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The Depths of God

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Feb 09

Text: 1 Corinthians 2: 1-16

A friend and former divinity school professor of mine, Allen Callahan, recently included me on a daily email blast, which includes a wide range of items he has either written or found. This past week, as part of a series of posts he is calling “Found in Translation,” he sent along a poem he wrote called “Haitian Wisdom: An Abecedarius.”   An abecedarious is an acronym that follows the alphabet.  The poem, which is a selection of Haitian proverbs, both “found” and “in translation,” goes like this (or I should say “something like this” since I will no doubt blow some of the pronunciation):

A

Ayisyen, 'Haitian'

Ayisyen swiv kouran.
Haitians follow the flow.

B

Bèf, 'ox'
Bèt, 'beast'

Bèf a-ke pa janbe dife.
An ox with a tail does not walk over fire.

Ch

Chen, 'dog'

De chen apre yon zo pa janm dako.
Two dogs after one bone never agree.

D

Dan, 'tooth, teeth'..

Dan konn mode lang.
Teeth are known to bite the tongue.

 

 You get the idea.  The poem continues all the way to Z offering a range of wisdom from the seemingly whimsical and worldy to the supernal and spiritual!  The entry for L?

“Loray, 'thunder 

Lè loray gronde, se Bondye ki pale. When the thunder rolls, it is God who speaks.”

 

At the outset of today’s passage from Paul’s first letter to that First Church community in Corinth, the apostle is interested in drawing a distinction between the wisdom of the world, on the one hand, gleaned from the so called wise and powerful and well educated elite, and the wisdom of God, on the other hand, which may sometimes seem foolish and in which weakness and humility is exalted as divine power, just as Christ crucified.  The historical background here is that there were other church leaders in Corinth that were making lofty claims at odds with Paul’s basic teachings about the gospel.  Paul writes this letter in part to set them all straight.  He does this first by means of self-deprecation.  ‘Don’t think I have the lofty words or language here! I don’t have any worldly wisdom to offer! No seven habits of the highly effective, no nin steps to financial freedom, no leadership manuals or self-improvement “how to’s”!’  However, this is not to say there is no wisdom! Oh there is wisdom, according to Paul! But real wisdom is of God and the only way to understand that is not through human means but to receive it as a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s stop right there.  Before we even consider what that divine wisdom is or how we can access it, isn’t it refreshing to hear from a leader who is seeming to say in all humility: “Its not about me!”  I can’t help but think of President Putin’s astonishing brass as the Winter Olympics began in Sochi this weekend.  The Washington Post reported that every new hotel room in the Black Sea town came equipped with a photo portrait of Putin. Some large examples hanging on the walls even featured him posing half naked from the waste up! No joke!  But I digress, so let’s get back to Paul.

In a spirit of genuine humility, Paul is making the case that any so-called wisdom or rhetoric or portraits of himself that he might bring forward would only distract people from the real message. The real message is about God, and God’s power and God’s wisdom.  As the UCC minister and writer Anthony Robinson has said, “So often we look for the human signs of wisdom and success to authenticate the message, the big smile, the big teeth, the big hair, the big numbers, the big money. But God [God!] can work through frail vessels and through human weakness to reveal God's truth and power.” Despite the fact that we may think we know otherwise, we need this kind of reminder and Paul knows it.  Paul cautions his readers about being swept up by a human and conventional wisdom that is entangled with the rulers of the age, with the powers that be, with their lofty words, with the dominant forces of the culture that may promise a shallow sense of security, a winning self image, maybe even a fancy degree or three.  His focus instead on Christ crucified, and even more on “the mind of Christ” that we already have within us and as a gift of the Spirit, is intended to flip the script and offer a countercultural way into a wisdom and power that is from the very “depths of God,” to borrow a phrase from Paul in verse 10.

In an amazing meditation called The Depth of Existence, the great 20th century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, explores the word “deep” and “depth” in a most helpful way.  It’s helpful for us especially as we being consider here at First Church, in our individual life and in our life together what is “God’s Invitation to Us”, both gentle and deep!  Two weeks ago at our Annual Meeting, we introduced and began to ponder together what we are being invited to, in our personal lives, in our communal life as a church, and in our public and professional lives as well.  This is a conversation that we’ll be having here in the coming months so stay tuned.  This sermon of Tillich’s is so good, so timely, so relevant that part of me wanted to do what some of colleagues do on occasion and preach the whole thing start to finish!  I’ve never done that perhaps out of some pride that you would think of me as lazy but it bears excerpting at considerable length and to me is evidence of a divine wisdom that draws me to want to listen far more than speak my own words.

Tillich begins his meditation on depth making clear that depth is not merely a dimension of space, but in scripture and literature especially, it is also “a symbol for a spiritual quality”.  He then starts with where we are. See if this resonates.  He says:

“Most of our life continues on the surface. We are enslaved by the routine of our daily lives, in work and pleasure, in business and recreation. We are conquered by innumerable hazards, both good and evil. We are more driven than driving. We do not stop to look at the height above us, or to the depth below us. We are always moving forward, although usually in a circle, which finally brings us back to the place from which we first moved. We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit-and-run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. And it is only when the picture that we have of ourselves breaks down completely, only when we find ourselves acting against all the expectations we had derived from that picture, and only when an earthquake shakes and disrupts the surface of our self- knowledge, that we are willing to look into a deeper level of our being….”

It’s amazing that Tillich was writing these words well over 50 years ago (in 1948 to be exact) when they speak so clearly to our current malaise.  In our own drivenness, not only for professional or academic excellence and success, but also sometimes for spiritual achievement as well, we so often orient ourselves in such a way that puts us in control, calling the shots, guiding our financial, social, educational, moral, spiritual ascent towards something greater, something more, something out there for which we are grasping. “If only I could achieve a more perfect downward dog pose in my yoga!”   For Paul Tillich as well for the Apostle Paul, it’s not about us, or our going or moving anywhere whether in word or deed.  It is about our stopping and letting God come to us and meet us, in those depths of existence itself. To recognize thatthis invitation to awareness is available to us all at any given moment, an invitation to become aware of our own depths, of the depths of our neighbor, of the depths of history and eternity, and of the very “depths of God,” to even start to wonder about such spiritual dimensions, now that is the beginning of true wisdom! In Tillich’s word again: 

“The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth. It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated people with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found that they were not what they believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their very lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth.”

What's more, Tillich writes:

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about God.”

Tillich next sounds a note that would have resonance with Paul as he was reaching out trying to found and form a community of believers.  It also may have resonance to us and perhaps especially our current and new Deacons as they have just taken vows to care for the spiritual life of this community and to be stewards of our centuries old covenant.  Tillich writes: 

“We have considered the depth of the world and the depth of our souls. But we are only in a world through a community of [others]. And we can discover our souls only through the mirror of those who look at us. There is no depth of life without the depth of the common life. We usually live in history as much on the surface as we live our individual lives. We understand our historical existence as it appears to us, and not as it really is. The stream of daily news, the waves of daily propaganda, and the tides of conventions and sensationalism keep our minds occupied. The noise of these shallow waters prevents us from listening to the sounds out of the depth, to the sounds of what really happens in the ground of our social structure, in the longing hearts of the masses, and in the struggling minds of those who are sensitive to historical changes”

Bear with me here . Tillich continues his roll…

“Our ears are as deaf to the cries out of the social depth as they are to the cries out of the depth of our souls. We leave the bleeding victims of our social system as alone, after we have hurt them without hearing their cries in the noise of our daily lives, as we do our own bleeding souls.”

Imagine that.  The deeper we go in our souls, in our connection to the depths of God, the deeper our awareness of and compassion for the cries of others. Now we are getting to the essence f true wisdom. And in a passage from Tillich that powerfully echoes our scripture from Paul.

“Our attempt to avoid the road which leads to such a depth of suffering and our use of pretexts to avoid it are natural. One of the methods, and a very superficial one, is the assertion that deep things are sophisticated things, unintelligible to an uneducated mind. But the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, "This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it", you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth. Let us not confuse the sophisticated things with the deep things of life. The sophisticated things do not concern us ultimately and it does not matter whether we understand them or not. But the deep things must concern us always, because it matters infinitely whether we are grasped by them or not.”

Finally, Tillich ends this brilliant piece on a hopeful note: 

“…[E]ternal joy is not to be reached by living on the surface. It is rather attained by breaking through the surface, by penetrating the deep things of ourselves, of our world, and of God. The moment in which we reach the last depth of our lives is the moment in which we can experience the joy that has eternity within it, the hope that cannot be destroyed, and the truth on which life and death are built. For in the depth is truth; and in the depth is hope; and in the depth is joy.”

However we may define or resist defining this depth, I venture to say, we all know its there and we have all felt its tug. This depth is the Spirit calling us, beckoning us to grow in this decidedly non-conventional wisdom, to grow in our awareness, to be more deeply present to the Spirit that is already present in each of us and our world!  The only way to it though is through a way of profound humility, vulnerability, intimacy shared in a common life, a genuine life together that recognizes our profound interconnectedness to and responsibility for all humanity and all creation.

So! Just where does all of this leave us on a fine February Sunday morning?  For one thing, it should leave the Deacons in our midst a clearer picture of what they are called to cultivate in their own lives and within the life of this community.  You, dear Deacons, are called because this congregation sees you as bearing that spiritual maturity and wisdom to help us go deeper in our lives, in this community and in God.  We will soon hear echoes of this same call from our search committee for a colleague minister as well when they report on the fruits of their labors after church today.   For each of us though, perhaps it leaves us with a question about our tendencies cruise along the surface and also with an invitation to plumb the depths of our individual lives and our life together.  Where do we align ourselves with a comfortable and conventional worldly wisdom and where do we hear God’s invitation to break through the surface, in our personal lives, in our life as a community and in our public lives as well?  To encounter even a taste, just ask what is one next step, or better yet, one next stop, to slow down, to ease our often individuated striving for the heights and instead to create spaces for the depths, spaces in which we break through the surface and instead in the words of that decidedly non-conventional wisdom or our Haitain brothers and sisters, to  “follow the flow,” maybe even the flow of the Spirit itself until we too one day arrive at the very depths of God.   Remember we don’t have to nor should we even try to do this work alone!  As Tillich said, “there is no depth of life without the depth of the common life.”  Thanks be to God for that.  Thanks be to God that we can hear and act upon this profound invitation together.  Amen.

 

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