The topic of the week is Wisdom. Solomon asked God for it and he is renowned for having received it. But wisdom is not reserved to ancient kings; there is wisdom for us as well.
Some of the books in the Bible are known as wisdom literature; Ecclesiastes is one of those, one which is traditionally ascribed to Solomon himself. Ecclesiastes (which means "the Speaker") is the victim of some negative prejudice on the part of certain Christians. The Speaker says,
I saw that under the sun the race is not always won by the swift, nor the battle by the strong, nor does enough food go to the wise, nor money to the intelligent, nor honor to the skillful. But time and chance happen to everyone.
Some people think such an observation is too much negative thinking. But the observation is true, and the wisdom here is that if we aren't honest about how the world really works we won't truly understand what God has done.
Many of the observations in Ecclesiastes seem more obvious than wise at first reading. For example:
When a tree falls in the forest, whether it falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls that's where it will lie.
What could be more obvious? What could be more true? The tree lies where it falls; it doesn't get up and try to lie down in some other spot that it deems more comfortable. This is obvious, but is it wisdom?
This is wisdom: to recognize deep truth in what is already obvious. This is wisdom: to accept the world as it is, as God made it, and to find the way to live within a world which God has called good. Anything else is useless, says the preacher,
and chasing after the wind.
Another of the Bible's books of wisdom is Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is also ascribed to Solomon, or rather the first part of it is. The part I quote is ascribed to King Lemuel, and it states explicitly that the wise sayings he put down in the book are ones that he learned from his mother. (From that alone we know that Lemuel was wise, because he listened to his wise mother.)
I choose to share these verses because they are my confirmation passage – after a fashion. Confirmation verses are a Moravian tradition, not a Methodist one. And so I was given this passage, not at my confirmation, but a decade later. It was only still later, when I took over teaching a Moravian confirmation class, that I realized this gift to me was what the Moravian confirmation passage is intended to be.
The passage is from the 30th chapter of Proverbs, verses 7 and 8.
Two things I ask of you; do not withhold them before I die. Keep lying far from me and let me be neither rich nor poor, but give me only as much as I need.
There are two kinds of wisdom here: the wisdom contained in the words, and the wisdom of receiving the gift.
First, there is the wisdom contained in the words. There is the wisdom to accept the truth and there is the wisdom to accept enough. As far as truth-telling, these words are a reflection of who I am. I've never liked or understood lying. So the first words of this passage fit me as I already was, and I recognized in them a reflection of who I am.
Self-deception is another matter, however. As the years have gone by, I've found that this prayer that I was given challenges me to be more completely honest in my assessments of people I know or work with or even talk about. Even politicians, it turns out, need to be talked about with honesty if I am to be true to my confirmation passage; for example, I find myself trying to balance Gov. Jim Doyle's good an bad points whether I'm in a conversation with conservative Republicans or with rabid Democrats.
"Enough" is a much harder concept for most of us. Norman Myers began a book review by saying "We live in societies where there is never enough and never too much." Each night I pray out of the Psalms,
You, Lord, are all I have and you give me all I need.
But there is always that nagging thought that I'd like just a little bit more. The passage I was given to shape my life, the words for me to use to confirm my commitment to Jesus, require me to be satisfied with the life to which God has called me.
This wisdom is a recognition of the fullness of God's gifts, to know the good things when I find them even when admixed with the bad, and to accept the balance of gifts as God gives them rather than to insist on accepting only the gifts on my wish list and none of the others.
The second wisdom is the wisdom of recognizing (after a number of years) that these words were a gift to me. That is, it is wisdom for me to know that this is my confirmation passage, even if it was given long after confirmation and even if it was not given to me by the pastor but by the Chief Elder. This is a special wisdom for me, because this particular passage was given to me, but I hear some of your stories and I know that there is special wisdom for many of you as well.
So that is wisdom: to recognize God's gift of wisdom when it comes to you.
When I first began to think about preaching a sermon on wisdom, the picture which came to my mind was an image from the book of Tobit. The book of Tobit isn't in the pew Bibles because it wasn't included in the Jewish scriptures, but some Christians do consider it to be a part of the Bible. The protaganist, Tobit, is described as a prominent man during the Exile. He tries to do right, to help those of his fellow exiles who were struggling financially, to worship God, and to follow God's laws. Tobit sometimes comes off seeming a little bit too sure of his own righteousness, but he also risked his status and his fortune to give proper burial to Israelite exiles who died as victims of official persecution.
Now it happened that Tobit became blind. This depressed him not only for the loss of sight but also because it deprived him of his livelihood as a merchant. For some time, the family lived on his savings and on the income that Tobit's wife Edna could bring in from sewing and other piece work.
Part of Tobit's savings was on deposit in Media, a fairly considerable amount of money, in fact. They didn't have wire transfers in those days, so Tobit sent his son Tobias to Media to retrieve the money. The boy – he was old enough to marry but a son is always a boy to his parents – found a fellow exile to be his guide and companion on the trip. In fact, the guide was really the angel Raphael – that is, the power and presence of God. And so Tobias begins his travels:
The boy left with the angel, and the dog followed behind.
And that is wisdom: that a boy (even if he is a young man) should leave home, that when he goes he should travel with God, and that he should bring with him a connection to the past as he seeks to find his future.
About a week after my father died, I was walking home with my dog, Buddy. I noticed one of my neighbors walking at the next corner. This isn't a neighbor I know particularly well, but we have said hello regularly for nearly 20 years. Jerry crossed the street at an angle in order to intercept me. "Was that your father that passed away recently?" he asked. And we exchanged a few words – not very profound words, not very many words, but a minute of real conversation.
What I remembered from that encounter was the change in direction. It wasn't what he said, but that he made a point of coming to say it that stuck in my mind and made me feel good.
Is wisdom crossing a street to greet a neighbor? This is wisdom: to know that making the effort to greet a neighbor has value, that doing so increases the good in the world.
Speaking of my father, you may have seen the column about his life by Tony Walter in which only a few of his contributions are listed. I can imagine my father reading that column and, with a puzzled expression, wondering why anyone would comment on his life. Even when I wrote the story of his life, just the events without the commentary, he hinted that perhaps that was a bit much. I put his comment at the top of the web page:
Some of these things are very important, but only to the people involved.
But a friend of mine said to me, and this is a friend who is always active doing things for church and community, "I'd like to see a story like that written about my family. It seems to me that we don't do nearly enough."
What Jesus said about the saints is that they never feel they've done enough.
You should say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty."
The saints through history, my father, and my friend all thought they had not done enough. But their example shows that great things can come from doing a little good. After all, how many thousands can be fed by 5 loaves of bread and a couple of fish?
If this is how the world is, how can you ever know that you've done enough? The good news is that you don't need to know that. That's not how the accounts are kept. Jesus said this about the distribution of rewards:
Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward. And whoever welcomes a righteous person because of that person's righteousness will receive a righteous person's reward. And anyone who so much as gives someone a cup of cold water because that person is my disciple certainly will not lose his reward.
The good news is that you are already accepted. And because you are accepted, you are freed from trying to earn a place at the table, or finagling or scheming to get a spot. You already have a place at the table. You are free to do whatever good you can.
You are not requried to chase the wind or to stash away more than enough. You are not called to set off against the world without the dog or without the angel of God at your side. You are only required to welcome the prophet or give a cup of cold water to a thirsty disciple.
And this is wisdom: to accept the world as it is, the way that God made it, and to do what good you can.
We know that in this world the fastest runner doesn't win every race, that the wise sometimes go hungry and that the intelligent and skillful people and not always the leaders of our communities. But we also have another wisdom:
Jesus has overcome the world.
This is wisdom: Our leader, our chief elder, our friend has overcome all those puzzles and inconsistencies which make this world seem, to us, to be less than perfect and hard to live in.
This is wisdom: The one who hands out the rewards is someone who knows us, who loves us, who lived a human life for us to emulate, who has already promised that we have a place with him.