“Foolishness and Wisdom: An Alternative Vision”
by the Reverend Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 29, 2017
I Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12
Before I begin the sermon, I want you to know that I love and respect each one of you, whether we are on the same page politically or not. That’s most important. I love you and I respect you. I hope I have shown that. I also want you to know that I not going to say anything particularly shocking today, so you can relax about that. And if I do say something that you disagree with, or if I don’t go as far as you think I should, I hope you will contact me and that we can sit down and talk it out and learn from each other. Anyway…
Was it wise or foolish for the US to invade Iraq in 2003? Was it wise or foolish to provide health care for millions of people who didn’t have it, despite the serious rifts it caused in Washington and around the country? Was it wise or foolish for our country to detain, and in some cases, send home Muslim folks who were legally entering our country yesterday?
Is it wise or foolish for me to talk about politics from the pulpit when I know there are some of you who may be offended or stop listening to the sermon or if I do? Is it a wise career move or a foolish career move? Is it spiritually wise or foolish?
It all depends on how we define wisdom and foolishness.
When I was eighteen years old, I got on an Amtrak train in Penn Station in Manhattan and headed out to Laramie, Wyoming, for my freshman year of college. All I had was my dad’s army duffel bag and a half-baked plan to run away from my calling to the ministry and study to become a park ranger. My parents and many of my friends – those who knew me best — thought I was being foolish.
In the end, though, that year away from my privileged upbringing in Connecticut and the forests and coastlines of New England gave me a new perspective on our country and on my life’s direction.
That seemingly foolish decision to study at the University of Wyoming, befriend the sons of miners and the daughters of ranchers, and hike and cross county ski in the Rockies (when I should have been writing papers and preparing for exams), was something that helped form me and spurred me to grow in wisdom.
What foolish decisions have you made that wound up teaching you more than you imagined? And what seemingly wise decisions have you made that have caused you much pain and resentment?
In one of my previous churches, I had a parishioner who was a brilliant lawyer. He was well respected in our community and had at least two beautiful homes. Secretly, though, he was miserable. His marriage was healthy. He had a very loving and close relationship with his kids. He was deeply involved in our church. But he was miserable.
He hated being a lawyer. With each passing year, he detested it more and more, but he felt trapped in his lifestyle and caged in by his reputation as a man with a perfect life. His wife and I were the only ones who knew the truth.
I wish I could say that he quit the law to run a non-profit (which was his dream), but he didn’t. The last I heard, he was still silently suffering as a lawyer and making gobs of money.
What is wisdom? It is more than knowledge, to be sure. I’ve known plenty of highly intelligent, very well educated people who were fools. I’ve known many people of moderate – even low – intelligence with very little schooling whose wisdom was deep and wide and inspiring.
Wisdom, I think, is often something we absorb from the people we respect and love. I’ve also had some bosses and teachers I didn’t like at all, but who imparted important wisdom that I draw upon to this day.
Who has played the role of wise woman or wise man in your life? They don’t always do the practical thing – or the likable thing, do they? Sometimes, their choices are downright mystifying. Sometimes, they say the craziest things. But we hear in their words and we see in their judgment something very special.
As a man of faith, I see a close relationship between wisdom and compassion because Jesus defined wisdom as love in action. Jesus, to me, is the ultimate wise man. Through his willingness to love unconditionally, especially the poor and marginalized and unsavory, he showed how the power of God’s love can heal and inspire and create community.
The risks he took were clearly foolish given the world he lived in, right? The religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Roman army, and the Roman administrators had no patience for his challenging words and his power to heal and inspire and liberate. His religious colleagues were scandalized when he forgave people because they didn’t think he had the authority to do that. And yet he spoke and healed and inspired and liberated and forgave anyway, because he was not drawing upon the wisdom of empire, but rather the wisdom of God.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul explores this idea that God’s wisdom is not our wisdom and vice versa. In fact, God’s wisdom, as Jesus lived it out, seems downright idiotic to us. Imagine being that gifted and not making any money off of our talent. Imagine allowing ourselves to be crucified when we could run away, hide away, or raise an army.
But Jesus saw it differently — and so did Paul. They understood that true wisdom is rooted in God’s grace, God’s unconditional, forgiving, proactive love. Seen through the lens of Christ, that foolish decision to go to the cross becomes the wisest choice of all because of what it has done for us and for countless millions across the centuries.
Matthew recorded what are known as the Beatitudes, those twelve verses from the fifth chapter of Matthew that we heard this morning. What point was Jesus trying to make when he said. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth? Blessed are those who mourn? Really, Jesus? Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? What’s blessed about persecuted? This all sounds so foolish.
Unless… or until we remember that Jesus is giving us an alternative vision for the world, a world where those who are hurting the most, especially those who are doing good, are rewarded.
In the Hebrew Bible – what we used to call the Old Testament – the Hebrew word for wisdom is feminine. I thought about this when I read about the women’s marches last weekend and saw how positive and peaceful they were. What might men learn from women about wisdom? And vice versa?
How might we break free from our usual safe walking pace and begin to dance the gospel message in our every day lives? What might we do to make our world (not just our church but our world) kinder, more respectful, more welcoming and inclusive? What might we do to show God how grateful we are for our home – the planet Earth – and that we are dedicated to protecting it?
I am so grateful for our guest dancers who are here with us today. When we dance, we risk looking foolish. When we fling our arms wide and jump high and let ourselves be free, we allow others to look at us, and either admire us or laugh at us. To me, dancing is like living the faithful life, the life Christ calls us to live. When we take risks on our neighbors’ behalf, sure, we run the risk of failure or embarrassment, but unless we try, what can we say we have really done as followers of Jesus or as people seeking the Divine?
No matter what our physical abilities may be, each of us can dance – in body, in mind, or in spirit – and allow the Spirit of the Living God to dance in and through us.