5 Ord 2020 • Is 58:1-9a • 1 Cor 2:1-12 • Mt 5:13-20 • February 9, 2020
Those of us who came to Holy Wisdom as refugees from churches we found oppressive sometimes feel like a community of rebels and misfits. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to honor the Spirit of the law, but do we really have to obey every stroke of every letter? The community of rebels and misfits gathered around Jesus may also have chafed at these words of his. What Jesus says next, however, makes clear that he is not trying to create a community of rigid rule-followers. He’s showing how the traditional rules describe the behavior of people animated by love.
Jesus considers some examples: you shall not kill, you shall not betray, you shall not exact disproportionate vengeance, you shall not hate your neighbor along with your enemy. Are these hard laws to live by? If we are full of anger and fear, maybe so. If we are truly moved by the spirit of love, though, they scarcely go far enough. Love not only doesn’t kill; it doesn’t even inflict verbal abuse. Love not only doesn’t betray; it doesn’t even consider it. Love not only keeps vengeance and hate within bounds; it has no place for them at all. Love by its very nature exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is calling us, not to obsess about rules, but to come from a better place within ourselves.
A better place within ourselves also interests Paul and Isaiah. Each one holds up a mirror to his audience showing a mindset of fear and control, and then invites a surrender of this mindset into faith and love.
Fear and control make Paul’s listeners want an impressive display of wisdom to guarantee that they can trust his message. In place of a display of human wisdom, Paul calls on “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.” God’s wisdom is hidden by our fear, by our attachment to safety and predictability, for God’s wisdom actually reduces control. It requires surrender—such as Paul’s disarming choice “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Why does God’s wisdom require surrender? Let’s look at the people Isaiah is talking to. Their fear and desire for control leads them to cringe before God with extreme fasts while oppressing and abusing other human beings. The channel between them and God, Isaiah says, is the same as the channel between them and the people they’re abusing, and as long as they hold this channel in a crushing, controlling grip, no blessing from God can get through.
To be heard and healed by God, they and we must learn to let go—to “break every yoke,” to release those we exploit, to recognize and treat as our equals underpaid workers, abused migrants, wild creatures threatened by our way of life. When we truly obey the call “not to hide yourself from your own kin,” and we realize we are all kin, we’ll have to surrender our very way of life. This is such strong medicine, we may feel it will kill us. Isaiah’s and Paul’s audiences were no less afraid.
Yet the wisdom of Christ crucified is that then comes the Resurrection. In Isaiah’s words, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly… Then you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.” Our true power, which rests in God, becomes available when we stop trying to fix and control everything ourselves, when we surrender into our true relationship with God and with all Creation.
This is hard to believe when we’re full of fear, but I’ve known it by experience for forty years; it’s what made me a convert. When I teach, when I make music, when I write or do any kind of work, the more I try to control and manage things, the worse it goes; and the more I give up my agendas and scripts, and let go into listening and trusting and following, the better it goes. To me, the letting go of control is a mini-crucifixion, and the flow that comes in its place is a mini-resurrection. That resurrection follows willing crucifixion seems to be the way of the universe, utterly reliable whenever I have the courage to test it.
Yet there are times when this paradoxical wisdom is beyond my reach. I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in fear these last two months, while my mother has been in and out of the hospital. My body has spent a lot of time stuck in fight or flight, and the faith I’m committed to has felt a million miles away. I wonder how refugees and other people experiencing sustained trauma manage to keep their faith. I’ve felt like the salt that lost its taste and can’t get it back.
So, I’ve been collecting re-salting strategies. A surprising one is hot packs or baths: heat relaxes my muscles, and then my inner being begins to let go. Walks also help unwind the physical tension. So does an unexpected kindness, or the release of tears or laughter. Each of these eventually brings a sense of surrender. I stop being so right about what’s wrong. My fear-charged tunnel vision begins to melt, and a wider field of possibility enters my awareness. I remember that it’s not all up to me, that I just have to do my part, that grace happens, that surprising people bring miraculous gifts. Friends and family pitch in. Hospital and nursing staff go out of their way. A CNA turns out to be a part-time bodyguard for the Dalai Lama. When I loosen up and let these things in, for a while, my saltiness is restored and I can move from a place of peace and openness.
This is the paradoxical wisdom of the cross. Not the human wisdom of something more I can do to fix and control things, but the divine wisdom of letting go, so that, in Paul’s words, my “faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”