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The Ways of Wisdom
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
July 15, 2018
Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21, 9:4b-6
A reading from Proverbs
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice,
endowing with wealth those who love me,
and filling their treasuries.
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
This morning, I want to talk to you about Kindergarten. It’s been a while for me — my memory’s a bit fuzzy, too many years since graduation. Some of you may remember it a bit more clearly. Some of you, less so. But I have in mind an outside resource, a book written thirty years ago by a pastor named Robert Fulghum, a book you may remember called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Now I have also not read this book, but its basic thesis played out on inspirational posters hung in guidance counselor offices throughout my childhood, and I think a recitation of its basic premise is a good place for us to start. The list goes like this:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
- Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
- Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
- And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”
The thesis, of course, is simple: as Fulghum puts it, “wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School.” Which, I have to say, as somebody with a couple of post-graduate degrees, has me reevaluating some of my life choices. I mean, surely not _everything_ I need to know I learned in kindergarten. I mean, I could have saved a lot of money on tuition, not to mention that it’s a little frightening to base so much of my qualification for the world on a year of school that I don’t much remember. But of course Fulghum’s thesis isn’t properly that education ought to stop before first grade begins. His argument is rather that even the most educated and highest-reaching folks sometimes forget the basics. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Just because it sounds quaint doesn’t make it wrong.
Which I think is a pretty fair introduction to the Book of Proverbs, which is sort of the “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” of the Bible. For most of its runtime, this book occupies itself with the sort of pithy sayings that might go very well on some kind of motivational poster but can very often times feel a bit quaint, or a bit outdated. “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. A fool despises a parent’s instruction, but the one who heeds admonition is prudent.” It goes on like that for a long time. Much of the text is structured as the sayings of a father to his child, probably gathered from pieces of folk wisdom spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, so there’s not a lot of story here, it’s like all the motivational posters of post-exilic Israel gathered into one place. Which may be part of why I have never in my life preached on the Book of Proverbs; our course this summer through the Easter Vigil texts plants me firmly in uncharted territory. And part of my aversion to it is of course because so much of it sounds so pithy.
I freely admit that I have long been more of an Ecclesiastes guy. These two books come back-to-back in the Old Testament, each of them part of what we call the Wisdom literature, but they could hardly be more different, and I’m pretty sure there’s a reason my youth group did Ecclesiastes on a pretty regular basis. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. All things are wearisome, more than one can express.” If Proverbs is for kindergarteners, Ecclesiastes is for freshmen. Proverbs is pretty sure that the world works and Ecclesiastes is pretty sure that it doesn’t. Proverbs is pretty sure that good people get rewarded and Ecclesiastes is pretty sure they don’t. Proverbs is pretty sure that this whole thing is worthwhile and Ecclesiastes is deeply suspicious that it’s not. And if there is a book of the Bible to accompany our time, a time of such deep anxiety, a time of such deep uncertainty, a time with so few centers, a time where “play fair” and “share everything” seem almost offensively quaint, surely Ecclesiastes is that book. I cannot imagine a more timely companion.
And yet Proverbs is here for a reason. Pieces of this book probably sprang up in different places over the course of hundreds of years, but, by time it’s compiled together, Israel has already been through exile and come back into a Jerusalem confronting Greek occupation and a whole host of other foreign threats. Jews came back to Jerusalem and quickly found themselves a minority people in their own hometown, strangers in a world that had seemed to change faster than they could keep up. All of which is to say that it’s not like the world this book comes from is that much simpler or easier than ours, no less full of ambivalence about the future or uncertainly about the moment or indecision about the trustworthiness of the people around them. And somewhere in that messiness of a time the theologians who helped give us scripture thought that it was critical to affirm the words of Ecclesiastes — indeed, all things are wearisome, more than one can express. But they also wanted to affirm the Proverbs. They also wanted to remind us of the basics. The one who heeds admonition is prudent. Play fair. Share everything. Now, more than ever.
In fact it was so important to reaffirm these basic truths that the Book of Proverbs personified them, as we heard in today’s reading, in this famous character of Woman Wisdom. “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroad she takes her stand.” At a variety of moments throughout its run time, Proverbs places its own wisdom on the lips of this wise woman, almost certainly a literary device and not a historical figure, but no less powerful for it — this woman who persistently seeks the people of Jerusalem wherever they may be found to remind them of what real wisdom looks like. “I walk in the way of righteousness. Along the paths of justice.” Woman wisdom sees the world in black and white, and knows which side to pick, and is here to insist that her readers and listeners do the same.
But this insistence isn’t just about folk wisdom. It’s a theological claim. The context of Proverbs is not simply that Israel is entering a new and more complicated age. The context is also that it has now been too many generations since God engaged them face-to-face. Biblical Scholar Leo Perdue writes that “In an age when Yahweh was increasingly understood as transcendent, that is, far removed from the world of human dwelling and thus from the ken of human knowledge and experience, personified Wisdom and the tradition she embodied became the means by which to come to the knowledge of God…” Which means that by the time Proverbs comes to be, this character of Woman Wisdom comes to represent nothing less than the persistence and insistence of God, and of God’s order, into a deeply disordered world. And into this disordered world, the most important thing that God says is about truth. “From my lips will come what is right,” Woman Wisdom says. “For my mouth will utter truth … all [my] words are righteous, there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.”
In an age built for Ecclesiastes, nothing is more fragile than truth itself. In her new book The Death of Truth, critic Michiko Kakutani traces the path we’ve taken into a moment overcome with fake news and alternative facts. “For decades now,” she writes, “objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s well-known observation that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” is more timely than ever: polarization has grown so extreme that voters have a hard time even agreeing on the same facts.” What began in graduate seminars about postmodern theory — with some instinct that, as she puts it, “there are no universal truths, only smaller personal truths,” a conversation which I have had in more than a few classrooms myself — has exploded into our total discourse. And now we find ourselves in world of social media where fake accounts spread fake science in the hunt for fake followers, a world where protesters show up at a Nazi rally and we hear about “good people on both sides.”
Which just makes Proverbs even more important. For a world that has been to too many graduate seminars, how important to remember that all we really need to know we learned in Kindergarten. Play fair. Share everything. Tell the truth. But on the lips of this Woman Wisdom, these aphorisms aren’t simply a list of virtues. Rather, they’re a declaration about the hope we have in God who will yet insist upon the order at the heart of creation. After all, as Christians, we know something about God who shows up on the heights and in the crossroads and say something about truth. In fact Christian theologians for centuries have observed the ways in which this Woman Wisdom seems to pave the way for the one who declares “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus comes into a world no less complicated and no less corrupt. And yet the coming of Jesus Christ into the world represents not only God’s reminder that we should play fair and share everything; it’s something bigger, it’s God’s reminder that God is not done shaping and ordering and creating and revealing and insisting and that in God’s ordered creation truth will have its way in the end because God will have its way in the end, thanks be to God.
So, yes, Seek the Ways of Wisdom, as the hymn goes. On the heights. Beside the way. At the crossroads. Share everything. Play fair. Tell the truth. But more. Have hope. Have hope that even for a world seemingly done with wisdom, that wisdom is not done with us. That wisdom will seek us. That in a world seemingly done with virtue, that virtue is not done with us. That in a world seemingly done with truth, truth is not done with us. It will have its way. It will insist on its way, because God will insist on God’s way, because at some point God will gavel this whole thing back to order and wisdom will persist and virtue will persist and the truth will out. This is what I believe. This is what I believe to be true. I hope you can believe it, too. But even if you can’t. No matter what. At the very least. Share everything. Play fair. Tell the truth. And a nap every afternoon wouldn’t hurt, either.
Thanks be to God. Amen.