Day: March 15, 2009

Sermon: Stop That Foolishness!

Stop That Foolishness!
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 man? Where is the scholar? 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 miraculous 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 man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.

Childhood Flashback

When was the last time someone told you sternly to “stop that foolishness?”  Well, that phrase was directed my way more than once when I was growing up.  My brother and I would be tussling around on the floor, or arguing about something, or being incredibly silly and my mother would look at us and say,

“All right now, you boys stop that foolishness this minute!”

Or words to that effect.  But we got the message — stop acting silly, or annoying, or aggravating, or rambunctious (which is a good parent-word all on its own).

But here Paul uses the word “foolish” or its variations a couple of times.

— In verse 18, Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…
— Then in verse 20 he says, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
— Then in verse 21, he talks about the foolishness of preaching.
— And in verse 22, that the gospel is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.
— And finally in verse 25, Paul says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.

Well, that’s a lot of uses of the word “foolish” or “foolishness.”  So, what’s Paul getting at in this twisting passage in which he plays with the ideas of wisdom and foolishness.

The Wrong Idea of Resistance to the Gospel

Sometimes we read these words of Paul —

22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, —

and we think that Jews and Greeks don’t get it.  That somehow they are racially or genetically pre-disposed to reject the gospel, the good news, of Jesus.

But of course, that isn’t true.  Jews and Greeks both have already believed in Jesus at this point.  The disciples were Jews.  The Day of Pentecost was a Jewish event reimagined by the coming of the Holy Spirit in power.

And Greeks believed, too.  The first real dispute in the church after Pentecost was because the “Greek-speaking” widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  Some translations say “Helenistic” widows — Greeks, in other words.

So, it’s not that Jews and Greeks don’t have the capacity to believe, because many already have believed.

We have to be careful that we don’t write off whole groups of people in our casting around for the reasons we’re not more successful than we are in reaching people.

It’s not the individual Jews or Greeks or any other ethnic group Paul is speaking of here.  No, it’s the culture.  The culture of the Jews and the culture of the Greeks that makes it difficult, not impossible, but difficult to hear the gospel story.

Culture is The Filter Through Which We See The World

These past two weeks I’ve been in California.  There were only six of us in the seminar I took, but let me give you the breakdown:

— One was a Navy chaplain whose family had immigrated from Freisland, a tiny province of Holland, famous for Freisan horses.  He was a Reformed Church of America   minister, formerly called the Dutch Reformed Church.
— The only woman in our group was Chinese, born in Taiwan, and who had come to the US 20-years ago.  She is associate pastor of the largest Chinese church in San Diego.
— An African-American shared a table with me, and he is the director of a seminary extension campus in southern California.  He had pastored mostly white churches in California prior to taking his current position.
— We also had an American who had lived most of his adult life in Thailand as a representative of two different Christian helping organizations, and he was involved in tsunami relief in 2006.  He has just moved to Singapore to start a work there.
— The final class member was from Australia, a pastor who served a congregation and as chaplain to a large school for Aboriginal children who are brought in from the outback for a fully-paid education.
— The professor, Dr. David Augsburger, is a Mennonite whose family came from Germany a couple of generations ago.  Augsburger speaks several languages, travels the world as a guest lecturer when not teaching at Fuller, and is a brilliant and gentle man.

One day in class, Dr. Augsburger asked, “If I describe a tall, thin man, wearing a tall black hat, who speaks the words, “Four-score and seven years ago….”  who am I describing?”

He asked Andrew, the Australian.  Andrew guesses somebody I’d never heard of, but it wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, which, of course, everybody knows is the answer.  Everybody who’s American, that is.

My point is, we all see the world through the lenses of our culture, our family, our upbringing, and our lived-experience.

So, when Paul says, “The gospel doesn’t make any sense to the Jews or the Greeks” he’s speaking of the differences in culture.  And, does he get it right!

The Jews, he said, are looking for a miracle.  Now you might think that when Jesus healed the sick, made the lame to walk and the blind to see, when he cleansed the lepers and made them whole, and when he raised dead people, you might think those would have been miracles enough.  But, no.

The Jews were looking for Elijah to come back.  Not someone like Elijah, not someone speaking Elijah’s words, but Elijah himself.  They interpreted some Hebrew prophecies to mean that Elijah would come back before the Messiah of God, the Anointed One, came.

And, if Elijah did come back, then and only then could the Messiah come.  And the Messiah would work the miracle of freeing the Jews from the tyranny of Rome.

So all talk of a Messiah without Elijah and freedom from Rome was ridiculous.  Unbelievable.  Foolishness.

Same for the Greeks only their culture was at the other end of the spectrum.  They wanted an intellectual approach.  A philosophical approach.  And so they debated endlessly about life and death, the meaning of both, plus they threw in a few gods just to cover their bets, but their gods were more like the royal family in England — entertaining, but hardly essential.

A Story About How This Was Almost The Chatham Mennonite Church

Dr. Augsburger told an interesting story on the last day of class.  He told the story of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, who with their band of followers, 70-something strong, made with their way from England to Holland.  There they intended to be baptized into the church founded by Menno Simmons, which we call Mennonite.

The story goes that all the arrangements had been made and the Mennonites knew this group was coming. And so on a Sunday the band of persecuted followers of Christ, who were being hounded out of England because they were not Anglican, or Puritan, but who had split from the Church of England all together, this band showed up at the door of the Mennonite Church.

The Mennonite brethren greeted them warmly, and were about to welcome them into the church for their baptism.  But one thing remained.  The Mennonites told these who would later become our Baptist forebears, that they must leave their swords at the door, and renounce the use of violence.  It was the Mennonite way, they said.

Thomas Helwys replied they could not give up their swords, for it was not the English way.  And so the band left, and later John Smyth founded an English-speaking church in Amsterdam.  Later, Thomas Helwys returned to England where he baptized himself, and then all the others who followed him, establishing there on English soil the first truly Baptist congregation — swords and all.

Culture becomes the stumbling block.  Culture clouds our thinking and our understanding of the work of God.  But Paul then said, “but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

In other words, some people saw beyond their culture, and came to Christ.  How did that happen, you think?

How To Break Down The Barrier of Culture

Well, I think there are always individuals who are willing and able to march to their own drummer.  There are a few individuals who, when presented with the compelling story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, found it irresistible.  And, they saw clearly the call of God on their life and responded.

But why not everyone?  Because most of us are captives of our culture.  Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday was a couple of weeks ago.  Darwin is now hailed as a scientific genius, a trail-blazer in observing and recording data that would change the world’s concept of how life develops and evolves.  Now, my point here is not to persuade you to become an advocate of Darwin, but even his opponents acknowledge his incredible influence on science, which is viewed as a good thing.

But do you know what lay behind Darwin’s theory of evolution? Well, let me read you the full title of Darwin’s work and maybe you’ll have a clue —

The full title of Darwin’s work, which we usually shorten to “The Origin of the Species” is really

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

In other words, Darwin was a racist.  Darwin’s theory was to prove that the superior races, which did not include dark-skinned people, had become superior by the survival of the fittest.

That’s not the spin his theory gets today.  And my point is that even a scientist like Darwin was a captive of his culture.

But the gospel is a culture-breaker itself.  And therein is part of the problem.  The gospel doesn’t work like almost every culture that exists or ever has existed.  It doesn’t make sense.  It doesn’t even make sense to us today.  We do not take Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek or not returning violence for violence seriously.  We endorse war, and send our Baptist young men and women off to fight.  Maybe if we’d become Mennonites we wouldn’t but we do.  So, we are living proof of the power of culture over gospel.

A Story of Gospel Over Culture

But what if we could overcome our culture?  What if, as followers of Jesus, we could preach the gospel in ways that look really foolish to the world in which we live, to the culture we take for granted like the air we breathe?

If we could maybe it would look something like this:

In Elkhart, Indiana folks at a Methodist church in the inner city of Elkhart were proud of their old sanctuary.  The most striking feature of the sanctuary was its stained glass windows, and the most beautiful of those windows was the large round window behind the choir loft.

Even though the congregation was declining, the church too pride in the way it maintained its buildings, an example to their changing community of values and beliefs that endured.

You can imagine their dismay when one Sunday are members were arriving for church, they quickly noticed that someone had thrown a brick through the most beautiful window in the sanctuary — the large rose window behind the choir.

The damage was reported to both the police and their insurance company, and the estimate to repair the window ran into the thousands of dollars. The deductible alone was several thousand dollars.

It didn’t take the police long to figure out who the vandals were.  Two boys had been seen frequently riding skateboards in the church parking lot.  When church members saw them, they ran them off, only to have to repeat the same action the next week.

Most of the members of the board thought they should prosecute the boys.  After all, an example had to be made and besides they had damaged someone else’s property.  The  crime should not, could not go unpunished.

But some members of the congregation felt there might be another way.  A way that didn’t let the boys off scot-free, but that also didn’t ruin their lives forever.  But for the life of them, and despite all their discussion about it, church members couldn’t figure out what to do.  So, they asked for help.

A group called Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program had been formed in the community a couple of years before, and so the church board contacted VORP, as it was called, for help in mediating this crisis.

When VORP came in, they said, “Our job is not only to resolve this one issue, but to explore the circumstances that led to the vandalism, and to bring the parties together in reconciliation.”

With that they started to work. First, they brought in the church board.  The board gave them the details of what the window repair would cost, and what the deductible might be.  After those facts were taken care of, they discussed with the board their next steps.  VORP would talk to the boys, hear their side of the story, and then begin to craft a plan to address the immediate concerns of restitution, and the longer-range concerns of reconciliation.

When the boys were brought in, the mediators asked them what led to their breaking the church’s stained glass window.  The boys said that most of the church members didn’t even live in the community.  They drove into church on Sunday mornings, ran the boys off the parking lot, and then drove out again after services until the next Sunday.

“The members of the church don’t know anything about this neighborhood,” they said. “They need to see what’s going on here.”

The parents of the boys, who had limited financial means, agreed to make a substantial payment toward the deductible.

VORP suggested that the board make up the difference, meeting the families of the boys half way in paying the deductible.

The church was asked what it wanted the boys to do.  “We think they ought to contribute to the community,” the church said.  “Their crime was against the community and their restitution should help the community.”

With a number of elderly members who still lived in the area, and with winter coming on, it was agreed by both the church and the boys that each boy would be assigned 2 elderly members.  When it snowed, which it did a lot in Elkhart, the boys would have to get up early before school, and shovel the sidewalks of these 4 senior members.

In return, hot chocolate and warm rolls or cookies would be waiting for them when they finished their task, and they would be invited in to sit at the kitchen table to warm up with both hot chocolate and conversation.

When the mediators asked the boys what they wanted, they said, “We see church members’ kids flying radio-controlled airplanes in the church parking lot.  We want to do that, too.”

The men in the church who helped their sons build and fly radio-controlled planes agreed.  They would start a radio-controlled plane club, which would meet each week during the winter in the church basement, and side-by-side they and their sons would help these boys and their families learn how to build and fly radio-controlled planes.

Everyone agreed, and every time it snowed, they boys were out early shoveling sidewalks, and sharing hot chocolate afterwards with their new elder friends.

And, the radio-controlled plane club started meeting each week.  The church bought the supplies, furnished the space, and church members donated their time to teach all the boys — theirs and the boys from the neighborhood — how to build and fly radio-controlled planes.

Winter turned into spring, and on Easter Sunday church members were instructed to park on the street because the parking lot had been roped off.  After the Sunday service, everyone from the church and community gathered in the parking lot to watch their sons and the boys from the neighborhood fly the radio-controlled planes they had been building all winter.  There was cake and punch, and a lot of oohing and aahing as the planes one-by-one took off from the parking lot, circled above and then landed under the guidance of boys for whom now there was no distinction.  They were just boys who shared a love of planes and of doing something together.

Needless to say, one thing led to another, and before long the church was involved in other ministries with their neighbors.  And the thing that had been foolishness to those who lived around the church, became the means of healing for all of them.

That’s what Paul meant when he said,

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom….

I can hear my mother now telling me to “Stop that foolishness.”  But in a world where values are upside down, where an eye-for-an-eye is the law of the land, there’s another foolishness which we need more of, the foolishness of Jesus.  Let’s not stop that kind of foolishness ever.