The past few weeks, I have been preaching not only on the words of the Bible but on the words of my great-niece Leona and here is the story again.
On December 28th, my sister’s five year old granddaughter, Leona climbed into my sister’s bed and declared, “In three more days, it will be a new year.”
My sister Wendy nodded, “That’s right. In three days it will be 2019.”
Leona contemplated this fact for a moment and then declared, “It will be a new year but I am still five and I’m still brave and strong and kind and a little bit silly.”
I heard in Leona’s statement a description of the Christian life — that those who follow Christ will find that no matter the season of the year or the number on the calendar, they are able to be brave, strong, kind, and a little bit silly because of Christ — and so in the first week of my sermon series I preached on the paralyzing effects of fear and how Christ gives us the courage to be brave, and the second week I preached about how Christ’s presence helps us to be strong, to persist in faith and endure difficulties. Last week, I talked about kindness as the glue that holds society together, and finally in this sermon I will talk about the foolishness of Christ.
February 3, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
When was the last time you were silly? And I mean “sober silly,” spontaneously silly because you wanted to express and capture once again the sheer joy of being alive? Kids are silly naturally, sometimes so often that it is hard to get them to be serious for even a moment, but at some point, most of us settle into somber responsibility and forget what it was like to jump, and skip, and giggle, and delight in the world just because it is there.
When I was in 7th grade, my church held a weekend retreat and about 75 people of all ages attended. We stayed at Watson Homestead, a retreat center outside of Coming and spent the weekend engaging in bible study, participating in program activities and discussions, doing bible study together, and playing. It was mostly the younger people who did the playing while the older generation spent their free time chatting, reading, or swapping recipes for those newfangled microwaves. (They were, I remember, a hot topic of conversation among the mothers that weekend.) There was one moment, however, which caught my attention and remains embedded in my memory all these years later because it surprised my 12 year old expectations of how adults normally behaved. At the end of one rather serious program about faith and justice as everyone was leaving the fellowship hall to return to their rooms, I overheard one elderly woman say to her friend, “Do you think we can get to the door without stepping on any gray tiles?”
The other woman said, “Challenge on!” and the two tripped across the hall like children on a hopscotch court. They had no idea I was watching them, nor that their giggles would remain burned in my memory, but I do remember it vividly not only because I was surprised to see those two (to me) ancient women acting like school girls but also because those two women happened to be pillars of the church. I knew them to be tireless workers in the church’s ministries, volunteering in its many programs and instrumental often in organizing new ways of helping impoverished families in the city’s neighborhoods. If there was a sick member of the church in need of a meal, those two women were always among those bringing food. If there was a local politician in need of a stiff kick to get him or her committed to the underprivileged of the city, they were there to do the kicking. They were fierce in their commitment to Christ and bottomless in their capacity for compassion and yet on that night they pranced across the floor like children laughing with the effort of trying to step only on the gray tiles. Some might say that their silliness was a relief valve for the heavy burdens they carried in their service to Christ, but I think it is just as likely that their silliness is what enabled them to be such dedicated servants. They were able to drink from that fountain of living water, the cup that overflows, to allow their hearts to be carried away with passion for the love they had received in Christ. Conrad Heyers writes, “Some churches have so successfully cultivated a somber mood that their sanctuaries resemble funeral parlors more than a place of celebration. Worship has the feel of a memorial service. If the gospel really is good news, when do we get to shout ‘Whoopee?’ We should come to worship with the enthusiasm of one invited to a party, not the reluctance of one going to the dentist.”
Whether it is at worship or fellowship events, youth overnights, or Board meetings, we should approach our lives as Christians with the enthusiasm of one invited to a party, not the reluctance of one going to the dentist. Didn’t Jesus, after all, tell his disciples that only those who become like children can enter God’s realm? Didn’t Paul say that we are fools for the sake of Christ? And didn’t Paul write from his prison cell that we should rejoice always? If anyone had a reason to be grim and grumpy, it was Paul who according to his own words was frequently whipped, beaten with rods, and stoned by the authorities, shipwrecked three times, and “in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from [his] own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” It doesn’t sound like Paul had much to laugh about, and yet as he sat in yet another dank prison cell writing to the church at Philippi, he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” (II Corinthians 11:25 ff) Even in the darkest of times, Paul said, we as Christians are unceasing in our joy.
On that long ago day when I was 12, I saw two elderly women who had known the sorrows and trials of a lifetime, who had toiled endlessly to bring justice to the oppressed, who had given of their time and money and energy on the often frustrating task of trying to make the world a better place for others, find within themselves the capacity to delight in the simplicity of that moment and be silly together. As Christians, we are brave, we are strong, we are kind, and we are a little bit silly.
Now, while some of you are smiling in agreement, readily imagining yourself skipping across that the King David Room during coffee hour, others of you may be thinking, “There is no way I would hopscotch across a tile floor, even if my bad knee allowed me to do it. I’m just not that kind of person.” And it is true that there are some people who are just more predisposed to playfulness than others. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that we playful sorts make better disciples than you uptight… I mean, you “reserved” personalities, but silly doesn’t mean only playful. Listen to the synonyms for silly listed by Roget’s thesaurus: senseless, ridiculous, foolish, unreasonable, irrational, absurd, and inane. When we include these less desirable sounding meanings, it turns out that anyone who truly tries to live out their life for Christ will be seen by a doubting world as silly. On a website devoted to promoting atheism as the only reasonable world view, one writer said, “Only an idiot believes in flying zombie god-men who are secretly their own dads, just because an old book says so.” Most of us, of course, would not at all characterize our belief in God as a belief in a “flying zombie god-man,” but to the writer of this site, that’s just quibbling because he would claim that anyone who believes in anything beyond what our eyes can see, our fingers can touch, and our brains can dissect is a fool. Included in his list of silly claims is the belief that we have souls, that consciousness is more than just our brain’s gray matter, that there is an afterlife, that we can have spiritual and sacred experiences. Only matter matters, he would say, and to put your faith in something that lies beyond the material world is lunacy, or to say it more nicely, pretty silly. The author of that website might feel like he is being very modern and 21st century in his mockery of the Christian faith, but Paul says that the Gentiles of the first century also shook their heads in amusement at the church’s proclamation that a a man from the backwaters of Judea who died on a cross was God’s chosen Messiah. Only silly foolish people would believe such a thing.
And so, whether you can skip across a room or not, if you a person who dares to say, “I have given my life to following Christ,” you immediately join the fellowship of some of the silliest people in the world. Who but the silliest of people could possibly believe that turning the other cheek is the best way to react to a bully? Who but the most foolish of all would think that loving our enemies is going to accomplish one darn thing? Who but the inane and idiotic could believe that giving away our hard earned dollars to the poor, pursuing peace in the world, or that anything we do with this one short small life could make any kind of difference in the grand scheme of things? And yet that is what we believe. That is what we preach, and when we are doing it right, that is what we practice. We are indeed the silliest of all people.
The Sunday after 9-11, five days after the horrific terrorist attack that brought our nation to a standstill, our attendance went up briefly because a number of people from the community came to church seeking solace in their grief and pain. I hope that in our prayers and in our acknowledgement of our communal suffering, they found some measure of healing, but I also that day reminded the congregation in my sermon that no matter how angry and hurt we might have been feeling right then, no matter how much it felt that our world had suddenly changed, the gospel message remained the same: we could not return hate with hate. Christ continued to call us to find ways through our grief to remain steadfast in our proclamation of peace.
And some of the people who had come to church that Sunday did not come back because they were willing to accept the peace of Christ for themselves but to extend that peace to others, even to our enemies, felt downright foolish.
But that is the nature of the gospel: it is foolish, it is silly. You may never have skipped across a floor in your life, but if you take Jesus’ preaching seriously — if you try to give all you have to others, forgive seven times seventy times, love your enemies, and even pray for those who hurt you — you are in the eyes of the world one of the silliest people out there.
And yet, you are also one of the most blessed because you have discovered the promise that Paul proclaimed: when we are willing to be fools for Christ, we will know joy overflowing; a joy that cannot be extinguished by anything the world throws at us because we have experience a love that is deeper than the world’s love, a Word that is stronger than the world’s noisy babbling, a grace that is more life changing and life making than anything the world can give us. It is in the deep and abiding and profoundly irrational grace of God that we are saved from all that would unmake us to become instead healed, blessed, and whole people.
And so we in this congregation continue to be fools for Christ, following his call, knowing that he has made a profound difference in our lives and that we in turn can make a difference with ours, and as a consequence we do the silliest things together: We plunge into frozen lakes so that people we will never meet might have running water in their homes. We come to church on Sunday mornings to pray together and bear the griefs of one another when we could be sleeping in and shutting out the world. We share our company with the sick and the dying, opening our hearts to their pain and receiving such joy in exchange. And instead of enjoying our retirement playing shuffleboard and bingo like sensible people do, we serve on boards, and volunteer in the community, and staff the Food Pantry, and give up our Saturdays to the Community Kitchen. I mean, only the silliest of people would think that age doesn’t matter and that we still have something to give to the world until the moment we enter the next, and thank God, this congregation is full of such silly people! And then sometimes, we are just plain silly because all of this serving Christ bubbles forth in spontaneous joy as we try to sing “I’ve got the Beautiful belief of the blessed redeemer,” without stumbling, or as we watch Tim Smith pull a baby Jesus out of his shirt in our Christmas Pageant. If you haven’t seen it, it’s on our Facebook page!
We as a church have been brave in our witness; strong in our faith; kind to others; and yes, a little bit silly together and though the seasons have changed, and the months come and gone, this much will not change: it is 2019, and we are still brave, we are still strong, we are still kind, and we are still a little bit silly, thanks be to God! Amen.