Fool around and Find Out sermon about 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
This week we focus on God’s promise to give us a rich and meaningful life when we live out of values that are often run against “conventional wisdom.” The wisdom of God is deeper than the shallower self-serving impulses that drive us. Paul tells us that sometimes we have to appear as fools to the rest of the world when we embrace the gospel. Learn how you can set yourself on the side of God’s wisdom.
Where are the wise ones? Right here!
I remember standing in the pulpit as a young seminarian with a knot of anxiety in my throat when I preached the chapel at Yale Divinity School. I was a wreck because the scripture was our passage from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. In the text, the Apostle Paul asks, Where are the wise ones of this age? They are right here,” I thought as I surveyed the congregation filled with gifted students and learned faculty. The problem is the passage repudiates brainiacs. “You’re not all that,” Is what Paul argues in essence. “Don’t get too puffed up about what you think you know.”
As I engage this passage thirty-some years later, I’m a little nervous again. Where are the wise ones? Right here. You are all so bright, and well-educated, and you’ve gained a tremendous amount of wisdom through life experience. You, too, may not like what the passage has to say. So, I might as well relay the news from the scripture as straightforwardly as possible.
It’s possible to focus on all the wrong things. It’s not about your degrees, memorizing theories, or the accolades people have for you or your position in an organization or society. One can be rich in knowledge but impoverished in character. What matters is becoming a decent human being. And becoming a decent human means a life-long process of embracing God’s values, which are often in opposition to our default modes reinforced by conventional wisdom or so-called “common sense.”
Elites vs. Despicable version 1.0
Those who took Pastor Susie’s class on 1st Corinthians learned that Paul wrote to unify a nastily divided church. The divisions parallel the kinds of divisions our country faces right now.
A small group of people with a high sense of entitlement threw their weight around because they believed their status was a sign that God favored them over others. Thus, their advanced education and wealth gave them the right to call all the shots and go first in the buffet line at the church suppers.
Naturally, these snobby attitudes provoked tremendous resentment—just as they do now. The lesser educated created ways of feeling smug and superior. “We’re more spiritual than they are. They may be book-smart, but they possess no common sense. They can quote Aristotle but can’t even buckle their sandals. The division fractured the young church, so they sought help from Paul, who had founded the congregation but had moved away to launch other churches.
Paul steps into the situation and channels Christopher Walken’s character in Joe Dirt. “Guys. You’re looking at this all wrong.”
God upends conventional wisdom.
You are embracing all the wrong values, he tells them. Everyone is looking for something to boast about to feel better than others, but that’s not what Jesus was about. The problem is that you are defining yourself by the world’s values, not God’s. God’s values are different from conventional wisdom.
In verse 27, Paul tells us that God has chosen the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the wise and strong. The cross, he argues, confounds the wisdom of the world. It’s hard to make sense of a Christ crucified. The Old Testament hope for a messiah was a military hero who would lead a rebellion, and become the world’s only superpower. Folks looked around and said, “He’s not the messiah, he failed in his mission. The true messiah wins. Jesus lost. He’s not the guy.
Convincing people outside the Jewish community that Jesus was the Messiah was an even tougher gig. Gods don’t bleed. They’re not vulnerable. They don’t get crucified. What is this nonsense you are talking about, Paul? Who would follow a defeated king?
Paul’s message was a gospel that people considered foolish at first glance. But he says the ways of Jesus of sacrifice, vulnerability, and standing up for others no matter the cost frees us and is the true path toward the authentic self and a better world. Somehow in giving and sacrificing we receive something far greater than what we gave up. Jesus teaches us that power is not some despicable machismo domination of another—we see all the time the abuse it leads to, like police murdering Tyre Nichols.
Believers align with Jesus’ values
Paul is saying to all of us, forget that and follow Jesus. Act more like him. God uses people and situations that the world sees as insignificant or unimportant to accomplish divine purposes. The Spirit needs us to be willing to follow the ways of Jesus and trust.
As believers, we align ourselves with Jesus’ model and don’t get caught up in the values of the world. We are called to be different and live according to God’s values, not the world’s. This means loving our enemies, caring for the poor and marginalized, and putting others before ourselves.
Just like the Corinthians, our hope to heal the divisions of our world lies in applying Jesus’ values over-against conventional wisdom.
Conventional Wisdom versus Kin-dom Wisdom
Conventional wisdom tells us that we need to be perfect to be worthy of love and acceptance, but Jesus teaches that despite our imperfections, we are already loved beyond measure.
Conventional wisdom tells us we should always put ourselves first, but selflessness and compassion are keys to lasting happiness and well-being. Get what scientists are calling the “Helper’s High.” One of the surest ways to feel better is to help someone in need. You don’t have to run into a burning building. It can be as simple as holding the door for someone or letting a frazzled person go in front of you at the checkout.
Conventional wisdom often tells us we should prioritize material possessions and consumerism, but true happiness and contentment come from within and cannot be bought.
Conventional wisdom says like that old antiperspirant commercial, “Never let them see you sweat.” That is always project an image of strength, invulnerability. Put on a façade of what you think other people want to say. Gospel wisdom says, be real instead.
Conventional wisdom promotes the idea that success is defined by external factors such as education, wealth and status, but Jesus defines true success as how much you serve and gives of yourself to others.
In a sermon Martin Luther King Jr. gave shortly before he died, called Drum Major Instinct, he talked about how you don’t have to be able to quote Einstein or Aristotle or know the laws of thermodynamics. You only have to have a heart to serve. He said we all have an impulse to be out front, seen, a leader. He talked about how when he died, what he wanted said at his funeral.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.
Conventional wisdom tells us to project power. Like that old antiperspirant commercial said, “Never let them see you sweat.” That is always project an image of strength, and invulnerability. Put on a façade of what you think other people want to say. Gospel wisdom says, be real instead.
Our default mode may not be God’s wisdom.
We all have a default mode that we go to without thinking about it. Our default mode is taking everything as fight or flight. It is selfish, worried, holds grudges, and seeks revenge. But the gospel upgrades our settings. We can pause and choose which values we want to embody. Reading the gospel and entering into a life of prayer is like updating our computer systems. So that over time, these become the ways we choose to behave.
The truth will make you odd.
The Apostle Paul recognized that living according to these values sets you apart and may make you look foolish to everyone else. In 1 Corinthians 3:19, he talked about being “fools for Christ’s sake.” It reminds me of the Flannery O’Connor line: You shall know the truth, and the truth and the truth will make you odd.
Christians are people who don’t let the world squeeze them into its mold. We have odd conversations. Someone might say, “What a fool! You get up on Sunday morning, and search for parking in Belmont Shore to attend church?”
You reply, “Yeah, it helps me be a better person.”
“Wait!” they say, “You give them money, like actual money you could have spent on something else?”
“Yeah, it’s important to me to pass on the blessings I’ve received.”
“Wait! Do you think all that do-gooder stuff makes a difference? Don’t tell me it’s not just Sunday morning. You volunteer your time, too?”
“Did I ever tell you about the guy on the beach throwing back starfish that had washed up on the beach a guy came along and asked, “Why bother? you can’t possibly save all of them.” The other guy grabbed a starfish and said, “You’re right. But I can save this one,” and he threw it back into the ocean. ”
It’s what we do. We live by a different code that may make us odd to others, but we can live meaningful lives, that make a difference.