Friday, November 15, 2013

Ship of Fools

          Last week I was honored to be invited to preach in a chapel service at Saint Paul School of Theology. Having not only attended seminary which had weekly chapel services but also gone to a Baptist college where chapel attendance was mandatory, I've sat through a lot of chapel services. I was honored to be asked, and I hoped I would be a more interesting speaker than many I can recall from my own days attending chapel.
            I wondered what do seminary students need from a chapel service where some random minister just shows up to preach? Well, if they're anything like me and ministers I know, we were all wondering (and still are) if this whole calling from God thing is legit. Do I dare believe that God is bothering to call somebody like me to be a minister? I came to seminary right out of college when I was young and broke, but also I didn't have a career, a family or anything really to lose. The stakes were relatively low. Most seminary students today, however, are coming in at mid-life and they are second-career students. They have left behind job security and taken on school debt. They have spouses and children who are wondering if they have gone crazy and are going through some kind of reverse mid-life crisis. If they are at all self-aware they are wondering if they are fools for "accepting God's call" to be a minister.

            I was reminded of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians, where he writes, "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." Following where God leads to proclaim a message of sacrifice, humility and service is foolishness from the perspective of our culture. Yet, Paul writes God chooses to use what is "foolish" in human terms to shame the conventional wisdom of humanity. So, I told the gathered seminary students to take heart if they felt foolish, because God uses what is "foolish" to accomplish wise things.
            I was scrambling for a sermon title and thought of the expression "Ship of Fools." I didn't really know where it came from, but a quick Google search revealed that the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about it. I wanted to look educated since I was speaking at a seminary, and I happened to have a copy of Foucault's Madness and Civilization sitting on my shelf never read, so I picked it up and read what Foucault has to say about where the expression "Ship of Fools" came from.
            According to Foucault, in the Middle Ages municipalities would literally ship off their people with mental illness by paying ship captains to take them away and dump them in the next port of call. That image captured the imagination of artists and writers who depicted shiploads of "fools" or mentally ill people adrift at sea. Later on during the Renaissance, this image of a "Ship of Fools" was taken up as a means to criticize religious hypocrisy and excess. The Latin word for ship "navi" and the word for church "nave" were similar, so a simple pun would turn a "ship of fools" into a "church of fools." Think Don Quixote or one of Shakespeare's fools and you get the idea of how a "fool" is a great character for speaking the truth to those who think they are wise but really are not. Sometimes, it takes a fool to speak the truth, because any wise person knows to keep her or his mouth shut.
            I reminded the future ministers of what they already know-that the 21st church is cast adrift from a culture that no longer honors religious institutions. A recent poll said that 44% of Millennials claim "none" when it comes to religious affiliation. Yet, I offered my opinion that the 21st century church has also set adrift anyone who really wants to be "foolish" in the way Paul talks about. I argue that most forms of the church today act like insecure middle schoolers running around doing anything to be liked by a culture that no longer cares about them. The most popular religious best-sellers are essentially self-help books that trade in a form of self-fulfillment that differs little from narcissism.
            It is difficult to find examples of churches that really want to embody the sort of sacrifice Jesus demonstrated in his own teachings and actions. It has always been and I guess it will always be counter-cultural to sacrifice out of one's own blessings, comfort and security for the sake of others who do not have them. In a world where fame, luxury and wealth are celebrated-no matter how gaudy-it really is "foolish" to try to live in a way that demonstrates compassion for others.
            I gave my thoughts about being on board a "ship of fools" to seminary students, just as I try to do each Sunday at our church. It's a pleasure to be sailing with you foolish folks at CCCUCC.

Grace and Peace,