Called to be Fools: Part 1

Have you seen the inspirational Marathon videos, where at the finish, someone is unable to get up and finish, and so a few other runners who are still running help pick them up and walk them to the finish line.

Do you not think that is foolish? They sacrificed their place in the race to stay and help someone finish the race?

Or maybe we need a bit more foolishness.

Corinthian society

Our lectionary passage today comes from 1 Corinthians – the first of 2 letters that Paul writes to the Church in the city of Corinth. Paul started the church community in Corinth, and based on these letters, Paul thinks the folks in the Corinthian Church are getting a bit unruly. Corinth was a city divided by hierarchies of power. Corinth was known for how the wealthy abused the poor. Wisdom and the eloquent use of speech also gave people power. There were people that were considered “high” in status and some that were “low” in status. These hierarchies were having a negative effect on the church. In this letter, Paul is trying to address the negative effect of the high status of wisdom and hopefully get this community back where he wants it.

In our passage today, Paul highlights how wisdom and speech have status in the culture of his time. And it might be a safe assumption that Paul wouldn’t be criticizing “the wise” if the “wise” power dynamic was not negatively affecting the church. So, in this letter, Paul flips these social hierarchies upside down. He criticizes the wisdom of the world, and he lifts up the foolishness of Christ.

Something I love about many Hebrew bible stories, the gospels, and Paul’s writings are these surprising flipping of expectations. In the old testament, the youngest child of Jesse, David, goes up against the Giant Goliath – and he wins. He later ultimately becomes king of Israel. In the gospels, Jesus is constantly saying the opposite of common sense – things like “blessed are the meek.” In Paul’s letters, like today’s passage, he is criticizing wisdom and is advocating for the foolishness of God.

As we heard Isaac read earlier today – this is a common trait of many sacred texts. These mind bending instructions and stories catch us by surprise, and are an invitation for us to question what we know and to reconsider how we understand the world. Through Paul’s flipping of societal expectations , this church in Corinth can hopefully become more aware of how status and hierarchies are functioning in their community.

Unfortunately, social status still exists in churches all around the world -including ours – and have been affecting churches for centuries. Fortunately, we have writings in our Bible, like the letters to the Corinthians, that give us a glimpse of a community that already experienced the negative effects of status and power. As a community, we can learn from their experiences and reflect a bit on how status and power work in our context.

Like in the church in Corinth, I have quickly found at FMC that wisdom and knowledge provide people in this church with levels of status. This congregation is well educated, and has a lot of folks working in higher education. I can imagine for those who do not have degrees, this congregation could be difficult to participate in.

If wisdom is favored in our congregation – I wonder if foolishness might be a path towards growth for us. I know it is for me, as someone who is often thinking with his head instead of living with his heart.

So, following Paul’s lead, I would like to explore in my sermon today how different attributes of foolishness might help each of us grow in connection with ourselves, with each other, and with God. And lucky for us, Next week’s lectionary passage in 1 Corinthians also deals with wisdom and foolishness. So I have turned this sermon titled “Called to be fools” into two parts! I would also like to recognize our chancel display by Carolyn Rich who has the image of wisdom personified through Sophia, and an image of foolishness personified by a fool or jester.

Paul is flipping it

In our passage today Paul has taken wisdom which was high in status, and foolishness which is low in status, and has flipped them upside down. And He uses the Hebrew bible – his own sacred text, to demonstrate the ancient spiritual roots of the criticism of worldly wisdom. He quotes Isaiah 29:14,

“So I will again do amazing things with these people, shocking and amazing.

The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

Paul takes this quote from Isaiah, “The wisdom of their wise shall perish,” and expands on it. In this letter, Paul writes about how God makes foolish the wisdom of the world. He writes about God’s foolishness being better than Human wisdom. He writes about God choosing what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.

For Paul, foolishness trumps wisdom – the opposite of what their society valued. What could he possibly mean by all of this? Is there some secret God given power in foolishness?

Paul understands the gospel’s power to depend not on social or worldly wisdom, but on God’s power. Paul believes God’s wisdom, which is foolishness to the world, to be something that frankly sounds ridiculous: verse 23 – proclaiming Christ crucified.”

Proclaiming Christ Crucified – now what does that even mean? It sounds foolish to me.

Is it not the resurrection the thing that is to give us hope. Is it not the resurrection that the church is supposed to proclaim? Like in that Easter tradition of saying “the Lord is risen, the Lord is risen indeed.” Paul is pointing to the crucifixion of Jesus, not the resurrection, as the wisdom of God. He is calling the Corinthians towards this proclamation, which is pure worldly foolishness. He is calling them to proudly proclaim that Jesus, their Messiah, who has come to save the Jews, died through Roman execution.

Paul’s Christ Crucified – foolishness of a dead messiah

To boldly proclaim Christ crucified is shocking. It is foolishness. Wouldn’t you want to proclaim a victory? No one brags when they lose. The Jews would have not expected their messiah to fail. The Hebrew Bible’s prophetic literature speaks many times of a Messiah coming to save the day and what ends up happening is that this messiah comes, and dies. Crucified like a criminal. Loses. And Paul wants Jesus’ followers to proclaim their God’s death.

It’s strange – this doesn’t feel very different than when Nietzsche proclaimed 150 years ago that “God is dead,” something that modern Christians have taken to task. But that is a thought for another time.

By proclaiming “Christ Crucified,” the church in Corinth would be participating in the foolishness. They would not be proclaiming the power that they expected to proclaim – such as a military victory, wealth, or worldly wisdom – the things that would have given them status. In doing so, foolishness might be leading them towards being a healthier community that is not plagued with the status of the wise.

Doesn’t this feel consistent with Jesus’ message. Isn’t Jesus foolish? Jesus forgives his mockers while on the cross. Jesus said foolish things like, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” Quotes like these make Jesus out to be the greatest of fools.

Foolishness is a Gift/Loyalty is Foolishness

One aspect of foolishness that I would like to explore today is loyalty.

To be Loyal requires a certain level of foolishness. Loyalty requires a lack of self interest. Loyalty asks for sacrifice. Placed in the wrong hands, loyalty can be pretty scary. People can be loyal to causes that do great harm.People can also be loyal to causes that create good.

Religion often demands a type of loyalty. Jesus asks for loyalty, telling his followers to take up their crosses and follow him. He asks for his followers to carry more burdens – to carry with them the tool that will be used for their own execution. Pure foolishness. Jesus says “Whoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Jesus asks for a level of loyalty of someone who is foolish enough to give up their life for his cause.

Paul also thinks it is foolish to give one’s loyalty to Christ. He writes in 1 Corinthians 4: “For Christ sake, we are fools, but you are wise in union with Christ.” Paul seems to think this foolish loyalty is wise.

Paul takes his loyalty to the next level, and sounds foolish when he writes in 2 Corinthians 2:10 “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” To follow Christ sounds all topsy turvy. Delighting in hardships? Weakness? This is definitely the opposite of delighting in status. And Paul delights in weakness because of his loyalty to Christ.

When one is loyal, instead of serving one’s self, that energy goes towards the interest of someone else, or towards a community, or an idea. When you are loyal, you disregard your own ambitions for a different ambition, or higher cause.

Are these not the things that are most meaningful in life? Loyalty to one’s institution, to one’s family, to one’s school, to religion, to sports teams. Speaking of which, the Philadelphia Eagles are playing at the same time as the hymn sing – come to the hymn sing to find out where my loyalties lie. Mark doesn’t need to worry about that because the Vikings lost in the wild card round.

Foolishness pushes us to stay with people

Loyalty helps us stay with the things that matter to us – even if it is to our detriment.

This is called “Staying power.” “Staying power” is the ability to maintain a commitment despite obstacles.

Let me explain “Staying Power” using some Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare’s’ play, King Lear, which I will refrain from explaining the whole plot, King Lear is kicked out of the castle by his daughters, and it begins to rain. He is at a low point in the story. He is not welcomed by family, it is at night, and it’s raining. However, there is one person with him – his “fool.” (point to image) The fool stays with King Lear despite everything going wrong. In this story, the fool does not pack when it starts to rain. The Fool does not leave his friend in the storm.

Foolishness can be the quality that beckons us to stay, it fuels one’s “staying power,” even when the situation is hopeless.

We love these moments in sports. It is the athlete who stays with it all 4 quarters, evening if their team is losing by a lot, and the situation is hopeless.

Foolishness, are the women, like Salome, who stayed by Jesus in his darkest hours on the cross. The women who waited at the tomb, hopelessly.

A wise person might have some solutions or answers. But the fool – they do what is actually needed – they stay with, even in the rain, even on the cross. We desperately need people to foolishly stay with us in hopeless situations.

Early in my chaplain training, I was called to a code blue in the wee hours of the morning. Soon after I arrived, the patient died. Family had gathered in the room, and I stood outside the door – Freaking out. I was scared. What was I going to say? What was I going to do? The thing I feared most, was stepping into that room, and appearing completely incompetent – completely foolish. I also knew that I needed to do my job. So I knocked at the door and they said come in. I walked in and all eyes were on me. “Oh boy, what’s my job again?” I introduced myself, asking the spouse if they needed any prayer. They said yes, I prayed, and then I shot out of the room.

I was so busy being concerned with appearing competent, that in the end I was unable to do what was foolish – Stay with them – not solve their unsolvable grief, not provide them with anecdotal comments, for a fool does not know how to create meaning. But meaning is not what is needed. King Lear’s Fool wasn’t trying to solve the King’s problems like some wise sage. The women by Jesus at the crucifixion were not giving theological statements. The women and the fool, foolishly stayed with them. Perhaps, If I would have been a bit more open to being a foolish chaplain – not worried about appearing competent, perhaps I could have stayed a while longer and provided them with fuller care in one of the most awful and hopeless moments in the life of this family.

Faith is Foolishness

I think what we are talking about, foolishly staying present in a hopeless situation, has another name: Faith

It is not faith in success or that everything will be alright in the end.

The foolish faith that Jesus asks for in the gospels, and that Paul points to, is not success. It is not a happy ending. Success and happiness are luxuries of the wise and powerful. It takes foolishness to ignore worldly wisdom and follow the way of Jesus – the way of the cross, and proclaim Christ Crucified.

We know these moments of crucifixion in our own lives. And if you haven’t yet, unfortunately you will sometime in your life. Moments of hopelessness. Moments where there is unspeakable pain. Moments that feel completely void of meaning. And many of these moments do not come with a happy ending.

And yet we are called by Jesus, and by Paul – not towards intellectually solving this great issue of death and pain, but foolishly being attentive in the moments of hopelessness that we all experience while we are here.

And if God too has foolishness, like when Paul writes in verse 25 of our passage, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,” then I pray that the grace of God comes and stays with us like a fool, coming to sit with us in the rain.

May we flip upside down the status markers in our tradition, and learn to lean into foolishness, like the church in Corinth. Foolishness that brings us into loyalty – loyalty to the way of Jesus – Christ Crucified. Loyalty that helps us stay in hopeless moments, like the women at the cross. And in these hopeless moments, may our faith help us see the grace of God, that stays with us like a fool.