You’ve got to love some of Paul’s words. In the midst of arguing that the Corinthians should remember that they are Christ’s and not part of some faction, he points them to the fact that the gospel—the good news of God’s salvation!—is foolishness to the world. When he first brought the gospel to this community, Paul was insistent that he didn’t use the flowery, incisive, over-the-top rhetoric of the day to convince them, but instead let the gospel speak for itself. And to most people, this message that Paul was giving sounded like foolishness. The community around the Corinthian church saw what they were doing and saw it through the eyes of people who don’t understand. What he said then is just as true now.
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It’s said that the best form of advertising is word of mouth, and I think we all know why. After all, how did you find your mechanic? And how often do you try a new restaurant that none of your friends recommend? When someone we trust points us in a direction, we trust they’re looking out for us. I tend to trust that people around me are more experienced in basically everything, so I really value the recommendations of others. And you can’t get a much more forceful recommendation than John the Baptist made for his disciples to look to Jesus.
Friends, it is the last week before everything becomes Christmas everywhere. This Thursday we’ll gather around family and friends to eat turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing and whatever other Thanksgiving delights you enjoy, and Friday it’ll be lights and holly and carols until December 25. Which, really, is a little exciting for me, because we get to celebrate our first Christmas season with Hazel! We get to put up lights on the house, and decorate the tree, and do all the things that make the season exciting and wonderful.
So with all that to look forward to, what is up with this text? Today is Christ the King Sunday, where we finish off the church year by honoring Jesus as king, and we read about Jesus on the cross. Honestly, there are a lot of other texts I think would be appropriate for naming Jesus as King. The Wise Men bringing gifts from far away. The transfiguration. The triumphal procession into Jerusalem on a donkey maybe. Something more…kingly. But instead, we get this Good Friday text just as we’re about to enter Advent.
Five hundred years ago, when Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg, there was a reason he picked October 31 to do so. In Luther’s day, the next morning would have seen the church absolutely packed with notable people coming in for All Saints Day mass. See, while today the big Christian days are Christmas and Easter, in Luther’s day it was Easter and All Saints Day. The world revolved around the annual celebration of the saints of the church.
Now, All Saints Day is still celebrated widely around the world with lots of various traditions attached to it. In Mexico it comes during the season of Dia de Muertos, and in French-speaking countries it’s celebrated as Toussaint. But the big thing that countries that celebrate All Saints Day have in common is that they are all largely Catholic countries. Protestants like us, we tend to shy away from talking about saints, because for a long time, that was seen as “too Catholic” to do.
There was an extraordinary thing that happened earlier this week. Amber Guyger, who has been convicted of murdering Botham Jean after she mistakenly entered his apartment, heard words of forgiveness from Botham’s brother, Brandt. If you haven’t had a chance to see the video or read the transcript, it was incredibly moving. Brandt spoke of how he had no ill-will toward her, wishing her the best in her life, calling her to turn to Jesus, and even asking the judge if he could give her a hug.
It’s a scene I can only recall happening two other times. Once, by some family members after the Mother Emmanuel massacre who forgave the murderer for what he did; and once after a gunman killed five schoolgirls in Amish country in Pennsylvania. These stories of incredible acts of forgiveness are inspiring and also intimidating, because what kind of superhuman could forgive such an awful act? It puts the onus on the rest of us to somehow live up to that kind of selflessness of letting go, of forgetting the sin committed, of passing over punishment.
There is a road, a pretty famous road at least regionally, going through the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, called “the road to nowhere.” It was meant to replace NC Highway 288 that was flooded when the Fontana Lake Dam was built, but shortly after it got started it hit a few snags. First, WWII was going on. Then, the rock under a significant part of the route was found to be unstable and rerouting it would lead to all kinds of cost overruns. Then, to top it all off, funds were never appropriated to finish it.
So now there’s a road that goes a few miles before abruptly ending in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Someone probably should’ve looked at what Jesus said about counting the costs before they got to work on that road to nowhere.
In one of my classes back in seminary, the professor put on a video for us to watch. It was from a psychology experiment. There were five people in a room, and they were passing a ball back and forth. We, the class, were supposed to count how many times the ball was passed in the course of the video. So the professor turned on the video, we all watched and counted, and then when the video ended he turned off the T.V. and asked “raise your hand if you saw the man in the gorilla suit.”
Y’all, I definitely didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit in that video. But when we re-watched the clip—now that I knew he would be there—there was totally a guy in a gorilla suit that walked literally right in between the five people tossing the ball back and forth. It was totally nuts that I didn’t even see him the first time we watched it.
Turns out, this is a phenomenon that happens all the time. When we need to focus on one thing—like counting how many times a ball is passed—other things will fade into the background to the point that our brains literally erase them from our awareness. It’s why people who get into car accidents changing lanes claim they didn’t see the car—since the other car was going about the same speed, their brain perceived it as being stationary and therefore not necessary to notice.
We actually see the world differently based on what we prioritize noticing.
While we were out running errands at Target, Annie and I got a good laugh at one of those aisle endcap advertisements. It was a bunch of American-flag décor items from plates to sunglasses, and above it was a sign. In big, bold, red-white-and-blue letters it had “July 4th” and below that, in the little part giving you an idea of what this stuff can be used for, it said “For your parties on Thursday, July 4th.”
When else did they think we were planning on celebrating it? I mean, come on, they could’ve at least had the big sign say “Independence Day.”
This week is a big celebration around the country; one that emphasizes all the best things about our country: the freedoms we share, our can-do attitude, our collective love of blowing things up—as long as it’s colorful. But the prime object of our celebrations this Thursday will be for our freedom.