December 24, 2017, Heavenly Foolishness – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Once upon a time there was a kingdom that was under seige. Surrounded by a multitude of its enemies, the people of the kingdom could not set one foot out of the city gates without being captured. Prisoners were executed; and those who escaped death were no more fortunate, for they were thrown into prison or forced into slavery. Neither could anyone from outside come to their aid, so impenetrable was the force of the enemies on every side. The people of that kingdom lived in continual fear from day to day. They were terrified of falling into the hands of their cruel and merciless enemies. But they were equally terrified of the poverty and hunger within their walls. Day after day, week after week, month after month, no help came to them. No supplies of food or firewood, medicines or lamp oil were able to reach them through the impassible barrier of the besieging forces.
Famine and disease crept through the city like a cold, dense fog. No one could escape the effects of the siege, from the beggar in rags on the street to the king in his high castle. Clad in velvet and fur though he was, even the vast kitchens and pantries and storerooms of the king were soon as bare as those of his subjects. To make matters worse, as if that were even possible, spring passed, and summer and autumn, and winter began to draw near. Cold winds howled through the silent streets and reached chilly fingers through the cracks in walls and windows. The daylight hours grew rapidly shorter, and without any oil for their lamps or fuel for their fires the people sat out the long nights in cold and darkness and despair.
As the darkest days of the year approached, the king knew he had to do something to save his people or soon all would be lost. He sent out cryers to the four corners of his kingdom with this message: “To the loyal subjects of our kingdom, from your King: greeting in this darkest of times. It seems likely to us that the day is nearly upon us that we will have to give in to the forces that surround our kingdom. We will all be captured, or worse. Mercy will be shown to no one, man, woman or child. Therefore, let those among us who are in possession of any wisdom or power with which we may have some hope of gaining victory over our enemies, come forward without delay. Every resource of our kingdom will be at your disposal to carry out your plan. And to the one who saves us in our need, all that is mine will be his, and the wealth and honor of this kingdom will belong to him and to his family for all generations.”
Only a few hours later, a warrior came to the great front doors of the castle and demanded to see the King. A man in the prime of his years, he was a seasoned general who had commanded the King’s soldiers for more than two decades. Opening up a parchment he began at once to outline a brilliant strategy to defeat the enemy armies once and for all. There was no doubt the plan would succeed, the warrior boasted, as long as everyone showed great courage and followed the plans just as he ordered. Filled with hope for the first time in months, the King gave the word at once for the warrior’s plan to be carried out. In the cold dawn of the following morning, the gates were flung open and the assault began. But before the early twilight of that same day, the battle had turned against the King’s forces, and only a few ragged soldiers had survived to follow their captain back through the city gates before they were hastily barricaded once more against the mocking enemy.
As the King sat despairing in the twilight, there was another pounding at the castle’s doors. The servants opened to find a tall, elegant man, dressed in clothes as fine and well-fitted as those of the King himself. The richest man in the whole kingdom, he had come to offer his wealth as a solution to the kingdom’s terrible predicament. “Let us send a messenger, bearing the flag of truce, out through the city gates,” said the rich man. “Let him speak to none other than the King of our enemy, and to give him this message: ‘Within these embattled gates sits one who is willing to offer you wealth surpassing your wildest imaginings. Only call off this weary siege. Allow your troops to return to their homes. And you will be given all you ask and more.’ There is no doubt,” continued the rich man, “that our enemy, brutal and heartless though he might be, will be swayed by the promise of great riches. You mark my words. We will be a free kingdom by dawn tomorrow.” Discouraged by the disgraceful failure of the warrior’s plan, the King felt less hopeful, and yet what was there to do but to try it, when total destruction crouched at the very gates of their kingdom? The rich man sent one of his own servants out through the city gate, richly dressed, holding a flag for parley, and his master’s message. It is not known what the fate of the unlucky servant was, but the only answer to the rich man’s bold and generous offer was a roar of laughter from the soldiers outside the walls.
At that moment, a third knock came at the great front doors of the castle. The King sadly commanded that whoever it was might as well be admitted, though he was fast losing all hope. When he looked up, a man stood before him dressed in the simplest of robes – which was just as well, since the King had little interest in wealth and luxury at that moment. He was a thin man, elderly, with a long, grey beard and a pair of spectacles on his beak-like nose. In his arms he carried a book – the largest and most ancient book the King had ever seen. The King found himself very curious to know what this venerable old scholar might have to say. “It is no wonder, no wonder at all,” said the old man, “that our efforts have so far failed to rescue our kingdom from our enemies. Faced with the armies of the greatest nations in the world, how could we have hoped to defeat our foes in battle, no matter how bravely and cleverly our soldiers fought? We sent those brave men to their deaths, though it was a noble effort. Our second attempt was less noble, and yet even more foolish. Our enemy is already possessed of immense wealth – otherwise how could they maintain this great siege against us? The real folly of that plan, however, was that the enemy King knows perfectly well that all he must do to gain the wealth of our kingdom is to let his siege do its work. Within a few days, or weeks at the most, he must know that all will be his.”
The King was speechless at the obvious truth of these words. He could only groan sadly at how foolish he had been to put his hope in strength or in great riches. “But don’t give up hope, O King,” said the old man, “for this book I am holding contains the wisdom of all the generations of our wisest scholars and philosophers. I myself will go out the city gates, as soon as I leave this great castle. And I will reason with our enemies until they are persuaded to leave us. They are men, not beasts, and can surely be reasoned with, man to man, if one has the wisdom to do so.” The King was not so sure about that, but the man was so old and spoke with such certainty, and his book was so weighty and dusty and ancient, that he sent him forth to try if wisdom might succeed where strength and riches had failed. It is said that the old man fared better than the rich man’s servant, because when he was taken captive, he was sent to be a tutor for the enemy King’s nine children, and was treated rather well, all things considered. But his wisdom did nothing to rescue the kingdom from its siege.
On the darkest day of the year the sun rose very late. The clouds were dense and heavy with snow that morning, and the sun seemed to give neither light nor warmth as it climbed wearily into the sky. Worn out by sadness and hunger and despair, the people of the kingdom, rich and poor alike, sat quiet and unmoving in their homes. There seemed nothing left to do. Nothing stirred in the silent streets save a few early flakes of snow, tossed about by the cold winds. But then in the shadows near the city gates, if there had been anyone to see it (but there wasn’t) there was the smallest of movements, just the barest whisper of a sound. And if anyone had been watching (but they weren’t) they would have seen a very slight person – no bigger than a young child – open the postern gate just the merest crack and slip outside. The child was so thin it seemed the brisk winter winds would blow him away, and his eyes were very large and dark in his face, as were the eyes of all the hungry children in that kingdom. He was clothed – well, he was almost not clothed at all, really, so thin and patched and frayed were the rags that were wrapped around his frail little body. His feet were bare on the hard, frosty earth and his hands were empty; he carried no book or weapon, no flag of truce, no parchment carrying a message from someone important. As he walked through the ranks of armored soldiers camped about the kingdom, they merely stared, struck dumb with wonder to see a little child in such a place, and a poor, starving little runt of a thing at that. He passed through their midst without a word, and none made a move to harm him, though the war horses stretched out their noses and nuzzled at him gently as he walked by, and the soldiers’ dogs wagged their tails in quiet greeting.
The Child walked, making almost no sound with his bare feet on the cold ground, until he came to the richly embroidered tent of the enemy King, still asleep under his royal furs, dreaming of victory and honor and glory. Four soldiers stood guard at the entrance to the King’s tent, but not one of them made a move to stop the Child as he slipped between the tapestried hangings at the tent’s mouth and went in. And when the enemy King awoke, there was the Child, standing by his bed, his great dark eyes fixed on the King’s sleep-shadowed ones. And the Child held out his hand to the King.
The next morning, the people of the kingdom woke to a new day. Who knew if it might be their last? And yet, on that morning, every man, woman and child in the kingdom awoke with an unexpected lightness in their hearts. Some sense – maybe not of hope, but some small lessening of dread, anyway – prodded them out of their beds and out their doors, where they stood with their neighbors in puzzlement, looking around them to see what had happened. Suddenly a little girl, who was looking out of an upstairs window, pointed to the walls of the city and cried out, “They’re gone!” And those who could see out into the fields beyond the walls soon called out that she was right. The hills around the kingdom, frost-covered and pitted by the feet of innumerable boots and hooves and the ruts of wagons and engines of war: those hills lay bare and empty. The only movement to be seen were the snowflakes swirling silently in the air like sparks of light. But in the middle of the road that led forth from the city gates they saw a single set of prints amid the churned and rutted mud: the bare footprints of a child.
* * *
Of course, that is just a fairytale, but the truth is that we also live in a world that is under siege. On all sides, we see see the ravages of mankind’s sin. War and violence and suffering are such constant presences in our lives that we are in danger of becoming numb to them. There is the distant horror of warfare across the globe, the deaths of millions of people no more guilty than we are, and millions more living as refugees, fleeing from danger into danger. But there is also the daily violence of hatred and fear and poverty in our own nation – the persistent evils of racism and sexual violence; of crushing poverty and unchecked greed; of partisanship and a disregard for the truth. Even the creatures who share the world with us suffer violence as we poison our air and water, destroy their habitats, and exploit them for our own pleasure.
And in the continual night of our siege mankind searches desperately for hope. We put our hope in human strength – in military might, or in political power, or if all else fails, in the strength of sheer numbers. We put our hope in wealth – in the amassing of resources, in financial security, in our 401k’s and the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S and P 500. We put our hope in human wisdom – in the strategy of one party’s platform or another; in our advanced degrees and specialized knowledge, or in a sort of counter-wisdom that despises education. And the siege continues.
Isaiah wrote, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” In our darkness and despair and utter helplessness, hope entered the world in the most unexpected way possible. On the surface, the story of Christmas doesn’t sound very hopeful: a common laborer and his pregnant wife, forced to deliver their first child in a barn because not a single person would take them in, and then forced straightaway to run for their lives, living as refugees in a foreign land. They had no strength, physical or political. No wealth, no financial security. No great wisdom in the eyes of the world. Only the kindness of Joseph, the humility of Mary, and the foolishness of faith.
But as Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,,,” And it is in what the world calls foolishness, it is in weakness and poverty and nothingness, that God breaks the power of the siege. Because the reality is that no power on this earth can withstand the power of grace and compassion and forgiveness and humility. God himself was born into this besieged world, poor and obscure and utterly vulnerable, in the ultimate act of heavenly foolishness. And that first Christmas morning, the world woke to the dawning of his kingdom, to freedom and healing and a new life. The siege walls of our fear and guilt are down; the chains of our own forging are broken. And the footprints of the Child are there for us to follow.