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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. 

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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A Long Life Lived Full and Well

Proverbs(a sermon for September 28, 2014, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Proverbs 3:1-12, 21-35)

Like most parents of young children, I suppose, when our kids were in school Lisa and I did our share of volunteering.  Actually, to be honest, Lisa did far more of that than I did; I always kind of felt that since in everything they ever did at church their Dad was constantly underfoot, they didn’t need me around all the time at school!  That said, however, I did my time: I did career day (which was always interesting!); I brought my guitar into a whole lot of classrooms and once, thanks to a small piece of political rabble-rousing on the part of my wife, I even got to join a local rabbi to do a middle school program on the meaning of Christmas and Hanukkah!

There was one thing, however, that I steadfastly refused to do; and that’s when my oldest son Jake was playing Little League and I was approached about being an umpire!  First of all, I will be the first to admit that though I love baseball, particularly when it’s played by kids, I definitely do not have the skill-set be an umpire; but aside from that, and more to the point, I would have been the world’s worst umpire because I would be way too soft on those kids!  “Strike three?  Oh, that’s alright, honey, you go ahead and take another swing!”  “Four strikes?  I think it’s time for a do-over!”  “Out?  Oh, I don’t think so… he tried so hard, and look, he’s upset now!  Why don’t we just go with ‘safe’ this once, and next time, it’ll be an ‘out,’ I promise!”

Put me behind home plate, and that’d be how it would go, I know it!  And I also know that not only would this most certainly raise the ire of the coaches, the parents and at least some of the players, but also that by taking that kind of an attitude, those kids would never learn the fundamentals of the game, they’d never come to understand sportsmanship and how to be a good loser, and ultimately they would be deprived of the joy and satisfaction that comes in playing the game!  You see, it’s one thing to enjoy reaping the rewards of what you do; but the thing is, those rewards almost always come at the cost of hard work and of discipline.  You’re going to strike out as many times as you get a hit – usually a lot more (!) – but that’s just the way the game of baseball is played, and especially when you’re a kid in Little League, that’s how you learn!  And that’s not only true for baseball, football or any other sport or activity you can name, that’s also true when it comes to life itself.

Well, this morning we return to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: which, as we’ve said before, is a collection of Godly Wisdom attributed to King Solomon but truly speaking with the voice of God. And as illustrated by our text today, it also takes on something of a parental tone; that is, this admonition to a life of wisdom is spoken in much the same way that a father or mother would speak to their children.  “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let you heart keep my commandments… do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you… trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”  Indeed, in this passage, and throughout Proverbs, there’s this strong sense that “these lessons that I’m teaching you are important; so you’d better be listening and pay attention!”  Because if you do, says this parent to his child – if you heed God’s wisdom and “in all your ways acknowledge him” – the rewards will be great.

And he’s not kidding – did you hear those rewards as Lisa read them a few moments ago?  A long and prosperous life… “favor and good repute” with God and with other people… a straight and smooth pathway through life… “healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body…”  and, of course (and I love this verse), “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”  Health, wealth, a life lived with ease… it all can be yours if only you will “trust in the LORD with all your heart… [and] honor the LORD with your substance.”

Easy, right?  Talk about your “prosperity gospel!”  I mean, why would anyone choose foolishness over wisdom if this is what you get from a life of wisdom?  And yet… I find it very interesting that at the end of this long list of blessing that are the rewards of wisdom and faith, suddenly and quite abruptly this parent says this to his child (and for this, I want to go to The Message translation):  “But don’t… resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under his loving correction.  It’s the child he loves that God corrects; a father’s delight is behind all this.”

Perhaps all these rewards are not as easily won as it appears… perhaps this business of trusting God in all things is not an automatic, but requires earnest and continuing effort on our parts.  Maybe a life of wisdom – Godly wisdom, most especially – requires more than just hearing, but also doing; it needs for us to be moved, and shaped, and influenced by a loving, nurturing God.

That’s significant, friends; in fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the teaching of the whole Book of Proverbs in a nutshell.  C. S. Lewis, in a book entitled The Abolition of Man, was writing about the difference between “ancient wisdom” and what passes for wisdom in our own time.  “For the wise [ones] of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.”  Today, Lewis went on, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”  To put this another way, so much of what we refer to today as “self-help” comes down to the effort of trying to change the world around us, so that it will fit into what our souls want or what we think they need.  And that’s fine to a point; but we all know that only goes far because the world and its culture does not shift in a way that’s going to leave us healthy, wealthy and well-rested!  What we have in Proverbs, however, is different: these aren’t teachings of how we’re to change the world out there; it’s all about changing what’s in here; changing us so that our souls, our Godly lives match the reality around us.

That’s the challenge, friends; to incorporate these new habits into our lives and living so that, over time, we do become wise and live, as The Message puts it, “a long life lived full and well.”  But that’s where the discipline of it comes in as well.  By the way, important to note that when the Bible speaks here of “the LORD’s discipline,” we’re not talking about punishment; this is not to be thought of God’s penalty for bad behavior.  Rather, the original Hebrew of this word “discipline” actually translates as “pain for the person,” or “pain for their sake.”  In other words, it’s adversity, and it’s difficult and sometimes it hurts but it’s there for our growing; it’s there to teach us wisdom.

I mean, ultimately, that’s the thing about being a parent, isn’t it?  No mother or father wants their child to suffer; you never want to see them go through any of horrible stuff that can happen in life, and you certainly don’t want them to start crying or get mad at you!   But then there comes a point, maybe during the “terrible twos,” or during the dreaded teenage years, when you think, “Fine.  Let ‘em be mad!  This is how they’ll learn!” And does there not also often come a time in every parent’s life when you know that your son or your daughter has to go through what they’re going through if they are going to learn and grow and become the mature and fulfilled adult you know they were always meant to be?

I think that most of us know this intrinsically, but it’s sometimes hard to accept as a reality:  love is not always about saying yes, any more than learning to play baseball is about never being allowed to strike out.   Love given and taught is actually rarely about choosing or accepting the easier pathway; and it’s certainly not about blessing without accountability.  And that’s why as wonderful and as beautiful as it is for any of us to say, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” the reality of trying to actually incorporate that into our lives can be difficult; and why, as we stumble along in the learning process, we might face some adversity and suffering along the way.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop:  you know that famous comic book edict that “with great power comes great responsibility?” (Extra points if you know where that comes from!)  Well, in this instance, we can say that with great wisdom also comes great responsibility; but also, if we stay with it – if we don’t lose sight of what God has to teach us and not “let loyalty and faithfulness forsake [us],” then with great wisdom will also come those great rewards.

So does this translate to everyday life?  Well, that’s part and parcel of 31 chapters of Proverbs, and we heard a small part of it today:  to “never walk away from someone who deserves help;” to not be trying to take advantage of someone when they’ve trusted you; to never “walk around with a chip on your shoulder, always spoiling for a fight.”  And never… ever be a bully, “because GOD can’t stand twisted souls.”  And it goes on and on from there; truly – and didn’t you love this verse (!) – “wise living gets reward with honor; stupid living gets the booby prize.”

It’s not easy; but then, I don’t think that Solomon (or God) ever thought that it would be.  The fact is, and I count myself among those of whom I’m speaking here, most of us are more adept that foolishness than wisdom; far better at leaning on our own understandings of things than to rely on God!   But the good news is that with each new day there is also a new opportunity to act and to live with wisdom; and that in that effort, we are never alone, but in the company and with the loving encouragement of our loving parent who is our God!  For you see, not only do we need this path to wisdom to gain the rewards of a long life lived full and well, we also need someone to walk that pathway with us.  We need a God who will guide us; who will correct us along the way; and who will hold us accountable when we insist on going our own way despite all of his best efforts!  We need a God of justice and of mercy; who will discipline for the sake of our growth, but who will never, ever write us off when we fail in the attempt.

That alone is more than enough to keep us true along the journey that awaits us in this life.

So for the great wisdom he shares with us and the infinite love he gives to us…

…let our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
 

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