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Sermon Archives

A Spirit of Wisdom

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, May 22

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and 1 Corinthians 2:1-13

When I was young and impressionable, fresh out of college and living in Minneapolis, I met a poet named Meridel Le Seur. A crusty old radical who was working on a poetry cycle drawing on Native American stories. Le Seur had a personal quality that was completely captivating. She seemed ancient. Well into her eighties, her face was deeply creased. She wore large, thick-rimmed glasses—not fashion-forward. (There were a lot of ugly glasses in the 1980s.) But these were glasses that said, “I don’t care what you think.” She radiated a quality of truth and assurance, a plain-spoken, don’t mess-with-me energy. She seemed completely free within herself. And—she had a quality I had never seen quite so clearly in anyone else. Wisdom.

We live in a society that does not value wisdom. When was the last time you saw an ad for something that would make you wise? Okay, okay, so you can’t buy wisdom. But you know what? You can’t buy youth, either. And that doesn’t stop anyone from trying to sell it!

It was stunning to run into this sage old woman who wore wisdom with such elegance. It woke me up to something deep within the human spirit. It made me curious. How did this woman get this way? What experiences and insights have led her to this inner freedom?

There are many kinds of wisdom: wisdom of the elders—yes, but also the wisdom of the body, the wisdom of a child, the wisdom of tradition, the wisdom of experience, the wisdom of deep knowing. Today we read two scriptures about wisdom. One from the Book of Proverbs and one from Paul’s letters. I invite you to reflect with me.

Let’s begin with the admission that we seldom read—let alone preach—from the wisdom literature of the Bible. Did you even know there’s a whole body of texts called “wisdom literature?” Our canon includes the Jewish canonical texts of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Our apocrypha (the books that didn’t quite make the canon of authoritative texts) also includes the Book of Sirach (1) and the Wisdom of Solomon.(2)

It’s hard to say exactly what this wisdom literature is. It varies in form and content and includes many different genres: sayings, riddles, allegories, hymns, prayers, dialogue, narrative. Like the wisdom literature of other ancient Near Eastern traditions, the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible tends to focus on themes of order, harmony, justice, and an underlying principle of order in the natural world. Based on these criteria, some scholars argue that the Song of Solomon, a handful of the Psalms, and some texts from the Qumran community should be considered wisdom literature, too.

As for the New Testament, there are some parables and sayings of Jesus—particularly from Luke’s gospel—that share these themes and forms. Jesus was clearly influenced by his knowledge of the wisdom tradition. (3) And the New Testament authors considered Jesus himself to be part of that tradition. You’ll recall the story in Luke’s gospel when the twelve-year-old Jesus goes missing and is found in the synagogue at Nazareth. His mother Mary is none-too-pleased: “Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety!” she says. But Luke tells us the boy “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Jesus is a bearer of wisdom.

What is wisdom? Let’s look at our reading from Proverbs to get a sense of where all this comes from. Here, Wisdom appears as a female personification, a divine entity who is with God from the beginning of creation. She says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, before the beginning of the earth.” (Proverbs 4:22-23)

Some of you may be able to picture the image of the Creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Adam, in his well-muscled, Michelangelo way, is reclined. He stretches out an arm. God, with his wild grey beard, amid a swirl of activity, reaches out to touch an index figure to Adam’s hand. God is in the midst of creating and is surrounded by a whole flock of extraordinary beings. (Who are these angelic figures?) If you look closely you will see a female figure tucked in at the crook of God’s arm. Who is this divine being—this companion at God’s side at the moment of creation? Many scholars say this is Wisdom—Sophia. A character filled with creativity—like a master architect, and filled with joy and delight.

We can say that Wisdom is an attribute of God, sometimes personified in female form.

But somewhere—today—there must be a whole room full of lectionary planners who are having a really good laugh. I mean, for crying out loud. Today is Trinity Sunday. Can’t we be left alone to ponder the mysterious, complex relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Aren’t these three—Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—confusing enough without a fourth interloper? This Wisdom character?

Is wisdom part of God? Where did she come from? Did she exist from the beginning of time? God create her? If you find this confusing, you are not alone! For centuries there have been debates. This was even a topic at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.—the very first Church Council. Arius used this very text from Proverbs to argue that Jesus was not really God, but was created by God. Arias argued that Wisdom in this text is Jesus! The Nicene Council decided, “Not so much.” The Council stated decisively that Jesus was “God’s only begotten, begotten, not made, of one being (or substance) with the Father.” And Arius was branded a heretic.

But this was not the end of the discussion. The nature of the Trinity came up again and again at Church Councils through the centuries. Disagreement about the fundamental nature of God even contributed to the Great Schism in 1053 between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Disagreement about God’s nature precipitated the split between the Unitarians and the Congregationalists in the 1800’s. It’s why we have a First Church in Cambridge, where we are worshipping this morning, and also a First Parish right down the street. But I am not going to resolve Trinitarian controversies today and I will put down that bit of history, for now. I did want you to know that the very oldest controversy is rooted in the text from Proverbs we read today.

On the subject of Wisdom, for the sake of simplicity, and so as not to start another schism (we in the UCC are not big on schisms), let’s just say this: Wisdom is a personification of an attribute of God. Not God, but not not God. And if you want to stick close to Proverbs, Wisdom—creative, beautiful, and joyous—is the first created thing!

Let’s turn now to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which helps us see wisdom in a new light. Not only as an eternal ideal, but also through the lens of experience; the prism of Christ’s broken body.

We know that Paul was learned in Torah, steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. He knew this passage from Proverbs. We know, too, that he was fluent in Greek culture and knew the importance of the philosophical tradition to his gentile audience. But here is what Paul says:

My proclamation is…so that your faith might rest not on a human wisdom, but on the power of God…We do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:5-8)
Do you see what he’s doing there? He rejects the pure Greek tradition of philosophia—the love of wisdom for the sake of wisdom. Paul insists “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I know nothing, except Christ crucified.” Paul appeals to the broken body of Jesus as the source of his wisdom. (4) Now that is powerful!

He puts the cross at the center and proclaims wisdom in the broken, suffering body that is God-with-us. A pain we know. A brokenness we share.

Where do we see this kind of wisdom? In elders and sages? Perhaps. But also in the voices of refugee children crying out for justice. There is wisdom in a protest movement that calls out, “No more violence against Black and brown bodies.”

Where do we see wisdom? I think of Morley Safer, the Canadian-born journalist who died this week. Whose parents were Russian Jews. I imagine how childhood bullying by anti-Semitic classmates forged in him a fierceness about justice. And how it was literally in the trenches of Viet Nam, where he learned the craft of reporting with intelligence and unflinching honesty. That’s wisdom.

I think of Toni Morrison—novelist, essayist, Nobel laureate—whose blazing intelligence is matched only by her intimate knowledge of Black Women’s experience in America. Her wisdom is born of hard experience and an unflinching willingness to look directly into suffering. And to speak about it.

No wonder we don’t aspire to wisdom! We know, intuitively, that true wisdom is hard-won. It is not lofty and philosophical—something we might learn in Widener Library. It’s not even something we want for our children. We would rather that they are happy and safe.

But here is the heart of our faith: That in our vulnerability, our brokenness, our humanity, God is present. Here is strength and insight and wisdom. Amen.

1) Ben Sira, also called Ecclesiasticus.
2) Both are considered canonical in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
3) http://bustedhalo.com/questionbox/what-is-wisdom-literature
4) A wisdom that is foolishness, as Paul says elsewhere in his letters.

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