Pastor Jon Hughes
Molalla United Methodist Church
Reflection: June 12, 2022
Scripture for today: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
Reflection: Have You Met Sophia?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
There’s a saying that I suspect you’ve heard, but I’ll repeat it here anyway: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I hadn’t heard this part, but apparently people love to attribute this so-called definition to Albert Einstein, though apparently he never said anything of the sort. I did a little digging into this one and found that the quote actually has its origin in the mystery novel, “Sudden Death,” by Rita Mae Brown in 1983. It is attributed to a fictional person in that book in the quote, “Unfortunately, Susan didn’t remember what Jane Fulton once said. ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.’” It appears that, over the years since that novel was published, insanity has been attributing the quote to Albert Einstein over and over and expecting for that to miraculously become true some day.
Origins of the quote aside, I have a couple of problems with it. First – insanity. We use that term freely – I remember standing at the top of the 10 meter dive platform at the recreation center in my area when I was a kid and thinking, “I must be insane.” I didn’t jump, by the way – I suffered the humiliating but ultimately sensible retreat of shame back down the stairs to the platform. Or we look at the actions of another person and ask them, “are you insane?” when they tell us, for instance, that at the age of 46 they think they’ll go back to school to study for the ministry even though they already have a career in information technology.
We use the word insanity interchangeably with mental illness, when in fact the two aren’t the same thing at all. Insanity, you see, is a legal term – not a term of mental health. It is a term used by courts of law to describe whether a person is in a mental state in which they are unable to determine right from wrong. Despite what we sometimes say with careless words, the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness would never be judged insane – mental illness is something we all too often dismiss as a personal failing or organic flaw in a person and it’s easy to dismiss its sufferers as insane, but that’s so far from the truth. I think that mental illness and our reaction to its sufferers would merit a sermon of its own another day, so I’ll just leave you with this for now: to be insane simply means that, at the time a person committed a crime, they were in a state of mind that rendered them incapable of realizing that their crime was wrong.
So our quote for the day – that insanity is repeating a behavior and expecting different results – really has nothing to do with insanity. Instead, I’m going to suggest today that it’s a quote that better describes foolishness.
Our reading from Proverbs 8 today (welcome back to the Hebrew Bible, by the way – we’ve been pretty much exclusive to the New Testament lately) introduces a character we don’t often hear from in our Biblical stories. Have you met Sophia? She’s the subject of our reading today, and she’s pretty amazing. We often think of God from before the beginning of time as just God. Alone in the void. On this Trinity Sunday I suppose it’s proper to think of God as existing in that mysterious state – one in three, three in one, one God existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine persons: God the Creator, God the Redeemer (Jesus Christ) and God the Sustainer (Holy Spirit), three distinct persons sharing one homoousion (essence). In this context, the three persons define who God is, while the one essence defines what God is. Does that all help you feel closer to God? Not me…
Today we learn that there was more than just an eternal deity mumbling in the void before the creation of the universe. There was also Sophia, the very first creation. Sophia was there with God before there was an Earth. Before the water, before the mountains, before anything else but God. Sophia sat beside God as the wonders of creation flowed from the divine mind, and as we learn in verse 30, Sophia “was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.”
Can you imagine being there as Sophia was, watching the bloom of the first creation? It’s hard to picture! I think the closest I can come to imagining it would be the image from the book, “The Magician’s Nephew,” by C. S. Lewis – part of “The Chronicles of Narnia” series that I devoured as a kid. In the book – number six in the series of seven – the characters find themselves in a black place with no sound, no stars, no sense of anything. Until, that is, a voice starts to sing and a brand new world is created around them; stars appear in the sky, a breeze touches their faces, light grows, mountains appear, grasses and trees spring forth, and animals burst out of the ground ready to frolic in the new world. That book doesn’t have a Sophia character, but that’s what I imagine it was like to be God’s companion, witnessing the bloom of a universe where once there was nothing.
I suppose you’re all getting really annoyed with me talking about this Sophia person without giving more detail to her, so here she is. Sophia, in the ancient Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint, is the word for wisdom. It’s not a word exclusive to the Bible, and in English translations I’m not aware that it ever appears – they use our English word instead. Yet, Wisdom – Sophia – isn’t just depicted in the Bible as a static thing, a description of someone who uses their knowledge and experience carefully and with good judgement. Wisdom in many passages is described as an aspect of God – as in this case, when we see Wisdom as the companion of God during the creation. But more important than that, Wisdom is described as feminine characteristics of God. Passages that refer to Wisdom describe it in female terms and emphasize the universal nature of God. A society ruled by men managed to mold our mental image of God into that of a wise old man sitting on a throne, his flowing white hair swirling alluringly in the breeze – but that male-centered society either forgot that the Bible also gives God a feminine side or they chose to exclude that. I suspect the latter. They didn’t forget, they just didn’t want to acknowledge it. I think we should embrace it – to ignore such a crucial aspect of God’s character is just plain foolish…
Foolish. Yep – the opposite of wise. Throughout the Bible we find references to the foolish…man. Of course, to describe the foolish person in male terms is another bias of those who transcribe and translate scripture, but if you, like me, have ever been a Cub Scout leader you probably won’t argue with it too much. Boys can be real fools, making choices that clearly have consequences that are detrimental to both health and disciplinary freedom.
It can be really entertaining to search through the Bible for its statements about fools. Proverbs is a gold mine for such statements, though they appear throughout. Try some of these: Proverbs 18:2 – “Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing their opinion.” Proverbs 29:11 – “Fools show all their anger, but the wise hold it back.” Proverbs 28:26 – “Those who trust in their own reasoning are fools, but those who walk in wisdom will be kept safe.”
That last one really hits me these days. How often, as we are dealing with ongoing restrictions and fears because of the troubles of the world, have we trusted our own reasoning to guide us instead of asking what God would have us do? I’ve really been pondering that.
I mentioned that mythical information technology tech who returned to school at the age of 46. There were those who proclaimed that he was foolish to turn his back on a career that would easily see him through to retirement. There were those who said he would be a fool to take on the cost of the education. There were those who declared that it was foolish to go into what they saw as a dying profession. And then there was that IT guy himself who, after 25 years of foolishly following his own counsel, of foolishly telling himself that he could ignore a call from God, let his own reasoning fall away and instead held his arms open for the embrace of Sophia – for the embrace of wisdom that led him to a vocation that brings peace and understanding.
I wonder sometimes about our own church right here. We’re small and getting smaller it seems. I can look at our finances, our activities, and our own people and sometimes my mind wanders to the practicality of keeping things going. It hurts my soul to think that way – and I’ve only been here a couple of years! Some of you sitting in here today count your membership in decades, not years, and you remember a congregation full of activity and people and kids and now sit here in a room that’s so empty it almost echoes. It’s frustrating. Trying to do church here in the Pacific Northwest – the most unchurched part of the United States – is challenging in the best of times, but to have a pandemic hammer us for two years…wow, it’s been rough. It seems perfectly reasonable to share that passage from 2 Timothy 4:7 – “ I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”
But…well, have you met Sophia? Have we paused to listen for God’s wisdom? I’ve been trying. It can be really hard, you know? Sitting back and stilling your mind and listening for that quiet voice of God can be such a challenge, because there’s that question that will whisper at the back of our minds – what if it’s not God we’re hearing? What if it’s not wisdom? What if God really is telling us it’s okay to declare the race completed?
My answer is…I have to give God a better chance to speak. I have learned from my own experience that God’s way will become clear even if it takes time, but sometimes the voice of Wisdom takes a while to break through the noise of our own reasoning.
My friends, I think the road in front of us is going to be rough for a while yet, but I think we have things to try to smooth it out before we declare the race won. I could talk for hours about ideas and plans to breathe fresh life into our church – don’t worry, I won’t right now. One thing I realized recently, though, is that maybe we need to be remembering that definition of insanity – or as I prefer to think of it, of foolishness. The world has changed a lot in the past few decades; it has changed a whole lot in just the last couple of years. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and over and expect the same results we saw in the past century. People no longer come to church because it’s just the thing you do on a Sunday morning. People are no longer satisfied to hear a preacher talk about the old man on a throne with a surprisingly toned body. When I visit with people in this congregation, I hear a heart and soul that has so much to offer this community, but I think we need to look into new ways of sharing that message.
Let me finish up by repeating part of Eugene Peterson’s translation of Romans 5:15 – “There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.”
There is more to come, friends, even when we’re hemmed in with troubles. We need to keep alert for that voice of Wisdom. That doesn’t mean just sitting back and listening for the voice – it means making an effort to listen for it. It means trying new things. Shouting our praises in new ways. It means finding ways to reach new people who will embrace the message and take it forward.
My son graduates from college today. I graduated 32 years ago with my back to God’s call. So many times I’ve looked back on that time and wished I’d listened to God, but there’s no wisdom in looking back at things I can’t change. But I can say that when I did finally accept it my life became so much better. Not easier – better. God is calling all of us through the voice of Sophia – let’s listen to her!