Monday, August 20, 2012

Wisdom's Table - Proverbs 9:1-6 (Sermon)

First question: I want you to ask the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you: who comes to mind when you think about who the great wisdom figures in your life have been?  I want you to take a couple of minutes and share something about that person – or maybe there’s more than one -- and what he or she has taught you in your life.

Some years ago, my spiritual director, the person who spent a lot of time accompanying me as a companion and source of wisdom on my journey with God, was a Catholic Jesuit priest in his seventies. (He’s eighty-two now.)  We met frequently over a two year period; he played a major role in my discernment of a call to ministry.  In fact, I’m sure that I would have never gone anywhere near a seminary had he not been there to listen to me sort everything out and then to encourage and support me in the application process.

The summer after my first year in seminary, I asked him one evening what he knew that I should know.  “You’ve got twenty-three years on me,” I said.  What have you learned in the last twenty-three years that I should know about?” In other words, “What wisdom do you have to share?”

The other night, I went over to Belmont Towers and had dinner with TL and two other women.  As we ate our meal, it suddenly occurred to me that those three ladies could write my sermon for me.  “What about you?” I asked them.  “What has been the most important piece of wisdom that you’ve acquired in your lives?” The next day, I asked HC and CC and AM the same question.  I wonder whether you’ll be surprised at the answers people have given me.

You may have noticed that the people from whom I’ve sought information about wisdom have all been of the older variety.  That’s something we tend to assume, isn’t it? – that our elders are the wise ones.  We should not, of course, make that assumption any more than we should make any other.  Young people are often the bearers of great wisdom; their experiences and imaginations may well rival those of people decades their senior.  I am often astounded by the depth of my daughter’s wisdom – and she’s only twenty-five, and that only as of 2:01 a.m. this morning.

. . .

What do we learn about Wisdom from today’s passage?   

Wisdom, it seems, does five things: She builds, she prepares, she calls, she hosts, and she offers insight. Let’s take a look at them.

Wisdom builds her house; she hews seven pillars to strengthen it.  Building is a matter of no small importance in the Bible.  We might recall that God gives Noah very specific instructions for building the ark.  Much later in time, God does the same when it comes time for Solomon to build the temple and, although that temple is eventually destroyed by invaders, it is rebuilt again, and plays a critical role in the life of Jesus.  Many of the most important events of Jesus’ life take place in the temple, the center of Jewish life and teaching.

All of the building that goes on in the Bible indicates some important truths about us and our lives: We need to frame space for ourselves and for God. We need to create boundaries as way of establishing ownership and significance.  If you think about the wisdom others have shared with you, it often involves establishing foundations and structures for our lives.  Sometimes we start with literal buildings: our parents provide homes for us, and then churches and schools.  Sometimes the structures are metaphorical:  frameworks of faith, of character, of attitude.  But structures and frameworks they are. No wonder Lady Wisdom starts by building her house.

The second thing Wisdom does: she prepares. She prepares her meal – her food and her wine -- and her table. Preparation is necessary in order for a job to be done right, whether it’s raising a barn or painting a room or serving a meal. Preparation demonstrates skill, experience, care, and love – all of them aspects of wisdom.  Think again about the wisdom figures in your lives – regardless of age, or gender, or occupation, would you not ascribe skill and experience and care and love to them and to the way they go about their lives? 

Thirdly, Wisdom calls.  She not hide her light, her skill and care, under a bushel.  She operates in the open, in public. She invites each of us to partake in what she has to offer; she is eager to share, hopeful for the future.  I don’t think that anyone in possession of true wisdom can help but become an invitational, giving person.  It’s in the nature of wisdom to participate in community.   Wisdom is not, by definition, wisdom, when it keeps to itself.  Wisdom is inherently generous.  It seeks to help others, to care for others, to say, “I have walked this path and I can offer you some assistance with the same journey.”  

And so, quite naturally, Wisdom hosts.  Because to be a host or hostess, someone who prepares and calls and serves, is to be a participant in the work of God.  In the Bible, meals are always significant: Jesus feeds us with the life and love of God; angels feed us in order that we may hear the voice of God; Wisdom feeds us so that we may gain what she has and become as she is:  a skilled expert, a caring and loving guide.  “Come,” says Lady Wisdom, “and eat of my bread and drink of my wine.”  Have we heard this before?  We know, when we hear these words, that the generosity of God is at work, gathering and loving God’s community.  

And what does she offer?  What does Wisdom have to give?  Insight, and understanding.  Not, let’s be assured, just the head-knowledge that we sometimes associate with wisdom in a contemporary usage of the word.  But heart and hand knowledge as well.  The knowledge, the understanding, that it takes to make a whole person.  A person alert to all the demands of life, and able to respond according to whatever call comes his or her way.

You all may remember that I told you that I went to the Northfield School for Girls for high school, a boarding school in western Massachusetts founded by the 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody. One of the most important set of ideas drummed into us day after day during those years was that Mr. Moody was intent upon the education of the whole person: the head, the heart, and the hands.  Head: that’s why he insisted on a high-caliber academic program.  Heart: that’s why he insisted that the arts, and friendships, and community volunteering, play a prominent role in our lives. And hand: that’s why he insisted that every student had a job that contributed to the maintenance of the campus and required a daily commitment of time.  Head, hand, and heart.  I presume he was familiar with Chapter 9 of Proverbs and understood from whence wisdom comes.

And how is it that wisdom reveals itself?  If you’d paid attention for this long, you must still be wondering: What have the people I’ve been talking to said to me about wisdom?  What little nuggets of revelation have come their way?

I think that in one way or another, they all spoke about the same thing.  They all spoke about change, and learning to contend with it.

My spiritual director of years ago talked about the importance of memory.  He said that it’s important to re-evaluate and re-interpret events of the past; as the years go by, we come to understand new dimensions of our past experiences.\

On the other hand, several of the ladies to whom I spoke talked about adjusting to unwelcome circumstances: to the challenges of illness—theirs or a spouse’s, to widowhood, to having to move out of their homes, to having to accept the decisions of others about how and where they were going to live, to no longer being in control of their lives.  All of these people, with decades of experience behind them and difficult challenges ahead, exuded a wealth of wisdom as they talked about rethinking the past and accommodating the present.

None of us, as our lives proceed, understand what the events of the present will mean to us decades later. No one really expects to lose a spouse.  No one really believes that she might have to move to some sort of senior facility, or that she might have to depend upon others if she wants to stay in her home.  

It seems that head and heart and hand wisdom all require flexibility and adaptability.  Without those qualities, we risk becoming angry and bitter, and turning inward, toward the dark places in our lives.  With them – with flexibility and adaptability, with the capacity to grow in head knowledge and expand our hearts and alter our bodily lives – we grow in wisdom.  We become people who are able to prepare a table and call others to join us and host a feast of generosity and loving-kindness.   

There’s a wonderful movie out these days that illustrates the flexibility and adaptability of wisdom. It’s called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and it focuses on the lives of a group of older folks from England who, not knowing one another, find themselves in circumstances they didn’t want or expect: widowhood, dwindling finances, broken bodies, disoriented lives.  Independently and all for different reasons, they decide to respond to an advertisement to move to India and live in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which promises a life of happiness and fulfillment in the midst of the colors and sounds of India.

Of course, they arrive to discover that the hotel looks nothing like the pictures; it’s a complete shambles.  And the unfamiliarity and energy of India is almost overwhelming.  But the new arrivals come to terms with it, form a little community, and begin to build new lives – with one exception, one woman who simply cannot muster the optimism and flexibility needed to adapt.  Her memories hold her captive; she is unable to translate them into a new life. The rest of them – we see them grow in wisdom each day.  We see them adapting, head, heart, and hand.  We see them called by and responding to Wisdom herself.

Now, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not explicitly a movie about the Christian journey.  But it illustrates the journey that we all make, the journey in which we are called to grow in Wisdom.  And how is it that we can do that?  Well, a couple of the women at our Belmont Towers dinner last week stated unequivocally that wisdom lies in faith in God.

What they meant, I think -- and I hesitate to put words in their mouths, but -- I did listen carefully to all that they said about their lives, and what I think they meant is that faith in God is the building, the structure, the framework, that houses everything else.  It’s within the context of faith that God prepares us, calls us, and hosts us – transforming our very lives into a meal that nourishes understanding and insight.  It’s faith in God, and it’s the faith of God, that gift of faith that God offers us, that strengthens us to re-assess our memories, to re-think our lives, and to grow in the flexibility needed to adapt to whatever circumstances come our way.

"Live and walk in the way of insight" -- thus Wisdom beckons us.  Respond to her call, enter the house she builds, accept her hospitality, and know that she serves the meal that nourishes your head, your heart, and your hands: the food the enables you to respond to the life you are given.  She serves up the abundant love of God for each and every one of us.

*Like RevGal Songbird, I want to thank Dr. Wil Gafney for providing the springboard for much of this sermon.


  1. Robin - what a beautiful sermon!! I'm going to send this link to Joe and to my daughter Molly.

    As he was preparing for Breaking Open the Word last week - they had some lively discussions about Lady Wisdom.

    You are a gifted writer. Wish I could have hear you preach this!