Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 6, 2022
1st Corinthians 1:18-25
One time I was at a three-day meeting. It was one of those meetings where ministers and church folk gathered for renewal. It was comprised of folks from what were called, “Priority Area Churches.” A priority area was defined as a parish where ninety percent of the population was from the poorest ten percent in the country.
After settling in, our first activity was to gather in small groups for an “ice-breaker” session. Let’s get to know each other. The leader of our group began by saying, “Turn to the person sitting next to you, make sure it isn’t someone you know and tell them where you’re from. Then share either your most embarrassing moment, or something unusual about yourself. Then we’ll get back together and go around the room and introduce our new friends.”
Three days of this, I thought. My most embarrassing moment? If I could narrow it down to one, revealing that to a group of strangers is not something I would ever do. Embarrassment is often the result of a painful situation. The embarrassing moments we can talk about and laugh about at our own expense are hardly the most embarrassing events of our lives. The point at which we stop laughing is when embarrassment overlaps into humiliation.
Sometimes the humiliation that results from an embarrassing situation becomes the motivation for empowerment. Imagine if someone with whom we are familiar is sitting in the group ….
“This is Jesus and he’s from Nazareth. He said his most embarrassing moment was difficult to name; he’s had so many. There was the time his family tried to have him locked up. The people in his hometown tried to throw him over a cliff. One time his mother insisted he perform a miracle at a wedding. But probably the most embarrassing time for him was being humiliated, beaten and nailed to a cross. It didn’t help that people made fun of him while he hung there.”
What does a small group facilitator say to that? “Uh, that would certainly be embarrassing, no doubt about it. Who else would like share?” Perhaps the anecdote to humiliation is when justice prevails. For Jesus it was resurrection as God’s way of saying, “He was right all along.”
Later on, he could say of the experience, “Check out these nail-holes in my hands. They’re real, go ahead and feel them.” He certainly had the last laugh, but I never had the impression that he thought it was funny ha-ha; just like we have the last laugh through our own experience of resurrection and life. I would much rather focus on the life than the situations which preceded it.
When I say these things to people and am met with their expression of regret for having asked me the question in the first place, I do tend to get the last laugh in saying, “And that’s what we call a long answer to a short question.”
Believing in God is not logical. Faith is not rational; it doesn’t add up. Faith doesn’t lend itself to scientific inquiry. When a follower of Jesus named Paul tried to explain what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, he said it was a foolish thing to do. He said that in order to know God in your heart and soul, you have to be a bit of a fool. The message is the essence of foolishness.
A human being who is the child of God – he dies, and God raises him up. That is pretty foolish. Why would someone willingly become a fool? A fool is a person who lacks judgment. A fool is a person who does not exercise self-control; like some silly village clown who will do anything for a laugh. Why? A question like that is difficult to answer.
Perhaps to get at why someone would willingly become a fool, we should consider what it means to be a fool. Have you ever felt foolish? Feeling foolish is not a good way to feel. I thought of all the times I felt like a fool.
Remember how that feels and that is your pathway to knowing God. And it’s true. Maybe what God needs in this world are more holy fools. There are enough crusaders; there are enough angry preachers; there’s an over-supply of self-appointed, self-righteous gurus of truth and justice. There’s an adequate supply of people who in the name of God will shame you and blame you and tell you you’re going to hell.
Maybe what God is really looking for in this world are the fools who are silly enough to believe there actually is a God. Who actually believe that God can make a difference; who believe that God is God and through things like faith and trust, one may discover a life that deep and wide and full.
When we look into the big picture, the stories in the bible we see that God has a fondness for the clowns, fools and silly rejects.
There was Moses who was afraid of crowds because he stuttered.
When God raised up an army to fight off the Midianites, he used Gideon and a couple hundred guys who had no better sense than to lap water like dogs.
Many of the prophets tried to run away.
There were plenty of whiners and complainers.
When God chose between two brothers, he passed over the rugged individualist Esau, and chose his brother Jacob, who knew how to lie, cheat and steal.
And the guy they called the Son of God tended to prefer fishermen to scholars, and tax collectors to rabbis. He was guilty by association and people said he was a glutton and a drunk.
Time and time again the stories tell not of mighty warriors winning the crown of glory, but of lowly, unlikely candidates, common everyday people, finding themselves called up and sent forth. They fumble and pratfall their way to grace, revealing the God’s grace through the poor and the weak; the willing fools.
When Jesus came on the scene, he entered not through the palace courtyard but through the servant’s door. And for all his truth, goodness, wisdom, and kindness, he died on a cross. People said that’s not how God operates. God, if there is a God must certainly require the best and the brightest. Not this carpenter and his rag-tag bunch.
The best and brightest tend to die in glory. Jesus died like a criminal, nailed to a cross between two thieves. Some would say that the point of his suffering was to make us feel guilty. If we feel bad enough for how much he went through, then we will love him for it.
The message of the cross has more to do with playing the fool. Simply, that even God is not afraid to look like the ultimate fool if that’s what it takes to get the message across. The cross is God’s way of willingly stepping on the banana peel; but he didn’t get angry about it. He said, “I’m willing to take the fall, if that’s what it takes; the joke is on me if that’s what it takes.” And he got up again, showing us that taking the fall is not the end, but the road to a new beginning.
What kind of a God would do such a thing? What kind of a message is that where God says, take your best shot? A foolish message is what Paul said. “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.”
Some folks would quickly jump on the us and them comparison; as in ‘they are perishing but we are being saved.’ But that’s not it. Us and them, we against them is at the root of what ails us.
Why is the message of the cross foolishness? It is foolishness, because it does not follow the rules of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says a lot of things. Things like if you work hard, show some initiative and pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you’ll get ahead.
So we end up creating religious institutions that rise and fall like the tide. Churches are up, churches are down. The tide of conventional wisdom rises on the latest gimmicks that promise growth and success. Which is really just another way of saying that we want our power structures, we want our influential organizations.
Is that what God wants?
God affirms us because it is in God’s nature to do so. God loves us because God is love. It doesn’t have anything to do with us, other than we are the ones God loves. We don’t achieve it or accomplish it. We simply open our hearts and minds to experience it. If there is anything for us to do about it, it is to somehow create a quality of life and relationships that reflects that same kind of unconditional love.
God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. God’s vulnerability is how God says, “I am with you.” In the entirety of your human condition, I am with you. We do not rise to the challenge in order to meet God. God comes down to the level of our weakness in order to meet us.
At the end of that three-day conference, I realized that I wasn’t the only fool in attendance. Before leaving we gathered in one last session to worship and reflect on our time there. In closing we sang one last song together. As the chorus rang out, it struck that I was with people who had every basis to identify with the lyrics: “We Shall Overcome.” So yeah, it is foolish to believe any of it. Call me a fool if you wish. And anyone who cares to come along can join in the laughter. Amen.