Sermon Finding a Word: Listening to the Texts
Lent Week 5 April 7, 2019
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. Proverbs1:20-23
I’m not drawn to the book of Proverbs – it’s always seemed to be my mother’s voice saying things like “Always wear clean underwear“ and “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all” or moralisms attributed to the bible that aren’t really there, like “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” and “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But this week’s scripture has forced me to look deeper at Proverbs to see that it’s an ancient training-guide containing with pithy advice, hyperbole, wordplay, and life-observations. The first nine chapters of Proverbs are written in the voice of Wisdom, a divine, feminine voice, who speaks for God. Her Greek name is Sophia, and she’s described as a faithful guide who schools the young, the scoffer, and the fool, in righteous living – so this is spiritual formation as well as moral advice – and she speaks loudly about the consequences of disregarding her words. What a lot of damage is done with words… words in scripture, words in rule books… words that somehow become cast in stone that can be hurled at and hurt those who disagree.
I spent all day Friday and yesterday in San Francisco at Grace Cathedral, at a conference called “Why Christian,” headlined by Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor who founded The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, and author Rachel Held Evans. One of the reasons I went was because Nadia and Rachel are two of my favorite lovers-and-critics of the church. This was their invitation to the conference: “Your presence adds yet another important voice to the conversation, as we rally Baptists and Catholics, Pentecostals and Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, pastors, practitioners, artists, dreamers, and doubters around one big question: Why Christian? Why, in the wake of centuries of corruption, hypocrisy, crusades, televangelists, and puppet ministries do we continue to follow Jesus? Why, amidst all the challenges and disappointments, do we still have skin in the game?”
What I heard from a myriad of speakers, including people of color, gay, lesbian, and trans clergy, a seminary professor, a poet, an activist, and an undocumented Latina pastor, was the importance of having a God (to quote Nadia and Rachel) “with skin in the game” or in more traditional language, an incarnational God. Incarnation is giving something flesh. ln Jesus Christ God was incarnate – human, like we are. He shared this skin, struggled and suffered like we do, and was vulnerable and afraid like we are. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a recovering addict and she’s said that she’s able to mold a [more abstract] “God” into her own image, but she isn’t able to bend Jesus to her will and her thinking. I understood this to mean the name “God” is used as a noun and descriptive word and a curse and it’s open to personal interpretation, but Jesus is God with “skin in the game” who shows us who God is, and how God loves, and what God wants from us.
I went to the “Why Christian” conference because I wanted to be reminded in the company of hundreds of gay and straight, young and old, orthodox and uncertain Christians, and Nadia Bolz-Weber groupies, why… in this era of disregarding Wisdom’s voice (which I believe is the voice of the heart) I still believe the church is the best place to experience Jesus Christ, to encounter His love, and His compassion, and His purpose for us. I went to hear Wisdom’s witness about why Jesus is relevant to all of us who struggle and suffer and are vulnerable and afraid… why He’s vital to all who are incarnate, who wear this fragile flesh.
On my drive home from the City yesterday evening I heard on the news that at a rally, the president had mocked asylum-seekers at the border. “The asylum program is a scam,” he said. “Some of the roughest people you have ever seen.“ I had to wait to read about this when I got home, because I was afraid I’d cry as I was driving. I’d spent the weekend listening to diverse people, some of whom are perceived as outside the borders of society, witnessing to the inclusive and welcoming love and the tender compassion they experience in Jesus ~ and I was coming home to write a sermon about Wisdom ~ and listening this news report I felt as if I had been struck in the heart by the utter lack of love, and compassion in the world, and the disregard for Wisdom’s voice.
This is the fifth Sunday of Lent, this season of prayer and introspection, of soul-tending, of exercising some new spiritual muscles. And for us this has been a season of listening. We have listened to the still, small voice of God that the prophet Elijah heard; we’ve listened to our breath; we’ve listened to our inner mystic; we’ve listened for healing; and today we’re listening for Wisdom’s voice. This has been a physical Lent – an incarnational Lent – as we’ve moved from prayer station to prayer station on a kind of pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place, and the pilgrimage we’ve been on this Lent has been a journey of seeking God with us, and of seeking God within us. We are called to be the hands and feet and heart of Jesus Christ in the world – we are called to stand in the gap between human suffering and God’s compassion. Following Jesus is physical and incarnational as we work to reveal God’s love in us, and in the world, and we walk with others the pilgrimage of compassion.
I think compassion is Wisdom’s voice in the world today. Compassion is the ability to feel another’s suffering, and to try to alleviate it. The word compassion means to bear, to carry someone else’s suffering… so compassion is incarnational (not abstract or an intellectual understanding of suffering) – it’s putting our hands and feet and prayer and finances to work to ease suffering. To be compassionate it to be a companion, and in solidarity, with another’s suffering. People outside the borders of inclusion experience Jesus as Compassion Incarnate. Instead of “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” what if the world sees that we are Christians by our compassion? Love can be an abstract idea or an intellectual exercise, but compassion is incarnational and needs “presence,” it needs our skin in the game.
During Lent, we’re practicing Presence… listening and looking for the Presence of God with us and in us. Compassion reminds me of why I’m Christian. I need a God who knows my life, my struggles, my vulnerability, and who not only knows that about me but loves me because of it. I have a picture on my phone that says “Today I will let God be God. Because I suck at it.” I need a God who understands and forgives what is broken and messy in me. I need a God who wants to use me to help heal the world, and to reveal God in the world. I need an incarnational God… That’s why I’m a Christian.[MOVE] Today’s prayer station is Communion, these symbols of the incarnation, the body and blood, the life and love, of Jesus. The Risen Christ is Present in this feast of bread and juice. And He’s Present in this community, which He called His body. And He’s Present in our acts of love and compassion. “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.” As you listen to Wisdom, what does she say to you about compassion – an incarnational and visible sign – of being a follower and friend of Jesus?
O God, help us listen to Wisdom’s voice calling us to practice compassion, first with ourselves… and then with others we know and love… and then still further with others as we crisscross through human-constructed prejudices and ignorance and borders until our hearts are expanded as Yours is… to hold love and compassion for all the world. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.