Sermon March 7: I Corinthians 1:18-31 Foolishness Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you know the population of Saskatchewan? It's about a million. About the same as Nova Scotia. One million and change.
Which is a piece of information I will readily admit that I did not know and had never once wondered about. Until a few months ago.
When I found myself looking it up. What is the population of Saskatchewan? Admittedly because I SUSPECTED it was probably about the same as Nova Scotia.
Because I was, at the time, getting mightily tired of people from Central Canada dismissing Nova Scotia's extremely good results on Covid with comments about how OF COURSE Nova Scotia's numbers are low because hardly anybody lives here.
So au contraire, I typed, in various responses, once I'd looked it up – we actually have the same population as Saskatchewan, but WE'RE actually all squished into a much smaller space.
Now rarely, I have to admit, did this brilliant factoid act as a revelation upon the person with whom I was "in conversation" on Twitter. Nor did "and most of us are even more squashed into Halifax" or indeed "where there are five universities" or even "and a ton of military personnel and also an international port and an airport".
None of this surpassing brilliance ever really made a dent. Because the dismissing of Nova Scotia's results by people in other parts of Canada actually wasn't about facts at all.
It was sheer self-defense. And completely unsurprising. Sheer self-defense arising from exactly the same impulse that produces victim-blaming and slut-shaming. When we don't want to admit that what's happened to someone else COULD HAPPEN to us. So we spend all our energy rationally why it happened to THEM. What did they do, wear, say, that's about how different they are from us. So that whatever it is that happened? It could never happen to US.
It's kind of an upside-down version of this self-defense in the case of Covid numbers of course. It's people in other parts of Canada not wanting to admit that THEY TOO could have squashed things like we have here, so they spend all their energy focusing on how DIFFERENT we are, disconnected we are, small we are. "Well of course Nova Scotia's numbers are low, no one lives there."
It's ridiculous. But it's self-defense. And very very human. When something is presented to us as straightforwardly and manifestly possible, our first reaction is very often to come up with a whole lot of reasons why it absolutely ISN'T possible. Because it lets off the hook from dealing with it.
And while sometimes that can be hurtful, as with victim-blaming, and sometimes it can be ridiculous, as with dismissing Nova Scotia's Covid response on the basis that apparently nobody lives here...
Often, we actually call that 'coming up with a whole lot of reasons why something isn't possible'... critical thinking. Or sober second thought. Or even wisdom!
And then along comes the Apostle Paul, with his first letter to the Corinthians, to shake us up a bit.
The passage that we heard this morning, it's almost the very beginning of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He's come to Corinth, in Greece, he's established a church community there, it seems to be thriving and flourishing and strong, so he's moved on...
But what he DOES after he's moved on is... he stays in touch. So the Christians in Corinth will write to him, telling him how things are going, asking him questions that have arisen for them, and then he writes back. With answers that are partly sermons and partly administrative advice and partly just catching up on news... and in their entirety comprise two books in our Newer Testament. The first and second letters to the Corinthians.
And our passage this morning is from the first. They're still a pretty new community, the Christians in Corinth. Learning at once how to follow Jesus' Way AND how to deal with each other. Which isn't always easy. And they're already having arguments and tiffs and disagreements about things.
MOST of which, to give them credit, they're reasonably open about. Though Paul also does mention that he also gets reports from various colleagues, other Apostles and leaders, so there's a degree to which the Corinthians aren't telling him exactly EVERYTHING that's going on –
But Paul weighs in on all of it regardless. And one of the things that Paul's hearing that he's clearly concerned about, in the Corinthian church, is that they're beginning to have issues with how to follow Jesus' Way. With what's possible. What makes sense. And the self-defense, the barriers, the critical thinking, the wisdom, is starting build up.
There is nothing as simple as "love God and love your neighbour". Jesus himself said it: my yoke is easy and my burden is light. There is nothing as simply straightforward as love of neighbour.
If someone's hungry, give them something to eat. Thirsty, give them water to drink. Naked, clothe them. Homeless, shelter them. Sick or in prison, visit them. In danger, shield them. Vulnerable, protect them. Isolated, welcome them.
What we get in "love your neighbour" is literally as simple an essential commandment as there can possibly be. And there's no proof of that more absolute than how EASILY the slightest bit of "wisdom" or "critical thinking" can take that commandment right out.
Because if someone's hungry, says Jesus, give them something to eat. And what do we come back with in mere seconds?
"Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime."
Nothing wrong with that saying and it's absolutely true! But how often and how easily is it actually wielded as an argument against just... giving hungry people enough to eat?
This is what Paul's concerned about, in this passage. The Corinthians have only just begun to embrace this new 'Way' of Jesus in all its radical simplicity. Love of Neighbour writ large – all things shared, held in common, and the straightforwardness of hungry, give them food, thirsty, give them something to drink, homeless, give them shelter, vulnerable, protect them, isolated, welcome them, and on and on and on.
They've only just started, the Corinthians, to embrace this new way. And already, Paul notes, the Corinthians -- already with the 'critical thinking'. Already with the 'wisdom'. Already with the reasons this new way just can't be possible – it's naive, it's unrealistic, it's just foolishness.
We don't actually precisely what issues the Corinthians have already begun raising with Paul, but it's not that difficult to guess. Because we do it all the time too. We bring to bear on this astonishingly straightforward simple commandment to love our neighbour a whole arsenal of 'wisdom', 'common sense', 'critical thinking', that makes it sound like foolishness. Impossible! Absurd!
That allows us to convince ourselves it's just foolishness. What issues are the Corinthians raising? Maybe they're saying to Paul, look – we know we're supposed to feed anyone who comes to us who's hungry, help anyone who comes to us in need. But aren't we kind of setting ourselves up to get taken advantage of? Propping up their poverty? Letting them sustain their addiction?
Or maybe the Corinthians are saying to Paul, look – we know if someone's got nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go, we're supposed to welcome them in, give them a place to rest. But couldn't that kind of turn into a security issue? What if they make a mess? What if they cause problems? What if they won't leave?
All this wisdom, all this sober second thought. All of being leveled bit by bit in self-defense against imagining that the sheer compete foolishness of the simple way of "love your neighbour" is actually do-able, reasonable, possible.
But how does Paul respond? Essentially he calls their bluff. He doesn't try to argue that living Jesus' Way is actually rational or reasonable or that it stands up to critical thinking or survives sober second thought – instead, he straight up acknowledges it isn't and it doesn't!
It is absolute foolishness in the eyes of the world, he tells them, he tells us. One hundred percent. Might you be taken advantage of? Absolutely. Does it let the system off the hook? Absolutely. Are there risks? Oh, there sure are. Is Jesus' Way consistent with fiscal responsibility and low insurance premiums and tidy surroundings and economic stability? Probably not.
But oh, says Paul, if you embrace it in all its absolute foolishness, what a gift it is. To you and everyone around you. What grace there is in it.
Because in the tiny simplicity of that moment, there's just love. There's just holiness and wholeness and Godness – there's just love. And there you are in the midst of it.
Foolish, maybe? But there you are in the midst of it.
It's ironic perhaps that so much of Paul's writing in these letters isn't just intellectually demanding but betrays his background as a scholar and a debater and a professor of the Socratic method. Paul certainly would have known the population of Saskatchewan and he'd have leveled it right back to put Central Canadians right.
But here? In the very beginning of his letter? Set all that critical thinking and sober second thought and wisdom aside, he says to the Corinthians, to us. Yes, this is absolute foolishness. But yes, it's the invitation. Just love.
God being our helper. Amen.