St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 16, 2011)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Divine Folly

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

You've heard about Corinth before—a coastal town, with all of the attendant temptations and trade. It was known for its sin as well as its sophistication, and even Christians prided themselves on their sophistication and learning. Paul reminds them, in this amazing passage from his first letter to the church there, that God identifies not with the strong and wise of this world, but with what is considered foolish, weak, and despised.

I take this passage as an ode to the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel—to the absurdity and folly of God's activity in history, and to God's sense of humor.

In other words, we are reminded that God turns everything upside down. We see it in the wonder of Micah's words spoken on behalf of God, berating the pious religiosity of the ancients, and calling them to the simple things that please God—doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. We see it in the Beatitudes of Matthew, where all human imaginings and judgments are rendered senseless, with blessedness being the purview not of the rich and powerful, but of the poor, sorrowful, meek, hungry, merciful, pure, and peaceful.

Paul gives us these same challenges to sanity in connection to our Lord. The absurdity of his statements, if we can get over our familiarity with them, leave us dumbfounded.

My odd sense of humor is not only some inappropriate holdover from a mother who tended to look at things from an unusual perspective. It has been a salvation for me. And I believe that a sense of humor—not necessarily my peculiar brand—is integral to salvation.

One of the problems with the church, in my estimation, is that it takes itself entirely too seriously, and it is entirely too comfortable with the many passages, like this one from Paul, that ought to shock our sensibilities. Kierkegaard once said, "Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them."

It's when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. "Blessed are the meek. . . ." "Thou shalt not kill." "Love your enemies." "Go, sell all you have and give to the poor." Honestly now, "Blessed are the meek?" Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake; they shall be called fanatics.

Thornton Wilder's "Heaven's My Destination" is a comedy about a poor soul who attempts to put the Beatitudes into practice. The results of his piety are predictably disastrous. He causes a run on the bank by refusing to accept the interest on his savings account because he doesn't believe in usury. Other customers, overhearing his argument with the teller, suspect that something is amiss at the bank and begin demanding their money. The implication is that adherence to the Beatitudes results either in comedy or tragedy, depending upon your sense of irony.

As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with ears tuned to God but to the world, it can sound foolish indeed—tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one's point of view.

Certainly, by the world's standards of what works, and who is greatest, and what is practical, the Christian faith can look ridiculous indeed.

But then, a nation that spends billions on sophisticated military hardware and computerized weapons only to be dealt a serious blow by a small group of Islamic fanatics ought to appreciate the irony of how powerless the powerful can be. Our scientists make medical progress and invent the X ray, only to find it to be a major cause of cancer. Our advanced technology moves us to the brink of a new Dark Age. It is shocking how unwise people of wisdom can be, how ironic, how laughable.

In this season of Epiphany as the church makes its way towards Lent and the cross, we pause. We stop for a moment to catch our breath and ponder the irony of it all. As a largely oblivious world scorns the church, we pause with Paul to mock the world.with a messiah who makes no sense.

Perhaps it is only the very young, the very old, the poor, and the simpletons who see him. According to our readings, they might be standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners, and the poor old crazed men like Paul, these "fools" see things as they really are. (William Willimon)

As for us smart, sophisticated types—like the Christians in Corinth, we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we'll be in the know.

And we're wrong.

Like getting a joke, it takes skewing ones perspective slightly to "get it." It may be that we need a little shaking up with foolishness and humor in order to appreciate the folly of grace, forgiveness, the cross, and the wisdom of God.

Like much of humor, the gospel tries to get us to see things from another angle; it jumps in our path to throw us off course, revealing a truth we hadn't noticed.

How about these skewed perspectives:

From Rodney Dangerfield: I told my doctor there's something wrong with me. Every time I look in the mirror I throw up. My doctor replied: "Look at it this way: Your eyesight is perfect."

From Woody Allen: A man named Berkowitz, leaving a fancy dress ball attired as a moose, was shot, stuffed, and mounted at the New York Athletic Club. But Jews had the last laugh: The club ordinarily restricted itself to non-Jews.

From Rita Rudner: I have a method of weighing myself in the morning. I hang off the shower curtain and gradually lower myself to the scale. When it gets to the right weight, I try to black out.

From Joan Rivers: Marry rich and old. Buy him a pacemaker, then stand behind him and say boo!

From Mark Twain: Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.

And, to youth at a church: Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.

And, on the Bible: It isn't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

We need to be surprised, startled, amused, and shaken by the divine folly of the gospel. It has the power to rouse us from the seductive sleep of our world, to turn wisdom to folly, and to heal the heart with humor.

The Christian faith is so filled with incongruities (the weak inherit the earth; the foolish teach wisdom; the lame are restored to wholeness; death leads to life; giving is a prelude to receiving) that it is hard to imagine how one could be religious and not have a sense of humor.

The most extraordinary incongruity of all, of course, is the incarnation: God takes on flesh and human nature. The impossible becomes possible. A king is born in a stable; a child upsets the entrenched political establishment; the savior is servant of all, rejecting privilege and status.

A curious custom in the Greek Orthodox tradition gathers believers on Easter Monday for the purpose of trading jokes. Since the most extravagant "joke" of all took place on Easter Sunday—the victory, against all odds, of Jesus over death—the community of the faithful enters into the spirit of the season by sharing stories with unexpected endings, surprise flourishes, and a sense of humor. A similar practice occurs among the Slavs, who recognize in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth a joy that it is Jesus who has the last laugh.

How unfortunate that these practices strike our contemporary mindsets as a little odd. (Doris Donnelly, "Divine Folly: Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor")

I have some recommendations:

(1) Look for humor. It has possibilities in every situation.

(2) Take inventory of a situation causing pain. How could it be approached or resolved differently if a sense of humor were operative? Remember that humor lightens the heaviness associated with hurt. Humor doesn't deny the hurt; it is the vehicle through which anger and defiance and pain are handled.

(3) Spend time with people who have a sense of humor. Their perspective will be contagious. Recognize folly in yourself.

(4) Practice laughing. Psalm 2 says that God laughed, and on the principle that what God does must be good for us too, look for occasions to laugh and then do it, even if it takes a little push. We know that laughter loosens up the diaphragm, which is in contact with most of the vital organs of the body. When we laugh, all these organs are massaged. It could be that our spirits get massaged, too.

(5) The last suggestion may be the most important of all: Look for humor in the Scriptures. The Old and New Testaments literally brim with humor we often overlook because of patterns of conditioning that are hard to break. Be prepared to be surprised. Relax. Loosen the controls. Read the Bible, open to the possibility that something new is happening.that God lives in laughter, lightness, freedom, spontaneity, and some unfamiliar places.

And refuse to believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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