Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was recently reminded of an early modern trope (which itself has a foundation in antiquity), and while that may sound like an awfully erudite, or even pretentious way to start a sermon, I hasten to add that I was not reminded of this by my extensive reading of history or literary criticism, but by a video game I just finished playing. The game, Pentiment, is a murder mystery that takes place in a sixteenth century Bavarian monastery, and while it includes a great deal of educational detail about the politics of the Church and the Holy Roman Empire and the ideas being popularized at the time by humanists and Protestant reformers, it’s still a video game, which I realize might be seen by some as a rather foolish pastime for a clergyman, but I think this is appropriate, for reasons that will soon become clear.

Anyway, the trope of which I was reminded is that of the “Ship of Fools”, an allegory going back to Plato’s Republic, but re-popularized nearly two thousand years later by both a painting by Hieronymus Bosch and a satirical book by the German humanist Sebastian Brant. It depicted the Church at the time not as the Ark of Salvation but as a boat piloted by clowns who fight with each other to set the course, the least competent often navigating, all under the patronage of the fictional Saint Grobian, patron of coarse and vulgar people.

While this gave a great deal of grist for the mill for contemporary figures like Erasmus and Luther, I was surprised and encouraged that in the game, the ship of fools stood in as the means by which the protagonist whom the player controls travels between his dreams–where he receives wisdom from figures as diverse as Socrates, Prester John, and Beatrice from the Divine Comedy–and his waking life where he must put this wisdom to use in service of justice. The suggestion is that there may be wisdom in what appears to the world to be folly.

Another trope from the Christian tradition along these lines (this time from the East) can be found on the front of your bulletins this morning. The holy fool (in this instance St. Basil) was a figure particularly popular in Russian Orthodoxy, though they could be found throughout Christendom during different eras beginning as early as the Fourth Century, in which God’s power and wisdom could be seen by one who intentionally hid his or her cleverness and moral perfection from the world by acting apparently irrational. It is, perhaps, a bit of an extreme approach, but one can see the point these holy fools were trying to make.

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” says St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We must recognize that that which gives our lives meaning is reckoned foolish by much of the world, and that the proper response to this reality is not to feel threatened. Most of us would like to be considered intelligent, but to what lengths will we go to be reckoned wise by the world’s standards, especially when our faith may be considered by some to be a handicap, when some see us as holy fools aboard a ship piloted by fools?

What it all comes down to, as far as I can tell, is the limited nature of the world’s definition of knowledge. In the study of epistemology—that is, the study of how we know what we know—the belief of some is that reason and observation are the only two means available to the human mind for acquiring knowledge. With the exception of those who believe theological truths can be proved by either of these means or a combination of them (an argument I’d be willing to entertain but which has yet to be presented to me in a convincing manner) most Christians will protest that truths about God can be known just as fully by other means, namely by faith. Faith, in this sense, is not merely a set of propositions to which we give our assent for the heck of it, but is itself a tool used for acquiring wisdom (it serves an epistemic function parallel to reason and observation). Paul calls this means of knowledge a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. In our context, faith can be a stumbling block to the logician and folly to the scientist, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks (to logicians and scientists and the simple alike), Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

We cannot be threatened by the derision with which our faith is held by some in the larger culture. We cannot be threatened by those who claim it’s all a bunch of fairy stories, because we know that we are justified by the true power and wisdom of God. We are promised that though we may not be wise by their standards, our folly, our absolutely silly insistence that we can know that which we cannot see, will shame the wisdom of the wise.

So, let’s revel in our folly. Let’s be fools for Christ. Instead of being threatened by those the world sees as wise, let’s embrace the fact that what we are can seem to be nuts. Let’s get over the self-consciousness, the embarrassment we can feel when our commitment to Christ is seen as a bit odd in some of the circles in which we run. Embrace that oddness. Christ never said the Christian path would be respectable; he said it was the way of life and joy and peace. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take life and joy and peace over respectability any day.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.