Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + March 11, 2015
Text: Proverbs 3:13-18
“Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.”
Isn’t that one of the things we expect from our faith? Wisdom – the deep kind. The wisdom that guides us to make the best choices to live productively and – most importantly – to live joyfully. The wisdom that helps us be better to ourselves and better to others. The wisdom that spreads life – good life – all around.
But, in the spirit of this season of repentance, I think we should confess something. I think we should confess that most of the time, we’re not sure that Jesus is actually all that wise. Loving your enemies is a beautiful ideal, but it doesn’t seem wise to apply to really dangerous situations, like…how we bring people from prison back into society. Jesus also said, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” which no wise person would ever do. And God choosing to take on our flesh, live in our world for thirty years, and then just let himself get killed? And leave us here with sin and suffering still running rampant? What a foolish way for God to save the world.
I had that thought a lot during the summer of 2012, when I was interning as a hospital chaplain at Vanderbilt. I spent my days holding the hand of a man far too young to be dying of heart failure, or knocking on doors to see if my new friends with cancer were feeling well enough after all their treatment to talk and pray. I wrote poems about getting used to seeing what faces looked like after a gunshot wound. Once, I baptized a newborn baby who wasn’t going to make it. And afterwards I left the hospital even though it was the middle of the day, sat under a tree in a grassy patch on the Vanderbilt campus, called my pastor, and just cried and cried into the phone, while she could only say, “I know. I know.”
All the different wisdom about why and how so much suffering goes on under the eyes of a loving God started sounding hollow. Maybe God sends suffering as a test. Maybe God allows this suffering as part of a plan for greater good. Maybe God is always stopping even greater suffering, and we just don’t know about it. Maybe God had decided it was the dying person’s time to enter into the joys of heaven, and we should be glad for them. Maybe, I thought, but it seems like such a foolish way to save us. Such an ineffective way. None of that “wisdom” felt strong enough to carry the gospel to the haggard man who wouldn’t even look at me, because I was at that hospital representing the God who had taken his daughter away from him and now seemed to be taking away his wife.
Every Tuesday I would carry all these struggles and doubts into a tiny chapel, and then I laid them out before Kate Cockerham’s dad. Ok, so I didn’t know Kate and Ken back then, but her father, Peter Keese, was my supervisor and mentor for the summer. One day, when we were talking through my frustration with God yet again, Kate Cockerham’s dad gave me one of the most foolish pieces of wisdom I’d ever heard: “What if you stopped thinking that God was all-powerful?”
“What? How?” I asked him with my eyebrows. I didn’t want to insult his idea, but it seemed ridiculous. Even now, when I’m featuring that little nugget in a sermon, it seems too ridiculous to be preached. Christians have always confessed the powerful God who created everything, and a lot of us confess that God is still in control, almighty, able to do even the impossible. It’s all over in the Bible, it’s in the creed, it’s in our songs. You can’t get rid of that. You can’t say that God is…what? Weak? That’s foolish.
And yet, God’s messiah looked so weak up on that cross. With blood and broken bones, deserted by his followers. Is the idea that maybe God is weak – or maybe just that God’s power is so radically different from the kind of power we worship that we don’t even recognize it as power – is that really such a foolish thought?
Maybe you remember this passage from Sunday – it’s from 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Jesus Christ, tortured, his death put on display for everyone to mock — that, Paul seems to say, is the picture of the power of God. But only those who are being saved can see that.
And who is being saved? Luther said over and over that we are most open to the beautiful, good news of the gospel, when we are most desperate. When we have given up on our own ability to lay hold of the wisdom we need to find life. When we have given up all hope that we are salvageable, that is when God saves us. Again and again.
We don’t get that kind of desperate when things are going well. We get really desperate when we suffer. It when we suffer – just like Jesus suffered – that what seemed foolish now looks so wise. When we suffer, we might better understand that Christ’s weakest moment, the moment when he himself cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” – that that is exactly the moment when we are saved by the gracious, weak, foolish power of God.
The cross is our source of great wisdom, our tree of life. The cross proclaims the ridiculous and wonderful news that God is not a mighty king, living in his castle in the sky, worlds away from the problems of his people. God knows what it is to suffer. God hears in our cries of pain and unfairness the echoes of his own son’s cries on the cross. God gets it. And God cares. And God is moved by our pain.
Now, if I’m being really honest, that idea sometimes sounds hollow to me, too. So what if God suffers with me? I want to stop suffering. I want hope. I want healing.
St. Paul wrote that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). God’s foolishness is to choose the path of weakness. God’s weakness is to choose the weak, to make the weak strong.
Christ’s story doesn’t end in weakness. The cross isn’t the only time we see God’s power on the weekend Jesus dies. On Sunday, God raises Christ from the dead. With God, suffering does not have the last word. Life does. New, transformed life. And God is best at raising new life out of the weakest moments.
Sometimes life comes to us through the kind of signs we can understand: miracles, healing, answered prayers. Other times God gives us new life in less-showy ways: in our ability to find joy again in the midst of grief, in our ability to go on with our lives even though we feel we are dead. When we feel most abandoned, God is there, suffering with us, and raising us from death into new life. And we always have the hope that comes with faith in the “forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
Detail from a 10th-century mosaic in the church of San Clemente, Rome. See Mosaics in San Clemente for more images.