The Wisdom of the Cross

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 8, 2015

I Corinthians 1:18-25

There was a man, whom many of us know, who made quite a name for himself as a peacemaker. He tirelessly advocated for governments, at home and abroad, to find non-violent means for conflict mediation. He was awarded for his integrity and unfailing commitment to peace and justice—except when it came to beavers. When he would find yet another tree cut down by a beaver near his cottage, he would become incensed. He declared war on what he called an overgrown rodent and every single peace-loving bone in his body became beaver-challenged. He would devise all sorts of ways to permanently rid his land of this pest, but would ultimately be defeated. His family still laughs at how a resolute peacemaker could be utterly undone by a rodent. But beavers are more than a flat-tailed rodent. They are more than a Canadian symbol. In traditional, Aboriginal teaching, the beaver represents wisdom—a wisdom that could outsmart and undo a very intelligent man.

Two Wednesdays ago, at our first Lenten Study, Stan McKay introduced the seven sacred Aboriginal teachings, each of which is symbolized by a creature. The beaver symbolizes wisdom because of its extraordinary engineering skills to build dams, houses and canals, as well as its ability to detect the flow of water from a great distance. Stan also noted that if the beaver does not use its teeth to cut down trees, they will keep growing and ultimately make it impossible for the beaver to eat. Likewise, the human spirit will grow weak if it is not fulfilling its purpose and contributing to a healthy community.

The beaver gives us insight into the biblical concept of God’s wisdom as foolishness. I Corinthians states that the message of the cross is foolishness and that God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise. This passage is a bit difficult to understand until we remember the setting in Paul’s time. The Romans were ruling the whole area with an iron hand, cruelly punishing anyone who dared to defy the emperor. There was a ragtag band of mostly lower class followers of a political prisoner who was crucified for his ideas. This group was telling people that God, who is all loving and all powerful, was on that cross in the person of Jesus. In effect, they were saying that God was crucified and died. This was not just nonsense—it was blasphemous! To the Romans, Jesus’ death signified the end of his story, not the beginning. It was inconceivable that the cross could signify anything but utter defeat and absolute weakness. Jesus’ message should have died on the cross with him, but it didn’t. What was it about the cross that gave people hope? What was it about weakness and foolishness that brought believers together?

I take comfort in a God who is vulnerable and fully understands weakness and failure. This is a God who will not magically change things for the better, nor conquer the forces of evil. Rather, our Christian God is a God who gives us the love and the courage to be an alternate voice for compassion and forgiveness, even in the midst of terror and suffering. This is the message of the cross.

On June 25, 1980, a mentally ill neighbour killed George Penner’s wife and 2 year-old son and seriously injured an older son. George’s life was shattered and became a blur of anger and bitterness. But eventually, he was able to find healing through his faith in a God who died on the cross. This faith gave him the ability to forgive his neighbour, call for high-quality treatment for him and support his reintegration back into society. As George recently said, “Under certain conditions of stress, we’re all capable of doing the unthinkable. But for the grace of God, I could have gone over the deep end, too.”[1]

This level of forgiveness does not make sense to me. But neither does the cross. The message of the cross contains a wisdom that contradicts our western sensibilities of retribution.

The cross is also a check to our independent self-sufficiency. As thoroughly as we are able to gain knowledge, we can never see the whole picture; there will always be more information to learn, more stories to hear, more sides to consider. The message of the cross tells us that we must always be open to critique; that our decisions and judgements are partial and that we need one another and the wisdom of the Spirit to correct us and guide us.

At the peak of modernity, we used to believe in the superiority of humanity. We used to believe that humans, alone, have the ultimate capacity for perfection. God was knocked out of the picture. You will recall Leonardo Da Vinci’s renaissance picture of the Vitruvian Man, with arms and feet outstretched to form a circle and square. You’ll see a blurry version of this tucked into the announcement insert. In Da Vinci’s day, the circle represented the cosmic and the divine, while the square represented the earthly and secular. Da Vinci showed that a human being’s proportions outline both a perfect circle and a perfect square. He concluded that humanity is therefore the perfect measure of all things divine and profane, of heaven and of earth.

Our postmodern age no longer believes that humans are the measure of perfection. We haven’t had a very good record when it comes to human rights or the health of the earth. We are a little more humbled in our assessment of ourselves and we are little wiser. We now know that each of us only sees a little piece of the picture; that we have little bits of truth and that we need to share these little bits with one another so that we may have a more complete picture; so that we may all be little wiser.

I recently went to the Canadian Human Rights Museum for the first time and was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place and the stories of so many people. I will be returning many times, because I need to know these stories. They challenge my biases and perceptions because they each carry their own little bits of truth, some of which contradict mine. They help me realize that we all share one earthly home upon which we need to find a way to live together with respect in the midst of our diversity.

I am glad that I live in this time. It is not easy—we still hurt and destroy one another, but we are beginning to realize that none of us can go it alone. We need to hear the stories of each other.

You may have heard the story of the newly-built university which was trying to decide where to build the walkways. Should they be around the edges of the green space, or should they cut through the spaces diagonally? Engineers and administrators put their heads together, but they couldn’t agree. Finally, one professor suggested that they not build any walkways. Instead, at the end of the year, they should look at where the grass was worn and let the community’s practice determine the placement of the pathways. This is a collective wisdom that cannot be determined by one person alone.

We may be returning to the wisdom of the cross. This wisdom begins with a state of unknowing and of weakness. It requires people pulling together, knowing that they will do much better collectively than individually. It will not be easier, but it will be much more effective and longer-lasting. This kind of wisdom requires perseverance to build and rebuild those dams when the elements are threatening. It requires a fine sense of listening when the water-ways change their path. This wisdom of the cross assures us that, even in our moments of weakness and our times of failure, God will not abandon us. Rather, it is at these very times when we are no longer self-sufficient and cannot go it alone, that God’s love and wisdom might shine through.

[1] Mary Agnes Welch, “Forgiving the unthinkable,” Winnipeg Free Press, Tuesday, March 3, A3.