Holy Fools for God – Br. James Koester

2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12b – 19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1: 3 – 14
Mark 6: 14 – 29

There is a wonderful tradition in the church, more familiar in the churches of the Orthodox east than in the west, but one which we catch glimpses of none the less. That tradition is of the holy fool; people who make themselves look foolish in the eyes of the world for the sake of their devotion to Christ. Here in the west, Francis of Assisi is often thought of as one of Christ’s fools.

We catch occasional glimpses of this foolishness for God in scripture, including in today’s lesson from Samuel where we watch David danced with wild abandon before the ark of God and not (if you’ll pardon the expression) giving a damn what people (and least of all his wife) thought.

The life of Christ itself is an example of God’s own foolishness as through the incarnation and the cross “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross.” [Phil. 2: 7,8] This foolishness of God broke the limits of generosity through God’s act of pure self-offering [see SSJE Rule: The Spirit of Poverty] and invites all of us to share in a life of foolhardy self giving.

Some of the greatest loved saints of the Orthodox Church have taken seriously this call to be fools for God. In so doing have rejected the conventional ways of the world behaving as if they were mad in order to get the attention of those around them: eating only food given to them by the poor, to remind the rich of their need to be generous; dressing in rags, or cast offs, or nothing at all, to remind all that we will not be judged by what we wear on our bodies, but what we wear on our hearts; standing for long hours in prayer, to remind us that the “one thing necessary” in our life is our life in God.

In the Christian East there is a whole class of saints, known as “fools for God” who have found their way into the heart of the Church as they have called the Church back time and again to follow, not the wisdom of the world, but rather the foolishness of God and like David to dance before God as if there is no tomorrow.

Curiously one of the common, although not universal marks, of being a fool for Christ, seems to be public nudity, or at least the willingness to run around in your underwear. Now, lest you get nervous here and think I’m about to strip down to my skivvies and dance with wild abandon before the altar, or worse still, invite you to do the same, there are other marks of being a fool for Christ. Although these other marks are a little more modest they are none the less deemed by the world as crazy and mark those who profess them as fools. Those marks of a fool for Christ are the traditional monastic vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience.

Any of us who have been called by God to profess these vows know, to a certain extent, their lunacy and we are often looked upon, by family and friends as being slightly crazy, if not downright foolish. But we aren’t the only fools here by any means. While we in the community have made vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, many of you are attempting to live equally foolish lives compatible with these vows: lives of limitation, temperance and wisdom that only comes from listening before acting.

We all know, and never more so than now, when so many have lost jobs, and homes, and investments, that we can’t have it all, be it all, take it all. All of us live lives of limitation whether you have taken a vow of poverty, or are simply trying to pay off credit cards or make your mortgage or pay the rent. The huge market fluctuations in the last ten months have forced all of us, including us here in the community, to understand more than ever that life, though full of possibilities, is also full of limitations. There are limits to what we can have, or be, or get and once again we are all being forced to live within certain limits. While this is true for everyone in general, it is especially true for Christians who believe in the interconnectedness of all and our connection with creation as a whole. Unless we learn to live with limitations the destruction we will cause to creation and the inequity we will establish between people will cause irreparable harm to the environment and perpetuate cycles of destitution and violence among nations.

The monastic virtue of  poverty is not simply to teach monastics to hold all things in common, it is meant to teach all of us to regard limitations, not as confining, but as a liberating act of God’s justice for all.

Like the vow of poverty, the vow of celibacy is about limitations. Narrowly speaking celibacy is about limiting one’s sexual expression. More broadly speaking, the vow is about living temperately. Just as living within our limitations reminds us that you can’t have “it” all, living temperately reminds us that you can’t “have” everyone.  Sexuality is about more than sex and celibacy reminds us that there are more ways to be generative, to be creative, and to recreate than through the sexual act alone. Celibacy reminds us that there are ways to intimacy that do not take us through the bedroom door. Celibacy and temperance are not simply about sexual abstinence, they are about recognizing the inherent dignity of both yourself and the other person.

We know that we live in a sexed up culture. One only has to look at magazine and billboard advertisements to understand that. But I would argue that culture has been sexed up since Eden. When haven’t we been preoccupied with sex? Just read a Jane Austin novel or the Song and Songs or wander though the MFA to answer that question.

While the monastic vow of celibacy isn’t (and shouldn’t be) for everyone, the virtue of temperance can be. Celibacy and temperance are not anti-sex or even anti-sexuality so much as they are about limitations that allow us to discover the dignity with which we are all vested simply because we have been created in the image and likeness of God. Temperance, like celibacy is a way for us to take the time to discover the gift from God that the other is to us and to learn that creativity and generativity and intimacy are divine gifts not dependant on the sexual bond alone.

If the monastic vow of celibacy and the virtue of temperance are about discovering the inherent dignity of each person, then the vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening before acting is about paying attention to that dignity. We know that obedience isn’t simply doing what you are told to do because you have been told to do it, it is about listening, and the wisdom that comes from listening. Those who are engaged in any form of ministry often have the experience of saying or doing something, and then wondering “where did that come from?” or “how did I know to do that?” That kind of wisdom only comes from listening.

The discovery of your own inner wisdom is about paying attention to your own dignity. As the bumper sticker that I once saw does: “God doesn’t make junk”. We are human beings created in the image and likeness of God and therefore are vested with an inherent dignity. It is that dignity that the vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening before acting invites us to pay attention to.

At times it is our own inner dignity that we are called to listen to. At other times it is the dignity that comes from another’s listening heart that we must respond to. In this impatient world, neither are easy, for listening takes time. But listening also demands humility. We need humility and not arrogance, when we listen to our own inner wisdom. But equally important will be the humility that is called forth from us when we must listen to the wisdom of others, especially in this independent, me first age.

The monastic vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom that comes from listening before acting, teaches all of us that we are vested with dignity and in an age when people are simply regarded as consumers and tax-payers rather than as citizens and saints, human dignity is often expendable. The vow of obedience and the virtue of wisdom remind us that this is not true. God doesn’t make junk.

Since the beginning of the monastic movement in the church, men and women who have followed this path, have been regarded as fools, fools for Christ, because who after all would willingly give up sex, money and power? In the Orthodox world, monastics are often referred to as fools for Christ, and certainly it is my experience, and I would guess that of my brothers, that we are still regarded as fools for trying to follow this path. But we aren’t the only fools here. Anyone who rejoices in limitations, who tries to live temperately, and who seeks wisdom is also a fool.

David was regarded as a fool by his wife because he danced with wild abondon before the ark, manifesting to all his ardor and devotion for God. Are you foolish enough to get dance with David?  Or are you at least foolish enough to try to live with limitations? To live temperately? To live with wisdom? If so, then welcome to the world of fools, fools for Christ and fools for God.


© 2009

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  1. Rhode on June 27, 2016 at 09:03

    Parts of this sermon (that temperance or celibacy is not a pejorative, that sexuality can still be thoughtfully, prayerfully considered sacred, that self-serving indescretions are still an afront to God and at cost to our dignity) came up at dinner last night as we (2 couples same ages 60s) are dealing with our sons and daughters in their early 20s. We came out of the 60s barely mindful of the wild swath of chaos we left behind in our struggle for ‘free love’. Now, our 2 children, freely Tinder and swipe and speed date forming hurried liasons that spin our heads and make me fall to my knees in prayer for them. Your sermon was the antidote for the malaise of heart I awoke with this morning. I will try to share this with my son, in love.

    • Heather on March 30, 2019 at 12:14

      Oh well said my sister. I’m in my 50s and facing the same sobering, crippling consciousness. Yes, thank you for this article and associated comments.

  2. Anders on October 14, 2013 at 07:34

    It’s easy to see sexuality and spirituality in our culture as an either/or proposition, but I question if they are really expressions of the same God-given gift. Perhaps those who practice celibacy remind us of the full spectrum of Gods regenerative and creative love, whereas others have the opportunity of fully bringing God’s love made flesh into relationship with others. It’s a tall order not to hold these in balance, no matter how we define ourselves.
    Your sermon reminds me that it is my task in life to listen, and much listening is from the wisdom of my body. I am turning the table to listen to Father Earth and Mother God in how I understand obedience, and this is giving me a greater sense of the gift of spritusexuality.

  3. Robert on August 30, 2013 at 02:02

    Thanks, James. I loved that sermon, and will be studying it further. In the meantime I find that listening is quite hard, as ones own thoughts often intrude, which then obscures God’s message.

    • CMAC on October 14, 2013 at 09:39

      A thought to quieten your thoughts:
      Excerpt from Psalm 45, which I personalize:
      You, who art closer than my breath
      Speak to me from the silence.

      Another: Be still and know that I am God (Love).

  4. Ladypamelalady on August 24, 2013 at 14:51

    Thank you Foolish James for that word of truth . As one in a state of momentary foolishness by family and others; your sermon gives me strength. Funny thing is, this foolishness has filled my heart with songs of praise and thanksgiving.

  5. Maureen Doyle on November 25, 2012 at 11:42

    We have been told by so many, in so many ways, that our only worths are our finances, power, or usefulness as an object.
    Those of us who aren’t any of these, especially those who choose this state are delightful in their foolishness.
    Thank you foolish James.

  6. jane goldring on March 1, 2012 at 11:04

    thanks james for that message. i think that when we are put on this earth there is a definite calling for us. If we will do the best we can with what we have been blessed with i think we will acheive something. sometimes it is a struggle for us but if we only will turn to God for the help we need. I still believe what you sow you will reap in your lifetime. jane

  7. Scott Redmond on June 16, 2011 at 06:06

    Br. James, that totally rocks!

  8. DLa Rue on June 16, 2011 at 04:32

    Thankfully, those of us called to the danced ministry are not generally tempted to “dress down” so radically, but it’s interesting that such ministries are currently less well supported in areas with the capacity for an otherwise politically and theologically astute rhetoric.

    It may be necessary to ask: “You can talk the talk, but can you dance the dance?”

  9. Maryanne Wolf on July 14, 2009 at 11:26

    I am most grateful for the gentle, forgiving, and generative wisdom of this sermon about the intrinsic foolishness of being faithful to hope and to love and to God. We are all buffeted by a thousand challenges—some blatant, most insidious—to faith in all its many forms, whether in the monastic life or the more secular one. I will read this sermon from time to time, as a kind of antidote to the spiritual weariness that comes with those daily tests. And I will be grateful.

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