Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Fool’s Errand

(This message was given last night at the closing worship service for the Camden Cold Weather Shelter.)

1Corinthians 1:18-25

18For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

This morning when I woke up my son, I told him that I’d gotten a note from his school saying he had to wear a swimsuit and a t-shirt because they would be playing outside all day. He blinked and looked at me and said: ‘Really?’ I waited a moment and then said: ‘April Fools!’

This is a strange day—a day of pranks and jokes and hoaxes. There are literally hundreds of examples of great April Fools’ Day hoaxes. Here are some of my favorites:

In 1957 we had The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. The BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper crop of spaghetti. In the story there was footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC diplomatically replied, “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

Then there was The Taco Liberty Bell. In 1996 The Taco Bell Corporation announced it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell. Hundreds of outraged citizens called the museum in Philadelphia where the bell was housed to express their anger. Their nerves were only calmed when Taco Bell revealed, a few hours later, that it was all a practical joke.

In 1998 Burger King published a full page advertisement in USA Today announcing the introduction of a new item to their menu: a “Left-Handed Whopper” specially designed for the 32 million left-handed Americans. According to the advertisement, the new whopper included the same ingredients as the original Whopper (lettuce, tomato, hamburger patty, etc.), but all the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the benefit of their left-handed customers. The following day Burger King issued a follow-up release revealing that although the Left-Handed Whopper was a hoax, thousands of customers had gone into restaurants to request the new sandwich. At the same time, according to the press release, “many others requested their own 'right handed' version.”

In 1976 the British astronomer Patrick Moore announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 am on the first of April a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church talks about a different kind of foolishness.

This part of Paul’s letter addresses something he faced a lot in his work in the first century. People who were educated and worldly and sophisticated often had a hard time grasping the core of the gospel message—that we are broken people in need of a savior, and that once saved we’re called to give sacrificially to help others.

People in Paul’s culture would have considered the Christian gospel to be the height of foolishness.

And yet Paul makes the case that the work of God through Jesus Christ was so dramatic, so decisive, so perfect, that the most brilliant thoughts humans could muster would seem foolish by comparison.

‘But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.’

Paul’s response to that was to say that ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than all of our wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than all of our strength.’

There’s an American basketball coach named Bobby Knight, who has a reputation for reacting badly to questions he doesn’t like or comments he thinks are less-than-informed. I remember a few years back, after a sports reporter confronted him on a coaching decision, hearing Knight shouted at the man: ‘I’ve forgotten more about basketball than you’ll ever know!’

Paul might be holding his temper here, but that’s the point he’s trying to make. God’s work on our behalf in the ministry of Jesus Christ was so complete that it makes our attempts to understand it look foolish by comparison.

Paul knew that the message of the Cross didn’t reconcile very well with the culture of the first century. The world was a fractured place, forced together by the military power of Rome, leaving people to scramble after their own interests in order to survive and prosper.

Some people resisted Rome, and most of them were crushed. Some collaborated, like the tax collectors we see in the Scriptures, and they were shunned by their friends and families. Some hid in the margins and never really found a place to fit.

What they didn’t do much was give of themselves. The most common response to the challenges of the first century was a sense of self-preservation—of taking care of yourself and your family, without much concern for the needy outside your walls.

That may sound familiar. In our culture—especially in these dangerous economic times—the first thing to go is charitable giving. Registered charities in the UK and the US are reporting dramatic cuts in giving and investment in all kinds of causes.

People who used to offer support are trying to be wise about how they spend and give their money.

I think that’s what makes this past four months of the Cold Weather Shelter so amazing. All around us we were hearing the awful news about the economy. Jobs lost, money supplies tightening up, companies and banks failing. It would have been very easy for people to pull back—to cut off support—to hold on to their giving budgets. That may have even been the wise thing to do.

But in the midst of all that bad news, churches with tight budgets offered generous support to the work of the Shelter. People whose own jobs might not have been secure gave of their time and talent to make a temporary home for some needy people in this community.

We have acted foolishly this year, and that’s a holy thing.

The churches and volunteers and staff of the Cold Weather Shelter have demonstrated the holiness of being foolish in Christ’s name. No jokes, no pranks, no hoaxes.

Paul wrote in our passage that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe, but to us it is the very power of God.’

I don’t know how powerful you felt during your time working in the Shelter this year, but it was an incredibly powerful act. The crazy thing is, no matter how foolish the world might think we were for giving of our time or resources or talents or prayers. No matter how foolish that might seem to the culture, by helping our guests we were exercising the very power of God.

As this season of working in the Shelter comes to a close, I’m encouraged by the skill of the Shelter staff, the loving hospitality of the churches, the love and kindness of the volunteers, the generosity of the donors, and the dignity and graciousness of the guests.

What a blessing this has been. What a great time of service and unity and divine power. The work of the Shelter this year has been an exercise in the best kind of foolishness, and I can’t wait to start again next year.

Let’s pray together.

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