Pentecost 15/September 13, 2009

First Congregational Church, Lewis, NY
United Church of Christ, Elizabethtown, NY

Woman Wisdom

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
Mark 8:27-38

A Sermon offered by Katharine M. Preston

From our reading of Proverbs for today:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance to the city gates
she speaks:
"How long, O simple ones, will
you love being simple?"
(Proverbs 1: 20-22a)

What an extraordinary passage: We have a personification of wisdom as a woman, and not a silent woman, as most 6th century BCE women were expected to be, but bold, speaking with divine authority!

Clearly, we are meant to sit up and take notice.

I try to visualize this scene. What do you think she was wearing, Woman Wisdom? Was she in the long dress of Palestinian women of her time, a mantle elegantly draped around her head?

What might she wear today? For me, there is a bit of an earth goddess in Woman Wisdom: I imagine a flowing, hippie-like multicolored skirt and top, beads and feathers. For others, she might be an elder, a grandmother-type in calico dress and apron. Or do you see her a bit more austere, white hair pulled back in a bun, perhaps in black judicial robes?

But her voice, her voice! Whatever she is wearing – it quickly becomes secondary to the ringing sound of her voice:

"How long, O simple ones, will
you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in
their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?"

She's tough, crying out to people in the public square and at the city gates, pleading with them to heed her counsel.

I wonder where she might turn up today? At a town hall meeting on health care? In a street demonstration about global warming? In a cabinet discussion about a war in a country that has known war for more than 30 years?

Wisdom: "the knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action." The "coupled with" part is important, because as we all know, the most well informed people are not necessarily the wisest. Dietrich Bonhoffer suggested that wisdom was "to recognize the significance of the factual."

Look at the apostle Peter, for instance, in the gospel reading for today. He seemed to understand the facts: Jesus asks him "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answers: "the Messiah", and probably feels pretty good about getting the correct answer, in front of the rest of the gang.

Things are looking good to Peter – he begins to think he is backing the right guy. But then Jesus starts in on how he is going to be killed by the authorities, buried and then rise from the dead. Peter is not yet wise enough to recognize the significance of this kind of Messiah. He freaks out a bit, takes Jesus aside and "rebukes" him. Whereupon Jesus rebukes him back: "Get thee behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

Poor Peter. He couldn't quite grasp the significance of the facts. In God's world, kingdoms look upside down, a lot different than what we - to this day – imagine kingdoms to be. The last, first; the first, last: you know, that sort of difficult thing we are apt to forget about. This eluded Peter as well, so we are in good company. It is not the final time he would get confused, but wisdom often comes best through learning from your mistakes, and in the end, Peter gets it, and builds a church on the cornerstone of his wisdom.

So, first off, where do we get the true and right knowledge, the facts that we need to be wise?

Our psalm for today, Psalm 19, suggests two sources: creation and the law:

"The heavens are telling the glory
of God;
and the firmament proclaims
God's handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares

Honking geese and goldenrod. Blue chicory and monarch butterflies: declaring knowledge through the glory of God.

Or for those of a less outdoorsy persuasion:

"The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple . . ."

Scripture, songs and stories, inwardly digested.

The information we need is all around us – we just need to look, read, and listen and be attentive.

Okay – but then how do we move beyond just knowing or understanding the options to recognizing the significance of the factual, differentiating between the options and choosing the one that is best, as Woman Wisdom would have us do?

I had a hard time answering this question for myself this week. I mean, how do I make myself wise?

Scripture, especially the Hebrew Bible, tells us: "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".

Hmm. Do I "fear" God? What does that mean to me? Well, a wrathful, vindictive God does not work for me, yet the power I see in creation – from the fury of a thunderstorm to the evolutionary complexity of DNA – certainly does elicit awe. And since Jesus taught us about a God he called "Abba", father, a more appropriate word than "fear" might be respect, reverence.

This is the beginning of wisdom: recognizing that there is something outside of us and within us that is at the same time beyond us and closer than breathing. We are awe-struck by the grace, beauty and love that entails, for it is a "fearful" thing, this kind of love.

The beginning of wisdom is to respect God's view of the situation before us. It is difficult, if not impossible to differentiate between options and choose the one that is best unless we gain a broader perspective than what is just in front of our nose, in the stubborn center of our vision. We need to step back, broaden our peripheral vision and ask ourselves: how does God see this situation?

There is a poet, Mary Oliver, whom some of you might know. She is, in my book, a very wise woman. Here is one of her more famous poems. I think it describes how a broadened perspective can lead us to a point of great wisdom.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Wild Geese, Mary Oliver, 1986)

It is all about perspective – seeing the planet as a small sphere in space, and treating it as the precious gift it is. It is about perspective, seeing all our neighbors as God's children and insisting that they have enough to eat and access to health care. It is about perspective, seeing other cultures and countries as special in God's eyes – maybe for different reasons than just the values we happen to hold dear in 21st century America.

It is a broadened perspective, also of time. One of my favorite sayings, from the Great Law of the Iroquois is "In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation . . ."

Wisdom calls us to take a step back – to heighten our peripheral vision and take in more of the world and more of time – the way God does.

So this morning, as we leave and go back to the things that God has given us to do, let us think on Woman Wisdom crying out to us to heed her counsel. Let us listen, let us read, let us look, and let us pray to be more aware of the perspective of God.

"How long O simple ones, will you love being simple?"

Listen to the calling of the geese.


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