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The Risk of Wisdom

“The Risk of Wisdom”

The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry


Matthew 22.23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.” Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.


I recently read a portion of a speech given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; it was delivered in 2016.  It was a commencement address. The speech was to the graduating 9th grade class of Cardigan Mountain Academy.  Roberts’ son was graduating and as all ninth-grade boys would hope, his dad spoke to his peers. 

The portion of the speech I read made the tour of the internet and perhaps you saw it when it appeared.  It’s catchy in that Roberts wishes the boys, and it was all boys as it is a boarding school for boys, Roberts wishes the graduating class bad luck.  He suggested that most commencement speakers wish the graduates good luck; he chose to offer the opposite.

He said:

"From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion." 

There were other parts to his speech.  He quoted Bob Dylan and Socrates, both good moves.  Roberts asked the graduates to give their parents a round of applause so he could say his speech was interrupted by such.  I imagine Roberts knew his son well enough to take the risk of a rather unorthodox approach, wishing young men bad luck.  You got a sense with his use of the phrase just enough or from time to time that what he really wished for his son and his fellow graduates was not really bad luck; what he hoped for them was the courage we muster when things don’t go our way.

Although not quoted, Roberts was offering the perspective of Frederick Nietzsche who suggested, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. At the heart of this axiom is a dare to leap into the fray of life: I dare you to live a life where you become more.  When you get knocked down, get up.  When disappointment robs your joy, persist, do not yield, persevere.  And you can hear this in my favorite part of the speech where Roberts offers the most important part of a good life: the freedom of not being afraid to fail.

I don’t like to fail; I don’t to like to lose.  No one in their right mind does.  Yet, as Roberts’ speech makes so clear: my stumbles and fumbles have been the greatest lessons.  This is where I gained courage; loss often created the place for a greater victory.

This is not only true in the shaping of character and the finding of what it means to be yourself, this also is the very bedrock of science.  In science, the notion of failure, the value of the mistake, the wrong theory, is called the heuristic principle.  The heuristic principle is the truth to be found in all research.  We use our failures to find what is true.  And once a scientist finds what is true, they leave it behind and go off looking for something else they don’t know, something they yet fail to grasp.  All scientific discovery is born of mistakes, not success.

The religious authorities who question Jesus, who seek to challenge him, or entrap him, are not a very flexible lot.  It is fair to say that they might not have been led to give the speech of Chief Justice Roberts.  It would be hard to imagine a Sadducee quoting Bob Dylan.  This may not be a fair assessment, but I see the religious leaders who appear in the gospels as rather inhibited, uptight, controlling. It’s not that they don’t like mistakes; it is as if they are afraid of failure.

Our reading today is a rather transparent image of people who need to feel like everything is where it is supposed to be, all documents are triple checked, all boxes filled in completely with a number two pencil.  It’s not enough to imagine what heaven may be like, they are looking to determine exactly where people are going to sit and with whom, how they are to be seen. 

That is not really how I imagine or wonder about heaven.  As Bob Dylan said, I am just to get to heaven before they close the door.  But it is not just a vision of heaven where I feel a distance, it is how their question and the fears behind it, how they seek to entrap Jesus that gets to me.  There is a deep need in their question about control, the need of control.

They need to feel that the woman is in the proper place, coded, categorized, and authorized.  My question about the woman and all the brothers is not whose wife should she be, but maybe someone should ask why all these guys died.  I am not sure this level of bad luck should go unquestioned. This is more than a bit of misfortune from time to time.  This is tragedy. Probably nothing to it, but this is a really unfortunate lot.

I am going to take a rather unorthodox approach today.  I am only going to speak to a portion of the congregation.  I trust that there are people here who are afraid of mistakes, who are afraid to fail, who live with a sense of panic when it comes to things being beyond their control.  I will fail today to speak to you.  I will fail for two reasons.  First telling someone who is afraid that they should not be afraid is of no value.  In fact, it makes the fearful more so.  Second Jesus doesn’t address their fear, he dismisses them.  He does. 

He doesn’t speak to their fears, he says, “You do not understand the scriptures or the power of God.”  To say such to us might not lead us to appreciate the insult.  To say such to a religious leader (you don’t understand the scriptures or the power of God) is like saying to a chef, you don’t understand cuisine or cooking; it is like turning to a surgeon and suggesting that anatomy and health is not something they grasp.  Jesus wasn’t making any friends today.

It could be that Jesus was angry about being tested; maybe he was testy.  Maybe.  This is quite the insult.  Maybe he was overreacting, being bombastic.  You don’t know anything.  Perhaps.

But I don’t think so.  I believe what Jesus is challenging is not their intelligence or study habits or sincerity.  A part of me does feel he is annoyed by dumb questions.  Yet, at the heart of his response, I believe, is a moment where he is questioning their need for control.  More directly, Jesus is suggesting that scripture and power are not about control at all. At the heart of each is the possibility of freedom.  He was giving them a radical idea: the scriptures are supposed to set you free; the power of God is to remove our shackles not polish them.

I came upon the speech of Chief Justice Roberts in a book called The Coddling of the American Mind.  Good book. If you are raising children younger than 30 it would be worth your time to read.  The speech of Roberts was used to suggest a less than coddled mind, a rejection of what the authors call “safetyism.” 

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore the millennial generation in their book and they are concerned that good intentions, good desire of parents and coaches and educators and probably even clergy-types have taken safety, something good, too far.  They are rather obsessed with what are called safe spaces on college campuses. 

And this is something I didn’t understand.  I thought safe space was about public safety, the ability to move about the campus without being harassed or accosted.  But it’s not a physical danger; it is an intellectual one.  Safe spaces on campuses today are meant to be a context where you will not encounter ideas you dislike or find threatening.  It is safety from debate, from contrary views, from, well, for me the whole point of going to college, a place to challenge the limit of my perspective.

There is a great deal more to their work than the oddity of “safe spaces.”  But is cuts to the theme of their work, the main point, that challenge, failure, set back, bad luck is the source of growth. 

A pediatrician asked me once what I believed was the biggest challenge and difference children face today as compared to my childhood.  He was surprised by my response.  He expected me to say social media or technology or television or video games.  That was not what I believe has made the biggest difference for children today.  I said, the biggest difference I can see is the freedom to roam.

 I roamed as a kid.  Summer days from early in the morning until the street lights came on where wide open.  I could go as far on my bike as my feet could take me.  Canyons and riverbeds and the foothills of the San Miguel were an unimpeded door of freedom.  No supervision, no fence, no tracking device in my pocket.  It was freedom and freedom is the whole point of life.

That is why Jesus can say to the Sadducees you don’t understand the scriptures and power of God because you are not looking for freedom.  They were looking for control, to assuage fear, to feel like things were how they were supposed to be. 

I have to say maybe the best part of my childhood was the freedom from control, from fear of mistake, from the hypervigilant eye trying to ensure my safety.  And, like the speech of Chief Justice Roberts, there were moments from time to time of just enough failure.  Crashes and cuts; close calls and moments where I realized that is really dumb. Don’t do that again; you could die.

Please don’t half understand what I am saying here.  I am not an advocate of reckless behavior.  Being stupid is not something to be lauded.  But wisdom is born of risk, not control.  Wisdom is where you risk that everything you thought up to this point is wrong.  You don’t have the answers; you are far from the brightest bulb in the shed.  Being contradicted is a good challenge not something to be eliminated.  Being twenty and not stretching your mind to consider alternative views is the worst path; it is unwittingly the place of least safety. Praise be to God I had professors and mentors and pastors who said, turn things upside down; consider the very good possibility you are just wrong. 

Although I ramble at quite a different speed today and my days of biking are most likely over, I do yet roam.  There is so much more of life to know, to wonder, to explore.  I have so many ideas that are yet to be challenged, to be undone and cast aside for wisdom.  I don’t like to physically fall down.  Not good.  But I do want to stumble over bad questions and confidence misplaced and arrogance and certainty that incarcerates.  I want to stumble so to cast them all aside.  I want more bad luck.  Not all the time.  There is a good pace we can keep without being reckless.  Wisdom is born of risk and the freedom from fear of making mistakes, of failure.  I don’t want to fail.  True.  Yet, as Jesus taught, with the scriptures and the power of God, I don’t have to be afraid; I just have to be free.  Amen.

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

January 29, 2023
Matthew 22:23-33

Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry

Senior Pastor & Head of Staff

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