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.
What is the foolishness of the Cross? “Foolishness” is a translation, of course – and a generous one; it has connections of playfulness in English, it’s almost cute. Other words that might render Paul’s Greek more aptly: Idiocy. Absurdity. Stupidity. This whole Christian cross business is ridiculous. Dumb.
So what’s stupid about the Cross? We have peel back our familiar meanings and associations, here. The cross is a symbol of faith, of hope, of God, for us. In Jesus’ time, the cross was also a familiar symbol – and not in the slightest bit romantic or inspiring. Crucifixion was used to punish slaves, robbers, thugs, and rebels, enemies of the state. Roman citizens were exempt from it. It was a slow, painful, disgraceful way to die. It was widely practiced and widely feared. People in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time remembered mass crucifixions of rebels and dissidents, within the past century. Crucifixion would have evoked horror, shame, and despair.
Let’s be clear: Jesus was crucified, brutally executed by the government, because he was a criminal in their eyes. He incited public disruption and caused property damage – look at him throwing stuff around in today’s Gospel! He spoke disrespectfully about those in power, challenged religious authority, and stirred up dangerous unrest.
The foolishness of the cross is that Christians seem to worship a tool of torture and violent repression. It would be like putting an electric chair in our sanctuary, Or wearing tiny tear gas cartridge on a chain around your neck. A bit of graffiti drawn in the second century shows a Christian worshipping a donkey on a cross. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito) It illustrates how absurd Christianity seemed to many the time. You people worship someone who was CRUCIFIED? You think he was God? The people who get crucified are the scum of the earth.
So, first, the foolishness of the cross is the transformation, the subversion, of the meaning of an all-too-familiar symbol. But the foolishness of the cross is more than that. The cross tells something about the heart of God, the way of God. About the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom, the weakness of God that is stronger than human strength.
We don’t believe Jesus was the scum of the earth – except insofar as he chose to be. Because we believe that he was, and is, God. God with us, God incarnate, in the flesh, living as a human among humans. And he expected, even chose, this death. All the Gospels make that very clear. There was something intentional, something meaningful, about dying like this.
Marcus Halley, a priest in the Twin Cities, wrote a recent essay about the Cross’s confrontation with the human economy of violence: “Never, not one, single, solitary time does Jesus promote the use of violence or the tools thereof in scripture…. He eschews the use of violence the whole time violence is being use against him… In coming into the world, the Son of God brought the fullness of God to bear against the kingdoms and systems of this world, kingdoms and systems which often position themselves against God. The way to engage these systems couldn’t be on their terms – wealth, power, privilege, and violence…. Jesus short-circuited the systems of [human] power by introducing a new force into the equation – love… He forgives the system for killing him, all the while indicting it as ignorant (“they do not know what they are doing”)…. It makes no sense [to] people who stake their hopes on worldly power and might that they, like all idols, are powerless to save. Only the Way of the Cross is salvific. It makes absolutely no sense. It is counter-intuitive. It is foolish. And that’s the whole point.”
So the foolishness of the cross isn’t only elevating an instrument of torture. It’s celebrating a God who allows Godself to be killed. We proclaim Christ Crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Gods are supposed to be powerful! In control! Immortal! Invulnerable! If a god lets himself be killed by mere mortals – doesn’t even fight back – what’s the point? Power and mastery and control are what gods are for.
But our God says, Put away your sword. Our God says, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Our God says, Don’t kill.
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Remember in last week’s text from the gospel of Mark, when Jesus said that preaching the good news of God’s love might upset people sometimes? I remember. Remember last week when I had us remind ourselves and each other that we can do hard things, when God calls us? I remember. I’ve thought about both of those things this week, as I made up my mind to follow the urging of the Scripture and spirit and talk about gun violence in my sermon today.
I would avoid it if I could. I will say too much for some of you, and not enough for others. And some are thinking right now, I don’t care what she says; I just don’t want to hear about it or talk about it anymore. I’m exhausted. Overwhelmed.
But this Sunday’s lectionary brings us Paul’s homily on the foolishness of the cross, of God willingly dying by human hands – a message in stark contrast with the President of the NRA’s recent statement that gun ownership is a right granted to Americans by God.
Right now our country is engaging once again in a widespread and heated debate over matters of ultimate concern: power, freedom, the safety of our public spaces and loved ones. And the Gospel with which we are charged – sometimes unwillingly – speaks into that debate.
A big part of why this feels so risky and so charged to talk about, in a mixed crowd, is that the conversation has been distorted by stark us-them thinking. There are all kinds of gun owners. I know we have avid hunters in this congregation. We may also have people who choose to own a firearm for reasons of self-defense, or family history and culture. I don’t think less of you for that, although I have no interest in owning guns.
Brene Brown is an author and speaker well known for her important work on shame and courage. She wrote recently about growing up in a hunting household – and watching gun policy become more and more political and polarized. She realized that she would exist “in that lonely space between all guns and no guns – a space that felt defined by criticism and judgment.” She describes a recent conversation with a fan that turned nasty when Brown mentioned teaching her son to shoot skeet. It ended up with the fan saying, “You either support guns or you don’t.”
Brown sees in that conversation an example of the proliferation of “If you’re this then you’re automatically that” and “You’re either with us or you’re against us” politics. She writes, “Normally, we used forced choice and false dichotomies during times of significant emotional stress. Our intentions may not be to manipulate, but to force the point that we’re in a situation where neutrality is dangerous….” But, she urges, “We need to question how the sides are defined. Are these really the only options?… The only true option is to refuse to accept the terms of the argument by challenging the framing of the debate. But make no mistake; this is opting for the wilderness. Why? Because the argument is set up to silence dissent and draw lines in the sand that squelch debate, discussion, and questions—the very processes that we know lead to effective problem solving.”
She concludes, “The only way to successfully bring about gun reform is if a critical mass of us are willing to have honest, tough, civil conversations outside of our ideological bunkers… When we engage in the “us versus them” argument, we lose… Own your opinion. Fight for what you believe in. And don’t let others frame your beliefs.”
I agree with Brown. There’s a sense in which the fearful, angry extremes in this debate mirror of each other. There is demonization in both directions. We all need to step out of our bunkers. There are lots of smart, compassionate people with reasonable, sound ideas about gun control, waiting in the wilderness for enough of us to come join them.
But let me be clear. This is not a blanket “both sides” statement. The status quo with respect to gun violence in America is unacceptable and must change. I believe that wholeheartedly as both a Christian and a citizen.
I’m sure we’ve all read things this past week that made us feel sick and angry. For me, the one that really got me wasn’t about high-capacity magazines or high-velocity bullets. It was about information management. I knew that the CDC – the Center for Disease Control – is forbidden to gather data on gun violence. For flu or E.coli, diabetes or domestic violence, the CDC collects and tracks data, to help us understand patterns and risk factors, so as to work towards improving our collective health and safety. But the Dickey Amendment, passed by Congress at the NRA’s urging in 1996, effectively banned CDC research on gun violence.
I learned this week that in addition to our public health system, our nation’s law enforcement is also prevented by law from mapping the shape of gun violence in America. Think of a moment that happens pretty often in movies or crime shows: A detective or officer sits at a computer and types in the information on a gun used in a crime. And some master database pops up who bought it and where. Like a VIN on a car, right? But that database – which would a huge asset to law enforcement – doesn’t exist. When a gun gets used in a crime, there is no direct, fast, reliable way for a policeman to connect it to its owner.
What we have instead is the National Tracing Center in West Virginia. Anytime a policeman wants to connect a gun to its owner, they send a request to the NTC, which processes about 370,000 requests a year. And they do all those searches on paper and microfilm. The National Tracing Center is not allowed to computerize its records, thanks to an NRA-supported law passed in 1986. So when the staff here are asked to trace a gun used in a crime, They literally have to look through reams of paper, Skim through rolls and rolls of microfilm. There’s an ongoing concern that the weight of all that paper is more than the building’s floor can support. Upgrading their technology to make their work efficient and effective is illegal. Meanwhile, since 1968, more Americans have died from gunfire than in all our wars put together.
I know very little about guns. But I do know something about data. When you recognize something as a problem, and you want to understand it, you gather data, and you study it. In next week’s Gospel, the third chapter of John, we’ll hear Jesus say, “People loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” This is the sickness of gun violence in America: Not only that we hurt one another and ourselves, But that we, collectively, refuse to diagnose the sickness. To list the symptoms, chart the progress of the disease – and seek healing.
So what? I’ve heard sermons that basically end up just congratulating everyone in the congregation for thinking what they already think (except the few who don’t, and get mad). I don’t want to do that. It’s one of the reasons I’m reluctant to preach sermons like this. Nobody gets a pat on the back for thinking it’s terrible when kids get hurt. There has to be a call. Something asked of us – all of us.
What is our response to the sickness in our nation? What is our response to the foolishness of the cross, That says that violence is self-defeating, and love is more important than safety? Here are the things I’m trying to do right now.
First, pray. A lot of people are fed up with “thoughts and prayers” responses. But we are people of faith; prayer is our first, though not our only, response. Our bishop Steven Miller has asked our prayers especially for the family of Carmen, a young woman who was part of the youth group at St Mary Magdalene Church in Parkland, Florida. And for all victims of that tragedy, the living and the dead, the physically and the spiritually wounded. Pray for victims, indeed – including kids and youth across our nation burdened with fear and frustration that the grownups around them seem unable or unwilling to keep them safe. But let’s pray too for fewer victims in the future. We all want children to be safer. We all want our leaders to be more just and more wise. We all want people with violent intentions to be restrained and healed.
Second, resist the polarization of the conversation – what Brene Brown calls “weaponized belonging.” Have real conversations. Be curious. Be clear what you want, what you hope for – But let your clarity be the kind that leads you into listening, into seeking common ground. This is hard. In the stark “this or that” framing of the gun debate in America, the temptation to fall back on talking points and stereotypes is so strong. And honestly, it’s hard to find a good-faith conversation, where both sides are invested in understanding each other. But we’ve got to look for those opportunities.
Third: Do everything in love. I don’t know how many of you use Twitter but I follow Jesus Christ there. And He tweeted a few days ago: “Look. I’m just going to throw this out there for y’all to consider. You might even want to try it today and see what happens. Ok. Here we go: Love one another as I have loved you.” Marcus Halley concludes his essay this way: “God does not give us the right to bear arms. God gives us a commandment – “love one another.” That is the highest ideal of our Christian faith and the sum total of the Law and the Prophets. We ought to strive for greater and wider expressions of love, rather than retreating behind increasingly high and armored walls of fear and violence.”
Love isn’t soft or squishy or weak. Love is fierce. Love is powerful. Love is determined. Advocating for the safety of our neighbors is an act of love. Examining our assumptions, growing in understanding and hope, is an act of love. Contacting your elected officials to tell them your hopes is an act of love. Having hard conversations across our differences and hearing people’s fears is an act of love. Showing up for the possibility of a better world, a safer neighborhood, a greater America, is an act of love.
Love one another as I have loved you. That story ends on a cross. What foolishness. Only it’s not so foolish, because that’s not the end. There’s fear and confusion in that story, Anger and division, and blaming, and hurting, and killing. But there’s also redemption, forgiveness, and joy, And a people sent out in hope to change the world.
Copies of the Bishop’s letter of 2/18 are available in the Gathering Area.
Call to action from Bishops United Against Gun Violence:
Marcus Halley’s essay:
Brene Brown’s essay: Gun Reform: Speaking Truth to Bullshit, Practicing Civility, and Effecting Change
About the National Tracing Center: