The Wisdom of God
Preacher: The Venerable Peter Lock, Archdeacon (2001-2009)
8 March 2009, 10:30 (Lent 2)
Mark 8.31-38; 1 Cor 1.20,22-24
A new piece of graffiti has appeared just outside the cathedral. It’s not a mindless splash from a spray can daubed all over some of the ancient masonry but on the contrary: a rather eye-catching chalk drawing the style of which is more associated with pavement artists.
It all started from the cathedral’s point of view when hawk-eyed Colin the Head Verger started emailing members of the chapter about some grafitti and whether we should photograph it for our records. I wondered what on earth he was talking about. But this was an email I thought I really did want to follow up with a red flag (if you know what I mean). So I did. Flag it and followed it up. Well I tried to find it and walked past it three times because I was looking in the wrong place. And there it was. Not on the ground but by the Deanery Gate entrance on a new piece of hardboard that is blocking up an ancient stairway. If you’ve parked your car in the refectory car park you will have driven past it. There was quite a little crowd round it as I was taking photos of it, and even more when I left.
The boarding is fortuitously in the shape of a coffin lid which might have been placed leaning on the wall. And I wonder if that’s what first caught the attention of our secretive artist. But I would be intrigued to know why he sketched what he sketched. For he has made part of the drawing a quotation from the bible:
Where is the wiseman?
Where is the scholar?
Where is the philosopher of this age?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Underneath that he has written 1 Corinthians 1 verse 20. It’s not a strict translation of the text as I couldn’t find it in all the versions of the Bible I have at home. So perhaps it’s his or her own translation or quotation from memory. The artist has also written the name Martie Lylucha if I’ve managed to decipher the handwriting.
What’s it all about? A good question. I wondered whether it might be a criticism of the crazy world in which we live where the money markets have gone mad, where people starve in countries that are rich in resources, where some people earn phenomenally large incomes and others teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. Is it more of a philosophical comment on the futility of life which appears to be going nowhere? Have we another Kierkegaard in our midst? Are we now sitting under the judgement of God having been so profligate with all that he has given us?
Of course, if you go back to the rest of the text in the opening chapter of 1 Corinthians from which our artist quoted you will see that Paul is building up an argument that contrasts our foolishness with God’s wisdom by ironically suggesting that God’s ‘foolishness’ is seen in the gospel itself which is indeed wiser than the wisdom of men. So what is this foolishness? What is God’s foolishness?
Well: I need to take you back to our graffiti. For above the quotation is drawn a face. It is clearly for me a picture of Christ because you can just see in the matted hair a crown of thorns. The eyes too are wide open, taking in everything but with a sense of pain at the futility of what he sees going on round about him. Perhaps futility is the wrong word because Christ’s mission is anything but futile. It is profound and it is good news because it shows God to be so in love with his people and his creation that he is prepared to suffer for it and to take on its sufferings and follies as if they were his own – when they are not.
We heard of something of the foolishness of God in our readings today. Fancy talking to an old man like Abram and making him take a journey at his age when he should have been thinking or retirement! That’s to say nothing of Sarah having children at her age! But the foolishness of God in choosing Abraham was that he was a man who could keep his promise and who would follow through whatever was asked of him. Ask his son Isaac about Abraham’s trust in God and you will know how far he trusted God to provide. And in Abraham we have the one who connects three world religions – Judaism, Islam and Christian.
How foolish of God to trust a man like Peter as a disciple and eventually first leader of the church when he was likely not always to catch on about what was really happening. In the gospel reading today it picks up from the point where he has expressed his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and then, as we heard takes Jesus to one side and tells him he is wrong about his prophetic suffering. This infuriates Jesus. Because part of the folly of God is that he is God who suffers for, with and in our place. And Jesus is the one who reveals this to us.
And isn’t this the ultimate folly? That God has so created things that he has to take on the suffering of humanity? Why couldn’t he have created things in another way and avoided all the pain? Perhaps it can’t be done, for if you love then you will also know something of suffering. Ask a parent. Perhaps that’s why Jesus asked us to pray to God ‘our Father’.
This week saw the 80th anniversary of the death of a great priest. Loved by the troops in the dreadful trenches of the First World War where he was their chaplain and distributed Woodbine cigarettes he was affectionately known as Woodbine Willie – real name Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He wanted to help his men to come to a faith in the God who loved them and is seen in the human face of Jesus Christ. So he wrote dialect poems. They are simple, witty, often moving stories about the trenches and where God is to be found. My old parish priest, Evan Pilkington, introduced these poems to Sue and I and our youth fellowship when we were teenagers in his church. They have stuck with me ever since. This one is about judgement day and facing up to God. It is face to face stuff. Hence the link with the face the artist draw outside the cathedral. The closing part goes like this and I’m going to read it in a ‘Sarf Lundin’ accent (which is where I come from!!)
But t’other night I dreamed a dream
And, just ‘twixt me and you
I never dreamed like that afore:
I ‘arf thinks it were true.
I dreamed as I were dead, ye see
At least as I ‘ad died
For I were very much alive
Out there on t’other side.
I couldn’t see no judgement court
Not yet that white great throne
I couldn’t see no record books,
I seemed to stand alone.
I seemed to stand alone, beside
A solemn kind o’ sea.
Its waves they got in my inside
And touched my memory
And day by day, and year by year
My life came back to me.
I seed just what I were, and what
I’d ‘ad the charnce to be.
And all the good I might ‘a’ done
And ‘adn’t stopped to do.
I seed I’d made an ‘ash of it
And Gawd! but it were true.
A throng o’ faces came and went
Afore me on that shore
My wife, and mother, kiddies, pals
And the face of a London whore
And some was sweet, and some was sad
And some put me to shame
For the dirty things I’d done to ‘em
When I ‘and’t played the game.
Then in the silence some one stirred
Like when a sick man groans
And a kind o’ shivering chill ran through
The marrer uv my bones.
And there before me some one stood
Just lookin’dahn at me
And still be’ind ‘Im moaned and moaned
That everlastin’ sea
I couldn’t speak, I felt as though
‘E ‘ad me by the throat
Twere like a drownin’ fellah feels
Last moment ‘e’s afloat.
And ‘E said nowt, ‘E just stood still
For I dunno ‘ow long.
It seemed to me like years and years,
But time out there’s all wrong.
“What was ‘E like?” you’re askin’ now.
Can’t word it anyway
E just were ‘Im, that’s all I knows.
There’s things as words can’t say.
It seemed to me as though ‘Is face
Were millions rolled in one;
It never changed yet always changed,
Like the sea beneath the sun.
‘Twere all men’s face yet no man’s face
And a face no man can see
And it seemed to say in silent speech
“Ye did ‘em all to Me.
The dirty things ye did to ‘em
The filth ye though was fine
Ye did ‘em all to ME,” it said
“For all their souls were Mine”,
All eyes was in ‘Is eyes-all eyes
My wife’s and a million more;
And once I thought as those two eyes
Were the eyes of the London whore.
And they was sad my Gawd, ‘ow sad
Wiv tears what seemed to shine
And quivering bright we’ the speech o’ light
They said, “Er soul was Mine”.
And then at last ‘E said one word
‘E just said one word-“Well?”
And I said in a funny voice,
“Please can I go to ’Ell?”
And ’E stood there and looked at me,
And ’E seemed to grow,
Till ’E shone like the sun above me ’ead,
And then ’E answered “No,
You can’t, that ’Ell is for the blind,
And not for those that see.
You know that you’ve earned it, lad,
So you must follow Me.
Follow me on by the paths o’ pain, Seeking what you ’ave seen,
Until at last you can build the ‘Is’
Wi’ the bricks o’ the ‘Might ’ave been.’”
That’s what ‘E said, as I’m alive,
And that there dream were true.
But wa’ E meant – I don’t quite know,
Though I knows what I ’as to do.
I’s got to follow what I’s seen,
Till this old carcass dies;
For I daren’t face in the land o’ grace
The sorrow o’ those eyes.
There ain’t no throne, and there ain’t no books,
It’s ’Im you’ve got to see,
It’s ’Im, just ’Im, that is the Judge
Of blokes like you and me.
And, boys, I’d sooner frizzle up,
I’ the flames of a burning ’Ell,
Than stand and look into ’Is face,
And ’ear ’Is voice say – “Well?”
I wonder whether the artist outside is asking the same question, Well? Where is the wisdom? It is the wisdom of love seen in and through the face of Jesus Christ. Have a look at the face our pavement artist has drawn and see something of what that poem is saying............
1 part of the poem Well in The Unutterable Beauty by G.A. Studdert Kennedy p 137 pub by Hodder and Stoughton 1961