Monday, January 30, 2017

3. Field of Fools


The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 15, Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 29 2017

Little Joey is outside throwing a ball. Mum yells 'It's dinner time'. 'Just a few more minutes!' Joey protests. 'Now' says mum, 'You'll never get anywhere in life if all you can do is fool around with a ball'.

I'm fairly sure that such is a situation that every professional baseball player, basketball player, and indeed every player that will take part in next weeks Superbowl Game could identify with. That somewhere in their past, there were people who told them that they were being foolish investing their lives in throwing, bouncing or kicking a ball.

But next week there they'll be. Running out onto the field as some of the most admired athletes in the nation, taking part in one of the most watched TV events of the year. A field of fools? Very well accomplished, very well paid, very much admired fools. It does, if you think about it, seem rather strange that the ability to play a game well can bring so much adulation, but that's the way of the world.

I'm guessing that professional artists, writers and musicians had to face similar challenges. The girl in the dance class. The kid with the dream of writing a movie script. The one who is always fiddling about on the computer, coming up with codes and images and little innovations. There has been somebody who told them, somewhere along the line, “Look, that's fine to do as a hobby or a distraction, but you are a fool if you think you can make a living out of it.”

Tell that to Steven Spielberg or Mark Zuckerberg or Carrie Underwood When are they going to stop fooling around and get a proper job? There are many fields for fools out there!

Which brings me to a verse from our bible reading today, 1 Corinthians 1:18. Paul tells us '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'.

There are many in our society who will tell us that we truly are fools, if we allow the message of Christianity to get a deep hold upon us. After all, look where it led Jesus and all those early disciples. He ended up on a cross, they ended up as martyrs. And that resurrection stuff? Get real! It's impossible.

The Christian message does not fit well with the way things are meant to be. Paul tells us, “Jews demand for signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

That phrase here translated as 'stumbling block' is the Greek word 'skandalon', from which we derive our English word 'scandal'. According to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy 21:23 anyone who was 'hung on a tree' was irrevocably cursed by God. How could the Messiah, the anointed one of God, come to his life's end in such an accursed fashion? For those of a Jewish background that wasn't the kind of sign they were looking for! It didn't make sense. Foolishness.

The problem for the Greeks was different. Their problem was that almost everything about Jesus made no sense to them. His concern for the poor. The way He identified with people who didn't really matter in the larger scheme things. His teaching about the pecking order in life. His humility. Wasn't He supposed to be a King? Royalty and humility did not go together.

The power of God, which Paul claimed was shown through Jesus Christ, manifested itself in contradictory ways to established wisdom. The Corinthian Church was a case in point. The gospel message had called together a mixture of folk who, outside of their church community, wouldn't normally get together. There were a few influential folk, probably a few wealthy folk, maybe a few learned folk. But a lot of them were really, to Greek eyes, nobody special.

Paul writes to them, verse 26, “Brothers and Sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are”

Their very existence as a church was an exercise in foolishness that went against the wisdom of the day. I believe that when we are at our best, we as churches, can still do that! Our diversity can speak volumes to a world where everything has to have it's own category.

I am sidetracking here, but one of the things I really dislike about the way music has been marketed over the last few decades is that everything has to have a genre. If somebody asks you, 'What kind of music do you like?” they are expecting you to give a specific answer. “Oh, I'm into post-reformation, adult orientated, 1990's punk opera, with a hint of 2017 dub-step classical Techno.”

There's a lot of division associated with music. Especially with church music. As though certain types of music are much more “Holy” and “Acceptable” to God than other types. And who gets to determine that?

I've known some folks in 'trendy-modern' churches declare their superiority by saying they have done away with those dusty old hymnbooks and put everything up on a screen. And I have had folk tell me that if we are going to start singing those 'Happy-Clappy' songs from a screen then they will find another church to attend. Wow! What tolerant folk we Christians can be! Get with my genre or get another church.

Scripture seems crystal clear that the reason to attend church is to worship God, not for music, be it ancient or modern, but for the inspiration that comes to us through the Holy Spirit, for the message God wants to share with our hearts, to be equipped for God's service out there in a world that couldn't care less about if we sing from a hymnbook or a screen but just wants to know if anybody cares about them!

What God is looking for, is lives and hearts that are humble, and expectant, and truly open to Christ's love, regardless of the way that love presents itself.

Does that found foolish? Well, listen to Paul, verse 27; “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world, to shame the strong

Why? He tells us in verse 29 “So that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”

Whenever we confuse our 'preference' for God's will, then we are on shaky ground. It doesn't matter if it's our preference for the kind of people we want to rub shoulders with at church, the kind of worship service that we enjoy, the kind of music we like, or the temperature we like the church thermostat set at. What we are actually doing, when we idolize our preferences, is making worship, about us, not about God.

The Church in Corinth, like many churches, struggled with that! Such is one of the conundrums of Corinth that continues to haunt us to day. But because the Corinthians were learning to accept each others differences, to see each other through the eyes of Jesus as all equally needing His love to reclaim them and remake them, were accepting the radical thought that we are not all the same, then people were seeing that a different kind of wisdom was at work in their community. It was not the wisdom of this world, but the foolishness of God.

God invites us to make Christ's love and Christ's acceptance our focus. In his letter to the Ephesian Church, Paul writes “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The foolish, scandalous thing about a gospel that focuses on the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus is that every thing is turned inside out and upside down. The little things are the big things. The things we often count as insignificant and, sometimes uncomfortable, are the things of the kingdom.

Jesus offers teaching that transcends the wisdom of this world. We heard earlier, part of His mountain top sermon; “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God..

It does sound a little foolish to suggest that poverty of spirit, mourning, being merciful instead of aggressive, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness are pathways that bring the Kingdom a little closer to peoples lives. And had not Jesus embodied such teaching, we may have been able to ignore it!

The gospel offers to us a radically different way of living. And there will always be people who suggest that to even try and live in such a way is kind of foolish. Paul insists that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

Rather like the kid who throws a ball, as though they could ever make a career out of it. Or the girl who dances a few steps and believes that one day she could make a living from her skills. Or the church in Corinth, thinking that by coming together across societies boundaries to worship God, the world could be changed. Or Paul, thinking that telling people about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the Cross might actually be a world changer.

So we are invited today, to take our place on the field of fools, to see beyond our personal preferences and dare to believe that dreams we pursue, and the little things we do, in the service and worship of God, are actually the wisest and most important of all.

To God's name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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