August 19, 2018: The Rev. Tom Momberg

BECOMING WISE
A Sermon on Proverbs 9:6

Be silent, still, aware.
For here in the midst of us the Spirit is at prayer.
Knock, and open.  Seek, and find.
Heart wisdom.
Christ.
AMEN. 

That prayer was introduced to me by Jim Fenhagen, Dean of General Theological Seminary while I was a student there.  Jim prayed that prayer before he gave a talk about prayer.  In his talk, he told us about his son.  One day, Jim said, he was being the typical parent, wanting desperately to hand down some hard-learned wisdom: “Here’s what I know about prayer.”

Jim’s son, a recovering alcoholic, interrupted dad’s prayer lecture.  He said something so powerful, so meaningful, Jim asked him for permission to share it.  You may know that, if Jim shared what his son said about his recovery, without permission, he would be breaking his son’s anonymity.  But his son said it was OK to share what he had often said at A.A. meetings.  Dad, he said, I pray as if my life depends on it.  Because it does.

When I heard that little bit of wisdom about life and the life of prayer  all those years ago, it went deep inside.  It remains a reminder: my life, who I am and what I do, depends on who God is and what God has done and continues to do for me, in me, through me.  Over the years, the relationship revealed in this story between Jim and his son has taught me an additional lesson.  Jim’s son, the younger, shared important wisdom with his father, the elder.  The wise father, a great spiritual guide to many, learned something new about prayer from his wise son.

When my son John was a kid, and I was a young dad, we were driving somewhere on a hot, summer day.  Because I live with asthma, I turned on the car’s air conditioner to ease my breathing.  “Pop!” my son shouted.  “You’re ruining the environment!”  “John,” I said, “I need to breathe.”  That’s a dilemma we still face today.  To borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, the child was father to the man.  We know there is the wisdom of our elders, to which we need to pay attention.  There is also the wisdom of our youngers.  We need to listen and pay attention to their wisdom, too.

Sometimes, John’s wisdom became…something else.  I remember the day I met with his high school principal and a teacher.  They called John a classroom lawyer.  “He wins every argument, even with his teachers!”  They wanted me to help them put a stop to it.  I could not.  (Thankfully!)  But I knew what they were telling me.  There is the wisdom of our youngers and elders.  There is also arrogance and immaturity, which is never wise.  “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:6).

Four verses after the ones we heard this morning in our first lesson from Proverbs, there’s another verse: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (9:10).  We are reminded: God gives us gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, and insight.  Proverbs is a part of the Bible called “wisdom literature.”  We often hear from preachers and teachers about the Old Testament Prophets, but not as much about Wisdom.  We need to listen to this part of the Bible, too.

Wisdom is portrayed in Proverbs as God’s companion, standing with and beside God.  Timeless, practical, mysterious, reliable.  In summary, one Bible scholar suggests, wisdom is relational.  She says, “To guide a child in making wise decisions for life, the Hebrew Wisdom literature offers the law of God.  This law is not merely words or rules to follow, but rather the offer of relationship” (Susan E. Vande Kappelle, Feasting on the Word, p. 338).  

The Jewish rite of passage, bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, which means “son or daughter of the commandment,” implies God’s law is like a parent’s relationship with her child.  “Honor your father and your mother,” the Fifth Commandment teaches.   There’s a version of the Ten Commandments in our Catechism, found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer.  Our Prayer Book’s version of the Fifth Commandment begins, “To love, honor, and help our parents and family.”  (Hmm. Do I have to listen to my sister?)

This new interpretation of the Fifth Commandment continues with these words: To honor those in authority.  That makes sense to me.  Now that my own parents are of blessed memory, I believe and sometimes say that I can’t have too many mothers and fathers in my life.  There are also our symbolic parents, those with authority over us in all of our institutional worlds: work, school, politics, religion.  But, we may ask, what about those in authority who abuse and neglect people, in thought, word, or deed?  What about those who harm us, or those we love, or others?  For example, what about child abuse by Catholic and other clergy?

There’s one more phrase in that re-interpreted Fifth Commandment, found in our Prayer Book, on page 848.  Here’s the whole thing, with that final phrase added: “To love, honor, and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands.”

Our Catechism resonates with our Baptismal Covenant, which speaks of “striv(ing) for justice and peace among all people” and “respect(ing) the dignity of every human being” (p. 305).  Together, they show us where the Episcopal Church stands.  We stand on the side of justice in our society and our world.  But our church’s stand requires more of Episcopalians.  We need wisdom, as we seek to discern what is just and what is not.  What are the just demands of those in authority over us, who try to act like parents?

Ask the women.  Ask the women in your life.  Ask your daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and others about respect, dignity, justice, peace, and wisdom.  We men especially need to keep learning to do this.

The same Bible scholar who speaks of the parental wisdom of the Ten Commandments says the “strong call of the woman of wisdom and the personification of (Lady) Wisdom in Proverbs is . . . like a grandmother . . . (like  the) voice of wisdom that surfaces from deep within.”  Lady Wisdom’s invitation sounds like the Gospel readings we’ve been hearing over the past several Sundays: “Come, eat of my bread . . . drink of the wine I have mixed.”

Jesus follows a pattern similar to the Proverbs woman and other wise  women, in Scripture and in his own life.  He offers the bread of life to those who dare come to follow him.  Jesus, of course, was, first and foremost, fed and taught by his mother Mary.  Mary’s feast days in churches worldwide have long been kept with our reading from the ninth chapter of Proverbs.

Of all the women of wisdom in our own day to whom we might need to listen, I want to lift up two.  The first woman is younger; the second, an elder.   Both of these women have experienced great suffering, which is part of what has made them wise.   Let me tell you – or remind you – of them.

In the aftermath of the massacre last Valentine’s Day, when students and staff at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were shot and killed, a member of the senior class emerged as a new Lady of Wisdom.  At a national rally called March For Our Lives, Emma Gonzalez stunned the world, not just with her words, but also with her silence.

For most of the seven minutes she stood at the speaker’s podium, she was silent.  While fellow students chanted, “Never Again!  Never Again!”  Emma was silent, still, aware.  It took just six minutes and twenty seconds, Emma said after her silence, for a former student of her school to come in and do his deadly damage, forever altering countless lives.  Emma’s wisdom then and in days to follow proclaimed wisdom of our youngers, writ large.

There is another woman I want to honor today as a Lady of Wisdom.  In 1965, a teenager survived a near-death experience in Lowndes County, Alabama.  Ruby Sales is still speaking wisdom to our world, fifty-three years after a young, white, Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, stepped in front of a bullet, saving Ruby’s life, while losing his.

After marching to Selma and protesting in the Civil Rights movement, Ruby Sales attended seminary.  She has become what some call a “public” theologian.  Ruby is one of fifty African-Americans spotlighted in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.  She is also the founder of the Spirit House Project in Atlanta, a non-profit, inner-city mission, which honors Jonathan Daniels.

Like Emma, Ruby is wise beyond her years (now nearly seventy).  In an interview last year, she said, “There’s a spiritual crisis in white America.  It’s a crisis of meaning.  We talk a lot about black theology, but I want a liberating white theology.  I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia…(and) to the white person . . . who’s heroin-addicted.  I want a theology that deepens people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside them.”  She goes on: “It’s almost like white people don’t believe . . . other white people are worthy of being redeemed . . . As a black person, I want a theology that gives hope . . . to people who are struggling to (find) meaning in a world where whiteness is no longer as essential as it once was.”

Lay aside immaturity, says Lady Wisdom in Proverbs, and live.  Walk in the way of insight, she tells us.  To which, Ruby Sales suggests, we need to add both hindsight and foresight.  Sisters and brothers, let us learn how to become wise, from elders like Ruby and youngers like Emma.  Then, let let us use our hindsight, insight, and foresight wisely.  Let’s ask God to help us turn it all into wise acts of justice, peace, and love.  But first: Be silent, still, aware.  For here in the midst of us, the Spirit is now at prayer. 

The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
The Church of the Ascension
Montgomery, Alabama
August 19, 2018

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