Preached on Sunday, August 19, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
I have a weird job. I get paid to be wise. Even though I’m no wiser than any of you.
Yesterday, I married off a beautiful, admirable, smart, capable, deep, loving young couple, new members of this church, Walt Anderson and Katy Fazio. As I usually do at a wedding, I preached a homily meant to impart wisdom about the institution of marriage. My daughter Cecilia told me that I cracked too many jokes. “Mom, I think people like you but sometimes your preaching is a comedy show with a few facts about Jesus.” P.K.s are so harsh.
I probably use too much comedy because I so often feel like a fraud, I play the fool. I don’t have a good track record in the marriage department or really the life department, so what do I know? All of these things that I’m telling young couples to do: love like Jesus loves, sacrifice for your partner, give and forgive, keep your promises, wake up every day ready to do it all over again…I’m not even good at that.
(A few years ago on a Sunday morning, I took the last bagel we had in the house, toasted it and consumed it before church. My husband got up and said, “Robin, you ate the last bagel knowing that this was my breakfast. And now I have to go and listen to you preach about the LOVE of GOD.”)
Wisdom is doled out all the time by the hypocrites. That’s because the truth is, wisdom isn’t knowledge that can be doled out. It can only be acquired through the humility to admit we don’t know anything.
A few years ago, the term “adult” became a verb. As in, “Too tired, I can’t adult today.” “Adulting” became something we were proud of accomplishing. It became a hash tag for getting mundane chores done, or checking responsibilities off a to-do list. People take to the internet and write things like “Got my flu shot” #adulting, and “finally designated beneficiaries for my retirement plan account” #adulting. And “When my fitbit buzzes and says I've hit my step goal, I feel like that's the signal that I've done enough adulting for the day.” On twitter, there’s a tweet that says 99% of life is finding an adult-ie-r adult to do the adulting.
At some point in our development we look around and realize that we are the adults, and its up to us to do all the things. For many of us, that’s terrifying. But I wonder if what we are scared of most of all is the idea that as adults we are supposed to know all the things. We are supposed to be the wise ones, and we don’t feel smart or old enough—-ever. We don’t feel up to the task. As professionals and parents and grandparents and taxpayers and voters and citizens and the Adults in the Room, we are consistently bombarded with questions we don’t know the answers to. We are all just faking it till we make it. We constantly fear we will be found out for the frauds we are.
“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” our psalm says. In the Bible, the word translated “fear” can mean several things. It can refer to the terror one feels in a frightening situation. It can mean “respect” in the way a servant fears his master and serves him faithfully. Fear can also denote the reverence or awe a person feels in the presence of greatness. The fear of the Lord is a combination of all of these: terror, respect and awe.
God is another name for all that is unknowable and unattainable. Wisdom begins with terror, respect and awe for what we don’t know.
Jesus models for us this holy not-knowing all the time, by asking questions. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions in the New Testament. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus' life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred.
And then he listens to the answers. He practiced wisdom.
According to Will Gafney, in Biblical Hebrew, wisdom is as much technical expertise or craftmanship as it is intellectual knowledge. In other words, we can learn how to be wise. We can practice wisdom like a craft; like an art. For the Israelites, the heart (not the head) was the source thought and choice. If we want to become wise, we must practice asking questions, listening and being fully present to our conversation partners: we must practice feeling our way into knowing. The Buddhists remind us that what we practice, we become. We can become wise.
When I was a hospital chaplain intern, I was called to the ICU in the middle of the night one night to where a 31 year old man was imminently dying of cancer. The family had gone to Mass General as one last hope, as a lot of people do…it’s literally the best hospital in the world, so it’s a last hope hospital. So they got their hopes up upon being transferred to MGH, and then had their hopes crashed again when the doctors came in to tell them there was nothing more they could do. That’s the worst kind of pain…when all hope is lost pain.
So upon hearing there was nothing more the doctors could do to save his life, the mother asked the nurse to call the chaplain on duty. That was me. And it was my first on-call, middle of the night in the hospital experience ever. Though I had training as a therapist, I had no idea what I was doing.
When I arrived, this young man’s mother and his fiancé and his entire family were all there in the waiting room, wailing with grief. It was one of the most frighteningly helpless scenes I have ever encountered, a place I had no business being as an outsider or a not-yet minister or someone who had definitely not read enough books yet or experienced enough pain yet, a place where I had no answers.
I walked in and the mother wanted answers. She said to me angrily, with fire in her eyes, “Are you the CHAPLAIN?” I’m not even sure if I answered her. “Well, tell me, CHAPLAIN, WHY?” She held up a Bible and she waved it in my face and she said, “WHY WOULD YOUR LOVING GOD take my son from me when he is 31? When he is my world and he did nothing wrong and nothing to deserve THIS? EXPLAIN THAT WITH YOUR BIBLE.”
I just looked at her for a long minute trying to come up with something to say. Some words of comfort. Some wisdom. Something I knew. Anything. And finally I said “I don’t know.”
And she said, “Really? You came all the way here and that’s all you got? YOU DON’T KNOW?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, trembling. “But I can bring you some water.”
And I proceeded to the nurse’s station for water, and then sat awkwardly in that room, holding back my own tears of inadequacy, in a place I had no business being, with a wailing family I did not know, with absolutely no answers at all. I knew the least of anyone in the hospital room. I knew the least about the medical concerns, I knew the least about the relationships and the feelings involved. I listened to doctors and nurses explain what they knew, and they know so much. My job was to know the least in the room, and to listen carefully. That’s it. And for someone who is far more comfortable knowing everything, this was hard.
And so I asked questions. I asked this mama about her son and what she loved about him. I asked about his birth. And I asked his fiance about when they met. And I asked about their favorite place to vacation and his favorite foods. And I listened to the answers. I listened to the story of them, and I tried to become wise. And things eventually quieted down. And in the quiet I realized again that I would never have any answers to the questions. And I realized maybe what it takes to really care for other people is not knowing so much. And I realized that sometimes our presence and no answers at all is enough. It’s, in fact, all there is.
Imagine what our care for others would look like if we made a commitment to the wisdom of not knowing. We wouldn’t show up at the bedside of cancer patients with declarations like, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” as if we know that’s true. We don't know. We wouldn’t try to explain the unexplainable so that we could manage our own anxiety about ambiguity. We don't know. We wouldn’t say things when children die like “God just needed one more angel.” As if we know that’s true. We don't know.
We might just sit there instead, with people who need us, and say nothing but “I’m here. I won’t leave you.” We may just sit there and cry with one another. We may just sit there and be present; and be witness. Don’t just do something, sit there. Hold a hand. Listen. We may feel like fools while we sit there, which probably means we’re doing it right.
Our reading from Proverbs says that wisdom sets a table for us. Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live. Walking the way of insight, wisdom beckons us.
Beloved, be fools for the sake of wisdom. What we practice, we become.
Poet Sri Chinmo Ghose writes:
My ignorance thunders:
You are nothing, I am everything.
My knowledge declares:
You know something,
But I know much more.
My wisdom whispers:
You and I know nothing of everything
And everything of nothing
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.