Sermon 29 January 2017

ST COLUMBA’S, PONT STREET

SUNDAY 29 Jan 2017, Epiphany 4

Listen Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYObvh0wd14&t=1s

 

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,

and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” I Corinthians 1:25

 

Allegedly, the renowned Church of Scotland minister, Reverend Murdo Ewan MacDonald,

once received a letter from a local branch of the Woman’s Guild.

In it, they invited him to deliver a talk on the Seven Deadly Sins.

MacDonald enquired which of the seven vices he might concentrate on,

the reply came “Oh, choose anyone, we believe you are an expert in all of them….”

 

Today, invited by the Scriptures, the preacher is invited to speak

about foolishness and weakness

I leave the punchline to the silent thoughts of the congregation.

 

Foolishness and wisdom; strength and weakness.

In 2007, TV’s now most famous choirmaster, Gareth Malone 2007, was set a challenge:.

Enter a boys’ comprehensive school that specialized in sport –

with the express intention of producing a choir that would sing at the Albert Hall.

The resultant programme was: “The Choir; Boys Don’t Sing.”

 

The Church Times reviewed it as follows:

“The first episode showed all the expected problems;

real men don’t sing; to sing would destroy your peer credibility forever;

singing is only for girls…”

Underneath all the bravado is of course, a complete lack of confidence.

They cannot bear the thought of being laughed at;

it is not strength but weakness that holds them back.

 

Mr Malone approached his task in a surprising way;

introduced to the school assembly by the headmaster,

he simply stood in front of them all and sang an unaccompanied folk song.

It was clearly an act of fool-hardy courage –

and therefore impressed far more than any amount of careful talk.” (Church Times)

 

Strength and weakness, wisdom and folly.

Angela Ashwin, theologian, writer, retreat leader

gives an illustration of the strange power of weakness.

She was due to lead a three-day silent prayer retreat.

She had planned to play meditative music at the outset

to lead people into the appropriate mindset and space.

Unfortunately she arrived late having been delayed by traffic.

She had little time to set up.

She winged it i.e. didn’t check her props before commencing.

 

Having welcomed the group and indicated that they should relax and listen,

she pressed play. Crashing rock guitar music blared out!

As people grimaced, Ashwin leapt to silence the offending cacophony.

In her panic crashing into a noisy metal bin that bounced loudly across the floor.

So much for an image of a calm and competent retreat leader.

 

The next day however a lady came to see her. She was a teacher.

“You have no idea how much you helped me.

I’ve just had a terrible week at school – equipment failing and all my plans unravelling.

And suddenly there you were, a writer and retreat leader,

and your presentation going wrong as well.

It was the best thing you could have given me!”

 

Ashwin reflected; If I had given a perfect opening presentation

I might have gone to bed feeling good. But much would have been lost.

Sometime later, when Ashwin’s own confidence was at a low ebb, a friend wrote to her:

“Your very hopelessness is precious to God.” Faith in the Fool, p82, A Ashwin

 

Strength and weakness, wisdom and folly.

When Paul writes to the first century Christians of Corinth,

he addresses a community that is riven by factions.

Disputes appear to revolve around whether they belong to the right apostle –

Paul, Cephas or Apollos.

 

Rather than referee the disputes or affirm

that one group only has a monopoly on truth,

Paul reminds them where their real identities lie;

“We proclaim Christ, Christ crucified – the power of God, the wisdom of God.”

 

By that compass point, pilgrimage can continue;

so much squabbling can be put in perspective or fall away into irrelevance.

 

As Paul knew, Christ crucified as portrait of God is an absurdity to many – then and now;

stumbling block to those who desire invulnerability,

foolishness to the conventionally wise.

Paul also knew Christ crucified as a portrait of God, was a political claim – then and now.

The Roman cross was both physical torture and character assassination;

a carefully choreographed lynching, that aimed to dehumanize its victim –

a punishment and warning – all in the name of peace and security.

How could one possibly see God in that?

(As we sang:)

Here hangs a man discarded, a scarecrow hoisted high,

a nonsense pointing nowhere to all who hurry by.

 

So the scarecrow God is the language of God,

showing just how far love will travel to enter fully into our humanity.

The worst failure, the apparent folly

reveals the power of love and forgiveness,

once and for all justifying the Christmas promise –

Immanuel, God with us.

Strength and weakness, wisdom and folly.

There is much in our headline news to unsettle or make us despair.

Yet, as it has been said:

“The more we are made aware of the evil in the world,

the stronger the evidence of horror and debasement,

the more imperative it is that we assert goodness, trust, play and laughter.

[We have a huge opportunity not just to make use of these things

for our own personal coping skills,

but to enlarge their presence in the world.”] Come let Us Play, Wanda Nash

 

If we believe this, then we must be about the work of foolishness;

Called to heal bodies; called to heal attitudes –

one step, one conversation, one issue at a time.

 

I think of fragments that have been part of the life of St Columba’s in the last week.

As part of our Reformation 500 series of Doorstep Events,

a visit to Bloomsbury Baptist Church, like ourselves a central London church.

An initiative there to provide homeless guests with facilities to make art;

a recognition that dignity and creativity are as important as bread.

I think of the reports of last week’s Night Shelter Burns’ Supper –

complete with piper, haggis and reciting.

An exact echo of the congregational Burns Supper held the week before.

Again, dignity and respect.

 

And finally I think of the launch of this year’s Christian Aid appeal to its volunteer collectors.

The e campaign will carry the line: –

We’ve been there for refugees since 1945. We won’t turn our backs now.

 

The final speaker reminded us that unless we get involved and seek to engage others,

poverty will remain uneradicated.

He acknowledged that many of the charity’s collectors have been doing this a long time;

he acknowledged that one can grow weary; our treasure is carried in earthern vessels.

But he sent us homewards with the reminder and rallying cry:.

 

Now to him who by the power at work within us

is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 

to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

 

By the grace of God may we become ever more expert

in foolishness and wisdom; weakness and strength.