Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, September 13, 2014
Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12
I was tempted only to use the first part of the lectionary reading from Proverbs where Wisdom calls out to us in the street. I wanted to skip the part where Wisdom scoffs at our misfortune when we don’t follow her. It’s a hard reading to hear, but I’ve learned that hard readings often bear a pearl of wisdom.
In the United Church, we usually take a more, inclusive universal approach to salvation. We believe that people take different paths to God through different religions. After death, we all rest in peace with God. Hell is what many experience here on earth. We understand God to be unconditional in love for every single person, regardless of belief, and forgiving of all. God condemns none for eternity.
If we believe this, then passages such as this are challenging. The divine mystery of Wisdom cries out to us, “Resist the folly of simple-mindedness. Embrace me and my words of deeper knowledge now while it is not too late. But,” she warns us, “If you choose to ignore me, you will suffer the consequences and then, when you finally turn to me in desperation, I will not answer, for it will be too late.” I understand this passage not as divine retribution for our folly, but simply as a description of consequences that even God cannot reverse.
There are a few reasons we choose not to follow wisdom’s call. We may be naïve and have a youthful spirit of invincibility that keeps us from taking wise precautions. The result may be unfortunate. Does this mean that God turns away from us because of our choices? No—but God does not intervene to change the course of history. God is not an interventionist God. We suffer the consequences of our own doing. What God promises is to stay with us through the suffering, to give us strength and courage and offer us wisdom for the next decisions in our lives. I have a nephew who, at this moment, is motorbiking from Victoria to the southern tip of South America. He has a heart of gold and is kind to everyone he meets. I am praying that he will listen to the voice of wisdom.
The second reason we may choose not to follow wisdom is intransigence. We may be so committed to certain principles that we become stuck and cannot tolerate a different opinion. For instance, I understand the problems with bottled water. We do not want to privatize water that has already been safely treated and so, when I travel in Canada I always bring a water bottle with me and fill it at taps. Last weekend our block had a block party with local musicians and a potluck feast in the middle of street. Our corner grocery store generously donated fruit and bottled water for us. Some people graciously accepted it, while one person was angry that bottled water was there. When our unwavering standards don’t leave room for grace, we may also be shutting out the voice of wisdom.
Our scripture reading from James tells us that God’s wisdom is not only pure but also peaceable, gentle, willing to yield and full of mercy. We are to live out our Christian values with gentleness born of wisdom, not intransigence. World leaders try to stay true to their values and fulfill their promises, but they can become intransigent, unwilling to yield their positions. In that moment, they have lost wisdom.There are more refugees in the world today than there have been since WWII. We are called to assist and walk beside them. Wisdom also calls us to ask why the refugee crisis is getting worse. Why are internal conflicts, fuelled by other countries, escalating?
There is an old story that is sadly poignant for today:
One summer in the village, the people gathered for a picnic. As they shared food and conversation, someone noticed a baby in the river, struggling and crying. The baby was going to drown!
Someone rushed to save the baby. Then, they noticed another screaming baby in the river, and they pulled that baby out. Soon, more babies were seen drowning in the river, and the townspeople were pulling them out as fast as they could. It took great effort, and they began to organize their activities in order to save the babies as they came down the river. As everyone else was busy in the rescue efforts, two of the townspeople started to run away along the shore of the river.
“Where are you going?” shouted one of the rescuers. “We need you here to help us save these babies!”
They replied, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”
It is easy to become tunnel-visioned on issues we feel passionate about. It is also easy to simplify issues when we don’t want to get involved. Sometimes we blame the victim. Some think that refugees are just opportunistic and will steal our jobs, even though they often create jobs. British-Somali poet Warsan Shire helps us understand the desperation and complexity of their situation:
No one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
You only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well…
You have to understand
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
There may be a diagnosis of cancer. A strained relationship may break. A family member may suffer a mental breakdown. There may be a financial crisis. In those moments, we need the gentleness of wisdom that can hold the complexity of life with integrity while being willing to yield our stubborn wills to one another.
Divine wisdom knows that life is complicated and she begs us not to reduce it to simple answers. But sometimes it is difficult to recognize her voice. It is hard to discern folly’s voice from wisdom’s. And that’s why we need one another. We need friends and family to help discern God’s wisdom.
We need one another within this community to discern God’s wisdom as we begin another year in ministry together. We have a full year of exciting ministry planned. We also have a number of decisions that we will be needing to make and we will need everyone’s wise input as we seek God’s will.
Today, as we celebrate communion, we will be remembering the body of Christ. As we return from the summer, we are literally re-membering ourselves as the body of Christ. We are putting back together the body of Christ that has taken a well-deserved summer break. I warmly welcome the reuniting of this wonderful body of Christ so that, as a whole, we may discern together Wisdom’s call for Westworth.