Embrace the Squiggle: Fools for Christ, I Corinthians 3:18-23

[Note: 98% of this sermon was written before the tragic events in Charlottesville last Saturday. When I heard about Charlottesville Saturday evening I tried to figure out how I needed to change the message in light of the hatred and racsim on display in Virginia. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the message seemed very relevant to current events with only a few changes. We addressed the situation in Charlottesville directly in our prayer time on Sunday morning, including a reading of part of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”]

When I saw the preaching schedule said I got to preach on being fools for Christ my first thought was, “I’ve been typecast!” Then I came across this old picture of me in my youth ministry days and thought, “OK, I guess the shoe fits.” But seriously, why would Paul advise us to be fools?

Do you know it says in the Bible, “There is no god?” It really does, and that particular verse is a great reminder that we cannot pick and choose things from the Bible and take them out of context. Psalm14:1 is where it says “there is no god,” but if you read the whole verse you discover it says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no god.’” That’s obviously not the kind of fool Paul wants us to be.

A friend sent me a list of some not so bright things people have said. They reminded me that some of the squiggles in life are caused by fools. Here are a couple of these squiggly quotes:
“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Maria Carey
“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.” UK basketball player Winston Bennett
“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.” Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC instructor.
“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we have received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” Dept. of Social Services, Greeneville, SC.

That’s not the kind of fools Paul is talking about either. Verse 18 says “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.” Come again Paul? How does one become wise by becoming a fool? That seems pretty foolish.
Verse 19 helps a bit. It says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; (Job 5) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (Ps. 94)

The Interpreter’s Bible commentary explains some of the confusion this way. Corinth, because of its geographic location was a very cosmopolitan city. Corinth, sitting in southern Greece and just across the Aegean Sea from modern day Turkey, was on the major trade route between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was therefore made up of a diverse population and affected by a variety of religious and secular ideas. Among the key influences was the Greek philosopher Diogenes who taught that the “wise are friends of the gods and gods own all that is. Therefore the wise have access to everything.” It was an early version of what today is known as the prosperity gospel, namely that if we believe the right things we can expect God to reward us with material prosperity. It’s a favorite theology of those who start out to do good and end up doing very well.

By contrast Jesus taught the exact opposite, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” and that we shouldn’t “store up treasures on earth where rust can consume and thieves break in and steal.” That’s not the kind of wisdom we hear from our financial advisers and retirement planners now is it?

As I read this text over the song that says “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kept coming to mind. But we have to give Paul credit. He practiced what he preached, getting imprisoned for his faith several times and once even refusing to escape from jail when he had the chance. He, like many martyrs and visionaries seemed to be a fool himself by challenging the wisdom of the world. In the church at Corinth Paul felt it necessary to do that because some of the members in that church were becoming arrogant and feeling self-important. Some who had particular spiritual gifts thought they were better than others who didn’t have the same gift. Paul addresses that specifically later in I Corinthians chapter 12 where he compares the church to the human body that needs all of its parts to work. And no one part is more important than any other.

Paul urges Godly foolishness because the ways of the world are not God’s ways. Worldly wisdom says “Good people finish last.” Jesus says, “The Last will be first.” The wisdom of world says, “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The folly of Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” Fools for Christ say, “The cycle of hate and revenge stops here.”

Paul is asking the church at Corinth and the Church on the Hill for moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires self-awareness so we make conscious and intentional choices instead of really foolish ones based on worldly wisdom. There’s a great line in the old baseball movie, “Bull Durham” describing a clueless rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. One of the other characters in the movie says Ebby is “not cursed with self-awareness.”

When we are not self-aware it’s too easy to act irresponsibly. Instead of doing what we know to be right or stopping to think about that, we just go along with the crowd. Someone said recently that he was glad he grew up before cell phone cameras were everywhere because he did a lot of really stupid things in his youth and there’s no record of any of them. At its worst those who are not blessed with self-awareness can fall prey to what’s known as mob mentality. That can lead to horrible actions that most people would never do on their own but will when we lose our sense of self in the anonymity of a crowd. The violence in Charlottesville is an extreme instance. An example on a less dangerous scale is the term “fan” we use to describe a sports team’s followers. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and we’ve all seen or been one of those kinds of fools who get a little too carried away with team spirit, or some other kind of spirits. My family hated to sit with me at my son’s high school basketball games because for some strange reason they thought expressing my displeasure with the referees was embarrassing!

Without moral responsibility we lose track of our values and priorities. Like Pastor Chris said in last week’s sermon our own personal goals and bucket lists can become more important than doing what is right and good. I grew up a huge fan of the Cincinnati Reds in the days of the Big Red Machine. I suffered with them through two World Series losses to those darn Yankees and the Oakland A’s. And then in 1975 they won it all in one of the best World Series ever against the Boston Red Sox, and I thought my dreams were fulfilled. The Kingdom of God could come now. Somehow I expected things to be different because of a silly game played by overgrown and over paid kids. Of course it didn’t change anything.

The world doesn’t even change when the Buckeyes win a national championship or the right political party is in charge. In victory or defeat our purpose is the same, to be responsible moral agents for God’s will. We don’t base our behavior on peer pressure or majority rule. I think it must be in every Mom’s handbook to ask “If everyone else jumped off the bridge would you too?” And that’s solid advice. Being morally responsible means a constant process of learning critical thinking skills. It means we need to ask God to set us free from any selfish goals or priorities that prevent us from doing the right thing. We may have to say no to the consumerism of the world so we can pick up a cross and follow Jesus. When Jesus called his disciples he didn’t say, “Go home and pack.” He just said, “Follow me.”

There’s even a lesson we can learn from something as scary as the nuclear game of chicken going on with N. Korea. We’re all praying for a peaceful solution to this problem, but it’s a reminder that in the worst case scenario if there is a nuclear attack anytime we won’t have days or even hours to get our moral house in order. We need to be right with God all the time, even when it makes us look foolish in the eyes of the world.

Let’s not sugar coat it. To be a fool for Christ can be lonely. I was a Boy Scout all through Jr. High and high school, and it was a great experience. But I have to tell you I dreaded Boy Scout week each February because it meant we were supposed to wear our scout uniforms to school. It wasn’t cool to be a boy scout. The same thing happened when I got my call to ministry at a church camp my sophomore year in high school. It took me 3 years before I told anyone about that because I was afraid people would think I was some kind of goodie two shoes.

We all know bullying is a major problem for kids these days. Being a Christian fool means doing something to stop a bully, whether it’s intervening directly or getting a teacher or other adult to address the situation. There was an incident in Portland, Oregon recently where a man was yelling racist and anti-Muslim threats at two women on a bus. Three other passengers intervened and two were killed and the other wounded when the bully pulled a knife on them. What they did to put ourselves in harm’s way might seem foolish to the world, but the harm to one’s conscience when we fail to do the right thing is much worse. That’s an extreme case of course, but it illustrates the seriousness of Christian discipleship. And then the violence in Charlottesville happened yesterday, and the risks of standing up for truth and justice were written in bloody broad strokes for all of us to see. There’s nothing funny or silly about being a fool for Christ.

Christian fools pay a price for their faithfulness. John and Charles Wesley who started the Methodist church were thrown out of the Church of England because they challenged things in that church that they believed were wrong. Worldly values would call Mother Theresa foolish to go live among the squalor and disease in Calcutta, but we call her a saint.

I am so proud to be part of this congregation for all the foolish things we do. Worldly values often base decisions on what the ROI will be of a particular action. ROI stands for Return on Investment. By the ROI standard Northwest Church does a lot of foolish things. Our Kairos ministry shares the Gospel and delicious cookies with prisoners at the Marion Correctional facility several times a year. None of those men are likely to ever darken the door of our church. Where’s the ROI for the time and effort that goes into that ministry?
We send food and servants down to Broad St. UMC to serve meals to hungry and homeless people at the Manna Café. We even have some wonderful servants who get up very early some Sunday mornings to serve breakfast to hungry people at the Church for All People. None of those folks will ever contribute to our church’s bottom line. Where’s the ROI?
Same thing with Brown Bag Lunches and back packs filled with school supplies to kids in our own backyard. It’s unlikely that most of those people will come and sit in these pews so our attendance numbers look better for the bishop.

The world operates on a profit motive, but the church runs on a prophetic model. The world says “what’s in it for me?” Christian fools say “what’s in it for others?” Our ROI is the warm feeling of having done something good for one of God’s children. It’s seeing the joy and pure delight on the faces of hungry kids receiving their brown bag or backpack; watching them run out to meet our church van because it shows them somebody cares about them.

When I was youth minister at Worthington UMC we took our kids on mission trips every summer. One year we went to West Virginia to help with flood relief. We stayed overnight in a UM church in Morgantown, WV on our way home. It was a big downtown church with a two-story education wing. I went out that evening to pick up some pizza for the group and as I drove back to the church I was both amused and embarrassed at what I saw. Hanging from the upstairs windows of the church was a big sign that said “Love for Sale.”

I made the kids remove the sign as soon as I got in the church, and we had a talk about it while we ate our pizza. I don’t remember what I said to the kids way back then 30 years ago. I’m sure I said their sign wasn’t appropriate, but reflecting on it now here’s what I wish I had said. “Love is never for sale. When we love someone we don’t weigh the costs and figure out what we can get in return – that’s not love. It’s a business transaction.”

The wisdom of the world is self-centered. The foolishness of the Gospel says those who love must be servants of all. Christians are called to always reflect love and grace, not judgment and exclusion. I learned a simple prayer in a seminar on peacemaking a few years ago. It really helps when I remember to pause in a tough situation when it is so easy to lose my temper. It’s simply to repeat to myself these three phrases: “Let me be peaceful, let me be kind, let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s really very hard to do, and I often fail miserably; but it’s what we are all called to do and be by the biggest fool the world has ever known.

Jesus spent his three year ministry breaking rules and challenging the wisdom of the establishment. He offended the wise leaders of both the Roman Empire and the Jewish hierarchy. By worldly standards Jesus had no qualifications to be wise – no degrees, no portfolio, and no 401K. He got himself in so much hot water he was brutally killed. The world says that’s the height of foolishness. One of the thieves crucified with him speaks for the worldly values. He says, “Jesus, use your divine powers Jesus to save yourself and us.”

Instead Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” The wisdom of the world thought it had triumphed on Good Friday. Jesus’ mother and disciples grieved the death of Jesus and their hopes for the future. But on resurrection day God got the last laugh.

The basic ground rules for being a fool for Christ are captured in these words which reportedly were written on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.” Amen.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, August 13,2017]

Life Lessons I Didn’t Learn in Class

Overhearing the Gospel is a great title for a book on preaching by Fred Craddock. Craddock argues that an indirect and subtle approach to hearing the difficult truth of the Christian Gospel is often the most effective method of communication. It’s why Jesus relied so heavily on parables to share his truth. Stories have a way of bypassing prejudices and ideology by touching hearers at a deeper level than purely rational arguments can do. Stories personalize concepts and appeal to emotion and morality in a holistic way that is more persuasive than a more direct imperative approach.

That’s why listeners who first heard Jesus urge them to “love their enemies” or “turn the other cheek” probably said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” But when convicted by the truth of the Good Samaritan story, even the lawyer who started out planning to “test” Jesus had to admit the real neighbor in the story was not the religious leaders, as one would expect The surprise hero of that parable is the hated enemy from Samaria who showed compassion on the man who was mugged and left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho. (See Luke 10:25-37).

I learned some great life lessons via the indirect approach 50 years ago in high school. Blessed with a good memory, I was always a “good” student, which simply means I knew how to play the education game well and regurgitate answers that teachers wanted to hear on tests. But I realized recently that some values I learned in “extra-curricular” activities were far more important than any quadratic equations I solved or verbs I learned to conjugate. The irony is that the lessons I value most from my high school education came from our choral music teacher, Walter Kehres. What makes it ironic is that I cannot and never have been able to carry a tune in a bucket. I am also not very technologically or mechanically gifted; so I don’t remember how I ended up as one of the students asked to run the light board in our school auditorium, but I’m very grateful I did.

As part of the stage crew I had a priceless opportunity to participate in two major musical productions. To explain the value of that experience I need to set some historical context. I attended high school in a small, conservative rural Ohio community from 1960-1964 during a time of great tension and change in American history. My wife and I recently saw the excellent movie, “The Butler,” that is yet another example of the power of narrative. The film covers the history of the Civil Rights Movement from Eisenhower to Obama, and was a painful reminder to me of how isolated and unaware of what was happening in our own country I was in my youth.

That isolation was a function of the culture and ideology that defined my community and my education. For racism to be addressed directly as part of our academic curriculum would have been met with strong opposition from the community. That’s why the indirect approach to controversial issues was necessary and effective. I will never know for sure if addressing social justice issues like racism and multiculturalism even factored into our music director’s decision when he was choosing the shows to be performed each year. I hope it was, but what I do know is that my junior year our big musical production for the year was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical “South Pacific.”

Here’s how Wikipedia describes “South Pacific:” “It centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.”

Here are the lyrics to that prophetic song:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

Had that message about racism and an inter-racial couple been preached from any pulpit or taught in any classroom in my hometown it would never have been tolerated by anyone, including me. But hearing those words sung dozens of time in rehearsals and performances in the context of a “story” sneaked them past the censors and filters in my head. The words and emotions of that great show are so memorable that 50 years later, I can still sing most of the score to this day (fear not, only in the shower).

I have no idea if that production affected anyone else the way it did me, and the message was so subtle, or I was so obtuse, that I didn’t realize until recently what am impact it had on me, even though I’ve quoted “Carefully Taught” in numerous sermons and classes over the years. In that high school auditorium when I thought I was just running a light board, seeds of tolerance and social justice were planted in my head and heart that slowly began to germinate. That made me open to more direct messages and experiences about racial equality in the very formative years of my formal and informal education that followed.

I don’t know if Walter Kehres, our music director, is still living or not, but wherever he is, I send a very belated thank you from one of the most non-musical students whose life you helped change forever.