Proverbs 8, selected verses

I Corinthians 1.18-25

Fools on the Hill

Third Sunday in Lent

            I think the writers of this year’s Lent devotional are having just a little too much fun with the fact that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year. Vince Amlin writes about it in the introduction, someone else writes about it on the back cover, and in just this week, both Donna Schaper and Molly Baskette weigh in on it. Now in the spirit of full disclosure, Molly was my Associate for three years when I was in Beverly, and she’s such a good write and speaker she could write a grocery list and I would read it, and it would be good.

            But in a way it isn’t just the writers having fun, because both Molly and Donna, writing about April Fool’s take their cue from the apostle Paul, specifically his first letter to the Corinthian church; Donna quotes from the fourth chapter of the letter, and Molly the verses from the first chapter that Charlene read this morning. In the 4th chapter Paul writes that we are “fools for the sake of Christ,” and in the first he writes about the folly of the cross.

            The Rev. Ed Markquart is pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Seattle, and someone whose writing I read regularly. Markquart grew up in Jackson, Minnesota, and tells a story he recalls from his boyhood of the construction of the Methodist church in town in 1955. “It was the most lavish building Jackson had ever seen,” he writes.

“There on the top of that beautiful new Methodist Church was a gigantic slender spire, and on the top of that tall steeple was this inspiring cross. Sleek, slender, beautiful. It was also decorated with a pink neon light, so this pink cross could be seen against the evening sky, a new, bright crimson, evening star. And most important, when all the truck drivers came driving into Jackson at midnight, as they came to the crest of that big hill outside town, they were inspired and moved by that pink Methodist Church cross silhouetting its simple beauty across the evening sky.

Well, needless to say, the Lutherans felt a little uncomfortable with the pink Methodist cross. Those Norwegian Lutherans wanted all of the world to know, and especially the truck drivers, that they too were witnessing Christians. So soon the Lutherans were designing a new cross for their church steeple, but, problem was, their steeple wasn’t as high as the Methodists’. [But] something had to be done, so they created a wide, stout cross. It was bold and solid like we Lutherans are supposed to be, and the new cross was flooded with the brightest lights so that it too could be seen for miles at night. And so when the truck drivers came driving into Jackson in the evening, they now had two crosses to inspire them: the pink cross of the Methodists to the east, and the Lutheran cross in the center of the city.

But… as you have perhaps figured out by now, the Roman Catholics didn’t want to be outdone. They were on the far west side of town. They needed a new church and with it a new spire, and definitely a new cross. Their cross was made out of the shiniest brass with bright golden hued lights illuminating it. And so, there were three beautiful crosses dotting the evening skyline, just like at Calvary: one, two, three. And most importantly, the Lutheran cross was the center one, the middle one, the solid one, on which Jesus died (or so all the Lutherans quietly told themselves, but no one else.)”

Now the apostle Paul likely did not have the cross wars of Jackson, Minnesota in mind when he wrote about the folly of the cross, but I suppose he could have. Since the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross has been a source of confusion and perplexity, and we talked about this a little last Sunday when Peter, having recognized that Jesus was the messiah, the Christ, vehemently objected when Jesus revealed that he would be betrayed, arrested and killed. For Peter, the idea of a crucified messiah just did not add up; it was a contradiction in terms. In fact, remember how Jesus told Peter that his objections were a stumbling block to him last week? Paul uses the exact same word in I Corinthians this week. And I think it’s helpful to know that the Greek word in both instances for “stumbling block,” is skandalos, (skandalos), or scandal. The idea of a crucified messiah, in both Matthew and in Paul, is a scandal:

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the word did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe. For… we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles… for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Paul continues the with the contradictions in chapter 4: “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute… when we are reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly.”

The contradiction and confusion of the cross is not simply a thing of the past, either. When I began my ministry at the congregational church in Bridgewater, I learned that I had only just dodged a major church battle. Apparently a member of the congregation made a donation of a very nicely designed, but simple, tasteful cross, for the church chancel in memory of a family member who had recently passed away. Well now, this church had some old-time Congregationalists in it, which meant that they generally eschewed the use of symbols in worship, and weren’t too certain they wanted a cross at all. Eventually, they decided to graciously receive the gift, but I sure was glad they settled that debate before I arrived.

And think about it: what is a cross? What was it used for? It was a tool of execution, one of the most painful methods of doing so known to Jesus’ day. I’m not going to describe for you just what the human body endures when hung alive on a cross, but it isn’t pretty; in fact, it’s pretty gruesome. And yet – we have made it an object of veneration, and more: I’m confident that many of you either wear a cross, or have worn one, as a piece of jewelry. Would you wear another method of execution around your neck? A syringe? A miniature electric chair? Unlikely. But God has continually chosen what is offensive – which is what Paul calls the cross elsewhere – what is foolish, what is weak, what is scandalous, what is disreputable, what is reviled, persecuted and slandered, has infused them with holiness and thus has turned the wisdom of the world on its head.

And this is a good thing, because you and I live in a world filled with contradiction. People we call our leaders have shown little leadership of late, particularly in those places that call for it most; much of Europe was colder than the North Pole this week; drugs intended to be palliative have addicted us; and people in positions of trust have abused and betrayed the very people who trusted them the most. And here we sit, you and I, in this little church on the hill this morning and embrace the foolish notion that a man who suffered an ignominious execution 2000 years ago is in reality the one who will redeem the world and everyone in it. Friends, does it get any more outrageous than this?

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who famously said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” So perhaps it is wise to be foolish this morning. Then again, it was the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass who said to Alice, “When I was your age, I [thought about] impossible things for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” Well, if the Red Queen can believe six impossible things before breakfast, then you and I can certainly believe one impossible thing before coffee hour, and hold in our minds the two opposed ideas that the crucified messiah, both a scandal and foolishness, is in parlous times our wisdom, and in precarious ones our strength.


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