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The Rev. Frank Logue
King of Peace Episcopal Church
Kingsland, Georgia
February 3, 2002

Holy Foolishness1
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

This week, Janet Finkelstein shared with me a poem that I would like to share with you. Janet wrote the poem at a time in her life when she was attending a Bible study in her neighborhood with women who were convinced that Janet was going to Hell because she was an Episcopalian. Janet allowed that she enjoyed the Bible study, even if she didn’t always enjoy the attitude the other participants expressed about her faith. In a period of reflection on the Bible study, Janet penned the following poem:

God, grant to me that when I go
Whether above or down below
In cool of heaven or heat of hell,
I will be appareled well.

 With picture hat and dress so neat
And velvet shoes upon my feet,
With bag and gloves to match the lot
And face and hands without a spot.

 And since I’m certain of my fate,
Please make them all of summer weight.

Janet poked good-natured fun at a group of friends. Why not? Those same friends had placed themselves on the judgment seat to determine whether Janet was in good enough with the Almighty to go to heaven. Janet could have gotten mad. But in writing the poem, Janet resorted to the paradoxical, she agreed with the ones condemning her. 

Janet’s poem made perfect reading for me this week. I was already reading up on a lost tradition in the American church—Holy Fools. Throughout the history of the church, there have been Holy people who poked fun at Christians who were feeling a little too self righteous. Their stories, still revered in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, sound absurd. 

There is the patron saint of Holy Fools, Saint Simeon Silos. Simeon retreated to the Syrian desert in the 6th century to devote his life to prayer. A few decades later, Simeon returned to town a changed man. Simeon would throw nuts at the priests during the worship service and publicly ate sausage on Good Friday, which is not only a fast day, but at that time no one ate meat during the season of Lent. Simeon’s behavior was anything but saintly.

Yet, there was another side to Simeon. The seemingly nutty monk also helped people in the town. Never when someone else might notice and never taking credit later. Simeon’s saintly deeds were done in secret. And no one could dispute that Simeon was a very Holy person, even the priests he pelted with nuts on Sunday. Simeon just poked fun at every attempt people made to feel self holier than thou. 

Simeon is not alone in Christian history. There was the great Holy Fool of Russia, Basil the Blessed, a man so revered that the Cathedral in Moscow was named in his honor. Basil walked through Moscow wearing nothing more than a long beard. Basil threw rocks at wealthy people’s houses and stole from dishonest traders in Red Square.  

Few, if any, doubted Basil’s holiness. Czar Ivan the Terrible feared no man but Basil. Basil was also given to eating meat on Good Friday. Once he went to Ivan and forced the Czar to eat raw meat during the fast saying, “Why abstain from eating meat when you murder men?” Countless Russians died for much less, but Ivan was afraid to let any harm come to the saintly Basil. 

The Russian author Leo Tolstoy's wrote of one such man he encountered during his childhood. Grisha was a man regarded by many of the wealthy families as a holy man whose presence brought blessings, for others, Grisha was a lazy beggar.  

Tolstoy’s father insisted that Grisha was lazy, untrustworthy and should be imprisoned. Tolstoy’s mother said, “I will only say one thing. It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life . . . it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.” 

Basil and Grisha are two examples of what the Russian Orthodox call yurodivi, meaning Holy Fools. George Fedotov, a scholar of Russian spirituality, explains that for persons who have achieved a high degree of holiness, they do not want people to praise them for their holiness, so that play the fool to remain humble.  

In our New Testament lesson for today, Paul put it like this to the Corinthian Christians,

“God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29 New Living Translation). 

Holy Fools perform an important function, they remind us that when we start to feel the most worthy of God’s love that we are getting further from God’s presence. When we are ready to boast of our saintliness, we are being the least worthy of God’s love and favor. Paul points out that the Holy Fools are on to something when they remind us that we might not be as smart as we think we are. For when we think we have got everything all figured out, we aren’t being wise, just wise in our own eyes. When you think you are so holy that God must be in heaven giving thanks to himself for creating you, you are not righteous. You are just being self righteous and holy fools were always ready to poke fun at any who thought themselves deserving of God’s love. 

The Holy Fools also remind us that taken at face value, Christianity sounds like a foolish proposition. Some of the claims we make with a straight face can really boggle the mind.  

To the first century Jews, the idea of God becoming one of us was foolish enough. To say that God made man would die was beyond folly. Any teaching with a crucified Lord at its center was bound to be a stumbling block to the Jews.  

For the Romans, they could believe that God could live among us as man, at least that is what they claimed for the Caesars. Yet, the idea that God made flesh would submit himself to the humiliation of death on a cross was going too far. A king as God might be possible. But a crucified God was foolishness to the Roman way of thinking.  

The novelist Richard Jeffries confronted the paradox of the cross in Bevis “If God had been there, he wouldn’t have let them do it.” Yet, God was there God the Son was on the cross at Calvary and God the Father did let them do it. In a world where the creator of all there is can suffer and die, Holy Fools almost start to make sense. 

Paul wrote, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” The message of the cross is that God chose goodness, love, and powerlessness to break the hold that evil, hate, and worldly power had over humanity. Paul wrote that the message of God choosing to be vulnerable and powerless is foolishness to those who are dying. Paul was speaking of spiritual death. If you are dying spiritually, the cross will make no sense to you at all.  

But Paul went on to write “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Notice Paul did not contrast the foolishness of the cross to the perishing, with the wisdom of the cross to those being saved. The cross remains foolish by any worldly standard. For those being saved, however, the cross is power. The Greek word Paul uses is dynamis, from which we get our word dynamite. If you don’t get it, proclaiming Christ crucified is foolish, but to open your heart to the suffering Son of God is to tap into dynamite. 

Look at the cross that hangs over our altar. You see pictured there Jesus as the King of Glory, crowned, dressed regally and in full command while standing on an instrument of torture. By worldly standards, that image is just as foolish as a formal portrait of a King using an electric chair for a throne. Remember that no matter how pretty the cross you wear may be, it represents an instrument of torture. No matter how regal Jesus may look on the cross here at King of Peace, the truth of Good Friday was much darker.  

But the cross that hangs over our altar depicts a deeper truth. Through loving us so much that he was willing to be powerless in the face of hatred and blind rage Jesus showed the real power of God. Does powerlessness winning out make sense? It doesn’t have to. 

We don’t have to make sense of Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection, we just let Jesus make sense out of us. The cross shows that God is open to being broken for us. The cross is real hope for the broken parts of our lives. The cross is real hope for the times when all the pieces just won’t fit together. The cross is real hope for the times when the world’s wisdom just can’t answer the really tough questions of life. 

I know preaching the cross sounds like foolishness. It is supposed to. But the answer doesn’t come in avoiding the cross, or taming the cross. Instead let go of being wise. Let go of being self righteous. In you mind’s eye, take the foolish step of sitting at the foot of the cross. Look up into the eyes of love of your suffering Lord. Open your heart up to the crucified one who wants to heal you and make you whole.  


[1] While no quotations are taken from the book, this sermon owes much to Kenneth Leech’s book, We Preach Christ Crucified (Cowley Publications, 1994).


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