Sermon preached May 26, 2013
First United Methodist Church, Duluth
Texts: Proverbs 8:1-5; John 16:12-15
Many of you are familiar with the concept of the “lectionary.” The Ecumenical Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings – Psalm, Old Testament, Gospel, and New Testament – for each Sunday of the year. It is widely used in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. I typically follow the readings, though will not this summer in the series on “sticky scriptures” I am offering.
Today’s readings seemed to have something to do with wisdom, so I thought I would preach about it. Wisdom. Nice idea in the abstract, but was this really a wise choice?
We humans are not always so wise, or even so bright. Here are some label instructions which suggest that we have a long way to go. On a Sears hair dryer: Do not use while sleeping. On a bag of Fritos: You could be a winner! No purchase necessary. Details inside. On a bar of Dial soap: Directions: Use like regular soap. On a Swanson frozen dinner: Serving suggestion: Defrost. On a bread pudding: Product will be hot after heating. On an iron: Do not iron clothes on body. On most packages of Christmas lights: For indoor or outdoor use only. On an American Airlines packet of nuts: Instructions: Open packet, eat nuts. On a child’s Superman costume: Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.
Wisdom may be calling out, but you have to wonder if anyone is listening. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, renders Proverbs 8:5, which in the NRSV reads – “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” – this way: Listen you idiots – learn good sense! You blockheads – shape up! Sometimes we may be a little blockheaded.
Yet, we live in an information age. There is more information out there available more quickly than many of us would have imagined thirty years ago. When I first attended UMD, there was computer registration for classes. You had to go to the gym, stand in long lines, and pull computer punch cards to register, and it was always frustrating when you finally got to the table and there were no more cards for the class you wanted to take. Now my phone has more memory than the first home computer we bought. Information it might once have taken days to find out, maybe because you had to go to the library to look it up, can be received in minutes through an internet search, or a phone service like “cha cha.” We live in an age of Wikipedia and Twitter – loads of information, instantaneous information, but I am not sure we would call this information age an age of wisdom.
Bombarded with information, the words of Mick Jagger still seem pretty true, about the guy on the radio speaking “about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination” (“Satisfaction”). The words of Bruce Springsteen still seem relevant: “there was fifty-seven channels and nothing on” (“57 Channels – and nothing on”). Do I really need to know the latest drama about the Kardashians, or Linday Lohan’s latest legel problem. Fifty-seven channels and nothing on, indeed!
Our information age has not necessarily made us less prone to blockheadedness. The information age has not magically produced an age of wisdom. Information and wisdom seem distinct, so what is “wisdom”? It is certainly not simply the accumulation of facts and information, though facts and information matter. It is not just thinking that has lasted. The phrase “conventional wisdom” indicates that our sense of what is truly wise can change, that the wisdom from the past, while important, also needs to be critically examined. The American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, defines wisdom this way: the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight. Wisdom has to do with discernment, which has to do with knowing, but more importantly, with orienting our lives.
When I think of wisdom, I often think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change, the courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Wisdom has to do with discernment and with orienting our lives. For Christians, it also has to do with God’s grace. God grant us grace, and in grace wisdom. The Biblical tradition sees wisdom as paying attention to God, listening for the voice of the Spirit. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” Later on in Proverbs 8 wisdom is portrayed as being with God at the beginning of creation, “rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” In John, Jesus says that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and truth here, is best understood as wisdom. The pastor and theologian Andrew Shanks puts it well. The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly change. Changed, in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5) To hear the voice of wisdom is to hear the challenge to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed.
Wisdom for Christians has to do with the grace of God, with the work of God’s Spirit, with the person of Jesus. Marcus Borg: Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. What he taught was “a way of transformation” and “his teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world” (Jesus: A New Vision, 97). In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus is the one in whom the very wisdom of God, the logos of God, present at creation, becomes embodied – grace and truth, grace and wisdom.
For Christians, wisdom has to do with the grace of God, with the work of God’s Spirit, with the person of Jesus. And we believe in a living God, a living presence. This wisdom of God, this Spirit-voice, still speaks. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” Wisdom’s call “is to all that live.” The voice of wisdom still calls us to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed. The great challenge in our day and time is that there are so many voices, so much noise. While you would think and information age might also be an age of wisdom, we often risk losing wisdom in a flood of information. So many voices vie for our attention. Our task is to stay tuned, to pay attention.
One night Rabbi Isaac was told in his dream to go to far away Prague and there to dig for treasure under a bridge that led to the palace of the King. Rabbi Isaac paid little attention to the dream, until it recurred four or five times. He then made up his mind to go. When he arrived at the bridge he found, to his dismay, that it was heavily guarded by soldiers both day and night. All Rabbi Isaac could do was gaze at the bridge from some distance. But since he was there every morning, the captain of the guards took notice, and one day asked Rabbi Isaac what was going on. The rabbi was embarrassed to tell the captain of the guards about his dream, but seeing little alternative, and finding the man congenial, he shared his story. The captain roared with laughter. “Good heavens! You, a rabbi taking your dreams so seriously. If I were so silly as to act on my dreams, I would be wandering around Poland today. I, too have had a recurrent dream – a voice keeps telling me to go to Krakow and dig for treasure in the corner of the kitchen of one Isaac, son of Ezechiel. Now wouldn’t it be stupid of me to wander around Krakow looking for someone named Isaac, and someone else named Ezechiel? How many such people are there?” The rabbi, stunned by what he heard, thanked the captain, returned to his own home, dug up the corner of his kitchen, and found a treasure abundant enough to keep him comfortable til his death. (Anthony DeMillo, The Heart of the Enlightened, 177-178).
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice, still? Stay tuned – through worship, prayer, silence, self-reflection, deep conversation, deep conversation with the Bible and tradition, deep conversation with others. Stay tuned, pay attention.
One final thought on this Memorial Day weekend. We need to search for wisdom in our national life as well as in our individual lives and our church life. So many in our political culture seem more oriented to shaping information, to spin it, in the interest of winning the next election, than in seeking wisdom in the midst of complex issues like national security and care for the environment. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel issued wise words when he wrote a number of years ago: By what standards do we measure culture? It is customary to evaluate a nation by the magnitude of its scientific contributions or the quality of its artistic achievements. However, the true standard by which to gauge a culture is the extent to which reverence, compassion, justice are to be found in the daily lives of a whole people, not only in the acts of isolated individuals (The Insecurity of Freedom, 72). These words are echoed more recently by Jim Wallis in his new book On God’s Side: The prerequisite for solving the deepest problems this country and the world now face is a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good. How do we work together, even with people who we don’t agree with? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? (xi).
This weekend we will remember those who gave their lives for a better United States and a better world. Isn’t one of the best memorials we can give to continue the work toward a better future? I think this is true for both the church and the world. We stand on many shoulders here, and within this past year we added another set of them as Chester Park UMC and First UMC merged. Becoming the best First UMC we can be honors those who gave so much to our churches. Becoming the best nation we can be honors those who gave themselves to and for our country.
Wisdom calls. Wisdom’s call is the challenge to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more, and so to be changed. Wisdom’s call is to be changed and to work for positive change in church and world, honoring the work of so many others. That’s what we are up to here, by God’s grace and Spirit. By God’s grace and Spirit we are staying tuned to the voice of wisdom in a very noisy world. Amen.