Wisdom calls | 29 May 2016


Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31, John 1:1-5


About four years ago the University of Chicago received a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  It was for the creation the Wisdom Research Project.  The project is pretty much what it sounds like, and describes its mission this way: “ We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions.  We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.”

Dr. Howard Nusbaum is the Director of this project and was recently interviewed in a publication I receive, which is how I found out about it (Bearing: for the Life of Faith, A publication of the Collegeville Institute, Spring 2016, pp. 16-17).  The interview notes that Wisdom researchers “use everything from brain scans to personal narratives to help them test their hypotheses about wisdom.”  Some are researching the effects of meditation on awareness and humility, both keys for wisdom.  Others are looking at the relationship between wisdom and the body.  For example, one research team has found that “years of ballet practice are related to increased wisdom.”  It’s never too late to start… Other researchers are finding significant connections between wisdom and sleep!  While sleeping our brains help us to generalize “from experiences, allowing us to use knowledge from one experience to help with a novel situation.”

So the next time you take a nap or lay down at night to sleep, consider it an exercise in gaining wisdom.

Nusbaum is especially interested in asking, “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”  He cites Aristotle who believed these two were closely connected.  Nussbaum says that flourishing “does not necessarily mean health, prosperity, and pleasure.  Rather,” he says, “it seems to refer to a broader sense of social connection.”

I love that something like the Wisdom Research Project exists, and wonder how much we would learn if we spent half as much researching wisdom as we spend researching weapons and warfare.

The search for Wisdom is ancient.  If you are a member of the homo sapiens, a safe assumption, your very taxonomic classification, names you as “sapient human,” “wise human.”  Although when I looked up “sapient” it was defined as “wise, or attempting to appear wise,” which sounds about right.

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is not merely something to be sought, but something, someone, doing the seeking.  Wisdom is personified as a female sage.  The bulletin cover artwork is one artist’s imaginative portrayal of Wisdom.  Proverbs 8 begins: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  Here, Wisdom is not hiding in foggy mists.  She is not trying to be elusive.  Wisdom has things to say.  Wisdom is calling.  Wisdom wants to be heard and she is raising her voice.

But where?  Where do you have to go to hear Wisdom?  The text goes on: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrances she calls out.”  Where is Wisdom to be found?  Up, down, out on the traveling road, everywhere roads intersect, in the city, at the gate where people gather and judicial cases are decided and economic exchanges take place.  Wisdom is everywhere.  You can’t get away her.  You almost can’t miss her.

Back to the text: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”  If you are alive, you are on the list of those to whom Wisdom is calling.

You don’t need a holy book to find Wisdom.  You don’t need to be literate.  You don’t need a degree, a credential, you don’t need a certain income level, you don’t need permission to listen to what Wisdom is saying.  You don’t need a multi-million dollar grant, although I wouldn’t suggest turning it down if someone offered it.  Wisdom, Proverbs suggests, is utterly accessible to woman, man, child – anyone with ears to hear, as Jesus was fond of saying.

In the age of the internet, this description of Wisdom sounds pretty close to the way we are now experiencing information.  Does not information call?  Do not audio and visual media raise their voice?  On the heights, beside the way, in the home, at the office, in the car, in the coffee shop, anywhere a wi-fi connection can be had, as far as LTE can reach?  To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who have a device to receive me.

If you ask me just about any fact-seeking question, I could have you an answer as fast as I could enter it into my phone.  For most of us it has become totally normal to have 24 hour access to the all-knowing, all-present global brain, as close as your pocket.

I am in no way complaining about this state of affairs.  I’m rather fond of living in the digital age.  But let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that having access to information does not mean that we are wise.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  Our President’s visit to Hiroshima this past week calls to mind the time when our nation got the smartest people together all in one room to come up with a solution to a problem, and they created the atomic bomb – which was used, twice, against our enemies, the civilians of Japan.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  One could argue that the smarter and more powerful we become as homo sapiens, the more urgent the need to become wise.

Proverbs 8 has more to say about Wisdom.  Wisdom and God, it appears, go way back.  Like, way back.  Proverbs 8:22 speaks in the voice of Wisdom: “Yahweh 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.”

Before the bang banged, wisdom was.  Before the drifting remains of a supernova star began aggregating together, forming the space ball we now know as planet earth, Wisdom was there.

Proverbs: “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with waters.  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 marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Following the entire arc of this passage is like taking a trip back to Genesis itself, such that all that is, has come about under the watchful eye, through the power of, Wisdom.

So not only does Wisdom call out to all that lives, but Wisdom is embedded within all that lives.

Consider the lilies, Jesus said.  Consider the birds of the air.

Consider the cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago that learned how to receive the energy of sun in such a way so as to part the waters, to part water itself, the first to set oxygen free from its bondage to those two hydrogens, through photosynthesis, creating the kind of oxygenated atmosphere that enables creatures like us to breath.

Consider the strands of fungi under the soil, under this building, connecting tree to tree, root to root, an underground shipping and receiving network of water and nutrients.

Consider the world wide web of life, of wind currents, the unhurried tectonic shifts that thrust up mountains and push continents drifting toward and away from one another.

This is the world that Wisdom built.

John begins his gospel by speaking of the Logos, the Word, in a way similar to Wisdom.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being…  And the Word, the Logos, became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Jesus is an embodiment of Wisdom.  His frequent talk of coming to bring abundant life finds echoes in Dr. Nusbaum’s question about wisdom research:  “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”

So here’s my question: If Wisdom is calling out, everywhere, to everyone; if Wisdom is woven into the very fabric of creation; if the Christian tradition was founded on and celebrates embodied wisdom – then why is it so hard to become wise?  Why is it so hard to listen to whatever it is that Wisdom is saying?

Wisdom is a creator, and yet so much of what we are undertaking these days is uncreating the world that Wisdom has built.

We need elders to teach us how to listen to Wisdom.  We need our children to remind us of Wisdom.

There’s one more thing Proverbs 8 says about Wisdom, right where we left off.  “When he marked off 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 the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”  That word for “rejoicing,” which shows up twice, is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as “playing.”  Wisdom is not only a work horse, a mad scientist and visionary artist, but Wisdom is playful, Wisdom rejoices, Wisdom delights in the human race.

This past Thursday, after the group had met at Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin to demand fair wages and working conditions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their allies from around the Midwest came to CMC to have a lunch.  There was good reason to be discouraged.  Wendy’s continues to be the last holdout of the major fast food chains not to join the CIW Fair Food Program.  The folks who pick our tomatoes, predominantly Spanish speaking, have been working for over two decades to create the kinds of conditions for themselves in which they and their children can at least have the chance to flourish.  It’s hard work, and I can barely imagine being in their place and doing what they do.

But on Thursday, here in our fellowship hall, there was delight.  There was cheering, there was laughter, there was a good meal and conversation shared by all, there was an impromptu birthday song for one of the long time allies of CIW.

Wisdom plays.  Wisdom delights in the human race.  Wisdom calls us to put down our labors from time to time, and throw a fiesta, and rejoice in the goodness of life that the Creator has brought about through Wisdom.

“To you, O people, I call, and my invitation to the Great Fiesta is to all that live.”


A Sign, A Groan, and a Delight – Earth Day – 4/22/12 – Romans 8, Proverbs 8

Happy Earth Day.  I have a few specimens here. (picture below to give the idea)

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it Friday in the woods on our farm in Bellefontaine.  I think I wrote a couple weeks ago about how this is taking over the ground cover of the woods.  I stopped in briefly two days ago on my way up to Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan for meetings with Central District Conference.

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it two days ago at Camp Friedenswald.  It is doing quite well in the woods of southern Michigan.

This also is garlic mustard.  I picked it yesterday in Ault Park here in Cincinnati right after coming back from Camp Friedenswald.  I knew it was there because two weeks ago Lily and I went for a walk in those woods.  I pointed out the garlic mustard to her and told her that it was hurting the forest, and I had to spend a good portion of the rest of our walk letting her know that she didn’t have to try and pull up every garlic mustard plant that she saw.

It has these pretty, small white flowers.  Some of them have fallen off already as the seeds have formed.  It smells a bit like garlic, but isn’t overpowering.  I’ve never eaten it, but read that the leaves can be chopped for salads or made into pesto.  It is native to Europe and west Asia and Northern Africa and was originally brought to North America in the 1860’s as a culinary herb.

Depending on your perspective, garlic mustard has done quite well, or quite horribly in North America.  It has been highly successful in colonizing forests, where it can suppress native wildflowers and quickly become a monoculture.  Deer don’t like it, our insects and fungi don’t eat it, and it produces lots of seeds.  Highly successful.  Highly invasive.

Jesus once said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “When it is evening, you say, ‘It is fair weather, for the sky is red.’   And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”  (Matthew 16:2-3)  The people, it seems, had gotten pretty good at predicting what the weather would be for the next 24 hours by looking at the sky, but were not paying attention to the larger patterns at work around them, signs, speaking of other important realities.

Garlic mustard, we could say, is one of the signs of our times.  It’s a sign of the powerful force of globalization – people and things and ideas and animals and plants are less and less restricted to native territories, isolated pockets, geographical islands – even big islands, like continents.  It’s a sign that, for all of the benefits of globalization, not everyone, everything, is benefiting equally from the way it is happening – a story with some resemblance to past examples of colonization, where the natives are decimated by the powerful newcomers.  This plant and its effects on other plants and insects is a sign that we are living in the midst of the sixth mass extinction period in the earth’s history, the most massive loss of species and biodiversity since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.  It’s a sign that the planet is out of balance, and that we are out of balance.  Garlic mustard is, in some ways, a mirror held up in front of us, highly successful species that we are, giving us signs about the losses of beauty and diversity and vitality that we are participating in.

I don’t know about you, but this all feels a little heavy to me.  I don’t like the thought of any of those three beloved places I visited in the last couple days being overrun with garlic mustard.  I much prefer the thought of what would have been the case a couple hundred years ago.  That if we just leave these places alone, give them time to heal by not disturbing them, that they will indeed heal and thrive and come into balance.  But all of the people that I’m listening to who know about these kinds of things say this is absolutely not the way to go.  Sometimes I think about a past with the closed loop, self-renewing cycles of nature fully intact and long to live in a time like that.  But that’s a temptation, because that’s not the time we live in.  The words of the Cincinnati Mennonite covenant come into play here: “This time and this place are God’s gifts to us, and we are called to be God’s active presence to all those around us.”  What the signs of our times are telling us are that what we have participated in harming, we must also participate in healing.  The human element of management and careful stewardship is now essential.

When we reflect theologically and biblically about these kinds of things, there is a common and important path that we can go down.  It focuses on us as humans being caretakers of the earth, stewards, charged with tending and nurturing life and beauty.  This is rooted in the Genesis accounts of creation with the humans as the ones who bear the image of God, the created who possess inherent creativity to shape and form the world with god-like power.  A power to serve life and aid in its flourishing.

This is an important way for us to think about ourselves, and helps illustrate that we have a lot of work to do, especially in our time.  But I want to focus in a different place.  I want to focus more internally, on the longings, energies, desires within us, which enable us to do this kind of work in the first place.  What we are searching for is a spirituality of hope.

So I want to look at a couple different scriptures that point us in this direction.  The first is found in Romans 8 and the second is Proverbs 8.

Throughout Romans the apostle Paul has been speaking to a community in Rome about the human predicament: sin, our tendency to get stuck in religious legalism, getting unstuck and living by grace, and the way that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus expands the gift of salvation beyond just the Jews to include all people.  This is an expansive vision of who God is and who Jesus is for us.  But in chapter 8, he blows it even more wide open.  Up to now the focus has been just on people, humans, homo sapiens, but it’s about to get quite expansive.  In verse 19 he writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  Waiting, and eager longing are usually attributes given to just humans, but here Paul imagines that all of creation is filled with expectation and longing.  He goes on: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”  So, to waiting and eager longing, we add groaning – in labor pains.  A very feminine image.  Mother Earth is in pain and is groaning.  But it’s not just any kind of pain, it’s labor pain.  It’s the kind of pain that can lead to new life.  It continues: “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  We are groaning too.  And this has to do with our bodies, our physical, flesh and blood, eating, drinking, talking, walking, working bodies.  We do not groan for an escape from our bodies, but for the redemption of our bodies.  To add one more layer to this, Paul writes in verse 26: “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So what we have here is a groaning creation.  We have humans as the lead groaners, the ones who feel deeply the pain and the longing of the cosmos.  And we have the Spirit who, as it turns out, is the groan behind the groan, the originating source of this unarticulated longing that is coming through us – sighs too deep for words.  Our groans, the groans of creation, are the very groans of God.

If we think of ourselves as a part of creation rather than separate from it, then another way of saying this is that through us, in the human being, within you, creation has become conscious of itself.  These feelings that we feel within us are the very feelings of the universe and of God’s own being.

It makes the boundaries fuzzy.  We can’t tell where outside creation ends and we begin.  Or where we end and God begins.  These longings for wholeness and hopes and groans are not merely the isolated desires of an isolated self.  You can accept these groans as a sign that you are alive to the Spirit’s presence and that the Spirit is moving within you to express itself in the world.  The real danger would be if you felt nothing.  Maybe we could say: I groan, therefore I am.

It’s a whole different form of energy than overwhelmed anxiety.  With that there is a scattering of energy that can happen.  Almost panic.  All we see are problems and we are drained of our vitality.  But we have the firstfruits of the Spirit within us, as Paul says; the first flowering and opening up and fruiting of the new creation.  And it sounds like a groan.  And it feels like labor pains.

Another part of this passage says: “For in hope we were saved.”  The groans within us find their basis in hope.  If there were no hope, we wouldn’t be driven to have these longings.  Richard Rohr says that hope is not logical but is a participation in the very life of God.

OK, so that’s the painful part.  I actually have no idea what labor pains feel like, but I love the idea that bearing this pain is something that we do for the new life that comes out from us and that this is what God is all about in our world.

But there’s another piece to this.

Thomas Berry was a priest, a historian, a geologist, a writer, and probably a lot of other things.  Until he died in 2009 at the age of 95, he was a leading voice in thinking about the place of humanity in an evolving universe that is 13.7 billion years old – speaking to some very old questions in the light our new cosmological understandings.  He emphasized over and over again that one of the key callings of humanity is to celebrate and be in awe of the universe and everything in it.  That’s our job.  To celebrate all that is around us.  The world is a glorious place, but it is in us that this glory is felt most intensely.  It is through humanity that language illuminates the glory.  Without humanity, the world would keep going on being a glorious place, but there would be no scientists to explore its depths, no poets or artists to reflect its beauty.  No elderly couple to go for a walk in the woods simply for the purpose of enjoyment.

Anyone who has ever created a piece of art, or had a child, or had a personal milestone, like a birthday, knows the power of celebration.  When someone is inspired by your work, or is delighted by your child, or celebrates your life with you, the whole world expands and becomes more of itself.

In this 13.7 billion year span, we are very much newcomers on the scene.  The universe has not always had celebrants in the way that we can be.  Except that for the writer of Proverbs 8, this is an unbearable idea.  For God to be bursting worlds into being and for there to be no one to witness and delight over it is not the kind of universe we live in, Proverbs 8 declares.

The chapter begins this way: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  It goes on to record musings from Wisdom herself: “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the 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.”  The word for depths here, TeHoM, is the same used in the opening words of Genesis when it says that “darkness was over the surface of the deep, TeHoM, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  Wisdom was created even before the TeHoM.  Proverbs goes on to name other acts of creation that Wisdom preceded – before the mountains were shaped, before the earth and fields, before the skies and seas.  Before all this, Wisdom is doing something remarkable: 8:30-31 – “Then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  Wisdom is the prototype celebrator of the universe.  As Proverbs 8 sees it, there has always been a presence, a power, an energy, celebrating the wonder of the world, almost as if God would not want to make the world without this.  Before anything explodes into being, Wisdom comes forth as the one whose calling is to delight in all that will be.

Wisdom plays an important role in how early Christians came to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, especially the opening chapter of John.  Jesus is wisdom in the flesh.  Wisdom crystallizing as matter, taking delight and wonder to a new level, a task that is passed along to the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, as Jesus commissions his disciples to continue in this great work.

And so delighting in the world, rejoicing in beauty, is a human calling.  Creation becomes more expansive and delightful and vital and alive and healthy when we delight over it.

That sounds like something we can do.  It sounds a lot more fun than groaning, although I think that’s going to be part of the picture as well for a very long time.  I confess that I have only recently started learning how to be delighted with the natural world.  For some reason, it didn’t seem to come very naturally.  If we struggle with being delighted, or being in awe, or even being interested, I think it’s OK to ask for it.  Invite delight in, or at least let Wisdom know you’d like her to teach you the ropes a bit.  And once we glimpse this delight, it has a power of its own.

Brian Swimme, for whom Thomas Berry was a mentor, writes this: “The history of life can be understood as the creation of ever more sensitive creatures in a universe where there is always another dimension of beauty to be felt and savored.  Think of yourself that way, as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.  The paradox is this: the greater your sensitivity, the more unbearable the tension.”  (The Universe is a Green Dragon, pp. 79,80)  Part of that tension, no doubt, is the tension between groaning and delighting.  Think of yourself as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.

As a closing thought, I want to point to the picture on the front of the bulletin – because it’s all about perspective.  We start with garlic mustard and we end with the Milky Way galaxy.  Our sun is one of 200 billion stars in this galaxy, and there are over 200 billion galaxies in the known universe.

We who are alive today are the first to have the technological sensitivities of the eyes of telescopes to know this much about where we live.  To have a sense of the scope of it all.  You are here, we are here, this time and this place, and here is a pregnant moment, in a remarkable place.  We have the tremendous gift of being a part of the unfolding story of the universe, and not just as bystanders, but as active participants.  This is remarkable indeed.

Under and Over-whelmed – 5/30/10 – Psalm 8, Proverbs 8, John 16:12-15

One of the dominant emotions present in Psalm 8 is that of being overwhelmed.  I imagine the poet stepping out into the night, the cooking fire having died down for the evening, the sky glowing with stars and planets, and experiencing a deep sense of being overwhelmed with the immensity of the universe in which she finds herself.  Even before telescopes, theories of a heliocentric solar system and the Big Bang, photographs from the Hubble spacecraft, it is clear to the observer that the human person is dwarfed in comparison to all that is.  The poet composes, “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?”  Without the drowning effect of city lights, it might have actually been easier, rather than more difficult to maintain this sense of wonder. 

Rather than taking her in the direction of meaninglessness, being adrift in a cold and utterly chaotic cosmos, the psalmist finds significance and great honor in the humble task given to the mortals of the earth.  “Yet you have made them a little lower than the gods, 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 seas.”  This task, also, could be overwhelming in its scope.  The tiny human dust creatures are given charge to care for this warm, green, planet that thrives with all life forms on land, air, and sea.

Given the scale of what is being observed, the magnitude of the freedom and responsibility given the human race, the psalmist feels like an infant, just emerging from the safety of the womb that guarded her from these greater realities.  Just waking up to life, her eyes just now gaining focus, taking it all in.  This is how it is.  The poet composes: “You have set your glory above the heavens.  Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded strength on account of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger.”  When infants are allowed to be heard, the enemy, the avenger, the forces of chaotic destruction, are silenced and all is praise and wonder and majesty.  In its finished form the Psalm begins and ends with the same refrain, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

The sense of being joyfully overwhelmed with all that is is one of the original emotions of the human creature, coming fresh into the world with infant eyes.  Not always joyfully overwhelmed.  We know that shouts of joy aren’t the only sounds that come out of the nursery.  But the cry, the calling out for help, is another pure emotion not too far from the feeling of the Psalmist.  Babies shift so easily and rapidly between shouts of joy and cries for help that they have to be more closely related than what adults have made them out to be.  The Psalmist could just as easily have said, “I’m living and breathing in a rapidly expanding universe beyond my ability to comprehend.  Dear God, Help.”

When’s the last time you felt joyfully overwhelmed? 

I don’t think we’re all that unique in our era of history, but my sense is that we don’t live in this reality all that often.  My take on life in 21st century America is that we suffer from a constant state of being underwhelmed.  We have vague expectations and hopes for an exulted life of being overwhelmed with positive emotion and fulfillment, but reality just about always lets us down.  The product is never quite as effective as advertised, the clothes never quite as glamorous as they were on the model, the career never quite as fulfilling as we had planned for, the friendship rarely as intimate as we long for.  We suffer from being chronically underwhelmed with life.

As adults we might learn to accept this fate, but youth won’t put up with it.  They still hold on to the wild belief that we were created to be overwhelmed with the wonders of life.  Sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll aren’t exactly on the list of classical spiritual disciplines, but they are deeply connected to the spiritual longing for ecstasy, for transcendence, for being carried away by the fullness of life and the power of moving beyond ourselves in connection with something larger.  It’s a thinner line than we care to admit between the person standing at the concert, swaying with all the others, body taking in the pulse of the music; and the person standing in the pews, raising their voice in praise, harmonizing with all the others present.  Or the person getting high and the person meditating in prayer.  As U2 sings, “The goal, is elevation.”  After which they also sing, “Love, lift me out of these blues, Won’t you tell me something true, I believe in you.”  If one has not been given the tools, the discipline, the challenge, of being overwhelmed with the goodness of creation, one will find a path toward transcendence.  And it can either be spiritually destructive or enriching.  Just for the record, my personal opinion is that a U2 concert is undoubtedly in the category of enriching.  Unfortunately, the paths taken are too often quite destructive.  And when it’s destructive, it develops into addictive patterns.  Alcoholism, drug addictions, pornography, materialism, and other addictions each carry the same pattern and are each manifestations of the deep spiritual longing for transcendence, the quest for being joyfully overwhelmed, even if it’s short lived.   And so we keep searching.  We might not know what we’re searching for, but part of the quest is connected to that experience of the poet of Psalm 8.  To encounter the world in such a way that brings us into deeper communion with God.  To remember the gift of being joyfully overwhelmed. 

Maybe  one of the key missions of the church is to channel the energy behind this quest in ways that are healthy and life giving rather than destructive. 

I’ve heard a good suggestion for what to do about so many people using the destructive paths to escape reality.  The suggestion was: Maybe we should improve reality.  Sounds reasonable.

In regards to being overwhelmed, it’s interesting how the gospel reading connects with this theme.  In the parting discourse to the disciples in John’s gospel, Jesus says this: “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 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.”

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Jesus appears to be cautious of completely overwhelming his companions with what he could tell them.  Delivering the entire trajectory of the gospel, the full package of the significance of his life, all at once.  If it was all there, like the naked night sky plus all that we’ve come to know with our special instruments of technology, plus all we’ll get to know in the future as these instruments improve, it might blow their minds.  It would be more than they could bear at the time.  But there was more to come.  And it would come, over the years, over the centuries and millennia, through the presence of what he calls “The Spirit of truth,” the ongoing presence of Christ still speaking to creation.  Over the course of the following years, the disciples would be slowly converted toward communion with the living God through this Spirit of truth.  Having their misconceptions of God and gospel and truth and love slip away, transcended by the Christ Spirit which consumed their lives and shaped more and more of their thoughts and actions and words.  The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost was experienced as a universal outpouring from which no culture, no language, no geographic setting, was exempt.  The Spirit of truth has something to say to all people everywhere, all of us camping out under the same big sky. 

I wonder if Jesus’ intention was that his followers live in a constant state of being almost overwhelmed.  Never completely overwhelmed, more than we can bear, but near the edge.  As soon as we find our footing, a solid place to stand, the Spirit of truth tosses one more thing our way that puts us back off balance.  We sing out with praise one minute and cry out for help the next.

The very fact that Jesus would suggest there’s a lot more to say, more than we can now bear, hasn’t been lost on commentators.  There’s a great parable that gets told in the middle of the Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, called The Grand Inquisitor.  The parable imagines Jesus coming to visit 16th century Spain during the height of the Inquisition, when hundreds of people are burning at stake, accused of heresy.  The townspeople instantly recognize Jesus as he walks among them and he performs miracles for them, bringing a young girl back to life as she is being carried into the church in a coffin.  The cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor sees all this from a distance and demands that Jesus be brought to him, with all the people and guards instantly obeying his voice.  Jesus has not spoken a word yet and the writing says this: The Inquisitor asks him, “Is it you?  You?’ but receiving no answer, he adds at once, ‘Don’t answer, be silent.  What can you say, indeed?  I know too well what you would say.  And you have no right to add anything to what you did say of old.  Why then, have you come to hinder us?  For you have come to hinder us, and you know that.  But do you know what will be tomorrow?  I don’t’ know who you are and tomorrow I will condemn you and burn you at the stake as the worst of heretics.  And the very people who have today kissed you feet, tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of you fire.  Do you know that?  Yes, maybe you know it.” 

If Jesus’ words are frozen in an ancient text, the church can more easily control their meaning.  But if he is still speaking, all bets are off.  He might even be a heretic.

The Grand Inquisitor goes on to question Jesus and condemn him for answering the temptations in the desert the wrong way, the way that chose to give people freedom to love rather than what they really needed – bread and someone to worship.  In refusing to turn stones into bread or seize control of the kingdoms of the world Jesus has condemned human history to continual suffering, so he is now condemned himself.  Jesus never speaks a word, but when he is asked to answer for himself, gets up and approaches the Inquisitor, giving him a kiss.  The Inquisitor goes to the door and opens it and tells him to leave through the night and never come again.

There’s an ambiguity about the parable that makes it appealing.  Though he does not speak, does not counter the accusations, Christ is not silent.  The Spirit of truth finds a way to communicate even in the harshest of times.     

If there’s a steadying voice to be found in all this, something to keep us on an even keel and keep our heads out of the clouds from being too overwhelmed and out of the valley from being too underwhelmed, maybe it is the voice of Wisdom.  Surely she’s a reasonable woman.  Proverbs 8 gives her voice: “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.’”

Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings , much of it consisting of a series of one-liners on how to live well and avoid evil. 

But in chapter 8 there is this extended meditation on Wisdom, personified as a vocal assertive woman – the force behind the wise sayings which lead away from death and toward life.

Like the Spirit of truth, wisdom calls out to all that live.  There are no insider privileges for hearing the voice of wisdom.  She has a very public presence, outside the walls of temple, synagogue or church – at the crossroads, and beside the gates in front of the town, the place villages held court to decide on matters of local justice.  Now we might also imagine her voice in the downtown highrise, in the urban street and the suburban cul de sac, from the farmer’s field, wisdom calls out to all who would hear.     

Further reading gives more insight into the Hebrew understanding of Wisdom.  “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 he established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside him like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing before his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Rather than being an aged man, sitting in motionless contemplation, pondering the finer points of aesthetics and truth, wisdom is more like a youthful woman, dancing and delighting in humanity and in creation.  There before God established the heavens, that wide canopy that continues to delight us.   

Wisdom speaks, the Spirit of truth speaks, everywhere, always, but receiving what they have to say isn’t an easy task.  Nothing like instant gratification.  We can’t inject wisdom directly into our veins and have her carry us away with her joyful bliss.  It takes careful, disciplined, committed attention.  All of the spiritual traditions teach us to watch, to wait, to listen, to pray and hope and learn to perceive the wonder and awe, the wisdom and truth that is always there in front of us.  Even if we can’t remember the last time we have been joyfully overwhelmed, even if we have almost resigned to a life of being perpetually underwhelmed, wisdom calls.  Christ has more to say.  Do you hear it?  Can you step out into the night and look for it?

The House That Wisdom Built – 9/6/09 – Proverbs 9:1-12, James 2:1-17

Proverbs 30:24-25 says: “(There are) things on earth (that) are small, yet they are exceedingly wise: the ants are a people without strength, yet they provide their food in the summer.”

I have to admit I’ve never really paid much attention to ants.  I haven’t studied their living patterns as an adult and I wasn’t one of those kids who went out looking for ant hills to poke around at or try and fry one with a magnifying glass held up to the sun.  One of my more recent experiences with ants came when we were having a problem with some ants coming in our house through the side door.  We got a spray that we sprayed across the threshold that has pretty much kept them out ever since.  Usually they keep to their world and I keep to mine.  In the last few weeks I’ve come across a couple different statements about ants that have caught my attention. 

One of them came from the book Cradle to Cradle.  It’s a book about how we can shift our focus in how we design everything from buildings to cars to shoes in a way that imitates the rest of nature where waste always equals food, a nutrient to help other things live, rather than waste equals toxic garbage dumps.  The authors give the example of the ant as a creature that is well adapted to its local environment.  Wherever ants show up, in all their 8 thousand different kinds, they enrich their environment and adapt to its peculiar features.  Their food economy allows them to store food them themselves, even as they recycle nutrients and by taking them deeper into the soil so plants and microorganisms can process them.  In their transportation economy they aerate soil around plant roots which lets water better penetrate the ground, helping plant life and reducing erosion.  To the argument that ants are too small to make a negative impact on the planet while humans are a massive, industrial species, the authors point out that it is estimated that all of the ants on the planet are equal to the body mass of all the humans on the planet, and yet they not only do no harm, but improve the systems they live in.  (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, McDonough and Braungart, 2002)

The other statement I heard included ants but was about all insects.  If all insects were to die, or disappear, within 50 years, all the rest of life would die.  Or, at least, life as we know it, the complex life of plants and animals, would utterly collapse.

And if humans were to disappear, within 50 years, all of the rest of life would flourish.  Kind of sobering. 

The Proverb says that there are things on earth that are small, yet exceedingly wise.  Among these things being the ant.

This is not a sermon about ants.  I’ve already mentioned pretty much everything I know about them.  This is a message about wisdom, and the month of September will keep this common theme.  Wisdom as the art of living well.  Wisdom in action.  Wisdom in speech.  Wisdom in thought.  Wisdom as involving, at least in its most basic form, the reality of living a balanced life in this created order, one of the most urgent issues of our time.  But also, in its exalted form, Wisdom as something that exists for itself, something that is a direct emanation of God, the first of all God’s creations as Proverbs says (8:22).  Wisdom as the radiance of God that shines in every feature of creation, if we would just pay attention and look closer.  The practical and the mystical dimensions of wisdom.  So we’ll be dwelling on some Wisdom texts and pondering Wisdom together. 

Wisdom is actually a category of biblical literature.  It includes the book of Proverbs, but also includes Ecclesiastes, and Job and the apocryphal books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon.  One reason for the designation of these books is that – surprise – they use the word wisdom a lot.  Of the 318 times that the Hebrew root for wisdom mkx (chakam) shows up in the Hebrew Bible, over half are in the Wisdom books.  Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the Wisdom of Solomon are associated with Solomon, the king who, when given the choice to ask God for anything in the world, chose wisdom and a discerning mind.  Solomon would not have written all of these himself, but the wisdom tradition connects itself to this one, who, at that one point in his life, chose the highest good of all, the most beautiful of God’s creations, Wisdom.                

Proverbs 9 is one of several texts where Wisdom is personified as this dynamic woman who calls out to people.  “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.  She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.  She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘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.” 

I like here how Wisdom is portrayed as an active recruiter for her cause.  Wisdom is not just something for which we must search high and low, turn over rocks, and sniff out.  Wisdom has built a house, she has set this luxurious table of food and drink, a meal fit for a king and a queen, and she is the one who has the search party going out and searching for people who will come and feast.  Her servant girls are going to the most public, most visible areas, the highest places in the town, and are calling out multiple times, repeatedly, for people to come and sit down with Wisdom.  To learn her ways.  To make her house our house.  It sounds to me kind of like the parable that Jesus told in Luke where the master of the house has set out this great banquet, but nobody comes, so the master sends the servants out to “the highways and the hedges”, as the King James translates it, to bring in the poor and anyone, anyone who will come to this feast to fill the house of the master. 

Scholars propose that the reference to Wisdom having built her house and hewn her seven pillars is a reference to the ancient understanding of the pillars of creation that held up the universe.  Wisdom is closely linked to creation in Proverbs 8. “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the 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 about with water.  Before the mountains has been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when God had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.  When God established the heavens, I was there…then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (8:22-27a, 30-31)

Wisdom has built her house, with its pillars, and it is the entire cosmos.  We’re already inside the house, and yet she calls us to wake up and take a look around and eat the feast.

Along with mentioning Wisdom a lot, there’s another feature of Wisdom literature that I find particularly interesting for what it doesn’t mention.  Unlike so much of the rest of the Bible, the books of Wisdom do not speak much of the typical salvation history of the people of Israel.  The patriarchs and matriarchs of Abraham and Sara, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t prominent.  Moses isn’t featured.  The history of the kings isn’t held up.  Covenant isn’t as prominent, or following the particular parts of the law.  The temple and the ritual system of worship isn’t there.  All of those features that we usually think of making up the religion of the Hebrew Bible, the story of the people of Israel, aren’t center stage.  Instead, Wisdom comes from a different place.  Wisdom is just out there; it’s what we get when we pay attention to things.  It even has a secular nature.  It is completely accessible to everyone, those inside the covenant, those outside the covenant, those who know the faith stories, those who don’t.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Proverbs 9 goes on to say.  So anyone who begins to have a sense of awe and wonder with Being, with that which is, has already cracked the door of the house of wisdom.  Like Jesus’ parables, which were these secular fictions, non-religious stories that pointed to a deep spiritual truth, Wisdom presents itself in all arenas of life.  In the farmer’s field.  In the marketplace.   In the business office.  In the seed of the plant.  In the classrooms of the academy, the streets of the city, the domestic chores of the home.  It’s all in the house of Wisdom.             

If we look deeply into something, whatever it may be, there is wisdom there.  We are following the trail of the tracings of the finger of God.  This is Wisdom as the mystical invitation into awe and wonder that calls out to us from everywhere.

James helps bring us back around to the practical, to the ants.  James is the closest thing we have to New Testament wisdom literature.  Like the older Wisdom texts, James doesn’t give much space to typical religious topics.  He doesn’t theologize about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He doesn’t talk about communion.  He only mentions the church once, right at the end.  James knows that religion and the practice and language of religion can become a self-justifying system.  The sacred shell that religion can create for us can just as easily cut us off from wisdom as connect us to wisdom.  This sacred shell can sometimes have us locked up in a closet in the house of wisdom rather than free to walk around.  More blind to God’s beauty than enlightened by it.  So James is pretty direct about these sort of things.  For James, Wisdom is wisdom in action.  Wisdom in how we speak and how we live.  1:26 says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” Ouch.  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  He also connects this to the relationship between faith and works.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith, but do not have works?  So faith, by itself, if it has not works, is dead.”    

If I knew more about ants, this is the place where I would tell another story or two about how they are an example of wisdom.  About how, by the very way they order their lives, by the way they relate to their own kind and their neighboring environment, they are an example of wisdom in action.  And how much we can learn from that.  And how our religion is always subject to this kind of scrutiny.  About how this helps us see that religion is in the house of wisdom, not the other way around.  Wisdom is not contained within the house of religion.  Our religious expressions are our attempt, the attempt of our tradition, to live faithfully in the house of Wisdom.  To play joyfully with all the other creatures in God’s playhouse.     

An important function of healthy religion is to unplug our ears so that we can hear the call of Wisdom coming from the little creatures and big creatures and the creation that is our home. 

But since I don’t know any more ant stories, I’ll just add this observation.  Wisdom has built her house, and unlike us and our anti-ant spray over our threshold, she apparently is totally cool with ants and bees and birds and trees and oceans and religions and all sorts of people living inside.  If fact, she’s doing all she can to convince us all to come in through her doors.  To settle in to the architecture of her ways.  To learn to live at peace with all the others she’s invited, feasting around that table.

The Word Became Flesh, the Flesh Became Bread – 8,27,06

If you’re like me, at some point in your life you have held the idea that our faith has to do with our souls and that our bodies are not much involved.  I don’t think anyone ever told me this directly, but I sort of picked up the idea through the way people talked about their faith.  Or maybe you’ve even thought or been taught that the body is a bad thing, something to be overcome, something to push aside as we try and be led by the spirit.         

Two weeks ago I asked that we consider this series to be a process of discovery in what Jesus would have us know about becoming bread.  This week we are reaching a bit of a climax in this conversation.  It all started with real physical bread feeding a bunch of hungry people.  Jesus’ act shows God’s desire that all people have enough to eat and be satisfied.  We were then asked to go deeper, with Jesus directing us beyond the physical back to the Source of our food, the source of our very life…Godself, which is offered as daily bread from heaven.  Elijah had experienced this God as present in the fire and destructive forces around him, but he learned that this was not where God was to be found.  God was in the silence, in the still small voice, and Jesus said that God was present in him, as bread given for the life of the whole world and that we could all be taught by this same God.  So if you’ve missed the last three weeks, there’s all the sermons packed into one paragraph.

  Now I’m usually not one for the extended metaphor.  There’s only so far you can carry a certain image before its time to move on and get another topic.  But this sixth chapter of John keeps going on and on about bread.  And there is actually something new being said this week.  After starting with real bread and moving more into a spiritual nonphysical heavenly understanding of true bread, Jesus is pointing us back to something that we can feel and touch and taste and it has to do with bodies, his body and our body.  And just so you don’t miss the point, he takes the liberty of using the graphic, somewhat disgusting language of eating flesh and drinking blood.  Initially, this whole thing had a nice G or PG rating, a story about a family gathering where a little boy shares his food and everybody ends up sharing a big meal together.  Now I think we’ve moved into the territory of R…contains disturbing and upsetting images.  Yes, coming from the mouth of our blessed Lord Jesus, v. 53 “Unless you eat the flesh of the Human One and drink his blood, you have no life in you…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”  It’s OK to be put off by this.  That was exactly the response of the people who were listening to Jesus.  Jesus must not have been up on reading the latest church growth strategies.  If you want people to follow you, rule #1, don’t tell them to do something disgusting and confusing.  But there it is, right out of the mouth of one for whom the church exists: v. 56 “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”            I’d like to suggest that this physical, visceral language is meant to guide us toward one of the central realities of the Christian life.  A reality about how we use our bodies.  We are used to the bread and the juice as being symbols for us of Christ’s body and blood.  They represent Christ to us and we receive them as the mystery of Christ’s presence with us.  And this is true.  But the movement of the life of the church takes us beyond symbolism and actually moves in the opposite direction.    We usually think of symbols as taking something concrete, like a person, or a house, or a bike, or whatever, and making it abstract, like a picture or a word, or, in the case of communion, bread.  It moves from the actual thing to a sign for that thing.  John’s gospel moves us one step further, and it is a crucial step.  In this gospel it is the Word that became Flesh (John 1:14).  It is the abstract, the sign, the Word, that becomes actual, bodily flesh.  It is the word of Wisdom that Proverbs 9 talks about that takes on flesh and becomes a teacher and guide to the world.  It is the word bread, that takes on flesh and becomes the bread of life to the world.  It is the invisible God, who begins to look very much like a human.  God in 3-D.  Flesh and blood doing the actual work of God. 

This is why Jesus was so emphatic that his flesh was real food and his blood was real drink, as off-putting as it may sound.  This is real.  You are to actually take this flesh into your flesh. And just as Jesus has become the bread of life, you are to feast on him and become bread for others.  And all this is from the Undying God of heaven, the source of life, the giver of bread. 

This is about God alive in our bodies.  Jesus active through our living and breathing and thinking and doing.  It’s all about not just receiving the gift of bread, but receiving the very being of Christ into our being and in turn becoming that living flesh and blood.  God moving through us, reaching out to the world with our hands, embracing the stranger, speaking words of comfort and healing with our mouths.  The flesh of Jesus on our bodies, the blood of Jesus circulating through our veins. 

Its sort of like the mystical meets the practical meets the charismatic meets the social activist.  All these streams of spirituality are wrapped up in the Word becoming flesh and ourselves becoming bread.  And as grand and spectacular as this sounds, it’s a mystery that gets worked out in the ordinary world of daily living.  I read an article this week by a woman who spends a lot of time caring for people.  She said she often felt that she was doing no good.  Sometimes she would spend hours by someone’s bed, not talking much, but just being there.  She went on to say that she didn’t realize how important this was until she herself experienced a sickness that kept her in bed for several weeks.  She expressed her deep gratitude for people who came to be with her, simply to be present.  This is about as ordinary as you can get!  Just putting your body alongside another person, sometimes saying very little.            There is a bumper sticker-type slogan that friends of ours have posted above their kitchen sink.  It says “everybody wants to save the world, but nobody wants to wash the dishes.”  Eating the flesh and blood of Christ will lead us into the public arena where we act and speak for what is right, but it will also take is into the ordinary world of the kitchen and beside someone’s bed who is sick.  What’s key is that this all happens with our body, and that our body is not so much our body, but a part of the larger body of Christ in the world.  So this is ultimately where Jesus leads us in our search for bread.  Instead of constantly looking for a sign from God, we are called to BE a sign of God.  In our search for a revelation of God, we are called to BE a revelation of God.  As we look for bread to fill us, we are called to BE bread, to become bread, to nourish the world.  We consume the bread of life and we allow our lives to be bread for the sustenance of the world.  This is not a symbol as we normally think of symbols.  It is the symbol come to life, taking on flesh and blood.  And we are that symbol.  That is the call of Jesus on our life. Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship, you are a sign of God to the world.  When you offer meals to the community, you are a sign of God’s table where all are welcome and well-fed.  When you initiate and maintain the work of Ten Thousand Villages you are a sign of God’s good economy, where all give and receive in fairness and dignity.  When you gather to worship, you are a sign of the new humanity God is bringing about in the world whose unity is based on its love for the world and not its hatred for an enemy. The picture John gives us with is Jesus, with all his sisters and brothers, bridging heaven and earth, offering the bread of life to the world.  We feed on the bread and we become bread with our bodies that God has given us.    I’m going to let my words be few, because the focus here isn’t on words in themselves, but on moving from the word as symbol to the Word as flesh.  We have the chance to take communion together today.  We have bread and we have juice that represent Christ’s body and blood to us, which are on their way to becoming part of our own body and blood.  Let this be a time of reflection, a time of repentance, a time of receiving this gift and a time of allowing our own flesh and blood to be transformed by the flesh and blood of Christ.  ————-Let’s begin this time by praying together the prayer of preparation

May the body and blood of Christ
which alone can satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst

Fill us with peace

May God bless us tomorrow with daily bread for strength

  And sweet water for refreshment

Just as Christ has become bread for us,

   may we become bread for a hungry and hurting world. 

May we, together, become the body of Christ, living in hope and joy.