Sunday, March 08, 2015

Foolish Wisdom: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

This morning's Psalm is Psalm 19 and our epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

You can find the full manuscript of the sermon after the break.

When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he wrote, as we explored a few weeks ago, to a church that was torn by disunity and was struggling to find their identity as both Jewish believers in the Messiah and as non-Jewish converts to the budding religion. Hear now Paul’s words to the church in Corinth.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. [1]
Foolish Wisdom
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church

Perhaps it’s because the number of cable television shows to choose from is so great these days or because we can pick and choose our shows on internet services like Hulu and Netflix, but informercials aren’t as popular or well-viewed these days as they were 20 or so years ago. I’m sure they are still out there on cable TV in the wee hours of the night, but they’re easier to avoid these days than they used to be.
And avoid is exactly what many people want to do when an infomercial comes on the TV. The presenters of these shows are infamous slick talkers with giant, fake smiles and they almost always have some sort of sidekick next to them who acts completely amazed by everything the presenter tells them about the new product they are selling. Their job is to make us wonder, “How on earth did I ever live without this thing?!” But we know that in reality, we can quite happily live without a thighmaster, a tiny teddy bear that protects our shoulder from the seat belt in the car, vacuum clippers or spray paint for our hair, and we can even live without. . . a snuggie. Just know, though. . . I actually own a snuggie, so there’s no judgment here if you own one of these products. In fact, it’s really quite incredible the useless stuff a good infomercial presenter can sell.
In ancient Greece, public speaking – oration – was a popular and well respected profession. But most of the time, it was, like infomercials, just a lot of hot air. Paul used common public speaking techniques when he preached, but he had a problem with the speakers who were just saying fancy fluff to push a particular opinion or idea.
And this is what Paul is cautioning the church in Corinth: don’t make the gospel a bunch of pretty fluff. The gospel is powerful and different and if proclaimed well, it’s going to sound like foolishness to those who haven’t been grabbed hold of by it yet. The gospel is not something that conforms to human wisdom. The gospel can even be proclaimed by creation. It’s not confined to human speech or wisdom – it breaks forth from the conventions we know in a way that even the heavens can declare.    
The Christians in Corinth are instructed by Paul not to just preach the law or Jesus’ sayings. He certainly holds the law and the sayings of Jesus in high esteem, but if that’s all they are preaching, it’s just nice, fluffy, speech like that of the other orators of the time.  They are to preach Christ crucified, not Jesus’s teachings, not just the law, but the crucifixion. He tells them to preach salvation, not judgment, freedom not rules, love not indifference.
This message is full of paradox: it seems to contradict itself, it’s hard for the human brain to get itself in tune with. But it’s not just the message that they are proclaiming that is paradoxical. Their very nature as a community is wild and different and contradictory. In a very segregated culture of slaves and masters, powerful men and powerless women, and the very rich taking advantage of the extremely poor, the early church was a strange mix of rich and poor, weak and strong, men and women, Jew and gentile, powerful and powerless. Paul tells the early church, “God is telling you all that this is something totally different. YOU are something totally different.”
It’s ok to look silly in the eyes of the rest of the world, Paul goes on. It’s ok to look silly or weird or different because God’s wisdom and ways are so very different from ours. What humankind sees as complete foolish nonsense is God’s wisdom. What is strong by human standards is fragile compared to God. Our wisdom is so tiny in comparison to God’s wisdom, that it doesn’t matter how wise a person is on earth, they are a fool compared to God. It doesn’t matter how strong or powerful or rich a person is on earth, compared to God, it’s all weak, powerless, poor. When you realize this, says Paul, your church is going to look ridiculous to the people around you, but remember that it’s all about perspective.
The church has many roles assigned to it these days and not all of them are healthy. For some the church is just another social club among many other social clubs. For some, the church is one of the charities to call when one is low on food or rent money or a utility is about to be shut off. Many people see the church as the place that they go as a part of a holiday tradition because that’s what their family does. For many, the church is an irrelevant and dying throwback to less enlightened times.
There is nothing wrong with fellowship in the church. That’s part of who we are. Part of who we are is helping those in need. Celebration is important, history and tradition are important. The problem lies in when the church is seen as nothing more than that: when it blends in with all the other clubs and charities and traditions.
It is important for us to remember Paul’s words. Making pretty speech and arguments just to win people over isn’t helpful. Crafting our message in special ways to be more “relevant” is just adhering to the world’s wisdom. It’s just another way of blending right in with everything around us. We’re in a world full of slick salespeople and fast talking politicians, and targeted marketing.
Preaching crucifixion is uncomfortable. Talking about denying things like wealth and power and strength seems like foolishness. And this message is foolishness when we compare it to the world’s standards of wisdom. Standing out and embracing people who we wouldn’t otherwise hang out with is bizarre and silly. Saying that all people are equally valuable, no matter how strong or powerful or wealthy or pretty or whatever they are is foolishness by the world’s standards.
Proclaiming a crucified messiah who can unite all people as one family, regardless of their assets turns everything the world teaches us on its head. But that is what we are called to as a community. We are called to turn everything the world teaches us on its head and to proclaim a suffering savior who became powerless for our sakes. We cannot simply blend in. We cannot judge our proclamation or our church life by the world’s standards. We must stand out.
Lexi and I were at the Apple store the other day and we just looked like any old mom and teenager out running errands. As we were talking to the salesguy about what we were there for and were working through the checkout process, we chatted. He was a friendly kid and asked Lexi about where she went to school and what grade she was in, and so on. So of course, he eventually asked me, “So where do you work?” I said, “Liberty Presbyterian Church. I’m the pastor there.” I had to keep from giggling at the surprised look on his face. This was clearly not even in the realm of what he expected to hear come out of my mouth.
After a few seconds, he said, “That’s so cool that they let you do that!” Which is one of the more hilariously candid reactions I’ve gotten when I’ve answered that question, but we had a great conversation about church after that. And we’d never have had that conversation if he hadn’t asked me what I do.
            We Christians need to find ways to stand out - startle the world by not being what the world expects. When the church stops looking like just another social club or political party or charity, it’s surprising and it starts real conversations that would otherwise never happen.
We can be and should be the proclaimers of grace in the world. If the very creation is singing Gods praises, who are we to blend in so much people don’t notice us? This doesn’t mean picketing or arguing people down, but rather being set apart, being holy, and being the embodiment of love in our world.
We aren’t set apart for the sake of being set apart, but because in doing this, in being something strange and different from the rest of the world, we begin to turn the world’s wisdom on its head and proclaim a wisdom that looks totally different from what the world expects.
            It’s also important that we remind ourselves that we’re set apart. I like having a clergy magnet on the back of my car because makes me a nicer driver. I behave much better with that reminder of who I’m representing than I would if I were more anonymous. I like wearing a cross necklace not because I want to remind the rest of the people around me I’m a Christian, but because I behave differently when I have a reminder to myself of who I am.
So this Lenten season, let’s let our cross pins and necklaces and car stickers be just that – reminders to us that we are someone different than the world expects us to be. We aren’t just infomercial salesmen trying to sell the latest, greatest version of Christianity lite. Our faith has more to offer than rules and pretty sayings – it proclaims the foolish wisdom of the cross that sets the captive free. To those who are saved, this is the power of God.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Co 1:18–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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