Sunday, March 19, 2006

God's Foolishness

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.


God's Foolishness

A sermon preached by Dr. Jon Burnham at Batesville Presbyterian Church on March 19, 2006.

I wonder if you've ever noticed how many crosses are on display in this sanctuary. If you glanced around you may think there are twelve or fifteen counting the ones in the banners and the stained glass windows. But each pew has a cross on each end of the pew and so there are 4 times as many crosses as there are pews in this sanctuary. 101 crosses! The cross is God's foolishness in the eyes of the world but the cross is God's wisdom in the eyes of believers. The cross. Ah, yes, the cross. An appropriate subject for this Third Sunday in Lent.
Jesus changed the meaning of the cross. Before Jesus' crucifixion the cross had a very different meaning. When Roman soldiers were called upon to put down an insurrection such as the one in Sepphoris near Nazareth where Jesus was reared the Roman soldiers would round up the Jewish insurrectionists and crucify them. They would be nailed to crosses like light poles down the road into the city. They were not to be touched by anyone. Soldiers stood guard to make sure the victims were not taken down. Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor known to receive a Christian baptism, abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire at the end of his reign.

I realize the unpleasant nature of this gory information about crucifixion. Such details would have been well know to Jesus' contemporaries and the Christians in Corinth to whom Paul wrote. When we learn the gory story of crucifixion we see why Paul needed to explain to the Corinthians how this terrible terrorist method of execution could have been used by God.
It just seems so ... so foolish for God to work through a crucifixion. As Paul says, translated by Eugene Peterson: "The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense.

The cross does not make sense according to conventional wisdom. But the cross makes perfect sense in the unconventional wisdom that Paul calls God's foolishness. Let's think of a few examples of conventional wisdom versus God's foolishness.
Conventional wisdom says God helps those who help themselves. That certainly seems to have been the tactic employed by Ken Lay at Enron and Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom. God helps those who help themselves. Well, hey, let's help ourselves. Let's help ourselves to our investor's money. Let's help ourselves by cooking the books. Let's help ourselves and maybe God will help us not get caught breaking the rules. Conventional wisdom says God helps those who help themselves. But God's foolishness says something different. God's foolishness exposes so-called business experts as crackpots and petty thieves. Jesus said if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. (Mt. 5:41-43)

Conventional wisdom says you get what you can while the getting is good. That seems to be the philosophy of the oil barons of our day. Studies show how the oil companies are buying refined oil and putting it in storage to keep supplies low and prices high because this increases their profits. And we see greed not just in the oil industry. There is also greed in the so-called synthetic fuel industry. CNN has a recent article detailing a $9 billion loophole in the tax code to spur synthetic fuel development. The wording is so bland and buried so deep within a 324-page budget document that almost no one would notice that a multibillion-dollar scam is going on. Not the members of Congress voting for it and certainly not the taxpayers who will get fleeced by it. And that is exactly the idea."  Conventional wisdom says you get what you while the getting is good.

But God's foolishness says something different. God's foolishness says give what you can while the giving's good. The cross is the most powerful example of God's foolishness. Some of us memorized this scripture as children: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in him should not perish." (John 3:16) The cross is God giving salvation to humanity. The cross is God's gift of salvation for sinful humanity. Throughout his life Jesus was a giving person. He gave food to the hungry. He gave healing to the sick. He gave hope to prisoners. And in his death Christ gave salvation to the world. God's foolishness says give what you can while the giving's good.

Conventional wisdom says might makes right. If my nation has military superiority over your nation and your nation has something my nation wants then my nation can take whatever we want from your nation and you'd better learn to like it or we may come for you next. This was certainly the Roman philosophy and their means of capital punishment, called crucifixion, was merely an extension of the philosophy that might makes right. Under ancient Roman penal practice, crucifixion was not only a means of execution, but also a means of public terrorism. A crucified body hanged like a poster warning everyone who passed that way: "Do not do that. Or this may happen to you."

But God's foolishness says something different. Jesus did not say "Might makes right." Jesus said: "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are--no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought." (Matt 5:5, MSG) And a few verses later Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." (Matt 5:9, KJV) Or, as Jesus puts it, according to the Message: "You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family."
This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written,

I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.

Paul says that God turns conventional wisdom on its head. God exposes so-called experts as crackpots.
And then Paul wraps it up saying: "So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb--preaching, of all things!-to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation." (1 Cor 1:20-21) We preach God's foolishness which is a wisdom that is contrary to conventional wisdom. God's foolishness teaches us that Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's foolishness. (1 Cor. 1:25)

If you looked at every cross in this sanctuary almost all of them would have something in common. A common look. A common trait. For if you look closely you will notice that all of them are empty. And this is by design. As Protestant Christians we never show Christ as being on the cross. Because that is not where he is. We view the cross through the prism of the resurrection. And only through the prism of Christ's resurrection does the cross truly come into focus. The cross makes sense when viewed through the prism of Christ's resurrection. Without the resurrection we have a suffering Christ hanging on a cross. With the resurrection we have an empty cross that reminds us of the empty tomb. As we will say on Easter Sunday, "He is not here for he is risen!" The empty cross reminds us that God's foolishness has already provided what human wisdom may never provide: A love that is stronger than evil. A love that is stronger than death. A love that brings resurrection power to all humanity. Thanks be to God for God's so-called foolishness.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Showing Jesus

Mark 8:31-38
Preached by Dr. Jon Burnham at Batesville Presbyterian Church on March 12, 2006

A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine showed a woman with her hands around her big round belly and the caption read: "Ask me about my recent weight gain." Obviously, the woman was pregnant. When a woman is pregnant we say she is showing. Pregnant women can't conceal that they are pregnant. And we can't conceal that we are showing Jesus.  

A couple of years ago I attended a clergy retreat at Camp Hopewell at which we looked at some statistics of the counties in our presbytery. The statistics were based on the year 2000 census. When we studied the Panola County statistics I was excited to learn there are 9677 Evangelical Christians, mostly Southern Baptists, in Panola County and there are 3781 Mainline Christians, mostly Presbyterian and United Methodists, in Panola County. And there are 20,583 "unclaimed" people in Panola County. The fields in Panola County are ripe for a spiritual harvest. In the gospel reading today Jesus challenges us to be unashamed of the gospel. To let our lights shine right here in the Batesville community. As Jesus said, "The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few." So let us be bold in showing Jesus in this county.

Our deacons and elders will gather at Camp Hopewell next Saturday for some fun in the woods and some serious reflection on how our congregation is showing Jesus to this community. We know there are some ways we are showing Jesus. We are showing Jesus when we celebrate our Scottish Presbyterian heritage in the Kirkin' o' the Tartans service that has become so popular in this community. And we are showing Jesus when people see a line of hungry people waiting to get into our church each Tuesday morning so they can be screened and then get some groceries from the Food Pantry. Think of others ways we can show Jesus in this community and in our world. That is what our deacons and elders will be doing next Saturday and I encourage you to pray for us as we seek God's vision for our common mission as a congregation.

Perhaps we don't think of ourselves as showing Jesus but that is just what we do as Christians. In all our activities, from the important to the insignificant, we are showing Jesus whether we realize it or not.

     A poem has been circulating titled I SEE JESUS. It is attributed to Summer Waters,
age 11, who writes:

     I saw Jesus last week. He was wearing blue jeans and an old shirt. He was up at the church building; He was alone and working hard. For just a minute he looked a little like one of our members. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by his smile.

     I saw Jesus last Sunday. He was teaching a Bible class. He didn't talk real loud or use long words, But you could tell he believed what he said. For just a minute, he looked like my Bible teacher. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by his loving voice.

     I saw Jesus yesterday. He was at the hospital visiting a friend who was sick. They prayed together quietly. For just a minute he looked like Brother Jones. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by the tears in his eyes.

     I saw Jesus this morning. He was in my kitchen making my breakfast and fixing me a special lunch. For just a minute he looked like my mom. But it was Jesus . . . I could feel the love from his heart.

     I see Jesus everywhere, Taking food to the sick . . . Welcoming others to his home, Being friendly to a newcomer . . . and for just a minute, I think he's someone I know. But it's always Jesus . . . I can tell by the way he serves. (WIT AND WISDOM,
You see, we are showing. Showing Jesus. We are showing Jesus each and every day.

Showing Jesus is what we are to do in our Christian lives.