(renamed: formerly A+)
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The race starts early.
While we are in the womb our parents take supplements and listen to classical music,
They start racing to get us ahead,
When we are babies our progress carefully noted,
And by the time we enter school we know we are in a race,
Many of us understand there will someday be a prize,
And some of us suspect whether we are in the front or lagging behind.
In the TV cartoon The Simpsons, there are two siblings, Lisa and Bart.
Lisa is a rule follower, a book nerd, an environmentalist do-gooder,
And Bart—well, Bart rides a skateboard. Nuf said.
One episode shows how Bart and Lisa started school.
Lisa comes in knowing all her ABCs and is immediately praised by the kindergarten teacher.
Bart begins to recide, a, b, c, d, e, uh…
“F, Bart, F. You’ll be hearing a lot of those.” Says the kindergarten teacher. And immediately their roles are established, their position in this race.
The high schoolers told me a new name for what Lisa is: She’s a try-hard.
When the Springfield teachers go on strike and there is no school Bart is stoked
But Lisa begins to go mad, screeching,
Grade me, mom, grade me.
Because without a grade she does not know who she is.
Have you ever based your own worth on a grade, on a number, on a score?
Have you ever believed your value was based on the race?
All through school we race ahead
Because if you get good grades you will get into a good college
And we go to college and we race
Need to get the top grade in the weed out class
So we race and we go to graduate school
And we thought we’d made it then but we go on to the interview
And we prep and we primp and we shine our shoes
And we race
Because if you get good grades you will get into a good college and if you get into a good college you will get a good job and if you work ninety hours a week you will get promoted and if you get promoted you will win and if you win the race maybe you can rest and eat some cheese.
But he who wins the rat race is still a rat.
You can run and run and run until you are run through
But you can never win enough to feel like a winner.
Because we try-hards, we remember each and every one of the B+s, don’t we.
Answer me this: which can you remember more easily, the good grades or the bad ones?
However you define a bad grade—and it is totally relative—it’s the bad ones that stick out.
Brad Pitt’s character in Moneyball has it about right: I hate losing. I hate it even more than I like winning.
Losing cuts so much deeper than winning ever will.
You can never get enough As to make up for that B+, or that D, or that F.
There is no one on this planet who does not know what it feels like to be judged as not good enough.
I don’t care if you’re Albert Einstein, I don’t care how smart you are the day will come when you are outsmarted.
If not by the competition, then by God.
Because you might be the biggest fish in this pond but one day you find yourself in the ocean.
Because you might be book-smart, but you know you leave your cell phone at home an average of twice a week.
Because he who wins the rat race is still a rat.
Paul writes to the Corinthians who believe in their A+s.
Who are captured by the culture of Greek philosophy,
And believe that knowledge is power.
They speak of knowing the mysteries of God and lord their knowledge above those who are less well educated.
In the Greek philosophical tradition, a well-spoken argument was what mattered.
It is not knowing an objective truth that counts, but being able to convince others that you’re right.
So these people who claim to be Christians actually believe not in the God of Jesus, the God of Scripture,
But they have chosen to listen to well-educated and successful people, who claim knowledge, demonstrate education, and speak well.
These are the ones that should lead the church. Not the poor, or slaves, or women, but the wisest, best educated, the winners among us.
Are we much different?
When today a Dr. is necessary before the name of any respected preacher
When ministers trumpet their knowledge of ancient Greek
And insert ten-dollar words into sentences.
If Jesus were alive today and he wrote a book, would anyone buy it?
I mean, what are this guy’s qualifications?
A carpenter for the past thirty years?
We care, sometimes, more about what our pastor knows than Who he knows.
So since I am one of them, one of these book-smart preachers, here is some Greek for you.
Paul calls the cross a stumbling-block for the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
The word he uses for stumbling-block is skandalon.
Can you hear the word scandal in there?
The cross is a scandal because it is the ultimate symbol of failure.
The cross is an F.
Our prophet, our God in fact, the one who was supposed to set everything right, the one who would smite the wrongdoers and rise triumphant as our king,
Well he ended up getting wacked, just one more anonymous Jew dead by the roadside.
Have you ever thought about what it is that churches put at the focal point of our worship?
It’s not a smiley face. It’s not a dollar sign.
It is an instrument of public humiliation.
It is a symbol of ridicule and defeat, a symbol of failure that our enemies use to taunt us, literally hanging over our heads.
But if you were to ask us, we don’t think of it that way.
We think it’s a symbol of something wiser than the wisest of thoughts.
We think it’s a symbol of Love.
The people who love you, they don’t care whether you are an A+ or a B-. They just want you to know joy. To know love. To know that no matter what you do you are precious just for who you are. They love you for the things you will never do right. They love you for the moments when you are the person who God created you to be. They just love you. The way God does.
And one day when your race is run,
One day when everyone has forgotten your B+ in calculus,
Or how many square feet your house had,
Or that you rose to the level of Corporate Vice President,
One day all that will be left of you will be wrapped up in this silly, foolish God, and his silly, foolish love, and this silly, foolish, scandalous cross.
It’s the season of Lent,
A season of being humbled, of recognizing just how much we don’t measure up,
A season of recognizing our failures, our mistakes, our bad grades.
A season that begins with Ash Wednesday,
When the church for centuries has taken ashes, and marked a cross on the forehead
Of each worshiper.
And as we do this, we humble them with these words:
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I dread this day.
I dread this day because it is my task to touch people who I love and tell them they are going to die.
I have always felt it is a cruel and a somber and a terrible task.
Especially as I think of the people who I love who are now nothing but dust.
And this year some of my kids were coming forward.
Katie Williams who is thirteen years old was in line.
I love Katie. I love her spirit, I love her smile.
I love that she is one of the try-hards in confirmation class who actually raises her hand.
And this girl who I love comes before me
To be touched, and told she is going to die.
So somberly, the way you are supposed to do it, I made the sign of the cross on her head, and said, Katie, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
But at that moment Katie’s face lit up in a lovely smile.
I could not help but smile back.
And for the first time, Katie helped me to hear those words as good news.
The good news that I am not perfect.
The good news that I am dust.
That I don’t have to race anymore.
I don’t have to be good at everything.
I’m not meant to.
And one day, all my failures, all my mistakes,
My B+s and the part of me that forgets her cell phone twice a week,
That will all drift away,
And all that will be left is this cross.
All that will be left is Christ, living in me.
When Christ comes in to your heart, he drives everything else away.
He who drove out the moneychangers from the temple
Will drive the sin and failure, the doubt and the dust,
Little by little or in a rush he drives them
Away from your body and your heart and your mind
Until you are consumed by his love, and you find you have become a temple.
The sin is gone. Death is ended. All that is left is Christ. All that is left is God.
All that is left, is love.
Wiser than the wisest of thoughts.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.