March 3, 2024

I’ve often thought of doing a sermon about the movie “The Poseidon Adventure,” and when I saw that among this morning’s lectionary readings was the passage you heard from First Corinthians, I knew I had my chance.  I don’t know if you’ve ever considered it, but that movie is a remarkable allegory of the gospel.  And believe me, it’s no accident (if you’ll pardon the pun).  The Christ figure in the movie is a preacher (Reverend Scott, by the way) who finds himself on a ship (the ship being an ancient symbol of the church).  This ship is named the Poseidon, who was, of course, the Greek god of the sea who when angered would strike the ground with his trident and cause the earth to shake and ships to wreck.  So, the Poseidon, sailing along at Christmas time – the time of Christ’s coming into the world – is hit by a huge ocean wave that turns it completely upside down and it begins to sink.  Reverend Scott and a large crowd of folks in the ship’s ballroom find themselves topsy-turvy with the ceiling being their floor and the floor being their ceiling.  Rev. Scott tries to convince people that the only way out is by going down into the lower decks of the ship, which are now the ones closest to the surface.  His message, of course, runs counter to their instincts, and most of the people reject his idea.  But a small band of misfits agrees to follow the preacher, and they lean a huge metal-framed Christmas tree – of course – up against the wall to climb on it up to the doors, which are now up by the ceiling.  As they move up, deeper into the bowels of the ship, they encounter others who are headed toward the upper decks (now submerged more deeply in the ocean).  Reverend Scott pleads with them and says, “You’re going the wrong way!”  But they don’t listen, and continue down, finding themselves trapped as the waters that are flooding the ship rise from below.  In the final, climactic scene the good reverend and his disciples are in the engine room, almost at the end of their journey, but the way to the last hatch is blocked by steam from a broken pipe.  The only way ahead is to close a valve by turning a huge handle which is up high, over an open expanse with nothing below but the rising flood waters.  Reverend Scott jumps up to grab the valve handle and hangs there, slowly turning it.  And as the messenger of hope hangs by his arms, he saves the others, but loses his grip and sacrifices himself (sound at all familiar?).  The larger message, of course, is the same as offered by the apostle Paul in First Corinthians: Christ came into the world with a message.  And that message is that everything is turned upside down.  The deepest truth about the world we live in is that our natural instincts betray us, and when we follow the lead of the world and its values we’re going the wrong way.  Paul says, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? . . . 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”  In other words, the world is turned upside down.  What everyone thinks is wisdom is actually foolishness, what others see as weakness is real strength, what is regarded as lowly is truly great.  This is the very essence of the gospel.  And if you don’t mind, this Reverend Scott would like to lead you through it (just don’t confuse me with Jesus – I have no intention of hanging myself out to dry, even though I might find myself in over my head).

First of all, the message of the cross is about wisdom.  Wisdom was a valued commodity in the rabbinic tradition.  The rabbis took great pride in their knowledge of the intricacies of the law.  They, in their wisdom, understood that the Sabbath was set aside by Divine command for a day of rest.  They understood the sacred tradition behind Sabbath observance.  In their wisdom they knew that only God could forgive people their sins, and then only through the intercessory ritual observances of the temple priesthood.  In their wisdom, they were smart enough not to associate with those whose flagrant sinfulness seemed to laugh in the face of good moral conduct: prostitutes, tax collectors, low-lifes of the street.

But Jesus didn’t get a passing grade by the Pharisees in the subject of wisdom.  He disregarded the Sabbath, healing people on the Lord’s day, and allowing his disciples to work in the field.  He forgave people their sins, right on the spot.  He wasn’t bright enough to know that the true business of a religious leader is condemnation not forgiveness.  Jesus wasn’t even smart enough to keep the right company.  Any good politician knows how to figure out on what side their bread is buttered.  But Jesus kept the company of tax collectors and sinners, and agitated and opposed the powerful people in society.  He didn’t seem to know when, as the saying goes, “discretion is the better part of valor.”  And, as we heard in the gospel reading this morning, acted like a lunatic driving the money-changers out of the temple with a whip.  By the standards of his world, Jesus was not too bright.  But Paul says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”

But we, like the Pharisees, tend to adopt the world’s standards of wisdom.  Wisdom is to know the list of dos and don’ts, rights and wrongs, mostly so we can easily separate people into categories.  Wisdom is to be careful not to step on the wrong toes or rock the wrong boat.  Wisdom is to make sure all the wrong sorts of people get shunned or condemned.  If such is the standard for wisdom in our world, then I fear a lot of folks are headed the wrong direction, and the water’s rising against them.

A second clear failure of Jesus, by the world’s standards, was a failure of power.  In his time, a time of international power plays, with national pride and dominance the theme of the day, power was not a place to fail.  Times haven’t changed much.

But Jesus refused the call of the zealots to take up arms.  He wasn’t motivated by any drive to win, or to get all he could, or even what he might legitimately have felt he deserved.  In short, he was not the leader that everyone wanted, wielding the kind of power that they understood.  He lost his following.  He never got to build a glass cathedral, or have museum named after him.  He became an outcast, hiding with a small group of loyalists on the outskirts of town.  He was arrested and tried as a common criminal, and finally executed along with two thieves.  By the standards of both his world and ours, Jesus was powerless.  But the Apostle Paul says, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”  The teachings of that executed criminal from Nazareth are life-giving and eternally true.  And in that truth lies greater power than all the armies of all the ages.  And the message of the empty tomb is that that Divine Power turns even death upside down confounding our pessimism, and turning all of our nights of despair into resurrection mornings.

We tend to adopt the world’s standard of power.  We know how to look out for number one, to be the toughest and have the most bombs, to fight for what’s rightfully ours because we deserve it, to win an argument because we don’t want to look weak, or to go along with the prevailing popular opinion because there’s strength in numbers.  If such are the standards for determining where real power lies in our world, then I fear a lot of folks are likely to drown in their own hubris.

Then thirdly, Jesus was a loser in the world’s eyes because of a failure to meet the standards of nobility.  People knew all about the nobility of the Messiah who was to come.  He would be born in the line of David, and inherit the throne of Israel.  He would be a king’s king, with the purple hues of royalty coursing through his very veins.  And people knew about the nobility of class.  They understood the prominence of the intellectual elite: the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who should receive the honored seats and the place of status, because that’s just the way society works.  And they knew the nobility of being the right race.  They understood that Samaritans were to be shunned (or perhaps tolerated so long as they were kept in their place).

But Jesus blew it.  He didn’t often rub elbows with the elite folks in town, in fact, he tended to hang around with all the wrong people. He spent most of his time with the lower classes – he only owned one piece of clothing himself.  And as a Messiah, he was a real loser.  He was supposed to have been born a king!  But instead he was the seemingly illegitimate child of a girl from Nazareth, born in a barn!  By the standards of his world, Jesus had no class!

But Paul says, “God chose what was low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.”  Jesus taught that anyone who would receive him and his teachings is heir to a kingdom, and a child of the Most High!  And he made it clear that our ideas about winning and losing and who’s on top are all upside down.  He said, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

We tend to adopt the world’s standards of nobility.  Some folks, as we all know, are born to be winners, and some are born losers.  That’s just the way it is.  If you don’t carry the right credentials, don’t expect to get in the front door.  And everyone knows which door to use, because the rules are made clear from the time we’re born.  If such are the standards of nobility in our world, then I fear a lot of folks are headed up the down staircase.

So if you’re doing great and coming out on top by the world’s yardstick, look out.  And if you’re struggling against the tide of popular culture, take heart! Jesus turned our world absolutely upside-down!  He showed us that what we think of as constituting wisdom, strength and nobility are in fact foolishness, weakness, and foppery.  Paul puts it this way: the “weakness” of the cross is the very “power of God!”  That power is the power of reconciliation, the power of finding our joy in the reclaimed lives of others, of finding a common bond in our common human needs and failings.  In that lies wisdom, strength and nobility such as the world has not known.

Well, the little band of followers of Rev. Scott on the Poseidon finally made it.  They were saved.  What does it mean to be “saved?”  I suppose that’s another sermon.  But whatever it’s about, there’s one thing we can bank on: Faithfulness to this upside down gospel leads somewhere.  In one way or another, it pays off.  “There’s got to be,” as Maureen McGovern sang, “a morning after.”

[email protected]