Sermon: Finding Our Why: Something Foolish

“Finding Our Why: Something Foolish”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
March 11, 2018

Matthew 16:24-26
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Selections from 1 Corinthians 1
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. 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 is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. God chose what is foolish in the world to utterly confuse the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to frustrate the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Something funny about Christianity is how normal it’s become. I don’t just mean that it’s widespread but that it’s considered mainstream: though less and less common these days, being a Christian isn’t generally seen as alien or strange. It’s certainly not often that we – or even the Bible – call our faith foolish. Yet Paul’s words to the church at Corinth remind us that the Corinthians, at least, thought this whole enterprise was a little bizarre.

I don’t blame them. For one thing, the crucifix Paul’s talking about has become so common place for us that we have no concept of how shameful a form of death it was in Jesus’ time. [Seen as cursed by the Jews and used in the Roman culture of honor to utterly humiliate the condemned, Jesus’ death on the cross should have stopped his nascent religious movement in its tracks.]

Indeed, the Corinthians found it a bit of a stumbling block – the idea of following a carpenter-turned-itinerant preacher out of a backwater village who ended up nailed on a cross for all to see, scorned and spit on by passers by. But that’s just the exclamation point on the sentence. Think about Jesus’ ministry – the stories Jesus tells to teach his disciples – and us – what it means to follow him. There’s the Samaritan stopping to care for his sworn enemy – a Jew – not just by applying a few bandaids but by footing his entire hospital stay. There’s the father whose prodigal son asked for his inheritance early (akin to declaring his father dead) and then squandered it in fast living; yet the father not only welcomes him back into the fold but throws him a huge feast. (The reaction of the prodigal son’s brother – not happy – gives a sense how ridiculous the father’s reaction is.)

And then there are the conversations Jesus has with flesh and blood people, who respond, I imagine, just like we would if Jesus told us this nonsense. There’s Nicodemus, whom Jesus says must be born again if he wants to truly get this whole kingdom of God thing. (Nicodemus replies with the eminently sensible objection, “But how can I go back into my mother’s womb?”) There’s the rich young man who has lived his whole life by the letter of the law and who wants to know how he can ensure his entry into the kingdom of heaven. “Go,” Jesus tells him, “sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then follow me.” Is it any surprise we never hear from that guy again?

Not to mention the parables that flip expectations upside down, and all of Jesus’ crazy sayings – things like “Love your enemies, forgive others to infinity, and the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

We’ve listened to these words so often that we no longer hear how patently absurd they are. But this everything-turned-on-its-head, makes-no-sense, fun house mirror theology is at the heart of Jesus’ message. If we ignore it – in other words, if we don’t feel a little foolish following Jesus – we’re missing the point.

I felt a little foolish yesterday, hanging out with some of the young women at Youth Villages (formerly Germaine Lawrence). I was leading a class on mindfulness and listening to your intuition and felt a little out of my depth. Because let’s be honest: who am I to teach life skills to adolescents who have seen and been through so much more in their young lives than I have? 

But ever since we moved in across the street, I’ve felt God nudging me to get to know my neighbors. I don’t know what God has in mind for our relationship, but I’ve seen God at work in unfamiliar territory often enough to know that it will be worth getting out of my comfort zone and looking a little foolish.

My seminary assigned all first-year students to a four-hour-a-week internship in a social ministry setting. We were asked before school started what our first choice for assignment would be, and I have to say the options read like a Top 10 list of places designed to intimidate newcomers: homeless shelters, ministry to people with severe mental health and/or developmental diagnoses, prison chaplaincy. I’d already had the privilege of becoming comfortable working with people experiencing homelessness, so I crossed my fingers and checked the box for prison chaplaincy, hoping for the best.

I was still trying to wrap my mind around the metal detectors and barbed wire gracing the entrance of the Metro State Women’s Prison when my fellow chaplain interns and I sat down in the head chaplain’s office to receive our first assignment. The aptly named Chaplain Bishop told us there was an inmate in the infirmary who had just returned from the hospital and could use a visit. Okay, I thought, I can do that. It turned out this wasn’t your average post-surgery follow up, though – at the time, Metro State was where all pregnant women in Georgia’s criminal justice system were held, and this woman, like every other expecting inmate, had gone to the hospital to give birth and spend a precious 48 hours with her newborn before being sent back to prison, her child sent home with family members she wasn’t even allowed to see for fear of contraband passing hands.

Okay, I thought, that’s a little more than I had bargained for.

“But this woman’s child,” Chaplain Bishop explained with extra tenderness in her voice, “was stillborn, and she’s having an understandably hard time with the transition back to prison.”

Well shoot, I thought, only I didn’t use the word “shoot” in my head. That is a LOT more than I had bargained for. The pain of handing over your newborn to someone else not two days after her birth must be excruciating, but having a new life to live for and the promise of supervised family visits to look forward to carried many women through the postpartum period. This woman didn’t even have that.

“You three take it together,” Chaplain Bishop said. I guess she figured there was strength in numbers.

As we walked towards the infirmary, my two seminary friends, both men, looked at me and said “Leah, this one’s yours.”  “What!” I protested. “But you guys at least have kids – I’m not even a parent, I’ve never even been pregnant!” “Well, neither have we,” they argued, and in we went.

The woman – I’ll call her Maria – was curled up on the metal-frame cot in the small infirmary cell; she barely opened her eyes as we entered. I threw up a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit to be with me, us, her and knelt down by her bed while my companions stayed sympathetically near. I didn’t have any comforting words to say; but by some mysterious grace, questions about her precious baby fell out of my mouth, acknowledging both her loss and her love. “Did he have a lot of hair?” “Yes, it was beautiful and dark,” she answered. “What did you name him?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from cracking. “Robert,” she answered, her voice both tender and dull, “after my father.”

I don’t know if we brought Maria much comfort that day, three nervous, completely green chaplains fumbling our way through a prayer and a blessing for her. I felt pretty foolish, trying to comfort a woman whose pain was beyond anything I’d ever known. But I know we were on holy ground, and I know God bridged all the gaps I didn’t have the experience to navigate.

The thing is, the places Jesus calls us only feel foolish because they bump us up against the limits of what we’re used to, because they go beyond where we feel comfortable. Caring for an enemy, giving away all we own, being willing to forgive others who have harmed us, working with people whose lives can seem so different from our own – those things don’t make us feel secure. Instead, they challenge us, reminding us that God is as likely to be found in the risky and the uncomfortable as in the familiar or the safe.

And then, of course, one day the uncomfortable and unfamiliar aren’t anymore; they’re just beautiful, brutal places where God meets us on holy ground. Maria was the first of many, many women I met at Metro – women who were incredibly resilient, who were funny, caring, who were hard-headed survivalists; women who sometimes got into fights and who often tried to talk me into extra calls home, women who would always tell you if they thought you had saddled your unborn child with a ridiculous choice of a name. Day by day, as we prayed and laughed and teared up together, I grew more comfortable with them and with their environment. Not every moment was magical, but the longer I walked alongside them, the more the bland prison rec room where we met became sacred, a place where God was growing me and loving on them.

Last week I preached about the healing power of communities like ours, places where we experience belonging and love and meaningful relationship – “[t]he kinship of God,” as Father Greg Boyle calls it. Father G, the Jesuit priest whose ministry focuses on rehabilitating L.A. gangbangers, declares that this kinship “won’t come unless we shake things up.” The beloved community we long for won’t actually happen unless, as Jesus invites us to, “we lose the lives we know to find true life in the lives Jesus is beckoning us to explore.”

In his classic novel You Can’t Go Home Again, author Thomas Wolfe says it like this: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”

I’ve been thinking lately about where Jesus might be calling us to some foolishness, to some larger living, right here in our community. The places I’m thinking about live on the edge of what’s comfortable because they call us to acknowledge the pain and struggle hidden all around us. But that’s also, I suspect, where we’ll find the greater loving.

I’ve been thinking about the affordable housing units the Housing Corporation of Arlington has planned for the empty lot just past the Citgo station on Park Avenue, and how a few neighborhood voices have loudly declared “Not in Our Backyard,” and whether it might be the right kind of foolish for a few of us to show up at their next public informational meeting to say “Yes, in our backyard, please” and to welcome home our new neighbors once those units are built.

I’ve been thinking about NEAT – Neighbors Eating All Together – and the food pantry and whether it might just be the right kind of foolish to keep supporting a dinner gathering that doesn’t charge any money and doesn’t ask for proof that you can’t afford your own meal, because some people can’t afford to eat, sure, but none of us can afford loneliness or disconnection.

And I’ve been thinking about Youth Villages/Germaine Lawrence. My introduction to the girls who live there came on our first night in the parsonage, while my family ate dinner on paper plates on our doorstep. We watched with curiosity as one of the residents ran away, a staff person padding along behind her to remind her that she is, in fact, worth running after. And I’ve been wondering whether it might be the right kind of foolish for us to find ways to remind more of our neighbors, more of the Germaine Lawrence girls, that they’re worth running after – metaphorically speaking, of course.

As we continue in this Finding Our Why sermon series, I think any good Why is bound to stretch us a little – bound to bring us to the edge of our comfort zones and beckon us to leap off into the unknown. If you’ve ever leapt off a cliff out into nothingness, like the people on your bulletin cover jumping into the sea (source),

you know it’s briefly terrifying but ultimately lifegiving, refreshing, and it often makes you want to do it again, and again. For “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” – if we are willing to set aside our comfort, our security, our sense of control in order to live into Jesus’ foolish love for people we’re used to keeping at a distance – well, we just might find a life more exhilarating and holy than we ever imagined. May it be so.