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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Can We Still be Wise?

“Can We Still Be Wise?” Year B, Proper 15 August 19, 2012 Madison Chapel, Madison, Mississippi My wife used to wear a t-shirt when we were in college that depicted a cartoon roller-skate whizzing across the shirt with the words “I roll with the wise” emblazoned below. She would joke that she wore it when she knew she was going on a date with me. What is more interesting (and funny) is that I haven’t seen that shirt since we got married. Perhaps getting to know me gave her cause to find some person who needed a t-shirt more than she did. Yes, Christian generosity must be the reason. Wisdom doesn’t count in our culture. It has no part of the current currency of information, commodity, and personality. Wisdom is too slow to be of any use in America, and, for that matter, in the church. Wisdom is for old people who have the time to not make decisions; our churches trade on information that changes with the next data set and the next methodology and strategy. Where has wisdom gone? And, for that matter, what is the biblical image of wisdom? After all, Paul encourages us to be wise, to not be time-wasters and drunkards. The entire message of Proverbs, which includes wisdom herself personified and calling out to the simple, is to be wise rather than foolish. What is wisdom, and how can it be understood in a world where information is the quick commodity of life? Let us try to put a finger on wisdom. I find wisdom to be more than the apocryphal “knowledge rightly applied to experience.” Beyond this rather vague and generic frame, let us understand that wisdom has an attitudinal or emotional as well as an intellectual component. Wisdom is a configuration of soul; it is moral character. And fostering moral character, it is no overstatement to say, is at all times the greatest goal of education. It is the goal of the “phreneo Christou,” the mind of Christ to which Paul urges his churches, it is the fulfillment of the moral codes and virtue lists we read and memorize. It is at once the ability to resist temptation and the understanding of why that resistance is eternally necessary. Wisdom is, then, shorthand for the goal of the faithfully formed disciple. The church is not the only place where wisdom may be heard, but it is certainly a primary source of that wisdom. The Scriptures testify that the fear of the Lord is the beginning and culmination of wisdom. The church must, then, be that place where wisdom is proclaimed, but also more than proclaimed. The church must be that place where wisdom is embodied, enacted, and sought in community. Hear the words of Proverbs about what Lady Wisdom has done: she has set up a great house, spread a great table, and is out in the busy metropolitan streets hawking a dinner party, a salon, a seminar around her kitchen table for the edification and education of anyone willing to come. That sounds too familiar… The Common Lectionary has cut us off from the great contest going on in these chapters of Proverbs. Over and against the call of Wisdom to the simple to enter into a challenging, long-term, yet ultimately satisfying relationship, Lady Folly calls from just across the street. She, too, is holding a dinner party, and though seductive, her party will offer no life, no wisdom, no meaning. Hers is a dinner party for the hook-up culture, for the thrill seekers, for the work-hard-play-hard friends of mine. It is a party of folly, that relaxing word that reminds us of betting the coin toss in an NFL game or playing croquet. Folly is easier on the spirit, it seems. Cheap jokes and silly stories entice us. Folly often looks pretty good. The wine is stronger, the music louder. We are supposed to choose the less-fun path of wisdom. Paul points to drunkenness, the very point of Lady Folly’s dinner party, as the mark of time wasting among the believers. There is room to broaden drunkenness and its pointless and senseless waste of time to other ways we waste ourselves in meaninglessness. Wisdom is applied here to the living of our days. Time is not featured as some cosmic catchall which we simply fill up by living so long. Rather, time is an ingredient in human life, standing in need of redemption as much as any other aspect of human being. "Making the most of the time" is a call to consider our lifetimes a time of salvation, to make the task of being formed into the likeness of Christ a lifelong pursuit that has no room for the drunkenness of folly. We are urged to wisdom, filling ourselves not with wine but with Spirit, with Christ, with God. The Pentecost church was taken for a bunch of drunkards. To be brimful in this way is the better part of wisdom. To be drawn into singing, psalms, hymns, spirituals, thanksgiving, glad worship is no ignorance, no waste. For the fullness of Spirit is properly experienced only in community. Where drunkenness, or any other selfish diversion for that matter—even a religious one—tends to isolate, take away, or destroy family and community, the church is encouraged in another direction. This is the course of wisdom as the church always tries to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Yes, we can be drunk of church. We hear “make the most of the time” and imagine a week crammed full of programs, trips, classes, and meetings to maximize our involvement in the Kingdom. But this tendency, which, in my opinion, is a devilish corruption of the mission of the church to make people whole by making them thinner of soul and more separated from the world they are called to heal, it is much safer than actually living wisely and being the church. It is easier to be a teetotaler than to be a mature believer who understands the wisdom of self-control. It is easier to be an extremist and to draw clear boundaries than to live in the messy compromises that wisdom calls us to. Notice that the invitation of Lady Wisdom is to the simple, the senseless, and the immature: hardly the crowd we want on a steering committee. We lose control of the church when we start inviting these sorts of people to come and be formed by the Spirit, to come and sit around the table that Wisdom has set. There’s no telling just what we will learn of these simpletons when we are forced to sit in extended conversation with them around the bread and wine of the Church. Oh what a beautiful image! The master sending out the servants to the alleys and streets inviting the dumb, the foolish, the simple-minded to a feast where they can be honored as human beings and presented a spread of food that truly feeds – it is as though we continue to hear that theme throughout the whole of Scripture. Jesus has said that he is that bread which sustains unto eternal life. He is the wine that wells up within us in new blood as sons and daughters of God. But the table we are called to is not simply the act of taking and eating or drinking; it is the sitting with the other in dialogue and relationship and learning to live wisely in a world allergic to such slow work. We have been convinced that to make the most of time means to get more done in each hour, in each minute. We have been sold a vision of life that says sitting with strangers and being slowly formed into the likeness of our God is not as valuable as quickly scheduling another meeting or service or seminar. It is a waste of time to sit at this table. The food has taken too long to prepare, the service a little too slow, the conversation a little too pointed and personal. But the smells! But the scene of vegetables piled high on the Lord’s buffet, of the meats slowly roasting over a Holy Fire, of brother and sister serving one another out of the love and fellowship that is as much a mark of the true church as the stripes on Christ’s back. Can we still be wise? Sure. It is not enough to say that we need to slow down and breathe occasionally. It is not enough to say that we should resist the information-as-commodity culture we live in; such is the air we breathe. Living wisely is not just about time. It is about the intentional formation into the likeness of Christ to which we as individuals and as the church corporate must submit. Such a formation will involve Scripture, history, and a healthy dose of patience with one another. For the classroom of the wise is really a kitchen; our laboratory a dining room. The curriculum is people learning to love one another and to mutually submit to one another and to the Lord Jesus Christ. We must learn to present the Feast of the Lord in such a way that it is more than an invitation to memorialize the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ; we must learn to present our very existence as the church as a feast of fellowship, of embrace, and of the continual reformation of our lives into the nature of Jesus Christ. Even our finest culinary artists will not match God's creation in perfection, completion, and stability. Those are the traits of Wisdom's house, God's earth. But with bread and with wine, with soup and an open table, we begin to sense the wonder of the creative act that is Holy Wisdom, in the person of a woman, whose kitchen is filled with good things and whose home is a place of welcome. "Come and eat," she proclaims. "Come to Wisdom's feast."

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