140202 – Utter Foolishness

Yr A ~ Epiphany 4 ~ 1 Cor 1:18-31

My message today is called “Utter Foolishness”, so let’s begin with some!

A minister decided to do something a little different one Sunday morning. He said ‘Today, in church, I am going to say a single word and you are going to help me preach. Whatever single word I say, I want you to sing whatever hymn that comes to your mind’foolish-cross

The pastor shouted out ‘CROSS.’ Immediately the congregation started singing in unison, “The Old Rugged Cross.”
The pastor hollered out ‘GRACE.’ The congregation began to sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”
The pastor said ‘POWER.’ The congregation sang “More Love, More Power, more of you in my life…”

The Pastor said ‘SEX’ The congregation fell into total silence. Everyone was in shock. They all nervously began to look around at each other afraid to say anything.
Then all of a sudden, way from in the back of the church, a little old 87 year old grandmother stood up and began to sing “Memories…”

So, are you foolish or wise? Who gets to decide which actions and ideas are foolish and which are wise?  Obviously, we do – we do it all the time.  We have more knowledge, more technology, more wealth, more power, more ability to affect our world and more freedom than at any other time in human history. We know the difference between foolish and wise. Or do we?

In 1 Corinthians 1:20 – Paul asks, “Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” But clearly Paul was talking about his own time – because we are certainly smarter than they were back then.

Oh really? If we’re so wise then why do so many people have it so tough?  If we’re so smart, and rich, and powerful, and technologically advanced, then why is there so much poverty and violence in the world?  Some folks blame God.  But poverty and hunger and violence are not the result of an uncaring, unwise God – they’re proof of the foolishness of our self-proclaimed wisdom.  Just look how smart we are – we can make machines that make things and move us around quickly – but they’re poisoning our air and water.  We can make weapons that can kill thousands of people at once.  What wisdom!  We can have cheap clothes and food and all it costs us is around half the world living in economic servitude to us.  Yes indeed, we are some wise!

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Paul wonders.  (1 Cor 1:20)  So, maybe we ought to use all our knowledge and wisdom and figure out where God’s coming from?  Maybe that would set us right?  But right there we have a problem – because knowing God is not an intellectual exercise – it’s an act of faith.  You’ll be relieved to know that we are not unique in this struggle to know God.

1 Corinthians 1:22 – “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom …”

If you get into a discussion with someone today about whether God exists or about God’s nature the opposition usually falls into one of these two categories.  Some people demand signs – they want dramatic examples of God’s power – they want miracles before their eyes.  And some desire wisdom – they want a gradual, intellectual, intuitive knowledge about God – a reasoned, systematic, sensible explanation for it all.

1:23 – “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to (those who want signs) and foolishness to (those who want reason).”

Whenever Paul says “Christ crucified” it’s a short form for him that means that Christ was crucified on the cross, and then God raised him up – Resurrected him – and that he’s a living reality in the hearts of his followers.  That’s what we proclaim.  And that is a stumbling block to some – because the Messiah – the Saviour – God’s son – should be all about triumph, not death.  And it’s foolishness to others – because it makes no logical sense that the shameful execution of a Jewish peasant somehow changed the world.

1:24 – “But to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  For those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” – Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection IS a powerful sign, and it IS the ultimate wisdom – but it is decidedly not conventional.  Just because we don’t fully understand it all doesn’t make God unwise.

1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Earlier Paul had said that “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)  I want to look at that word “saved” for a bit.  Some Christians emphasize being saved from something – Saved from what? – saved from eternal damnation – hell.  They say things like, “If you were to die tonight are you certain of where you’ll spend eternity?”  But for me that’s the wrong question.

I’m more interested in what God might save us for! – not from.  I want to ask people, “If you wake up tomorrow are you going to keep living the same incomplete, play-according-to-the-rules-of-the-world, cog in the machine, I’m just a number – kind of life?  Surely, God has saved us for more than that!  Believing in the foolishness of the cross can save you from that, because it gives you a paradigm shift.

It says that the real foolishness is the dog-eat-dog, success-at-any-price, keep-up-with-the-neighbours, you-just-need-to-lose-20-pounds-buy-a-big-screen-TV-and-drink-this-brand-of-beer-and-you-can-be-one-of-the-“beautiful-people” mentality that we in the Western world have bought hook, line and sinker.  Which foolishness is life-giving, and which is life-sucking?

“Ok, I get it – I’ll trade up!” you say.  But wait – there’s a cost.  There’s a cross.  I don’t mean a literal one, but for those who reject the foolishness of the world for God’s foolishness the result will be a cross.

‘Cause if you decide to not buy a new TV, or go on a trip, or get a new car, your friends and neighbours will think you’re missing the boat.  If you choose to spend your time and resources doing church work or charity work or volunteering somewhere people will call you a do-gooder.  If you say, “I’m sorry, but I won’t listen to those kinds of jokes,” or “I won’t go to that casino,” or “I won’t whatever” people will think you’re an uptight square, and you might even lose some friends.  In the world’s eyes those choices are utter foolishness – and to make them will lead to a cross.

So what’s the upside?  What’s in it for me?  If I make these sacrifices will God love me more?
That answer is “No! God won’t love you more!”

But you will love God more! – because you will have taken your eyes off those things that distract you and instead fixed your eyes on Jesus.  The only thing on this side of the equation is knowing God – and even that we can never do fully – but we can know God more and more – and we can move ever deeper into God’s embrace.  We can turn from the sparkly artificial lights of the world and bask in the light of the world.

The rich young ruler in Mark 10 was told to sell everything he owned – what foolishness.
Zacchaeus, in Luke 19 was told to give up half of what he owned – as if.
The Pharisees were told to lift their eyes from the letter of the law and recapture the Spirit – how dare he!
Naaman the warrior from 2 Kings 5 was told to go jump in the lake 7 times – that’s crazy.
Peter and James and John were invited to just walk away from their fishing businesses – not wise!

And Jesus – the poster child for this new paradigm – the chief recruiting officer who followed and lived this unconventional wisdom in the end was executed in a most shameful and humiliating way.  Follow me to the electric chair!  Not exactly an appealing marketing slogan at first blush.

But that’s not the end of the story!  For on Friday he died, and on Sunday God “raised him up” – somehow .  Defeat became victory.  Death became life.  Weakness became strength.  And those foolish enough to follow – a ragged bunch of misfits from a tiny province in Judea – came to life.  In their experiences and encounters with the risen Christ they found the courage and faith to reject the foolishness of the world and embrace the foolishness of God.  And they all, in their own way, followed Jesus to their own cross.

People thought they were out of their minds.  But they weren’t out of their own minds, they were out of the world’s minds – and they were finally getting in tune with the wisdom of God.  In Christ they knew the power of God and the wisdom of God – and that opened them to the presence of God in their lives.

The call to faith seems like utter foolishness.  It can’t be proven by reason.  It doesn’t come with a “press here for a sign from God” button.  And to the outsider its reward appears to be a cross.  But to the insider – to those with eyes to see and ears to hear – for those who have heard and risked and are trying to answer the call – the journey to that cross is holy – the journey to that cross is transformational – and the journey through that cross is made possible by the grace and presence of God.  And on the other side new life awaits – a life filled with joy, peace, love, compassion, meaning, beauty, laughter, thankfulness, contentment, acceptance, forgiveness, purpose, gentleness, kindness, passion, goodness – and all sorts of other foolish things.

1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

What’s clear in all this is that to know and understand God requires something other than conventional human wisdom.  Instead, it’s all experiential. Our culture celebrates individuality and self-reliance, and we’ve inherited a church culture that tends to be suspicious of unconventional, experiential things.

We are descended from the prim and proper, stiff upper lip, frozen chosen who dared not show emotion or spirituality and who kept their religion to themselves, thank you very much.

Happily, we’re emerging from underneath that stifling wet blanket and are discovering a vibrant, emotional, powerful, moving, experience of the Sacred and the Holy as we encounter and immerse ourselves in God’s loving presence.

Faith is like love – it’s not centred in your head, it’s centred in your heart, your soul, your being – but you can’t leave your head out of it. That too would be utter foolishness.

In recent years there has been an increasingly vocal and unfair attack from some prominent so-called new atheists. They rant and rage against the supposed intellectual short-comings of church folks. These atheists champion reason and rationality above all, and paint anything that doesn’t appear to be factual and rational as irrational and foolish.

But once again, remember 1 Corinthians 1:20 – “Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Faith is not rational. Spirituality is not rational. God is not rational. But these things are not irrational either. Rational/irrational are black and white answers in a multi-hued reality. Arguing about spirituality as being rational or irrational is a category mistake. The correct word here is “transrational.” It’s all about the prefixes. Quick grammar lesson:

Pre=before – pre-rational is before reason
Ir=non – irrational is without reason
Post=after – post-rational means reason doesn’t apply anymore

The prefix trans- means going beyond or surpassing, so transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason or the rational.

Now if your only choices are rational or irrational then hearing about transrational is going to sound like foolishness to you – or it might just open and free your mind. Free your mind! Spiritual experience and knowing isn’t less than rational, it’s more than rational! It isn’t a less-evolved worldview, it’s a more evolved, more mature, more human worldview!

Tell me my faith is utter foolishness and I’ll thank you! 1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom – it’s transrational, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” And I’ll take that over conventional wisdom any day of the week – and twice on Sunday!

May the utter foolishness of God turn our hearts inside out and our lives upside down – and may we let go of what we think we know about the way this world is supposed to work – and may our strength be overpowered by God’s weakness – and in these may we find ourselves led to our cross, and immersed in the heart of God.  This is the utter foolishness of Jesus – and his followers.  Thanks be to God!
Amen.