Someday, God willing, a long time in the future, I will retire. I know many of you know more than I do about that moment, and hope you’ll share your wisdom. I imagine I sitting on a boat in a quiet little cove, watching the sun go down, with a cup of coffee that has on it the image of this church’s building and the words, “First Congregational Church 1850-2000 150 years of returning God’s love.” You’ve seen these cups; we use them at coffee hour. Maybe your home is like ours, with cupboards that accumulate the bits and pieces of where you’ve been. Jacquelyn has a cup from Southwest Airlines, I have wine glasses marked “US House of Representatives” from when I worked there and cups from many different churches and group with whom I’ve had the good fortune to be associated. Like the glasses and cups, we accumulate as well bits and pieces of wisdom along the way. Sometimes they are formulated as little sayings: “a stitch in time saves nine, “when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop shoveling” and so on. We learn, bit by bit, and we pass these things on. Long ago, when I was an intern and got into a bruising fight over church supplies, the wise senior Pastor for whom I worked said, “Never mess with the tissue in the ladies room.” All these sayings and experiences are a sort of wisdom and from them we take our course day to day. For what does it mean to be wise? Isn’t it to choose each day, every day, a path that leads forward?
“Where is the wise one?”, Paul asks just before the section of First Corinthians we read this morning. It’s a good question, isn’t it? Surely we want to find ourselves following someone wise, someone who can help us choose the best path. Bookstores, television and the web are full of people eager to lead us, to tell us what to eat, what to wear, how to do makeup, how to exercise, how to pray, how to live. But what does Paul mean by wisdom? Paul comes from a tradition that knows two kinds of wisdom. One is the common sense stuff I’ve mentioned, the accumulation of human experiences, distilled by history, from which we take daily decisions. Scripture has a whole category of such sayings called Wisdom Literature; the book of Proverbs is an example and you can find similar pieces throughout the Psalms. There is a common folk wisdom and yet it may not always be reliable.
What wisdom can go beyond daily experience and speak to our hearts and minds and lift them from the visible things of the day to the invisible? In Paul’s time, an emerging philosophy focused on what is sometimes called “secret knowledge.” The concept is that there is an invisible, rational system to the universe that can only be known by someone initiated into the mystery of this secret knowledge. Some Christians had begun to teach and talk about a secret wisdom that only some understand. Some Christian preachers were claiming to have secret revelations. We shouldn’t be surprised because such teachers have always appeared. Right here in New York, Joseph Smith was such a person. Claiming to have had an encounter with an angel who showed him golden tablets, he founded the group often called Mormons. There are a great number of similar people throughout Christian history who have claimed a secret wisdom. This leads to a problem: how do we know which wisdom to follows? How do we know which teacher to believe?
Notice that Paul explicitly says he does not have a special wisdom.
"I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom."
If he doesn’t have a special wisdom, a unique insight, what does he offer? Just this: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Now this is a curious statement. Paul is an apostle and the foundation claim of an apostle is an encounter with the Risen Christ. Paul didn’t follow Jesus through Galilee or make the journey to Jerusalem; Paul wasn’t at the last supper or in the garden, he didn’t weep at the foot of the cross. But according to his own account, the Risen Christ appeared to him and called him to preach. So we might expect that Paul would say something like, “I decided to know nothing among you but the Risen Christ, Jesus resurrected and alive again.” But he doesn’t. He rests his claim not on common wisdom or the special experience of the Risen Christ but on the public event of Christ crucified. What is it about Christ crucified that Paul believes can lead us? There on the cross we find not the shining light of special wisdom, secret wisdom, but a public display of ultimate humility. The cross is an emblem of ultimate love: a man laying down his life, giving up his dignity and power out of love for all humankind. All common wisdom comes down ultimately to this one principle: stay safe. “Once burned, twice shy,” we say, and so many other things that all have the common purpose of keeping us safe. We learn what’s dangerous; we learn how far out on a limb we can go and still survive. But the cross is not safe, the cross is not a limb from which retreat is possible. It is the contradiction of human wisdom: it is the act of embodying the love of God. So Paul offers wisdom, but not human wisdom, as he says; he offers instead the cross, the wisdom of God, the sacrificing, love of God that overcomes division, overcomes hatred, overcomes safety to transform human life into love.
So Paul preaches that we should let go of our human wisdom and instead offers what he calls “the mind of Christ.” Now the amazing thing about thinking with the mind of Christ is that we already know how to do it. To live from the mind of Christ is to take seriously the language of Christ about God as our parent and each person as a child of God and carry it forward into action. Do you know how to care for a child? Isn’t the first lesson of parenting to put another’s needs first? Did you stay up when you were exhausted with your child, sacrifice things so they could have something, did you feel your very being stretched to learn to love a child? Of course you did; all parents do. To think with the mind of Christ is to project that experience onto the wider screen of our whole lives. To think with the mind of Christ is to think of others first.
One of my favorite missions around here is the coats. We don’t often talk about the coats but it’s a simple mission. It gets cold here; we all know that. So we all have coats to keep us warm. This isn’t as obvious as it seems. I remember years ago when I lived in northern Michigan welcoming a new pastor named Paul and his family to our town. They’d lived in tropical Brazil for years and then in Florida. They knew Michigan would be colder so they bought coats: what we would call windbreakers. They arrived on a day when we got two and a half feet of snow, the temperatures were in the 20’s and their moving truck was stuck in the drifts. Watching him and his wife and their two kids, it didn’t take more than a moment to get them inside and start rummaging through the closet to get them some real northern Michigan coats.
We do the same thing here. We know there are people in our area who are just like my friend Paul. They aren’t prepared for the cold and they need coats. Many of us have spare ones and sometimes it’s possible to buy an extra coat on sale. So we collect them up; every once in a while Jim Dennehey takes them to the South End Community Center, where they are given to people. It’s simple. Haven’t we all seen a kid about to go out the door and said, “Put on your coat, it’s cold out there”? The coat collection is the same thing: it is the mind of Christ to recognize that there are others, equally children of God, who need coats and to share them.
If I think with my own mind, if I rely on my own accumulated wisdom, it tells me to keep safe and keep what I have. But when I think with the mind of Christ, I am led to risk and share. The coats are an example; so is the mission we announced today, to collect toothbrushes for kids in Nicaragua. Who are these kids? I don’t know them. They aren’t mine. That’s what my own mind might say. But the mind of Christ tells me that they are my brothers and sisters; that we are equally God’s children, so I have a responsibility for them and to them.
Thinking with the mind of Christ can make for difficult questions. This week Governor Cuomo proposed cutting visitation at maximum security prisons to weekends only. The reason given was saving money. Well, my mind, my wisdom tells me that’s a good thing. But what about the mind of Christ? What does the mind of Christ think about a policy that hurts the children and wives of prisoners, and prisoners themselves, the most vulnerable people, to save money? I leave that question for you; it’s not my intent to suggest political points but to invite you to think about everything, from daily life to politics with the mind of Christ.
When I was small, before I had accumulated much in the way of things or wisdom, my brother and I were sometimes left with my grandmother. She was a woman always busy, too busy often to monitor two small boys. So we would get into things and do things she didn’t want done and I remember how in an exasperated voice, she would sometimes say, “You boys mind now!” She didn’t have to say what “minding” meant or what rule we had broken; we knew. What Paul is saying to the Corinthian Christians, what he is saying to us, is simple: “You people mind!” We have the mind of Christ: if we use it to guide us, rather than our own wisdom, our own traditions, surely we will come back to Christ’s way. If we live from the mind of Christ, knowing him crucified, surely the love of Christ will shine from us.