Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"The Wisdom of Solomon and Jesus" - Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

The Wisdom of Solomon and Jesus
Proverbs 10.1-12; Luke 6.37-38
Pentecost 12 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
August 11, 2013

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life. Proverbs 10.11

Our unofficial family motto growing up was, “You only tease the ones you love.” Boy was I loved! This skill came in handy with my friends Doug, Greg, and Mark where it was raised to an art form, though we called it slamming and cutting. Good-natured teasing can be fun, but unfortunately, it can also be thinly disguised anger. Even with the best of intentions, teasing can harm our relationships, making fun at another’s expense. Early in our relationship, Cindy and I were cautioned by my good friend, Jim, about this. He pointed out how our teasing could be harmful to our relationship, especially in public. I wish I could say it was the last time someone admonished me – it’s been a life-long battle for me to watch my tongue.

The move into chapter 10 of Proverbs shifts the style of the book from wisdom poems to proverbs. Many of the themes that we have encountered in our survey of the Wisdom literature, prominent in chapters 1-9 are also found here, but in a different form. This section uses antithetical parallelism (paired opposites) to illustrate the wisdom contained. It’s helpful to remember that although proverbs contain truth, they are not always or in every circumstance true. We know that good people do go hungry, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and evil is often rewarded. Yet, it’s important to heed them because the proverbs give as a window into God’s values.

They are also important because they remind us that what we think, say, and do matters. In fact, as Greg Nelson reminds us, there are only five things we have any control over: what we do and don’t do, what we say and don’t say, and what we continue to think about something. Many of us take this for granted, but a moment’s reflection shows that taking responsibility for oneself is in short supply. Dennis Challeen is a retired Winona district court judge who writes about our judicial system. In a Winona Daily News column, he cites a case where he told a young man who had appeared before him that he needed to take responsibility for his life. The young man had no idea what Challeen meant.

Taking responsibility for what we say and don’t say, or even how we say it, is also in short supply. I am reminded of that proverbial saying, variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." In a time of instantaneous communication, civil speech seems to be the exception rather than norm. From Facebook to Twitter to various blogs, people dash off what passes for their thoughts, much of it ill-conceived if not breaking the 8th Commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor.

Indeed, we can do great damage with our tongues, and their logical extensions, posts and tweets. However, we can also do great service with our tongues as well, and our society needs it desperately. Amy Lazarus tells of an experience in a Sojourners blog, “A Jew and a Mormon Find Common Ground Midair,” in which she describes a difficult but important conversation she had with a fellow traveler. Their views on virtually every topic were about as opposite as you can find, yet they were able to listen and learn while speaking respectfully to each other. These are the kind of conversations our society needs and I think we as the church are well-suited to foster them.

It is said that ethics involves knowing that adultery is wrong and morals involves not cheating on your spouse. For us, there is a third component, the ethic of love. So, ethics involves knowing that lying is wrong and morals involves, in my challenging case, not using teasing in a harmful manner. But an ethic of love shown by Jesus goes further: we are to speak well of others and to others regardless who they are. In the final analysis, it is God’s mercy that is the measure we use in our relationships with others. Rather and judge and condemn, we are to be giving and forgiving, just as God has done for us.

I’m acutely aware that this sermon more than others that screams, “Physician, heal thyself!” My mouth continues to get me in trouble, and I do my best to anticipate circumstances where that might happen. When I remember, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I pray before I enter meetings and conversations, asking God to help me. I try to remember that not everything I think has to be spoken, that others just might have more to contribute to the conversation than I do, and to be gracious in how I say what does need to be said. However, this isn’t about me. It is about a God who, when I do stumble—which is far more often than I like to admit—picks me up, dusts me off, forgives me, and gives me a chance to grow in daily wisdom, being what I was created to be. That same God is working in your life, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: Wisdom at Creation" - Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: Wisdom at Creation
Pentecost 11 (Narrative Lectionary 3 - Summer)
Proverbs 8.22-36; Luke 8.22-25
Grace Lutheran, Mankato, MN
August 4, 2013

When doing my doctoral work, most of it was online, but we’d gather for a week two times a year on the campus of Luther Seminary. Part of our schedule was doing daily devotions. One classmate, Michael, did terrific devotion on the wonders of creation using pictures and music in a PowerPoint presentation. It was beautiful, breath-taking, and stirring, extolling God’s handiwork in our world. Afterward, one of our professors wondered why Michael hadn’t included the dark side of creation. Missing were animals devouring each other, hurricanes, tornados, etc. Think of Wild Kingdom meets The Weather Channel. The professor was chided by his co-teacher, but I think his point was valid. What about the dark side of creation?

Today’s passage presents us with a Michael version of creation and the role of Wisdom in it. This is our third of six excursions into the Wisdom Literature and it presents a third major theme. The first week we learned that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. Fear of the Lord doesn’t mean quaking in our shoes, and it’s not just awe at God’s power and obedience to God’s word, but rather to be in a right relationship with God. Last week the theme was how the reader of Proverbs is to come to the book as a child learns wisdom from parents. Today, we encounter Woman Wisdom, a feminine figure as the personification of God’s wisdom.

We could do a whole Bible study on Woman Wisdom alone and her counterparts Woman Stranger and Woman Folly. Frankly, no one knows exactly what to make of her presence here. She seems to have many of the attributes of God, so is she a feminine counterpart, meant to soften God’s warrior king image? Is she Israel’s answer to the feminine gods of other national religions that surrounded them? Is she merely a literary device meant to engage the presumably young male reader? How about Jesus’ precursor as the Incarnate Logos, who “was with God and was God” at the beginning of creation? Though these are interesting discussion points, I want to spend the rest of the time looking at the text itself.

There are two main points in the text, but I want to put them in conversation with Michael’s devotion, the gospel story of Jesus’ calming of the storm, and the disciples in its midst. The first point is that God’s wisdom is present in creation, and that we can see it clearly. There is orderliness about creation that makes sense, or will make sense, as we uncover it. We rely on this order and predictability in our everyday lives. The second point is that God delights in what has been created, an assertion that goes back to and even further than the book of Genesis. Not only did God declare creation good, God and delights in us and even delights in our delight of creation. I still remember my internship supervisor, Rev. Dr. E. Gordon Ross, talking about his desire to see as much of God’s creation as he could in the remaining time of his life. God delights in our delight.

Yet, the Wild Kingdom-Weather Channel reality that we all know too well is that there are many times we do not take delight in creation and we wonder if there is any wisdom in it at all. Jesus’ followers are a good example: though some were experienced fishers and sailors, the sea was a source of fear and uncertainty for them, somewhat like the chaotic waters of creation. When a sudden storm blows in and threatens to capsize the boat, they understandably panic. Hurriedly, they waken Jesus, who astounds them with his ability to calm both the wind and the waves.

At the Men’s Bible Study a couple of weeks ago, there was a discussion about the bad things that happen to us. Someone may have even quoted Romans 8.28, “All things work together for good.” However, another person said he didn’t see how good things could come out of his son’s death or his recent horrific accident. I responded that I believed that God was present throughout in all of our circumstances of life, good or bad, and that sometimes it’s hard to see what God’s presence brings about. Often, it is not until we have some distance on an event or when others see for us what we cannot see for ourselves that we are able to see God working.

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom? I have been hearing a commercial for a mattress company talking about, believe it or not, this very same thing. Knowledge, according to the ad, means knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom means knowing that the tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad. For us today, knowledge means knowing that there is orderliness in creation that is discoverable, and that God delights in us and our delight in it. Wisdom means knowing that God continues to be present in, with, and under all creation, creating and recreating, bringing order out of chaos. This includes our lives, whether sunny skies or cloudy, storms or calm, in creation in all its beauty and its terribleness. Where is God present in your life today, creating and recreating? God delights in doing so. Thanks be to God! Amen.