Sermon: “What Fools Believe” (March 8, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“What Fools Believe” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
March 8, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my favorite bands from the 1970’s is The Doobie Brothers, and in the spring of 1979 they had a number one hit for which they later won a Grammy for Song of the Year. The song is called “What a Fool Believes,” and it is about a man who reconnects with someone for whom he had fallen in the past, seeking to rekindle their relationship, only to discover that there had never really been a relationship—it was all in his head.

“He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool doesn’t see
Trying hard to recreate what had yet to be created once in her life
She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
Never coming near what he wanted to say
Only to realize it never really was
She had a place in his life
He never made her think twice
As he rises to her apology
Anybody else would surely know
He’s watching her go…

But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be is always better than nothing
There’s nothing at all
But what a fool believes he sees”
(from their 1978 album Minute by Minute).

In today’s epistle reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul writes about something that some people think only fools believe—the power of the cross of Christ: “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18).

In his day, as Paul goes on to write, the cross of Christ was dismissed by the Jews as a stumbling block—they expected a messiah who would lead them to military victory over the Romans, not die on a cross—and the cross of Christ was equally dismissed by the Gentiles as mere foolishness—they placed wisdom above all else.

And through the centuries since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians many others have also dismissed the cross of Christ as foolishness. The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed, “The God on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life” (from the 1988 book Friedrich Nietzsche: A Psychological Approach to His Life and Work by Liliane Frey-Rohn, 265).

Similarly the late atheist author Christopher Hitchens had this to say about the concept of redemption through the cross of Christ:

“I find something repulsive about the idea of vicarious redemption. I would not throw my numberless sins onto a scapegoat and expect them to pass from me; we rightly sneer at the barbaric societies that practice this unpleasantness in its literal form. There’s no moral value in the vicarious gesture anyway… the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral” (from his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 58).

Even in the church there have been those who dismiss the cross of Christ as foolishness, as The Right Rev. John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, wrote in his 2002 book A New Christianity for a New World —“The view of the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.”

And yet, as Paul writes, “we proclaim Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:23-25).

For the record, while I respect the intellectual gifts of Nietzsche, Hitchens, and Spong, I will gladly take my place in the long line of fools who believe in the power of the cross of Christ to bring salvation and redemption to a foolish world. I thank God that because of the power of the cross of Christ there is hope for a fool like me.

The truth is we need to be saved. The truth is we need help from beyond ourselves. We admitted this to God a few minutes ago when we prayed in the collect for today, “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (The Book of Common Prayer, 218). Commenting on this collect Paul Zahl observes:

“We have to admit to God the plain fact that ‘we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.’ Is this plain? Is this obvious? Or is it a subject of dispute? Step One of the Twelve Steps concurs. World history concurs—at least if you reckon that wars and holocausts in the twentieth century took more lives than every single conflict in the nineteen centuries preceding” (and then hitting closer to home he continues) “Your personal history probably concurs, at least if you have ever been mired in a hole so deep that left to the devices and desires of your own heart you could only sink further into it…The collect devastates the human control factor and sets limitless hope upon the sure hold of God” (The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, 37).

“We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves”…one of the many times I have experienced this firsthand happened when I was eight years old and my family went to the beach for the first time. My father rented an inflatable raft for me to ride and I spent the first day riding in wave after wave, having the time of my life. The next day I went back out and continued riding the waves in but at one point a riptide quickly carried me away from shore.

I tried and tried to paddle back but to no avail. I could see a lifeguard standing on his tall white wooden lifeguard chair blowing his whistle and waving me to come back to shore, but I could not do it. I even slid off the raft and while holding onto the cord tried to doggie paddle in, and still it was no use. And then when I remembered what happened to the boy on the raft in the movie Jaws I quickly climbed back onto the raft, more scared than I had ever been in my life.

In that moment I had no power in myself to help myself; I needed help from outside myself to save me. That help came in the form of a different lifeguard who swam out to me. As he drew near, I slid off the raft again and began doggie paddling, thinking I could “do my part.” When he arrived, he gently smiled, “Get back on the raft, I’ve got you, buddy.” And he brought me safely back to shore.

Since that day there have been other situations in which I did not have power in myself to help myself, situations in which I needed help from outside myself.

When it comes to needing saving help from God, none of us is exempt—and that is why the foolishness of the cross of Christ to save is such good news—it gives hope to those who have no power in themselves to help themselves.

In his powerful 2011 book Falling Upward Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest and Franciscan Friar, puts it this way:

“The bottom line of the Gospel is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey. Up to that point, it is mostly religion. At the bottom, there is little time or interest in being totally practical, efficient, or revenue generating. You just want to breathe fresh air. The true Gospel is always fresh air and spacious breathing room” (138).

Time for a Beatles story…in his book The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write, Steve Turner recounts a fascinating anecdote. Very early one morning Alistair Taylor (an assistant to Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles) and Paul McCartney—were standing on Primrose Hill, where they had just watched the sunrise. They realized McCartney’s dog Martha had wandered off—and then something quite unexpected happened:

“‘We turned round to go and suddenly there he was standing behind us,’ wrote Taylor. ‘He was a middle aged man, very respectably dressed in a belted raincoat. Nothing in that, you may think, but he’d come up behind us over the bare top of the hill in total silence.’ Both Paul and Taylor were sure that the man hadn’t been there seconds earlier because they’d been searching the area for the dog. He seemed to have appeared miraculously. The three men exchanged greetings, the man commented on the beautiful view and then walked away. When they looked around, he’d vanished.

‘There was no sign of the man,’ said Taylor, ‘He’d just disappeared from the top of the hill as if he’d been carried off into thin air! No one could have run to the thin cover of the nearest trees in the time we had turned away from him, and no one could have run over the crest of the hill.’

Turner continues: “What added to the mystery was that immediately before the man’s appearance Paul and Taylor had, provoked by the beautiful view over London and the rising of the sun, been mulling over the existence of God. (Taylor continues) ‘Paul and I both felt the same weird sensation that something special had happened. We sat down rather shakily on the seat and Paul said, ‘What do you make of that? That’s weird. He was here, wasn’t he? We did speak to him?’ (Taylor concludes) ‘We both felt we’d been through some mystical religious experience, yet we didn’t care to name even to each other what or who we’d seen on that hilltop for those few brief seconds’” (228-229).

Based on that experience McCartney wrote a song called “The Fool on the Hill” for their 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour in which he sings:

Day after day, alone on the hill
The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him
They can see that he’s just a fool
And he never gives an answer
But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head see the world spinning around

Let me ask you a question…in your life are you in a situation in which you need help, a situation in which you have no power in yourself to help yourself? If so, I have very good news for you—the gospel is not “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” but rather, “The Lord helps those who cannot help themselves.”

The Apostle Paul experienced the saving power of the cross of Christ—help from outside himself—in his own life, which is why he also wrote, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).

While Jesus on Calvary may be dismissed by some as “the fool on the hill,” the truth is that Jesus sees your “world spinning around,” that he loves you so much that he died to save you, that the cross is indeed the power and wisdom of God for your salvation—and the truth is that what fools believe…will save them.

Amen.