Sermon March 3: I Corinthians 1:18-31 Foolishness              Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you heard this phrase before? “Well, THAT’LL never work.”

Way back in the day, when I was taking three busses and a metro each way, to and from school in downtown Montreal, the city of Montreal announced that it had become aware of a clear and presenting issue that was affecting the quality of life of a great many Montrealers. 

Grumpy surly bus drivers. We were apparently beset fore and aft as Montrealers by grumpy surly bus drivers. Which upon reflection we all conceded was probably true – but we just hadn’t noticed because we just thought they were… being bus drivers. Driving all day long on Montreal potholes dealing with Montreal traffic and Montreal jaywalkers, if they were grumpy and surly, then fair enough.

But no, NOT fair enough, the city decided. But they had a solution. To solve the problem of grumpy and surly bus drivers, they announced a new rule. From there on in, every time someone got on the bus, bus drivers would have to greet them. 

Just “good day” or “good evening”. That was it. The spectacular solution of the city of Montreal to the clear and presenting issue of grumpy surly bus drivers. 

And oh, how we laughed. It’s kind of too bad there weren’t memes back in the 1980s but we DID get an editorial cartoon or two -- and basically everyone made merry over this spectacular solution that we just couldn’t WAIT to actually see in action. As though in a million years it’d ever actually happen, but even if it did? 

A forced out greeting to solve the problem of bus-drivers inclined to be grumpy and surly and not without reason? Ya, THAT’LL never work. It was completely ridiculous.

And it totally worked. Like, literally, practically overnight. The difference was palpable. The bus driver would greet everyone, and of course they’d greet him back automatically. And then almost imperceptably, somehow and mysteriously, bus drivers started saying goodbye to people as they got off, and so people would say thank you – and seriously? It totally worked. 

I think about that often. Whenever there’s a complicated vexing problem and a seemingly simple solution that we dismiss out of hand as impossible. And instead bring to bear upon it all our best analysis and critiques and sober second thoughts… and even wisdom… and too often wind up doing nothing at all. Because we can’t think of anything we’re convinced “makes sense”. 

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. 

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 try it. Stop overthinking. Try the simplest and most straightforward solution. Feeling grumpy and surly? Force out a polite greeting. Don’t overthink it, just love. You’d be amazed what actually works. Amen.