Monday, April 2, 2012

Foolishness – Kurt Nelson

Rollins Chapel, 4.1.2012
1 Corinthians 3: 18-23

I think it’s fair to say
that I have hated this passage for much of my life.
 “The Wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.”
It’s so direct. 
So simple.
So troubling.
And has so often struck me as wrong.

For you see, I’m an unabashed fan of worldly wisdom.
Not an uncritical fan, mind you.
But still, Education.  Science.  Evidence.
I’ve always been rather comfortable with these things.
And think them rather important.
And so I’ve blamed, in particular,
this passage,
- and I’d say justifiably -
for a good measure of our contemporary troubles.
Seeing evidence of it in Christian anti-intellectualism.
In bad sermons.
And bad-faith politics.
And especially in undermining science and psychology.

It’s a favorite passage to preach on,
for seminarians struggling with
scholarly criticism,
of theological stuff.
Or maybe just struggling with their grades.

It’s a favorite allusion,
of those seeking to undermine scientific consensus,
about human choices’ effects on the environment.
I think it’s behind accusations of
“false theologies”
which seek to balance love of God
and care of Creation.

And I think it’s behind our ability to deny many people,
access to the full life of the church,
simply by virtue of their sex
or sexual orientation.
Despite all we’ve come to learn,
about the nature of gender, sex, and sexual orientation.

I have, in short,
 blamed this passage for our collective, Christian myopia,
 And thus, I have wished this passage away.
I’ve desired to excise it from the text.
I’ve ignored it.
I’ve challenged it.
But still,
there it is.
A thorn in the side of worldly wisdom.

And like many such passages,
at some point,
it challenged me.
It spoke to me.

And reminded me that there is indeed a wisdom
in our faith,
that cuts much deeper than we might sometimes like.
And as we begin our inevitable march,
to good Friday and then Easter,
This passage reminded me,
that wisdom is far more,
than the trivial squabbles we make of it.

Many of you know that I spent my spring break in Washington DC,
with a group of terrific Dartmouth students.
We were focused on homelessness and service,
and learning and interfaith understanding.
I’ve done something like this for many years, now.
And it’s always affecting,
always troubling,
and I always learn quite a bit.
We wandered the city,
serving meals,
packing lunches,
building homes,
organizing donations,
and especially hearing stories.
Stories of those who have lived on the streets for years.
Stories of those cast out by bad luck,
or bad health,
or a bad spouse.
Stories of those overcome by addiction.
And stories of those swallowed up by a system,
of endless work and paperwork.

A system which spawns phrases like “permanent temporary housing”
which is even less sensible,
and less glamorous than it sounds.

And since we were in DC,
we had the chance also to meet with national leaders,
organizers, and policy advocates.
And one of our meetings,
with representatives from the National Coalition for the Homeless,
helped me connect the dots,
in a way I hadn’t before.
He described a large part of our policy,
regarding poverty and homelessness,
as an attempt to narrow the doors,
of entry into getting services,
and widen the doors
for those on their way out.
In essence,
we’ve decided that the real problem with poverty,
the real problem with homelessness,
is that it’s just too darn easy to be poor.
And so, we need to make it hard,
to receive services.
Thus, we’ve systematically reduced the amount of money,
for subsidized rent for low income families and individuals.
We’ve passed laws making sitting on a sidewalk a ticketable offense.
We’ve added,
you may have noticed if you’ve sat in an urban park in recent years,
a small row of spikes in the center of park benches,
so it’s not possible to lie across the full bench.
We’ve made sure that temporary shelters aren’t too glamorous.
Too safe.
or too clean.
Because really,
the problem,
is that it just seems too nice and too easy,
to get something for nothing.
That’s the best wisdom,
from our best policy makers,
on how to reduce poverty.
And to the God who said,
Woe to you who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and turn away the afflicted (Amos 2:7)
that wisdom must ring like foolishness indeed.

And then upon returning,
Airwaves and newsfeeds were crammed,
with more voices of ‘worldly wisdom’
suggesting quite explicitly that the killing of a 17 year old black kid,
armed only with iced tea and skittles,
by an armed, self-appointed neighborhood watcher,
is not so much an opportunity to examine
the deeply racist tendencies within ourselves,
and our society.
Tendencies borne out not only in violent acts,
but in the unintentional complicity,
of living in systems and structures and mindsets,
which perpetuate racial injustice.
it’s a chance to talk about whether it’s appropriate
to wear a hoodie.
an opportunity to defend our access to guns.
and to take justice into our own hands.
And indeed,
the wisdom of that world
is probably foolishness to the God who speaks:
No more is there Jew and Gentile,
Man and Woman,
Slave and Free.
The God who seeks to remove all barriers.

And indeed the list of terrible worldly wisdom could go on.
From our endless consumption,
to our poisoning of lands, and air, and water.
to our endless cycles of violence at home and abroad,
much of the wisdom of the world,
must indeed seem foolish to God.

And so it should to us as well,
Bid forward by that  sometimes subtle voice of wisdom,
bid forward by Paul’s writing to the Corinthians,
calling us to name and challenge such foolishness.

And, we must note,
especially if we are fans of worldly knowledge,
that wisdom is not the same as knowledge.
and not the same as evidence.

Rather, wisdom is more akin to the basic truths,
the basic narratives of our lives,
that we know deeply,
(and sometimes know uncritically)
and which we live out daily.
And in the face of the true and ultimate wisdom,
of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus,
we must rightly ask of ourselves and one another,
if our daily, lived worldly wisdom,
is not indeed foolishness.
Foolishness in the face of love overcoming hate.
Foolishness in the face of grace casting out fear.
Foolishness in the face of truth, and light, and hope, and peace.

And thus we must wonder,
what is the place of worldly learning?
I think it would be a mistake to cast it off.
And I don’t think that’s what Paul was saying…

Indeed, those who read this as a critique of all worldly knowledge
make two big mistakes:
First, they seem to assume,
that when it Paul says,
“the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God”
that that also means “foolishness in the world is wisdom with God.”
But that doesn’t hold.
And it’s not true.
Indeed, foolishness in the world is often simply foolishness.
And it’s not something to celebrate.

And second,
they pluck up that single line,
and don’t make it to the end of the story.
This section ends with:
“All things are yours…
The world, life, death,
the present, the future”
All things including
learning, and technology
politics and community,
all these things are ours.
They matter.
They’re real.
they aren’t ultimate.
For we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.

And in that,
is, I think, true wisdom
which offers us the freedom,
the ability,
and the call to hold together,
the knowledge of the world,
and the ultimate truth of God’s word to us in Christ.

The truth and wisdom of God,
which ought, I think, to form the substance of our lives,
breaks the back of worldly wisdom.
Does so in a way that challenges the ways in which we’ve gone astray,
but doesn’t,
says Paul Tillich ("All Things are Yours" from The New Being),
leave worldly wisdom entirely reduce, emaciated or controlled.
But rather undercuts our strongly human urge,
to make of worldly knowledge an idol.
Make of them ultimate truth.
Rather, it puts such things in perspective,
and in  service to the larger truth,
of love.
Marylinne Robinson wrote a terrific essay recently on

“reclaiming the sacred” in which she says:

"Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom, but nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again,"

And in this season where we wrap up Lent,
and march toward Easter,
we are called also to ponder our foolishness.
Our distraction,
both worldly and religious.

Called, as we are, to the freedom,
and ability,
to hold all these things.
Learning, and knowledge,
faith and reason,
for all these things are yours.
And you are Christ’s and God’s.
And we are being called always,
to a still deeper wisdom.

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