For First Church in Sterling
Preached on August 16, 2015
RESPONSIVE READING FROM THE PSALMS (Psalm 111)
1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
READING FROM THE EPISTLES (Ephesians 5: 15-20)
15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
SERMON "Know Nothing"
Be careful how you live, St. Paul implores us. Live not as unwise people but as wise, he says. And Jesus tells us to be wise as serpents, and gentle as doves, which always sounds hard to do, and always reminds me of that old saying that George W. Bush famously messed up. What was it? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
So I want to talk with you this morning about what it means to be wise, or to be wisely foolish, anyway.
When I was 23, I made what I thought was the wise decision not to be a minister. You can see how well that worked out for me.
I worked in the UUA’s department of ministry at the time, ironically for a committee that decides who can be ministers and who can’t. The same committee that credentialed me 13 years later. I was interested in ministry even at that young age, which is why I went to work at the Department of Ministry at the UUA, I think, though it was mostly because I was right out of college, had no skills, and the UUA would take me anyway.
And I decided soon after my position began that I was not wise enough to be a member of the clergy because I was too young and too foolish and too single and hadn’t read enough books. I also decided that I probably never would be wise enough to be a minister. I knew ministers who seem to know a lot about life. They had had experiences, and significant deaths, and illnesses they had overcome---tragedies, and triumphs. And they were just smart. They read books I had never heard of by authors whose 50 cent words I was pretty sure I would never understand. I knew nothing about any of that. All I knew was how to turn on a computer, file some papers, make a sandwich, flirt with waiters to get free coffee, and maybe a bunch of totally useful stuff about Marxism and social constructionism from my undergraduate college.
I wasn’t sure at the time exactly how old one had to be to acquire wisdom, but I was pretty sure that wisdom was something that came with age. In doing important google research for this sermon, I looked up the wisdom of children, and found out I was wrong. Wisdom does not come with age, because the following words of wisdom from kids turn out to be very wise indeed:
Never trust a dog to watch your food. - Patrick, age 10
When your dad is mad and asks you, “Do I look stupid?” don't answer him. - Michael, 14
Stay away from prunes. - Randy, 9
Puppies still have bad breath, even after eating a tic tac. - Andrew, 9
Never hold a dust buster and a cat at the same time. - Kyoyo, 9
You can't hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. - Armir, 9
If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse. - Naomi, 15
Felt markers are not good to use as lipstick. - Lauren, 9
Don't pick on your sister when she's holding a baseball bat. - Joel, 10
And my favorite…
Never try to baptize a cat. - Eileen, 8 '
Anyway, you know the end to this story. I finally did become a minister, but I don’t think it was because I had finally become wise. I just gave up fighting against it, and decided to enroll for divinity school despite my inadequacy. So much of our lives is giving up and doing things despite our inadequacy.
And incidentally, I often get the comment now--after I preach or lead a funeral or some such thing--that I am “so wise for a young person.” And I’m 39, which is certainly not old, but it’s old enough that I take that as a compliment. And I’ve learned that apparently, by the time you are finally old enough to be a minister, it’s time to retire. Which is kind of too bad.
The dictionary definition says that wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. And so as a young adult, I thought if I waited long enough, I would have more experience, knowledge and good judgment, and then I could become a person worth my salt, and worthy of this pulpit. I was wrong, though. The older I got, the less I was sure I knew. I bet that’s true of some of you, too. And maybe that’s what wisdom is. Maybe wisdom is being smart enough and humble enough to know that you know nothing.
I went to a church leadership conference this week with Shana and Judy and Susan. It was at Andover Newton Theological School, and it was put on by the Center for Progressive Renewal—an organization that makes the audacious claim that churches like ours’ best days are ahead of us. We were there learning how to renew the church. It was mostly ministers at this conference. I was proud that First Church sent three lay leaders. During one of the workshops, Judy turned to me and said, “I have been surprised listening to all of these ministers talk about their leadership. I’m learning that there is so much they don’t know that I thought they did.”
I love that, because it is so true. That’s what I had finally discovered, too. Ministers certainly don’t know anything important that you don’t know. We don’t have some magical wisdom that you don’t have just because we have a funny title in front of our name.
The psalmist reminds us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” If you’re like me, you’re wondering what that means. I’m going to go ahead and translate the term “fear of the Lord” from our psalm to “fear that you and I are not in control.” Our scriptures tell us over and over again that what we should know is that we are not God. Whether or not you believe in God doesn’t even matter. Knowing we are not God is what matters. Wisdom begins with knowing you are not God. Because if God contains perfect wisdom, then we don’t have to. We can go ahead and be human. It is God’s job to know, it is our job to not know.
Our creation story from the Judeo Christian tradition is one you know well—its this crazy story about a woman named Eve who craves knowing what God knows, and so she eats forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. God gets pissed, and he kicks her and Adam out of the garden, and punishes the rest of humankind supposedly forever. Truthfully, this story has always bugged me. Oh, so we punish Eve AND THE REST OF THE HUMANS FOREVER AND EVER simply because she wants to know things, God? How can any of us really blame Eve for wanting more than just sitting around in paradise, eating bon bons with Adam and having all of her needs taken care of. That sounds so BORING. Punishing Eve for craving knowledge is such a jerky God thing to do.
But perhaps this story is about a God who wants us to remain humble enough to be curious.
Perhaps this creation story means that God wants us to know that our job is to not know, because not knowing makes us better at being human. More humble. Less sure. Less obnoxious in our pride. More loving. Maybe human wisdom means knowing we don’t know, and celebrating that.
Imagine a world in which everyone was committed to not knowing. We’d ask more questions and listen to the answers. And we wouldn’t ask questions we already knew the answer to for the sake of showing other people how smart we are. We’d want to know the stories of everyone we encountered. We wouldn’t have political parties saying ridiculous things on TV. We wouldn’t talk past each other, or at each other. Maybe this humility is how we build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
This is hard work; this kind of humble, not knowing, kingdom-building. A commitment to not knowing is sometimes a painful and vulnerable place to be.
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. 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, and to minister to them 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.
And here’s what’s important: you have this wisdom, too. You can be present to our community, and your family, and strangers and friends in crisis in the same way I can. There is nothing special I do that you can’t do. I try to just show up. I feel inadequate because I am. I commit to being the person in the room who knows the least. I try and listen for the stories that need to get told. I pray. You can do that, too. There is nothing special that I do or say, certainly no wisdom that I have that you don’t. Wisdom isn’t found in a book or in a fancy degree program, or even in experience alone. It is found in your desire to know what you don’t know.
And 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.
Sometimes wisdom looks a whole lot like foolishness.
Beloved, be fools for the sake of wisdom.
James 3: 3-18 says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Beloved: Commit to not knowing. Wisdom is meek; it is not boastful and know-it-all. It is curious; it is gentle as a dove. Sow the fruit of righteousness by being faithful fools for Christ—lay down your power; walk softly. Foolish things will confound the “wise” of the world. Wisdom that comes from above is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Surprise people with it. Be wise as serpents, and do not be afraid. Walk into rooms that you fear to walk into because you have no answers at all, not because you do. Be willing to change the world with your curiosity and your care, rather than your knowledge. Wisdom so often is showing up when you’re not ready to.
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.