Are wisdom and goodness enough?

April 8, 2018

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Preached by Rev Canon Richard Harlow, using Wisdom 9.1-12; Galatians 4.1-5 at Evensong on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Second Sunday of Easter.

When I was first ordained a few years ago, the Sunday after Easter was always called Low Sunday. I never really understood why, but i assumed that it was because it was that Sunday when the attendance was low and all the clergy were having a week off. So it was the Sunday when you asked the weakest preacher to take the pulpit; it was the day they could do least damage. You can imagine my joy at being asked by Dean Catherine to preach today.

The other day i was stood at the back of church and this little boy pressed £5 into my hand. “Thank you,” I said, “what would you like me to do with this?” “It’s for you,” he said. “Why?” I asked. He shrugged, “My dad says you’re the poorest preacher he’s ever heard so I thought I’d help out.”

Anyhow, let me start with a question which you can contemplate as we go along, if you find yourself dropping off: is there anything more valuable than wisdom and goodness? Or to put it another way: if you have wisdom and moral worth, is there anything that you lack?

I suspect that the many people will say that wisdom and goodness are our highest values. As parents, we probably feel that if we have raised our children to be wise and moral, then we have succeeded. But I suggest that our readings today tell us that wisdom and goodness are not enough. If you doubt that, you might like to call to mind a friend or acquaintance who is both clever and upright, and ask yourself: what are they missing? Do they seem all there?

Today we mark 2 Christian holy days: the last day of Easter week, also known as Low or Thomas Sunday (after doubting Thomas, to whom Jesus reveals himself on this day 2000 years ago according to John), and the Annunciation of our Lord to the blessed virgin Mary. Frankly it’s an odd combination, but it creates a beautiful contrast.

Contrast the wisdom of Thomas, who for 3 years has followed Jesus and then refuses to believe that Jesus is really alive, unless he is allowed to put his finger where the nails were…contrast that with the young Mary, who immediately accepts the message of the angel Gabriel, when he comes to tell her that God has chosen her to be the mother of Jesus, the Messiah. Contrast the naivety and faith of young Mary with the doubt and scepticism of Thomas. And then revisit the question I asked you a moment ago: is there anything more valuable than wisdom and goodness?

Our second reading tonight was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul knew quite a lot about both wisdom and goodness. He had been to the best schools. He belonged to a particular sect within Judaism that highly valued right behaviour. He thought he had everything right, until one day as he rides towards Damascus, he is overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus. In a flash he comes to see that he was blind. His wisdom and goodness were nothing of the sort. He was a murderer and a fool.

Now some decades later, he writes to the Galatians these words: “we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world”. His wisdom and his goodness were nothing better than refuse, dung, he writes in another letter. Now this is hard for us to hear, because most of us value wisdom and ethical behaviour highly. We pay a lot of money to improve our education. We work hard to behave well. So what is missing?

In a word: Christ. Or more fully: God’s action in sending his Son to redeem us and adopt us into his family. This is what is missing: our connection with God through Christ.

Without Christ we are left with the best human wisdom and the highest moral codes, which are good things, but they don’t bring holy freedom and power. There is a fundamental change when somebody receives the Spirit of God; again Paul expresses it: the old has gone, there is a new creation.

This is what Easter is really all about. Not new knowledge or wisdom. The Resurrection doesn’t give us new information. It doesn’t reveal a new code of behaviour, as if Jesus came to give us a new set of teaching. The Resurrection completes us. It connects us not with wisdom, but with God. When Mary becomes pregnant she carries not a new teacher, but a Redeemer. When we become Christians we are born again. It’s not just a figure of speech.

In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of Stalin’s Gulags gave this speech as he received the Templeton Award: “Men have forgotten God.” He said.

“The failings of human consciousness (we might say wisdom), deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, ……It was a war when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation which would sap its strength for a century or more….. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. Only a godless embitterment could have moved ostensibly Christian states to employ poison gas, a weapon so obviously beyond the limits of humanity.”

“A godless embitterment”, says Solzhenitsyn: a combination of denial of our responsibility to a Supreme Power, coupled with rage, a deep seated emotion. Those of you who have been contemplating my initial question might have been thinking all along that emotion is what is missing. Add emotion to wisdom and morality and you have a rounded human, you may think.

And there is one emotion in particular that we seek today – happiness. In Tadley, where I live, we recently ran the Happiness Lab, a course based on scientifically established ways of boosting happiness (www.thehappinesslab.org ). The 12 places went like hot cakes. In all my years of ministry, it was the easiest course to fill with people who might never attend a church, some of them committed atheists. Happiness is the chief aim of many these days, who are unsure where goodness and wisdom are to be found.

What was interesting about the course was that each well researched area of happiness came back to something that we have almost no word for now. Hebrews would have called it the heart. Our forebears would have called it the soul. Some today would call it the spirit. Mention any of those words and many people think you have resorted to metaphor, something unreal.

But this is where God meets us. In that place that our culture has even lost the word for – the heart, the soul, the inner being. Mary responds to Gabriel’s message: “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” The author of our first reading writes that human beings are created to rule the earth “in honesty of soul”.

Most of our contemporaries have absolutely no idea what a soul or spirit is, so small wonder that we seek happiness, but find ourselves consuming drugs to find it. We simply don’t know where to start.

Union with Christ mends the soul. The Resurrected Jesus meets us and heals our soul. Soul is more valuable than wisdom and morality. Soul is what our generation needs to find in the church. Lack of soul within the church is why so many have left. People seek it in spirituality, but it can only be found in God. When we lost God, we lost our soul too, and yet the Risen Christ constantly finds us, as he found poor, doubting Thomas, and says “Peace be with you”. He takes our finger and says to us: “Put it here. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting and believe”.

 

 

I close with this prayer, adapted from our first reading (Wisdom 9):

1 ‘God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy, who by your word made the universe,

4 grant me your Holy Spirit, who sits beside you on your throne, and do not reject me from the number of your children.

5 For I am your servant, son of your serving maid, a feeble man, with little time to live, with small understanding of justice and the laws.

9 The Spirit knows your works, she was present when you made the world; she understands what is pleasing in your eyes and what agrees with your commandments.

10 Despatch her from the holy heavens, send her forth from your throne of glory to help me and to toil with me and teach me what is pleasing to you;

12 Then all I do will be acceptable, I shall govern your people justly and be worthy of your name.