This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Emily Garcia on Sunday, 23 February at the Chaplaincy. The readings are available here. The image at left is an icon of Vasily the Blessed, a Holy Fool.
“If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 2:18b-19a). Earlier in the same letter, Paul says, “[S]ince, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:21, 25).
The idea that some kinds of folly or madness conceal great wisdom is very old, and very widespread. In fact you probably know some of the classic figures—the jester whose jokes conceal truth, the wily trickster whose apparent chaos hides a deeper meaning, the Zen master whose well-timed whack or insult spills someone into enlightenment. If you’ve read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, or seen the cartoon show Avatar: the Last Airbender, or watched that great film, Shaolin Soccer, you’ve seen some variation of the wise fool.
But Christianity has a history too of what we call “Holy Foolishness”. The Desert Fathers and Mothers are known for their puzzling Words on which they prayed and which they gave to disciples and visitors. Holy Foolishness is most pronounced in the Orthodox Church, especially in Russia, from the fourth to the seventeenth century. The yurodivy (or Holy Fool) often wandered half-clothed, humiliated, and speaking in riddles or mixed-up images. They were bewildering; their madness was ambiguous; their weakness seemed absolute but they spoke bravely to the Tsars and others with power.
In the Western Church, St. Francis is the most well-known Holy Fool. We see him now through an ennobling rose-colored lens, and forget how absurd and apparently mad his decision would’ve been—to wander, to talk to animals, to compose poems as he wore very little and ate very little and preached to people who didn’t always listen. He called himself and his followers joculatores Dei, singers and players of God, God’s clowns.
And you know, being a monk or a hermit was originally—and is again today—often perceived as being a deeply foolish path to choose. Why would you give up so much? What’s wrong with you? what’s off about you?
Holy Foolishness often prompts this question: What's off with you? The answer is that God is what’s off—or what’s especially ON, God absurdly true and absurdly wise. The Holy Fool stands simultaneously in the center of her community, and on the margins of it, and shocks people into seeing the truth.
I think all our readings today are a little bit about folly—and about what an everyday holy foolishness might look like for us. For although St. Paul’s words have been most fully illustrated and explored by some of these blessed and bewildering figures, he wasn’t writing to an impressive elect—Paul was writing to the many people in the many house-churches in Corinth, and his words are for us too.
So how can we be holy fools?
This excerpt from Leviticus has some of the best examples from that book of the foolishness of God compared to worldly wisdom. Leave the edges of your fields, leave some of your vineyards—leave the edges of your hard work, your hard-earned food, for those who have nothing, who are foreign to you. And instead of meekly deferring to those who have power, or always siding with the weak, look closely and act with justice. It is easy to agree with these ideas but no so easy to regularly live them out. Worldly wisdom—common financial acumen, accepted business practices—argue very logically for different choices. This passage says, in effect: give generously, don’t take advantage of people or situations when you have the chance. Foolish behavior.
First Corinthians, too, is run through with a concern for folly and wisdom. Paul sees boasting as an ultimate example of the foolishness of the world. What leaders you follow, where you’re from, what you’ve done—most of us find that these are worth thinking about, talking about, valuing or devaluing. We make judgments about ourselves and about others based on these things. But over and over again, Paul demonstrates that the only thing we can and should boast about is IN the Lord, OF the Lord. The only thing worth knowing about people is that we belong to God. As Paul says, the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Imagine walking into a room—a seminar, a party, a meeting—and seeing each person first and only as belonging to God. Ignoring class, intelligence, social standing, appearance. Pretty foolish.
And isn’t our Gospel today about a foolish kind of behavior—behavior apparently without pride? The Jewish Annotated New Testament points out these foolish actions in the first paragraph are risky forms of nonviolent resistance. A slap on the right cheek assumes a back-handed slap—and we should respond with neither violence nor abjection. This move risks more pain—but might just shock someone enough to plant a seed of truth in their minds. Most people owned only two garments in that time; so, when being sued for one’s coat, giving away your other garment would, as the annotations say, “uncover the judiciary injustice.” You risk remaining completely unclothed—but you might make someone rethink their views. Roman soldiers at the time could conscript locals to carry their gear for one mile; to go a second mile is a peaceable protest. You risk exhaustion or an angry soldier—but you might shock someone into true wisdom.
This foolish behavior seems humiliating, without pride—but that’s not it, it’s just that the pride and confidence come from somewhere DIFFERENT. Our dignity does not come from boasting, from social standing. Our foolish dignity comes only from our safe and certain identity in God’s love. An absolute certainty of God’s love for us, gives us an absolute freedom.
And in fact the second half of this Gospel reading assumes a boundless love which is hard to imagine. It’s hard to imagine, because none of us has it—our hearts are simply too narrow, and only when God pours his love into them can we love our enemies, and love those who don’t love us.
This love as we’ve seen it in God is itself foolish. St. Francis, the Yurodivy—all began as an imitation of Christ: young Jesus of Nazareth, who up and left his carpentry work, wandered around with hoodlums and weirdos, scratching his fleas and saying things that didn’t always make a straight kind of sense. Young Jesus of Nazareth, who made a fool of himself before the religious leaders and political authorities, and ended up dead. –And then, folly of follies, wasn’t dead at all.
God’s love is a very foolish kind of love. Surely it is foolish for the force and mind and heart behind existence itself to love such a weak, finite, individual person. It is foolish for perfect Truth and complete Understanding to love a person who cannot even know or understand themselves. It is foolish, but it is true.
Faced with this foolish love, we are called to locate our identity in it—to find our dignity and confidence only in this. And THEN, we’re called to see others the same way: to look at the world through God’s same lens of foolish love.
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, without which our lives and actions are empty before you.