Everybody plays the fool

Orthodox Easter (May 5, 2013)
I Corinthians 1:18-25; Revelation 22:1-5

May 6 is Easter in the Orthodox Christian tradition. This morning, we participated in an Easter sunrise service at Mt. Nebo, where one has a beautiful view of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank of Palestine.

From Mt. Nebo looking east, the sun rises while the moon sets

From Mt. Nebo looking east, the sun rises while the moon sets

Daryl shared the reflection during the communion service at the MCC Europe-Middle East retreat in Barcelona earlier this week:

Aaron Neville is one of many musicians who have popularized the song, “Everybody plays the fool.” The song is about falling in love and getting hurt.

Fallin’ in love is such an easy thing to do;
But there’s no guarantee that the one you love, is gonna love you.
Oh, loving eyes they cannot see a certain person could never be.
Love runs deeper than any ocean, it clouds you’re mind with emotion;
There’s no exception to the rule, listen baby;
Everybody plays the fool, sometime;
It may be factual, it may be cruel, I ain’t lying;
Everybody plays the fool.

Falling in love aside, no one wants to be called a fool. Indeed, our culture is partial to intelligence and power.

The same was true in the first century. Paul writes: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” (I Cor. 1:22) Signs and wisdom. Power and intelligence. “But we proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul continues, “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (v.23)

At first blush, getting crucified seems to be neither intelligent nor a show of strength.

Krystan  Pawlikowski and Ruth Plett (MCC East Europe Reps), with daughter Misha

Krystan Pawlikowski and Ruth Plett (MCC East Europe Reps), with daughter Misha

In Europe and the Middle East we live in the daily shadow of violence, volatility occupation, unrest and uncertainty. It’s enough to make anyone feel anxious and afraid.

Weapons – sometimes very large weapons — are the tool of choice for rulers and authorities who are afraid or who seek to impose their will or to maintain the status quo.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler recently wrote a piece for Mennonite World Review, comparing the prominent use of guns in Israel-Palestine with the use of guns in the United States. “Do such weapons provide real security?” Ryan asked. “Studies show guns in U.S. homes are far more likely to kill family or friends than an intruder. For all its advanced weaponry, Israel remains gripped by existential fears…”

The rain during most of the EME retreat didn't dampen our spirits.  Here Annie and Jean-Victor Brosseau (West Europe Reps) are pictured with Sarah Adams (Lebanon-Syria Rep)

The rain during most of the EME retreat didn’t dampen our spirits. Here Sarah Adams (Lebanon-Syria Rep) is pictured with Annie and Jean-Victor Brosseau (West Europe Reps)

At a gut human level, wielding power and using force make sense when we are afraid. What better way to protect our own interests and to be sure that we aren’t bullied around?

Using destructive force is the adult version of the playground threats that children sometimes make: “My dad will beat up your dad!” If our weapons are bigger than our enemy’s, we’ll come out ahead, right?

So why did Jesus choose the way the cross? Why such a foolish approach? If God is so powerful, why didn’t God just crush those who opposed God’s ways? Why didn’t God act like a superhero and smash them into submission?

Willie Reimer (MCC Canada program director) waits for the Metro train with Dan Bergen (Co-Palestine Rep) and his daughter Chloe

Willie Reimer (MCC Canada program director) waits for the Metro train with Dan Bergen (Co-Palestine Rep) and his daughter Chloe

Indeed, there are some examples in the Old Testament of God crushing enemies. But the trajectory and weight of Scripture offer a very different approach. God’s power is ultimately displayed as a force for creation and life and light – not as a force of destruction and death. God overcomes evil with good.

God does not overcome enemies through shock and awe. God overcomes enemies by exposing their weakness. God plays into their supposed strength; and then shows a better and more powerful way.

Do you remember the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal? According to Canaanite mythology, Baal was the most powerful of all gods. Among his many attributes, Baal was worshiped as the sun god – or the god of fire. Baal was usually depicted as holding a lightning bolt.

So Elijah proposed a contest that played to Baal’s supposed strength (I Kings 18). Who could send fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice? Would it be Baal – the god of fire? Or would it be Elijah’s God?

Looking north from Mt. Nebo

Looking north from Mt. Nebo

On Mount Carmel the prophets of Baal prepared their sacrifice and called upon their god to send fire. But nothing happened. Elijah taunted them: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (v.27) The prophets of Baal cried even louder and “cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.”(v.28) Still, there was no answer.

Then, in dramatic fashion, Elijah doused his sacrifice with 12 large jars of water before calling for God to send fire from heaven.

Immediately, “The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” (vv. 38-39)

The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus – which Christians in the Orthodox tradition commemorate this week – is a similar to the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

The Roman Empire and the Jewish religious establishment both used the threat of death as their ultimate weapon to intimidate the masses into obeying orders.

By allowing the alliance of the Empire and the religious establishment to crucify Jesus, God unmasked the bluster and bravado of their threat of death. God called their bluff.

If God had instead used overwhelming force, God would have only validated that destructive power is a legitimate tool for accomplishing one’s ends.

Instead, by appearing foolish, by accepting the way of the cross, Jesus demonstrated God’s power of life and resurrection is both different and superior to the forces of death. Indeed, the power of life is always stronger than death. The power of light always overcomes the darkness.

This is the amazing thing that MCC’s partner organizations continue to grasp: In the face of violence and oppression, in the face of poverty and injustice, in the face of war itself, our partners continue to choose the seemingly foolish way.

MCC workers from across Europe and the Middle East gathered in Barcelona for a retreat, April 27-30

MCC workers from across Europe and the Middle East gathered in Barcelona for a retreat, April 27-30

MCC’s partners have chosen not to take up arms to promote the cause of justice and freedom. They have chosen not to use the tools favored by rulers and authorities.

Instead, they have chosen the tools of life and light. They have chosen to become part of that healing river described in Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22 —

  • The river that sends down its waters to wash the blood from off the sand.
  • The river that transforms the Dead Sea into a body of fresh water teaming with life.
  • The river that helps seeds to grow in a parched and barren land.
  • The river that makes seeds of freedom to flourish and tall stalks to rise.
Our retreat center n Barcelona was with beautiful flowers

Our retreat center n Barcelona was adorned with beautiful flowers

The bread and wine – representing the body and blood of Christ — are forever reminders of God’s seemingly foolish way of working.

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (I Cor.1:18, 25)

For those who would follow Jesus, everybody plays the fool. There’s no exception to the rule. Everybody plays the fool.

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