Sunday, September 13, 2015


The lectionary gives us a choice
         of three Old Testament lessons for today.
But they are all about wisdom.
You just heard Isaiah: “the Lord has given me the tongue
         of a teacher that I may help the weary with a word.”

Proverbs says,
“Wisdom cries out in the street;
         In the squares she raises her voice.
         At the busiest corner she cries out . . .
         ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . .
         I will pour out my thoughts to you.
         I will make my words known to you.”

The Wisdom of Solomon, says,
         “. . . wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
         a spotless mirror of the working of God . . . .”
The Jewish folk idea of Wisdom, hachma, in the Hebrew,
         at first meant knowing how to do your craft well.
There was a wisdom of the farmer,
a wisdom of the basket weaver,
         a wisdom of the camel trader.

We might say there is a wisdom of the gambler,
         that is “to know when to hold ‘em,
                  know when to fold ‘em,
                  know when to walk away,
                  know when to run.”
The writers of Scripture eventually realized
         what Wisdom teacher Kenny Rogers makes so clear.
The ways of a craft can be expanded into a way of life.
Just as a basket can be woven well or badly,
         a life can be lived well or badly.

Just as you must know certain things
         to be a good farmer, camel trader, or gambler,
         you must know certain things in order
                  to be a good human being.

A fully human life is lived in community.
It happens in the context of relationships.
When the relationships go well, life is pretty good.
When the relationships go sour, not so much.

So wisdom is first and foremost
about playing well with others.
When Christianity encountered Greco-Roman culture,
         our religious brand of wisdom came out of left field.
Greek and Roman philosophers had written about
         human relationships, but it wasn’t a big part of their religion.

Their temples were not even places
         where people gathered for worship.
The temples just housed the gods.
Goats were slaughtered on outside altars.
But there was nothing like our communal worship.
Forget about coffee hour or an outreach committee
         or adult and children’s education.

Then along came Christianity
         where the sacrifice to God led directly
                  into a meal shared by the people.
We gathered not only for worship
         but for prayers, study, and fellowship.
This was not just burning a goat to get a good crop.
It was about God happening in our relationships.

 But the Roman Empire wasn’t good at relationships.
It was more about power, domination, and exploitation.
Parties were drunken bacchanals, not celebrations of friendship.

So Paul, James, and other authors
         wrote most of the New Testament
         as a guide to relationships.
Christians find our way to God
through how we treat each other.

An anthropologist might say our relational religions
         are the flower of evolution.
Darwin said, groups of people who cooperate,
         who trust each other,
         who treat each other with kindness and respect
         are more successful than groups
                  divided by suspicion, self-seeking, and crankiness.
Good teams win. Bad teams lose.
So treating each other with courtesy, patience,
         and respect is not only nice --            
                           It is wise.

Before congregations can attract new members,
         raise money for its mission,
         or work together on any project,
         they first have to humanize and personalize
                  their network of internal relationships.

From a marketing standpoint,
         we have to be the kind of community
         someone might want to join.
From a theological standpoint,
         we are the Body of Christ.
We need to look like Jesus.
Today’s Epistle lesson is right at the heart
         of how to be Christian.
It isn’t so much about the opinions in our heads
         as the words coming out of our mouths.

James writes:
         “With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father,
         and we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
         From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.
         Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
         Does a spring pour forth from the same opening
                  both fresh and brackish water?”

Just monitoring our speech is a giant step
toward holiness of life.
 St. Paul says at Ephesians 4: 29:
         “Let your words be for the improvement of others.
         . . . . Do good for your listeners.
         Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”
This wisdom goes back to the Proverbs:
         “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb.
         Sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.”
So what are our habits of speech?
What kind of words pop out of our mouths
         when we speak without thinking?
What kind of talk swirls about sucking people in?

There are all sorts of spiritual disciplines.
We can fast, pray, meditate, and go on pilgrimages.
But the most powerful thing we can do
to change our own hearts
         and to bless the world around us

is with the spiritual discipline of Christian speech.