together people who were hungry for faith and hope and love on the mountain, he said much the same thing: You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and God’s presence. You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you because only then can you be embraced by the One who holds you most dear. You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less – for that's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought. This is craziness – absurd, offensive foolishness – to those who don’t walk by faith.

A true story about Mother Teresa and a famous ethicist perhaps brings it all home: It seems a learned soul came to work at Mother Teresa’s house for the dying in Calcutta “at a time when he was seeking a clear answer about how best to spend the rest of his life.”

She asked him what she could do for him and he asked her to pray for him. “And what do you want me to pray for?" she asked. And he said, "Pray that I have clarity." To which she replied, "No, I will not do that – clarity is the last thing you are clinging to – and must let go of." The ethicist said that Mother Teresa always seemed to have the clarity he longed for which just made her laugh out loud: "I have never had clarity,” she said, “what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you come to trust God." (Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds)

And all those with ears to hear said: Amen.

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Black Pete said…
I really resonate with the basic need for trust in God. It is a constant struggle.

Godspell--Lynne Thigpen belting out Bless the Lord O My Soul, and David Haskell as John/Judas; both of them departed from us.

Victor Garber's mom Hope used to have a tv show on our little hinterland city station, before she relocated to Toronto.
RJ said…
It is a struggle... most of my life I have been blessed with the "gift of faith" as Paul says and haven't felt the struggle personally except for a year of a genuine dark night. but I know from my loved ones how real this struggle is... thanks for the update on godspell cast: still love them!

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