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Cruciform Poets

January 30, 2017

“Cruciform Poets” 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 and Matthew 5:1-12 © 1.29.17 Ordinary 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My name has been mangled, misspelled, and made fun of so many times in my life that you would think I would follow the Golden Rule and refrain from doing any such thing to anyone else. Well, not so much. I once had a friend and colleague in Mobile named Brett Moran. My delight in playing with the sound of words got the better of me, and behind his back I called him “Brett Moron.”

That word, of course, is an offensive one. It once was a medical, technical term which began to be used in 1910 by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded. It referred to mentally challenged adults with an IQ between 50 and 69, whose development was arrested between the ages of seven and 12. “Moron” is a Greek term that means “foolish, stupid, dull, sluggish.” It was deemed appropriate because such persons were considered to be lacking in judgment or sense, as children of that age were thought to be. This was a day when “idiot” and “imbecile” were also medical classifications. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way with our technical language. But even when it was scrubbed from medical dictionaries, “moron” found traction in the general culture as an insult, beginning in 1922 (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/moron).

I talk about all this because “morons,” according to Paul, are the ones who grasp the power and wisdom of the gospel, the word of the cross, Christ crucified. Over and over in the morning’s text, anytime we hear the word “foolish” or “foolishness” in English, it’s linguistically related to “moron,” which is the neuter form of the Greek “moros.” Preaching is foolish. God chose what is foolish. Even God is foolish.

This is the world turned upside down. What we considered to be the Way Things Are is in fact not so. God has a different idea. He saves what the world throws away, values what it considers worthless, embraces vulnerability while the world obsesses over security. “Blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek,” said Jesus. No, says the world, those in power, in the know, in control. “Blessed are the rapacious, the ruthless, the bullies, the fear mongers.” Jesus is a Loser. That’s how he ended up on the cross, which Paul is claiming is a sign of the power of God. Nothing but weakness, a sign of his failure to play the game, to know how things are done in the Real World. This talk is nothing but somebody on the outs of society trying to reassure other people on the margins that one day they will rise and be in power themselves. “Not many of you were noble or wise or powerful.” That’s right, says the world, and you’ll stay that way if we have anything to do with it.

Paul is indeed being unrealistic, isn’t he? “What a moron!” we say. Come on, some backwater prophet executed by the Roman state as a subversive is really the incarnation of God’s power and wisdom? And who is he kidding? Even in a culture based on honor and shame like the ancient Middle East, was suffering weakness really going to shame the strong? Were they going to be humbled by Jesus’ example and acknowledge the sovereignty of God? Sacrificial love and/or the suffering of the innocent do not move those devoid of conscience, who have not a shred of human decency. When their victims can’t or don’t or won’t resist, they are emboldened to do more harm. There is no attitude so heartless, no action so reprehensible as to make such people feel ashamed.

But neither Paul nor Jesus will be deterred from their vision by a failure to convince the powers of this world. They are both poets. Cruciform, cross-shaped, poets. By that I mean they imagine a different way of life and hope and wholeness, where no one can or would boast about their accomplishments and wisdom but instead gives glory to God. As the hymn we sing puts it: “The poor are rich, the weak are strong, the foolish ones are wise. Tell all who mourn, outcasts belong, who perishes will rise” (Miriam Therese Winter, “O For a World”). That’s the vision toward which we live.

But what about now? Is there some way the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s message of the power of the cross can truly take hold and become the model for life in a world that respects neither?

The answer is that you and I must join Paul and Jesus in becoming and being cruciform poets. The renowned biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that we live in a prose world where truth is reduced, even or especially in the church, and that we must therefore be poets who speak against such a world. He explains: “By prose I refer to a world that is organized in settled formulae, so that even pastoral prayers and love letters sound like memos. By poetry, I do not mean rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that…jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace.” The proclamation we are called to do is not “moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification. It is not good advice, nor is it romantic caressing, nor is it soothing good humor.

“It is, rather, the ready, steady, surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live” includes realities beyond the “conventions of our day-to-day, take-for-granted world….The poet/prophet is a voice that shatters reality and evokes new possibility in the listening assembly” (Finally Comes the Poet).

Such believers as that scholar describes are open to the intangible dimensions of life. “Jews look for signs,” Paul said. It seems to me that the longing for a sign is the insistence that the only truth worth believing is confirmed by touch, taste, quantification, measurement. It must be observable, repeatable, and the basis of an hypothesis. That is one very important sort of truth. We call it “science,” and we could not have had the medicine, technology, communication, and freedom from superstition of our day without it. It must be honored and taken seriously, and not dismissed because our opinions don’t happen to coincide with the evidence and facts it offers.

But the cruciform believer is open to another kind, a deeper level, of truth—the sort that sends tingles down the spine when it is heard, the sort that is known in the unexplainable, the awesome, the well-nigh incredible. Thomas Troeger’s hymn “Praise the Source of Faith and Learning” has appropriate words of respect for science, but includes this prayer: “God of wisdom, we acknowledge that our science and our art and the breadth of human knowledge only partial truth impart. Far beyond our calculation lies a depth we cannot sound where your purpose for creation and the pulse of life are found.” This hymn writer is speaking of truth revealed not by experimentation in a lab, by measurements in the field or searching through a telescope, but in the deep recesses of the human heart which only the Spirit of God can reach and touch.

So, cruciform believer poets speak against a prose world and are open to the mystical dimensions of life. But also, cruciform poets embrace a redefinition of power.

We’re pretty sure what power looks like. It’s the president in the Oval Office signing executive orders. It’s a member of Congress pushing or blocking legislation. It’s a judge sentencing a felon to prison or to death. It’s a corporate mogul overseeing a vast global empire of commerce and wealth. But it’s also the parent saying “You’re grounded!” It’s the teacher grading a paper. It’s a piece of plastic with a string of numbers on it in our wallets and purses with which we can buy goods and services all over the world. As the movie line has it: “You don’t think they give these to just anybody, do you” (Trading Places)? Power is a high credit rating. It could be the color of our skin, our gender, our place in a hierarchy in an organization no matter how small. It’s a car that can take us to our jobs or shopping or on a vacation. It’s privilege and education and skill.

Whenever and wherever such forms of power are used to dominate, hurt or exclude, the cross of Christ stands in judgment on them. The commentator Chuck Queen has observed: “You could say that the wisdom of the world is expressed anytime individuals, organizations, institutions, communities, and whole societies act in their own self-interest. It is the wisdom of ‘might makes right’ and the end justifies the means. It is the wisdom of ‘What is mine is mine’ and some would add, ‘and what’s yours is mine, if I can get it.’… How different is the wisdom of Jesus…” (https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/a-different-kind-of-wisdom-1-cor-118-31-micah-61-8/). 

Indeed it is! The power of the cross is power for, rather than power over. Power with instead of power against. Power to heal and not power to destroy. Cruciform poets live lives shaped by the cross. They are powerful in a paradoxical way, which is another kind of moron, known as an “oxymoron,” something acutely silly and foolish. Aristotle, surely one of the philosophers Paul had in mind, taught the “law of non-contradiction.” A thing cannot be its opposite. Something cannot be both sharp and dull, possible and impossible, soft and hard at the same time and in the same way.

But cruciform believers live a reality that cannot be explained or limited by Aristotelian logic. We can imagine a world where oxymorons make perfect sense and contain a deeper truth, a concealed point. There is such a thing as powerful weakness, noble humiliation, and foolish wisdom. When we are powerful in the way of the cross, we use the power of our education to help others learn. The power of our influence to be a voice for others who have been robbed of their say. The power of our vision to dream a just society. The power of our financial resources to make the dream come true. The power of our faith to restore the trust of one who has been hurt and betrayed too many times. The power of our hope to sustain one for whom tomorrow looks dark. The power of our love to help, to heal, to hold one trembling with fear.

You may realize that each week we commit ourselves to such values. They are inherent in the covenant of the congregation we repeat. It’s a scriptural charge to the people from our Book of Common Worship that some of you have commented is meaningful to you. Others on social media and in blogs feel the same way. Let me repeat it here: “Go forth into the world in peace, have courage, hold on to what is good, return to no person evil for evil, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, honor all persons, love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Retired Presbyterian worship specialist Don Stake tells the story of a parishioner who was influenced by that charge, which he says has “powerful impact.” “Its repetition has cumulative effect, and staying power,” he observed in a blog post. “I remember well, for example, the man who grasped my hand after the service one Sunday, quietly saying that he needed to speak with me for a moment, in private. When we stepped into my study, this is the story he told. ‘A while ago,’ he said, ‘one of my colleagues at work undercut me, really knifed me in the back on a project. Well, last week I had a chance to get even, and I was poised to let him have it….’ He paused, fought back a tear, and continued, ‘…when I heard in my head, those words I’ve heard so many times on Sunday: “return no one evil for evil.” And I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.’ He went on to express his astonishment and appreciation for the power of those words” (http://21stcliturgy.blogspot.com/2010/12/sending.html).

We say that charge as people with power. Reflect on it and see how it assumes choice and strength and influence and ability. We can live in peace. We are those who offer support and help to “the weak” and the “fainthearted.” We have choices in how we respond to wrongs done or to those whom others might treat with disdain. We can decide even in difficult circumstances to rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are and can be cruciform poets, people who dare to proclaim the oxymoronic message of a crucified Savior who is the power and presence and wisdom of God. We might look and sound like morons to the world, but to God we are people who see things as they are, who know the truth dismissed by those who believe they are the ones in control. But we do not boast of our knowledge or parade our power. We proclaim the wisdom of God, which Paul Tillich once summarized in a sermon. “Our final wisdom,” he observed, “is to accept our foolishness and to look at the place in history in which wisdom itself appeared in the garb of utter foolishness, the Cross of Christ. Here the wisdom that is eternally with God, that is present in the universe, and that loves the children of man, appears in fullness. And in those who look at it and receive it, faith and wisdom become one” (“On Wisdom,” The Eternal Now: 172).

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