The text for my sermon at St. Vincent's Cathedral this morning were 1 Cor 1:18-31 and the Beatitudes in Matt 5:1-12.
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” from the First Letter of the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The wisdom of the world” – Just what, exactly, is Saint Paul on about in our reading this morning, and how does it affect us? What is “the wisdom of this world” in contemporary America? Where should we go to find it? There would probably be dozens of different answers to these questions in this parish alone. Undoubtedly the “chattering classes” of our universities and news media are sources of wisdom for many of us, just as the “wise men” and “scribes” of ancient Greece and Rome were in their day. But intellectuals and journalists make up less than 5% of our population and their influence can be overestimated. We cannot halt our search there. No, if we want to discover the truly pervasive “wisdom” of our contemporary world we need to broaden our scope a bit. I’m persuaded that the collective wisdom of our nation may most readily be found in the place the majority of us get our information—television. And the definitive television programs of the early twenty-first century are surely the ubiquitous “reality” game shows. Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” the aspiring pop stars of “American Idol,” and the castaways of “Survivor” so dominate our television culture that the national networks actually cover their twists and turns as if they were news. If we’re looking for the wisdom of this present age, we can do no better than the lessons taught by these ratings juggernauts.
Without doubt, “reality programming” can be quite entertaining. The producers of these shows know how to get their hooks into you. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it now, but a few years back I actually planned my Thursday nights so I could watch the entire second season of “Survivor.” (I justified it as research into the effects of the Fall in the Garden of Eden!) The series proved a fascinating spectacle. But as amusing as these programs might be, surely no one claims they are morally uplifting. The contestants often behave in the most deplorable fashion. The worldly wisdom of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor” cynically affirms that the most consistently aggressive and duplicitous person usually gains the upper hand. Week after week alliances are solemnly formed and quickly betrayed. Promises are made that will not survive the night’s episode. The world of reality TV is a Darwinian jungle where the weak are fired and voted off the island while the strongest and most ruthless get million dollar paychecks and commercial endorsements. Trust no one, always be aggressive, hide your weaknesses, and never show compassion … unless there is something in it for you. In the world of reality TV, the law of the jungle applies to Harvard graduates with MBA’s as surely as it does to street hustlers from the wrong side of the tracks. “Do unto others before they do it unto you.” The wisdom of this world: Let us attend.
I pray that few of us here today live our daily lives in a world that is as harsh as that of reality television. But in truth, we all know people who resemble the backstabbing liars showcased on these programs. Experience tells us that if you put your trust in the wrong people, you can get hurt. There are plenty of rogues out there who prey on the helpless. The world can be a tough place. Perhaps the lessons of “Survivor” are not that far from the mark after all. What happens on these reality shows is exaggerated, to be sure, but it is recognizably like what we see around us every day. Common sense tells us to watch our backs and not become easy marks, to be careful whom we trust and not give away too much of ourselves. That’s been common sense in most cultures throughout the history of the world, I suspect. It certainly was in the Roman Empire of the first century.
Our Lord Jesus was at least as well informed about the cynical immorality of the “success culture” of his own times as the couch potato consumers of reality TV are today. Christ knew the hearts of men and women. He knew our weaknesses, and he was no fool. Yet he chose to begin his stump speech, the Sermon on the Mount, with the peculiar list of blessings we have just heard. When you have heard these verses as many times as most of us have, it is easy to just let them wash over you without giving them much thought. “Blessed are the poor in spirit … yada yada yada.” Yes, Lord. … But take a second and really think about what Christ is saying in the Beatitudes. The Greek word translated “blessed” here can also be translated “happy.” “Happy are the poor in spirit, “happy are those who mourn,” “happy are the persecuted.” Now this is a very odd business. Surely these people are not happy. They are the definition of LOSERS. These are the folks who get voted off the island, aren’t they? “Happy are the peacemakers,” “happy are the pure in heart,” “happy are the merciful.” People like that wouldn’t have a chance in Donald Trump’s boardroom. They lack the proper drive to succeed in our dog-eat-dog world. They certainly wouldn’t be able to undercut their competition when the chips were down. Pure and merciful peacemakers seldom get the corner office. If these people are happy, then they clearly don’t understand the situation properly.
Obviously our Lord has somewhere other than Survivor Island or Trump Tower in mind here. The key to the Beatitudes lies in the tense of their concluding phrases—the focus is on the future. The blessedness Christ promises is not yet fully realized when he speaks. For the time being mourning, persecution, and poverty are realities. Jesus knows that better than anyone. The focus of Christ’s promises, however, is the new world that is dawning with the coming of the Son of Man. Of course, these blessings will come in their fullness only at the end of the age, when they will mark the life of the world to come. But the regeneration of creation has already begun in Christ Jesus. Even now God is making everything new. To those who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, the Father will add blessings even in this present age. Those who place their faith in Christ already enjoy the first fruits of the new heaven and the new earth in the sacramental fellowship of Christ’ Body, the Church. Here and now, through the power of the Spirit, you and I have access to the comforts and satisfactions Christ promises in the Beatitudes. This is true even though we still eagerly await the fullness of His blessings on that glorious day when Christ sums up all things in Himself. It sounds paradoxical, but it is true nonetheless. The Church lives simultaneously in “the already” and the “not yet” of blessing and salvation.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord will challenge the conventional wisdom of this present age. He preaches on forgiveness of enemies, non-retaliation, giving without expecting a return, treasure houses in heaven rather than on earth, and not passing judgment on others lest we be judged. In short, his entire sermon is at odds with the conventional wisdom of this present age. What Christ offers is a most uncommon sense to supplant the commonplace wisdom of a fallen world. Jesus teaches wisdom for the age to come, wisdom for the world that is being reborn even as He speaks. The wisdom of the world that is passing away is no longer of any account. “Street smarts” means something else entirely when the streets are paved with gold. The Beatitudes are a shot across the bow of the common sense of a dying world.
But if the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount call the wisdom of this world into question, Saint Paul boldly asserts in our reading today that the Savior’s life, death and resurrection has nullified “conventional wisdom” in its entirety. In writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle was addressing a social world similar to our own in many ways, so we do well to pay attention. The Corinth of Paul’s time was a major commercial center in the eastern Mediterranean. It was the transportation hub of central Greece, and by Paul’s time it had become swollen with immigrants from all over the Greek-speaking world and beyond, people looking for fame and fortune. A small number of Corinthian men did succeed in spectacular fashion, earning vast fortunes in sea borne commerce. You can still see the foundations of the great villas these ancient shipping magnates built on the hills that overlook the city. Their names are carved in stone all over Corinth, trumpeting their beneficiations to the metropolis. First-century Corinth had its share of Donald Trumps. I suspect its citizens would have loved “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”
Few, if any, of the members of the infant Corinthian church would have rubbed elbows with the rich and famous. The apostle knew that not many of them had been wealthy or powerful before coming to the Faith, nor were they possessed of wisdom as the world defined it. They were not part of the success culture of the Roman Empire. The common sense of that time told Greeks and Romans that the lives of humble men and women were nasty, brutish and short. People like the Corinthian Christians were disposable, and no one would miss them when they were gone.
But according to St. Paul, God used the very lowliness of these Christians to make manifest the great reversal accomplished by the cross of Christ. God’s election of the lowly undermines the corrupt values of a fallen world. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God.” By incorporating these few hundred Corinthian local merchants, self-employed artisans, household slaves, and their families into the body of Christ, God aimed a dagger straight at the heart of the getting and striving culture of the Greco-Roman world. The nobodies have become somebodies. They have surpassed the wise and the strong, but not by their own efforts. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise;” Paul says, “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Salvation and righteousness are acquired only through the gracious gift of God’s sovereign will. “Therefore let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
In the cross of Christ, God has redefined success. It is the crucified Christ--God made present in weakness--who incarnates and actualizes divine power and wisdom. This is a paradox that flies in the face of everything the present age teaches us, yet it is the only saving truth the world has ever known. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” Saint Paul recognizes, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The very same Christ who redefined happiness in the Beatitudes has, by means of his precious death and glorious resurrection, become our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Here is wisdom: Let us attend. Amen.