Wisdom’s Focus

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church by Rev. Marci Auld Glass

Aug 25, 2021

Proverbs 9:1-6, 13-18
 Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
  She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
  She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
  ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says
 ‘ Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed
  Lay aside immaturity,* and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’

The foolish woman bustles about;
 she is ignorant and knows nothing.
 She sits at the door of her house,
 on a seat at the high places of the town,
 calling to wayfarers who pass by,
those who go on straight paths,
 ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’
And to those without sense she says,
 ‘Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is delicious.’
But they do not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

The Book of Proverbs is less of a book and more of a collection of writings, written by different people in different communities. If you read through it at one sitting, which I don’t really recommend, it reads like a parent realized their kid was leaving for college in the morning and they want to give their kid all the wisdom and advice they can think of so they scribbled it all down and tucked it in a suitcase.

I was a little bit like that when my kids went off to college too. When children are little, you feel like you have all this time to teach them what they need to know to survive in the world. And then before you know it, they are two seconds from backing the loaded car out of the driveway.

He knows how to do laundry, right?

And make food so he won’t starve?

He can access his bank accounts and knows that money has to last him all year, right???

Will he floss?

I didn’t write my own book of Proverbs for either of the boys, but I may have called out “MAKE GOOD CHOICES!!!” as I said good bye.

Today we are celebrating our graduating seniors at Calvary. We send them off to college or their next adventure, to become better educated, which on some level involves the acquisition of knowledge. We want our kids to learn things that will serve them well in life, allowing them to serve the world well with their lives.

Reading this passage from Proverbs reminds me that we need more than knowledge. We need wisdom. We need the ability to take our knowledge and apply it to the situations life throws our way. We want our children, and our neighbors, to be able to discern between the cries of Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly as they walk their straight paths.

As a parent, I can’t quite figure out how to commodify wisdom for my kids.  I want to just take everything I’ve learned, often through the struggles of my own life, and zap it into their heads.

I know it doesn’t work that way. My wisdom, such as it is, was acquired as I failed, and failed forward. Looking back at my life, I realize my wisdom was hard earned, from all of those times I crashed and burned and then got back up and tried again.

My wisdom was not acquired in a vacuum, though, where I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.  It was gifted to me as people helped me get back up again. Because sometimes when you fail, you fall hard. And you’re lying there on the ground with the wind knocked out of you, convinced that it’s all over—and then someone reaches out a hand, helps you stand again, and dusts you off so you can try again.

I think about friends who stood by me. And about strangers who offered a hand up by extending kindness toward me. I think about people in positions of authority and power who used their resources to help me. I think about the bigger systems that were in place to offer me assistance too. When people were willing to wade into the messiness of my life to help me up, it taught me not to fear being there for other people when they fell. I learned wisdom when other people extended care toward me and my life.

And that’s what we see playing out in this story from Proverbs 9.

In general, I’m not a fan of pitting women against each other, as the author of Proverbs does in this story. But I trust we can continue to believe that women supporting other women is our operational life motto while exploring the contrast between Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly.

I’m struck by what Wisdom does in this passage. She does a lot of workhewing pillars, slaughtering animals, preparing wine, setting the table. 

You only need to hew seven pillars to hold up a roof if you’re going to have a big house. Wisdom builds her house for a big crowd, she builds it to provide shelter for more people than just her.

She cooks a big feast, preparing food for everyone who needs to come to the feast. And she spares no expense to make sure people know about the feast, sending her servant girls to gather people in, and going out herself to call from the highest places in town. 

Her welcome is expansive and inclusive. She uses what she has to make sure that other people are cared for. “You who are simple, turn in here. Come and eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

On a symbolic level, we see Wisdom’s invitation when we celebrate communion, and God calls us to feast at a Table that has been prepared for us. On a practical level, Wisdom is in the business of bringing other people up to a better starting place—feeding them—both literally and figuratively—so they are equipped to walk in the way of insight.

Because when your basic needs aren’t being met, when you are hungry, or when you aren’t physically safe, or when you are in real pain or desperate circumstances—it is hard to make wise choices in those moments.

Wisdom seeks to offer help to those who need it so they can walk in the ways of wisdom. She doesn’t ask if they deserve it, or are worthy of it. She doesn’t really even seem to worry about whether or not they are seeking wisdom. She knows the way to build a better community is to put people in a position where they are better equipped to make good decisions for themselves.

There’s blessing in it for her too, of course. If you live in a stronger community where more people are able to live by wisdom and good choices, then your life is going to be better too.

If building a better world only for yourself is the goal, you won’t find Wisdom there. She’s busy serving dinner to everyone else at her place. 

Wisdom directs herself, primarily, toward others. What would the world be like if the blessing of other people were our primary motivation?

Kate Murphy, a Presbyterian pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote an excellent piece last week, where she observed how we call people selfish when they refuse the vaccine, while they work in nursing homes where elderly people could get sick. She writes:

I imagine that if we could gather the unvaccinated workers who care for our children, our parents, our neighbors undergoing chemotherapy and actually ask them ‘how can you be so selfish,’ they might turn that question right back on us. So many people don’t believe in the common good—especially when it comes to health care–because they’ve never experienced it.

Many of the working poor who assist our teachers, bathe our disabled loved ones, and stock the shelves of our stores have life-threatening chronic medical conditions or love people who do. And while the children of lawyers and doctors and pastors have treatment and medication to keep their asthma under control, the children of first responders and nursing home attendants often do not. While those who work white collar jobs have health insurance that provides insulin pumps that make diabetes a mostly-manageable chronic condition, those who clean their offices often are forced to ration their insulin in risky ways. Some of us have access to regular high quality medical care like mammograms that discover and treat conditions before they become life threatening. Others can only access that life-saving care if they find a free clinic and risk harassment and verbal assault by protesters who call themselves pro-life. Some of us can afford both to go out to eat and live in neighborhoods with clean air and safe drinking water. Some of us earn a living waiting tables and cannot.

We justify these immoral disparities by saying that those who really deserve good care are getting it—and those who cannot have to do better to get better. For decades we’ve taught that health care is an individual concern and a matter of personal responsibility. It seems that lesson has been received. We’ve designed a health care system whose mission is to create wealth, not heal bodies. Why are we surprised when many people who have been largely left out of the system aren’t interested in upholding it?”

There is wisdom in what she writes. We say we want a world where people care for each other, but we’ve built a world that prioritizes individual concern and even ‘freedom’.

In Proverbs, the contrast between Wisdom and the Foolish Woman is stark. They both call out the same invitation—“you who are simple, turn in here!”—but the Foolish Woman doesn’t put in the work. She just sits on her porch and lures in passersby so she can lead them away from the straight paths they are walking. She tells them that stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret tastes better. She doesn’t work in the kitchen to prepare a feast for people. Instead she tells them lies and tries to make them believe things that are not true. The Foolish Woman’s house is literally a house of death. ‘They don’t know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.’

It is clear in this passage that Wisdom is who we should emulate, and not the Foolish Woman, but I confess that as I read it, I thought, “do I want to invite people without sense to come eat at my table?” I mean, I don’t actually want to lie to people and be Foolish Woman, but how generous do I really want to be toward people without any sense?

I want to be Average Woman—generally helpful but not going out of my way for fools. Where is she talked about in scripture?

It is clear in this passage, though, that we aren’t called to be Average Woman. And we aren’t called to be Fools, leading people to death.

Why is it so hard for us, then, to follow Lady Wisdom?

As I look around at our world, plenty of people are following the Foolish Woman with great enthusiasm and energy.

Why is it so hard for us to follow Lady Wisdom?

On one hand, I think a part of it is that it requires a decent amount of work. And there are days when we don’t want to put in the effort. But I’d like us to consider the joy that comes with wisdom too. In the previous chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom is described with more detail. She was there at the beginning of the world—I was the first of God’s acts of long ago….before the mountains had been shaped, I was brought forth.

When God marked the foundations of the world, Wisdom says “I was beside him, like a master worker. And I was daily God’s delight, playing before God at all times, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race”.

In addition to the work that wisdom requires, we find joy in it, and delight.

Our world is in need of wisdom. Can we live lives of generous wisdom as a counter to the diet of fear and violence we see in the world? What if we could, instead, create neighborhoods of wisdom, sharing joy and delight?

I don’t know how many of you have watched the show Ted Lasso, but I highly recommend it. It stars Jason Sudekis as an American college football coach who gets hired to coach a professional English football club, or as we would call it, a soccer team. The foibles of a man who knows nothing about the rules of soccer coaching at the professional level are easy to imagine.

Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

But it is the inherent and contagious goodness of the lead character that makes me think of Lady Wisdom. Ted Lasso cares infinitely more about the health and happiness of the people around him than he cares what people think of him, or than he cares how many wins the team has. His dogged pursuit of the right way to be, and the joy he finds in simple moments have been showing me how to “walk in the ways of insight”.

Where have you seen wisdom lately?

The problems of the world seem immense to me right now. If the fabric of our nation is fraying, how do we stitch it back together, repairing the tears, strengthening the seams?

Mother Theresa is quoted as saying “there are no great things, only small things with great love”.

What are the small things we can do with great love?

My son Alden got married last week, and my brother and sister went through a whole lot of small things with great love to get my mother to Denver for the wedding. As some of you know, my mom has had a hard season, health wise, and has been following her doctor and PT’s directions in order to be able to come to the wedding. But it still wouldn’t have happened if my siblings hadn’t helped her shop for clothes and get packed, and then helped her get to the airport and all the other steps of the journey.

My mom opening up the dance floor with my nephew

And the weekend was that much better because she was there. She danced all night, wearing her oxygen machine, only sitting down to breathe deeply when her oxygen saturations would go down. It was a gift after the struggle of this past year, to be there with everyone to celebrate.

It wasn’t a summit on hate crimes. It wasn’t a big political statement, although both of those things have an important place in our work.  It was gathering on a lovely summer evening, with people I love, celebrating love and family. Watching my mom teach my nephews how to dance didn’t solve all of our problems. But it helped mend my fraying heart.  Perhaps there is wisdom in small acts of great love.

What kind of a world might we yet create if we took the time to notice and cultivate joy and delight? What kind of world might we yet create if wisdom were something we directed beyond ourselves and toward the world? Let us knit the world back together with each act of joy, love,  acceptance, kindness, and wisdom.

Let us dream, pray, and work this into being together. Amen.

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