February 2, 2014 – Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Epiphany 4   Feb 2, 2014   (Is 29:13-14,18-19; Mt 5:1-12; see below)

1 Corinthians 1:18-31                         Weak and foolish

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31

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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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Some of our finest hymns name our human condition as weak. (I am weak but thou art strong…) Other hymns remind us foolishness is part of our human nature. (Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways…)

But I can’t think of any hymns that name God as weak or foolish… Though the apostle Paul is coming pretty close today – talking about the foolishness of God and the weakness of God.

We’re in our third week in the first letter to the Corinthians. And maybe it’s a sign of weakness and foolishness to be spending so much time studying a letter – an ancient form of  communication that’s practically extinct.

Back when Neanderthals roamed the earth and I was still a teenager, we knew what the Marvelletes were talking about, when they sang“Mr Postman, look and see… is there a letter in your bag for me…”

Not many people still write letters. And I feel old-fashioned now because I still use email, rather than texting or tweeting. Now we call sending letters ‘snail-mail.’  But once upon a time, letter writing was practically the only long-distance communication there was. And if the increase in the price of a postage stamp is bothering us, well consider – in days of old it could cost the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to pay for the papyrus that letters were written on, and to pay someone to deliver the letter, carrying it by hand over land and sea. (No postal service, no UPS, no Fed-Ex.)  Often someone would also be hired to serve as secretary and write-out the letter. (Most people didn’t read or write, and those who did didn’t always trust their own writing skills.) A lot of time, energy, and money would be invested in writing and sending a single letter, especially one the length of First Corinthians. A lot would be riding on whether or not the letter would be delivered and heard… So Paul’s trying to make every word count…

Knowing there’s probably always some weakness and foolishness in play in the art of letter writing… Where one can never be entirely confident of results…

Anyway…Paul has opened his letter to the Corinthians with a greeting, introducing his theme – the church is called to be holy – called to be small-s saints – called to be united in fellowship in Christ. (We covered that in our ‘God is calling – Don’t Hang Upsermon two weeks ago.)

Then the apostle lets it be known that all’s not going so very well in the church, talking about the goal of unity and the reality of divisions and disunity… (All that in last week’s episode of As the Church Turns…)

Now in the third movement of what’s shaping up to be an epic symphony of a letter, the apostle’s previewing the conclusion of the letter – taking us to the cross of Christ.

The weakness and foolishness of God Paul’s talking about, is, of course, the cross of Jesus Christ. Telling us the cross is an equal-opportunity-kind-of-foolishness – shocking and scandalous for good religious people and for un-churched folks alike.

The most religious people of the day – God’s chosen people – are scandalized by the very idea of a crucified Messiah.  Gordon Fee in his commentary, says this would sound like talking about “fried ice” – an oxymoron. You can’t be God’s anointed King and also be crucified. God just wouldn’t ever be that weak and powerless. (So God’s people tend to think.)

Meanwhile polytheistic and philosophically-minded Greeks valued wisdom above all other virtues, and saw the cross of Christ as barbarically foolish in the extreme. No god worthy of our attention would ever stoop to such foolishness, they reason.

Of course if we’ve been following Jesus, noticing what he says and does all through his ministry, it’s not a big surprise to us that he winds up crucified. Jesus goes all through life saying Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Kind of like walking onto the playing field in sandals, without a helmet and shoulder pads…

Yet the apostle tells us – this is the wisdom of God and the power of God. This is the foolishness of Jesus – the weakness of Jesus and his cross…

And its only because he is a very experienced teacher and communicator that St Paul can get away with talking about the weakness and foolishness of God.

The apostle knows we may not like the idea of the cross, knows we may instinctively rebel against anything that connects God with weakness and foolishness…

But he also knows we do tend to stand in awe of Jesus’ sacrifice, and can’t help admiring what he’s done on the cross… once we start to understand (even a little)… he’s done all this for us…

Except that at the same time all our natural instincts are still saying we want our God to be All Wise and All Powerful, All-the-time. We want a kick-butt God who sacks the other team’s quarter back… and throws touch-down passes all-day-long for our team… also running down-field to catch them all in the end zone. We kind-of-sort-of recognize the cross is important…. But we still don’t want a weak and foolish god…

Paul knows he’s probably going to have to scramble a little to get this idea to connect. St Paul’s in his spiritual quarterback mode now, rolling out, ready to run if he has to…but looking for a receiver down field…

The apostle has practically memorized the whole bible. He’s searching his mind for the right text… Now he sees the prophet Isaiah, open down-field – (Isaiah 29) telling us the wisdom of the wise shall perish, the discernment of the discerning be hidden. The apostle connects with Isaiah, quoting him now to the Corinthians, letting us know…what he’s saying is consistent with the word of God from the get-go… Which connects, and gets us… to half-time today…

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Then of course comes our half-time program, featuring singing of popular love songs. And here, buried deep in the foolishness of popular culture, one of the last places we probably expect to meet God – yet here’s where we hear weakness and foolishness named (again and again) as true signs of true love… (Why do fools fall in love… why do they fall in love?)

Which may even in fact be a clue… into the nature of God…

The Rabbis of old said all the good songs are from God, even when we have to change some words or how they’re accented. Martin Luther and John and Charles Wesley have all been quoted saying “why should the devil have all the good tunes?” They made regular use of tavern ballads and popular love songs as melodies for the deep theological hymns of the early Protestant and early Methodist movements.

And finally in the last half of today’s reading, here’s Paul – spelling out the weakness and foolishness of God’s Good News in triplicate.

First the weakness and foolishness of God, seen in Jesus choosing the nails of the cross over all the glories of earth and heaven…

Then the foolishness and weakness of God revealed in the message of the cross, proclaimed as the ultimate game-changing act of redemption…

Finally the foolishness of God in choosing weak and foolish people like the Corinthians… like Paul himself… like me… (and maybe like most of the church most of the time through the ages…) Choosing everyday weak and foolish people to be the people of God who carry forward the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Consider again, the apostle says – not many of you were wise by human standards. (Some of you may have grown up on a road in Rhode Island – but not many of you were Rhodes Scholars.)

Not many of you were powerful CEOs of major corporations or members of Congress.

Not many of you were of noble birth. (Probably you were all born good-looking with good manners in good homes – but not many of you were born with silver spoons in your mouths.)

Good News! None of that matters. Good news! Truckers and teachers, chefs and chamber maids, doctors, ditch-diggers, nurses, night watchmen… pastors, policemen, firemen, factory workers… school kids and superintendents, referees and  retirees… no matter who we are or what we do or used to do….In Christ, now, we’re all equal in the love of God.

Good news! God’s weakness is stronger than all other powers in earth and heaven…combined….Good news! The foolishness of God is way wiser than all the wisdom of all the worlds… forever…

Good news! God so loves this world… that God’s even willing to be seen…looking weak-and-foolish… in the depth and breadth of God’s love for us…seen in Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord.

Good news! Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Isaiah 29:13-14, 18-19

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden…. On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”