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Aiming In the Right Direction

Matthew 5:21-37
© Stacey Steck

At first reading of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, you might think that Jesus would be a proponent of placing a copy of the Ten Commandments on every courthouse lawn, and in every public school yard, as strenuously as he defends the commandments, and as thoroughly as he intensifies them. Jesus has not come to abolish the law, that is for sure, not with his take on it, and not with his suggestions for how to obey it. But how has he come to fulfill it, as he says about himself, how has he come to fulfill it, by making it so difficult? “If you call your brother a fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire?” “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out?” Yes, Jesus was a big fan of the Ten Commandments, maybe too big, and we are left with the nearly impossible task of living up to those incredibly high standards of perfection, and Jesus does use the word “perfect” a little later in the Sermon on the Mount.

So what are our choices? To go to every length to avoid even being angry, or finding a person of the opposite sex attractive? Or are we to simply look at these high standards, and say, “Ah, Jesus couldn’t really have meant it; he was just trying to make a point,” and admit the sheer impossibility of keeping them, and then thank God because we don’t really have to, because we have Jesus Christ, and his mercy, and whether we succeed or not, we have our bases covered and we have no worries of visiting the hell of fire, even if we never quite stop calling people fools for their foolishness? So is it option A: Hyper-vigilance of our behavior, both external and internal? Or option B: An “I’ll do the best I can but I’m not going to worry too much about it” attitude since only Jesus can do it anyway?

Well, the answer is yes. Of course, it’s always “yes.” Have you ever known Jesus to let us take either of two perfectly reasonable options, when there is a divine third way into which he can lead us, to which he can call us? That is the religious genius of Jesus who cuts through the fantasies we create for ourselves about how thoroughly pious we are, or how utterly sinful we are, and casts for us a new vision for our lives, and for the whole human community, and invites us to participate in that vision. The answer is yes.

Yes, the Ten Commandments are important. They always have been to God’s people, whether Jewish or Christian. They are simple, they are elegant, they leave little room for interpretation, right? Either you murder or you don’t. Either you steal, or you don’t. Either you take the Lord’s name in vain, or you don’t. Right? Right. But as true and important as the Ten Commandments are, we all know that we are confronted, perhaps even daily, with choices that require us to discern right from wrong, because there is not an eleventh, or a twelfth, or even a two hundred and twenty-second commandment that makes our decision as crystal clear for us as we might like. There is no simple, elegant, leave-no-room-for-interpretation commandment to address the question, “Should I pick up my dog’s droppings from my neighbor’s lawn, or leave them there to fertilize the grass?” Or to address “How long should I wait at this traffic light that seems to be stuck, before going through it?” These may seem like silly questions compared to “Should I murder that guy because he just cut me off in traffic,” but we do face daily and mundane challenges to our behavior for which some guidance is both useful and welcome.

Through the centuries, a great deal has been written about the Ten Commandments, precisely because they are so important. I think it might be helpful if I share a couple of observations about the Ten Commandments that I have found helpful, before moving on to what Jesus does with them in the Sermon on the Mount. The first is this: that we are helped by keeping in mind the difference between obeying the commandments, and keeping the commandments. Between obeying them, and keeping them. What do I mean by that? Well, to keep a commandment is to keep watch over whether you have transgressed a law or not. Have I murdered someone? Yes or no. To keep a commandment is to define all the possible scenarios to which a Commandment might apply, and keep yourself from doing them. For example, is accidentally killing someone murder? Or in the act of self-defense? Or in time of war? Or to prevent a tragedy? There is nothing wrong with asking these questions, and doing one’s best to discern God’s will in each of them, using Scripture and reason, and wisdom. But by only keeping the commandments, we are less likely to obey them. To obey the Commandment is to have in mind God’s purpose behind them, for them. In the words of the Lutheran ethicist Paul Lehmann, “They are to be obeyed by pursuing the pathways and patterns of human behavior that the Commandments identify, and by pursuing the prospect of a human future to which the Commandments point.” That is a fancy way of saying that obeying the Commandments is not losing sight of the forest for the trees, that the Commandments serve a purpose greater than themselves; they do not exist so we can keep them, but so that we can obey God’s wishes for our life together. To obey the commandment to not murder is to live as one who values what murder does not, and seeks life for others when it is threatened, takes responsibility for promoting it. Do not simply keep the commandments; obey God, with the commandments as your guide.

A related way of thinking about the Commandments has to do with thinking about God’s purposes for them. Why do we have them? Do they exist simply to restrain our naturally evil tendencies, and to tell us what we can and cannot do? Or do they tell us something about how, and for what, God has created us? For those of you looking for a nifty way to categorize this difference, the same ethicist, Lehmann, says there is a difference between a prescriptive view of the Commandments, and a descriptive view. If the Commandments are prescriptive, they simply tell us what we should or must do, what we can and cannot do, like murder, adultery, and the rest. If the Commandments are descriptive, they tell us how God has created us, and to what new reality God is calling us. They describe us as God prefers to see us, and as God has sent Christ to help us become. Perhaps the difference between prescriptive and descriptive can be seen in the difference between the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States, that is, its opening statements, and the collection of laws that follows the preamble. Remember what the Preamble says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The rest of the document goes on to outline rules and limits, but the preamble establishes responsibility, and gives us a guide for how ultimately we are to live together, with justice, tranquility, and all the rest. This difference between prescriptive and descriptive is not to say that the laws themselves are unimportant, that we should not keep them, but rather to say that if that is all we do, we will surely go astray of their original intent, to form that more perfect union, and that we will spend so much time debating the laws, that we will lose sight of the virtues for which they were established, and people will suffer as a result. Of course, it is always risky to make a comparison between the heavenly kingdom and an earthly political realm, but I hope the example was worth the risk.

So, why have I told you all of this? I’ve outlined this because I think this is what lies behind Jesus’ intensification of the Commandments in this famous Sermon on the Mount. The commandment, “Do not murder,” is, for most people, not too difficult to keep. I don’t know what the percentage of professed murderers were Christians when they committed their crimes, but I would hazard a guess that it is quite low. Clearly, the issue does get more complicated when you start asking questions about potential situations, and those questions are good to ask. But murder, generally speaking, is an act of last resort, a measure taken when no other course of action remains, and not an everyday decision, thanks be to God. It is actually something we are not called to think about very often, especially if we only think about it as deeply as the letter of the law, or even the clarifying questions we could ask about it. But if the Commandment is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, there is a lot more we could think about it, as we pursue living into how it describes us and our community, as people who not only don’t murder, but who take seriously the possible steps toward murder, and who try to live as people who don’t even get unjustly angry, or insult others, or consider ourselves better than others, the three intensifications of the commandment, “You shall not murder,” that Jesus proposes. Jesus begins with the fifth commandment to introduce his disciples to something deeper, to remind them of God intention for God’s people, how to obey that commandment, how to live into it.

You see, if our self-analysis of our behavior is never provoked beyond the act of last resort, beyond keeping the Commandments, we will always consider ourselves righteous, and a lot of community destroying behavior will likely take place. We will be able to justify almost anything we do, if we can point to the extremes and say, “Well, I’ve never murdered anyone or committed adultery or sworn a false oath.” But in the meantime, we will surely have participated in not only simple murder, but genocide, not only simple adultery, but the sexual trafficking of women and children, not only in simply swearing false oaths, but political corruption. The time we spend keeping the Commandments is the time we could be spending obeying them, and working together so that genocide and human trafficking and corruption do not define us just because we haven’t murdered, committed adultery or sworn a false oath personally. Jesus reminds us that the manifestations of murder, adultery, and the swearing of oaths are much broader and deeper than we care to believe, so we can see how all of our actions, not just those of last resort, are distorting the intention of our God, and betraying the vision of human community God has given us in Jesus Christ.

Let me conclude with an example that I hope will bring all this together, and give you an image to take from here this morning as you go forth to obey the Commandments. The story goes that a man was walking through the woods one day and came upon an arrow directly in the center of a target on a tree. He went on a little further and found another, and yet another, and began to marvel at the skill of the archer, especially because to pierce the bull’s-eye of some of the targets, the archer would have had to be extremely precise launching his or her arrows through the dense trees of the forest. Well, the man wanted to meet this incredible archer and so he hurried on ahead until he caught up with her, and was shocked to find that it was a little girl. After praising her for her skill, he asked her how it was that her arrows could always find the center of the target, especially in so dense a forest, and she replied by showing him. Taking out an arrow, she fired it at a tree, and then promptly went over to it, and carefully painted a perfect target around it.

That is the way that those in Jesus time kept the commandments, focusing more on the success of their endeavor than on aiming at the real target. That is how we live if we only keep the commandments rather than obey them. But in intensifying the commandments, Jesus has taken the paint brush out of our hands and has drawn for us a target at which we are called to aim, a target of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, because it is an authentic righteousness, and not a self serving one. You see, the point is not so much whether we hit the target, but that we are taking aim at God’s target, rather than someone else’s or our own. You may remember that the word most commonly used for sin in the New Testament, hamartia, has as its root, the idea to miss the mark, to miss the target, as with an arrow or a spear. When we sin, we miss the mark, God’s target, God’s vision of a human community that lives a divine shalom. But here’s the good news of the Gospel: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven for missing the target, if our aim is not yet straight enough, or our equipment is defective, or even if the target seems to be moving on us. But what Jesus wants to say in the Sermon on the Mount is that what is not forgivable is aiming a target other than God’s, or worse, deceiving ourselves by drawing our own targets where our random arrows strike. We can be forgiven missing the target, but we cannot be forgiven for not aiming in the right direction.

The forgiveness offered in Christ for missing the target is a wonderful blessing indeed, but let us not rest content in it. Let us practice until we are skilled enough with the bow to hit the target, and draw ring by ring ever closer to the bulls-eye in the center. Let us repair our faulty equipment, that we may shoot straight, and not hit anyone by accident. And let us rejoice that God has given us eyes to see the moving target, and the wisdom to have a good chance of hitting it, if we will but take aim at it. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Amen.

Funeral Sermon for Joyce Caldwell

Psalm 23, James 1:12-18, Romans 8:31-39, and Matthew 22:34-40
© Stacey Steck

Brothers and sisters, we are gathered not only because someone dear to us has died, but also because someone dear to God has died. We are gathered not only because God gives us the gifts of faith and community to help us cope with loss of someone dear to us but more importantly to remember and celebrate that the person we have lost in life is not lost to God in death, but simply received in a way we can’t quite imagine, but which makes all the sense in the world to God. And so we are gathered to give thanks for God’s gift to us of Joyce Caldwell and God’s gift to the world of Jesus Christ whose own life, death, and resurrection make her reception possible. Thanks be to God.

“In life and in death we belong to God.” So begins the Presbyterian creed called “A Brief Statement of Faith.” Though not meant specifically for a funeral, these words are profoundly important at times such as these, given that they express certainty during shaky moments, and that they keep in mind the big picture while we are focused in on our own grief. The creed expresses our hope, yea even our confidence, that God cares all the time for all the saints, whether we are giving thanks to God for the life of Joyce Caldwell in our mortal frames, or resting from our labors in that place where there is neither sorrow nor grief. And in our belonging to God, we can give thanks even as we grieve.

Two of the Scripture passages we heard this morning are ones that meant something to Joyce, and I hope that as we gather to remember her they may become meaningful for all of us. In the very practical book of James, its wise author is not speaking specifically to those who grieve, but rather to those who want to learn how to follow Jesus fully and completely. But in some ways, it does speak to we who grieve, those of us who might be tempted to blame God for taking away someone we love so much, or who might be tempted to think we just can’t go on without our wife, mother, grandmother, friend, sister in Christ. “Do not be deceived, my beloved,” James writes, do not give in, he means, to the temptation of thinking that God is not right there in it with you, that God’s is not the first heart to break when someone dies, that God will simply leave us to our own devices to get over it and move on. No, that’s not who God is, not now, not ever. Our God is the generous God who gives us both faith and grief to help us cope with what we cannot understand. Grief is God’s response to our loss. It may not be easy to resist these temptations to blame or give up, but there’s a crown of life waiting for us when we do, a crown which Joyce is now pleased to be wearing.

You see, Joyce neither blamed God nor gave up hope. Her body may have given out, but her will to live for her family, her friends, her pastor, her community, was second to none. Most of you know what she has endured these last three years, and yet she persisted in caring for us, as we each had need. She was frustrated, yes, but never thought that God was punishing her, or giving up on her. There are no easy explanations for suffering, but there is assurance that God doesn’t like it any better than we do, a fact Joyce seemed to understand. And in the midst of it all, Joyce remained generous, a spiritual gift she received from the “Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” a gift she shared with the rest of us in her own special way, and a gift she will continue to share through each one of you as you cherish her memory and live out her legacy.

The other Scripture Joyce treasured was our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus reminds the Sadducees of the power of love to shape our lives. “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” Well, not only are these words good advice for how to live our lives from beginning to end, they are also good advice for how to manage in a time of grief. There are many ways grieve the loss of someone we love, but not all of them are good for us. One way is to walk away and never look back, doing one’s best to deny grief, to avoid showing any emotion. Another way is to cling so tightly to the person who has died so that you too go to the grave. Still another way is to laugh your way through it, being there but not really being there, using humor to make the best of a painful situation. Each one of these ways of coping with death is completely understandable, from a human point of view. But I would like to suggest to you that as the brothers and sisters in Christ that we are, we are blessed to be able to spend some time coping with death God’s way, and God’s way is that we walk toward God and neighbor, that we cling tightly to God and neighbor, that we make the best of a painful situation by loving and really being there for one another, the way that Joyce was there for each of us. You see, none of us can make sense of death, or grieve in a meaningful way without love, without God, without family, friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ. Which is the greatest commandment in the law of grieving? Love God, love neighbor. Let God take care of you in your sorrow, and let others help you in your grief. We were never made to go this alone.

The truth is that we are never alone. God is always with us, even if we don’t always feel God’s presence quite as keenly as we might like. But the Apostle Paul’s declaration that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ is no less true simply because we don’t feel it. God’s love will be there when we need it. It will be there come hell or high water. It will be there when our tears begin. It will be there when our laughter returns. It will be there every time we remember that it was God who gave us Joyce, and gave us each other. And it was most surely there when Joyce met face to face the God who loved her so deeply that he did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, that we may have life.

Let us pray: Grant rest eternal, unto Joyce, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, rest in peace. Amen.

Laws, Oaths, and Good Turns

Matthew 5:13-20
© Stacey Steck

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is like being a Scout. You have to be prepared, and you have to do your best. Those are the Boy Scout and Cub Scout mottos, respectively, in case you needed a refresher. The life of faith has often been compared to a journey. To go on a journey, and to survive it, requires that you be prepared with all you’ll need from beginning to end. The life of faith has also been compared to a race. And to run the race, maybe even to win the race, you need to do your best. Give it less than 100% and you will come in second place, ninety nine times out of a hundred. Be prepared and do your best. Good advice for Scouts. Good advice for people of faith.

In some ways, the famous Sermon on the Mount, from which our passage from Matthew comes, is Jesus’ way of not only saying to the disciples, “Be prepared and do your best,” but his way of helping them to be prepared and to do their best. Indeed, there’s an interesting, if imperfect, parallel between becoming a member of the early church, the church of the first centuries, and earning the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest in rank in Scouting. You see, in the early church the process of preparation for baptism was not really so different from what we ask Scouts of every level to do: to be prepared and to do their best. It is said that those who presented themselves for baptism in the early church had to do two things: Memorize the Apostles Creed, and show that they could live out the Sermon on the Mount. Affirm the Creed and live the Sermon. If that seems like a lot, if that seems like a high expectation, if it seems like a high bar, don’t worry; they had at least a year to work on their understanding of who God is, and how they should live as a result. Eagle Scouts have more than a year to complete their requirements, but as you look at their uniforms, you see that it is indeed a lot of work and a lot of commitment. Those about to be baptized were called catechumens, and the period of instruction before they could be baptized was a lengthy and rigorous one. They needed to be able to recite the Apostle’s Creed, not nearly as easy as you might think since nearly all of them were illiterate and could not memorize it as we do by reading it again and again. And they needed to be able to prove they could be the salt and the light that Jesus tells us about in our own passage this morning from Matthew.

Our Scouts must do something similar. They must memorize their oaths, laws, mottos, and slogans, and they must show they can live them out by doing their “good turns,” that great old fashioned way of saying, doing good deeds. It is not enough to affirm with words the life of faith. One must live it following the example of Jesus Christ. The Sermon on the Mount is, of course, filled with Jesus’ words on how to live ethically, responsibly, and fruitfully the faith we state in our creeds. There is, of course, an implicit theology in the Sermon, but you have to extract it from all the explicit directions on how to conduct your life as a follower of Jesus Christ, you have to pull it out from all of Jesus’ wisdom on adultery, on divorce, on making oaths, on retaliating, on loving your enemies, on generosity, to name just a few of his themes. In this morning’s passage, which is the first part of the Sermon following the famous Beatitudes, Jesus previews the rest of the sermon; he sets up those who are listening to him by praising them, followed by an exhortation to live into that praise: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” High praise indeed for people who had probably never considered themselves as such, neither praiseworthy, nor as valuable as salt and light. We have to remember what comes just before these words, those famous beatitudes, and to remember what Jesus is telling them through those beautiful words: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are those who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. Blessed are you, Jesus says, blessed and not cursed.

Some of your Bibles may translate the beatitudes as “Happy,” as in “Happy are the poor in spirit,” but to use happy is to miss the fundamental point Jesus is making about those to whom he is preaching. Jesus is not talking to the scholars and rabbis, the healthy, wealthy and educated. He is talking to the disciples, to the rabble of hopeless, desperate people who needed someone who cared, who needed words of inspiration and compassion, who needed a reminder of who God is. These are people who had come to believe the prevailing religious wisdom that if you were poor, if you were sick, if you were suffering, it was because you had done something wrong, had committed some sin, and that as a result of your uncleanness, you were not blessed by God, but rather, cursed. And so now, on that mountaintop, he is giving words to the blessing he had already been sharing with those who had sought him for healing from their diseases, their paralyses, their demon possessions, their epilepsies. All of these he healed, all of these with their outward expressions of suffering, and now he turns inward to their human hurts and hopes, and he reminds these too, that they are blessed, not cursed.

To be blessed means to have some value in the kingdom, some value in God’s eyes, and so Jesus moves on from reminding them of their value to showing them just how valuable they are. “You are the salt of the earth,” he tells them, and that would give them a clue of their value. You see, biologically speaking, after water, perhaps the next most important element for human survival is salt. In fact, those of you who do a lot of exercise know that it is best not to drink too much pure water to refresh yourself, but rather to drink something with salt in it like Gatorade, which contains essential electrolytes the body needs that can be diluted by drinking only water. Salt was necessary for preservation of foods in the absence of refrigeration. It was so important in daily life that it gave rise to our word “salary” which comes from the Latin, salarium, which was a Roman soldier’s pay to be used for the purchase of salt. You couldn’t have soldiers underperforming on the battlefield for the lack of salt. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus is telling them. You are something absolutely essential for the survival of the human race. People need you, people will seek you out, people will treasure you for the blessing, like salt, that you are.

Likewise essential for human life and community is light. Who can work in the dark? Who can care for others in the dark? Who can create art and music and beauty in the dark? “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells them. You make possible everything humans need to do to not only survive, but to thrive, to experience the shalom of God, the peace and wholeness God has in mind for the whole creation. Cursed beings do not produce light. They hide in the shadows, they hide from the light. But blessed are you by God, made to shine like the sun, the very light of the world, and people will seek you out to live.

I’ve conveniently left out for a moment half of what Jesus said about each of these metaphors for the life of the discipleship, to focus on this aspect of blessing. But Jesus also reminds them that as a result of this blessing they have a responsibility to continue to be what they have become. They have not changed themselves into the essential elements of salt and light; only God has done that through Jesus Christ. They may not have been made those things, but they are called to remain those things, to share their blessing with the world. And so the reminder to keep pure your saltiness, to let it remain uncontaminated by elements which will reduce its saltiness and render it worthless. Salt does not lose its flavor through chemical degradation, but by being mixed with that which is not salt. And so too the reminder to put that light on a lampstand, rather than under a basket. A candle or oil lamp placed under a basket will go out for the lack of oxygen. A blessing revealed cannot be a blessing to others if it is not cared for and nurtured as the gift of God it truly is.

Jesus follows up this reminder of blessing and responsibility by giving them a reminder of the source of their strength for the task, namely God’s word. “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them…And I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a high standard indeed, is it not? But they are not left without the means to do it: faith in Jesus Christ, his teachings in that Sermon on the Mount, and the church he would leave behind, a church that makes it its business to nurture those to whom God reveals that they are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, people like you and me, and people like the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts whose adherence to oaths and laws and good turns we celebrate this day.

In the 1959 edition of the Scout Handbook is a wonderful 1959 kind of way to describe doing a good turn. It’s still worth a listen 60 years later: “The Scout slogan is ‘Do a Good Turn Daily.’ It is part of the third point of the Scout Law – ‘A Scout is helpful.’ And it is part of your Scout Oath – ‘… to help other people at all times.’ The slogan does not mean for you to do one Good Turn during the day and then stop. On the contrary, it means to do at least one Good Turn a day. It means looking for opportunities to help and then helping, quietly and without boasting.

When you first become a Scout, it may seem difficult for you to find a daily chance to do a Good Turn. But soon you learn to keep your eyes open and somehow there seems to be an opportunity around every corner. By acting on them, you prove yourself a real Scout. Some Good Turns are big things; saving a human life at the risk of losing your own… rescue work in floods… service in hurricane-stricken areas… helping to fight a forest fire… working with your patrol on a conservation project… giving younger boys a good time in Cub Scouting by working as a den chief. But Good Turns more often are small things, thoughtful things; helping a child cross the street… clearing trash off the highway… picking up broken glass from the street… telephoning the power company to report a live wire. Remember always that a Good Turn is an extra act of kindness, not just something you do because it is good manners. To answer the inquiry of a passer-by about an address is not a Good Turn, that is common courtesy. But to go out of your way to take the traveler to his destination, that is a Good Turn.”

Jesus has shown us how to be prepared, and how to do our best. Let us encourage one another, and our Scouts, to maintain our saltiness, and to keep our light shining where it can be seen. God may be the one who keeps the world turning, but we must be the ones to do our good turns. Amen.

Stay Foolish People

John 1:29-42
© Stacey Steck

When I think of the so-called wise people who think the Christian faith is foolish, I imagine them in their beds on Sunday mornings having a good laugh at our expense as we offer up our praise to a pretend deity. They probably agree with the comedian George Carlin who famously said, “Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ‘til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, but somehow just can’t handle money!”

And the philosopher Epicurus, tries a more traditional approach to using logic to describe a Christian’s foolishness: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” Through the ages, and still today, the wisdom of the atheist suggests that truth is found anywhere but in God.

Of course, just as beauty is found in the eyes of the beholder, truth is found in the hearts of the faithful. It doesn’t matter if a person does not measure up to a certain standard of attractiveness to be considered beautiful. Likewise, it does not matter that God cannot stand up to a certain idea of unassailable human logic to be worth believing in. Indeed, one of the chief weapons in an atheist’s arsenal, that we believe in an unseen God, is disarmed by the very argument that Paul is making to the Corinthians: that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have made God known to us with sufficient clarity to those who are foolish enough to believe it. This is the claim made by Paul when he writes the memorable phrase we heard again this morning, “For Jews demands signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.” There is no sense in trying to convince people of the logic of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to try to do so is the height of the wrong kind of foolishness. Rather, it is our practice of the right kind of foolishness, modeled after the example of Christ himself, which will be our most convincing witness of the love of God.

Of course, the Old Testament offers up compelling reasons not to be considered a fool. Almost the entire book of Proverbs admonishes us to avoid being a fool. But this is mostly wisdom to help us avoid being earthly fools who deny God, rather than encouraging us to be fools for Christ who acknowledge that God is in everything. No, we should not be fools who “take no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion,” as we are reminded in the eighteenth chapter of Proverbs. But we are to be fools who believe the wisdom of the Beatitudes, that all are blessed because they are children of God, while the world tells them they are cursed because they must be have been forgotten by God. Yes, that’s the good news of the Beatitudes, that God’s foolishness about the human condition is wiser than human wisdom about our problems, and that God’s weakness, seen in the death of the world’s savior is stronger than the human strength that brings hollow victories. You may be downtrodden, but you are not cursed, Jesus says wisely in the Sermon on the Mount, because only fools think that way.

In 1968, Kent Keith wrote an enduring commentary on this question of divine foolishness. He called it the Paradoxical Commandments. Perhaps you’ve heard these before, and if so, bear with me as I read them again, because they are indeed wise words:
• People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
• If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
• If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
• The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
• Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
• The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
• People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
• What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
• People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
• Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

What a foolish list of commandments, right? Get kicked in the teeth? Win false friends, and true enemies? What kind of advice is that? Well, it’s the best kind of advice, because it follows after the example of Christ himself, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

What a fool that Jesus was, right? He died on a cross. He was a failure. He let people down. He didn’t live up to their expectations. He made himself vulnerable and what did he get for his troubles? He got exalted, that what! You see, the second chapter of Philippians doesn’t end with death on the cross. It continues like this: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Today is a day for boasting! Not boasting on the basis of our own efforts, but boasting the way the Apostle Paul instructs us when he says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Because indeed, it is God who has done everything for us, all that we give thanks for in our prayers, and all that we celebrate once a year at our Annual Meeting. The annual report you hold in your hands is nothing more than, nor nothing less than, a record of our foolishness, our belief that despite the obstacles in our way, we are making a difference in this world of ours, our belief that we are blessed, and not cursed, no matter what our situation might be, our belief that those who are the servants of others will be exalted, and our belief that Jesus Christ is found in the least, the last, and the lost of this world. We may have been fools in 2019 for calling ourselves the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County. But let’s do it again in 2020. God loves a righteous fool. Stay foolish people. Amen.