1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Whether you find yourself jumping at the site of a spider or working up a sweat at the mere thought of boarding an airplane, fears and phobias seem to plague just about every one of us, often in very debilitating ways.  If I were to ask you to name some of your personal fears, you might list the fear of death, or the fear of snakes, or the fear of heights, or the fear of clowns, otherwise known as coulrophobia.  Perhaps you would list the particular condition called luposlipaphobia, which is the bizarre fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a freshly waxed floor.  If you have that fear, you can keep that to yourself.

I was recently surprised to learn that there is an actual fear called homilophobia.  It is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and is apparently most often experienced by people on Sunday mornings.  Homilophobia is the fear of listening to sermons, and if you have that fear, I have only one thing to say: Get over it.

The number one fear reported by people in the U.S. might surprise you.  It’s more prevalent than the fear of spiders or snakes or even the fear of death.  It’s the fear of public speaking.  Glossophobia: the fear of giving a speech or presentation before a crowd of people.  One socio-biologist suggests that it’s the most primal of all human fears, having its origins in the history of early man, when our ancestors walked the vast, open stage of the savannah while being watched by an audience of hungry lions.  The theory suggests that it’s in our nature to fear that, when we are being watched, we might actually be eaten alive by whatever it is that’s watching us – so the instinct is to avoid the stage in order to save ourselves.

Perhaps you have spoken before a den of lions and you can relate.  The Apostle Paul certainly could.  One day Paul had the opportunity to preach in the beautiful city of Athens, Greece – the cultural capital of the world – and his audience, according to the scriptural report, ate him alive.  The city of Athens was a monument to the wisdom and intellectual achievement of humankind.  All the sculpture, the art and architecture; all the philosophy, and music, and poetry – there was nowhere on earth that could match the human achievements of Athens.

And Paul went to Athens to preach.  He stood on a hill before a large audience, and he preached about Jesus, about the crucified Christ on a cross – the most noble of all men, the Son of God, who came, and taught, and healed, and drew a substantial crowd of followers, and then, at the height of his popularity and success, just when he had everything going for him, died brutally by the most disgraceful means of public execution: the cross.

I can imagine listening to the Apostle Paul preaching that sermon in front of all those well-educated, highly sophisticated intellectuals, talking about the extraordinary power of God on display in this suffering, merciful servant named Jesus of Nazareth; and I can hear their laughter and sneers, as if Paul were some kind of fool.  You’ve got to be out of your mind, they said to Paul.  What kind of god would surrender himself willingly to ridicule, to suffering and weakness and death?  What kind of god could not think of a better way to demonstrate his divinity than by meekly laying down his life for his people?  It was the most absurd message they had ever heard.  They called him “a babbler of strange ideas.”

And so he left there, and by the time he arrived in Corinth he was crushed.  The sermon had been a failure.  And when he arrived in Corinth, he found that the Christian leaders there were all competing with one another for credibility and power and followers.  Each of them was boasting about their credentials and their pedigrees, about their wisdom and intelligence.  In other words, the Corinthian church was being torn apart by various leaders driven by their lust for power and influence and, ultimately, superiority in the community.

And so Paul’s sermon to them, based on his flop in Athens and what he now sees among them, is this: “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:18, 25).  This is how God brings salvation to the world: through the very things that the world finds weak and foolish.

And I think Paul was right.  The more I think about the majority of the world’s biggest problems, I am convinced that such problems are not a consequence of our lack of human intellect.  In every corner of the world, intelligent people abound.  In our generation alone, we have sent hundreds of astronauts into deep space, walked the quiet surface of the moon, and gone on countless treasure hunts on Mars.  In mapping the Human Genome, we have traced the root causes of deadly diseases, discovered alternative energy resources, and cloned more than a few animals on Old McDonald’s farm.  Even computer engineers from IBM have fashioned a Jeopardy champion named Watson, which can process information and the complex nuances of human language faster than Alex Trebek can say, “Potent Potables.”

We are not lacking for very smart people in this world.  We have explored the furthest galaxies and charted the landscapes of the smallest atoms, cells, and terrabytes, but even the brightest minds have yet to comprehend the incomparable complexity of the human soul.  Here, where our true nature resides, is where the deepest mysteries of life, and the solutions to a great many of our world’s problems, remain undiscovered.

What we lack is not intelligence, but imagination.  When a student drops out of high school before he graduates, it’s not that he is unintelligent – it’s that they cannot imagine life any other way than the life they already have.  15% of American families are what we call “food insecure” – that is, they do not have enough food or the resources to get food.  It’s an entirely solvable problem in this country.  It’s not that we are not smart enough to solve the problem.  The problem is one of imagination.

“The foolishness of God,” says the Apostle Paul, “is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Cor. 1:18, 25).  Paul’s inspiration for these words was the crucified Christ hanging on the cross, an image of self-giving love and voluntary weakness that was repulsive and intellectually absurd to most of his audience.  For them, the only Christ worthy of being followed was a Christ that promised upward mobility, greater respect, and a position of influence and power in the community.  But Paul understood that it’s this chronic and insatiable obsession with power that lies at the heart of most of our world’s problems.  We simply cannot imagine our lives apart from our own personal needs – our wealth, our independence, our status and position, our freedom to do whatever we want to do, even when it undermines the common good.

But Paul reminds us that there is an alternative.  “The power of God,” says Paul, “is the cross.”  And the cross is a symbol of God’s imaginative alternative to do things differently.  It imagines that whenever someone freely chooses to give of oneself, or to surrender their selfish claims to power over another, or to stand in the place of others who cannot stand up for themselves, there is a kind of transforming power unleashed upon the world that is unlike any other.

This, he says, is what has happened to us, for us.  This is our only salvation, and the only cure to our world’s problems.

And so Paul says that we are to pick up that same cross and carry it, giving generously of our lives when everyone else seems to be clinging to what they have; surrendering our claims to power in order to stand with the powerless; when we are cursed, to bless; when we are wronged, to endure it; when we are slandered, to answer kindly.  And if the world calls you a fool, then be a fool for Christ, being absolutely convinced that when you do these things, there is a kind of transforming power unleashed upon the world that is unlike any other.

The writer, Frederick Buechner, was studying the long history of a small church in New England.  He as looking through some old notes and journals when he came across the story of an old man named Lyman Woodard.  In 1831, after a new steeple had been constructed above the little church, Lyman Woodard was so overcome with joy and lightheartedness that he crawled up into the belfry and, against all New England practicality and prudence, decided to stand on his head.  He just stood right there on his head, with his feet pointing straight toward heaven, while the entire congregation looked on in laughter from below.  One hundred and eighty years later, that church still remembers Lyman Woodard, whom they called the clown in the belfry. Buechner wrote, “I love him for doing what he did.  It was a crazy thing to do.  It was a risky thing to do.  It was also a magical and magnificent and Mozartian thing to do.”

What the world needs is more people who can stand on their heads and see, imagine, the world differently – like Lyman Woodard, like Paul, who said that to the world it looks like foolishness, but to God it is the power that saves.

I have said many times that one person with courage constitutes a majority.  Today, I want to remind you that one person with Christian imagination constitutes a movement, and when they gather together to do good work in the world, we have a peculiar name for that.  We call it “church.”