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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Here come the Clowns!

Epiphany 4A      I Corinthians 1: 18-31

Here come the clowns.

Almost all of us here today enjoy seeing and watching clowns and their crazy antics. We have images of clowns in our minds. Many of our clowns look like the classic clown by the name of Emmet Kelley. Clowns with their faces painted white. Clowns with those big red dots on their cheeks. Clowns with red plastic balls over their noses. Clowns with their blue frazzled curly hair. Clowns with their large polka-dotted shirts. Clowns with their baggy overalls. Clowns with their long floppy shoes. Yes, we all know what clowns look like. We all have our mental images of clowns, of what clowns should look like.

Here come the clowns.

When I think of clowns, I think of the parades at the Des Moines Waterland Festival or down in Seattle at the annual Sea Faire parade. Now, if you have been to any parade, you know that inevitably, as part of the parade, you are going to see the “clown car.” Right? The clown car and here it comes down the main street with all the clowns in it. You can actually see it in your mind’s eye. The car is bobbing up and down like an old rocking horse; there are no shock absorbers, so it seems. The radiator in this old car is hissing out steam. The horn is going “beep-bop, beep-bop, beep-bop” and the siren is wailing like an old fire truck. There must be six or seven or eight clowns crammed into that old hissing, rocking, beep-bopping car and what happens? We all know what happens. It stops right in front of you. And the clowns all come tumbling out of that car. The clowns run around the car in several directions, bumping into one another’s bellies and falling on the street. The children are all laughing with delight and the adults are grunting in subdued sounds, “ha…ha…ha.”  Now, about this time, one clown approaches another clown, and the first clown is wearing a large plastic flower. The second clown approaches to smell the large plastic flower, and as he leans over to smell the flower, what happens? We all know.  Out comes a spray of water from the plastic flower and shoots the clown in the face. The children who are sitting on the curb laugh with delight, splitting their sides, they are laughing so hard. Meanwhile, a trace of a smile creases the faces of the adults. Jesus said that we are to have the eyes of children. All of a sudden, the siren goes off, the signal is given, and the clowns tumble and stumble back into the car and away it goes, rocking, hissing, beep-bopping down the street to find some more children on another curb called life.

It is with these images of clowns and making a fool of one’s self and having the appearance of foolishness, stupidity and ridiculousness, that we approach the epistle lesson for today where the Apostle Paul says that we are “fools for Christ.” We are clowns for Christ.

All through the book of I Corinthians, we hear this theme about divine foolishness. Corinthians says, “The word of the cross is foolishness to those whose lives are falling apart, but to those who are being saved, the cross is the very power of God.” Other statements echo the same refrain: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Has God not destroyed the wisdom of the wise?” Or, “God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in this world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised to accomplish his will.” To sum this theme up, we are called to be fools for Christ.

Throughout the New Testament, we discover this divine madness about God. We discover that God acts like a clown, that the Lord of the Universe acts like a fool. Unreasonable. Not responsible. Not sensible. Not practical but downright foolish.

To illustrate, the Incarnation. Do you know any other God who actually comes down to earth as a human being? In all the other religions, God is more reasonable and comes as a mighty religious prophet such as Mohammed, Buddha, or Confucius. God does not come to earth as a lowly human being who suffers the way we do. How dumb of God to suffer like we human beings. It would have been much easier to stay up in the painless security of heaven.

And how about the parents of this Jesus of Nazareth. Do you know any other god whose father was a wood-working carpenter and his mother a thirteen year old pregnant girl? How unbecoming of God. I mean, for a father, it should have been Alexander the Great, Socrates or Plato. For a mother, it should have been the Queen of Sheba, Queen Nefreti of Egypt, or Cleopatra of Rome. I mean, if God were a classy God, God would have chosen better parents for Jesus. How foolish. How unbecoming.

And if God were a respectable God, he would have been born in someplace like the Taj Mahal or the Kremlin or the White House or some other grand palace of Europe or China. But God gets himself born in a cow barn. A dirty old common cow barn. How foolish. How dumb. How ridiculous.

Then he begins talking and teaching like an idiotic fool. Who would ever take his teachings seriously? He said: “Someone hits you on one cheek, offer the other cheek for them to hit.” Dumb. Or, “Someone takes your coat, give them all your clothing as well.” Not smart. Or, “Someone asks you to do a favor and go a mile for them, go the second mile for that person.” Ridiculous. Or, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Get real. Or, “Your enemy spits in your eye, love them back.” Impossible. You have to be a fool to take that stuff seriously. His teachings are not practical, not reasonable, not sensible.

Not only the teachings but the stories about Jesus again reveal this same divine madness. A woman gets caught in the very act of adultery and Jesus says to her, without her even confessing her sins, “I do not condemn you.”  What? Another woman has five husbands and the man she was living with wasn’t her husband and Jesus again did not condemn her. What? Jesus was getting killed on the cross and he called out, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” What? Forgiveness for someone who is killing him and not even saying that they are sorry? Mad. Divine madness, I say.

Do you know any other God who gets himself killed on a cross? A clown on a cross? Do you know any other God who gets himself killed as a common and ordinary criminal? I mean, all the other gods come with their lightning bolts and laser beams. But killed on a cross? How foolish. 

You see, there is a streak of divine madness that runs throughout all of Christianity. This foolishness. This clownishness. This absurdness..

And then Jesus goes and chooses his disciples. What a joke. Jesus wanted to change the world. Now, to change the world, I would have chosen an Alexander the Great, a Napoleon, a Hannibal. But Simon Peter? A fisherman? Andrew, James, John? They probably couldn’t read and write. I thought God wanted to change the world. And soon they were thrown to the lions, they wouldn’t bow to Caesar as Lord, and they died as martyrs. What fools.

And then there is this theology of God’s grace which is so perplexing. This foolish love from God is all a gift to us. Tell me, what did you do to deserve the rain today? Nothing! The sunshine? Nothing! The snow? Nothing! The sunrise? Nothing! The sunset? Nothing! To be born? Nothing! To be born again? Nothing! To be born for all eternity? Nothing? God’s love is all a gift, a pure gift, like the rain, like the sunshine, like the forgiving love given to the crowd who crucified him on Good Friday. Pure gift. Pure grace.

What I am suggesting to you is that at the very heart of the Gospel is a foolishness, a divine madness, a cross-like craziness. This divine madness was inside of God from the beginning, was totally inside of Jesus, and came into his followers by means of the Holy Spirit.

Listen to the word of the Lord fro today: “The way of the cross is foolishness to those whose lives are falling apart, but the way of the cross is power to those who believe.”

This divine madness of God gets into his followers and his followers start to act like clowns. There is a power to this way of living and loving. Let me give you some classic illustrations of people that I have known. The people are followers of the way of the cross and they are possessed of this power for living and power for loving.  These are people who have acted like clowns.

There was Ray and Lillian Brathovd who when I first came to town thirty years ago, they had raised 26 foster children. They must have been out of their mind to raise 26 foster kids. I also knew Floyd Leinenger and he and his wife, both childless, raised 84 foster children when they were living in Portland. They must have been nuts to do that.  Then, there was a retired school teacher by the name of Ellen Heffner, the mother of our homeless ministry here at church, and I remember her going down to feed the homeless men under the Alaskan Viaduct, all alone. That was crazy and many of us told her so. She said that a man named Sam was looking out for her. All three of these people had power, a power for living, a power for loving.

Then there are the simple samples of this divine madness that infects and affects people who call themselves Christians, who are followers of the way, who know the power of the way of the cross. There are all those people whose lives have become immersed in Haiti and Jamaica. There is that teenager who used the money for her senior trip to go, not to Hawaii, but to work in the orphanage in Mexico and said she wanted to get “down and dirty for Jesus Christ.” There are those people who come early in the morning much before the crack of dawn to make an enormously delicious breakfast for the homeless men. That is kind of dumb…to go to some remote place in Haiti, an orphanage in Mexico, a kitchen at church and feed homeless people. There is a power to these peoples’ lives, a power for living, a power for loving.

There are other stories of people who have a touch of this divine madness to the way they think, live and love. They too have become fools for Christ and part of this divine foolishness. There is the story of Jean Marie Donovan, a nice kid, a nice young woman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was a devout, young, Roman Catholic. She had a heart full of Jesus and she went down to El Salvador to work with the homeless children. She came back to Milwaukee and her boyfriend wanted her to marry him, have a little house with a white picket fence and raise a family. That was the sensible thing to do. The responsible thing to do. Her boyfriend said, “Don’t go back, Jeanne. You are going to get killed. Stay here and marry me. Let’s raise some kids of our own. That’s the sensible thing to do.” Something inside of her told her to go back to El Salvador. She got off the plane, got onto a bus, and two miles out of town, she was attacked, raped, killed and her body thrown into a dirty grave. When they brought her body back home for a funeral,  her neighbors thought it to themselves but didn’t say it openly, “That was really foolish on her part. Crazy. Dumb. She should have known better.” They didn’t get this power of living and loving and dying for others.

Another story of this power for living and loving. This is the story of the book, LEST INNOCENT BLOOD BE SHED. It is a story about Pastor Andre during World War II in southern France. The Nazis were rounding up the Jews to exterminate them and so the pastor called a secret meeting of his congregation. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s hide the Jews so they won’t be found or killed or sent off in railroad cars.” You can hear the responses at that congregational secret meeting. “You’ve got to be kidding. We could be killed. Our families could be killed. That is foolish. Outlandish. Preposterous.”  But the congregation went ahead and did it anyhow. Time passed. One day, a Nazi truck pulled into town to round up all the Jews, and the soldiers asked, “Where are all the Jews?” “None around here,” was the reply. “They all skipped town.” The Nazi soldiers searched the town until they found one lone Jewish boy who was walking the streets. He made a mistake. The Nazis threw this Jewish boy into the back of their truck. The towns people gathered around that truck, saying not a word, giving not a hint of recognition. The Nazis asked, “Now which of you are a friend of this Jew here?” No one said a word. Silence. A long silence. Finally, a little thirteen year old boy reached down into his pocket of his jacket and pulled out a piece of chocolate. Chocolate was scare during World War II. He looked carefully at that piece of chocolate, looked at the older Jew young man in the truck, and gave it to the Jew. His parents responded with looks, “Don’t be stupid, son. Don’t be crazy, boy. Keep your distance. Do you want to get us all killed?” Silence. Shuffling of feet on the pavement. Then slowly, you could see the towns people put their hands into their pockets and they too found pieces of chocolate. One by one, they stretched out their hands into that truck and gave the Jewish lad a sweet. Sweets for his ride to the railroad cars and then to death. Fools. Real fools. Yes, they were fools for Christ and there was a power in their living and there was a power in their loving.

Then there was this congregational annual meeting in 1974, I believe, when the motion was made here at Grace Lutheran to borrow and give $100,000 away to world hunger. The response? Idiotic. Foolish. How about all that interest on all that money?” It was voted down resoundingly. We could borrow a $100,000 to remodel a sanctuary or buy a new organ. We could borrow money to buy something material but we couldn’t borrow money to give it away. Not practical. Downright foolish, so was said by many. It is always been the height of irony this congregation now gives away almost exactly $100,000 a year to world hunger. We couldn’t borrow a $100,000 in 1974 to give it away. We refused to borrow it but God empowered us to give $100,000 away every year. Go figure. I think it is a divine joke.

Clowns. Fools for Jesus Christ. Common and ordinary clowns that God uses to change the world.  These clowns have discovered that the way of the cross is part of the divine foolishness of God and there is power in the way of the cross. There is power in their living and power in their loving. The everyday clown? How about the school teacher who is at school by 6:45 in the morning to help a slower chemistry student with his homework. I can hear some saying, “Come on now. That is ridiculous.” How about a friend of mine who drove from Oregon to North Dakota three times this past summer. Three times to be with her dying mother. Kind of foolish? Or how about that neighbor, who goes every morning to care for another neighbor who is dying of cancer, a neighbor she doesn’t really know that well. The husband asks, “How come you are always going over to her house, honey? I don’t get it.” Yes, there is power in their living and power in their loving and power in their dying to self that others might live.

I received an email from my brother this last week, and his email was another illustration of the way of the cross, the power for living and loving. It is the story of Kurtis and Brenda. They met in a super grocery story; he was the stock boy and she was the check out lady. He was twenty-two and she was twenty-six. Kurtis was attracted to Brenda and asked her out. She refused, saying she was divorced and had two children. She had “baggage.” Kurtis persisted anyway. A date was arranged and Kurtis arrived at the door. Brenda met him and again cancelled the date; the baby sitter had gotten sick. Brenda finally let Kurtis in her apartment to meet her two children. The little girl was as cute as the bug. The little boy was in a wheel chair, was a paraplegic, and had Down’s syndrome. Kurtis said, “There is no reason all four of us can’t go out tonight.” Time went by and Kurtis became fast friends of the family, learning to lift the little boy out of the wheelchair to go to the bathroom. Eventually, Kurtis and Brenda fell in love, married and had two more children. Today, if and when you watch the Superbowl football game, watch Kurt Warner, the star quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, perhaps the best football player in the league today. As you watch him as the star quarterback, remember the “rest of the story,” that he knows the foolishness of the cross, the way of the cross, the way of living and the way of loving.

You see, there is this divine madness in God, in Jesus, in the people of Jesus who do these foolish things. There is power to their living and power to their loving.

Here come the clowns! Do you see them? Here come the clowns? Are you part of them? Are you part of their parade?

This past summer, I was once again on the Main Street of Des Moines, Washington, watching the Waterland Festival Parade. And suddenly, a child shouted, “Here come the clowns.” And sure enough, here came the clown car, hissing, rocking and rolling, beep-bopping, stopping right in front of us, stopping right in front of our curb. … And sometimes, when I look at the individual lives of our church members and sometimes when I look at a group of people from the congregation, I say to myself, “Here come the clowns! Here comes the power of God. Here comes the power of God’s love.  Here come the people of love. Here come the clowns.” And these clowns may stop for a moment right in front of the curb of my life where I am sitting. I get to see your lives up really close. I smile. I smile because I know what’s inside you. I know the power of your living and your loving. I know that you know the way of the cross. I know that you are clowns for Jesus Christ.

Here come the clowns!


(It may be that the pastor will ask the youth to dress up and be clowns that day and distribute bulletins or candy. They can become props for a children’s sermon or even the climax of the adult sermon.)

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