Monday, November 13, 2017

"A Foolish Word?" A sermon preached on November 12, 2017 at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church


A Foolish Word?”
A Sermon by Brent J. Eelman

I Corinthians 1: 10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God* that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.   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.

“Don’t be a fool.”  How often have we heard that admonition?  “Don’t be a fool.”  We heard it from our parents. We heard it from teachers and coaches. We heard it from friends, colleagues and advisors.  “Don’t be a fool.”  One of the things that I know about myself is that when I am in a strange or new social situation, I am very concerned about not appearing foolish.  No one wants to be a fool.  No one wants to appear foolish in the presence of others. No one wants to suffer the consequences of personal foolishness.   Yet here we have the statement from Paul the Apostle that the message of the cross appears to be utter foolishness to a great many people. 

Paul wrote those words to Greeks in Corinth.  The Greek culture valued wisdom and eloquence.  The word philosophy is a Greek construction which means “love of wisdom.”  The women and the men whom Paul addressed in this letter appreciated eloquence and well-reasoned argument.  They were the heirs of Socrates and Plato.  They were schooled in the arguments of the Epicureans and the Stoics.  They were reasonably sophisticated for their day.  But what was the fruit of their sophistication?  It was division, argument and conflict. 

Today, I want to do something, just a bit different in the sermon.  First, I want to look at legacy of worldly wisdom through an historic anecdote.  Second, the legacy of history’s foolish Christians,  And finally the power of the foolish cross.
I
Edward Everett was the most celebrated American intellectual in the 19th century.  He was the valedictorian of his Harvard Class.  He was a congressman and senator from the state of Massachusetts. He was a Unitarian pastor and the first American ever to receive a PhD degree. He was also the governor of the state of Massachusetts and Secretary of State for the United States.  Later in life he assumed the presidency of Harvard University.  The town of Everett, Pennsylvania is named after him.  He was president of Harvard when the first African American was admitted as a student.  In face of the opposition to the student’s admission, Everett said:  "If this boy passes the examinations he will be admitted and if the white students choose to withdraw, all the income of the college will be devoted to his education." 

Most importantly, Everett was known as a brilliant orator.  He was one of the great speakers of his age.  When an inspirational speaker was needed, the brilliant Edward Everett was the first choice.  He represented the wisdom of his age and he represented it well.  Everett gave a speech in Pennsylvania that was hailed by newspapers and pundits as brilliant.  It was given at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg.  Everett was asked by the committee that was preparing the dedication of that cemetery if he would be willing to be the keynote speaker at the dedication.  He wrote back and said, that the date they picked would not give him enough time.  The committee agreed to set the date back two months, so that Everett would have adequate time to prepare his speech.  Almost as an afterthought, David Wills, the president of the committee, asked President Abraham Lincoln to make a "few appropriate remarks."  Lincoln agreed.  Everett’s speech was a masterpiece, according to those who heard it that day.  He spoke for two hours, and people hung on his every word.  After that great speech, Lincoln spoke for two minutes. The newspapers hailed the words of Everett as brilliant. But let me read a few of the reactions to Lincoln’s words:

Chicago Times: "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as (Lincoln) reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances."

Harrisburg Patriot and Union: "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the Nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of."

That two minute speech,  the “silly remarks”  the forgettable, “silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances,” were the Gettysburg Address. It is recognized today as one of the greatest pieces of oratory in American history.  No-one quotes the words of Everett, however eloquent, has become a question for trivia games.  To his credit, Everett recognized the brilliance of Lincoln and wrote to him, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

The wisdom of our age, is often the trivia of future ages. 
II
The foolishness of the cross has shown itself to be powerful and continues long after the fall of monarchs and empires.  Consider the impact of this foolishness.

Many of the early Christians were regarded as fools because their affirmation of faith often led them to suffering and martyrdom.  The crazy emperor Nero used Christians as human torches to light some of his garden parties.  Early followers of Jesus were thrown into stadiums and provided entertainment for spectators as they were mauled by beasts or gladiators.  

They were fools, but here is the power of their foolishness:  If Nero and the other persecutors of Christianity could return to Rome today and look for the Vatican gardens where the Christians were burned, they would find in their place an enormous church, named for Peter who was probably one of their victims.  When Rome fell in the 5th century, the Christian Church remained and continued.  The foolishness of the cross has outlived the wisdom of the powerful. 

Or consider the German church in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Some of the best theologians and scholars lacked the moral courage to resist the racist ideology of the Nazis and capitulated to the wishes of the German Reich.   They allowed the state to appoint bishops, control and censor the message of the church. It was the “wise and expedient” thing to do.  A small group of women and men began a confessing church in response to this.  They were regarded by many as foolish Christians.  Most of them would be imprisoned or executed, because they dared to foolishly oppose one of the most powerful regimes of the 20th century.  Armed only with words and ritual (the truth!)  they foolishly dared to say “no” to the lies of an oppressive state.  History has judged both groups.  Today, we remember the names of Bonhoeffor, Niemoller, and others.  We admire them for their faith and conviction.  We read their words today, and we know that these foolish individuals understood the power of the cross.

Then there is the 20th century fool, Albert Schweitzer.  He earned a PhD in philosophy.  He was one of the most celebrated organists of his day.  He was a biblical scholar whose work, The Quest Of the Historical Jesus, is still read today.  He could have settled into a comfortable life as a professor and musician.  At the age of 30, in 1905, he answered the call of "The Society Of The Evangelist Missions of Paris" who were looking for a Medical Doctor.  He spent the next 8 years of his life, studying medicine, and devoted his life to serving as a physician in the Congo.  What a fool!  Thank God, what a fool!! 
III
Following Jesus Christ, in our day and age often appears to be foolish. 
·      How foolish it seems to some in our busy society to spend Sunday morning, a time to catch up on sleep, with others, singing and worshiping and enjoying fellowship together. 
·      How foolish it seems to share wealth, time and talent for the benefit of others, when we could be investing those resources in ourselves and our own futures. 
·      How foolish it must be to believe that we are created by someone who loves us, and wants us to live and enjoy life together…
·      How foolish it seems to believe that this same being, God, loves others and values them, even when we don’t. 
·      How foolish it seems to forgive others when they do us wrong. 
·      How foolish it seems to believe that human beings were created to live together in harmony and peace, and not in a state of conflict, war and destruction. 
·      How foolish it seems to believe that one individual, a Mediterranean peasant, who lived 2000 years ago, in an obscure part of the world… who allowed himself to be captured and executed, could be the one who holds the future to life, and the purpose of our existence. 
·      How foolish it must seem in our sophisticated age to hold on this… this power of the cross..

Yet when I ponder these assertions, (and they are often made by the wise and sophisticated), and I reflect on the history of humanity, it becomes apparent that the foolishness of the cross, is indeed wiser and more potent than the wisdom of our age and any age. 

Are my words this morning foolish?  Perhaps… but it is a foolishness that offers hope, and history has vindicated that hope. 

The challenge for us today is to have the audacity of the fool;
·      to proclaim hope in the midst of despair;
·      to see opportunity and promise in the midst of chaos;
·      to see the hand of God in times of trouble;
·      to pursue the peace of Christ, when others want to fight;
·      to share and serve others in a world that proclaims “me first!”. 

The challenge for us is to embody the foolish word of our Jesus Christ in our lives today.  Amen.