The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 29, 2023
God’s wisdom not ours
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
January 29, 2023
Click here to watch the sermon
Last week I spoke about the divisions in Corinth that Paul is concerned about. This week we get a hint at part of the problem and what may be at the root of the divisions. The “church” if we can even really call that yet is in its infancy. The doctrines and beliefs that we take for granted are still in the formation stage. We have groups approaching this from both a Jewish as well as a Gentile/Greek mindset and they were often in conflict because of different world views. Being typical people, each group thinks that they have the truth.
Corinth is not a Jewish city. It is predominately a Grecco/Roman culture. In the Greek world wisdom and rhetorical arguments were greatly valued and the ability to debate was highly prized. The underlying problem is that the leaders in Corinth are relying on human wisdom, not sophia the wisdom of God. They are focusing on making arguments based on the human wisdom, not the wisdom of God. The beatitudes offer a wisdom that seems very different from what common sense would say. Why are these people in the beatitudes blessed? Whenever I consider this concept of God’s wisdom, I find myself drawn to Canticle 10 the Second Song of Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
This is traditional Jewish thought and would have been foreign to many in Corinth, but not to Paul who is steeped in Jewish traditions and teachings. Remember he was a leading pharisee before his conversion.
The problem the people in Corinth are having is one that we can all identify with. There are those moments when we all wonder, what is God doing? I’m sure all of us have had those moments of wondering what God is up to. God’s economy, how God operates in relationship to us has little in common with how we function in this world. I thank God that God does not function like us. We tend to get in trouble when we try to impose our way of operating on God. This is why the words of the prophets like Micah and something like the Beatitudes tend to confound us, make us wonder what are these passages talking about?
Our Micah passage ends with one of the most famous passages in all the Hebrew Scriptures. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah is saying this to a Jewish population that is for once enjoying great prosperity peace and success. They are at this point anything but humble. They have taken the concept of chosen to mean superior. Being chosen by God did not mean they were superior but chosen with a task in mind of making God known on earth, of spreading the kingdom, not hoarding it, and using their gifts to oppress others. The people in Corinth are making a similar mistake in thinking that they are among the chosen. Each of the factions thinks they are chosen and therefore superior to others whether other Christians or better than the people in society in general. They are judging their superiority on human standards, by who can make the best rhetorical argument. Yet Micah tells us we are to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. I have a feeling there was not much humility in the church in Corinth.
The Wednesday theology lunch group is listening to a podcast of a 2 part conversation between Richard Rohr and Brenee Brown. You can get it on Brenee’s Spotify channel if you are interested. She asked Richard about a statement that he had made which she thought held great wisdom. There were four points about growth: “We suffer to get well. We surrender to win. We die to live and we give it away to keep it.” Then Brenee said, “I hate that. I really hate that. I don’t want to suffer or surrender. I want to win by strength and my own capabilities, but I know that these four premises are right. They are a deep truth, but I still don’t like them. I agree with her completely.
Those 4 points are the wisdom of the Beatitudes. Another quote from Richard helps explain this. “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been through hell” Listen to that again and ponder is this is true for you. “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been through hell.”
The Tuesday group talked about the difference in terms of commandments and beatitudes. Commandments are for people afraid of hell. The beatitudes are for people who have been through hell. People who have been through hell have suffered, lost, surrendered. Unfortunately for many of us it is the only way we really gain true wisdom. The wisdom that Paul is talking about.
Now with that mind set about the beatitudes listen to the translation of this passage from Peterson’s Message Bible.
Matt. 5:3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
Matt. 5:4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
Matt. 5:5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
Matt. 5:6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
Matt. 5:7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘carefull,’ you find yourselves cared for.
Matt. 5:8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
Matt. 5:9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
Matt. 5:10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Matt. 5:11 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. 12. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
What Paul is teaching is that the wisdom of the world is all centered on me, my group, my beliefs. This is a very egocentric world and to be honest is how most of the world functions. In the time of Corinth and in our time. What Paul is calling for is a world that is centered not on the ego, but on God and God’s kingdom.
This is a concept that was first written about by Thomas Merton a wonderful theologian in the 20th century. He talked about the false self and the true self. The false self is the ego centered self where everything is about me. The true self I like to think of is a God centered self. The focus is not on me and my needs but the needs of the kingdom and of others. Now you can only really explore the true self if you have done the work to build the ego container that is needed by the false or ego centered self. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself unless you know how to love yourself. You cannot set aside your own ego needs until you know what they are and how they make you act. This transition though is essential if we are to live into our God centered self. For more than anything else this is about surrender.
The surrender is not easy. Annie Lamont has said, For all the things the we give away….they all have claw marks.
It is critical to know that beatitudes are a form of literature that was not invented by Jesus, but were fairly common in both Hebrew and pagan culture. They are addressed to a group that is oppressed or in distress and speaks of a reward that will come because of this distress or oppression.
Our church today, like the ancient church is in a time of upheaval and challenge. Much of this is pressure from outside forces. The message that comes through especially in the Message translation is of total and complete trust and reliance on God. Once again this is about God and not about us.
God wants our church to resemble the vision in the beatitudes rather than what Paul has encountered in Corinth. God desires that individually and corporately we are humble enough to trust in God. As Micah says God desires us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Ultimately we must trust in God’s wisdom not our own.