A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
August 9, 2015
Rev. Reebee Girash
Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David.
The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.
So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.
Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.
The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.
At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, "Ask what I should give you."
And Solomon said, "You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today.
And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.
And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.
God said to him, "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,
I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you.
If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life."
Proverbs 9: 1-6
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town,
"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."
We all play this game, in our minds: what would you wish for, if you were offered anything you wanted?
This is what God puts in front of Solomon.
I call this game the Magic Mountain Dew Bottle game. I don’t play the lottery, and I have never won at poker – but I like to imagine what would happen if I opened a bottle of soda and found the instant winner twenty million dollar prize under the cap.
The odds have gotten longer since I stopped drinking Mountain Dew.
Nevertheless, after I set Zac up for college and pay off a mortgage and do something really substantial about climate change and perhaps pick some wonderful charity for a nice big chunk, oh what would we do then. What trip would we take? How many pairs of fabulous shoes would I buy? Would I single handedly bring my favorite TV show back from cancellation, perhaps?
Solomon handles this question differently.
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’”
Solomon begins with gratitude. He knows just how good he has it. He thanks God for steadfast love to David, his father, and for the blessings of his own life, and for bringing him to the throne.
Then he asks for one thing.
“Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
Solomon asks for wisdom, for the sake of being a worthy leader for God’s people. He asks for something that will help the nation he is called to serve.
So God, pleased with this prayer, grants Solomon wisdom. And for thousands of years since, we have called him Wise. This is the king, who just a few verses later, decides the case of the true mother. We could attribute to Solomon the principle that “Love makes a family.” This is the man to whom is attributed three thousand proverbs of wisdom, including the verses we heard from Proverbs 9.
But wisdom, once given, is not permanent. Hear these words of Proverbs 4: “Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you.” Solomon’s wisdom seems shortlived when you consider:
He winds up a clear example of the dubious nature of Biblical marriage - one man and as many wives as his political alliances will allow (seven hundred, with three hundred concubines). He builds a temple for God, yes - and a gigantic palace for himself, something to rival Newton’s largest homes. In the words of one scholar, “later in life, he begins to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:4-8), and he builds up his kingdom through forced labor and heavy taxes (1 Kings 11:28; 12:4). Because of Solomon's sins, the northern tribes rebel after his death and the kingdom is split in two.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=363)
This distresses me. For thousands of years we have remembered wise Solomon for those early moments of selflessness and clarity. But the wisdom didn’t stick.
I’ve been pondering wisdom. Not just because of 17 people who debated their collective wisdom as potential national leaders this week. Even more so, I have been pondering the nature of Wisdom - the woman who builds her house of seven pillars and prepares a feast for us and calls out to us - wondering what it is to truly, faithfully respond to her call. How do we use it for the greater good? How do we make it stick? How do we remember, and not forsake this gift, offered to us as generously as God offered it to Solomon?
Permit me, as one with a poor measure of wisdom, to put forth some ideas - perhaps we can build them together.
Wisdom is an ongoing process. Wisdom personified in scripture is eternal - with God from the beginning, “personifying God’s own self in active engagement with the world” and Paul even calls Jesus the wisdom of God. (Elizabeth Johnson, “Holy Widsom: Image of God’s Saving Presence” in Living Pulpit, July-September 2000) And in Proverbs and elsewhere, we hear that we must continually work to renew wisdom.
Wisdom must be based in humility. We all know the six year old who says, “I know that, Daddy!” and that child is not wise - she has knowledge but not wisdom.
Wisdom is connected to our everyday life. Elizabeth Johnson says it this way: “...the world cannot be neatly divided into sacred and profane times, places, and persons. Wisdom plays throughout the world, arranging the seasons...dwells within th eheart, giving insight to help us negotiate everyday challenges...Wisdom focused on god’s presence in ordinary time,...shows a path to make daily life holy...” (ibid.)
Wisdom is heart and hand knowledge - it is craft. (Wil Gafney, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1360 ) Wisdom that is not lived out is nothing. Wisdom that is not joined with compassion is nothing. If that’s true, then some part of wisdom is being wise enough to show up.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of widsom...,” says Proverbs 9:10. Fear is not the best translation here, maybe awe would be better - you fear the Lord like you fear the ocean - standing along side it in wonder and delight, but giving it due respect. (This idea is a paraphrase of the Working Preacher podcast.) Wisdom is not something we can gain on our own - there is a Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, that should be our Guide.
And most of all, for me, wisdom is grounded in listening.
A year ago, I realized I was not listening. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute understanding from people of ill will.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) By this measure, a year ago I was shallow, indeed.
A year ago today, Michael Brown died at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri. It seemed to me at the time bizarre and unusual. Then I realized I had not been listening. Because it was not unusual. I started trying harder to listen. To voices of my African American neighbors here in Newton and Boston, and to Pastor Traci Blackmon of the UCC church in Ferguson, to different news sources and different authors from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Kelly Brown Douglas. I starting looking deeper at the systemic racism embedded in what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. And listening, as Eric Garner could not breathe; as nine people at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston we shot for the color of their skin even as they ministered to their shooter, as Sandra Bland died after a routine traffic stop. I would not say I have listened enough to be wise. I am starting to look at my own life story and see the complicity in it. I am starting to show up. I am starting to reflect. I realized that in our Sunday School, we do not teach anything about racism to our children, beyond telling them that every child is beloved - and when I went looking for resources, I found almost none. Very few Christian churches have this in their curriculum. So, a diverse group of Christian educators and pastors will meet here, in our church on August 20 - to see if there is some teaching we can develop together. We, who have committed to listening and to showing up, have a long way to go.
I believe that wisdom is offered to us: if we listen; if we continually seek it; if we are humble; if we seek it for the comon good. And we can use it for the building up of God’s reign of justice.
“[Woman Wisdom] stood alongside God at creation, worked with God in helping to hammer and saw the universe into shape. Wisdom assisted with hanging the cosmic dry-wall. She is the heart beat of God's creative genius....”(David von Schlicten, http://day1.org/1404-the_woman_less_listened_to) And Wisdom, she builds a house for us, she sets a table for us, she makes a meal for us, and she invites us to the feast.
Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed, she calls out. (Yes, you might hear Jesus in that invitation.)
Wisdom calls out to us, over and over. May we, again and again, accept her invitation.