I Corinthians 2:1-16
The Cold War was on. The Russians were winning the space race. Two dogs and cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin had all successfully been launched into space and returned alive. Here in the States, NASA was working feverishly to catch up. They were preparing to launch an astronaut into space to orbit the earth. While what we have seen in old recordings and movies are rooms filled with white men – scientists and engineers of various kinds – there were also many women who worked at NASA. You might assume that they were secretaries and assistants, but there were also women who were human computers. There were black women who were human computers. That is the story behind the movie Hidden Figures. Three of those women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, are the main subjects of the film and they were essential to the success of the space program. They are also three of the most incredible women I have seen depicted in film in a long time.
Katherine Johnson was a mathematician of extraordinary genius. While I’m still astounded by 2 + 2 always equaling 4, she was computing equations that I don’t have language to describe. Mrs. Johnson was assigned to work directly with those white men to do the math required to launch a man successfully into space and to return him safely to the earth.
In the movie, Johnson’s new assignment was in a different building. The building where she and the other black women generally worked was separate from the rest of the NASA complex. When Johnson walked into the room where she would now be working, someone walked by and stuck a full trash can on top of the papers she was carrying and said,
“This didn’t get emptied last night.”
Even when it was established that she was not a custodian, she was not treated any more respectfully. In one corner of the large room there was a table with a coffee urn set up, along with cups, creamers, sugar, etc. Johnson poured herself a cup of coffee and turned to see all of the men glaring at her. The next day, there was a smaller coffee pot labeled “colored.” There wasn’t any coffee made in it so she had to do that as well.
But one of the points driven home in the movie, and one that I never thought of, was the issue of bathrooms. Again on her first day, Johnson went to ask the only other woman working in that level where the ladies room was. The woman answered,
“I don’t know where your bathroom is.”
This is when a large part of NASA was located in
a state in the segregated South. Black folks and white folks did not use the
same restroom. There were no restrooms for Katherine in the entire building, or
any of the other buildings except for the one where she and her fellow human
computers worked. In order to use the restroom, she had to run to another
building then run back. Each time she carried her work with her so she could
continue working. I read that the movie took license with this. In reality the
building that housed the segregated restrooms was not as far away as the movie
makes it seem. But geography aside, Katherine Johnson, a woman of extraordinary
genius, who would be fundamental to the ongoing success of the space program,
could not use the same bathroom as the white women she worked alongside. Forget
water fountains, she couldn’t pour herself a cup of coffee from the same coffee
My point is this, in a building, in a facility, in a program that housed some of the smartest, the brightest, the most gifted people of that generation – maybe any generation – wisdom was lacking. In a place where imagination and talent and genius worked together to do what was deemed impossible, a fundamental knowledge of the commonality of all human beings was in short supply, if not missing entirely.
So we come to Paul. I struggled – as I often seem to when writing my sermons – with how to dig into Paul’s message about wisdom without also giving what I believe to be a false message of anti-intellectualism. I believe that Paul’s words have been used to defend that stance. I do not think that Paul was trying to say that knowledge, reason, or being smart was an affront to God. Okay, maybe he was, but if so I wholeheartedly disagree with Paul on that point. Yet, I do not think he was. Paul was schooled as a Pharisee. His knowledge of the Law, his education and intellectualism would have been greatly admired and respected in that culture. He was also a master of rhetoric. Even as he assured the church in
Corinth that he did
not come to them “proclaiming the mystery of God … in lofty words or wisdom,”
he was using wisdom and rhetoric. In verse 6 he seemingly contradicts
everything he said in verses 1 through 5.
I didn’t come to you proclaiming God in words of wisdom, but on the other hand we do speak wisdom to those who are mature. Wait, what? However, Paul stated that the wisdom he and others who were spiritually mature understood was not the same wisdom of that age and of the rulers of that time. This was wisdom about God. The wisdom of God that he spoke was “secret and hidden.” It was wisdom about mystery, yet mystery explained is no longer mystery. So what was Paul talking about?
Paul was not referring to a wisdom that comes from learning, but a wisdom that comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God gives wisdom. The Spirit of God reveals that which cannot be understood in any other way. We speak the wisdom of God because of the Holy Spirit and because we see Christ crucified.
That is not a literal seeing. That is a seeing of perception. As one commentator pointed out, when Paul wrote about the cross it was in the language of transformation, of seeing, of visualizing. The cross was no longer the instrument of death that killed Jesus. It was more than a symbol of faith – no matter how sacred. The cross was a lens in which those who believed, those who had seen God revealed through the Holy Spirit, saw the world.
The cross is a lens in which we who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit see the world. We see the world through the cross, through Christ crucified. What is the cross a symbol of? What does our knowledge of Jesus tell us, teach us about God? If Jesus gave us the fullest vision and understanding of God, then God must stand with the powerless and the vulnerable. God considers the least of these. God loves even the most unlovable. God loves the world. God loves us as we are, in flesh and blood. How do we know this? Because God became flesh and blood.
This Word made flesh went to the cross obediently. The cross may have been a method of death and power for those who killed Jesus, but to us it is God’s self-sacrificing love in the world and for the world. It is a symbol of God’s power that is not based on might, but is based on love.
So if we are speaking God’s wisdom, then we are speaking of wisdom that we know with more than just the reason of our minds, but through the expanding of our hearts. As those who believe, as those who have been given the gift of the Spirit, we see the world through the lens of the cross.
Paul ends this section by writing, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Does that mean that we see perfectly or think perfectly? No, I don’t believe so because we are not perfect beings. Even with the mind of Christ, our thoughts, our words, our actions are still influenced by our contexts. Yet a commentator described having the mind of Christ as having the imagination to see beyond what our senses tell us. Having the mind of Christ is “imagination in action.” We are able to imagine what God’s world, our world could be, should be, and we can put our imaginations into action. We can imagine with our feet and our hands as well as with our minds.
We who have the mind of Christ are not limited to or by the world’s wisdom. The world’s wisdom said that people who had darker skin pigmentation were not equal to those with lighter – no matter how smart, creative or innovative they were. But the wisdom of God says that the labels we use for others and the categories we place others in are artificial. In Christ they are broken down. In Christ they are revealed for the nonsense they are.
We who have the mind of Christ recognize that what the world sees as folly and foolishness is actually a revelation of God’s most wonderful love and grace. We who have the mind of Christ have been given the gift to imagine what the world could be and what it should be. We have the mind of Christ. We have imagination in action. So let’s not only speak God’s wisdom, let’s witness to it with our words, our hands and our feet. Thanks be to God.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.