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Sermon – “Wisdom” – May 26, 2013

Sunday, May 26, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Wisdom Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5: 1-5; John 16: 12-15

Officials dedicated the present Lewisburg river bridge in 1989, and named it in memory of prominent jurists in each of the two counties connected. That was the daylight ceremony. Afterdarktherewasanalternatenamingritualperformedbyagroupwhich wanted to give the bridge a feminine name. My information on this covert, if not coven, gathering is incomplete. I presume the point was to reject the business-as-usual co-opting of the useful, necessary, and expensive things of our common life by the status quo and male-dominated society. It is thought-provoking to discover that even the routine memorial designation of transportation-related construction projects can prompt a countercultural gesture. This is the sort of thing that might have been done with great seriousness or in a spirit of fun. I don’t know which, or what point between. I do know that a female acquaintance of mine, who got wind of the event, suggested that perhaps the new span had been christened “Bridget.”

I don’t bring up the two bridge namings to observe how, two centuries after Lewisburg was the frontier, there still is a defiantly independent spirit in local culture. I mention this calling upon female sources of power and meaning in naming the bridge to introduce the personification of divine wisdom which we find in the book of Proverbs. The holy wisdom of God, which seeks to enlighten and secure people who otherwise may make a mess of their lives, is conceived as a woman.

That reminds me of a joke, which I’m going to tell, because if there’s any place in which people are starved for a bit of humor, it’s church. A man’s doctor examines him for headaches he’s been having, and does some tests, and calls him back in to the office to give him the results. “There’s bad news and there’s good news,” he says, and the man looks at him anxiously. The doctor continues, “The bad news is that your brain is going bad, and it will be totally worthless very soon. The good news is that with the advances we have in modern medicine, we now can do brain transplants, and that will take care of your problem.” The man can hardly believe it. “Brain transplants?” he responds, and the doctor says, “Yes,” and tells him that in fact he can take him into the showroom and give him a choice of the brain that he’ll have put in his head to replace the old one. The two of them go out a back door of the office and down a corridor and into another room, and it’s like one of those mad scientist labs from the old movies. There are brains in jars filled with some kind of liquid, and wires and tubes running to the jars, and odd-looking equipment. The patient notices that there are prices under the different brains. There are several brains marked “$1000,” and several brains marked “$500.” The patient points this out to the doctor. “Oh,” the doctor says, “the $1000 brains are brains that have come from men, and the $500 brains are brains that came from women.” “Why the difference in price?” the man asks. “It’s because,” the doctor replies, “the women’s brains have been used.”

It’s possible that the feminine character of wisdom is owed simply to observation. Young women mature faster than young men, and so have an intellectual advantage for at least some years– and in the maturation process of both sexes there is something both aggressive and daring in the making of males which no doubt has been evolutionarily advantageous, but is the reason young males pay higher car insurance rates than do young women.

It may be because young men– who, that society having favored males as much as most since– were the intended recipients of the lessons offered in the book of Proverbs, and there was an expectation that they would relate to the idea of wisdom coming from a woman because each had been reared by a mother. Judaism is a culture in which the role of the mother is pronounced, and there are jokes about it, but it’s mostly about good advice.

Alternately, the female characterization of wisdom corresponds to the danger posed to the sensible progress in life of young men by the attractions of the wrong kind of woman. Personified wisdom as a goddess-type figure would then be the contrasting alternative, offering a young man other qualities to appeal to him and to make him happy.

So there’s several causes of the female attributes of wisdom. There may be more– Carl Jung, the psychological theorist, may be right that all of us resist symbol systems which are not balanced, and that there is an instinct to complement male representations of divinity with female representations. Who knows which or how many of these factors enter into it? The thing is, here’s wisdom identifying herself as a supernatural, divine-connected power, offering what she has for the betterment of people.

Wisdom is not a small thing. The wisdom of God, which has this form, tells us about herself– she has been with God from the beginning, before anything that exists in material terms. In fact, in the creation of the cosmos and the bringing into being of the world and all who inhabit it, including us– this wisdom was the active agent of stuff’s being made. “Like a master builder” “at the side of God,” Wisdom formed the vast vaults of space and Wisdom ordered the regular rows of the petals on the flowers. Wisdom is behind everything. Wisdom is everywhere in the world as the handiwork of God, and this same insight, sense, and divine design offers herself to you and me, if we will seek to have it, if we want to give our lives to what makes sense–what makes sense morally and socially and every other way.

This image from Proverbs of a personified Wisdom being God’s hands-on, as it were, helper in bringing into being Creation, returns in the theology of John’s gospel as the incarnate Word. God’s creative word no longer is named wisdom, but becomes the Christ, who becomes human in order to give men and women the capacity to be children of God.

So that at the beginning of John’s gospel you have this language revealing Christ to be a variation on that Spirit of Wisdom we met in the book of Proverbs–the same language about “in the beginning with God” and “without him was not anything made that was made” and in the scripture we have read from today, it works the other way. The Holy Spirit which will enlighten and instruct the faithful will tell them what Christ tells it to tell them. Jesus, having lived this common life among us, as our communion ritual says, now has the ultimate insight into what life should be for us, and how God’s spirit needs to help us.

The reading we have from Paul’s letter to the Romans I suspect is chosen for this Trinity Sunday because it mentions God, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Before the church officially makes doctrine out of the triple nature of God, it already is the experience of the church that God is known these ways, and works in this combination. There is something else so importantinthisbriefbitofscripturethatit’sworthtakingthetimetonotice. AfterPaul reminds his hearers that they have been justified by faith and have peace with God, he says they boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God. He amplifies that by saying, “not only that– but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope–and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

It always gets our attention when the Bible says something positive about suffering. It makes me think of another verse, from the book of Hebrews, which says of Christ, “although he was a Son [of God–and therefore belonging to the realm of the divine] he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him.” Christ is perfected through suffering. Christ realizes, by suffering, the potential of what it is to be a human being before God, and what it is to have to endure by faith the struggles inherent in our nature. That knowledge of us from the inside, as it were, qualifies him to accomplish the miracle of our transformation from lost to found, sinful to forgiven, at odds with God to at peace with God.

This peace produced by the character formed by endurance–by standing fast– results from the love of God dwelling within us by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit–just as it is with God’s wisdom– is something of God available to our interior selves, in our personal, particular consciousness, as something nourishing and informing our souls. So, as the scripture says, “all things work together for those who love God.” It’s best to regard the Trinity not as a logical impossibility, nor as a difficult doctrine, but as the assurance that the life we have in God through Christ and God’s Spirit is one life–that each validates the other, that all elements of our interaction with God–our experience of Creator, lawgiver, parent, Lord, teacher, redeemer, conscience, enthusiasm, empathy, intuition–that our whole spirit is addressed by the experience we have of God in these ways. As a doctrine that’s what the Trinity guarantees: that the Spirit which made Jesus Christ and the spirit in which we pray and the insight which sustains the universe all has one source, in the one God who has loved us so much as to send us Christ to restore us to hope and spiritual health.


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