Sermons : Living the Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age- Wisdom
Psalm 111:10; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Matthew 7:24-29
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
July 22, 2012
Someone saw the sermon title out front this week and remarked that wisdom seemed almost a lost virtue in our day...but then he said, "Wait a minute! Why is wisdom a virtue anyway? It seems more like an accomplishment or something one acquires over time through the accumulation of life experiences. And there are plenty of good people, virtuous people, who aren't necessarily smart or wise."
I didn't want to tell him that he was further along in thinking about virtue than I was at that point, so I told him he'd have to wait until today to find out. But his words stayed with me the rest of the week. He was surely right in saying that goodness isn't dependent upon a high I.Q. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to be a virtuous person, and you certainly don't need to be in Who's Who to know what's what.
But wisdom is not the same as a high I.Q. Wisdom is not measured by our scores on the S.A.T. or the G.R.E. or any other test. The wisdom of which the Church speaks when it calls wisdom one of the cardinal virtues is a Godly wisdom and moral discernment. It's more than common sense, and different from conventional wisdom. It is surely not the same as the wisdom of the world. Godly wisdom is not so much knowing what is as knowing what ought to be.
There ought to be kindness and compassion, but worldly wisdom says that's not always practical. There ought to be generosity and sharing, but worldly wisdom says there are limits to such things. There ought to be peace, but worldly wisdom has not found a way to make it happen. There ought to be enough for everyone, but the best worldly wisdom so far has mustered is an ethic of scarcity. There ought to be a way to lay down our weapons of destruction and mayhem, but conventional wisdom says that if we outlaw guns, only outlaws... well, you know.
The apostle Paul seemed especially skeptical about what he called the "eloquent wisdom" of the world, for that wisdom was set in established patterns and customs and doctrines and did not make space for the new thing that had happened in Jesus Christ. In Christ, Paul said, "God had "made foolish the wisdom of the world," for all the wisdom of the world had not been able to discern the movement and purposes of God. Those who did perceive what God was doing were, for the most part, not members of the nobility or inhabitants of the halls of wisdom, but were simply folks who were open to God's call and claim on their lives. God chose what many called foolish, Paul said, to establish His wisdom. God chose what was weak as a means of conveying divine strength. God chose the cross, an instrument of torture and death and shame, to be the vehicle of life and redemption. According to the Church, those who seek after God's movement and purpose in this world are the ones who are truly wise.
The Psalmist says that such wisdom finds its beginning point in the fear of the Lord. To our ears in our time such speech sounds a dissonant tone. We live in a time when many speak casually of God, think of God as some sort of cosmic companion. So, when we hear "fear of the Lord" we want to translate fear as "awe" or "reverence," and surely that is a part of what the Psalmist intends. But in the Hebrew, yir'ath Yahweh also means "fear" or "dread." To encounter God, for the Psalmist, is to encounter the mysterium tremendum. It is to be completely vulnerable before the Lord of life and death.
Wisdom rooted in the fear of the Lord is a wisdom shaped by a keen awareness of our place in the created order...by remembering that we are dust...remembering the One who shaped us from the dust. I don't think in such terms very often; I suspect that most of us don't. Indeed, much of the time we may think of ourselves as captains of our own fate...at least until we come face to face with all that we can't contain or control: a serious illness, perhaps... the tragic, senseless death of a dear one whose life bore such promise...a sudden reversal of fortunes. The fear that rises within us in such times is not the same as "the fear of the Lord." But it may move us in that direction. Old Testament scholar Christine Yoder says that the "‘Fear of the Lord' is a way of life, a posture in the world that acknowledges God's sovereignty and the place of humanity (our capacities and limitations) before God and creation."
For me, one of the sure-fire ways I can remind myself of my place within God's sovereignty is to travel...to travel anywhere out of my comfort zone, really... but I discover it most clearly when I am driving or walking across the vast expanse of the northern plains and in the high deserts of American West. Five years ago this summer our daughter Leah and I drove I-40 all the way to its western terminus in Barstow, California on our way to her graduate school experience in Irvine.
Along the way I learned once again a proper posture in the world. I learned it more than a few times. It came first in the vastness of the prairies and grasslands of western Oklahoma, where the horizon is visible in all directions, and one can literally see for miles. I sensed it again during the long drive through New Mexico and northern Arizona, driving across miles and miles of desert, when we drove for long stretches and passed only a few simple dwellings. And it came thundering back to mind as I stood at sunset on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, knowing how that remarkable vista had been shaped and sanded by the wind and rain and rivers of hundreds of thousands of years. And the truth that brought me to a proper posture was this: that a single human life is but one minute blip in the larger scope of things... that our lives really are so small in time and space compared to the vastness of God's creation.
Sometimes here in the East, where our horizons are limited, and we are surrounded by people who interact with us every day, where we can take charge at least of our immediate environment, we may be able to convince ourselves of our own importance and significance. We live in a community where something new happens every day - new construction, new ideas, new discoveries, new people moving in next door. We live here by iPhones and Androids and seemingly endless emails and appointments. We may have hundreds of Facebook friends. And history here, as we conceive of it, goes back only a couple of years, or a couple of hundred if we are really reflective. In such a perspective, our own status updates and our own opinions and our own understandings seem to accrue much greater worth, and our own lives seem very important. We can even convince ourselves for a while that we are in control of our lives.
In the West it surely must be harder to live by such convictions. In the West our lives pale by contrast with the ages of geologic shifting and shaping, even by the sheer vastness of the landscape. The novelist Leif Enger grew up aware of such vastness in the Midwestern plains. He said once in an interview, "I grew up squinting from the back seat at gently rolling hills and true flatlands, where you top a rise and see a tractor raising dust three miles away. So much world and sky is visible it's hard to put much stock in your own influence - it's a perfect landscape for cultivating gratitude." In such a landscape, time takes on a different dimension. Walking along the Canyon rim, or driving west through the Mojave Desert, one couldn't help but think about the hundreds of centuries behind such vistas. But it's hard to fathom. After all, most of us don't have an aeon hand on our watches, if we have watches at all. Much of the time, we live without any consciousness of the vastness of time or space. But such consciousness, like the fear of the Lord, is a beginning point of wisdom. The psalmist said it somewhat differently in addressing the Creator:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust, and say, "Turn back, you mortals."
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream.... (Ps. 90:2-4)
Wendell Berry's title character Jayber Crow, looking back from the vantage point of time, sizes up his life this way:
Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory. Though I knew early of death, it seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever.
And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.
Our lives are tenuous at best, and an awareness of the preciousness of time, and the consequent claiming of the value of every single day, is the beginning point of that "posture in the world that acknowledges ... the place of humanity" before the Lord of all life. And that posture is at least a part of what the Psalmist means by the "fear of the Lord." The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the psalm says.
For the Christian, too, such consciousness is the beginning of wisdom... but not its full sum and substance. Christian wisdom is rooted in something larger and more remarkable still. In his Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus taught the crowds and his disciples about the kingdom of God. The teaching was not the kind of teaching the people were used to hearing. It was wisdom teaching, teaching about life in the kingdom and the way it affected life in the here-and-now. He began with words about blessedness and happiness - about the ones who were truly happy - and they weren't ones most folks would have put in such a category: blessed are the meek, he said...blessed are the poor in spirit... blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the persecuted. Jesus said these were the ones who would know God's grace and comfort.
He went on to give a whole new wisdom spin to the Torah, saying that keeping the Law went beyond ritual observance, beyond statutory obedience, to new inclinations of the heart... loving not just our friends, but our enemies...forgiving others with a generous forgiveness...speaking the truth and living the truth rather than simply keeping oaths. He taught them how to pray rightly. He gently encouraged them to live beyond their fears and anxieties, trusting in the gracious providence of God (consider the lilies of the field, he said, to encourage them). He taught them all these things, and then said that if they would only live into such teachings, they would be truly wise...as wise as those who construct their houses with a solid foundation, rather than as those who heard the words but didn't act on them.
Tom Long says,
The commands of the sermon describe what it means to be fully human, not just what it means to be religious. Only a life based upon the vision embodied in the Sermon can stand firm and true when all the storms of life have done their worst. There are many houses in the human community. The house of greed washes away when the rains of economic crisis come. The house of power collapses when the political climate changes. The house of pragmatic living-for-the-moment slips off its foundation when life opens up with a mystery like birth, deep suffering, or death. Only those who "strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness" build a dwelling that tempests cannot shake and the gates of hell cannot destroy.
Jesus doesn't say that those who so build their lives are good. He doesn't say they are praiseworthy, though they may well be. He says they are wise. When we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, it is not because of fear. It is because we get it: that his teachings are not just commands that we must do, but wisdom about the way life inside us and around us is truly structured, appearances notwithstanding.
The wind and rain will come, Jesus warns, but if we build on the sure foundation he offers, we will thrive beyond the storm. If we don't, it will be disastrous, not because Jesus punishes those who disobey, but because his words provide rich wisdom about what it means to be human.
Such is the wisdom of God. It is different from the wisdom of the world, which next to God's wisdom seems downright foolish. Such wisdom begins in a proper posture before God. It finds its fulfillment in living fully into Christ's teachings. Why is such wisdom a virtue? It seems in the end, after all, like a gift. And that it is. The virtue lies in accepting the gift...and claiming it for our lives.
 Christine Ray Yoder, "Exegetical Perspective" on Psalm 111, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 301.
 As cited on the website of Minnesota Public Radio in a discussion of his book, Peace Like a River. http://www.mpr.org/books/titles/enger_peacelikeariver.shtml.
 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, New York, Counterpoint Books, 2000, 24.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew: Westminster Bible Companion, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 84-85.
 Much of these last two paragraphs is drawn from Matthew Myer Boulton, "Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 7:21-29," Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 433.