Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
James V. Stockton
Conventional wisdom: I wonder if it isn’t almost a contradiction in terms. There is a wisdom, I suggest, in people gathering today to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. But it is a wisdom that is, I suggest, more extraordinary than conventional. Conventional wisdom may have some people sleeping late this morning. After all, conventional wisdom tells them that they’ve endured a long busy week and another long busy week lies ahead of them; so, they should rest up in preparation for it. Conventional wisdom may have some folks out on the lake this morning, enjoying some leisure time. Conventional wisdom tells them they’ve earned, so they’d be fools not to take it. Conventional wisdom also tells people sometimes when it’s time to give up, or why it’s senseless to continue trying, or to try at all in the first place. There’s a saying that holds that the person who says it can’t be done should move out of the way of the person doing it. Maybe people should wonder: ‘Is conventional wisdom’ almost a contradiction in terms?’
There is a story of the Rt. Rev. Milton Wright. He was a bishop of the United Brethren Church which was shortly to join a similar denomination to form the Untied Methodists. In 1890, Bishop Wright is speaking at the Church’s annual convention. The convention is held at a local college. At one point in the meeting, the president of the college rises to speak. “I think,” says he, “that we are living in a very exciting age.” “What do you see?” asks the presiding bishop. The college president replies, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe for example,” he says, “that [one day soon, people] will fly through the air like birds.” “What!” exclaims the bishop. Shocked, he cries out, “This is heresy! The bible says that flight is reserved for the angels.” His was the conventional wisdom of the day.
Conventional wisdom: it may be a contradiction in terms. Conventional wisdom certainly contradicts the wisdom that gathers people, Episcopalian and otherwise, to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. Conventional wisdom is, by definition, so very conventional that it hardly ever celebrates at all.
When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held in some form or another, that people do best to take care of themselves, and their own interests, and to protect their things from others who might use them or even take them? When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one ought not try to rise too far above one’s station in society? When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one should go along to get along, to go along with things as they are in order to avoid trouble for oneself. When, if ever, has conventional wisdom not held that one should take for oneself the most that one can get away with taking: in ancient times, that one should take as much as possible of the food gathered for the day; or more recently, as much as possible of the money in the budget, before someone else makes off with it, and you’re left hungry and tired?
And with conventional wisdom offering such wonderful and encouraging advice, when, if ever, has conventional wisdom been the cause for real celebration? It isn’t conventional wisdom that gathers Christians today to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection.
‘The believers devoted themselves to the things that the apostles taught and to the fellowship that they created.’ They devoted themselves to breaking bread together and to praying together. As the first reading for today tells us, there is nothing at all conventional in the way the first Christians gather, either. The first Christians don’t gather up their private stuff and money, which is exactly what most people would do. Instead, they sell what they have in order to make sure that each has what he or she might need. It’s completely unconventional, and maybe this is part of the reason why these early Christians enjoy the good will of everyone else around them. It’s unconventional, and it’s a celebration. And there’s nothing really conventionally wise about people like you and me gathering today to carry on with the celebration that they began.Ours is a traditional Church, the Episcopal Church. It’s long history traces back, yes, to the England of the Renaissance. But out history goes back even further, all the way to the apostles of Jesus and to all the way back to this very celebration described for us in the book of Acts, the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Conventional? In the sense that we hold our traditions respectfully, sure. For they are not ours alone; they belong also to those generations of Christians in whose path we follow, and to those generations of Christians who will follow us, celebrating the wisdom of Jesus, always unconventional.
When, if ever, would conventional wisdom have chosen fishermen to carry on the movement that Jesus began? When, if ever, would conventional wisdom have chosen a couple of spinster sisters and a ‘professional woman,’ shall we say, to be at the center of Jesus’ circle of followers and friends? When, if ever, would conventional wisdom encourage people to embrace their identity as sheep, and as part of the flock? But Jesus does it, and thanks be to God, our good shepherd is anything but conventional. Jesus says, ‘I am the entryway into life and life everlasting.’ Jesus says, ‘You follow me, and I’ll lead the way.’ Jesus says, ‘You go out when I go out, and you come in when I come in, and I’ll be watching over you every moment and every step of the way.’ The conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day was telling him to gather his own, to keep the others out. But in Jesus, God shows us that conventional wisdom never leads to the extraordinary.
Jesus says, ‘I want anyone and everyone to come to me. I don’t care if they look like I look. I don’t care if they speak like I speak. I don’t care if they come from my people or someone else’s. I don’t care if they know my name. I only care that they recognize my voice. I only care that they care that, in what I say, in how I say it, and in what I refuse to say, at last they hear the good news that God loves them, and is calling them to know this Love.’ Thanks be to God for the wisdom of our good shepherd.
In Jesus’ day and in our own, conventional wisdom says ‘Hey, it’s easier to look the other way while the thief or the bandit come in.’ Conventional wisdom tells us always to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ But Jesus says, ‘I will give my life before I’ll allow another to make off with a sheep that rightfully belongs to God, with a soul that God is trying to love.’ Thanks be to God that Jesus’ wisdom is wiser than convention.
The bishop at the convention asks the college president to speak, and the president speaks of things most unconventional. “We are coming to a time,” says he, “of great inventions. I believe that [people] will fly through the air like birds.” “What!” exclaims the bishop. “This is heresy! The bible says that flight is reserved for the angels.” The bishop looks around at the meeting. “We’ll have no more of such talk here!” Having set things right, the bishop returns home from the convention. There he passes out to his children some gifts that he brought for them. The two younger boys get a little wooden spinner. Powered by a rubber band, when the boys wind it up, it flies through the air. Content and comfortable, he thanks God, this Bishop Milton Wright, as his two sons, Wilbur and Orville, set to playing with their new flying toy.
It is a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom far beyond convention and comfort. It’s a wisdom of God’s own granting that moves us to celebrate Jesus and his resurrection, and our own. It’s a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom beyond all convention and mediocrity, bringing us to one another to see, to hear, and to feel God’s own joy in celebrating us, God’s own people, to know God’s own Love for you and me. It’s a wisdom that gathers us today, a wisdom beyond all convention and complacency, calling us to gather with us all those in the world around us who are straining to hear that voice that their heart will recognize: that voice that speaks without contradiction of the unconventional love of God; the extraordinary love of God for all.
And so may Almighty God, by whose mercy we find both rest and confidence, inspire our witness to him who gave himself on our behalf, and for the whole world; that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns One God, now and for ever. Amen.
© 2008, James V. Stockton