Foolishness: The New Wisdom
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
One of the many troubled spots in our world is in China, where the government has imprisoned a million Uyghur people in concentration camps. They’re Muslim, and so are persecuted both as racial and religious minorities. And we don’t hear about them much. We were paying attention to Ukraine and now we are to Israel and Palestine. But imagine this. Say we were to hear of a bright young leader among the captive Uyghurs. We’d think, good, hope they bring freedom. But then we hear he’s died. Ah, too bad. That’s the way of things. But then we hear something else.
Uh, apparently, he’s alive again.
You mean he didn’t actually die?
No, he did, but now he’s not dead, and he claims to have the power to raise other things. And this redeemer of the Uyghurs says all people should follow him.
Wait, why should I bother myself with a redeemer of the Uyghurs?
Because he’s a fool.
That’d be a little like Paul’s telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every now and then folks rose up claiming to be the messiah of Israel. Ready to lead the people to freedom, like Moses once did. But then they would die, and their movements would vanish. To be a messiah is to succeed. For example, the first president of Israel, Ben Gurion, was sometimes spoken of in messianic terms. Because he birthed a nation. The greatest rabbi of the 20th century, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was sometimes spoken of as messiah. Because he helped revive a whole religious movement after the holocaust. To be messiah means you’ve messiah-ed: you’ve delivered people, established something: a kingdom, a lineage. Jesus died young. Shamefully, humiliatingly. Christianity is a Jewish renewal movement. But not many Jews wanted Jesus’ sort of renewing. Lots of gentiles do, up to this day, including all of us who aren’t Jewish. Jesus: you renewed the wrong people. Some messiah of Israel you turned out to be.
Our faith was born in a Mediterranean world with great respect for Greek learning. The Greeks brought us Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and countless more. I have two kids majoring in philosophy in university. A friend joked: “that’ll be great for that philosophy factory they’re opening up across town.” Philosophy means love of wisdom. You can’t do anything worth doing without wisdom, you can’t even tell what’s worth doing. A faculty friend was asked what she hoped to accomplish as a philosophy professor: tenure? Change your field? No, she said, I’m just trying to become wise.
Paul is in the middle of these two worlds—Jewish and Greek. He’s a well-educated rabbi, a lover of Israel. He’s also a wise Greek, a lover of wisdom. And he says you know what? Our crucified messiah ... is a stumbling block for Jews. Foolishness for Greeks. Now, Paul is both things! He’s as Jewish as they come. Paul kept all the laws of Israel: food laws, Sabbath, the works. And he’s as Greek as anyone could be. He’s writing in Greek, drawing on the wisdom of the Greeks. And Paul says yeah Jesus Christ trips up all of us. Befuddles all of us. This failed messiah of Israel, this foolish teacher, is God and Lord of all.
Now that’s strange. This sermon is about Jesus Christ, who is the foolishness of God, which the only wisdom there’s ever been. What do I want you to do with this sermon? Follow him. And become a fool yourself.
I was at a football game recently back in the US, more than 100,000 people, a great pageant. And the stadium camera found one poor Purdue fan in a sea of Michigan blue and maize. And the dude went nuts. Stood, cheered, basked in the boos. And I saw a glimpse of the church. We’re surrounded. And there are things we should stand and cheer for that most people boo. We should stand out. Be weird. Counter-cultural. A stumbling block and foolishness to our neighbours. Because the cross makes us all stumble, it reduces us all to babbling nonsense.
Paul says his fellow Jews desire signs. He’s referring to the Exodus. Moses brought signs and wonders in the ten plagues and in parting the Red Sea. A stumbling block is a reference to a specific law in Israel. If someone is blind, Moses commands, don’t put a stumbling block in front of them. That is, don’t mock or abuse the disabled. Help, remove stumbling blocks, don’t add them. But in Paul it is Christ who’s the stumbling block, and we are the blind ones who trip over him. Christ is in the way of our wisdom.
Let me draw on our Muslim neighbours for a moment, God bless them, Islamophobia is back with a vengeance in our world. A friend is a pastor from Toronto of Indian ancestry parked at our house recently and someone drove past and yelled at him that he’s a dirty Paki. Made me enraged. He shrugged. ‘I’m used to it.’ Lord, save us. The Koran speaks of Jesus, Issa, as one of the prophets pointing to Mohammad. But they change the crucifixion story in the Koran. There was a mix up. Jesus wasn’t crucified. Simon of Cyrene was. Jesus escaped, lived out his old age with a wife and lots of children in Kashmir. Why this change? Because a prophet can’t end up on a cross. That’s disgraceful. So, Islam “saves” Jesus from this fate. Do you see the point? A cross is humiliation. And we Christians say yeah. That’s the only way to life.
Greeks desire wisdom. ‘Come and debate us and show us your truth.’ Some of the smartest people in the world are Christian philosophers. Alasdair MacIntyre at Notre Dame. Charles Taylor at McGill. The post-modern philosopher Slavoj Zizek is not a Christian, but he’s haunted by Jesus Christ. And what does Paul say about philosophy? All the philosophy you need is the foolishness of a crucified man. Someone pointed out Jesus would’ve failed at academia. He published no books. I mean, there’s the Bible, but it was all written by other people (we call that plagiarism in the academy). He’s not at Oxbridge or U of T, he’s nowhere. Some scholars have argued that Jesus was illiterate. I think they’re incorrect, but you get the point: he never flashes learning credentials, never says he studied with this or that great rabbi (Paul says he did; Jesus doesn’t). What kind of wisdom is there in a sputtering fool, an irregular rabbi whose movement evaporates?
The cross. A stumbling block to Jews. Foolishness to Greeks. All humanity undone. And then remade.
A church in my home state was in a downtown storefront and was about to be evicted. Churches don’t pay taxes, so if you’re trying to elevate your tax base, get rid of them and get some paying retail in. It wasn’t a big church. Mostly older black women. And one said, “the town is messing with the wrong people. God’s people.” In one way that’s absurd. The town has all the power. In another way, it’s spot on. God takes sides. With the powerless.
Do you see what I’m saying here y’all? When we speak, folks should say, uh, wait a minute, that can’t be right. There was a time when being a member of the United Church of Canada was sort of the same thing as being a good Canadian citizen. Not so much now. There was a time in 19th century Britain when being a good Christian meant being a sort of gentleman. Where’s the stumbling block in that? The foolishness? Paul is saying the real world, the only true one, is ruled by a resurrected rabbi. Anyone with a philosophical thought in their head would say uh, where’s the evidence of that? And our Jewish friends would say uh, he’s not much of a rabbi. Guys our faith is foolishness. Unless it’s true. And then everything is different. Following it might not make you a good citizen or a gentleman or lady, but it might get you saved.
I heard a Harvard psychologist speak once. He had studied the young black kids who integrated schools in the south. He was proud of being at Harvard. Buildings at Harvard are made to look like Greek temples. They have Bible verses inscribed on them like “the truth will set you free.” This scholar told of Ruby Bridges, who was six-years old when she integrated Louisiana public schools, accompanied by the national guard. All the white parents pulled their kids out of school, the community protested, claimed this integration business was federal government overreach, probably communist. Ruby used to ask her guard detail to stop and let her pray on the way to school every day. One day she forgot. So, she stopped and prayed in front of the protestors. And they surged at her with more rage than ever. The researcher asked her what she had prayed. “I prayed ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do’.” The South, my south, was proud of its refined, genteel culture (all made possible by slave labour). But Jesus’ own words of mercy came from a black female kindergartner. Harvard professor concluded his story: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I’ve never seen those words inscribed on a Harvard building. All elite institutions, exist to say, “the first shall be firster.” But Jesus turns the whole world upside down.
My favourite author is a southern short-story writer named Flannery O’Connor. She has a riff on Jesus’ words: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you... odd.” In her novel Wise Blood, a man is sick of Jesus’ gospel. He says, ‘nobody needs to be saved who already has a decent car to drive.’ He preaches a Church without Christ. One where ‘the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, and what’s dead stays that way.’ It’s supposed to be darkly funny. And you see O’Connor’s point: as gospel people, we live in a world where the lame do walk, the blind do see, and what’s dead don’t stay that way. O’Connor is trying to show what we believe is unbelievable.
Why should I believe? A skeptical world asks. Immediately, I got answers. Here’s this argument or that. This text from Paul says something different. Because it’s absurd. That’s why we should believe. I mentioned Slavoj Zizek before, philosopher from Slovenia, says he likes Christianity because it’s monstruous. To claim a crucified man rules the cosmos. We live in a monstruous age. World on fire. Criminals running for office and winning. We have more creature comforts than any people before us and are more fearful and depressed than ever. There were two great movements in 20th century western politics: one was the post-war welfare state: the government will take care of everything. Two the deconstruction of that vision under Reagan and Thatcher and ever since: the individual will take care of everything. Those two movements are still fighting it out. And neither has delivered on what they promised: prosperity for the greatest number. Have you seen the homeless on our streets and trains? The price tag for housing in this city? Christ might be monstruous, because he promises a kingdom of plenty, where the first are last and the last first. Hard to believe. And never more urgent.
A man who worked his whole life with developmentally disabled adults said something interesting. He said he’d never met a mentally disabled atheist. Now, one way to respond is to scoff. Yeah, that’s because they’re disabled. But another is to sigh. Yes. Jesus tells us to learn from those overlooked by the wise. Here the disabled lead and the rest of us follow.
There’s a new movie coming out about Napoleon. We think of him as the consummate French hero. But he wasn’t French at all. He was from Corsica, a little island in the Mediterranean, always spoke French with an accent. That’s fine, Republican France said, our ideals are universal. And we’re going to show how universal they are by conquering all of Europe. Sad that we still remember and laud conquerors. But imagine this. Say Napoleon wanted to lead in France. But word got around, hey, his fellow Corsicans don’t even like him. In fact, they hate his guts. Okay, that’s not a good look. Corsica’s already an out-of-the-way place, and if you can’t make it there, can you make it in Paris? Oh, and he’s a bad soldier. Can’t conquer anybody. Can’t shoot straight or lead. Uh, what good is he then?
Jesus is a failed king of the Jews: why should the rest of the world bother?
Philosophy. Ours is not an age that values philosophy. Hence my jokes earlier about my kids’ studies. I’m proud of them, just for the record, I believe in the liberal arts. What does our age value? Celebrity. Wealth. Superficial beauty. Which require youth, actual or manufactured. These are all bundled: celebrities tend to be externally beautiful people showing off wealth. And this is pathetic. I’ll take philosophy anytime. Socrates gloried in being ugly. Because it showed how fleeting physical beauty is. Real beauty is in your character, it takes eyes more than physical to see. There’s an NBA player named Steven Adams. He said once ‘people think because we’re rich and famous, we can solve their problems. Man, I can get a rebound. I can’t even solve my own problems.’ If Paul’s age valued signs and wisdom, our age values things that are so much stupider.
Another thing our age values: righteous indignation. Being outraged. The other is dead wrong. I’m completely right. So, I fume, fulminate. In the 80s, it was fashionable to say there was no such thing as truth. Now, our protest movements and their backlashes say, ‘I have all the truth and you’re reprehensible.’ The church says something different. We’re all sinners. Especially when we think we’re not. Dial down the outrage. And pray with Ruby Bridges, with Jesus Christ, Father, forgive, we know not what we do.
And the one who saves, is the one we think beneath us, ugh, what a fool. Rejected even by his own people. Why would we accept someone who can’t even win over his own? The Uyghur that his fellow Uyghurs hate, the Corsican who can’t even shoot straight. And we claim this one is king not just of the Jews but of the world, saviour not just of the Greeks but of every fool like us.
My mentor Will Willimon was chaplain at Duke for decades, and several times a year he’d get a phone call from an outraged parent. ‘I spent obscene amounts of money to send my kid to Duke to become a leader, and you’ve ruined her. All she wants to do is go to Honduras and help poor kids. You’ve completely spoiled her life.’ And Will would have to say, uh, I’m sorry, you’ll have to take that up with a certain rabbi from Nazareth.
Now a warning. There’s a world of difference between being a fool for Christ and just being a damn fool. Not every foolish thing is Christlike. A beloved friend tried out life as a faith missionary. That is, he made no plans. Did no work. Just trusted God would provide. And God often did. Folks would come through with food or money for him as a beggar. But then he realized. Okay. I’m smart. I could teach. Actually earn some money, maybe get married. So off he went. He teaches at one of the great universities in the world now. He’s done well. God gave him those gifts to deploy for others. He sounds a little embarrassed about his time as a beggar now. But I don’t know about you. I sort of like my professors when they used to be homeless. There’s a sort of wise foolishness there. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”—I’ve never seen those words on a university building where he teaches either.
Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov might be the greatest novel ever written. He imagines Jesus Christ returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. He’s arrested for being a Jew. And his inquisitor, the grand inquisitor, knows who he is. God almighty in human flesh. And he has some accusations. He lists all the outrages in world history God didn’t stop. Murders. Genocides. Natural disasters. Well, what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Saviour? Christ makes no reply. As he made no reply at his trial before Pilate. The accusations go on and on. Your accusations are in there. Every time you’ve felt failed by God. Failed by others. Mine are in there. I have a whole list of things I need God to explain one day. We can see the rage here of our neighbours and friends. Our Jewish neighbours: how could you allow the holocaust, the terror attacks of October 7? Our Muslim neighbours: how could you allow the Nakba? This devastation in Gaza? We might even hear the outrages of some non-believing neighbours. If we feel something is not right in the world, that’s a complaint against God. I mean, without God, who are you complaining to? Christ sits, accused, undefending. And when the grand inquisitor is finally finished, Jesus stands up, walks up to him, and gently kisses his face. And sits back down. That’s it. All our rage and Jesus responds with a kiss of peace. Now that’s a stumbling block. Foolishness. Or it’s all the God there is. And if the latter, our entire world is turning upside down. And we who know it will look like fools to those who don’t.
Bring your new world quickly, Lord Jesus, and in the meantime, make us your fools. Amen.