The Beauty of the Foolish
3-4-18 Scripture: I Corinthians 1:18-25
Theme: In a world caught up in superficialities and polish, the deeper truths may appear foolish – but exhibit an alternative more worthy of life. It is in the foolishness of love, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, and hope that life discovers its unconditional value.
Once upon a time, an angel appeared in the midst of a faculty meeting at a well-known university. The angel turned to the dean at the head of the table and stated that, in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord would reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selected infinite wisdom.
“Done!” said the angel, and disappeared in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Immediately, everyone in the room looked toward the dean, who now sat surrounded by a faint halo of light. After a while of pregnant silence, one of the professors sitting next to the dean whispered, “Say something.”
The dean, now infinitely wise, looked at them all and said, “I should have taken the money.”
I thought that story fit fairly well with our scripture lesson for today, for our lesson deals with the interplay between foolishness and wisdom. We hear Paul state that “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We also hear Paul say this: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
And as to foolishness in our world – we seem to have an overabundance, don’t we?
Some foolishness is comedic. I remember hearing about a robbery suspect who was apprehended in Los Angeles. He was put in a line-up with others, and detectives asked all of them to repeat the words “give me all your money or I’ll shoot.” The suspect couldn’t help himself, and shouted, “That’s not what I said!” Foolish.
Some foolishness is tragic. A 37-year-old man named Robert shot himself while explaining gun safety to his wife in Glendale, California, when he placed a .45-caliber pistol he thought was unloaded under his chin and pulled the trigger. Shovestall’s wife told police that the incident occurred after her complaints about her husband’s 70 guns prompted him to demonstrate their safety. Foolish.
Some foolishness is just silly. I read an account written by a husband and wife who came to an automobile dealership to pick up their new car. When they arrived, they were told that the keys had been accidentally locked in the vehicle. They went to the service department and found a mechanic working feverishly to unlock the driver’s side door. As they watched from the passenger’s side, they instinctively tried the door handle and discovered it was open. They told the mechanic that the passenger door was unlocked, whereupon the mechanic said, “I know; I already got that side.”
When we think of foolish things, we tend to think of things like these – where common sense is absent, where people make obvious mistakes, where they are not thinking clearly or at all.
But there is another type of foolishness that is being spoken of in our scripture lesson, the foolishness of the cross. When we hear the phrase “The foolishness of the cross,” we are of course speaking about what the cross represents in the eyes of the world – the symbol of the suffering, humiliation, and death of Jesus, of the Son of God. It is foolish in the sense of not making sense to the mind – that God would allow an innocent to die, that love was displayed as the motivation for sacrifice, that Jesus could have saved himself at any of several moments, but chose instead to die as a criminal. Add to this the many foolish things faith in Jesus represents – turning the other cheek, confessing wrongs, helping those who cannot help you, loving enemies, standing with the oppressed, putting others first, praying, welcoming the stranger, giving of ourselves sacrificially to the benefit of others. These things, and many other like them, are considered by many to be foolish.
Let me ask you – have you ever done something because of your faith, that those around you thought was foolish?
I checked recently, and I am the sole faith community representative on three boards in town; I’m on the Poverrello Board of Trustees, the Joint Investigational Review Board at St. Patrick’s Hospital, and the Missoula Circle of Support and Accountability Steering Committee, known as CoSA, a group that considers ways to reduce sexual abuse recidivism. These committees are groups meant to help our town of Missoula become a safer, healthier, more caring place, but none of them are faith-based. This becomes evident when we go around the room at the start of our meetings and state who we are and what we represent. Imagine this scene – the committee gathers, and we go around the room filled with 12 to 15 people – “Hello, I’m Jared, and I’m with thus and so legal firm.” “Hello, I’m Sarah, and I’m with the Foodbank.” “Hello, I’m Mary, with the police department.” Then comes my turn, “Hello, I’m John, and I’m from Mars.” You’d think that’s what I said, for they look at me as if I had antennae growing out of my head. Of course, what I say is, “Hello, I’m John, and I’m the pastor of the First United Methodist Church.” What they hear is “Hello, I’m John, and I’m a Christian.” What they think is, “Hello, I’m John, and I’m a closed-minded, judgmental fanatic who doesn’t live in the real world.” At least, that’s what I sometimes feel they are thinking – they’re thinking I’m a weirdo! I never fail to get some amused looks, as if they are wanting to ask me, “what’s wrong with you?” I cannot help but wonder if they think I’m foolish to be faithful.
But over time, things have gotten interesting. As they have gotten to know me, and as I have become acquainted with the workings of their various committees, I find they no longer look for antennae’s growing out of my head. In fact, I find that they are surprised to discover I’m a fairly regular guy, and more and more an invested partner in our work to help people. In fact, I find myself growing more and more vocal in pointing out things that come to my mind and heart as a representative of the faith community – things that haven’t been thought of before, opportunities for connections and collaborations that might improve relations with businesses and uplift the issues and their possible solutions to a larger audience – namely, people of faith who are truly interested in helping out. I hope that they are discovering through my involvement that the foolishness of faith might possibly have something wise to share. Now, I am by no means seen as a sage, but I now feel I am considered to have something worthwhile to offer, as a person of faith.
Sometimes, what seems foolish at first turns out to be of much greater wisdom when it comes to life and the things that truly matter. The love represented by the cross is foolish in the eyes of a world pre-occupied with self, a world convinced of its own self-sufficiency and direction – and a world falling apart through violence, environmental decay, poverty, hunger, disease, theft, abuse, neglect, partisanship, and a growing distance from common-sense compassion. Isn’t it interesting that none of these ills can be effectively addressed without the self-less approach of love, without the counter-intuitive step of sacrifice, without the motivation to rise above self-interest that comes from an enlarged world-view? Isn’t it interesting that these are precisely the elements that combined in the cross of Jesus, for the reason of demonstrating this love’s capacity to suffer for the sake of another, indeed for us all? Isn’t it interesting that the greatest episodes of positive change in the world were centered in such love? Is this foolishness to be condemned, or wisdom that makes hope possible, that makes life worth living, that makes sense in an otherwise senseless world?
One last experience to share with you today – an experience that changed my outlook on how the foolishness of Christ works. In 1987, when I was finishing up my degree in Civil Engineering, I went on a week-long mission trip to a village called Montemorelos, about two-hours drive south of Monterray, Mexico. We went there to renovate an old church building, to rebuild three classrooms that had been burned down. This was my kind of work! And this was my first mission trip — I was excited to be a part of the team, and, because of my engineering background, was seen as sort of the expert of the group. I took that role seriously; I was determined to get the renovation of those classrooms done, and done right.
On the second to last day of a week of hot days and hard work, I remember taking a break under a tree in the courtyard. There were a group of children from the church playing nearby; they were there nearly every day, watching us work and playing around. But this time, I noticed that they were pointing at me and saying things back and forth, giggling; they did this several times. I finally asked our group interpreter what they were saying, and he said, “Oh, they’re just having fun, calling you the serious one.” I asked him what that meant, and he said that I had a reputation for being all about the work, so serious that nobody better get in my way, and that they were even a little afraid of me. This was a tremendous shock! This is not how I saw myself, but upon reflection, I realized I had indeed created that image. I never mingled with the people, never played with the children, never tried to engage in conversation – I was seen as a cold, reserved, serious worker, maybe even a bit frightening. I wanted to say to the children, “Hey, I’m a nice guy! I’m a good guy! I like to have fun! I’m not all serious!” but I didn’t have the words; I probably didn’t have the motivation as well. But I did have a sense of how I could change things – and it was something that was quite radical for me. So there I was, a serious student, a budding civil engineer, responsible for the renovation project, an adult with adult responsibilities – asking these five or six young children if I could join their merry-go-round circle game. It seemed so foolish; I was six-foot-three, and none of them were over four feet tall; I was gangly and uncoordinated, not used to play-ground games; It must have looked pretty silly. But there I was, holding the hands of these young children, running around and around and around in a circle, kicking up dust and singing some silly song I didn’t even know the words to – and breaking the ice of my serious nature. They began to laugh with me, rather than at me, after that time; I felt for the first time that there was something more important than the building renovation going on, that these people, these very poor, very faithful, very beautiful people, were part of my family. I will never forget that moment, a moment when I became foolish, and discovered something I very nearly missed – the wisdom of humility through which loving relationships are born.
The foolishness of God is foolish because it does not prioritize reason over love. The foolishness of God makes love the guiding principle of life – and love does foolish things for the sake of the beloved. But this foolishness we call love has the power to transform, strengthen, and redeem life as nothing else can. Perhaps it is especially as love exceeds reason that life enters its greatest potential – unlimited by the bounds of what we know, we are freed to live life according to what is believed. In a sense, it is where knowledge ends that God begins, for those who are foolish enough to believe in the cross, and the ridiculous love it represents. Our world could indeed use more of such foolishness! Amen? Amen!