Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Foolish Love:  Foolish Wisdom

Rev. Kathy Donley

 3/25/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  1 Corinthians 1: 17-31

 

Running an outdoor lemonade stand while the snow is still a foot deep in your yard, seems like particularly foolish enterprise.  But it wasn’t and I’ll tell you why in a minute. 

First, let’s talk about the ancient city of Corinth.  Corinth was on a narrow strip of land with sea on both sides.  It was inland with two port cities as a first line of defense, one to the north and one to the east.  By the first century, it was a commercial hub.  Goods for sale arrived by ship and were carried across the Corinthian isthmus to be put on ships on the other side. Many of them made their way into Corinthian markets, and Corinth exported bronze and pottery and earthenware.  It had first been a Greek city, but was largely destroyed in a war with the Romans in 146 BCE. Augustus Caesar rebuilt it as a Roman city about 80 years before Paul arrived.  He repopulated the city with eager, upwardly- mobile freed persons who emigrated from other parts of the empire.  By the time of Paul, Corinth was functioning as a regional capital, competing even with Athens.  Corinth hosted the Isthmian games, every two years, which was a great honor, but other than that, it had a reputation as a city with great wealth but only a superficial cultural life.[1]

Paul planted a church in Corinth in about 50 AD.  If the city had a certain reputation, so did the church.  A letter written a full generation after Paul’s time notes that the Corinthian Christians continue to “engage in partisan strife.”[2]  The term “Battling Baptists” had not yet been invented, but otherwise, it would have been apt. 

One of the purposes of Paul’s letter is to urge reconciliation and promote unity among the various factions.  Here at the beginning, he appeals to them to stand together because of their common understanding of the cross. 

Frederick Buechner has a marvelous way with words.  He summed up Paul’s thinking like this: “The wisdom of [humans] is the kind of worldly wisdom that more or less all [people] have been living by since the cave man. It is best exemplified by such homely utterances as You've got your own life to leadBusiness is businessCharity begins at homeDon't get involvedGod helps those who help themselvesSafety first, and so forth. . .”

“What God says, on the other hand, is ‘The life you save is the life you lose.’ In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard, and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love's sake is a life worth living. To bring his point home, God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of [human] wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and [those] who think [they] can follow him without making something like the same kind of fools of [themselves are] laboring under not a cross but a delusion.  There are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools and what St. Paul calls ‘fools for Christ's sake.’’[3]

Now about that lemonade stand . . . Landon and Zac Lawson are brothers. [4]  Landon is 12.  Zac is 9.  They live in New Jersey.  Last summer, they set up a lemonade stand and raised $200 for the Make a Wish Foundation.  Last month, they pulled out their card table and lemonade supplies and set up again, after they cleared the snow from their driveway.  It was the best way they knew to show support for the victims of the Parkland school shooting.  They had a steady stream of traffic.  They raised awareness about school safety and gun violence as neighbors talked at the stand, and they raised $363 for the victims, because nothing says foolish love like a tall glass of ice cold lemonade on a winter’s day.  

It’s foolish, right?  It won’t change a thing, right?  Except that it already has.  If nothing else, Landon and Zac have learned that they can appear ridiculous for the sake of love, and other people will follow their lead.  They also learned the power of doing what you can, where you can.  Their $363 was an early gift to a fund which has now raised over $6 million. 

Meanwhile, back in Corinth, the Christians are competing for status. They are as upwardly mobile as the other citizens of their city.  They want to appear to have the culture and education that would normally accompany wealth and nobility.  Wisdom and the refined speech that went with it earned status in their culture.[5]  With status comes power. 

So, Paul eloquently contrasts human wisdom with God’s foolishness.  Paul reminds them that the gospel’s power does not work like human competition.  God’s strength is found in weakness, in vulnerability. Paul wants them to know where their true worth resides.  He wants them to remember where their true power comes from: a mangled human body, suffering so unjustly, tortured to death, the incomprehensible love of Christ displayed on the cross.  This is deeply unsettling.  It is scandalous to some, utter foolishness to others.  What power can it possibly have? And yet, in the foolish wisdom of God, it does.   Its power is the message that God thinks people and the creation are so good, so beautiful, so precious that our redemption is worth dying for.[6]

Seeing themselves in light of the love of Christ, discerning real wisdom and real strength, is a gift of the transforming love of God.  Dorothy Butler Bass, writes “Transformation is the promise at the heart of the Christian life . . . that by God’s mercy, we can be different, our congregations can be different, and our world can be different.”[7]  If the Corinthians would allow God’s love to do its work, they would be transformed.  And so would we. 

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;”

Last Sunday, I mentioned Hugh Thompson.  He was the American helicopter pilot who stopped the massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians 50 years last week.  He landed his helicopter between the American soldiers, who had already slaughtered 500 women, children and old men, and the few villagers who were still alive.  He told the Americans that if they opened fire on the Vietnamese then his crew would stop them by shooting them.  All shooting stopped and he evacuated the villagers to safety.  The army covered up the atrocities and he was personally vilified for 30 years. 

But on the thirtieth anniversary of the massacre, Thompson went back to My Lai and met some of the people whose lives he had saved. "There were real good highs," he said, "and very low lows. One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, 'Why didn't the people who committed these acts come back with you?' And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, “So we could forgive them.” [8]

The ones with the guns had thought they were the strong ones, but once again, it is the weak who shame the strong. 

The students from Stoneman Douglas High School might be considered victims, and therefore among the weak.  They are teenagers, caught up in the angst of adolescence, and therefore often regarded as foolish.  And yet . . . they are empowering a national movement on gun violence which no one has been able to do before. The post-millennial generation, of which those teens are a part, is just beginning to be studied by sociologists.  One finding is that they are concerned about student debt, anticipating that they might not be able to afford college at all. Twenty-two percent of them have lived in poverty.   Another is that they are more risk-averse than previous generations.  They experiment with alcohol less and wear their seatbelts more.  A 2016 study found that these youths had lower teen pregnancy rates, less substance abuse, and higher on-time high school graduation rates when compared with the generation just ahead of them.[9] Perhaps they are wiser than we give them credit for.  Somehow, it seems that this more cautious, economically stressed cohort organized school walk-outs across the country a week ago and brought something like a million people together to march in Washington, DC and cities around the world yesterday.  God chooses what is foolish to shame the wise.

The Parkland students have been transformed by a tragedy not of their choosing.  They are loving themselves, asserting their own value.  They are loving others, reaching out to include others who have suffered similar violence without the same kind of attention and support.  It appears that whether they are Christian or not, they are learning the power of suffering love. 

They have been transformed by a tragedy which they did not choose.  We, on the other hand, can choose to allow the love of God to transform us, so that that by God’s mercy, we can be different, our congregations can be different, and our world can be different.   We might hope for the transformation of our habits, our perceptions, and our hearts, in order to see strength and weakness, wisdom and foolishness as they really are.  Such transformation might require us to speak truth in a peacefully, assertive way, maybe even with a smile on our face or a twinkle in our eyes. It might require us to speak even through tears or in spite of an anxiety which makes us vomit on stage in front of 800,000 people.  If we are naturally talkative, transformation might involve staying silent to allow someone else’s story to hold sway.  It could mean taking action, doing something risky that puts us in an uncomfortable location or staying where we are, but allowing uncomfortable truths about ourselves to be examined.

What I know is that when transformation happens, it will likely be in ways we did not predict and perhaps did not think we wanted or needed.   It will be through the power of God and not human wisdom.  What we can contribute, probably all we can contribute,  is to resolve with Paul, to know Christ and him crucified, to keep ourselves receptive and responsive to the power of suffering, foolish love.

This is Palm Sunday, the day we remember the carpenter’s son bouncing along on the back of a donkey, even perhaps the colt of a donkey.  Can you see him?  He is half-riding, half-walking because his legs are too long for this animal.  It is a ridiculous parody of the pomp and circumstance of the Empire, strutting in its power and supposed wisdom. Jesus rides to his death, for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Some say that when Jesus comes again, it will be riding a white stallion, wearing robes of glory, with a crown of gold on his head, and with a gleaming body. But perhaps when he comes again, he will not be different. He will be riding the same little donkey that he rode before, wearing the same simple garment that he wore before, and with the same crown of thorns on his head and with a body marked by the same wounds as before. The difference will be this: that the world will at long last recognize that this is what constitutes his glory. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

 

Hosanna!  Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!   Amen.



[1] J. Paul Sampley, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2002), p.773-775. 

[2] Sampley, p. 775.

[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC, (New York:  Harper & Row, 1973), p. 28. 

[4] https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/bergen/ridgewood/2018/02/19/ridgewood-kids-lemonade-stand-small-gesture-face-fla-tragedy/352539002/

[5] Sampley, p. 812.

[6] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context:  Jesus and the Suffering World, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003), p. 24.

[7] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, p. 281.

[8] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-wiener-my-lai-hugh-thompson-20180316-story.html

[9] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/generation-z-breaks-records-in-education-and-health-despite-growing-economic-instability-of-their-families-300287848.html

 

 

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