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Seeking Wisdom

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Come with me on a quest for Wisdom.
Today’s texts: Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31 and Romans 5: 1-5

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Listen again to those words that began our first scripture reading this morning:

Doesn’t Wisdom cry out and Understanding shout?
Atop the heights along the path, at the crossroads she takes her stand.
By the gate before the city, at the entrances she shouts:
“I cry out to you, people; my voice goes out to all of humanity.”

So come with me on a quest for Wisdom.

SophiaGiven that I’m a pastor, you might well expect that my quest for Wisdom would begin with a sacred text, like our Bible. This morning, we gave Bibles to our third grade students because we think this collection of 66 books – 39 from the Hebrew scriptures, 27 from the New Testament – is essential to our understanding of God and the message of Jesus and how the Spirit of love continues in our midst.

Yes, I view the Bible as an important source of wisdom, a compilation of our struggles as human beings to live to together and to figure out our relationship with God.

But my quest for Wisdom this week took me to many other places. And one of the things I learned is that this is not a one-way quest. A critical message of that passage we heard this morning is that Wisdom is also seeking me – and you. Wisdom is not simply an abstract concept – she is shouting out to us if we are willing to hear.

Since we are in a season of college commencements, one place where you might hear wisdom flowing is in all those commencement speeches, some of which seem to drone on forever. Not all commencement speeches are created equal and not all are founts of wisdom. Some get dangerously close to holding the audience hostage.

Still, here we are at the contemporary equivalent of the gate of the city, the place where one part of a generation will pass through on their way to the next phase of their lives.

russell wilsonIn Madison, superstar quarterback Russell Wilson came back to the football field where he made the leap toward professional fame and talked about how to respond when life seems to be telling you “no,” how to honestly assess what you are capable of and then taking on the obstacles and seizing the second chances after discouragement. Not bad as a piece of wisdom.

Ellen and I were at Karin Wells’ graduation from Chicago Theological Seminary last week and a hip-hop artist named Jasiri X talked with passion about using cultural touchstones to help change the social dynamics that keep people oppressed, locked out from the abundance of our world.

That bit of wisdom fit together well with another gem from a writer named Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners. Picking up on that phrase of wisdom speaking at the gate of the city, she wrote that “The Wisdom of God challenges the power players at the gate of the city…Power players inside the gate forget what it is like for those exposed outside that gate.”

By definition, I think, the president of the United States is a power player. When you are the president, you always get to give a few commencement speeches and Barack Obama gave a few this year.

The one where I found some wisdom is the one he gave at Howard University, where he reminded the graduates standing at the gate that no matter how much work there is left to do to achieve a better world, they need to remember how much has been accomplished and to remember that, as he said, “democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.”

I was listening to a podcast this week and picked another slice of wisdom. This was a conversation between two journalists for whom matters of faith in their lives are important. One is David Gregory, formerly of NBC News, now with CNN, who has written a book about his discovery of the spiritual depths in his Jewish roots. The other is Jon Meacham, a journalist turned historian who is anchored in Christianity.

David Gregory asked Meacham whether his faith was just intellectual or if it affected his daily life. Meacham replied:

‘The demands of the Gospel, the demands of the Judeo-Christian tradition are about grace and forgiveness. You and I both come out of a world where grace and forgiveness are very necessary and very rare. That’s a struggle that I undergo all the time.: How do I move from knowing a lot, from the intellectual assent to the tradition, to actually living the precepts? It’s something I work on daily.”

Thoughtful speeches and writings and podcasts, then, are one source of wisdom.

So is sitting on State Street, eating ice cream and watching people walk by, listening to snippets of conversation, observing how they interact with one another, how they respond to the people they encounter who are different from them.

Or how about the crowds at Fitchburg Days down at McKee Park? Is there wisdom in the midst of the carnival rides and food booths and bands? Can you only find wisdom in the quiet places?

The reading says, “Atop the heights along the path, at the crossroads she takes her stand.”

How about in the garden or at the dog park or walking through a neighborhood? Does wisdom have a voice there as well?
Where do you find wisdom? What places? What books? What people?

(Pause for answers)

We were talking about all of this at our Wednesday morning Scripture and Scones session this past week, which, by the way, is one of the places I find wisdom in the conversations among people willing to wrestle with the words and stories of our Bible.

We talked about the place we find wisdom – some of them places you have already mentioned.

We find wisdom in our experiences, in our observations, in learning from our own mistakes and from the mistakes of others.

We find wisdom when we get outside our comfort zones.

We find wisdom in the reading we do, in the news we see, in people who serve as role models because they live in ways that are true to their values, who have lived through adversity and grown in character in the process.

We find wisdom when we are attentive to the messages our bodies send us.

We find wisdom in the ability to wait, to recognize that we do not know everything and that even the things we think we know may be incomplete – or perhaps even wrong.

Let me offer a few other thoughts on wisdom – not just the intellectual concept but the spiritual presence – that we seek and that seeks us.

The reading we heard from the Book of Proverbs puts Wisdom back before the creation of the world.

I was there when God established the heavens, when God marked out the horizon on the deep sea, when God thickened the clouds above, when God secured the fountains of the deep, when God set a limit for the sea, so the water couldn’t go beyond his command, when God marked out the earth’s foundations.

I was beside God as a master of crafts. I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.

As one writer put it, Wisdom’s fingerprints are all over creation.

If Wisdom, Sophia, is a Hebrew image of one dimension of the divine, then in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes an extension of that image. Think back to last week, the story of Pentecost, the story of God’s Spirit descending on Jesus’ followers in the forms of tongues of fire.

big bangNow think of that moment of the Big Bang, the way we best understand the creation of the our universe at this point.

Think of the flames shooting forth from the exploding matter, forming suns and moons and planets, think of God’s Spirit bursting forth into a creative frenzy, then dancing and frolicking as God’s image takes shape in humanity.

A contemporary theologian whom I like a lot is Elizabeth Johnson. She has written some beautiful pieces about the Spirit of God as part of how we think about God as a Trinity. She writes that Trinity is not a literal descriptive, something that can be quantified and catalogued.

Rather, she writes, it is a shorthand for the dynamic of the divine, where Sophia – the Greek word for Wisdom – describes the God of compassionate, liberating love who is involved in history in multi-faceted ways.

And that Spirit is not just outside us. It is also within us if we are made in God’s image and likeness.

Douglas Donley, a pastor in Minneapolis, reminds us that “When you are feeling lost and alone, remember that your wisdom is connected with a Wisdom that has been there since the beginning of creation. It urges you forward. It calls you to claim your own true self. It sets you free to become the child of God you were called to be.”

That second scripture reading we heard today, the letter of Paul to the early Christians in Rome, ties a lot of this together in just a couple of sentences. Paul connects God’s glory, Jesus’ life and the Spirit of love as what can sustain us through hard times and help us find wisdom in the midst of our struggles.

Remember these words:

We even take pride in our problems because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Character produces hope when we learn how to respond when life tells us no, when we draw on our cultural resources to take on those powers at the gate, when we remember that no matter how right we may think we are, we still need to listen to the other, when we let forgiveness and grace find a place in the public arena, when we discover the imprint of Sophia on the world around us.

There’s a hymn toward the back our hymnals –it’s on page 740. It’s an ancient hymn about Wisdom, drawing on antiphons from the 6th and 7th centuries and then from the writings of the mystic known as Julian of Norwich, who lived around 1400. So let’s sing “O Wisdom, Breathed from God.”