There’s a baseball writer I very much admire named Bill James. He is a powerful thinker and a great analyst, and has taught me a great deal about how to approach a problem. He went from being a night watchman at a factory in Kansas City in the 1970s to being named, in 2006, one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Of course, like most people, his story isn’t always a straight line. And, as it does for so many of us, his story really begins with school.
In one of his books, James wrote about how frustrating school was for him. Not because he wasn’t good at it or anything; he was a fine student, not straight-A’s or anything, but he did okay. The problem was, we was always getting in trouble. He would spend his classes taping baseball statistics into a notebook and analyzing them; asking questions about them, performing mathematical operations on them, etc. He loved baseball, and that’s what he wanted to do with his time. Of course, teachers would yell at him to study the “important” stuff. But I think all of us can understand being frustrated in school (or perhaps at work) because there’s something else you’d rather be doing.
Well, when he wasn’t messing around with baseball statistics, he spent his time in class trying to make his classmates laugh by writing funny notes and passing them around. Again, this is not unusual behavior – plenty of kids pass notes. But specifically, he liked to make people laugh. By passing notes to his friends, he learned what worked and what didn’t, what got a laugh and what was ignored. But most of all, he learned that getting caught was a problem – just like with the baseball statistics he would mess around with in class, his teachers would yell at him for passing these notes.
In the book he wrote as an adult, he wrote that, reflecting on all those years in school, the two most valuable things he ever did were 1.) mess around with baseball statistics, and 2.) write funny notes to his classmates. As it turned out, paying attention to what the teachers thought was the “important” stuff was actually distracting him from his life’s work – which is to entertain through his writing and to educate about baseball, its statistics, and its history. He’s a very funny writer even now, so I imagine that was true when he was younger, too.
Now, of course, he recognizes that, “Just let the kids do whatever they want,” is not really a viable classroom management technique; his point was really that, what appeared to be valuable was actually not actually as valuable as the thing that appeared to be value-less. What other people assumed was important was not necessarily the most important thing. I thought of this little story today because of our reading from 1 Corinthians.
“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,” writes Paul. Paul tells us that “the world” views the cross as foolishness. Let’s unpack that for a moment.
What is a cross? Sure, we can start by talking about its physical description: it’s a tall plank of wood with a cross-bar, meant for execution. We can talk about its meaning to us as Christians, and we’ll get there, but for right now, I’d like to put that aside. Instead, I’d rather that you imagined yourself in ancient Israel, two thousand years ago, before Jesus was executed. Imagine that you’re just an ordinary person, minding your own business – perhaps going to market to make a purchase to help feed or clothe yourself or your family. Suddenly, on the horizon, you spot a group of Roman soldiers bringing a few crosses into town. They find a spot visible to everyone, probably on top o a hill, and start pounding the crosses into the ground. So, what would you, as an ordinary person, see, think, and feel?
Of course, as I said earlier, you’d see the planks of wood, familiarly in the cross shape. But you’d know that it had more meaning than that. The meaning would be death. It would be that the Roman Empire is all-powerful, because they will come and kill you if you represent a threat to them. Not only will they kill you, they will do it painfully, publicly, and in a way that will scare other people into not doing whatever it was you did. The cross was a symbol of death, pain, and the power of the Romans. It was meant to instill fear. And you would’ve felt it. I mean, what American doesn’t at some point, complain about the government? If you did that in ancient Israel, which was part of the Roman Empire, you’d have to worry that your passing comment about the Emperor was overheard by someone who told someone, and now they were coming for you.
Okay, now that we’ve thought that through a bit, I’d ask you to imagine being a Christian in the years immediately after Jesus was crucified, when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians from which we read today. Christians didn’t necessarily use the cross commonly as a symbol as we do today (they used a fish more often), but they did talk about the cross, meditate on it, and talk about what Christ accomplished through it.
If a non-Christian saw that, they’d probably think that all these Christians being so giddy about a cross were crazy! WHY did they care about this scary, powerful, even evil symbol? Why would they talk about it, think about it, and even revere it? How could it turn their thoughts to God, rather than to the awesome and frightening power of the Roman Empire? After all, wasn’t the cross a symbol of how Jesus failed? After all, what kind of Messiah ends up executed?
Well, here’s the thing. It’s possible to understand a non-Christian having this perspective. But this is what Paul is talking about in our letter to the Corinthians today; the cross is a stumbling-block or foolishness if you’re not a believer. But if you’re one of us, if you place your faith in Jesus, the cross is a symbol, not of death nor Roman power; rather, a symbol of life and of God’s power.
You may notice that we have an empty cross at the front of our church. Perhaps that’s something you’ve wondered about: why do some churches have crosses with no one on them at the front of the church? Our cross is empty because it’s a reminder that Christ is not crucified forever; rather, he moved beyond the cross. He is not dead, but he is alive! The cross, painful though it was, is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning; rather, it reveals the truth about who God is.
Sometimes, the wisdom of God is foolishness in the eyes of the world, and the wisdom of the world can be foolish in the eyes of God. In the passage we read from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus turns over tables and drives out money-changers, we see this in action. The people in the Temple are doing what seems wise in the world: they’re maximizing their profits. They’re selling stuff, and they’re makin’ money. That’s wisdom, in the world’s eyes.
But Jesus goes out there to tell them that that’s not what God wants. They’re supposed to be there to worship, not to profit. While the world may see making money and taking advantage of the people in the Temple with nothing to sacrifice as “good business sense,” God sees it as deplorable; as something that threatens to undermine the very idea of worshiping God.
People were selling things in the Temple to help people make sacrifices on their trips to Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s all it had been, I don’t think Jesus would’ve had any problem with it: after all, not everyone could come equipped with a goat or a dove to sacrifice. Instead, the problem was the sporting event problem: you ever go to a Major League Baseball game, get ready to pay 8 bucks for a hot dog. Why? Because you have no other choice! That’s what happened here; people had no competition, and they could basically charge whatever they wanted. Good people, just wanting to worship properly, were taken advantage of by people who were looking out for themselves, rather than honoring the Temple as God’s house and treating it with proper justice.
Look, a little wisdom in the eyes of the world never hurt anyone. Paul is not telling us here is to be stupid. He’s not saying to close your eyes and walk across 41st and Louise. That’s not what this means. Paul is not saying that all wisdom is bad; rather, he’s telling us that when the world thinks it knows what the most important things are, the world will always be wrong if it hasn’t considered God. God shows us things we might never have dreamt of if we didn’t listen.
So, this passage is really about how we’re supposed to have our eyes on the prize. We need to look to the cross and see, not an instrument of death as the world sees, but the very way of life. The world may look at a cross and see one thing, but we should see something much greater. To us, it’s not humanity’s final solution for enemies; it’s proof that, no matter how cruel we can be to one another, God can show us kindness, and grace, and life. It’s easy for someone outside the church to look at a cross and see foolishness; in fact, it’s just as easy now as it was 2000 years ago. But we know there’s more to the story than that.
So, brothers and sisters, go out there and be fools for Christ. Go ahead and ignore the wisdom of the world. Keep your mind on the wisdom of God, stay focused on Christ and the cross, and remember that, no matter how powerful a symbol we can construct, however dark an answer we can provide, God can grant us life, and love, and grace. Amen.