Sermon preached July 3, 2011
Text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
In a celebrated 1936 essay entitled “The Crack Up,” Minnesota-born author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. (The Best American Essays of the Century, ed. Joyce Carol Oates, p. 139).
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. I really liked that quote when I first read it as a younger man. I have to say that the intervening years have made me wonder about it a bit. There are days when trying to keep one idea in my head and still be able to function is a task! One of my insights from playing softball on our church team this summer, the first time in twenty years that I have played organized ball, is that as we get to that stage in life when our minds start to forget things more often, our muscles retain a great memory. The day after a game, my muscles remember every stretch and strain of the night before, and they remind me of just what I had done!
Today’s gospel reading suggests that the way of wisdom is something like Fitzgerald’s idea of a first-rate intelligence. The way of wisdom is a paradoxical way, a way of combining ideas, thoughts, actions together when they it seems like perhaps they cannot be combined, a way of functioning with two ideas in our minds, a way of both-and.
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, Jesus tells us. Wisdom fits actions and circumstances. Wisdom understands that when there is music, dancing is appropriate. When there is hurt, mourning is appropriate. And because life has both moments of music and moments of pain, we need to be able both to dance and to mourn. Sometimes fasting is appropriate for the spiritual life, as with John. Sometimes feasting is appropriate, as with the disciples of Jesus. Our spiritual lives are enhanced both by disciplined action and joyous action. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Wisdom knows when to be restrained and when to be exuberant.
The beautiful words that end this passage are also filled with the paradox of wisdom. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. I deeply appreciate Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me, and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
So where’s the paradox here? Isn’t this a beautiful invitation to let go and let Jesus, an invitation to rest and relax? Paradoxically yes and no. Jesus promises rest to the weary, but also invites work. We hear in this an invitation to refreshing work, to restful restlessness.
There are all kinds of places where I have encountered contemporary confirmation of this insight of Jesus that the way of wisdom, the way of the Spirit, is the way of paradox. In his book Leaders Make the Future: Bob Johansen says that one crucial skill for leaders in the future is “dilemma flipping.” “Dilemma flipping is reframing an unsolvable challenge as an opportunity, or perhaps as both a threat and an opportunity” (44). Both/and - - - the paradoxical way of wisdom.
Barry Johnson works in the field of organizational development. One of the insights he has developed is a distinction between a problem to be solved and a polarity to be managed. “Polarities are interdependent pairs of truths that are a natural and integral part of our daily lives” (Oswald and Johnson, Managing Polarities in Congregations, 19). Two common polarities we manage all the time are inhale/exhale and rest/activity. Both are necessary, but at different times. Both/and - - - the paradoxical way of wisdom.
Parker Palmer has become a well-known teacher and author. His very first book, newly re-issued a couple of years ago, was entitled The Promise of Paradox: a celebration of contradictions in the Christian life. Palmer roots his understanding of paradox in this statement: “The opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth” (Neils Bohr, quoted in The Promise of Paradox 2008, p. xxix). “The promise of paradox,” Palmer writes, “ is the promise that apparent opposites – like order and disorder – can cohere in our lives, the promise that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light” (xxix). “The capacity to embrace true paradoxes… is a life skill for holding complex experiences” (xxx). The paradoxical way of wisdom.
So the way of wisdom, the way of the Spirit may be the way of paradox, at least often. But here is part of the reality of our lives, we struggle with paradox. Either/or seems to make more sense than both/and; it seems easier for us. So here’s another paradox – Jesus invites us to the way of wisdom, which seems difficult to grab hold of, yet the promise is that this is less ill-fitting for us.
All of this has perhaps been a little abstract. There is value in that – the big picture, the overview, but we also need the concrete, the specific to see if our ideas make any difference. Our concrete experience then shapes our abstract ideas - - - both/and!
The paradoxical way of wisdom is to be lived in our individual lives. At the heart of the Christian faith is the message that we are loved by God in Jesus the Christ. We are loved as we are, valued as we are, given grace just as we are. “Just As I Am” the hymn goes. God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “come to me all you who are weary.” The message of grace is that we do nothing to earn God’s love. The calculus of grace is outside the language of earning and deserving. We are loved. At the same time, to know in the depths of our hearts and souls that we are loved should move us to live differently, to live lovingly, to cultivate our best selves and to give the gift of our love to the world. That is the yoke of Jesus. It is work, but it is meant to flow from the depth of who we are. It is not wearying because it fits us. It is dancing to the unforced rhythms of grace. The Christian life is both faith, trusting that we are loved, and works, living this new way in practices that share love and justice and help us cultivate our best selves. The paradoxical way of wisdom.
Here is a slightly different angle on this same paradox in our lives. While we are loved just as we are, we are also sometimes painfully aware that we need to change some things in our lives. In a delightful and insightful book entitled What To Do Between Birth and Death, psychoanalyst Charles Spezzano writes, “Habits form and stick even when they are maladaptive and life-robbing” (148). We do things over and over, and they become habits and we stick with them even when they no longer enhance our lives. Change is needed sometimes. So where to begin, with disgust with ourselves, with the sense that we are unlovable as we are? The gospel insight is that we begin knowing we are deeply loved as we are, loved enough to be worth the effort to change those things that need changing in our lives. Paradoxically, when we feel lousy about ourselves we tend to turn to our familiar habits of behavior to numb the feeling, even when those habits are maladaptive and life-robbing.
The paradoxical way of wisdom is to be lived in our life together as church, as Jesus community. As a congregation we need to celebrate who we are, the good we do, the things we have accomplished that promote the kingdom of God. Sometimes such celebration is not our best thing. We are Northerners, after all, and really worried that we might become too big for our britches. But celebration is vitally important. We do some awesome things here for God and Christ: we help feed people, we are a part of CHUM, we give so others have, we reach into the world through our denomination, we teach children and give them a safe and nurturing space, we cultivate friendships, we sing, we play music, we think together, we are there for each other in joy and grief, we work to overcome barriers. Sometimes we are truly amazing. And there is always more, and we need to be asking, “what’s next, God?” In our life together, there should be a restful restlessness. The paradoxical way of wisdom.
And here is a paradox we have lived with and will continue to live with in our church, the ability to hold well-thought opinions with passion and discuss opposing ideas with respect and care. In the upcoming newsletter I write an article in which I let us know that as a reconciling congregation we need to have times for discussion of the marriage amendment that will be on the ballot in 2012 in Minnesota, that is if the government is up and running by then. I also let you all know that I will be voting against it and working for its defeat. My pledge is this – I will work with you to provide for caring and respectful conversations, even as I have some strong views.
And on this July 4 weekend, I would be remiss if I did not say a word about the paradoxical way of wisdom in our national life. Many of us have heard the phrase, “my country, right or wrong.” Not much paradox there. Do you know the story of Carl Schurz? Schurz was born in Germany, and when Missouri elected him to the U. S. Senate in 1869, he was the first German-American in the Senate. Before moving to Missouri, Schurz spent significant time living in Wisconsin, where he was deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement. Schurz served in the Union Army during the Civil War and after the Senate went on to serve as Interior Secretary. Quite a resume, a July 4 resume! Carl Schurz, in an 1872 speech claimed that the watchword of true patriotism should not be simply “my country, right or wrong,” but rather should be: “My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right; and if wrong to be set right.” Wise words that I wish we might hear even now in our national life. The paradoxical way of wisdom.
Jesus came eating and drinking, and they said about him, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Those who said this failed to attend to the paradoxical way of wisdom taught by this same Jesus – the way of love which is both self-acceptance and change, celebration and commitment to growth, love of country and a desire for it to be better, restful restlessness. The flute of wisdom plays. Time to dance to the unforced rhythms of grace. Amen.