This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 17 at Christ Church, Alameda by middler Phil Hooper. The texts for this sermon were from Revised Common Lectionary for the Feast of the Holy Cross: Numbers 21:4b-9; Psalm 98:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; and John 3:13-17.
What are you afraid of? What makes you break into a cold sweat, makes your stomach do a few flips? For the Israelites in today’s reading from the book of Numbers, it might have been those deadly snakes that were slithering around in the wilderness. Maybe for you it’s public speaking, or flying in airplanes, or creepy clowns. I’ll tell you mine: audience participation. Whenever I end up at one of those performances where they want a “volunteer from the audience”, I say a silent, desperate prayer: “please, God, please, don’t let them pick me. Anyone but me.” Almost invariably—they pick me! I think they must have a way of finding the reluctant ones. And so I have to go up, engage in some deeply embarrassing little activity, all the while feeling like I want to crawl in a hole and hide. It’s terrible.
Why do we fear the things that we fear? One reason, as in the case of those biblical serpents, is pretty obvious: we don’t want to die. But you might have heard the oft repeated fact that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. My reaction to audience participation probably falls under that general category. Because here’s the thing: even more than death, many of us are afraid of looking FOOLISH.
To be considered foolish is a two-part trauma: mockery, then dismissal. First they laugh at you, then they reject you. It is a paradox of intense scrutiny and invisibility all at once. We are seen but not known, observed but not acknowledged. As innately social creatures, yearning for acceptance, being made to feel like a fool can be experienced as a type of brutality. Maybe you’ve felt this at one point or another and know what I mean.
So why this meditation on foolishness? Well, today we are observing the Feast of the Holy Cross—a moment in our liturgical year when we pause to deeply consider this object, this symbol that is so ubiquitous that it achieves its own sort of invisibility. For the Christian, it is everywhere—above the altar, around our necks, imprinted on book covers and tattooed onto skin. What is this cross? How do we understand it?
Well, it is many things, but today I offer it to you as a symbol of foolishness.
Yes, foolishness. By our typical measures of success, the cross stands for failure. The starkest kind of failure. When Jesus of Nazareth was hung upon that cross, he was not admired. He was not lauded for his wisdom. He was mocked, and then he was abandoned—abandoned by the curious crowds, abandoned by his beloved friends. In that moment, He was seen as the fool. We need to think about this; we need to feel this. The embarrassment; the shame; the longing for a loving word, and the deafening silence of no such word coming. And so he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We have to hold onto this part of the cross, because without its weakness we can’t begin to comprehend the power of the resurrection, without its isolation we can’t begin to comprehend the communion, the fellowship that we partake of at this table. Before all of that joy, we are like Christ on the cross, the desolate fool whom the world does not know.
Today’s readings also include that famous gospel passage, John 3:16—”for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But gave God’s only son…to what?
He was given over to the arms of the Cross: its pain, its foolishness, its senseless misery. Why? How can this make sense? It’s ludicrous! Scandalous! This is what victory looks like?! We talk a lot in this day and age about “winners” and “losers”, and I suspect I know what the powers of Rome in the first century would have said in 140 characters or less on Twitter: “Weak Christians are worshipping a loser who couldn’t even save himself! Sad!”
And we sometimes remain stuck there, friends, confusing prestige with virtue. We want “likes” on Facebook. We want money and applause. We want to be seen. In our current climate of media and celebrity, notoriety is what we thirst for, whether it’s more friends, more social media followers, more members in the pews, more pledges on the balance sheet. Status becomes the bottom line. We pray “Condemn us, God, call us sinful, but please, God, don’t let us be unimportant. Don’t let us be the fool.”
And yet….and yet….there stands the Cross. It is the unavoidable reminder that to participate in God’s love is to risk being foolish. The Cross is the call to embrace that one thing we might fear more than death—our vulnerability—and bring it into a world that is likely to scoff at us. Because it may be that the thing we fear is the thing that will save us. Think back about those snakes—they were killing people, and then Moses took that embodiment of fear and death, cast it in bronze, lifted it up on a pole and turned into a symbol of salvation. Just like Jesus was lifted up on the cross. Just like we will be lifted up, in our own ways. That which kills me, heals me. In becoming the fool, I am given wisdom.
And so we end up with Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians, that all that is foolishness in this world—vulnerability, rejection, invisibility—is the doorway through which we enter the wisdom of God—a wisdom that lives in love, not in ego. A wisdom that inverts everything we’ve ever done to make ourselves feel important and worthy. A wisdom that is unlocked by the ultimate victory that the Cross points toward, the Resurrection, in which foolishness is transfigured, overturning all our assumptions about what is good and what is praiseworthy.
We honor the Cross not because it removes our fears but because it fully realizes them, and it leans so hard into them that it opens the door to all that is on the other side of fear, the risen Christ, in whom God’s wisdom takes this world’s priorities and makes THEM look foolish.
So yes. If we look to the cross, we might be called fools. And that is just as God would have it, because it means we are risking everything for God’s loving promise. So to some we are “fools” when we engage in justice and service ministry, believing that our contribution can change the corrupted systems and heal the wounds of this world. We are “fools” when we vulnerably testify to others how God has changed our lives through a community like Christ Church. We are “fools” when we welcome the stranger without conditions, without building walls to separate the so-called worthy from the so-called worthless. We are “fools” for believing that a world soaked in countless generations of blood and tears, fueled by racism, nationalism, and xenophobia could ever be redeemed. But my friends, if that is a fool, it’s the kind of fool I want to be. It’s the kind of fool that the Cross demands us to be.
Remember that bit about audience participation? You didn’t think you were going to get off that easy, did you? We won’t make it too hard today. Just repeat after me: GOD LOVES A FOOL. GOD LOVES A FOOL.
May we all be fools for God, looking to that Holy Cross as a symbol of risk, of love, and of true wisdom.