This is a sermon I delivered at the United Church of Christ of Seneca Valley, 4 February 2018.
Proverbs 1: 20-23
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
If wisdom is crying out in the street, why can’t we hear her?
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when we talk about “listening to scripture,” I feel kind of like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film.
Obi-Wan: I suggest you try it again, Luke. This time, let go your conscious self and act on instinct.
Luke: But with the blast shield down, I can’t even see! How am I supposed to fight?
Obi-Wan: Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings! [Watches Luke succeed in blocking the lasers] You see? You can do it.
Han: I call it luck.
Obi-Wan: In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.
The Bible is full of a whole variety of unbelievable stories, and when we read them it’s as if we are being asked to lower the blast shield and turn off our reason and our common sense. In our everyday experience, people don’t walk on water, they don’t get healed by touching someone’s robe, and they certainly don’t rise, corporeally, from the dead. And we have no firm evidence that they do or even could. Listening to scripture sometimes feels like entering a dream-world — requiring a suspension, not just of disbelief, but of our whole waking intelligence.
But what we are promised in scripture is wisdom. I should be clear, we are talking about divine wisdom here, something that goes beyond the world and puts everything into context. Divine wisdom would reassure us that we are on the cosmically right track. Surely that’s worth having and worth hearing! But: at what cost? How can we believe the crazy things we find in scripture and still retain our capacity for rational thought?
We come to scripture the way we come to any text or any situation: with our own concerns and orientations. What I find striking about this passage, at least what I find striking about it at this moment, is that wisdom isn’t hiding up in some ivory tower or at the end of an arduous quest. Instead, wisdom is out with the crowd, part of everyday life, just waiting for us to start listening.
Now, this ought not be too surprising for a faith tradition like ours, with a central story in which God is incarnate as a little baby, born in a stable, sleeping on the hay surrounded by animals rather than living in luxury in a magnificent palace. Our faith tells us that God comes to us in our everyday lives, that God meets us where we are, that God is with us. But despite that, in the midst of the daily hustle and bustle, wisdom seems elusive — and in a far-from-perfect world, the presence of God can sound like a fairy-tale, something we tell ourselves in the face of tragedy and pain to make it seem bearable.
Why is it so hard to hear wisdom crying out in the street?
Most of the time in our everyday lives, we operate with what you might call the practical mind. Like when commuting. How to get from place to place. Our practical minds are busy juggling all the details; who has time for wisdom?
And if we do stop to think about what we’re doing, where do our thoughts go? The social theorist Max Weber once suggested that we live in a “disenchanted” world, which means that if we are looking for explanations of things, we reach not for spirits and angels, but natural factors and scientific laws.
The practical mind opens up to the intellectual, or scientific, mind, and we explain traffic or metro delays with reference to population numbers and engineering principles, rather than with reference to the moral character of other commuters (despite the curses we might utter silently when someone cuts us off on the road or blocks the train door, we don’t actually think that commute times are a function of character and virtue). Not a lot of room for divine wisdom there; everything seems pretty well exhausted by the operation of our rational minds. God speaking into that world would be some kind of interference in the natural order — which is how the practical and intellectual minds understand miracles.
But if wisdom is actually crying out from the busy street corners, then our rational, intellectual explanations might be something of a distraction. Sure, we can provide scientific accounts of all kinds of things in the world, but in doing so, we might easily miss their significance and their beauty, their value. Our practical and intellectual minds share a common commitment to a kind of detached objectivity, in which things just are and we encounter them in a matter-of-fact way. What if instead we opened ourselves to more of an artistic mind, reading texts and viewing the world the way we read poetry? After all, if divine wisdom is already there, and if we aren’t seeing it when we put forward practical or scientific explanations, then the problem isn’t the world, but us. By insisting on the literal and the tangible, we close ourselves off to the metaphorical and the meaningful. If we get too hung up on whether the events described “really” happened that way, or whether outcomes were “really” examples of divine grace, we miss the ways that biblical stories, or happenings in the natural and social worlds, tell us about God’s purposes in the world.
Further: wisdom is in the squares and on the busy street corners, with the low and the common instead of with the high and the mighty. There is a preferential option here, God’s preferential option for people who stand outside of the elite: the poor, the poor in spirit, people in their everydayness. All of us. Recognizing that pushes us into a fourth mind, a spiritual mind where we have not only an appreciation of symbol and metaphor and beauty, but for the ways that God’s valuation stands opposed to the valuation of the world, and calls us to a broader embrace and a wider circle. Divine wisdom doesn’t look like we expect knowledge to look, especially in a world like ours that is dominated by the intellectual mind; it looks like voices crying out for justice, testimonies of survival against dramatic odds, solidarity in the face of oppression. Of course we can confront and explain all of these things practically or rationally, or we can depict them artistically. But the ethical grounds for why we ought to do so? That requires traversing a spiral, opening from one mind to another…so that we can listen.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Listening requires the whole ear, after all, and not just one quarter of it. There is nothing wrong with the practical mind; opening to an intellectual mind doesn’t mean we have no use for practicality. Similarly, opening to an artistic mind doesn’t invalidate science; it just means that we have another aspect of things to consider, a complementary aspect that gives us a richer overall account. And a spiritual mind doesn’t suspend or contradict art. Why can’t someone recovering from a disease be, at the same time, the consequence of advanced medical techniques and a beautiful miracle? Why can’t a soup kitchen or an emergency assistance program be both the result of human effort and the result of God working in the world? Why can’t my being up here preaching today be both a favor I am doing for my wife and God’s way of making sure that someone who needs it hears what I have to say this morning? When I wrote this sermon out I had no idea that we were reading from Psalm 19 elsewhere in the service today, in particular verse 14: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” So was it just a coincidence that this is the prayer I always ask the congregation to pray before I preach a sermon? Or was it a sign of the cosmic order, a moment of grace to steady me before I climbed the steps to the pulpit to speak?
Who said we have to choose just one?
Instead of either/or, why not both/and? Think about listening for divine wisdom the way we think about listening to music. Several tracks synchronized, lots of things going on in the mix — and if we choose to turn off all but one track, insisting that only the vocals matter as we mute the piano and the guitar, we’re only depriving ourselves of the full experience. The music is still there, if we can only get out of our own way and stop limiting ourselves to just pieces of the song. Which is probably what wisdom intends for us to do anyway.
Why is is so hard to hear wisdom crying out in the street? Because we persist in thinking that we have exhausted the text, and the world, by reading it with only one mind. There is always more to hear if we can open ourselves to a more varied, more multiple, more comprehensive listening. Because after all, we in our faith tradition know that God is still speaking.