Byron C. Bangert

April 1, 2001

Psalm 53:1-6; II Corinthians 11:16-30

A fellow toiler in God's vineyard had to go out of town recently, and just as he was getting ready to leave the house the telephone rang. It was his church secretary.

"Before you go," she said, "I have to have the topics for your sermons next Sunday so I can get the church bulletin ready."

Well, this preacher was caught off guard and, for the life of him, couldn't think of anything. Finally he said, "I haven't quite decided what I'll be preaching next Sunday morning. Just put down something all inclusive, I guess--say, 'The Pastor Speaks'." The secretary said that sounded fine, but there was also an evening service scheduled for next Sunday. What about it? The minister racked his brain. "I think I'll take my sermon from Psalm 53," he decided. "That's the one that begins, 'The fool says in his heart, "There is no God."' See if you can find a title in the scripture somewhere." The secretary said she would.

So the minister left town. Late in the week he returned to find his spouse trying unsuccessfully

to stifle her giggles. "What's so funny?" he wanted to know. "Your secretary just dropped off the bulletin for this Sunday," she said, handing it to him. There in bold black print the sermon topics were stated: "Morning: 'The Pastor Speaks'. Evening: 'What the Fool Said'."

Today is April 1, and if there is any day on the calendar when a preacher may be indulged a little foolishness, surely it is today. There was a time when the Christian Church had institutionalized a time of foolishness. It was called the Feast of Fools. Nowadays we had better take the opportunity whenever we can. It should be apparent, however, that this cannot be a solitary act. As Walter Savage Landor has poetically observed:

"When we play the fool, how wide/ The theater expands! beside,

How long the audience sits before us!/ How many prompters! what a chorus!" (Plays, st. 2)

Seriously, there is but one thing I wish to say today, and that is that we are called to be "fools for Jesus' sake." I suspect, however, that such a claim needs to be explained. Nobody likes to be thought a fool. There is no fun in foolishness, unless we make the foolishness our own. We can only bear to be fools as we are willing to play the part.

Being a fool is indeed a very serious matter. According to Jesus, "if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire" [Matt. 5:22]. Strong words! Calling someone a fool, says Jesus, puts you in the company of the murderer who would take another's life. It is not the prerogative of humankind to exercise such condemnation. For to be a fool is, in the biblical view, to be in a very sorry state before God.

Jesus declares that every one who hears his words and does not do them is like the foolish man who built his house upon sand. His house will fall under the strain of the winds and the rain and the floods, and great will be the fall of it [Matt. 7:24-27]. In one of his parables of the kingdom, Jesus compares those who will be finally excluded from the festivities to the five foolish maidens. They had been ill-prepared [Matt. 25:1-12]. In yet another parable there is the man who plans to "eat, drink, and be merry" after he has stored the abundance of his harvest in bigger and better barns. We know that his very soul is in jeopardy when God addresses him, "You fool!" [Luke 12:20]

The word "fool" is not necessarily the worst epithet the scriptures contain. A fool may be merely simply and uninstructed, naive, ignorant, or stupid. Often, however, the fool is viewed as ill-natured, willfully perverse. It is in any case never a compliment to be called a fool. The way of foolishness is opposite to the way of wisdom. Those people who do not know God are "a foolish nation" [Deutr. 32:21]. Their false idols, according to the prophet Jeremiah, are "both stupid and foolish" [10:8]. But when God's own people are faithless, they are subject to a similar judgment, as Jeremiah declares: "For my people are foolish, they do not know me; . . . They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good" [4:22]. The prophet Isaiah, speaking of God's new and Holy Way, attests to a marvelous Providence when he says, "not even fools shall go astray" [35:8]. As Psalm 53 reminds us, it is fools who say in their hearts, "There is no God."

Folly, in this biblical context, is the rejecting of God's will--disobedience of the Law, even denial of God. Wisdom, the opposite of folly, has its beginning in reverence and awe before God. To be a fool is virtually to be apostate, or damned. The fool is an ungodly and an unrighteous one.

In light of this biblical background, how remarkable it is that the apostle Paul dared to call himself a fool! He writes the church at Corinth, asking them to bear with him in a little foolishness. He says, "let no one think that I am a fool; but if you do, then accept me as a fool." He says, "I am speaking as a fool." At an earlier time, but in a similar spirit, Paul had written to the Corinthians, "we are fools for the sake of Christ" [I Cor. 4:10]. When he finally finishes with what he has here to say, he confesses, "I have been a fool!" [II Cor. 12:11]

Our text is filled with sarcasm. Hence, it can easily be misunderstood. Paul is defending his apostleship, apparently against some outsiders who have come to Corinth. He is reproving the church for heeding the claims and teaching of these so-called superior apostles. But above all, Paul is offering the Corinthians a vivid demonstration of the height of folly.

In the book of Proverbs, there is a couplet on folly and wisdom that goes like this: "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes" [26:4-5]. Paul has taken up the second half of this couplet. His demonstration of folly is an answer to the folly of Corinth. "You insist on playing the fool? I'll show you how to play the fool!" His foolishness is a parody of their own. They think they are wise! They think they are already filled! They dare to boast! Paul can out-boast them all. And so he does--but by the time he has finished, we see that he has boasted of the things that he has suffered, and of the things, as he puts it, "that show my weakness" [11:30].

The height of folly, in the biblical view, is to be wise in one's own eyes. A proverb says, "Those who trust in their own wits are fools" [28:26]. Isaiah cautions, "Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!" [5:21] Wisdom teaches us this, that we are most ridiculous, most foolish, most laughable, when we think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think.

A number of years ago, during the tenure of a certain well-known Secretary of State, a popular story was making the rounds. It seems that an airplane was carrying three passengers--a Boy Scout, a bishop, and a brilliant statesman--when the pilot warned of an impending crash. "Unfortunately," reported the none-too-admirable pilot, "we have only three parachutes, and I must take one so that I can report the accident."

"And I must have one," responded the brilliant statesman decisively, "because I have a great contribution to make for humankind." He jumped out after the pilot.

"The bishop turned to the Scout. "My son," he said, "I've had a long and satisfying life. Yours lies ahead. Take the last parachute--and good luck!"

"Don't worry, Your Grace," said the Scout. "We've got two parachutes. The brilliant statesman just took my knapsack."

This, as the scriptures so eloquently warn, is the pride that goes before a fall! Jeremiah speaks for God: "Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am Yahweh"--their God [9:23-24].

It seems to me we need to learn more of light-hearted seriousness, or of serious folly. We need to be able to see the vein of humor in even the grimmest of our circumstances. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. That is much better than being laughed at. We need, paradoxically, to be able to glory in our folly.

There is a story about the fellow who was traveling through the countryside when he stopped in a small town grocery store, where he bought some pears. When he commented that they were pretty small, the storekeeper just said, "Yup." The fellow bought a few anyway and then decided to eat one right then and there. He took a bite, chewed for a couple of seconds and then said, "These sure haven't got much flavor."

"Yup," agreed the store owner, and then added, "Lucky they're small, ain't it?"

The sort of world we live in is one that demands just such a sense of humor if we are not to grow bitter or despair. It is such a dangerous, absurd, desperate, and ridiculous world that nothing less will do. It is a world in which the emergency evacuation plans prepared some years ago in Washington, D.C., called for people with odd-numbered license plates to wait patiently, in the event of nuclear attack, until all the people with even-numbered license plates had left. It is the sort of crazy place in which the U.S. Supreme Court, having previously called a halt to the re-counting of the votes, can call a national election because there is no longer time to re-count the votes. It's the sort of world in which people argue whether it's guns that kill people or people who kill people, when we all know that it's people with guns who kill people. We live in a society that tells us to work harder so that we can make more money so we can buy more things so we will not have to work so hard. Absurdity has become institutionalized. The ridiculous passes as the sublime. What is truly folly often now passes as the wisdom of the world.

Occasionally, as my examples may suggest, the wisdom of the world exposes itself for the folly that it really is. Those of us who are old enough will long remember that memorable line that came out of one of the battles of the Vietnam War: "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." There may be no better commentary on the folly of our times. Most of the time, however, the folly of our worldly wisdom is obscured, available to us only in hindsight if at all. Our world is seldom able to recognize the folly of its wisdom, the poverty of its riches, and the impotence of its power. We are all in some measure party to this charade. Only a young lad who does not yet know any better is able to discern that the emperor has no clothes.

The great theologian Paul Tillich once wrote: "The greatest wisdom is needed where it is most painful to accept our finitude--in our failures, errors, and the guilt acquired by our foolishness" [THE ETERNAL NOW, 171]. In light of our text we may add that the greatest foolishness is also needed here. Paul wrote, "If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" [I Cor. 3:18-19]. In a world where folly passes as wisdom, it is wisdom to play the fool. So let us not take ourselves too seriously. Let us learn to laugh at ourselves. If we must boast, let us boast of our weakness. If we must glory, let us glory in our folly. If we must be fools, let us be fools for the sake of Jesus the Christ!

If ever there was an April fool! He who came as a Galilean peasant. He who had no wealth as the world counts wealth, no power as the world measures power. He who had no degrees, earned or honorary, no weapons but his words, no defenses but the truth. From the beginning Christians have had to decide: Is the cross of Jesus the ultimate folly, or does it somehow reveal the ultimate wisdom and knowledge and power of God's love? Was Jesus just another April fool? Or was he God's fool?

It is a serious matter, to be a fool for Jesus' sake. Sometimes it seems that no one in his or her right mind would choose it. We do not readily choose to be vulnerable, to make sacrifices, to stick out our necks, to suffer wrongs. There are no arguments I know of that can persuade a person to take the part of a fool. Only the testimony of those who have, and in so doing have found a deeper wisdom than the wisdom of the world, and a greater power.

Church historian Bill Leonard says, "There is, after all, something foolishly exciting about proclaiming hope where there is no hope; about discovering love in a world so full of hate; about calling for peace in a world filled with armaments and war; about demanding self-denial in a society obsessed with materialism and success. For suppose that Paul is right and God really has chosen the weak things to confound the wise" [WORD OF GOD ACROSS THE AGES, 17].

Paul himself was obviously persuaded. He pointed to where the wisdom of the world reached the height of its folly, and the folly of God revealed the depth of its wisdom and power--the Cross of Jesus the Christ. Could this be the truest wisdom and the superior power?--to profess our weakness, to accept our foolishness, and to reckon individually and together with the word God spoke on the cross. AMEN.

Copyright 2001 by Byron C. Bangert