20 August 2012

Sermon on Proverbs 9 from Sunday, August 19: "The voice of Wisdom where we are"

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Proverbs 9:1-6 (Proper 15, Year B, RCL)

God meets us in our mess. Jesus blesses our human experience by coming down from heaven and sharing that experience in the Incarnation. We are sanctified by the living Christ as if by the smoke of a hundred and eighty pound thurible swung from the heavens. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this was part of Deacon Eric’s point in last week’s sermon. God meets us in our mess, the mess of our human lives.

That’s certainly a very scriptural idea. Just think of the Bible’s cast of rather slippy characters. We read that it’s up to trickster patriarchs, turncoat prostitutes, self-righteous prophets, and a persecutor of the church to accomplish the work that God has purposed. Their lives are a mess, and yet they not only meet God along the way, they become the agents of God’s will.

At first glance, the Book of Proverbs looks like something of a counterexample. There seems to be very little mess here, partly because there are so few actual characters. What we get instead is verse after verse of disembodied, almost clinical wisdom. Like this: “The wise are cautious and turn away from evil, but the fool throws off restraint and is careless.”1 Or this: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”2 Or this: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in [it], bear [it] that the opposed may beware of thee.”3

OK, so that last one is from Hamlet. In fact, I’ve long suspected Shakespeare of simply lifting some obscure chapter of Proverbs and inserting it as Polonius’s parting advice to his son Laertes in Act I.4 I’d love on some rainy Saturday to sit down with my Bible and read Proverbs straight through to convince myself otherwise once and for all. But the truth is, I’d probably end up rereading Hamlet instead, because Hamlet, like most of the rest of the Bible, is full of characters and the messes they create. The mess is what we can relate to.

So perhaps today is our invitation to learn to love the Book of Proverbs, because today we are reminded that this book, and others like it, do indeed have some characters, including one that we will meet in some unexpectedly messy places if we look for her.

We read elsewhere in scripture that she calls to us “[o]n the heights, beside the way, [and] at the crossroads …beside the gates in front of the town, [and] at the entrance of the portals.”5 Her “mouth [utters] truth; [for] wickedness is an abomination to [her] lips.”6 “[S]he knows the things of old, and infers the things to come,”7 perhaps because “[t]he LORD created [her] at the beginning …the first of [God’s] acts of long ago.”8 Proverbs says she was “beside” God “like a master worker” and was, as one scholar translates, the LORD’s “delight day by day[,] [p]laying before [God] all the while, playing on the surface of [the] earth.”9 [Pause.] Whoever this character is, she is full of deep understanding but also the creative impishness that speaks beauty into being.

As many of you know, her name is Wisdom, so wisdom becomes not just a thing dispensed in Proverbs but the person dispensing it. Wisdom is, among other things, the very voice of the God we hear along the way on our messy human journey. We meet her today when she has built a house and prepared a banquet: “she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here! …Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’’’10

To encounter Wisdom as an embodied person is key to appreciating the entire book of Proverbs, because it reminds us that all those disembodied sayings are the lessons of real Israelites in their encounter with her in the messes of their lives. She reminds us, in the words of Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad, that “experiences of the world” are “divine experiences as well.”11 To know Wisdom is to know the Lord, and as we grow in this knowledge, by grace we come to personify wisdom ourselves. Try thinking of a wise person in your life and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.

I believe that we will learn to “walk in the way of Wisdom,” and come at last to live in the house that she has built, so long as we remember to look for her along our messy way: on the heights and in the valleys, at the crossroads and the inroads, at the portals that open to us and the ones that close. She will call, for God is always seeking us, be we must listen carefully, because her voice is always in danger of being drowned out. And if we only listen for it in this place, we will miss part of what she’s saying, for Wisdom embraces the entirety of creation and our experience of it.

If we desire to tune our hearts and our ears to the sound of her voice—both “in here” and “out there”— we’re going to need some help. Practices like spiritual direction and discussion help us discern the signal amid the noise. Disciplines like service in the community and hospitality to the stranger remind us that our circles don’t have a monopoly on Wisdom’s insights and that our habits don’t always lead us along her paths. But, for my money, the most important thing we can do to encounter Wisdom, and so learn her lessons, is pray: whenever we can, where-ever we are. [Pause] Prayer brings our thoughts back to God and can remind us that the voice of Wisdom is speaking to us, persistently if not always perceptibly.

A bishop and former Benedictine monk once told me to listen for the voice of God by praying with scripture. The psalms, he said, are the best place to start, and I’d add that maybe the proverbs are a close second. “When you’re reading the psalms, he said, just stop when you hear that verse that seems to be directed right at you, right in the place where you are today. Just stop and sit with it in that place, even if you’re praying in church.” He told me that he’d at first had a problem with this advice when he received it from his novice master: “But what if we all stopped at the same time when we’re singing the psalm during the office? ” he asked. His master replied, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

To my knowledge, the voice of Wisdom never spoke that clearly and that uniformly to him and his brothers. Even monks have their messes, to be sure, but everyone’s is different every day—theirs and ours. Most days, my ears will be deaf to the voice of Wisdom in God’s special verse for you—and vice versa. That’s also why we each learn different lessons from similar experiences, and why we need to talk to each other about it when we do.

I certainly don’t know Wisdom and her ways as well as many of you do, and anyway she sounds different to all of us. So at this time, and in this place, I can only pray that God will give us each the grace to listen for her and to hear. But as you leave this place today, rest assured that, amid our messy lives, Lady Wisdom is finding ways to call to each one of us from the rooftop: “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

114:16. All quotations NRSV unless otherwise noted.
3Hamlet, I.iii.65–67.
5Proverbs 8:2–3.
6Proverbs 8:7.
7Wisdom 8:8b.
8Proverbs 8:22
9Excerpts from Proverbs 8:22–31 translated by Roland E. Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 925.
10Proverbs 9:3b–6.
11Quoted in Roland E. Murphy, “Wisdom in the OT,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 6 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 925.

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