Sermon The Heart of Wisdom November 17, 2019
Turn your ear toward
and stretch your mind toward understanding.
Call out for insight,
and cry aloud for understanding.
Seek it like silver;
search for it like hidden treasure.
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,
and discover the knowledge of God.
The Lord gives wisdom;
from God’s mouth come knowledge and understanding.
God reserves ability for those with integrity.
God is a shield for those who live a blameless life.
God protects the paths of justice
and guards the way of those who are loyal.
Then you will understand righteousness and justice,
as well as integrity, every good course.
Wisdom will enter your mind,
and knowledge will fill you with delight.
Discretion will guard you;
understanding will protect you.
Wisdom will rescue you from the evil path,
from people who twist their words. Proverbs 2: 2-12
When Ellen told me that God’s House Band was doing Americana music inspired by Ken Burns’ series, Country Music, I felt drawn to look at some of the wisdom scriptures. I wasn’t consciously thinking about America right now, but I was aware of a yearning to look for what has shaped our country and our ideals. The Country Music series(this is from the PBS website) “Explores questions – such as ‘What is country music?’ and ‘Where did it come from?’ – while focusing on the biographies of the fascinating characters who created and shaped it – from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Garth Brooks and many more – as well as the times in which they lived. Much like the music itself, the film tells unforgettable stories of hardships and joys shared by everyday people.” It was this last sentence, “…stories of hardships and joys shared by everyday people” that captured my heart. The heart of Country music is southern gospel music, which is tied to the holiness movement, and Methodism is a part of that. The holiness movement was John Wesley’s contribution to Christianity and it’s a blend, a combination, a necessary intertwining, of faith and works. Methodist spirituality starts in the heart, acknowledging and accepting God’s love. Methodism founder, John Wesley, refuted Reformation theology that salvation is secured by faith alone, insisting that faith and works (engagement with the world) are essential for salvation. Salvation and salvage and salve are from the same root word, which means to soothe, to heal, to save, and to bring to peace. The holiness movement, in a nutshell, was the belief that Christ offers those things, healing and salvation and peace to a believer, and also that Christ expects the believer to work to bring healing and salvation and peace to the world.
Returning to country music… there’s a joke about what you get if you play a country song backwards. You get your pickup truck back, you get your wife back, you get your dog back. The roots of country music are deep in faith and struggle…. And that’s what led me to the wisdom literature in the bible, ancient writings about moral values, and about human participation in building the moral order of the world (as our prayer says, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.”) Wisdom literature, like Proverbs, is meant for guidance and character-building – to put together faith and action. Some of the wisdom literature seems trite or even harmful (spare the rod and spoil the child) but it tells us about our spiritual roots, and of the people whose faith in Yahweh demanded proof of lives changed. This is the heart of Methodist wisdom as well. John Wesley introduced the Means of Grace and the Works of Mercy as disciplines and practices to help guard us from the idea that faith is an intellectual exercise and doesn’t require any response from us. Faith in God requires a relationship with God. That’s the heart of Jewish and Christian faith. The Means of Grace are spiritual practices of “talking” with God or relating to God: among them searching the scriptures (not studying but searching… looking for God) and worshipping together, and singing and talking about our faith in God, and celebrating Holy Communion. Methodist wisdom countered the Reformation stance that faith alone was proof of rightness with God, insisting on action, engagement with the world, as well. The Works of Mercy are spiritual practices of engaging the world and caring for others; among them feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, welcoming the stranger, praying for enemies, and loving others with mercy and compassion. A heart filled with love for God, and filled with love for others as well as for ourselves, is at the heart of ancient wisdom and current Methodism.
It’s not my intention to use the pulpit as a soapbox but it’s obvious that in American leadership and politics wisdom has been gagged and blindfolded. How are we to respond – other than in hopelessness and rage – with hope and faith? Wisdom literature can offer us some firm footing, reminding us that karma isn’t just an Eastern belief but a universal truth that what we bring to life is in some measure, what we receive from life. “Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.” Jesus said. Wisdom reminds us that how we live is a witness, proof if you will, of our beliefs and our faith. Wisdom tells us that the life of faith is a discipline, like playing an instrument and learning a song. She has a feminine voice and is called Lady Wisdom, in Greek, Sophia, and is praised in the book of Proverbs, where our scripture lesson is found. “All the things you may desire cannot compare with her,” the author of Proverbs wrote: “she is a tree of life,” whose “fruit is better than gold.” Wisdom cries out in the streets, especially encouraging the “simple” and “scoffers” to gain deeper understanding. Lady Wisdom is the picture on the front of the bulletin. Of all the images I found, this is my favorite. Her hands are crossed near her heart, she has wings to attest to her divinity – her connection to God and to the Spirit – and to my eyes, she has the unyielding face of a mother who expects her unruly children to follow her instructions. This picture of Lady Wisdom shows us that heart (or love) and discipline are the path of right living.
I’m not sure how this ties in with country music, except that the roots of country music are of faith, of yearning for a better and more just life, and a celebration of the common person. These are virtues that seem to be missing in the public square, in the political arena, and in the ways we treat each other. Wisdom is crying out to be recognized as a different way to live; not in a return to the good old days (when women and people of color and the poor and anyone who didn’t fit the norms of society knew their “place”) but a different way to live: with love and faith, and care for the wellbeing of all people. At its heart, this is the message of country music… and the gospel.
I believe that God has the last word. In the resurrection of Christ God showed that nothing, not torture or abandonment or death or hell can separate us from God’s love. God is determined to love us. So one of wisdom’s lessons to take to heart is that we are unconditionally and eternally loved. A spiritual practice you might try is to put your hand on your heart and say [hand on heart – say this with me: I am loved.] When the world is spinning out of control and wisdom and civility are banished from our common life, practice putting your hand on your heart and saying: I am loved. Does this make everything alright? Of course it doesn’t, but wisdom’s ways of peace and healing start with you, and with me. If we believe that we are loved and created in the image of God, it changes how we see ourselves. If we believe that everyone of us (even those whose behavior we despise) has that same spark of divinity within them, it changes how we see them (or at least allows us to have some compassion for them.)
Wisdom, like the gospel, doesn’t stand alone as words on a page, otherwise that’s all it is: words on a page. Wisdom tells us that the discipline and practice of wisdom must be followed. Lady Wisdom’s ways, outlined in Proverbs, tells us to seek insight, stretch our minds, to be in awe of the mysteries of God, to live with integrity, and to work for justice. Wisdom guides us to believe that what we bring to the world makes a difference. We make a difference; we are the difference. Wisdom tells us that we are loved[say this with me: I am loved]
and we make a difference in the world [say this with me: I make a difference in the world.] it seems to me that this is the heart of wisdom: love for God and love for others. The roots of American music – including country, bluegrass, gospel – all of which was brought here by immigrants, shares these virtues with wisdom: love for God and love for others. Proverbs tells us that wisdom cries out in the street to be heard and followed. In this unsettling moment in American history – when fools seem to have the loudest voices – what will the church’s answer be to Lady Wisdom’s call? I pray that our answer will be: love for God, and love and concern for the wellbeing of all others. Amen. (Or yeehaw!)