The Adventurous Lectionary – The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2012
Wisdom speaks, but is anyone listening? Wisdom cries out hoping for a response, but does anyone care? The whole universe is speaking forth the glory of God and the wisdom of divine creativity, but we are too busy to notice. Day after day, wisdom speaks through sunrises, bird songs, human voices, and synchronous encounters, but we seldom listen. The news headlines alert us to the signs of the times, but we go on with business as usual. To forsake wisdom – to silence her voice – is to bring calamity upon yourself and the nation. This isn’t a threat, nor is divine punishment, but the natural order of things when we turn away from what is truly best for ourselves and the planet.
As I was ruminating on Proverbs 1 in an airport terminal on the first leg of a cross country trip, I heard the same commercial repeated three times in the space half an hour. It lauded the economic and energy virtues of coal and then lambasted the EPA for rules on mining. The message was clear: the problem is environmental safeguards not the way we do business or mine for coal. While environmental laws may lead initially to economic losses and slow the economic recovery, especially for mine owners, I found the rest of the commercial profoundly troubling. It asserted that anything that gets in the way of economic growth or employment is evil and against our best interests. It is better to make money and provide modest employment now than concern ourselves with long haul planetary well-being was the underlying message. The commercial implied that if we focus on the now, especially in terms of profit, the future will take care of itself. Given the realities of human impact on global climate change, recognized in varying degrees by virtually every scientific study, such thinking fails to pass the test of Wisdom’s call.
Wisdom (Sophia) sees God in the details of life. Nothing is too small or too large for Sophia’s sensitivities. Everything matters and brings us closer or further away from God’s micro and macrocosmic vision of Shalom. Pay heed to Wisdom, for she sees the big perspective and recognizes that even small actions can lead in the long run to positive or negative outcomes for a society. It is easy to panic and focus only on the urgency of the moment and let the future be damned. Wisdom looks at the long haul as well as immediate gratification and reminds us that living in relationship to God’s vision is the ultimate source of well-being.
Paul Tillich once described three types of relationships to cosmic and divine order: autonomy, heteronomy, and theonomy. Wisdom’s dynamic order, and our alignment with it, is not an affirmation of individual will (in the spirit of Ayn Rand) nor is it the rule of alien powers (in the spirit of imposed rules), coercing us into doing the right thing. It is the law of our being, evolving as we evolve, yet bringing wholeness to persons and community. Wisdom, like the Tao of Chinese philosophy and religion, is the gentle movement that undergirds and gives life to all creation. Wisdom flows through all things, seeking to guide them to their true well-being. Wisdom connects the needs of this moment with the long-term health of persons, communities, and the planet.
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God my strength and my redeemer,” could be an accurate rendering of James’ discussion of the power of the tongue. Words can destroy as well as heal. In our current political context, the effectiveness of negative advertising may be obvious politically in defining our opponents, but it is disastrous for peoples’ trust in our political system. This applies to the negative advertising of those we support as well as those whom we oppose. James sees the tongue as a source of blessing and cursing. Words of compassion, truth, and affirmation bless and heal; while gossip, falsehood, and angry outbursts destroy relationships and communities. James invites us to examine our conscience: are our words helpful or violent? Violence is not always physical; it can be conveyed in words that demean, belittle, limit, and stereotype. Do we speak the truth in love or to win an argument?
James is committed to healing words as essential to community life. Christian faith is a matter of walking the talk and talking the talk. In an interdependent world, our words radiate across the community and universe, adding to joy or sorrow, supporting growth or diminishing possibilities, opening doors or building walls.
While James is not directly describing the phenomenon of self-talk or positive affirmations, his understanding of language supports the belief that affirmations enable us to change from the inside out. Affirmative faith is grounded in the recognition that “I am a beloved child of God” and “You are a beloved child of God.” Affirmative faith transforms our spirits, opening us to new possibilities and challenging pre-set limits in talent, energy, and value. Regularly affirming “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” does not magically change our world, but it gradually moves us from passivity to responsibility and fear to hope. Our bodies and minds respond to such affirmation with new energy and liveliness. Our words about ourselves and others enable us to go beyond limitations to live our fullest vocation as God’s beloved and gifted children. [For more on spiritual affirmations, see Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (Upper Room) or Philippians: An Interactive Study (Energion).]
Jesus’ questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” move us from the abstract to the concrete, and from the generic to the personal. Jesus is asking the disciples to see theological reflection as personal in nature. Faith is more than doctrinal orthodoxy; it is lived experience of trust and discipleship. You can’t really know who Jesus is unless you take him personally as the center of your living and dying.
When Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, he thinks the issue is closed. He imagines that his future is going to be secure and successful. He is incensed when Jesus asserts that the Messiah will suffer. Peter, no doubt, saw the Messiah in military terms as the one who will crush the Romans and restore the Davidic throne. Jesus’ way of life involves suffering and invites us to take up our cross as well. Contrary to the world’s wisdom, Jesus’ wisdom embraces the whole of life. Similar to the insights of Philippians 2: 5-11, Mark describes global transformation and redemption occurring through Jesus’ – and our own – willingness to suffer to be obedient to God.
God does not relish suffering; but following God’s wisdom means sacrifice at key moments of our lives. Seeking the well-being of the planet may lead initially to diminished profits and unemployment in certain sectors of our society. It may also lead to planetary survival, new creativity, and a sustainable future for our children’s children. In the long run, sacrifice today – losing our life, letting go of our small ego, and identifying with the well-being of the planet and its creatures – leads to a bright future. In letting go of the grasping, self-interested, and impatient ego, we discover a lively interdependent world in which we are partners with God in healing the earth. We discover a peace which passes all understanding because our spirits embrace the divine perspective in its expansiveness as well as in the minute details of daily life.
Sacrifices must be made for global healing to occur, but in the spirit of the first Christian communities, described in Acts 2 and 4 as well as I Corinthians 12, sacrifice must be balanced by a safety net that supports the most vulnerable members of our society.
Wisdom speaks! In this election year, will we hear her voice? Or will we drown her out by the clamor of profit-making schemes, short-term advantage, greed, and addiction to power? Will we cling to outmoded understandings of the USA, appropriate to frontier communities and isolated rugged individualists, or will we explore ways to faithful to the planet, its peoples, and the Creator in an interdependent, multi-centered planet? The future of the human race and the planet depends on a growing number of persons who listen to Wisdom’s voice and call our society to a deeper morality and politics, one that serves the earth tomorrow as well as our needs today.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.