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Blessed Foolishness

(a sermon for February 2, 2020, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

I strongly suspect that within each one of us there exists a desire to be thought of as… wise. That is to say, as one who is considered by others to be intelligent and knowledgeable about things; as someone who’s mature and discerning and filled with all manner of insight.

And on the face of it, there’s certainly nothing wrong that that (!); after all, as it says in the book of Proverbs, it is “the LORD [who] gives wisdom, [and it is] from his mouth [that comes] knowledge and understanding.” (6:2) So to want to be thought of as wise would seem to be a laudable pursuit in life. However, that said, it should be added that one must take care in this endeavor; for wisdom, like beauty, is very often in the eye of the beholder.

I remember once toward the end of my first year of seminary, I happened to be in attendance at a student and faculty reception; a “meet and greet” with the graduation speaker that year.  And as is more or less required in an event like that, together with a couple other of my classmates, I was making my way toward my Old Testament and Hebrew professor – Dr. Stephen Szikszai – to say hello and to meet our seminary’s guest.  Now, to be honest, I was never particularly comfortable in a setting such as that, so my hope was to get in and out of there as quickly and smoothly as possible.  But Dr. Szikszai, God rest his soul, would have none of that; he greeted me from halfway across the room with the same rich and booming Hungarian voice that students at Bangor had long both respected and feared: “Ah!  Here ist vun of my Hebrew scholars now – Meester Lowry!”

Even all these years later, I cannot begin to describe to you how that hit me: he called me Hebrew Scholar!  Michael Lowry: seminarian, pastor, and… Hebrew Scholar!  I’ve got to tell you, that sounded pretty good!  I remember to this day what an immediate ego boost that was.  I mean, I’d had no idea that Dr. Szikszai thought of me that way; I was a pretty good student, I guess, but a Hebrew scholar?  Hey, this was great!  Of course, the thing about a comment like that is that you don’t want to be all puffed up about it – you at least want to appear humble – so I just said, “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that…” In retrospect, I guess my feeble attempt at humility didn’t really come through, because to this Dr. Szikszai replied, “Dun’t get carried away, Meester Lowry.  Being a scholar does not make you smart!”

Alas, it as a glory short-lived, but oh, so sweet!

Now, I’m not sure if Dr. Szikszai intended for that to be a “teachable moment,” but nonetheless in that rather humbling experience there was a profound lesson to be learned; and not simply that generally speaking, “we’re not as smart as we might think we are!” It’s also that true wisdom is a relative thing, and in many ways might actually have to do with more than one’s course load and academic standing!  The seeds of wisdom might well be nurtured through the proper accumulation of knowledge, perception, intuition and decisiveness; but its harvest comes in knowing how it’s to be used and when!  As one of my seminary classmates said to me at the time, presumably to offer me some small amount of comfort in the face of that minor humiliation, “Don’t worry… it’s not that you’re smart that counts; it’s how you’re smart!”

Oh, well; lesson learned!  What’s interesting about all of this, though, is that the world in which we live actually has some very clear definitions as to what constitutes intelligence and wisdom, and so often it’s equated with other matters of life and living: things like guts, and courage. and the survival of the fittest; the ability to come out on top in a “dog eat dog” world, where might makes right and nice guys finish last. In the words of Scott Hoezee, of Calvin Seminary in Michigan, “This is the way the world works, true enough.  And if you are scrappy and brave and are willing to claw your way to the top of the ladder – no matter how many little people you have to step over along the way – you can and you will achieve success as defined by the wisdom of the age and the savvy of the most intelligent among us.  This is very simply how to get things done” in this world and in this life.

In this world, perhaps; but in what is the good news of our text for this morning, it’s is most decidedly not the case with God… for ours in the God who has “made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

You know, one of the things that has always moved me about this particular epistle, Paul’s first to the Church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth, is that it is in fact addressed to a people who were at once diverse and deeply divided as a Christian community.  The truth is that these Corinthians spent as much time bickering with one another as they did on matters of spirituality, and the irony was that what they bickered over the most was over who was the most spiritual!  Never mind that they were each and all “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of [the] Lord Jesus Christ,” who Paul refers to as “both their Lord and ours;” it’s that they have these factions within the Church of Corinth had these very different ideas about what that all meant.  And since they were given to a whole lot of one-upmanship and a great deal of pretention, a whole lot of this pretty much came down to who, as regards life and faith, could be counted wise – that is to say, the wisest – amongst them!

So into this debate comes Paul, reminding the Corinthians and us that the true meaning and understanding of our Christian faith will never be discerned through human thought and wisdom precisely because “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom;” and that divine foolishness “destroy[s] the wisdom of the wise” and thwarts the discernment of the discerning; to quote Scott Hoezee once again, proclaiming these “mysteries of God that all coalesce around the cross of Jesus Christ,” this message that  “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved… is the power of God.”  

The ways of worldly wisdom have to do with logic and correctness and power; but that’s not how it is with God nor is it the way of salvation.  No, writes Hoezee, “here God upends it all.  We are not saved by power but by weakness.  We are not saved by worldly wisdom but by apparent folly.”  It’s the whole world – and everything we ever thought we understood about it – being turned upside down and inside out; and it all happening because of the cross, “the ignominious, shameful, accursed death of God’s own Son that the shining effulgence of all this counter-wisdom burst forth… the darkest moment in human history that led to the light… the death that led to life.”  The cross shows us the wisdom of God like nothing else ever could; but along with that, there’s something else: in the process we learn to live with the kind of wisdom that comes in a life of faith.

Speaking of my seminary days, I’m reminded here of a class in which one of my fellow seminarians was asked to present a paper about his own personal journey of faith – in other words, to tell the story of how he came to a belief in Christ and a sense of being called to the Christian ministry — but as soon became very evident, this man’s paper was an attempt to prove God’s existence through a series of interconnected mathematical proofs!   Now, you need to understand that this particular classmate had come to seminary after having already had a career as a mathematician and college professor.  I can also tell you that his hypothesis about God was clearly brilliant; and we knew this because he went on for over 15 minutes, and not a one of us understood a single word he said! But here’s what I remember: when he was finally done, the professor (who was very kind indeed) asked the student, “And what conclusion did you reach from this?”  And, after a long and painfully uncomfortable silence, all this student could do was shrug his shoulders, grin a sheepish grin and say, “I don’t know!” 

You see, try as we might, our human wisdom, however extensive or accumulated, can neither define nor direct our knowledge and understanding of God; neither can it ultimately serve to formulate the priorities and doctrines of a life grounded in faith!  In fact, it’s just the opposite:  true faith means living out of that place between our human wisdom and God’s blessed foolishness, this foolishness which “is wiser than human wisdom;”this overarching awareness that our strength and our hope, our joy and our peace, all that which is good and blessed about our lives, and indeed life itself comes to us “in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

It’s this blessed foolishness that as Paul says (himself quoting from the eloquent words of the prophet in Isaiah 29:14) “destroy[s] the wisdom of the wise” and thwarts “the discernment of the discerning.”  And it is what makes us who we are as believers and, might I add, as the church of Jesus Christ… and if you don’t believe that, “consider your own call, brothers and sisters.”

Actually, there’s a little bit of, shall we say, a comeuppance in Paul’s words that were not entirely unlike that which I received from Dr. Szikszai! Remember, these Corinthian Christians prided themselves on the depth and superiority of their own wisdom as regards matters of spirituality and faith; and yet, Paul is very quick here to poke a hole in their inflated egos: “Consider your own call,” he says.  “…not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong.”  Or, if I can use the version that’s set for in The Message, “Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose those ‘nobodies’ to  expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies?’”  God chose what is low and despised in the world so that “none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God.”  (Don’t you love that?  I can hear the Corinthians now: “Well, thanks a lot, Paul… I guess…”)  But that’s the nature of God’s blessed foolishness: that it’s those who in the view of society are foolish, weak and low who come to know the true wisdom of God; and through whom God’s reign is established!

In Christ, you see, true wisdom is always going to be imbued with a sense of humility and lowliness that will set you apart from the rest of the world every time.   It will indeed, at times, lead you to be reviled, and persecuted and looked upon by the world as weak and foolish; and if you’ve ever had occasion where you’ve stood firm and opposed to others on some issue because of faith, then you may well know what I’m talking about.  And yet, if you look around at any real change that happens in this world, the kind of loving action that transforms human life and moves society a bit closer to the kingdom of God, that’s where you’re going to find someone who was willing to foolishly divest themselves of the kind of kind of power and prestige borne of human wisdom.  That’s the place where, as in the utter foolishness borne of the cross, you will see great wisdom, true sacrifice, and a world being saved.  Jacques Ellul actually says this very well when he writes that “in the world everyone wants to be a wolf, and no one is called to pay the part of the sheep.  Yet the world cannot live without this living witness of sacrifice.”  It is the mandate of true wisdom, writes Ellul, that “Christians must offer the daily sacrifice of their lives, which is united with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

And as I said before, it is such sacrifice – the stuff of holy and divine blessed foolishness – that makes us who we are as Christians, you and me; and not only that, it’s what calls us forth as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

May it truly be said of each one of us, beloved, that today and every day, in everything we did, we willingly and joyfully embraced that foolishness, all for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom and through whom comes all of our wisdom.

Thanks be to God. 


© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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With Ears Tuned to Wisdom

PraiseGod(a sermon for September 21, 2014, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Proverbs 2:1-11)

It was Helen Keller who said it:  “I have walked with people whose ears are full of sound but who hear nothing: neither the run of birdsong, nor the breaking of waves, nor the noise of city streets, nor the quiet pounding of the heart.  It were far better,” she continued, “to sail forever in the night of deafness with sense, and feeling, and mind, than to be content with the mere act of hearing.  The only soundless dark is the night of darkness in ignorance and insensibility.”

That’s a powerful statement, don’t you think?  Call it “non-selective hearing,” the sort of impairment that you might find in those who “hear it all,” yet are unable or unwilling to be discerning about the importance and value of what they hear; people who hear everything at once but listen to nothing at all.  They always seem to be moving from one noise to the next, these people: never, ever pausing to focus their attention on the one sound that might matter or make a difference in their lives; rather, to paraphrase Shakespeare, they waste their time and energy on “sound and fury which signifies nothing.”  That’s who Helen Keller was talking about when she spoke of those who have “ears full of sound but who hear nothing.”

Actually, a great analogy for this would be the experience of walking along the midway at any one of the state or county fairs we have here in New Hampshire.  Now, if you’ve ever “been to Fair,” as we say “up in the County,” then you know that the fair is a lot of things, but mostly what it is is noisy!  Walk down the midway, and you’ll hear just about every kind of sound imaginable: first of all, there’s every kind of music you can think of playing all around you; there’s the mechanical clanking of the rides, which itself is nearly drowned out by the screams of riders as they fly through the air above you; and then of course, you’ve got all the bells, buzzers and sirens of carnival games (not to mention the incessant calls of the carnival barkers who would cheerfully impugn your character all for the sake of having you slap down another dollar to try and win that stuffed animal!).  There’s laughter and conversation, kids calling out to one another; these days you’ve got the ubiquitous beeps and buzzes of cell phones; and, lest we forget, underneath it all is the constant sizzle of hot grease deep-frying dough boys and onion rings!

It’s next to impossible to be a non-participant at the fair, because the whole time you’re there there’s a barrage of sound coming from every direction; all these noises calling for your attention and demanding your patronage.  And yet, for all the noise, ultimately it’s really hard to hear anything at all!  I remember a few years back when we were still in Maine, Lisa and I were at the Fryeburg Fair and we’re walking down the midway amidst all this chaos of sound when suddenly I’m aware of an announcement coming from the loudspeaker.  “If there is a Joe or Mary Reynolds on the fairgrounds,” a voice intoned, “please come to the registration booth.”  Now, understand that you could barely make out what was being said, it was all so noisy, but there it was; and honestly, I wouldn’t have thought much about it, except that a few minutes later the announcement came again, this time slightly revised:  “If there is a Joe or Mary Reynolds on the fairgrounds, please come to the registration booth: we have your little boy with us who got lost!”

I remember looking around and realizing that there were hundreds of people milling around who hadn’t heard or cared about that announcement; but somewhere in the crowd, there were two frantic parents for whom that one voice over the loudspeaker, this one solitary voice amidst the cacophony of the fair meant everything in the world.  I could only hope that they were listening; that their ears were tuned to what was being said to them at that moment.

It’s actually kind of a microcosm of life – and also of faith (!) – in that amidst the noise of daily life, there are sounds and voices that carry great value and importance for us:  words of conscience and virtue; the convicted speech that arises from personal morality and an ethical stance; the simple voice of compassion, justice and basic human decency toward all.  Friends, this is the sound of wisdom, and within it the voice of God. But the thing is that in order for that voice to get through to us in the clamor of all the noise that barrages us in this life, we’ve got to be listening for it: we need, as the author of Proverbs puts it, to be “making [our] ear attentive to wisdom and inclining [our] heart to understanding;”  or as The Message aptly translates it, to “tune [our] ears to the World of Wisdom,” and to set our hearts to a “life of Understanding.”

To understand the Book of Proverbs, it’s helpful for us to remember that the people of the Old Testament were a diverse and often factious people, particularly in terms of religion; but there was one commonality of “faith” wherever you went, and that was in the important place of wisdom in one’s life.  It was wholly understood on just about every level of society that with true wisdom comes not only knowledge and well-being, but also power; and yes, power in terms of military strength, wealth, and even eternity.   And central to the faith of Israel was also this clear understanding that true wisdom has its source in God and God alone.

In fact, the Hebrew understanding was that God is wisdom, and that’s the conviction that lies at the heart of our text for this morning.  We’re told in these verses from the second chapter that if our ears and hearts are truly attuned to wisdom – if we’re seeking it “like silver and search[ing] for it as for hidden treasures” – then we will know and understand “the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”  This God who gives wisdom and who is wisdom “is a shield to those who walk blamelessly;” he preserves “the way of his faithful ones,” and sets before us “every good path,”  helping us to understand what’s good, what’s fair and what’s right; and also how to live that way, because in scripture, you see, wisdom is inextricably bound to action; to put it another way, to be wise is not simply to think good thoughts; it is also, and primarily, to actually live by them.

So, given that true wisdom has its source in God, what we have in the Book of Proverbs is, in fact, a collection of “Godly” wisdom: bits of knowledge and understanding that is set forth to make all of life – both the good and the bad of it – something to be cherished, celebrated and lived with joy and purpose.   But it’s wisdom that needs to be heard and received if it is to have any value: it can only be heard and received if we truly listen for it with attentive, open ears and a whole heart.

And that’s the challenge, isn’t it?  Because it’s noisy world out there, friends; and quite honestly, most of us are all-too easily distracted from what we ought to be hearing!

Pastor and writer Gary Sims, in a commentary on this particular passage, asks if in fact we even listen for the voice of wisdom as we go about our day to day lives.  “Does Wisdom cry out to you in the avenues and byways of your life?” he asks. “Can you hear the Holy Spirit calling to you through all din of competing noises?  Or does the television blare its ‘buy-me messages’ incessantly in your home? Is your car radio constantly pounding out a diatribe of news, opinions, and secular music? Are you surrounded with the clamor of conversation and dialogue?”  In order to discern the Holy Spirit’s guidance through all the noises of life, he concludes, it is of crucial importance “to schedule quiet time in your life so that you are able to hear God’s wisdom and guidance.”

That’s good advice, there; it’s difficult, however, because the truth is that we’ve become so accustomed to all this noise around us that we’re uncomfortable when it’s not there!  Even in worship, where the idea is precisely to be “away” from the world and in the quiet with God, it can be difficult: a number of years ago I was invited to take part in a service of worship in the Quaker tradition – a “Quaker’s Meeting,” as it were – and you know the old children’s rhyme “Quaker’s Meeting has begun, no more laughing, no more fun?”  Well, with all due respect to the Society of Friends, that pretty much describes the worship experience!

A Quaker service happens almost entirely in silence: only for a couple of prayers at the beginning and the end, a scripture reading or two, or when one feels strongly moved by the Holy Spirit does anyone – and usually not a pastor, by the way – speak aloud about anything!  So I’m in the seminary chapel for this Quaker service, and for 50 minutes, we all sat in absolute silence on very hard pews; and friends, just let me way it weren’t easy!

Understand, to not “have” to speak was OK; but I wanted to listen: to scripture being explored, to preaching, to music of faith; but all there was in this service is what scripture refers to as this “crushing, enveloping silence,” only broken by the occasional cough and creek of the floor boards below us.  At first, it felt awkward and empty and honestly, quite meaningless:  until I realized that the whole point of this silence was to get me out of the noise outside of me long enough to listen to the spirit’s voice inside.  And that’s when I started to really pay attention; to begin to truly make my ears attentive to true wisdom, and to open my heart for an understanding of God’s will and purpose for my own life.

And the truth is, friends?  I could never be a Quaker!  I love the music and the joy and the celebration that goes with our Christian worship way too much for that; but I’ll tell you this: I know there are times in my life, as I know there are in yours, when silence is the place where we get a true sense of our Lord’s voice of wisdom.

The point is that we need to listen… really listen.  To tune our ears and our hearts to what the loving and living God, in mercy and with love, has to say to us; to quiet ourselves both in times of work and of worship, and to truly cry out for the insight that we need for the way; for truly, the wisdom that will come into our hearts for the effort, and the knowledge we will receive will truly “be pleasant to [our] soul.” 

The truth, you know, is that however busy and attractive the noise on life’s midway can be, ultimately it’s fleeting in nature and the carnival will inevitably move on.  That’s the problem with the world’s noise; once you’ve heard it, it’s already gone and immediately you’re listening for the next thing, only to find that fades away as well.  But the voice of God, that never fades.  It remains; and the glory of this is that even now, even right here in this sanctuary, God is still speaking: slowly, steadily, deliberately and clearly, so that you and I will hear; so that with our ears tuned to wisdom, we might get what we need to hear for the facing of this hour and the living of these days.

Thanks be to God!


c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on September 21, 2014 in Life, Old Testament, Scripture, Sermon


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