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Foolishness

Reverend Philip Stringer

Exodus 20:1-17

I Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

LET US PRAY: Almighty God, we pray for your living, creating presence among us today; that the worship which we offer to you may be the work of your hands. Strengthen us in our worship, that we may be fed by you and have strength for our journey through the coming week. AMEN


The Ming Dynasty of China was more than two centuries old by the end of the 1500's. While there had been a sporadic presence of Christians in China for more than 700 years, they were often associated with outside forces that had sought to subjugate China. In 1480 a fierce persecution of Christians arose, and the religion was banned from China.


The Ming Dynasty took a very siege-like stance against foreigners, guarding against any outside influence taking root in China.


It was during this time that a Jesuit missionary from Italy named "Matteo Ricci" arrived in Macao in order to prepare himself to share the good news in China.


Matteo Ricci took a different approach to the Chinese than most -- he did not approach them as a superior who sought to change them. Instead, he took onto himself the dress and customs of the Chinese, and through his respect of them, gained their gradual respect in return. His wisdom and learning came to be highly respected among the elite of China, and he was eventually granted permission to travel (in limited fashion) within the country.


But Ricci still faced suspicion and misunderstanding at almost every occasion. Once on his way to visit the emperor Wanli in 1601, he carried along with his personal things a small crucifix that was vividly real in its design. Ricci described it as "beautiful, carved out of wood, with blood painted on it, so it seemed alive."


One of the emperor's eunuchs found it and (suspecting black magic) shouted, "this is a wicked thing you have made, to kill our king; they cannot be good people who practice such arts." Soldiers were called up and the baggage of Ricci and his companions was ransacked for further clues to their depraved designs, and they were threatened with savage beatings.


Later, when Ricci was reflecting on the ordeal, he commented that the main difficulty was that the eunuch "truly thought it was something evil." Ricci also admitted that in the face of the hostile crowd, he found it difficult to muster an adequate explanation of the significance of Christ crucified. "On the one hand," He commented, "I didn't want to say that that was our God, it seeming difficult to me among these ignorant people, and at such a time, to talk of these big mysteries . . . on the other, because I saw all the people turning against me, full of disgust for the cruelty which, it seemed to them, I had done to that man" -- that is, to Christ . . . As one Chinese friend said to Ricci, it was really "not good to have someone looking like that." Another suggested that the Jesuits "crush into powder any other crucifixes they had with them, so there would be no memory of them."


How difficult it is to proclaim Christ crucified. It is foolishness and a stumbling block for the world, as Paul says. That one broken and beaten be worshipped as victorious and divine -- it does not make sense. Indeed, we should run from such an idea -- pound it into powder.


As Jesus stood in the temple grounds, he looked upon a scene that made perfect sense to the world. The temple was filled with people coming to make sacrifice -- and to do it right. Common animals were left outside -- sold in the local market along with grain or other sacrifices -- and the money from them was brought into the temple grounds where it was converted into a standard "currency" within the temple. That currency was then used to buy a grade-A certified perfect animal for sacrifice. After buying their sacrifice, the pilgrim would walk across the temple court to the priests who would take the animal from them in order to sacrifice it. The pilgrim then left, feeling reconciled to God -- They had paid their dues or corrected a wrong, and left in peace -- at least until the next time, when the burden of their guilt or obligation "obliged" their return to do it again.


At its best, this system left the people in a cycle of debt beneath an oppressive God. In actuality, it was a system filled with deceit and corruption, in which the money changers and priests made their living by preying upon the fears of the people.


It was to this that Jesus reacted so forcefully, driving out the animals and turning over the money changer's tables. This system that made perfect sense to the people -- a system that was tidy and manageable -- was unacceptable in His eyes.


What Jesus did was more than puzzling to the people. In our gospel lesson, they respond to Jesus with a question, "what sign can you show us for doing this?" It is a question with deep meaning. If this system isn't right, what is right? If this isn't what it's all about; if this isn't what our relationship to God is like, what is it like? If we cannot make reconciliation to God through our sacrifice, how are we to do it?


The issue, ultimately, is of restoration to God. "If not through the sacrifice, how are we supposed to come near to God now?"


Jesus answered them, "it is completely opposite from what you expect."


They are trying to draw near to God by being good -- but even their goodness is rife with sin. Jesus' message is that God loves them so much that it is GOD who draws near to THEM. And to make sure there is no misunderstanding that this action is based upon the perfect goodness of God, rather than the superficial goodness of people, God will use their greatest act of evil as the means by which he will come.


"Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The temple, the dwelling place of God – Emmanuel -- God with us. Their worst is not that they condemn an innocent man to death. Their worst is that they seek a coup detat -- they wish to overthrow God. "Look, here is the heir. If we kill him, we can be lord of our own lives." In their attempt to kill God, God shows the ultimate power of God's faithfulness and love.


The cross of Christ becomes the ultimate expression of the depths that God will go to be with us.

Jesus replaced the repetitious sacrifice of the people with himself.


Today, we gather as a people not seeking to draw near to God through our goodness, but as a people drawn near by God. Our altar is no longer the place where we do the best we can to reach God. It is the place where God comes to us, through THE PERFECT lamb, of Christ crucified. He comes to us -- draws near to us in bread and wine so that we might know again that God is the faithful one -- to us. And as those drawn near to, we are called now to do the ridiculous -- to do what is foolish in the eyes of the world. We no longer run from suffering, but enter into it so that we may proclaim the victory of Christ within it. That is not to say that we invent suffering. It means that where we find it, we do not run from it in fear, but stand against it and offer a new conclusion.


We are a curious bunch to the world. For 76 years the Lutheran World Federation has been working toward justice on behalf of the Palestinian people in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. We have stuck to it, even after Israel dropped a bomb through the roof of Ascension Lutheran Church on the Mount of Olives. Jewish Israelis cannot understand why we will not let go of the insistence for justice on behalf of the Palestinian people, when it's not our country and most of them aren't even Christian. In China, everyday people marvel that comfortable Christians from America would actually give their time without pay -- and others will provide them with support so that they can teach English to people they do not know and will not see again.


Militants in Nigeria and Uganda and South Sudan and Ukraine and other places strike out at Christian missionaries because they fear the loss of control. This is what we are about. While the world denies its pain and lives by the rules, "every man for himself" and "survival of the fittest," Christians are stopping and picking up those who have fallen. They are giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked.


We are a curious bunch to the world, we Christians. And perhaps even to ourselves at times. Running headlong into suffering is a hard thing to do. Being comfortable would be much easier.

NOT being baptized would be much easier. It would be easier for parents to tell their children to be careful and to be safe -- grow up and protect herself -- do what is good for yourself and run from what is hard and ugly and wrong.


But at the font we are taught something other than this. Something that the world sees as foolish. We are taught to give our lives to the world. To live for others and to offer our lives as a testimony to the depths of God's love. More often than not, the world will not appreciate this -- in fact, it is likely to mock it and take advantage of it. The font teaches us to be uncomfortable. The way of Christ is the way of sacrificial living.


But still, we are not sad today -- which only serves to compound the puzzlement of the world. We are not sad because we have seen that this is the true way of peace -- for ourselves and for the world. We have seen that the old way, at its best, leaves us deficient -- and at its worst, leaves us desolate. We have seen that God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. We have seen that Christ crucified is Christ victorious in our deepest and darkest places.


And believing these things, we gather again to hear the story, to give of ourselves and join our lives to the work of God, and to receive again the gift of him who died for us, that we might live. AMEN

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