The photo behind me is from ten years ago. I’m in the black top in the background speaking to a bunch of high schoolers, standing in front of the Aegean Sea. We had just toured the ancient city of Corinth. It is really an unbelievable experience when you’re a studier of the Bible to go to the places that are written about in Scripture. You can imagine more clearly the people who lived and worked in these places, and how the early Christians Paul writes to were trying to be a new kind of community.
Paul names all sorts of people in this story, and I’m not sure it makes much difference that you know all of them. It’s the Spirit of the letter that matters, and the reason he’s writing them. Conjure in your mind for a minute all of these people- not all of them of the same background or culture- and they’re all trying to figure out what Christianity even means. Their lives had pretty suddenly gotten complex, and it was affecting how they lived their lives.
My husband and I just recently went to a financial planner, which feels like a really privileged, adult thing to say. We went because over time our finances have gotten more complex. We are still paying student loans, we have a mortgage, we have several retirement accounts and need to start a college savings fund for our kids. It’s all good stuff, but it’s definitely not the days when I had one checking account and could fit everything I owned into my rusted out Toyota 4-runner. I could say, “those were the days,” right? In many ways, they were. They were simpler. Nothing tragic had ever happened in my life. I had fewer responsibilities and the world was my oyster. But, let’s be honest, I also had little life experience and was not yet wise about the world- still working on both of these things, by the way.
I may not yet be wise, but nowadays I think I know better where wisdom comes from. I could have said, awhile back, when I reached my first bump in the road of ministry, “to heck with this I’m out. Get me the highest paying job that takes the least amount of effort and I’m there.” But, I think we all know that’s not how our hearts work. As much as we crave simplicity in our lives, it’s not what is going to make us wise in the end. It’s complexity that deepens us, that breaks the shallow barriers we create and forces us to dig down to where things hurt or feel uncomfortable.
Paul’s words about wisdom feel so appropriate to what’s happening in our nation at the moment. Paul is calling out the leaders of the church in Corinth, who have taken the person of Jesus and the life he called them to lead, and they are distorting it to suit their needs. He uses baptism to make his point- they have mixed up the difference between godly wisdom and worldly wisdom, and even worse, they’ve baptized their worldly wisdom in the name of Jesus, masquerading it as the wisdom of God. They’ve succumbed to the temptation to make Jesus conform to their own needs- brought him down to a simpler, less complex level. As Paul writes, they have emptied the cross of its power.
We’ve seen recently, and in the past, how this can affect an entire country- people deciding they have God-like power, but then choosing- in an un-God like way- to do what is simple instead of what is right. Where is the wisdom in that? Can there ever be real wisdom in never rocking the boat? Without entering into complexity, we set an alarming precedent. Doing what is simple acts as a veil that just covers up a whole array of sins.
So Paul speaks the truth to these Corinthians. They are contorting Jesus to fit what is convenient, and they need to stop. Real wisdom comes from the Gospel, and the Gospel says that God is constantly, and in complex ways, rearranging our assumptions. At first glance, as Paul says, this almost appears to be foolish! It makes no sense! Especially when it comes to Jesus. I mean, a God who dies? What is even that about?
I have had some candid conversations lately with parents in Minneapolis regarding the District Redesign study for our public schools. The proposal, if or when it comes to a vote, would seek to better integrate our schools and would end up re-locating about two-thirds of MPS students. A lot of kids would be uprooted. But the intent is to try and close the opportunity gap for our students of color. It’s a deeply complex issue, and what I appreciate about the proposal is that they aren’t coming at it with a simple solution. But, it is making folks upset. Is this wise? Who wants their kids to have to change schools if they are doing well where they are? On the other hand, how can we begin to address the systemic issues around racism and education without some bold action?
I was reading Psalm 15 the other day for the church’s phone devotion line, and there was a verse that stood out to me so plainly. The Psalmist basically asks, who can get close to you, God? And one of the answers says, “by being someone who keeps their promise even when it hurts.” Now please hear me when I say I don’t believe God intends for us to be boundaryless, and let people walk all over us in the name of keeping unreasonable or unhealthy promises. But there is something to this idea that we get closer to God when we stand by what we believe in even when it costs us something, when it gets complicated. That’s where wisdom comes from.
The poet and writer Wendell Berry says something similar, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong,” he writes. “We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us.”
The Apostle Paul says, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” He doesn’t mean it in a shaming way, but to say, God turns conventional wisdom on its head. God takes the pretentious nonsense of the world and offers us salvation- a way forward that will be good for everyone. Paul never says it will be simple, or that it won’t be completely disorienting, or painful at times, or complicated, or contrary, or even dissonant to our ears, but he does promise that the Gospel will save us. That what is good for the world will, in fact, be good for us.
Thirteen years ago I was doing a chaplain internship in the hospital, in the neo-natal intensive care unit. I was there to be a spiritual presence to the tiniest babies you’ve ever seen and the most worried, devastated parents you’ve ever laid eyes on. To be perfectly honest it was way too much for me. Too complex. It scared me. There was a couple in the NICU who had a baby born with down syndrome, which they knew before he was born. But, what they didn’t know was that he had leukemia.
They had to say goodbye to Charlie almost as soon as they had welcomed him into the world. I stood by his bassinet as they put their hands over him. We laid a white cloth over his tummy, which had been cross-stitched on by some loving stranger’s hands to use for such an occasion as this. We prayed for that sweet boy and then released him with so much hesitancy and grief into the loving arms of God. The next day I got a call from the parents and they asked me if I would come and do the funeral for Charlie since I had known him. I felt so ill-prepared and lacked such confidence in my ability that I promised them I would arrange for someone more qualified than me to help them, both with the funeral and then more long-term. They were okay with it, but I’ve wrestled with that choice so many times since. I was the person there when their son died. What felt like the simplest and best decision at the time, turned out to be so much more complex. I suppose I learned from the experience, but the reality is they needed me and I wasn’t there for them. Where was the wisdom in that?
I don’t tell this story to confess to you. It was a long time ago. I’ve forgiven myself, and I think that lovely couple is probably okay, too. And I’m not trying to convince you to just do hard things all the time because that’s all that the Christian life means. I think we’ve lost a lot of followers with that bad interpretation. But, what I am saying is what might feel too complex or complicated to enter into might turn into wisdom in the end. Wisdom defined by breaking past a barrier that keeps you from being a part of healing in the world. You see, when Paul speaks to the community at Corinth, he says, you’re in this together. Unified in Christ. You’re not alone. Collectively you have the power to trust in God’s greater wisdom. This kind of wisdom will surprise you at times. It will challenge your long-held assumptions. It will seem foolish, and complicated, and like it’s not worth it by certain standards. That’s okay. Because it will be good for all of you in the end. As, Wendell Berry says, we have to assume that what is good for the world will be good for us. That’s the Gospel. It’s God’s wisdom, and thankfully not always our own. Amen.