The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 16, 2018
Wisdom is at the heart of today’s readings. Wisdom is the great teacher of humankind whose witness is present not only in the words of a teacher but in the orderly and creative patterns of the universe and our planet. We are challenged to align ourselves with God’s wisdom in our daily lives and let divine wisdom motivate our words and actions. Our leaders and ourselves – our nation – are healthy when we go beyond self-interest to be in synch with the patterns of nature and human well-being. When we deviate from these patterns of justice and creativity, we put ourselves and the planet at risk. Divine wisdom contrasts with worldly values, especially as it relates to suffering and sacrifice, both divine and human and also, to our chagrin, national and political. The great nation sacrifices to achieve greater aims than national sovereignty and prosperity. We can be great only when we are good, not just for ourselves but for future generations and the planet as a whole.
The words of Proverbs proclaim the value of divine wisdom. For the author of Proverbs, Wisdom/Hokmah/Sophia joins the metaphysical, ethical, political, and personal. Divine wisdom is embedded in the nature of things. It is God’s voice crying out on the street corners and speaking through the ordinary, calling us to act with wisdom and care. You can also ponder Wisdom shouting in front of the White House, the Halls of Congress, and the United Nations. Those who align with God’s vision of reality will flourish, regardless of their circumstances. Those who turn from divine wisdom will struggle and eventually fail despite their prosperity and success. Their quest for new national greatness will leave in its wake destruction and despair. The gifts of wisdom are spiritual not necessarily material. There is no one-to-one acts-consequences theology, in which the wise will be healthy and wealthy. Rather, wise ordering of life brings happiness and contentment, and the willingness to choose God’s way rather than the ways of the world, dominated by consumption, unilateral power, and greed.
The wisdom embedded in human life is also at the heart of the universe. The universe reflects creative wisdom at every level. The heavens are telling the glory of God. God’s wisdom is proclaimed in all creation, and those who open their senses will experience wisdom in every encounter. God has also implanted wisdom in the human heart. When we align with the law of the universe, the wisdom at the heart of things, we will flourish. Perhaps, Plato is right in asserting that the orderly circuits of the heavens above are intended to inspire us to personal or communal orderliness. Wisdom is everywhere, even in the cells of our bodies, but experiencing wisdom in daily life is the result of our spiritual commitments. We must pause long enough to listen and then embody the harmony of the spheres. We must guard our thoughts, emotions, and words that they are aligned with God’s vision for our lives.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my strength and redeemer. That could be the message of today’s passage from James. The tongue can be trouble. Words can hurt. We know the disastrous impact of thoughtless tweets and bloviations on the national psyche. We also see it in our own thoughtless remarks that hurt rather than heal, diminish rather than affirm. In bridling the tongue, we also guard the inner lives, since our words often reveal our deepest thoughts. Words can join or separate. James counsels us to use words that deepen our love with others. Words of gratitude, reconciliation, and affirmation can transform peoples’ lives. This applies to progressives as well as conservatives: among progressives, our need for linguistic correctness – using the right language or saying the right catch phrases – leads to alienation when we criticize the well-intentioned speech of others. We can be both forthright and graceful. James reminds us that even our most politically aware language can harm others and hurt our cause if it lacks grace and understanding of others we are tempted to correct.
Jesus uses some tough words in today’s scriptures. He begins by asking his followers, “Who do people say that I am?” in general and then asks the more personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question that many seekers ask of the church. They know what they don’t like about Jesus and his church – judgment, homophobia, intolerance, opposition to science, and persons of other faiths. They are looking for a Jesus who can be good news. They are looking for a loving savior who embraces seekers as well as believers and who is on the side of liberation rather than legalism.
Then come Jesus’ toughest words, “The son of man must suffer.” How can the Messiah suffer? Isn’t the Messiah defined by power and victory, not suffering and loss? Yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts, only a suffering God can save. Moreover, the God present in Jesus is, as Alfred North Whitehead affirms, “the fellow sufferer who understands.” Jesus’ saving love is suffering love, love that takes on the sin and pain of the world. Love sacrifices that we might find wholeness.
Divine wisdom is ever-present, inspiring us to awe and wonder, and to see divinity in the quotidian adventures of life, and then work toward a world reflective of God’s values.
(For more on today’s scriptures, see Bruce Epperly, Holistic Spirituality: Life-giving Wisdom from the Letter of James and Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B and Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel)