Sermon for Pentecost 13 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve never understood why those free Bibles given out by the Gideons were incomplete. If you’ve ever seen one, you may have noticed it. I suppose printing cost keeps them from handing out whole bibles, the Old Testament taking up more than two-thirds of the text as we’ve received it, though it’s a pity since the New Testament can really only be understood in relation to the Old. The really odd thing to me, though, is that these little free bibles almost invariably (at least as far as I can tell) include not only the New Testament but also Psalms and Proverbs. If we’re supposed to understand the New Covenant why not include at least Exodus and Isaiah? The former recounts the revelation of the Old Covenant (the Law) and the latter is perhaps the greatest prophetic precursor to the New Covenant of Grace through Christ.

I guess I can understand the inclusion of the Psalms. Though many are rather nasty complaints asking God to smite one’s enemies, several of them are beautiful poetic prayers of supplication and thanksgiving and can be of great value as we learn to pray as we ought.

But Proverbs?! Forgive me if it sounds like I’m bordering on irreverence or if it’s an important text to some of you, but Proverbs is a rather a dull little book. Its intended audience doesn’t at first glance seem to be very broad. It’s addressed to a young man of wealth and privilege and far too much of it harps on about the dangers of sleeping around. It might have been profitably distributed to the gents in my freshman class at Colgate, mostly East Coast prep school boys who were for the first time surrounded by girls in a less controlled environment than the co-ed mixer with the ladies from the good old sister school two towns over. For most of us the book might seem a bit less apropos.

But while the specific advice which Proverbs offers might leave at least some of us cold, the book shines when its meta-narrative is made explicit. While most of the book pelts us with one pithy piece of advice after another, it occasionally leaves that tack to define wisdom and contrast it with folly in rather striking, beautiful terms. That’s precisely what we get in this morning’s Old Testament lesson and it gives us an important insight not just into how we ought to behave, but into the nature of God.

Listen again to those words we heard a few minutes ago:

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her maids to call
from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who is without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”

Notice that wisdom is not here described as some kind of practical knowledge to be acquired by a lifetime of experience. Wisdom is not described as a brute to be vanquished nor as a race to be won. Wisdom personified is matronly and gracious. She has prepared a meal – a rather elegant one at that! – and sent her handmaids out to invite us into her estate. She is not austere; “leave simpleness” she demands of those who wish to partake of her meal and live.

Unfortunately our lectionary left out the saucy bit, Proverbs’ description of the opposite of wisdom, so here it is and pay attention, because I don’t want to get too explicit in my explication:

[Folly] is noisy;
she is wanton and knows no shame.
She sits at the door of her house,
she takes a seat on the high places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who is without sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Did you catch that? Just like Wisdom, Folly is personified. She is a woman, but of a very different sort. What she has to offer is pleasure of a more vulgar variety. It might initially appear more appealing than Wisdom’s banquet. It seems an awful lot more fun. But it’ll cost you. It’ll cost you upfront and (they knew as well in ancient Israel as we do today) it may well cost an awful lot after the fact. Enough said.

This all seems awfully counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Wisdom is easily acquired and it’s awfully pleasing. You’ve got to go out of your way to be a fool, and it doesn’t take long to experience how unpleasant its fruits can be. If this seems contrary to everything you’ve heard about wisdom and folly, it’s probably because it is. If it doesn’t make much sense, it’s probably because it doesn’t.

If you don’t much like paradoxes… well, sorry folks, that’s Christianity. There are a lot more apparently consistent worldviews out there. Atheism seems remarkably consistent. Too bad it’s false (but, then, I’m biased). Our whole faith is based on apparent inconsistency- “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” as St. Paul put it. Power is shown through condescension, True God becoming a feeble baby born in a filthy shed. Freedom is seen most powerfully in a man bound and brutally murdered by the State. An implement of gruesome pain and terrible shame is our easiest yoke, our lightest burden.

Wisdom, khok-mä, sophia, sapientia, that great illusive virtue, is as easy to take in as air is to breathe, because She is the Word by whom all things were made; because She is Christ Himself. She is as easy to feel as Water from that font. She is as easy to taste as Bread and Wine from that Table. We can try and try and try to gain the Wisdom by which we should order our lives and never find it. We can exhaust our reserves of time and energy and money and esteem and still be foolish and unconsoled. Or we can accept that simple invitation from Matronly Wisdom:

Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!
Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.