I Corinthians 1:18-31
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 17, 2017
University Baptist Church
I love to laugh. I will look for the humor in many situations, even if others don’t get the joke. There’s something subversive about laughter. Ann Lamott calls laughter carbonated holiness.
Look at some humorous things on our calendar this year: Christmas Eve is on a Sunday. Yes, that means we’ll have a morning service followed by a Christmas Eve Service. New Year’s Eve is also a Sunday. Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. No irony there. And to top it off Easter is on April 1st, no foolin’. Some of us have quipped that the risen Jesus appeared in the garden in the early morning and said to Mary Magdalene, “April fools!”
There is something foolish about this Gospel, especially with all of its reversals. The first shall be last? Really? Blessed are the poor, the meek, the humble?
I picked up a novel by James Patterson called Jester at a garage sale a few months ago. It’s predictably bloody, as many of Patterson’s books tend to be. But this one is set during the crusades. The Jester in the novel played a key role in the community. The bored noblemen employed his skills of making jokes and sleight of hand for entertainment. But that gave him cover for his real work, which was to undermine the noblemen in favor of his poor outcast friends. He used humor as a distraction, but also a way to tell the truth.
These days we get our news from late night jesters: Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Seth Myers and John Oliver. There’s wisdom in their foolishness.
St. Francis of Assisi was to be a knight by birthright. But he decided he could do more effective work as a court jester. Jesters mocked the pretense of power and ambition. St. Francis did all sorts of crazy foolish things. He not only touched lepers, the most despised and scapegoated of the town. He kissed them. Making himself unclean in the model of Jesus. He gave away his money, his privilege. He stripped himself naked and preached to animals and birds. He accepted ridicule and humiliation with joy and could always be found singing. The people who followed in his way, the Franciscans, often were forbidden to preach, so they took to the streets using satire, theater and exhortation to work on the imaginations of the people. They spoke to the non-church-going folk, embracing the foolishness that calls into question the wisdom held in the church. The fool is willing to accept humiliations, risks, ostracism, rejection and even violence evoked by faithfulness to the gospel and resistance to evil. For Francis, the Gospel as both tragedy and comedy. That’s where we tap into its power.
In the spring, the UBC community is going to revise and revive the Gospel According to Kermit the Frog. Written a generation ago by teenagers who are now thirtysomething, Kermit is tasked with writing down the Gospel, but he sees the humor in it at every turn. He rightfully unmasks God as a trickster who will call into question things that we consider sacred if they do not serve a common good. Kermit directs the play and as players we are the Gospel’s holy fools. Can’t wait.
Jesters stock and trade is street theater. A good protest always has some good jesters. I remember going to an antiwar protest many years ago and saw a group of tux-clad men standing with cigars and shades. Their signs were “Billionaires of Bush”.
Our president has played the fool’s role a lot. We’ll focus on the most outrageous things that he says. We’ll get into our little camps and bray about him, for good or ill. And while we do this, what goes unnoticed? I worry about the DACA misdirection. At one point, he ends it. Then he cuts a deal with Democrats to restore it. Do we now hail him as a champion for immigrants? That may be how he wants to be perceived. Maybe he wants to distract us. DACA is a small piece of a bigger picture. It only grants work permits. It does not allow a path to citizenship. The paths to citizenship are continually blocked by this administration.
Maybe it’s foolish to oppose the wisdom of the world. But the gospel tells us to embrace the foolish notion that there is a better way. And the church is a united bunch of fools. Fools unite!
Think about the foolish message of the Gospel. In simple wisdom, it doesn’t make sense. But if we truly embrace it, then another, greater power is unleashed. The Easter message is that you can do your worst and the church will rise from the ashes. The message is that in the long run, violence won’t work.
I attended the Nobel Peace Forum this weekend at Augsburg college. We heard amazing speakers, including John Paul Lederach, Gaby Giffords, Mark Kelly and members of the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet. There was a lot there, but the main point was that while worldly wisdom says that violence solves all problems, we know this not to be true. And it is fools like us who really solve the problems. I can’t go into all of the Tunisian history right now, but suffice it to say that this quartet of leaders of factions waded into the messy Tunisian landscape and agreed to find a way to help the country to move forward without resorting to violence. It took a lot of work and negotiation, but they embodied the foolish notion that everyone could come together, enemies, unions, even religious groups. They succeeded in getting the elected Islamist government to step down, established a caretaker government, and wrote a new constitution that could be embraced by everyone. Utter foolishness. And brilliant peacemaking. They said that dialogue leads to peace, especially if it happens locally, not, say in the Hague. Fools Unite!
In many native cultures, the trickster is an important archetype. The trickster sets the world on end and causes us to think deeper, to act bolder, to embrace courage. Clarence Jordan famously said that faith is not belief in spite of the evidence. That’s not faith, but foolishness. Faith is action in scorn of the consequences. It’s action in obedience to a better plan, a higher ethic, a commitment to imagining a better future.
God is often referred to as the trickster. How many of you have been tricked by God into doing something better, more loving, merciful, compassionate, or just?
The Apostle Paul, when he was trying to explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people, proclaimed foolishness as central to the strategy of the Gospel. Foolishness is what the world will call the movement of the Spirit. But it is God-inspired foolishness. It’s what sets the world on end. It uproots previous plans. It proclaims good news to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, it sets the prisoners free, fills the hungry with good things, and proclaims the acceptable year of God’s favor. “God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world,” says the Apostle Paul.
Paul knew what it was like to be called a fool. Paul knew what it was like to BE a fool. He wasn't quite as foolish as say Elijah who walked around dressed like a caveman performing miracles. Paul wasn't quite as foolish as Ezekiel who kept having visions of wheels in and among wheels turning this way and that way up in the middle of the air. Paul was a different kind of fool.
At one time, he was an establishment sort of guy. He liked to have everything neat and in order. He saw the world was run by strict laws and he sought to follow them to the tee. It did not matter if the laws were just or not, it just mattered that they were the laws.
But somewhere on the road to Damascus, Paul had to let go of his strict adherence to scripture. He had to let go of his doctrinal determinism. He had to let go of his propensity to judge others. Paul had to give all of this up, because he got a little taste of the lunacy of Christianity.
You remember the story. Paul, a Pharisee was walking to Damascus having just officiated over the stoning of Stephen. When suddenly, a bright light shone upon him and blinded him. Many people are so caught up in their holier than thou wisdom that they are blinded to any perspective but their own. This goes for people on both ends of the political and religious spectrum.
Paul shouted, "Who are you?" "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." From that moment on, Paul knew that the people in Jerusalem, about whom he had laughed for their outrageous and courageous witness, were proclaiming a better truth. Paul began to also preach in the name of Christ, but not until after three years of training. He needed that time to reorient his priorities, to rethink his wisdom, and be trained in a long-lasting form of discipleship. To be a fool. Like Jesus, he preached that we must love one another. Like Jesus, he preached that we must not judge one another. Like Jesus, he embraced the outsider, the poor, the marginalized. And he also found joy. He sang and danced Greek dance, broke bread with former enemies. He reveled in the new life he had as a Christian. And just like those before him, he was called crazy, misguided, maladjusted, in need of some serious Biblical repentance.
Martin Luther King Jr. was called maladjusted. He famously wrote in 1963 (At Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963):
…there are certain things in our nation and in the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted...I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence. But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…I’m convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment‐‐men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half‐slave and half‐free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We know these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.
"Paul was foolish," they scoffed in the boardrooms of the Pharisaic council, "to give up his luxurious life in order to preach this foolishness. Doesn't he know that to do such is to get thrown into prison and to be perhaps put to death."
I Corinthians 1:18 says, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God." My friends, Paul knew exactly that. He knew the consequences of his actions. Paul was proud to be called a fool for Christ. Perhaps we could be, too. His message was, “Fools, Unite!”
God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. We are called to embrace the foolishness of the Gospel. It’s foolish to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s foolish to turn over the tables of the moneychangers. It’s foolish to embrace the outcast and the shunned. It’s foolish and it’s incredibly good news. Paul said, “God chose what is foolish to shame the wise.”
Let us remember that some of our greatest leaders were called fools. Ben Franklin was called a fool for flying that kite in that lightening storm in order to prove his theory about electricity. Leonardo Di Vinci was called a fool for inventing the helicopter centuries before it was to be used as a military gunship. George Washington was called a fool for leading a revolution against the powerful British empire. Harriet Tubman was called a fool for risking her life to free slaves. Lucretia Mott and the other suffragists and abolitionists were called fools for advocating for equal rights for all people.
Walter Wink says that the wisdom of this world is the domination system. The foolishness we are called to embrace is antithetical to that system. It is standing up to that system that makes us fools and outcasts in the eyes of the world and beloved in the eyes of God.
How about this year when we look at the great reversals of scripture, we embrace the foolishness that is the core of the gospel, what John Sundquist called the lunacy of love?
As foolish Christians, we are constantly singing a different tune, energized by an unseen electricity, and empowered by a Spirit which knows no bounds. Our zeal for God-centered justice is called by some, fanaticism. Our willingness to be inclusive of all parts of the human family is quite mad. This fanaticism. This unbalanced passion. This zeal. This foolishness comes from the truly foolish one whom we follow. For this foolish one is the rock upon which the church is built. This foolish one used the foolishness and the harshness and the absurdity of the cross to claim a whole new vision. This foolish one calls us to open our building to those effacing deportation. Sanctuary is the foolish response to the world’s wisdom that says that all immigrants are evil. There is a better posture, a more holy posture. Foolish and good news.
And our foolish posture on behalf of others will say more than any words said from this or any other pulpit or platform. St. Francis of Assisi said, "Preach all the time. If necessary, use words." Sisters and brothers, as we do that, may we unite as fools and embrace the gospel of Jesus which tells us to embrace the reversals that will make streams in the desert and a highway for our God.
That is the stand of Christians. That is who we are. Fools Unite!
Let’s close with this foolish prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to eternal life