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God Chose What is Foolish

“God Chose What is Foolish”

1 Corinthians 1: 18-31

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 30th, 2011 – Faith United Presbyterian Church

Sometimes I just feel downright foolish.  When you get to know me you will discover that I am not particularly graceful…I trip and fall, I run into things, I run my children into things when I am carrying them (it’s okay, they are very resilient).  Just last week I slipped and fell on the icy steps outside of the Weeks House and I shouted out a very un-chaplain-like word, only to look up and see the men’s track team running by. I’m also very enthusiastic…sometimes overly so…which means I often catch myself laughing much too loudly or swaying to the music in worship or even letting out a little “Woo Hoo!!” after a great choral anthem.  (I know…I’m much too energetic to be truly Presbyterian.) My husband, Dan, directed the choir at our church in North Carolina.  After worship he would often ask me, “Was that you doing that, ‘Woo Hoo’?”  And I’d have to fess up that it was me.  Then he’d say… “Don’t do that.  Just don’t do that.”  So, you see, not only do I often embarrass myself…I embarrass my husband…and God knows I’m going to embarrass my children when they get old enough to know better….which I imagine won’t be long since Isaac is 3 going on 13.

I consider myself to be a pretty self-aware person, though.  So I am aware of my foolishness.  But I am not really bothered by it enough to try to hide it because, frankly speaking, I assume you all are pretty foolish too.  In fact I think all of us could confess that we are pretty foolish at times.  And not just in little embarrassing ways….we are all pretty foolish in big, sinful ways as well.

We are foolish in the way we think we have life all under control.

We are foolish not to recognize our limits, foolish in trying to do and be too much.

We are foolish in the way we use and abuse our environment.

We are foolish in not recognizing the privileges and power we hold over our minority neighbors.

We are foolish in waving our flag as if the world was a big sports arena and we can only cheer for our team.

We are foolish in our tribalism, our individualism, our elitism…

We are foolish, foolish people and we know it.

But that, of course, is why we are here.  We foolish people gather here in this place, in this house of God, because we know we are foolish and because we want to be transformed.  We want to do better and be better and we know that we cannot do better and be better alone.  We need God.  We need the community of faith.  We need, as Paul puts it, something wiser than human wisdom and something stronger than human strength.  We need wisdom from God, Christ Jesus, who became for us righteousness, sanctification, redemption.

In this section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he was addressing divisions in the congregation.  The way I would summarize at least one of these divisions is by saying that there were those who were foolish and knew they were foolish and those who were foolish and didn’t know they were foolish.  Each group was seeking wisdom, but they were each seeking a different kind of wisdom.  Those who were foolish and knew they were foolish were seeking the wisdom of God.  They were seeking the wisdom of God and they knew that they could not obtain this wisdom on their own…this wisdom must be given, as a gift, by a God who decides to give it.

Those who were foolish and didn’t know they were foolish sought a different kind of wisdom.  They sought, as Paul puts it, “human wisdom,” or the “wisdom of the world.”  They sought wisdom that was limited, but they didn’t recognize its limits.  They sought knowledge of God, but they thought they could get that knowledge of God all by themselves, that they could figure God out, that they could know God by their own efforts and their own brainpower.  And they thought that this wisdom, this knowledge of God, would make them powerful, would make them better, would make them transcend their foolish nature all on their own.

These first century Corinthians sort of remind me of today’s Scientologists.  They can actualize their own bright future…they can do anything…if only they harness their own human potential.  I heard Will Smith (a famous Hollywood Scientologist) say once in an interview that he could be the President of the United States…if he wanted to be…but he doesn’t want to be, therefore he isn’t.  You see according to the Scientologist mindset, Will Smith, John Travolta, Tom Cruise got to where they are today because they were able to master their own human wisdom, tap into their own “divine” potential, and rise above the rest of us fools because they could transcend their human limits…it had nothing to do with luck, fate, or the fact that they just happen to look really great on camera.

So Paul, here, is addressing this division in the church–the division between those who are foolish and know they are foolish and those who are foolish and don’t know they are foolish–and he uses the symbol of the cross as the foundation of his message.  The cross of Christ was a symbol of “foolishness” and of “weakness” to those who sought their own wisdom.  The cross of Christ was foolish because it involved giving up the claim to “be someone,”[1] giving up on all your human potential, giving up your power and your control.  Jesus was expected to be the great King, the powerful Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of God, the one who would conquer the Roman oppressors and all other forces of evil.  When he died on the cross all these hopes were dashed because on the cross their Great King, their Jesus, was vulnerable, and weak, and utterly powerless.  Only a fool could still believe Jesus was the Messiah after that.  Obviously, the Romans and the forces of evil had won. The cross of Christ, then, made no sense to the foolish who did not know they were foolish.

But for Paul, the cross represented God’s surprising power to transform human existence; God’s surprising power to transform weakness into strength, foolishness into wisdom, darkness into light, despair, and depression, and depravity, into hope and life and light.  The cross of Christ, for Paul, was not the shameful end of a misguided prophet, but the supreme symbol of the extent of God’s love—that he would lay down his life for his friends—that he would become vulnerable for the ones he loves—that God would become the God-forsaken for us.[2] God chose this weak, vulnerable, forsaken, (and some would say) foolish path for us.  God chose the way of the cross to reveal God’s great love for us and God’s great power to transform that which is foolish.

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.

We have no reason to boast because we are foolish, foolish people.  But we do have reason to celebrate because God chose what is foolish.  God chose you.  God chose me.  God chose all of us…all of us foolish people.  And that, my friends, is Good News.  That is the Good News of the Gospel because it means that, by the power of God, we can be transformed.  By the power of God we can be better and do better.  By the power of God we can transcend our foolish nature.

Henri Nouwen has long been one of my favorite spiritual authors.  Nouwen, a Catholic priest, is hailed as one of the most beloved and important spiritual writers of the twentieth century.  His books such as Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and The Return of the Prodigal Son, have become cherished classics.  While he was alive, Nouwen was an extraordinarily prolific writer and a popular preacher and teacher.  He attracted huge audiences whenever he spoke because he touched people with his sincerity and his special connection to God.  People all around the world loved this holy man.

I have admired Nouwen and his work for many years.  I frequently refer to his books on my shelf for spiritual insight and direction.  So when I came across a biography about him, written by BBC producer Michael Ford, I bought it ready to learn more about this man I so admired.  What I read in that biography, though, shocked me.  I assumed that Henri Nouwen, this spiritual master, this prolific writer, this sought-after preacher and speaker, would be a man of confidence, a man at peace with himself and his world, a man who was happy.  Instead, through numerous interviews with the friends and family members who knew Nouwen best, I discovered a man who was tormented by insecurity, anxiety, loneliness and fear.  In the biography stories were shared about Nouwen calling his friends in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety.  Someone had walked out during his lecture that evening and he was afraid he had offended them.  Or no one had bothered to invite him out to dinner after a speaking engagement so he assumed they weren’t pleased with him.  In the middle of the night he would call on his friends and plead with them to come over and be with him so he could be reassured that he was loved, that he was okay, that he wasn’t a complete failure.[3] I was shocked to read all of this.  I was shocked to learn that Henri Nouwen, this great spiritual man whom I admired so much, was human; he was a fool just like the rest of us.  This new knowledge of Nouwen didn’t make me admire him less, though.  Instead, as someone who has struggled to overcome shyness and anxiety myself, knowing this about Nouwen inspired me even more.

Henri Nouwen was a fool who knew he was a fool.  But he was also a fool who knew he was chosen.   And it was this knowledge, the knowledge that he was chosen by God, that helped him transcend his foolish nature, overcome his fears and his anxieties, put his God-given gifts to great use and be transformed…by the power of God.

In his book Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes, “You must hold on to the truth that you are the chosen.  That truth is the bedrock on which you can build a life… [4]When we keep claiming the light [that this truth sheds], we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant.”[5]

God chose what is foolish.  God chose you.  God chose me.  God chose all of us…all of us foolish people.  And that is Good News.  That is Good News because it means that we can be transformed by the power of God.

Now to this God who loves us and chooses us, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] William A. Beardslee, First Corinthians:  A Commentary for Today, (Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1994), pg. 27.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann

[3] Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen, (Random House, New York, NY, 1999)

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, (Crossroads, New York, NY, 1999), pg.47.

[5] Ibid, pg. 52.

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