So Who’s the Fool?

Psalm 14; Luke 15:1-10

Sermon by Burton Cooper

The pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So Jesus told them a parable: “Which one of you,
Having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
Does not leave the ninety nine
And go after the one that is lost?”

I do want to talk about this lost sheep parable and how it stands in judgment on the cruelties of our world, but first I can’t stop myself from saying something about one of my favorite passages in scripture, that first line in this morning’s psalm, the one that goes, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ”  I love that line, partly because now that we’re in such an enlightened age, what with three hundred years of science and a hundred fifty years of biblical criticism, history seems to have brought about a great reversal, so that now it’s the fool who says, “there is a God.”  And I know I’ve written sermons, inflicted them upon you, sermons which proudly proclaim us believers as fools for God.  But maybe that needs some rethinking.  What if we take scripture at its word, and ask ourselves, despite our acceptance of science and biblical criticism, (ask ourselves) is there a sense in which scripture is right, that it’s the fool who says, “there is no God.”

Let’s back up a little and ask why do unbelievers --- say, our unbelieving adult children, or our unbelieving colleagues at work, or our unbelieving friends --- why do they think, for all that they might love us, why do they think we are fools for believing in God.  The most telling answer to that question, though there are a multitude of other ones, (the most telling answer) is the one given, I believe it was by the philosopher Wittgenstein, almost a hundred years ago, that the sum of human knowledge is the sum of science at any given time.  What we can know with a high enough degree of certainty to call knowledge comes through the use of a scientific methodology, a methodology which by its nature deals with events, with realities, in what we call the natural world.  Therefore, the argument goes, there is nothing that can be known beyond the natural world.  Best to be silent, then, says Wittgenstein, regarding talk about any reality other than the natural world.

So there’s the issue.  Who’s the fool?  The one who keeps silent regarding any reality transcendent to the world, granting this can be, in the best case, a reverent silence, filled with a sense of wonder that there is a world, that there is life, but without pressing beyond that mystery to some religious or metaphysical. transcendental ground to that reality which we call the world.   Or is the fool the one who affirms a reality transcendent to this world, boldly naming that reality, God, the creator of all that exists, the source of life’s meaning and purpose.

Of course, this is a sermon.  So you know where I’m going to come down, just as you know when you watch a PBS/BBC murder “Mystery” that in the end the inspector will find out who the killer is.  But even so, I think it important to grant a point regarding limiting the word “knowledge” to the sum of science, for we need to acknowledge that there is a dimension of certainty and a universally available method of verification in scientific knowledge that forever eludes us faith speaking, faith believing, faith knowing persons.  This lack of the kind of certainty that attaches to scientific knowledge may even suggest, to some, a deficiency in our faith beliefs.  In fact, I think it points to the very character and strength of Christian faith.  I take my lead here from something said by that amazingly wise novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson: that there is “something about certainty that makes Christianity unChristian.”  That “something,” at least in part, is that the spirit of a biblical faith is the spirit of humility.  We, of all people, know how imperfect we are, inwardly imperfect, outwardly imperfect, imperfect as an individual, imperfect as a community, imperfect as a nation, imperfect as a species.  We know we are more likely to see the speck in someone else’s eye than the beam in our own.  We recognize our need for God’s forgiveness, and, in faith, we live our lives under God’s forgiveness, a forgiveness which can heal, renew, vitalize us.  All this is reason enough why we should be humble in our spirit, humble in our way of being, humble in our way of expressing ourselves to others.  But besides this spirit of humility there is another significant reason why there’s something about certainty that makes Christianity unChristian.  And the parable of the lost sheep will help us get to that something else.

Jesus tells that parable in response to the pharisees and scribes grumbling that he “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Those pharisees and scribes, that is, religiously respected and socially honored people, are certain that associating with marginalized people, such as tax collectors and sinners, tarnishes a person’s character.  It’s the same notion that we find in the story of Simon the pharisee who had invited Jesus to his house to sup with him.  When a woman, perhaps a prostitute, rushes into Simon’s house, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then wipes those feet with her hair, we are  told that Simon despises Jesus for allowing such a woman to get so close to him.  In both cases, and in others as well, it’s clear that the gospels remember Jesus as willing to break long established and respected understandings of how to live under God.  For that reason Jesus is sometimes called radical or subversive.  Those can sometimes be useful terms, sometimes not, but there’s something deeper going on in this sheep parable than whether Jesus is subversive or not, and that has to do with this whole notion of certainty, the kind of certainty that the scribes and pharisees have.  Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  If there was a cheeky shepherd boy in that crowd of listeners, would he not pipe up and say, “Sir, that’s a very unwise decision to go after one sheep leaving ninety-nine unprotected in the wilderness where there are wolves ready to pounce upon them, and who knows how long it would take to find the lost sheep, and it’s possible you never will find it.”   Well, I’m no shepherd --- though if it helps to give me authority on this issue I do live in a house built by a sheep farming family, and on land where sheep roamed for over a hundred years --- but I would say that shepherd boy’s logic is impeccable, so that Jesus is certainly not intending to give advice to shepherds. To switch the metaphor, Jesus has other fish to fry, namely, what it means to make a faith commitment to the God witnessed to in scripture: it’s like a shepherd so committed to the value of each of his sheep that he makes a very risky decision, filled with uncertainties.  For our faith commitment, the one that Jesus is pointing to, is to a God who, as the opening lines of the Book of Genesis tells us, has made us all in God’s image, meaning that all of us are worthy, all of us are valuable, all of us have a soul, all of us come under God’s judgment and God’s mercy and God’s compassion.  That faith commitment, that decision of ours to live in faith, has consequences; it moves us to an ethic of love and justice, though it’s not always clear what action is love, what action is just, and we  make mistakes, and there are times when it takes great courage to act justly, lovingly, so that our faith commitment also moves us to struggle with meaning and moral choice.   Our faith does not free us from living amidst risks, uncertainties, mistakes.  But our faith commitment does give us firm ground to stand on, ground to stand against injustice, ground to live against the cruelties and destructiveness that we human beings inflict on each other.  Today of all days, I need not remind you of human cruelty and destructive power.  For this is the eleventh day of September, 9/11. 

One more thing.  To say there is no God, at least in the context of a biblical faith, is to free oneself from God the creator, free oneself from the ethic implied in the book of Genesis with its affirmation that each of us is created in the image of God.  There are after all other places to shop for an ethic, some of which are highly worthy, or not; other places to shop for meaning, some of which are worthy, or not.  We live in a pluralistic age, just turn on the TV news or go online to the multiplicity of blogs.  So it’s no wonder that when we commit ourselves to faith in the God of Jesus Christ that commitment does not come with the kind of certainty a scientist has in, say, telling us the speed of light.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, our faith commitment is a free decision, freely given, a matter of choice, not one forced upon us by logic or events; it is  a leap, the famous leap of faith, a leap into the arms of God and Christ, a leap to a God who sets us on life’s way, makes demands upon us, and to whom with confidence we can pray for mercy, compassion, love.  Are we a fool or not for making this leap?  I praise God for God’s grace to make it.

Thanks be to God for this grace. Thanks be to Christ.  Amen.