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2018.11.03:We’re All a Bunch of Sophomore Saints: Wise Fools

Preached at First Presbyterian Church, East Aurora, November 3, 2018, by Langdon “Buddy” Hubbard

We’re All a Bunch of Sophomore Saints:

Wise Fools

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24:1-10

2 Corinthians 11:1-21


            I want to let you in on a pastoral secret.  We pastors usually have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong, and a pretty clear understanding of what the gospel affirms and what it denies. And so when we work on our sermons we can write some pretty bold things.  And then we come to the pulpit and look at our congregation, the faces of the people we love, and sometimes we think all of a sudden:  “I think I’m being a bit too confident in what I have decided to say.  Maybe I better back off a little, soften the message, don’t say that, make it more palatable, be less judgmental.  For goodness’ sake, I certainly don’t want to alienate anyone.”  And so sometimes, and you do not necessarily know when this happens, we back off and soften the blow.  But then there are times we don’t blunt the message but go full throttle.  Those are the sermons I usually hear people say, “You were so brave and bold.”  Or they might think but not say, “Wow!  That was really foolish of you to say that! You’re going to pay for that one!”


            I have to tell you the truth, I often sweat a lot when I preach, because I want to give you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, but sometimes I can’t be so sure I’m giving you more of what I think than what God thinks.  This preaching business is full of land minds.  At the end of the day, all we preachers can say is, we did the best we could under the circumstances. And the circumstances are these:  we live in times that cry out for answers while all we’ve got are questions, we simply don’t know everything, but we sure are trying to know everything we can about the mind of Christ, and the heart of God, and to share that with you.  God help us!  That’s a really good prayer, by the way.


Did you notice that Paul uses the word “fool” and “foolishness” over and over again in this passage?  What I love about Paul is that he does so not as a way of putting himself down, but by relaxing and acknowledging the obvious:  we preachers can be pretty smart about the ways of God, but we don’t know everything.  And so we just may be fools for Christ some Sundays.  But better to be that than to say nothing at all and possibly lead our flock astray by not trying to guide them at all as well as we are able.  Sometimes we just have to take the chance.


Paul is deeply concerned that the Corinthian Christians are being led astray by what he calls, as a way of humor, the “Super Apostles,” the false teachers and leaders who are leading God’s people astray.  He says, “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different Spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:4)  And that’s not good.  They should be standing true to the faith. 


But he contends he isn’t in the least inferior to the Super Apostles.  He acknowledges in a moment of humble self-effacement that he may not be as good a speaker and preacher as them, but he is not inferior in his knowledge of God, that is in his intimate relationship with God.  What he lacks in skill, he does not lack in faith.  He may be a fool, but he is a wise fool, which is the word we know as “sophomore” (Sophia=wisdom; Moron=fool).  In the end aren’t we all just a bunch of “Sophomore Saints,” “Wise Fools.”  We are limited in our knowledge of God, but if we at least know God personally, we do have wisdom greater than all of the knowledge in the world. We fools need to count on that to get us through some times.


As Paul puts it, he sees himself as a loving father whose daughter, the church, he has promised in marriage to one husband, Christ. But then his daughter has become unfaithful.  He feels anguish, wanting her to be faithful again.  The bride of Christ  is in jeopardy of becoming unfaithful to Christ by going after other “husbands,” other gods, other gospels, other Jesus’s.  As if speaking for God, he is jealous of the other lovers who have taken Christ’s bride away, and he will do everything he can to bring them back.


And so he reminds them that unlike the Super Apostles, looking to make money off of the Corinthian Christians, and gaining power, he didn’t take any money for his work among them.  He didn’t want anything to get in the way.  He came to tell them the truth of Christ, not for any personal gain. He tells them in a poignant moment that he came to them because he loves them; God knows he does! 


Everything he says he says for love’s sake to help them stay close to God.  He is deeply concerned that they are being led astray by the Super Apostles, whom Paul calls false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  Ouch!  That’s some strong language.  But that’s how deep Paul’s love is for them.  He pulls no punches; but pours himself out completely to keep them in the truth.


I understand Paul’s intense love for the church, because I feel it too.  I have never felt in my entire ministry that Paul’s words here have been so pertinent as they are today.  I believe we are living in a time when the challenges of our culture are such that many people of faith are being led astray, following other gospels, other Spirit’s than the Holy Spirit, and other Jesus’s than the Jesus of the gospel.  As one of my minister friends, Drew Ludwig, who preached our stewardship sermon for us recently, said, “There was a time when some Christians wore bracelets that said, ‘WWJD: What would Jesus do?’  And now they are horrified by that question because they don’t want to do it.” As a preacher of the gospel today I believe that is true for too many. 


I grew up in the evangelical Christian world, in high school and at Houghton College, but in large part that world seems to be turning away from the gospel of Christ.  Care for the poor and oppressed, telling the truth, upholding basic moral values, standing against violence and working for the ways of peace, treating all people with respect with no partiality, elevating love above all else, and putting the kingdom of God above our politics, were at one time central to the faith I grew up in, but no more.  Here’s the rub.  I still believe those things are important, but when I state them, and speak out about them as a critique of our current political situation many of my friends from earlier in my life, and even some of my family, think I have turned away from the faith.     I simply believe our faith speaks against many of the negative and destructive manifestations of our political world and must be called out.  I believe I am correct in this, but so are they in their disagreement.  What do we do? Do we remain silent to keep the peace?  Or do we feel, as I do, that to remain silent is to be unfaithful to Christ?  We may just have to be a fool for Christ today.


This isn’t the first time we’ve been in this situation.  Let me give you an historical example of what I’m talking about.  For aeons the peoples of this world practiced slavery as a norm of human society.  For centuries and millennia, it was simply assumed that some people are born on top and stay there, and some people are born on the bottom and stay there.  Some are rulers and some are slaves.  It’s just our lot in life.  And therefore must be God’s will.


And so the scriptures, written well over 2000 years ago, in a slave-holding society, simply accepted the way things were, not challenging the system of slavery on which the world and culture were built, with one caveat.  When Paul addressed slavery in Ephesians 6 in his admonitions to the Christian community about the household rules of how social relationships should be expressed in a Christian way, doesn’t challenge the system of slavery at all, but says this: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.  Render service with enthusiasm, s to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.  And, masters, do the same to them.  Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.”  (Ephesians 6:5-9)


And so Paul leaves the system of slavery intact but Christianizes it, reminding slaves and slave owners alike, that ultimately we all belong to God and so we should treat each other as God’s children.  Sounds pretty good, except he hasn’t addressed a really important question:  slavery itself just isn’t right.


In the 1800’s in America the issue came to a head as Christians mostly in the North argued that it was not okay for Christians to hold slaves as long as they treated them right; the system itself was wrong and must end.  Meanwhile Christians mostly in the South argued that you couldn’t change God’s Word where it is clear that God accepts and even instituted slavery.  And so the battle commenced with lots of judgment and name-calling, eventually dividing the churches into Northern and Southern churches, as Methodists and Presbyterians did.  The Civil War was not the only battle going on; the church war was just as bloody.


In the end we know which side won out.  Slavery ended and so did Christian support of slavery.  Paul’s other word final made sense: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)  In other words, Christ breaks down all social barriers, including religious and racial, economic and class, and gender and sexuality.  And all because Jesus Christ, in his death, made us one in Christ.  The church finally got it, although it would be a century later before Methodists and Presbyterian in the North and South would reunite as truly one in Christ.  Sometimes our divisions take a long time to heal.


Looking back, we wonder how Christians could ever have supported slavery.  We know today it is so wrong and sinful.  But at the time, the church on both sides saw each other as fools, or worse, as sinners, false prophets and teachers, and even instruments of Satan.  They both were so sure of themselves, and in the end one of them was proven to be on God’s side, and the other wasn’t.  Why was it so hard to see what we can see now should have been utterly clear, that human beings should never be treated so inhumanely?


But we also know that human beings can be blind to truth because of ulterior motives, and because of what they might lose should they be proven wrong.  In the case of the slave-holding South, if they were wrong, and slavery ended, the foundations of their entire economic system would collapse.  And that is exactly what happened.  Parts of the deep South in Mississippi and Alabama, for instance, have never fully recovered to this day from the results of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves.  It wasn’t right, but you can understand why they argued so strongly to keep slavery intact.


We now have the benefit of history to tell us that the Christians who struggled to abolish slavery were on the right side of history, and the ones who struggled to keep slavery intact, thinking they were upholding the scriptures, were on the wrong side of history and of the heart of God.  The same could be said of the struggle for the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people.


What about us?  It is clear our nation is thoroughly divided over politics and social commitments, religion, and even basic values.  Shouldn’t our common faith as Christians unite us?  I wish it could be true, but right now I don’t believe it will, at least not yet. 


Some things seem so clear to me.  As I’ve stated before through the years and just last Sunday, as Christians we hold some beliefs as sacred:  that Jesus is Lord over all other earthly leaders; that Jesus’ kingdom comes first above nation and political parties; that to love God and our neighbors is the centerpiece of our Christian lives; that telling the truth even when it hurts is what ultimately liberates us, while lying ultimately imprisons us and destroys our lives and the lives of others and human community itself; that basic morality matters, including keeping your marriage vows inviolate, and other moral commitments, including financial agreements; that treating your fellow human being with dignity and respect as a fellow child of God without exception is critical to the health of our own relationship to God; that how we treat the poor and oppressed, the refugee and immigrant is how we treat Jesus, who said “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me…as you’ve done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you’ve done it to me.”   I simply can’t see it any other way.  This is the way of Jesus.  This is the way of the Spirit.  This is the gospel.  And like Paul I have no patience with those who would lead people astray.  Call me a fool, but this is what I believe.


I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about God.  I’m just a sophomore saint, a wise fool, at least hopefully wise.  And with Paul I love Jesus’ church, I love you, God knows I do, and I just want you and the church of Jesus to stay faithful in a world where there are false prophets and teachers, Super Apostles, who sound Christian but aren’t teaching the true gospel of Jesus any more.


All I can say on this All Saints Sunday, is thanks be to God, for all those saints who have gone before us, who stayed true to the faith, in some cases even unto death, like Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Their stories remind us that we too can remain faithful to God even in challenging times.  Oh, they may think you’re a fool, but that’s okay.  Be a fool for Christ’s sake.  Vote your values, not simply political parties.  Live your convictions.  Stand up for what you believe.  Speak your truth.  And don’t be afraid of what others might think, even if they think you’re a fool.  Be a fool for Christ.  And whatever you do, it’s still a good thing to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” When you’ve figured that out, be sure to do it in love.