Sermon Seeds: Wisdom Calls
First Sunday after Pentecost Year C
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Additional reflection on Psalm 8
Worship resources for Trinity Sunday Year C can be found at Worship Ways
by Kathryn M. Matthews
A most unusual character steps to the front of our biblical stage this week, so unusual that no one seems to be able to explain exactly who (or even what) she is – except that she is definitely a “she,” this “Woman Wisdom,” “Lady Wisdom,” or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message, “Madame Insight.” Rebecca Kruger Gaudino notes this mysterious figure’s familiar connections with poetry, creation, and God’s own attribute of wisdom (New Proclamation Year C 2007). However, scholars also associate this mysterious figure with ancient echoes of goddess worship, as well as with the Word in the Prologue to John’s Gospel (that is, with Jesus Christ), and with the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) in that same Gospel.
Of course, those last two associations reflect Christian understandings related to the second and third persons in the Trinity (this is, after all, Trinity Sunday). In our reflections, however, it’s important to engage Lady Wisdom first as a powerful Old Testament figure, able to stand there, on the heights, and in the crossroads, on her own two feet. We recall that the Hebrew Scriptures were the only “Bible” that Jesus and the first Christians read, so we might spend more time, in the pulpit and in Bible study, exploring those stories and figures that had such depth of meaning for our ancestors in faith, and for our lives as well.
Proverbs and sayings
Most people know what a “proverb” is, even if they’ve never opened the Bible to the Old Testament book that carries that name. It may be a sign of our culture’s biblical illiteracy that many folks confuse sayings from the Bible’s book of Proverbs with sayings from early American Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin: perhaps the most familiar example is the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” which does not appear in the Bible but in Franklin’s 18th-century Poor Richard’s Almanack. There are indeed plenty of proverbs in this book of the Bible, although they don’t really begin until the stage has been set by nine chapters of a long, introductory poem. This week’s passage is part of that poem.
In these introductory chapters, the listener – “my child” – is exhorted to learn the “proper” way to live so that good things will follow: prosperity, success, security, even fairness. The Book of Proverbs is one example of Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and it balances the very different perspective of another example of Wisdom literature, the book of Job. Rather than contradicting each other, these two books give voice to the paradoxes of life: we all know that there is much that is true – and proven – in Proverbs, but we also share the questions Job has about the mysteries, and seeming injustices, of life.
Transcendent and yet present
While some of the more familiar virtues commended by Proverbs sound like things that lead more to good citizens than to faithful, holy people – hard work, good discipline (of children), prudent economics – there is a repeated refrain that “the fear of the Lord” is the starting point for right living. This phrase refers not to cowering anxiety about God but to an appropriate and deep reverence, and awe, before the One who made us and is actually the source of all true wisdom. Reverence and awe are not easy to quantify or simplify, so it’s understandable that this book of accumulated wisdom is introduced by a poem, because poetry frees up – and appeals to – our more expressive, “right-brain,” intuitive sense of what is most real and good.
Gene Tucker steps back for the big picture here, suggesting that this text helps us with the larger question of how an almighty, transcendent (and therefore distant) God can also be present and active and known right here, in the physical creation that we can see and touch—a thorny question for theologians in every age. Tucker describes the way the historical books of the Bible (like First Samuel) or the prophetic literature (like Jeremiah) answer this question, with an active, intervening God, in contrast to the way Wisdom literature finds God in creation and in wisdom (Preaching through the Christian Year C). It seems to me that this introductory wisdom poem is a song instead of a lecture (heavy on logic) or a sermon (unless one is downright poetic in one’s preaching). It’s something like the songs in a musical, when the message is better delivered in melody, which has a power than we can’t quite explain, but it reaches our depths nevertheless.
Calling everyone, not just a select few
Our text this week, then, introduces the source of this wisdom, Lady Wisdom, who stands right in the most public of places – at the crossroads, at the city gate, in the doorways – and not in some secluded place where secret teachings are shared with a select few. No, this teaching is clearly for everyone, for her cry “is to all that live” (v. 4), and she stands not on a lonely mountaintop but right in the middle of the busiest part of town and speaks to the crowds as they go about their business.
Eugene Peterson’s translation brings this image to life for us today: “She’s taken her stand at First and Main, at the busiest intersection. Right in the city square where the traffic is thickest, she shouts, ‘You – I’m talking to all of you, everyone out here on the streets!'” (The Message). Once this scene is set, the lectionary jumps past some long exhortations and claims to the verses in which Lady Wisdom reminds her hearers that she was present with God, and even assisted God, way back at creation itself. Right from the beginning, we’re told, Lady Wisdom was in on the elegant beauty and the rightness and the purpose of everything God made, so she must understand how it all works, or how it should work.
A closer look at feminine imagery
A word about feminine imagery in this passage. Not only is wisdom personified here as feminine, but the words used by the poet suggest images of a God who gives birth, who brings forth. Rebecca Kruger Gaudino suggests that the text supports a gender-inclusive image of God as the parent of Woman Wisdom (New Proclamation Year C 2007). While this inclusive imagery (seeing God as not only Father but also Mother) is quite beautiful, there is also a duality in the text that often marks the use of feminine imagery, with the “good” Wisdom contrasted to “Dame Folly,” or what Carole R. Fontaine calls her “evil twin.” Fontaine’s perspective on our text applies to the entire book of Proverbs, which contains both positive and negative images of women as it teaches what it means to live “the ‘good life'” (“Proverbs,” The Women’s Bible Commentary).
Because our text this week doesn’t provide the content of the proverbs themselves but instead establishes their source as trustworthy, we might focus on the story that Wisdom tells of her presence at, and participation in, creation. This passage is filled with the sense that God’s Wisdom established the way things are: not blind chance, or random events, or the outcome of some primeval conflict, or a detached god, or worse, an evil one. Dianne Bergant traces the source of our joy as being created by a good and even orderly God, and she contrasts the Bible’s creation story (of blessing) with those of surrounding cultures, stories of struggle and subjugation of the very gifts of nature – including the gift of “a solid world, securely founded and wonderful to behold” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year C). The joy and deep awe she describes in beholding creation in its vast grandeur beautifully echoes Psalm 8, the other Old Testament reading for this Sunday, and the questioning wonder of the psalmist, looking up into the sky and beholding the stars and the moon, and feeling how small we mortals truly are.
God dancing with joy at creation
This joy deserves our further reflection. Here another translation issue is significant: the same verb mentioned above that was translated as “brought forth” can be translated, according to Jeff Paschal, as “whirl, dance, or writhe.” Saying that God created an orderly (and fair) universe does not mean that God did not enjoy God’s work, or was sober and serious in that work. Paschal says that “we do not worship a stingy God who grudgingly gives gifts and who grants forgiveness as a divine grump. Not at all. The triune God is a joyous, dancing God who pours out overflowing gifts to humanity with gladness” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3).
Eugene Peterson’s translation describes Wisdom’s response to watching (or helping) it happen: “Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, Delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family” (v. 30b-31, The Message). It’s a slightly different version of the Genesis 1 creation story, which is liturgical and grand, and, in its own way, full of delight, as God pronounces creation “good,” but Wisdom sets all of this into motion as a graceful, rapturous dance.
A universal message
We also read in this text a message that is universal, for Wisdom speaks not to insiders but “to all that live,” and she makes her appeal in the most public of places, where everyone could hear her. Richard Boyce suggests that we might learn something ourselves in those public, multicultural spaces, where human beings can share the accumulated wisdom of their lives and of the cultures in which they were raised (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3).
Douglas Donley also recognizes the wisdom born of experience, “the perspectives and insights that are part of our core being…[and] an aspect of God’s presence in our lives,” and he urges preachers to “[help] people to remember their own wisdom alongside divine Wisdom,” to “hear her beauty, acknowledge her integrity, appreciate her fresh perspective.” Like other scholars and many Christians throughout the centuries, he identifies this figure of Wisdom with the Holy Spirit (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3).
What does it mean to be human, and to be wise?
Another approach to the text might reflect on the relationship between wisdom and being human: Ellen Davis says that the hunger for wisdom is distinctively human and notes that the term for human (homo sapiens) and the word for wisdom (sapientia) share the same Latin root. She laments, however, that in our modern age “technical expertise has greatly outpaced wisdom.” Our modern world and its horrors are testimony to the uses to which such expertise have been put and to what happens when Wisdom, with its “essential connection with goodness,” is not part of the picture. Not that technical expertise is evil – it’s “morally neutral,” she writes (not unlike money, we might add).
Wisdom, of course, is more than a lifelong project; it’s a relationship, something of the heart and not just the mind, because the heart knows things in a different way than our mind does. Davis writes that in the Bible the heart helps us to “know the world altogether. Emotion, rational thinking, observation, imagination, desire – all these are activities of the heart. Wisdom speaks to our hearts. Nothing could be simpler or more democratic – after all, everyone has a heart” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, Westminster Bible Commentary).
Being, just being
Finally, we might also read this text as a starting point and inspiration for a spiritual practice that is much neglected in our frantic, overly-electronic, preoccupied world: paying attention to creation in order to deepen our relationship with God. Quiet time. Listening. Being observant. Being. (Not “being” on our cell phones, but just being.) Two writers are especially helpful in this area: J. Philip Newell, in his introduction to Celtic spirituality, and Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book on spiritual practices.
Both writers remind us that classes, meetings, and even worship services in sanctuaries are not the only (or perhaps even primary) way we might connect with God. Newell, for example, suggests that we don’t have to find God by leaving our daily lives to go to church or worship services, or looking to an invisible, “spiritual” realm, but by “entering attentively the depths of the present moment. There we will find God, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing” (The Book of Creation).
Have you “walked your wisdom” lately?
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes evocatively of twelve different ways that we might encounter God in our everyday lives, in the embodied lives we lead, including practices like walking on the earth (groundedness), paying attention (reverence), getting lost (wilderness), and waking up to God (vision). She also provides a beautiful reflection on wisdom, which comes from practice rather than knowledge: “Wisdom,” she writes, “atrophies if it is not walked on a regular basis.”
And yet she clearly doesn’t expect us to take her literally, for an excellent form of practice is attentive inaction: “The easiest practice of reverence I know,” she writes, “is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate” (An Altar in the World).
All creation is connected
Ecological disasters like the drought in California or the rising sea levels in the South Pacific (too little water, too much water!) have once again turned our attention to our fragile relationship with God’s good creation, and has led at least some of us to reflect again on the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, we have shown in applying our technical expertise on behalf of our hunger for more and more resources from the good earth. Trinity Sunday provides an opportunity to stand still, at least for a little while, and perceive God’s grace-full hand at work in creation, to reflect on God’s love made flesh and living among us, and to give thanks for God’s Spirit, whose power sustains us right here and now, in this beautiful but hurting world.
Perhaps Julie Polter’s elegant words say it best: “This is the big lie that the world tells us: The world is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes, and the seeking of profit—nothing else. This is the truth of God: Creation is a holy web of relationship, a gift meant for all; it vibrates with the pain of all its parts; its destiny is joy” (Sojourners, September-October 1994). Even in our contentious political climate, how might our thinking and the debate about creation care (including global warming) be infused with a greater Wisdom that transforms our everyday practices so that they express deep reverence for the One who has given us such wondrous gifts, along with the responsibility for their care?
For Further Reflection:
John Calvin, 16th century
“You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness.”
Augustine, 5th century
“True wisdom is such that no evil use can ever be made of it.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, 21st century
“The only reality [of God] I can describe with any accuracy is my own limited experience of what I think may be God: the More, the Really Real, the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place.”
J. Philip Newell, 21st century
“The Celtic tradition invites us to look with the inner eye. In all people, in all places, in every created thing the light of God is shining.”
Richard Wagamese, “Indian Horse,” 21st century
“‘We need mystery. Creator in her wisdom knew this. Mystery fills us with awe and wonder. They are the foundations of humility, and humility is the foundation of all learning. So we do not seek to unravel this. We honour it by letting it be that way forever.’ (The quote of a grandmother explaining The Great Mystery of the universe to her grandson.)”
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”
Paradox: in observance of Earth Day several years ago, the Associated Press asked astronauts who have returned from space to recall what it felt like to look back at the earth. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, whose 1968 pictures of our lovely, fragile planet became famous as “Earth Rise,” spoke eloquently about perspective: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.” As the first astronauts pass into memory (Wally Schirra died the same year the astronauts were remembering their journeys), space is still an immeasurable and mysterious frontier to us. Just forty years ago, we felt that we were on the brink of a new age of space discovery and technological advance, and today we stand dumbstruck at the complexity and mystery of nature, from the intricate puzzle of DNA to the far distant implosions of stars. “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established,” indeed!
Psalm 8, a favorite of many and for good reason, seems to turn on a dime. Our view is drawn first to the far-flung expanses of space and the mighty power of God whose glory lies beyond even that, and then our attention is turned to the tiny little human beings who inhabit this one small planet. Bill Anders again: “It [the earth] was the only color we could see in the universe…We’re living on a tiny little dust mote in left field on a rather insignificant galaxy. And basically this is it for humans. It strikes me that it’s a shame that we’re squabbling over oil and borders.”
Held by the tender hand of God
As wars and uprisings drag on and their consequences continue to unfold, as we are entangled in a seemingly limitless “war against terror” that has come to the streets of our own cities and settled in the most fearful parts of our minds, we long for the kind of peace that came over us as we saw, for the first time, the inexpressibly graceful pictures Anders took forty years ago, of our blue, swirling oceans and clouds, fertile land and fragile yet enduring atmosphere. We were like a woman who feels plain and ordinary all of her life and one day looks in the mirror and finally sees herself, in all her beauty, for the first time. And yet we also saw ourselves in the vast expanse of space, hanging there, small and vulnerable, held by the tender hand of God.
We may be small, but we are mighty, too, as we’ve seen by the immense damage we’ve done to the earth in spite of our newfound appreciation for its beauty and its vulnerability, forty years ago. The Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, and the erosion caused by the destruction of forests, the anxieties over fracking are painful illustrations of the power of humans to wreak havoc on creation. We continue to use up every resource we want, even if we have to blow up mountaintops in West Virginia to get our hands on what remains. We continue to burn fuel and fill the air with toxins, raising the temperature of the earth and bringing down icebergs and glaciers, igniting wildfires on both coasts and stirring up weather patterns that make the evening news night after night after night.
Who is responsible?
If it’s true that God has put “all things under our feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the bird of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas,” then that must include the polar bears that are suffering, the species that are becoming extinct, and the rain forests that are being cleared. (How ironic and sad that some religious leaders blame earthquakes and storms on women dressing “immodestly,” when far different human activities have done great damage to the earth and even contributed to natural disasters.)
We may have observed Earth Day several weeks ago, but isn’t it true that every day is Earth Day, if we begin with this psalm and remember where we came from? However, remembering is not enough; we need to change our hearts and minds and habits as well, the attitudes and the patterns of behavior that have contributed to this ecological crisis and dulled our awareness of it. Because of the Spirit at work within us as a community of faith, as the church, we can speak and act with tremendous power to live out this “dominion” we have been charged with. Someone has said that “dominion” means “to have responsibility for the well-being of,” and we can be a voice on behalf of all creation, a voice that needs to be raised and to be heard.
Affirming “life’s regularities”
Walter Brueggemann, in Spirituality of the Psalms, says that Psalm 8 affirms “life’s regularities, which are experienced as reliable, equitable, and generous.” The orderliness of our lives and of the world around us is a gift from God, and yet gratitude for orderliness may not be something we think about very often. The psalmist is clearly grateful, but also filled with awe. What fills you with awe? Do life’s “regularities” inspire even gratitude, let alone awe? How have the events of recent history shaken our confidence in the “regularities” of life? For whom are the “regularities” of life unknown or sporadic? In the United States, we were profoundly shaken by the events of September 11, 2001, and yet many of God’s children grow up with explosions and killings all around them, every day. What are we charged with, on their account?
We might ponder our place in this creation, “a little lower than God,” and wonder at our use of the power we hold to destroy ourselves and the earth, as well as to create and to make new. Indeed, creation is not something that began and ended long ago; it continues even today, and we are invited to cooperate with the Spirit in a wondrous and ongoing process of creating and re-creating the earth.
Behold the works of God’s hands
We have looked at the heavens, “the moon and the stars that [God has] established,” with highly sophisticated equipment, and we like to think that we understand their movements, perhaps even their origins, and yet we can hardly begin to comprehend the role and presence of Wisdom as God playfully placed the lights in the sky, and set the boundaries and the processes of creation in place and in motion. Have we ever “considered” the story of creation as one of delight?
“Glory” in theological terms always belongs to God, but in human terms it is something we can’t seem to help pursuing. What is the glory of God, and how does our human glory compare or compete or interfere with God’s glory? Wealth, power, and fame seem to describe human glory. What would the world look like if we pursued God’s glory instead of our own? How would we be transformed? How would our churches be transformed? How would the world be transformed? Have you ever witnessed God’s glory in the smallest and seemingly most “insignificant” people (the “babes and infants” of the world)? What does “glory” look like, and feel like, to you?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding
raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals
she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
The Lord created me at the
beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first,
before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths
I was brought forth,
when there were no springs
abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”
O God, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
that you have established;
what are human beings
that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion
over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O God, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing in the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”
So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the “received” tradition!