by Ken Sehested
Text: Proverbs 8
Sunday, 6 June 2004
Circle of Mercy Congregation
I think it was last Monday, or maybe Tuesday. Nancy was ready to start putting this Sunday’s service together, and she asked if I had decided on a text and theme.
“Wisdom,” I said. “Proverbs 8.”
“Wisdom?” she asked with a barely-disguised look of incredulity. “You got some, do you?” she replied. (Nancy is one of those people who can sound pleasant when she’s actually being sarcastic.)
“No,” I said, “but maybe if I do a sermon on the topic I’ll discover a little.”
Then I sat down to do some research, and the first insight I came across was this quote from the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles: “Much wisdom often goes with brevity of speech.”
So I immediately thought to myself: “Well, there’s my solution. We’ll read the text from Proverbs; then I’ll get up and quote Sophocles, and say “Here endeth the lesson,” and sit down.
There are times when the most appropriate Sunday sermon should go something like that. But I realized that if I actually played out this scenario, I might leave you thinking that I know something about wisdom.
There have been times when I thought I had some wisdom. But mostly when I was younger and had more hair. What’s that old line from the Bob Dylan song: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”
I’m so much younger now.
“But wait,” I say to myself. “Didn’t I just win an award for a sermon I did? Didn’t they fly me across the country, to preach it to their annual gathering. I know they scheduled me for 8:30 on a Saturday morning; but, hey, they actually gave me a cash prize for the thing. Must be worth something.”
But then my friend J.R., from Indiana, wrote to congratulate me. J.R. often puts the phrase “from that old Mennonite guy in Goshen” in the subject line of his e-mail notes. And he and Nancy must have gone through the same “advanced training in sarcasm” program, cause he said: “Winning a prize for preaching the Gospel must be a real exercise in Christian humility!” Then I had to confront the puzzling fact that it was a group of Baptists—Southern Baptists, in fact—who presented the award. Moreover, it was an award given by the Baptist History and Heritage Society. And we all know how interested Baptists are in history.
The group did look a little shell-shocked when I finished; but listening to sermons on history early on a Saturday morning can do that to anyone. But I am glad that I got my plaque and my check the day before.
So much for wisdom. I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.
I probably feel less wise at this period in my life than at any other time. The times in which we live appear to me darker, less transparent, with fewer reasons for optimism than any I can recall.
This experience of feeling very unwise doesn’t mean I can’t still spot the presence of foolishness. Here are a few examples from just the past week or so:
•You may have missed the news that MTV declined to air advertisements for Super Size Me, a documentary about a man who eats nothing but McDonald's food for a month, because it was determined that the ads unjustly disparage fast food.
•In his recent speech outlining a 5-point plan for Iraq, President Bush promised to build the country a brand new prison system. (You have to keep in mind that 1 out of every 75 males in the U.S. were in prison last year. Our per capita prison population is greater than any country in the world, including those mean ol’ countries like China and, yes, Iraq under Saddam Hussein.)
• Speaking of Iraq, we just learned that yet another person on the CIA’s payroll will become the new Iraqi prime minister of the Iraqi government on June 30, which is promised full sovereignty even though it won’t have any say over the 130,000 U.S. troops occupying the country. (You have to keep in mind that Saddam Hussein once wrote that he originally came into power “on the coattails of the CIA.”)
•And speaking of American troops: This week the Asheville Citizen-Times editorialized about the need for a thorough public discussion on the need for a military draft, saying that our armed forces are simply overworked and tired. But instead of discussing how we can get a bigger army, shouldn’t we be discussing why the U.S. currently has military bases or related commitments in 131 countries around the world?
•And speaking of foreign military engagements: Former President Ronald Reagan died yesterday. A chorus of commentators praise his legacy, saying he was the one who “made America feel good about itself” again. I’m not sure “feeling good” about ourselves is the way to wisdom, particularly at the behest of one who engineered U.S. sponsorship of several bloody wars in Central America during his presidency, wars which resulted in the deaths of well over a half-million people, and who ran up national debt greater than the cumulative national debts of every previous American president.
Maybe we were all so much older then; and we’re younger than that now.
Tim and Amy’s friend, the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, has a good line that describes the way I feel about the times in which we live. He said “It’s like pulling a piano across a plowed field.”
I should hasten to tell you, though, that the general lack-of-wisdom feeling I have is not the same thing as pessimism—or, even worse—cynicism. Cynicism may be the greatest temptation for people like ourselves, who’ve been captured at some point or other with dreams of lions and lambs living together in peace, of new heavens and new earths being born. These hopeful dreams won’t let us go even when we consciously try to shake them off. The prophet Zachariah has a great line about this experience. He talked about being a “prisoner of hope.” In fact, the reason we feel so terrible sometimes is precisely because hope won’t let go of us, even though things seem so desperate, so dark, even though we have so much evidence to support a pessimistic outlook.
There’s nothing the folk who are now seemingly in total control of events want more than for us to become cynical, to give up, to close our eyes and ears to anything but the most immediate and personal concerns. Cynical people are so much easier to control and manipulate. Don’t vote: it doesn’t really matter. Don’t get involved: nothing will change. Don’t take any risks: you’ll only get burned.
For what is cynicism, after all, but an extreme form of self-centeredness and narcissism. So, instead of facing reality, we substitute reality TV.
But there is neither wisdom nor hope in vicarious living.
As blue-collar philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote: Wisdom bursts into our consciousness only when it sinks its teeth and nails into us.
I suspect I’m not alone in this room with my uneasy sense of being less-than-wise, of being not exactly up to the challenges we face, of feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the sometimes-despairing circumstances we encounter.
We all were so much older then; we’re younger than that now.
If wisdom has raised her voice, I must be going deaf; if she’s standing beside the gates, waving to get my attention, I must be preoccupied. If she’s calling out, I must need a hearing aid.
But wait a minute. Wait just one minute. I don’t for a second take back anything I’ve just said. But there’s more to be said.
Just last week a friend wrote to ask me if I’d be willing to write a couple sentences of endorsement for a new book he’s written, one that tells stories of hopeful engagement, stories that are often overlooked or undervalued. I put him off for a long time, fearing that I wouldn’t have anything very convincing to say. But I was finally embarrassed enough to at least sit down and peruse some of his chapters. And when I finished, I found myself typing out the following lines:
In recent days friends in Latin America, Africa and Asia—each of whom face more daily repression than I’ll know in a lifetime—have reminded me of a typically-American luxury. Not big cars, 401-K accounts or other gluttonous habits. But of despair, of a romantic penchant for hopelessness, our woeful nothing-can-be-done whining. It’s what a corrupt political process depends on more than anything else. This book is an antidote to such self-absorption.
And then during the research for this sermon my mind began going around the Circle that gathers here week after week. I began seeing each of your faces. I began thinking
•I think of Tom Burnet’s work of providing ecological stewardship of water resources;
•of Colleen and Amy and Greg Yost’s persistent devotion to raising children with counter-cultural values;
•of Mary Anne’s work in helping people invest their money according to their values.
•I think of Terri and Greg Clemons and Dale and Marc Mullinax and Missy’s passionate work helping students see the world in different ways;
•of Joyce’s collection of the nearly-forgotten stories of African-American congregations;
•of Sara and Kathleen and Blan and Susan and Tim and Kiran and Tom Preston’s healing ministries, of mind and body, particularly with people who lack adequate access to health care.
•I think of Kim and Stan who, among many other things, bring music to a world reluctant to sing and who will soon be traveling again to Cuba and renewing the protest against our nation’s repressive policies;
•of our prophets-without-porfolio, Louis and Bud and Bill, who may have retired from full-time employment but hardy from active promotion of the things that make for peace;
•of Jim and Kaki, of Linda and Carol’s community-building labors on behalf nonprofit organizations devoted to the common good;
–I think of our students, of Anthony and Sophie and Caitlin, who find unique and creative ways to say no to the conforming habits of peer pressure, and yes to intellectual curiosity; of Rachel’s post-graduate determination to be true to her calling as a disciple of hope rather than simply a consumer of goods and services;
–of Robert and Jerene and Nancy’s pastoral presence with people in prison and in hospitals; of Mark Siler’s work giving shape to an incredibly hopeful cross-racial movement advocating for justice in Asheville;
–of Carolyn and Jean’s social advocacy for those living on the margins.
–I think of Will and Anna, of Leigh and Joy, of Jody and Isabel, of Sam and Bethany, who endure the daily pounding of self-doubt and fearfulness which always accompany the process of growing up.
–And who have I left out? Oh, yes, Chip . . . Chip, who lives with the self-consciousness of being the tallest person in nearly every crowd; Chip, who has the grave misfortune of being a truck driver in a room full of liberal arts graduates. Chip, who, like me, has the misfortune of being the ugliest one at the table when the family gathers for dinner. Chip, who alone is for me the embodiment of this text: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Which reminds me of a button I have at home. It has this seemingly innocuous but actually revolutionary statement: “The meek are getting ready.” So get us ready, Chip. Teach us about inheriting the earth.
THIS IS WHERE I FIND WISDOM. And hope. And faith. And reason enough to keep going despite the frequent temptation to simply sleep in.
It is the wisdom of this Circle which raises its voice, which stands at the gate, which is more precious than choice gold or precious silver.
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