Sunday, May 22
God of heaven and earth, before the foundation of the universe and the beginning of time, you are the triune God: the Author of creation, the eternal Word of salvation, and the life-giving Spirit of wisdom. Guide us to all truth by your Spirit, that we may proclaim all that Christ revealed and rejoice in the glory he shared with us. Glory and praise to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
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.”
All readings for this Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
1. What wisdom might be gained in sitting still for twenty minutes and paying attention to our surroundings?
2. What difference does it make to speak of wisdom as something of the heart rather than of the head?
3. What might we learn about God, and about wisdom, “in the most public of places”?
4. Does the universe make sense to you? Where do you see order, and where do you see chaos?
5. What’s the “proper” next step after awe?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
An unusual character steps onto the 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. 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 (or heard), so we are exploring stories and figures with deep 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. However, 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 Scripture 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 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, the One who is 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, intuitive sense (our right brain) of what is most real and good.
Gene Tucker claims 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 1 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. It seems to me that this introductory wisdom poem is a song instead of a lecture (heavy on logic) or a sermon (except for the rare poetic preacher). It’s like the songs in a musical, when the message is better delivered in melody, which has a power that 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. Again, 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, 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. 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.”
Because our text this week doesn’t provide the content of the proverbs themselves but instead simply establishes their source as trustworthy, we might focus on the story that Wisdom tells of her presence at and participation in creation. After all, 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.” 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 time and reflection. Here another translation issue is significant, for 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.” 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).
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. Douglas Donley also recognizes the wisdom born of experience, “the perspectives and insights that are part of our core beingÖ[and] an aspect of God’s presence in our lives,” and he urges “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.
What does it mean to be human, and to be wise?
Perhaps this text also calls us to 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.”
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. In “The Book of Creation,” Newell 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.”
Have you “walked your wisdom” lately?
Barbara Brown Taylor writes evocatively in “An Altar in the World” 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; that is, 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.”
Ecological disasters like the drought in California or rising sea levels on South Pacific Islands (too little water, too much water!) have once again turned our attention to our fragile relationship with God’s good creation, to reflect again on the wisdom, or lack of wisdom, we’ve 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.” Even in such a 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?
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.”
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