Monday, January 30, 2023

Sermon: January 29, 2023 (Epiphany 4)

'The crucifixion of Jesus is the hinge point of the world in time and space, the event that intersects human history and reorients all reality to its reality. That which seemed wise seems now foolish, and that which once seemed to be damned foolishness is now the blessed wisdom of God.' '

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.


Imagine, if you will, people from the Roman Empire of two thousand years ago coming to visit us in today’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. It’s fun to think about how they might react to everything around them. They might be very interested in our sports stadiums, which are, after all, very much like the Colosseum in Rome, and in how many of our public buildings are still modeled on the ones from that time. They might be awed and thrilled by the spectacle of planes taking off and landing from Pittsburgh International Airport and inspired by the wealth of information in the Carnegie Library. They might gaze in bemusement at our magic screens that can show us things from far away, that make us laugh and tell us when to get angry and occupy any spare moment we might be tempted to use for thinking.


But if I wanted to shock them, to reduce them to utter silence, to horrify and confuse them, I would bring them here, to this place of worship, on a Sunday morning, and show them the image of the crucified man which hangs on the front wall.


They would know what it was, of course. But seeing it here, in a church building, where God is worshiped, would provoke a reaction. Something like: What kind of damned fool thing is this?


Seriously, what could possibly prepare them for a crucifix on the wall, or seeing the cross upon our buildings or around our necks. This symbol of shame in a place dedicated to the glory of the divine? This sign of humiliation in a place where the power of God is proclaimed? This image of death in a place celebrating the God of life?


What kind of damned fool thing is this? They would think that they had arrived in the future to find that at least we had become morons. Literal morons, for the word ‘foolishness’ that we find in our English Bibles is the Greek word moria.


If among those who we’d somehow brought from the past were some believing Jews, they would not recognize their God in the man on the cross. In their own time, many of them would have been expecting a Messiah, someone who was a warrior, to lead the people to victory against the oppressor. Strength, not weakness, would be qualities of this person. They wouldn’t recognize these qualities in the man of the cross. A crucified man was indeed a damned fool, for it reads in the book of Deuteronomy, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ Such a person might be pitiable, but nothing more.


What would non-Jews be looking for in a house of worship? Not signs of power, but the wisdom of the ages, wisdom to help us live well in the present, to gain insight into worldly matters as well as heavenly, to guide us to prosperity and peace. But what worldly or heavenly wisdom could a damned fool give us?


And so, I would explain to the Jews and non-Jews among our visitors from the Roman Empire that we believed that Jesus, from their time, had turned the world upside down. Instead of performing acts of power to smite his enemies, Jesus proclaimed the love of God for all, and his strength and power was in his faithfulness to his Father. Instead of a worldly wisdom which allows one to get ahead in life, Jesus taught the wisdom which created life and sustains and nurtures it; which turns us from the exaltation of the self and teaches us to glorify God. His crucifixion revealed not his foolish ways, but humanity’s. The crucifixion was a sign of God’s justice and mercy, in which is found true power.


The world turned upside down – that is what Paul described to the Corinthians in his letter, when he said ‘we preach Christ crucified.’ The crucifixion of Jesus is the hinge point of the world in time and space, the event that intersects human history and reorients all reality to its reality. That which seemed wise seems now foolish, and that which once seemed to be damned foolishness is now the blessed wisdom of God. That which seemed powerful is now pitiable, and vice versa.

Our Roman visitors would understand vice versa, because they speak Latin. And I imagine them being intrigued by my little lecture. But then one of them, more observant than the others, stands forward. She says,


‘I think I might understand what you’re saying. But I have a question. I’ve been looking at everything and listening to everything, and the thing I’ve noticed most of all about the future is that nothing is really different here.’


I say, ‘What do you mean? We have airplanes and space rockets, we have microwave ovens, we have our little magic screens. We even have a crucified guy up on the wall. How can you say nothing is different?’


‘Well,’ she says, ‘you have all these things, but people are still seeking power to be free of other people and wisdom to get ahead. They really haven’t changed. They’re still self-important, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting; attention-seeking, headline-grabbing, et cetera. They are constantly demanding things be their own way. They are willing to lie and murder to get what they want. In other words…’


‘You think that the world hasn’t been turned upside-down,’ I finish. ‘You think that if the Jews of your time demanded signs and power, and the non-Jews desired wisdom, then Americans demand the same things.’


‘And money!’ someone shouts.

‘Mostly money!’ another says.

‘Freedom to think whatever they want to,

    say anything they want to,

    do anything they want to,

    and be anyone who they want to!’

‘Safety and security!’


‘Wait, wait,’ I say. ‘These aren’t all bad things.’


‘But neither were ours, were they?’ the woman from two thousand years ago says. ‘Why are you saying that this damned fool Jesus on the cross turned the world upside down if nothing’s really changed, if everyone’s just trying to get what they feel they need or want?’


I pause. It’s a Sunday morning, around 10:00 a.m.


I say to them, ‘In a few minutes, some people will be coming here. Not a lot of people, no famous people, honestly, we’re not all that impressive, although I wouldn’t tell them that. But what’s impressive to me is that they come, with their burdens, their hopes, their dreams, and their fears, because God has called them. They’re never going to be powerful, and they aren’t always wise. Some of the ones who are in a way the smartest do the most spectacularly dumb things. The wisdom of these people comes in flashes, maybe – when  neither you nor they are looking for it. But they – I should say we are the kind of people that Jesus talked about when he said:


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.


And hopefully they’re not coming for power or information to get ahead, because they won’t get it here, but to seek to become merciful, pure in heart, creators of islands of peace in a warring world, and are willing to accept suffering for the sake of the message. For one thing that no one likes to accept, whether Roman or American or anyone else, is suffering. We’d rather lie than accept suffering, steal than accept suffering, kill than accept suffering. And the wisdom of God is that it's better to suffer than to lie or to steal or to kill. The power of God is that for humanity’s sake Jesus took on suffering rather than abandon us. And he still suffers us so that he can give us his power and wisdom and mercy and life.’


And this is where we must leave our little story, our fanciful conceit about the people who visited us from the Roman Empire, because, of course, that’s when you started to arrive here for church and they vanished back into the mists of time. But I hope that they learned something about Jesus and about us. I hope we all learned something. We may be foolish, but we’re not damned fools. For we are called by the one who is the power of God, the wisdom of God. He calls those blessed who wait for the kingdom which is coming and who strive after it, and he dared the cross that he might bring us into the fullness of his blessing. The world turned upside down – Thanks be to God.