Sermon, Sept. 13

wisdom_womanMay God grant me to speak with judgement, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received; For both we and our words are in God’s hand, as are all understanding and skill. (Wisdom of Solomon 7:15-16)

Let’s talk about Wisdom. For what could be a more worthy topic? Wisdom is a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty. She is intelligent, holy, generous, humane, steadfast, powerful, clear. She passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; and she orders all things well.

That Wisdom hymn that we spoke together – I’m sure I read it in seminary at some point, but it came before my eyes again early this year while the Saint John’s Bible was in residence at the Chazen Museum. That Bible – a contemporary hand-calligraphed and illustrated Bible – includes, among its other amazing images, a beautiful picture of Lady Wisdom, with the wrinkles and kind smile of a beloved elder. My colleague and friend Dorota Pruski, the associate rector at St. Andrew’s, mentioned to me that that image was meaningful to her -so meaningful that she wrote a thesis in seminary about the images and language of Divine Wisdom in Scripture.

I invited her to come and speak about this image and how it touched her heart and her life at our Thursday evening Sandbox Worship, where the heart of our gathering is often somebody’s sharing of a piece of their life or faith journey. Dorota brought us this text, to read and reflect on together. And it blew me away. And when I realized that it was an option in the lectionary in September – today – I thought, I really want to spend more time with this text, and I hope some other folks will fall in love with it too, and find something fresh and joyful here.

So, let’s talk about Wisdom. First, just to get it out of the way, the Bible scholar bit. Like the Song of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon is in King Solomon’s voice – it talks about being a king, and about asking God for wisdom, as Solomon did in the court history of the Book of Kings. But this text wasn’t written by Solomon, who lived in the tenth century before Jesus. This is a very late Old Testament text, originally written in Greek. It was most likely written not long before the life of Jesus, or even around the same time – in the late first century before Christ, or the early first century A.D.

The Wisdom of Solomon is very Jewish,  drawing on deep textual traditions throughout the Hebrew Bible of naming and celebrating Divine Wisdom, and personifying Her as a beautiful woman, who invites the seeker to eat at her table and receive her gifts. The Wisdom of Solomon is also very Greek, in its high, almost philosophical language, its sense of the ideal and the abstract, its elevation of wisdom and understanding as the highest of divine qualities.

The text was probably written by a Hellenistic Jew – a pious member of the people Israel who had been educated and steeped in Greek scholarship and thought.  The word it uses for Wisdom is Sophia, but all those feminine pronouns aren’t just a grammatical accident. The text is very clear and intentional in describing Wisdom as a feminine aspect of God. For instance, in chapter 8, just a few verses after the end of this text, it casts Wisdom as a beautiful woman, desirable as a metaphorical bride; and also as a close companion of God and helper in God’s work.

In exploring this image of God’s Wisdom, I’m going to dig into two questions: What is wisdom, and what might it mean to integrate Wisdom into our image of God and our practices of prayer?

So, what is Wisdom? … Well, to begin with, there are different kinds of wisdom. Several places in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, a distinction is drawn between divine and earthly wisdom, or the wisdom of the current age.

One of those places is in the letter of James,  in the text that will come to us next week: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

As James describes it, earthly wisdom is tied up with envy, selfishness, pride, ambition. It’s driven by our wants and cravings. We might call it savvy or cunning. It’s the kind of wisdom that knows how to manipulate people and systems to get what you want, to gain or protect advantages for yourself or your group.

In contrast, Divine Wisdom is gentle, generous, pure, merciful, peace-making.   Does James’s list of the qualities of Divine Wisdom remind you of the Wisdom of Solomon? I don’t know whether James knew that text or not, since it’s possible they were written around the same time! But both were drawing on the same Old Testament themes and traditions.

Listen to more of the Wisdom of Solomon, to that text’s description of divine Wisdom:  “For it is God who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;  the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts, the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots…  (chapter 7)  She teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these. And if anyone longs for wide experience, she knows the things of old, and infers the things to come; she understands turns of speech and the solutions of riddles; she has foreknowledge of signs and wonders and of the outcome of seasons and times.”  (chapter 8) 

Wisdom has to do with understanding the patterns of things, the big picture; the inner meanings and deep purposes; with knowing both self and world. Sometimes Wisdom is found in perspective, looking at the present in light of the past and the future, seeing how a particular thread fits into the great tapestry. Sometimes Wisdom is found in seeing to the true nature of things, telling it like it is, like James’ words on the power of the tongue in today’s Epistle. “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it can boast of some large accomplishments. How great a forest may be set ablaze by a small flame!” Truth.

And sometimes Wisdom is found in comprehending how little we know, in making peace with paradox and mystery,  with divine riddles like these: The person who saves their life will lose it, while the person who loses their life for the sake of Christ will save it. And: What good does it do a person to gain the whole world, and lose their soul?

So, what is Wisdom? … It’s hard to define neatly.  And sometimes things that sound wise turn out to be bogus, like, If you live a good and pure life and only eat organic food, nothing bad will ever happen to you.  The Internet, pop culture and advertising firms offer us all sorts of pseudo-wisdom, though once in a while they hit on something true, like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day. But I think often we know wisdom when we see or hear it, and when we’re not sure, we can take James’ advice and look to the fruits. Does this so-called wisdom yield good things? Does it produce mercy, peace, justice, kindness? Or… not? You could take home this text from the Wisdom of Solomon, post it on your fridge or near your desk, refer to it to remind you what divine Wisdom looks like.

Now, having failed to define Wisdom, I’ll move on to the “so what” question. What do we do with this? Why does it matter, beyond appreciating a poetic text? What might it mean to integrate Wisdom into our image of God and our practices of prayer? I have often prayed for wisdom, in the course of my forty years. Here’s the new idea I want to offer to you, and to myself: that we can pray TO Wisdom.

If this image touches you – if you are moved by this vision of a loving and lovely Lady who takes up residence in our souls and strives for order and grace in the world – you can claim this as your image of the Divine. You can pray to her, reflect on her, honor her.  And in doing so, you are not creating a new, prettier, nicer God. You are not departing from the Trinitarian theology, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, taught by our church.  You are simply giving a new, ancient name to the aspect of God better known to us as Jesus Christ.

Okay. Lemme back that up. Throughout Scripture, Wisdom is described as an attribute, an emanation, a companion of God the Father, the Creator and Source. It would be easy to see Wisdom as another name for the Holy Spirit, that breath of the Divine that blows through our world and lives. You’ve already heard me use feminine language for the Spirit – not because I imagine that the Spirit of God is actually a girl, any more than I imagine that God the Father is a boy, but in order to strive for a little complexity and balance in our images and language of the divine.  So it would be easy to identify Wisdom with the Holy Spirit.

But there’s actually a LOT of overlap in Scripture between the way Wisdom is described, and the way Christ is described. If you want a nice chewy beautifully-written thesis to read about it, let me know & I’ll ask Dorota for permission to share her thesis!  I’ll just give you the clearest and best example: the Christological hymn or poem at the beginning of John’s Gospel.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Can you hear the similarities? The Companion of God, the Light from God that shares in God’s work and passes into the world to dwell among humans? It’s even clearer if you read more of the Wisdom of Solomon, which describes Wisdom as God’s presence in the world throughout the history of God’s saving work for humanity, very much the way John describes Jesus, the Christ. If you replaced “Word” with “Wisdom” in John’s hymn, and changed the pronouns, it would sound like another chapter of the Wisdom text. But John used a different Greek term: Logos, Word. Maybe that’s a theological choice: he sees Jesus as the creating and prophetic Word of God, made flesh. Maybe it’s because Logos was a masculine word and let John avoid the messiness of using feminine language for Jesus. Who knows? …

The point is that here and elsewhere, there are close parallels between parts of the New Testament that describe the divine and cosmic nature of Jesus, and the Wisdom language of the Old Testament. And there’s a rich strain in Christian history, theology and liturgy that picks up on that and names Christ as Divine Wisdom. It’s most dominant in the Orthodox Christian tradition, but we have one very familiar example in our hymnal, in an Advent hymn based on a holy poem from the 6th century: O Come, thou Wisdom from on high, that orderest all things mightily… That hymn, that some of us have sung for decades, names Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, as Wisdom – Sapientia in Latin, Sophia in Greek.

And just as you could easily read the first verses of John’s Gospel as a hymn to Wisdom, so you can easily read some of the Wisdom texts as hymns to Jesus Christ.  Consider this passage from chapter 9:  “And thus the paths of those on earth were set right, and people were taught what pleases [God], and were saved by Wisdom.”

Here’s why I think this matters. It matters for some people who’ve never quite found their own way to approach Jesus in prayer. Maybe it’s a gender thing. Maybe the Jesus of the Gospels just doesn’t feel God-dy enough to them. If the image and language of Divine Wisdom opens a door for you which allows you to approach Jesus Christ in a new way, I hope you’ll walk through it, with joy. But naming and claiming Sophia as legitimate holy language matters for all of us, because it helps us have a broader sense of who and what Jesus Christ really is: Both the ragamuffin prophet of Galilee, and the cosmic Christ, present before and after and in and beyond. The divine Logos, yes, the Word that creates life; and the holy Sophia, yes, the Wisdom that orders Creation.

And it offers us, too, a fresh and wider vision of what Christ active in our lives looks like:  a Spirit that is intelligent! holy! generous! humane! free from anxiety!that forms us as friends of God! I talked with the kids a couple of weeks ago about seeing the love in their lives as signs of the presence of God, as manifestations of God’s presence. What about if we think of wisdom the same way? Look for it, note it, honor it, seek it. Wisdom, Sophia, Logos, Christ is calling out to us, asking us to be her guests, her students, her friends.