I’m going to preach this morning on one line from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It is a verse that describes a tension addressed in various ways in scripture: living by the flesh vs. spirit, living in the world but not of the world, walking by faith rather than sight. We experience life as a dichotomy. In this morning’s epistle, Paul says it this way: “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.”
What is message of the cross? Why is it foolishness to those who are perishing? And for us who are being saved, how is it the power of God?
Very simply put, the message of the cross is foolishness because everybody knows you’ve got to look out for number one. When the plane is going down you’ve got to put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Everybody knows that you are responsible for yourself and you’ve got to put your best foot forward. Everybody knows that its up to you to make good choices and put whatever talents you have to the best possible use.
Everybody knows that religion is ok in moderation, but when you get right down to it, God helps those who help themselves. Any other way to go about your business is just plain foolishness.
I’m watching the 3rd season of the Netflix show, House of Cards. It’s a political drama set in Washington. It chronicles the rise of Frank Underwood, a Machiavellian operator who, through the dint of his own effort, cunning, and criminality occupies the White House. The show is a grotesque caricature of self-promotion and power mongering. Not one single person on the show does anything except out of self-interest. There are no sympathetic characters. Anyone other than self, including husbands and wives, are commodities used for one’s own utilitarian purposes only.
Incredibly edifying show, isn’t it? And yet, when I finish streaming one episode and see the little box in the corner of the screen that says “next episode in 14 seconds”, I click the little play arrow with about 8 seconds left before it does it itself.
House of Cards is set in Washington where power is the prime mover, but it is also set in every human heart where self-promotion, self- aggrandizement is the insipid and lasting legacy of Adam and Eve.
Taste this fruit, the serpent said, and you will be like God. You will be independent and powerful. You will have the wits to rely on, the moxey to make it in the real world, the will to win, and the self to be a self-made man. As theologian Gerhard Forde says, “the thirst for power is never satisfied by the acquisition of it. We always want more – precisely so that we can declare independence from God. The thirst is for absolute independence of the self, and that is sin.”
House of Cards may be a writ-large expression of our sin-sotted selves, but the wisdom of the show is in the very title – House of Cards. A life manufactured by our own effort and execution is a House of Cards. Just a wisp of wind from an open window in the wrong direction, and the whole thing comes crashing down.
We used to play Jenga with our kids. The game begins with all the Jenga pieces in place, making a tidy little tower. Each person must remove a piece on his or her turn. If carefully played, by the end of the game the structure teeters on an impossibly fragile foundation until the key component is removed. Sometimes the key piece isn’t the one you’d expect. The crash can come from anywhere, at anytime.
I find this to be true in our lives. Everything can be going along fine until a job is lost, or a panic attack upends us, or a memory that we’ve worked hard to bury rises from the dead like a zombie. Or we find that we wake up on a normal Tuesday morning to discover that we’ve run out of coping mechanisms. Maybe building our lives on the foundation of ourselves was not wisdom after all, but foolishness. And we’re perishing.
Jesus said the same thing. It’s in the book we read. He called it a house built on sand. When the storms came, it fell. And great was its fall. As Yeats famously wrote, “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”
The times in our lives when the house of cards collapses are the times when we best see God at work. The wind in the window from the wrong direction is the wind of the Spirit of God. Jesus says the “wind blows where it wishes and you hear its sound.” The wind of the Spirit – in Hebrew “ruach” blows into our lives to disable our sinful self-dependency.
Our lives are aeolian, a word meaning, “shaped or formed by the wind.” An Aeolian cave is a cave formed by the wind, it’s rock wall blown open under the wind’s force. The word is derived from the Greek God Aeolus who was the Keeper of the Winds. In the 10th book of the Odyssey, Aeolus gives Odysseus a tightly closed bag full of the captured winds so he could sail easily home to Ithaca on the gentle West Wind. But instead his men thought it was filled with riches, so they opened it an unleashed a hurricane.
Have you ever done that?
Even when we unleash a hurricane through our own lust for power or self-gain, God is in the hurricane. The wind is still God’s wind. And when God blows our house of cards down, we are finally at the point where we can believe the collect we pray for today. “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” Only when we know we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, do we look for another power. Or in the case of this morning’s scripture, Another’s power – “the power of God.”
Luther says it this way in his famous Heidelburg Disputation: “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” Then we are ready to be carried across the bridge of life’s dichotomy: from the so called wisdom of the self-important but perishing world, to the freeing foolishness of the cross and the liberating power of God for us who are being saved.
The message of the cross puts to death our own self-pretension. The message of the cross puts us to death, but it always raises us to life in the resurrection. The message of the cross is the message of true hope for those who confess that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.
And why on earth would we not favor the power of God? Why on earth would we not trust the One who actually has the power to “keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul”?
What would it be like to trust the power of God in your life? The life of a man who lived almost 1400 years ago. His name is Chad and he was elected and consecrated as the Bishop of York 7th century. In his day, that was like being in the White House, or at least somewhere very close to the power pinnacle. Yet, after he was enthroned in his office, his consecration was contested as illegitimate due to the questionable line of succession of the bishops that consecrated him.
Chad willingly stepped down from power, realizing that the order of peace of the church was much more important than his own personal aggrandizement. His life was blown into a cruciform shape. He seemed to believe St. Paul when he said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit…Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”
“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.” The message of the cross is foolishness, because what kind of God would die on a cross for a power hungry world? The kind of God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.