Monday, January 31, 2011
A fool's errand
Micah 6: 6-8; Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1: 25-31; Matthew 5: 1-12
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 30, 2011
This past Tuesday evening I did not watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV. Rather I have watched clips of it on the Internet. Though I generally support our president, there was one set of remarks he made that gave me pause:
“We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government. That’s how our people will prosper. That’s how we’ll win the future.”
Sadly, the language of empire still manages to find its way into presidential rhetoric. Capitalism is still the bottom line. I know that the president must contend with Tea Party Republicans and blue dog Democrats and all the rest while striving to remain true to his own goals and values. I saw a photo of a protest poster that read “Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care. You’re thinking of Jesus.” I know Obama is not Jesus nor should any of us expect him to be.
And yet I ache inside when the counterculture language of the Bible is overshadowed by our country’s nationalism and our longing for the so-called glory days when the United States was a superpower in every way. What a contrast to phrases such as ‘blessed are the meek’, ‘walk humbly’, and ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’! Yet these words can seem hollow and empty as we human beings continue to grasp for possessions, power and financial security.
All of these lectionary passages speak of how to live in this world—with open vulnerability and authenticity. So much of our culture is about coping with or covering up or protecting or numbing or denying our weaknesses. As I’ve said before, none of us wants to be taken for a fool. And yet we who follow Jesus up that small hill to hear that in our lowest moments we are blessed, against the megaphone of this world and even our own experiences, on some days all our faithfulness can seem like foolishness.
We follow a man who preached love in the face of fear and death, who threatened those in power by eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors and raising the dead, who died on the Roman Empire’s version of the electric chair. In the eyes of the world we are fools. Suckers for Jesus. But the more I preach that story, the more rebellious and subversive I want to become. And that’s the transformation, the life-changing moment that Jesus is after in each one of us; that the story becomes so compelling that it releases our grip on our fear, lifts us out of the narrow view of our own story, and puts us smack dab in the middle of someone else’s story. Like this one.
Every night Julio Diaz, a thirtysomething social worker, ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner. One night in March of 2008, as Diaz stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, he was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy came up to him and pulled out a knife.
The kid wanted his wallet, so Diaz just handed it over. As the boy began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The kid looked at Diaz, “like what's going on here?” He asked Diaz, “Why are you doing this?”
Diaz replied, “If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.” Being a social worker, Diaz thought he could help the guy. They went into the diner and sat in a booth.
Since Diaz is a regular, pretty soon the manager, the dishwashers, the waiters all come by to say hi. The kid said to Diaz, “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told him. The kid replied, “But you're even nice to the dishwasher.”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yeah, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way,” the boy said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The kid sat there with almost a sad face. He couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz said to his would-be robber, “Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you.”
The kid didn’t think twice and returned the wallet to Diaz, who gave the boy $20, figuring who knows? Maybe it would help. Diaz then asked for something in return — the young man’s knife —and he gave it to Diaz.
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.” The way Diaz figures it, “if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” 
What was the last foolish, makes-no-sense, upside-down thing you did for Jesus? If the cross is foolishness, why are you still here? If serving at this church can sometimes be one of the hardest things you do, what keeps you coming back?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”