Unconventional Wisdom

This Sermon was delivered on November 5, 2017, the  Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, by the Rev. Nancy Vogele.  The gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12

Years ago, I liked to read Newsweek magazine.  It had a column called “Conventional Wisdom” with up and down arrows about how things were trending.

“Conventional wisdom” implies that it’s something everyone agrees on or goes by – without giving it much thought.

In this morning’s Gospel passage, when Jesus goes up on the mountain, when he sits down and begins to teach his disciples, he’s giving his very first sermon. It is his debut rally. And first impressions are really important. Conventional wisdom would say to play it safe – show them your stuff but don’t be too radical so as not to upset potential followers. At the beginning of his ministry, he’s got to think about building a strong base of support. So what does he say? Does he give them some conventional wisdom? Did the beatitudes and the rest of his “sermon on the mount” conform to the established practice of Jesus’ day – or ours?

Who are blessed according to “conventional wisdom”?
Blessed are the rich, for they have whatever they want.
Blessed are those who rejoice, for they will have a good time.
Blessed are the assertive, for they always seem to get their way.
Blessed are the carefree, for to them life is just a fun time.
Blessed are the ruthless, for they will always come up on top.
Blessed are the powerbrokers, for they make things happen.
Blessed are those who strike first and have more firepower, for they control the world.

Jesus declares the exact opposite. He says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Plus of those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

You could say that Jesus’ mission – his reason for being sent from God – was precisely to go about turning conventional wisdom on its head. After all, he lived a very unconventional life. In a society and religion that almost mandated that a man marry, he stayed single. He had no home to call his own, no extra clothes, no gainful employment. He just wandered all over the region. At one point his mother and brothers came looking for him to take them away. They thought he had gone mad.

And Jesus healed in very unconventional ways: on the Sabbath; by touching dead bodies, lepers, Gentiles, even women!

All this must have been really difficult for his disciples to take from time to time. After all, conventional wisdom says a little bit of this unconventional stuff goes along way. Don’t overdo it now. We want to follow you, Jesus, but couldn’t you tone down the message – just a little?

But as Jesus’ ministry – as his mission – progresses, he just gets even more unconventional. He starts saying things like, “Love your enemies.“  He says, “Whoever would save their life will lose it. And those who lose their lives for my sake, will save them.” His unconventional life and teaching became such a threat to the religious authorities that they started to plot about how they might kill him.

And in the mist of all this, he beckoned others and beckons us, saying, “Come follow me.” And we ask ourselves, “Is this what it’s all about? Is this why am coming to church? Is this why I’m bringing by child to be baptized?! Is this what my life is to be about? Is this my mission: to be an unconventional Jesus freak? What is he going to ask of me?  I mean, I’m here, Lord, but couldn’t you tone down the message – just a little? This is definitely not what I had in mind.

But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Being a disciple of Jesus means a lot of what we think is “right” and “proper” and the way it “should” be will get turned on its head. Jesus didn’t come to give us some choice nuggets of conventional wisdom to chew on: he came to blow apart the conventional wisdom of his day in order to show a more excellent way – a way that actually leads to life – real life.

When I was 24 years old, I was headed to Zaire, Africa as a Volunteer For Mission of the Episcopal Church. I was working at Dartmouth and still attending to St. Thomas Church. One afternoon, shortly before leaving for Zaire,  I went over to Sanborn Library to have tea and write in my journal.

[Pr. Vogele spoke extemporaneously about hope and going to Zaire at this point.]

Within a month, I realized that probably a lot of what I understood to be “true” – things I just accepted without even having to think about it – were going to be turned on their heads.

You see, if you follow Jesus, if you open your mind and heart to him, a lot of conventional wisdom stops looking like wisdom. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I appeal to therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1–2).

In the world, it’s all about acquisition… of money, power, prestige, control. Look at the power maneuvering going on these days. Look at the jostling for power in Washington. Until this administration, it was all too easy to think of it as just the way Washington operates.  It’s just the way things get done. And look where this “wisdom” has gotten us.  Do you think we need any more of this conventional wisdom?

No wonder Jesus’ mission was to come and turn conventional wisdom on its head. No wonder Jesus preached – from the get go – a totally new message. Religion, Jesus said, is not a code of conduct to follow nor is it just one more thing to add to your life. True religion takes our conventional understandings of our lives and of reality and gives it a whole new context.

So my question for us this morning – and particularly to Heidi and Kyle who bring their daughter Elsa to the waters of baptism and to Liz and Frank, Elsa’s godparents – my question is this: as we follow Jesus, as we promise to take Jesus and his teachings seriously – what conventional wisdom in our lives needs to be turned on its head? What things that we have just accepted without even having to think about them, need to be thought about – and thought about from God’s perspective – not the worlds? The bottom line comes down to this: are we going to trust Jesus, as unconventional as he is, or will we continue to supposedly play it safe by trusting the conventional wisdom of this world?

If you trust Jesus,
expect him to turn your life upside down and inside out.

Expect him to poke around in your life and encourage you to rethink a lot of things and do a lot of things differently.

Expect to have your neatly – or not so neatly – constructed view of reality blown apart and expect to have to grapple and struggle with this totally unconventional wisdom of his.

Expect to be inconvenienced.

Expect to be asked to take some risk.

Expect to be called a fool or naïve.

Expect to even lose some friends.

And if you stick it out, if you continue to hang in there on this very unconditional path,

expect times of peace that surpasses all understanding.

Expect a clarity of vision at times that is so clear you can hardly believe it.

Expect love – the realization of the depth to which you are loved and your ability to love – expect love to knock you right off your feet at times.

Expect to feel so alive at times that the hair on your arms tingles.

And then you’ll understand how Jesus can say, “Blessed are you.” Amen.

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