Written by Caleb Kowalko
“Recovering Some Foolishness”
March 4, 2018 – First Mennonite Church
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
We recently finished up probably one of the more exciting times for our country as a whole – the winter Olympics. Did anyone here pay close attention to the events in Pyeongchang a couple weeks ago? This time around, it was definitely more difficult to pay close attention to these Olympics with the time difference being what it was. And I don’t know about you, but I love following the Olympics so much that whenever they end, I’m always like, “What am I supposed to be tracking now? Where do I expend all this pent up nationalism?” I just don’t know what to do with myself for a couple days.
Anyways, it was an overall great winter games for Canada (although I’m sure some of you were cheering for other countries that you may be affiliated with). Canada was able to best its previous mark in medals by getting to the podium 29 times! It was awesome.
But despite this great score, some Canadians have left these games with a bad taste in their mouths. We may have won 29 medals, but that number should have been 31. Canada fell two medals short – medals that should always be hung around the necks of Canadians.
Those two medals were, of course, the women’s and men’s curling teams. Next to ice hockey, there may not be a more iconic Canadian sport than curling. Since it’s official entrance into the winter Olympic games, Canada has won a medal in every single men’s and women’s curling event. We have historically dominated the event. We just don’t lose.
That is, until these last games in Peyongchang. Both the men’s and women’s curling teams, lead by Kevin Koe and Rachel Homan, choked big time. No silver or even bronze. They went home empty handed. Canada lost. The title of a February 22 article in the Toronto Star actually asked, “Was this the worst day in Canadian Olympic history?” Maybe that’s a tad dramatic – but you get the point.
Surely there will be the next Winter Olympic Games. But the story of the 2018 Olympics of our expected champions – our curling teams – is a loss. And like I said, this loss is not something we expected, and it’s especially not something Canadians watching at home were necessarily proud of. We hope to win, and in cases like this, we even expect to win. We support our curling teams, but coming out of these Olympics, those guys and gals will unfortunately be seen as major disappointments – something to be more ashamed of then to be proud of.
To hold them up – to hold up these expected winners, who ended up losing – as the Canadian heroes of this Olympics would be pretty bizarre don’t you think? Backwards even – can you imagine? Some might even say foolish. I can picture other nations looking at Canada saying, “look at those foolish Canadians, celebrating their failures!”
Foolish … foolishness. Foolishness seems to be of special importance to Paul in our reading from 1 Corinthians today. In the beginning of that passage, we overhear Paul telling his brothers and sisters in Corinth a very important thing: “The message of the cross is foolishness.” … “The message of the cross is foolishness.”
Now when was the last time you felt like the Christianity that you believed in was foolish? When was the last time you thought, “Why on earth do I believe this?” “Why do I follow this Jesus guy?”
Now I want to make a very important distinction here. I am not wondering if you have ever had doubts about whether Christianity was believable as a historical fact. I am not wondering if you ever questioned how well Christianity held up to scientific inquiry. Whether this man Jesus actually existed – or really did the things that are written about him – or historically rose from the dead – as if your Christianity would be foolish if it couldn’t stand up to those questions.
That is not the kind foolishness that I am asking about. And that is not the kind of foolishness Paul is primarily referring to in his letter to the church in Corinth either.
No, what I am wondering about is whether you ever considered the foolishness of saying that the one we follow – the one that we proclaim to be God in the flesh – was crucified. Do we recognize how backward that is? Out of all the “gods” – out of all the “religions” – out of all the philosophies to follow – ours is the one where our God seemingly lost. Or as Paul, himself, proclaims later in this passage, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
It’s foolishness because who would follow a God who doesn’t dominate his opponents?! That doesn’t overthrow their enemies?! A God that actually loses power and is killed by an empire – an emperor and his minions – with far greater power?! It would be pretty reasonable for them to say, “Your God was crucified? Hahaha! Well who was the god on the winning side? Who crucified your God? Thanks, but I’ll follow that one.”
When was the last time we realized how crazy that is!!
Even if it is only for a moment, we need to take Paul’s recommendation to the Corinthians and sit with the uncomfortable reality of God’s apparent weakness displayed in Jesus. We need to, first, sit in it without automatically resorting to the many theologies that claim that the cross was primarily a victory.
Back in 2013, Triana and I moved down to Durham, North Carolina so that I could start my Master’s degree. And it was an adventure that both of us were kind of going into blind. Neither of us had been to North Carolina before – neither of us had even been to the “South” before – unless you want to call Disney World the South. It was a long way from home for us, and, as could be expected, we had a lot to learn. Even though we shared the English language (sort of) this was a foreign land to us, steeped in history.
It did not take long for us to notice something quite different about North Carolina compared to Alberta; that there was a lot more non-white people. In fact, less than 50% of Durham is white. The racial demographic of Durham immediately made real to us the complicated, and often ugly, history of this part of the world. It is something you can read about from here, but until you go and feel it – see, walk, touch the history – it is very hard to imagine.
It was during our time in North Carolina that the issue of race seemed to re-emerge into the fore-front of the American conscious. In the summer of 2014, the shooting of 18-year-old black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson started the unrest in Ferguson that quickly swept across the country. And that following spring, a rope was found, tied up like a noose in one of the trees on my university’s campus. A noose.
Now a noose may not mean much to us here in Calgary. But to the people in North Carolina – to the people across the United States even – the noose is a reminder of the relatively recent lynching of black individuals by white crowds. Lynchings in the South, and sparsely across the US, were public displays of white domination, meant to strike fear into black people and control them. It was terrorism. Lynching in the US really started after the civil war, after the slaves were freed in the mid-late 1800’s and continued well into the 1900’s, really only fading out of common practice in the 1960’s – just 50 years ago!
This is recent history. Lynching is still a fresh wound in the American psyche. And seeing that noose on the campus of the university quickly triggered the memory of that horrible practice for those who grew up in the south. The noose is an attempt to remind the black population of the power and domination that white people inflicted onto them.
We would be ignorant if we did not see the similarities between crucifixion and lynching. Their political function was nearly identical. Crucifixion, carried out in very public places, was a specifically Roman way to terrorize populations into obedience. It reminded everyone of the power of the Roman empire and that any attempt at “disorder” was futile – no one can change the status quo. It was an in-your-face demonstration of who had won and who had lost. Who was strong and who was weak.
And “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” A poor Jewish man from Nazareth was legally determined to be a criminal and was dominated by the Roman empire in a public display of torture on par with lynching, yet we claim him as our God. Does that seem a little crazy? A little foolish?
I hope so. Because when we forget that the message about the cross is foolishness – when we forget that our God was crucified – then it becomes a whole lot easier to be the crucifiers. You see, there is a history of Christians forgetting the foolishness of the cross, and instead, using Jesus and the cross as a justification to seek power and privilege by any means necessary. It would be too difficult during this time to recount all the ways that Christians have dominated and conquered people in the name of the cross throughout history. But many of you have lived to see such a thing. And back down in North Carolina, and across the south, many of those white crowds lynching black folk were loyal church going people – many of them were Christians.
These are things that have happened when Christians forget that the God they worship was not one who crucified the weak, but was one of the weak who was crucified. May we never forget the foolishness of the message of the Cross. May we never forget that “we proclaim Christ crucified.”
As you most likely know, the Olympics have been around for a VERY long time. They actually began some seven to eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Now not much is known about the beginning of the Olympic games but we do know that originally, they were wrapped up in a very explicit mythology, or set of stories with deep meaning. And the main story that surrounded those original games was the saga of their central god, Zeus, and his victory over Cronos to claim the throne of the gods. So, as the story goes, ever since Zeus’s victory and rise to power, the Olympians competed and strived for victory to honour him. Competition … victory … winning, to honour their god, who himself competed, and overthrew, and won.
The meaning of the story was plain and clear. Their proclamation told of becoming closer to their god through victory, supremacy and dominion. And as you may well know, many stories share that same message.
But our proclamation goes the complete other way. We draw near to our God by becoming lowly. That is what seems so foolish to so many.
And that foolishness, brothers and sisters – if there are any words that I need you to hear today, it is these – that the foolish message of the cross is very … good … news. When we remember the foolishness of the message of the cross, we open ourselves up to the very presence of God. Paul explains in verse 21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom … ”
Let me pause for one moment. Think about that: the world does not know God through wisdom. God does not enter into this world through brilliance, through intellect, through mastery. Wow! “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.” That foolish message – that our God displayed weakness by being destroyed on the cross – is actually a saving message. It is good news! It is the gospel!
But how can that be? How can the news that God became a poor, weak, Jewish man, who was just another one of hundreds of thousands to be crucified – essentially lynched – how can that be good news?
It is good news because it is the story of a God who stayed among the weak and lowly, and was there – present – even with the hated criminals on the cross, all the way to the end, and beyond. God never abandoned the lowly, and God never will abandon the lowly. At no point in Jesus’ earthly ministry did he decide to leave weakness behind. Never did he decide to claim power. As much as many wanted him to. As much as those around him wanted him to join the effort to overthrow the empire, to claim power and authority, Jesus knew that doing such a thing would only leave behind those whom he came to save. Emmanuel. God with us. Not God above us. God, down here, with us.
No god had chosen that before. No god before had successfully passed the test of the tempter in the desert – the offer of power and authority. Now how many of us can claim that? Who of us can say that we never thought, “if only I had a little more money, if only I had a little more say. I could do so much good. I could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, if only I had more influence.” Jesus passed that test. He chose the lowly and stayed among the lowly, even to the point of being crucified. Even death could not separate God from his chosen people.
When the world is full of those who feel weak and vulnerable – those who have lost at the expense of a few who hold all the power – God chose to be with the world, to save those who have lost in this world. In the verses immediately following the passage we hear today, Paul says this, “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 … God chose what is weak in the world … God chose what is low and despised in the world … things that are not.” That’s who God chose. Salvation does not come from above. It comes from below. Because that’s where God is.
I often and usually forget this. I forget the foolishness of the message of the cross. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the ways of “the wise.” It hit me especially hard upon my move back to Calgary after divinity school almost two years ago. After spending the previous three years of my life immersed in the pretentious atmosphere of one of the highly respected universities in the country, I arrived home to the reality that my grandma and grandpa – my mom’s parents – were on there last legs.
My family – especially my mom – had been tending to them regularly since Triana and I had originally left for school in the states, something that was not an easy task, since they lived in Medicine Hat. My mom would go bi-weekly to Medicine Hat, and if there was any serious news about their health, she would often drive to them in the middle of the night.
Back in the day, my grandpa Bill Boettcher was a farmer out by Schuler, on the land that he inherited from his father’s homestead. And like many women in the day, my grandma Florence tended to the home. But more than anything, my grandma and grandpa Boettcher were best friends. Grandma Florence was a round, fiery little lady who kept the home in pristine care. And my grandpa Bill was a quiet, towering man, 6’4” with broad shoulders and hands the size of baseball gloves – a Clydesdale of a man, built for the farm. But when grandpa Bill threw out his back, they tearfully had to give up the farm and they bought a Texaco gas station in Medicine Hat. And eventually he became a grounds keeper at Medicine Hat College, from where he retired.
My grandma and grandpa lived a beautiful and humble life. No part of them sought to reach the pinnacles of wealth and power. They lived close the ground, they loved each other, their family, their church, and Jesus. And that’s all they needed. But when I came back from school, they were at that point in life where they needed a little bit more than that.
We came to know the assisted living facility where they lived quite well, but my mom knew everybody. She would walk down the halls and say hi to everyone who lived and worked there. For some, dementia had set in, others were mentally clear, yet physically immobile, and unfortunately for the majority of these dear old folks, their families rarely visited. And whenever we came to see my grandma and grandpa, who were forced to live at different ends of the facility, their days immediately grew brighter.
My grandpa was half the man he once was, bent over in his scooter, and my grandma could hardly see, but we loved visiting them and they loved having us. After visiting quite often, it became clear that the difference between my education at Duke University and visiting my grandparents at a nursing home in Medicine Hat, Alberta was exactly what Paul is talking about here. Jesus wasn’t in the ivory towers of Corporations and Universities! He was in the nursing homes, hospitals, shelters and prisons. That’s where his saving work comes from! Each time we visited my grandparents at that nursing home, I believe we entered the presence of God. And during each of their funerals that year, we remembered how they witnessed to God’s presence throughout their humble lives.
In closing, I would like to share with you the foolishness of our proclamation, straight from the mouth of Jesus. It is a passage you all know well. The gospel author, Matthew, tells us that early on in his earthly ministry, Jesus of Nazareth started to preach to those whom he called and who followed him. They sat around him on a mountain and he said, “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.”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.