March 4, 2018: Practising Folishness by Rev. Beth Hayward (1 Corinthians 1: 18-25)

Every year a group of Ottawa foodies gather in the heart of winter to re-enact Samuel de Champlain’s Order of Good Cheer, preparing a feast for family and friends using some four hundred year old Acadian recipes.

The original Order of Good Cheer is credited for basically keeping early French colonists at Port Royal, Nova Scotia alive through the brutal winter of 1606. The first winter that the French were in Acadia, it started snowing on the sixth of October. People started getting scurvy by December. Thirty-five out of seventy-nine died that year… So they built this courtyard to protect themselves against the primary enemy of the time… winter.”[1] One historian has described the order of good cheer as

a feast of survival in a new land. It was about surviving the winter, but it was also more than that. It brought together the French and the Mi’kmaq [First Nation], and it created a friendship that lasted for years, and years, and years. Because it was not just the Acadians who gathered in the Order, but is well documented that the peoples of the Mi’kmaq nation feasted right along with the French settlers.[2]

Eventually it would become foolish to imagine that the French and Mi’kmaq could be part of one order of good cheer, but in 1606 apparently, even if ever so briefly, foolishness prevailed.

Paul says that the way of the cross is foolishness. To be clear foolish is wearing plaid with stripes. Foolish is leaving home on a sunny morning in Vancouver without an umbrella. Foolish is me buying a houseplant and thinking this time I can actually keep it alive.

The way of the cross isn’t foolish; it’s idiotic, moronic. It is utterly and completely counter-to our well-established human logic! The original Greek word says as much, foolish just doesn’t capture the intensity of the claim Paul is making. “Has not God made idiotic the wisdom of the world?” Wouldn’t that have more punch to it? If I knew how to log in to my twitter account I think I’d like to tweet that one, a sort of call to action. We can’t overstate just how idotic it was, and is, for a people to be drawn into a story of a saviour who was killed on a cross.

It’s no surprise that no sooner had Paul headed off to the next town to share the good news of Jesus Christ than he has to write a letter to the fine folks of Corinth to explain again what they’ve signed up for. Keep in mind that Paul wasn’t sending this letter to the editor, or the empire at large. It was addressed to his church, to the people of Corinth he knew and loved. It was an internal memo, not a judgement of those who weren’t following the way of Jesus but a warning to those who purported to be following and kept coming up short. It wasn’t a triumphal condemnation of all those who weren’t saved but an invitation to those who were following in the way of Jesus to actually start living like they meant it.

He writes to them the saying: “the Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom.” It makes me wonder what does a Westside Vancouver congregation demand? Security? Prosperity? Life-work-balance? Job satisfaction? An opportunity to help others? A life where suffering and hardship are manageable? I wonder if we perhaps demand a self-sufficiency that is in fact contrary to the way of the cross? Certainly we demand that we want to be the ones doing the saving rather than the ones in need of it. The cross is a great equalizer.

The cross is the most important symbol of the Christian faith. Wearing a cross around your neck would be akin today to wearing an electric chair. Idiotic. Shocking. Not only is it a symbol of brutal death, it is a symbol of corrupt political power. To wear a cross should make you the object of astounded stares.

Jesus’ death on the cross “was the enactment of capital punishment meted out by the forces of the Roman Empire. It was reserved for those disreputable individuals or groups such as rebellious slaves, insurrectionists, pirates, … who had threatened the divinely sanctioned social order of the Empire. The cross was the imperial instrument used to suppress subversion.[3] Who in their right mind would see wisdom in the way of the cross?

Besides that, saviours are meant to be powerful. In the days of the Roman Empire they were meant to be powerful in an authoritarian militaristic sort of way. Our saviours may not be military dictators but instead self help gurus and multi national corporations. We find our salvation by participating in a system that insists everyone is entitled to more even as more and more are left behind. We are still looking for something to save us. In our context where the power of the cross is elusive at best, how do we make sense of this scripture passage? And if we can make sense of it, can we really become people of the cross, I mean really?

I have found no one who speaks more clearly about what in the world the foolishness of the cross is all about than Douglas John Hall, an oft overlooked Canadian theologian.

Hall suggests that way back at the time of the reformation Martin Luther made the radical proposition that the church shift its orientation from a theology of glory to a theology of the cross. Glory, says Hall, can be called “triumphalism.”

Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held world-views, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty.[4]

Has the church of the past 2000 years has been far too triumphal, far too filled with glory for its own good, far too sure of its answers and not attentive enough to its questions?

Hall insists that ”…faithfulness to the crucified one means, concretely speaking, a primary identification with the crucified people. The Christian profession of faith does not bind us first to the mighty but to the humble and meek.”[5]

A theology of the cross, leads us to walk right into the world’s pain and suffering and brokenness and to look for the light that shines in the darkness. This, I would suggest has far more power to transform hearts and lives that any worldview that provides you with clear cut answers. The triumphal church knows what is good and evil, but it fails to bring into that conversation the question of context, it forgets that good and evil are found in the contexts of real lives. Only power that springs from the weakness of the cross will be sufficiently strong to free us.

This is why I began at the table – at a particular table, one of the first tables where colonizers sat with the colonized. Where settlers ate together with the stewards of the land. Five hundred years ago there was a glimpse of a table of abundance, but history tells us we went far off track.

In a sense the table though not as violently or dramatically, but certainly as persuasively, the table is as powerful as the cross in the foolishness suggests. There is something intimate at gathering round the table to share a meal together. It is a great leveller, all of us need to eat to be sustained and we show up at table with our guards down.

At table hidden agendas become revealed; well rehearsed scripts make way of real conversation. A meal shared is a bit like live jazz, where all the players if they are to do it well, must attune to one another, to every aspect of it all. Everybody knows that the moment you invite the dinner party to retire to the living room you run the very real risk of spoiling the intimacy that has been created. At table we are part of creating a moment together, where it is difficult to hide behind the stories we tell ourselves to numb the realities of the cross. The table is a body and soul experience. It’s not that I intend to water down the power of the cross by replacing it with a table but I do wonder if it can provide an entry point.

The triumphal view that pits those who know what it means to be a Christian against those who don’t, is certainly found in scripture, it’s just that I wonder if it is more a result of those who wrote this stuff down than Jesus himself. Even Paul was writing within his socio-cultural reality.

Think about it, if Jesus wanted his followers to be strong and mighty, to replace the Roman Empire with his, in some triumphal sort of way, why did he always use such small and insignificant examples? He used metaphors of smallness: “little things that perform some essential service for bigger things- salt, yeast, a candle, a little town on a hill in a dark night, a pearl, a mustard seed. He speaks of his little flock which he sends out as sheep into the midst of wolves.”[6] Maybe Christianity was never meant to be an answer for the wise but a question for the foolish.

We are all in need of saving and honestly whether it’s the threat of scurvy in a relentless winter, or our desire to swoop in and fix things and people; whether it’s our hastiness to come to solutions, our desire to protect ourselves from pain deeper than we think we can bear, there are not the saved and those who do the saving, we are all one in our human need to be saved. And it is our tendency to think we might be the one who can rise above this need to be saved; if only if we can posture ourselves on the triumphal side of things. We tell ourselves it is better to be the saviour, or at least the helper. The cross and its great equalizing power, it’s not a place we go easily.

Maybe the table is as good a place as any to begin learning what it means to be a people of the cross. Maybe the table is a place we begin to learn the vulnerable humility required to be a people who courageously walk into the heart of the world as we loosen our grip on efforts to escape. It sounds like foolishness, I know. Amen

[1] Wayne Melanson, Parks Canada interpreter at Port Royal. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/good-cheer-is-a-great-idea-1.4555834

[2] Jo-Marie Powers, retired professor of culinary science at Guelph University.  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/good-cheer-is-a-great-idea-1.4555834

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=259

[4] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003, 33.

[5] Hall, Confessing the Faith, 133.

[6] [6]Hall, Confessing the Faith, 189.