Sunday, July 9, 2017

The way of wisdom (Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30)

Bass fisherman talk about active fish, neutral fish, and inactive fish. There are periods of time, actually fairly long periods of time where big bass are dormant. They suspend in open water or they hover deep in cover, but either way, they are uncatchable. If you could precisely locate where one is and dangle a bait right in front of its nose, it will not take the bait. When a big bass is inactive, it is an uncatchable fish.

In our text today, we are introduced to some uncatchable fish. You may remember that Jesus employed a fishing analogy when he called some fishermen to be his disciples. He said, “Follow my way and I will teach you how to catch people in the net of God’s kingdom.” I suppose if you are fishing by means of a net it’s a bit different, but even then, I can imagine fish residing in cover that the net cannot penetrate. While disciples feel a sense of mission to share the wisdom of the way of Jesus with others, we know that there are folks who simply will not bite. And there are, I’m sure, all kinds of reasons for that, but all these reasons are reflective of the state of one’s heart. If one’s heart is closed, it is closed, and it cannot be forced or pried open.

Our Gospel text begins with a depiction of closed hearts. John and Jesus both come preaching the kingdom of God. John’s understanding of certain aspects of the kingdom of God no doubt differed from Jesus. John roared and thundered. He emphasized God’s judgment and called his hearers to repentance. He dressed like Elijah, had a strange diet of locusts and wild honey, and drew people out into the desert to hear him. He baptized those who welcomed his message. On the other hand, Jesus baptized no one. He traveled all around Palestine. He dressed like a rabbi and taught the way of wisdom. Though he, too, functioned as a prophet and called people to repentance he told stories and utilized short, witty, sometime shocking proverbs and sayings to make his point. He was known not for his thunderous speech, but for his compassion, for eating and drinking with “sinners” – those judged as unworthy by the religious establishment.

Now, I suppose it would be easy to say that Jesus’ approach was the right one and John’s not so much, but I’m not so sure that is the way to look at it. I think there are times we need both. Sometimes we may need to hear a hard word, a stern word, a challenging word; sometimes we may need to be hit over the head with the truth. Someone may need to shake us awake. Then, there are other times we need a more a sensitive, caring, gentle, and compassionate invitation. Both John and Jesus called their hearers to change, though they went about it in different ways. But some folks, like so many of the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day, are calloused to either approach. They are not going to bite. Their hearts are closed.

Today’s text echoes in several ways two strands of ancient Hebrew teaching and tradition. One is the tradition dealing with Moses and the law. And the other is the tradition dealing with wisdom. In several Jewish sources, including Proverbs in our Old Testament, divine wisdom is personified as a woman who assumes divine characteristics and attributes. This is what some teachers are referencing when they speak of Sophia or Lady Wisdom. Sophia is the Greek term for wisdom, which is feminine. The writer of Proverbs, for example, introduces the wisdom of God this way: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice . . . How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . . Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.” That’s from Proverbs 1. Divine wisdom is personified as a woman. She invites her listeners to give heed to what she has to say. And when you consider the patriarchal culture of ancient Jewish society this is pretty radical stuff.

I can understand why wisdom is personified as female. I was in my study on Wednesday working on this sermon, and Matt, our custodian, came in and said, “You have a net in your car?” I said, “No, why?” He said we have a bird in the fellowship hall.” I said, “Ok, I will run home and get one.”  I came back with two nets. I have one I use in my kayak to land those big bass I rarely catch, and I have a long net I use in my goldfish pond at home. When I walked in with the nets I noticed the doors to the fellowship hall were open and Karen and Betty were standing there. I said, “Did the bird fly out?” They said, “Yea, we opened the windows.” Duh! Now, can you just Imagine me and Matt chasing a bird around the fellowship hall with fishing nets. Probably would have made a great “You tube” video though. I thought of this passage where Lady Wisdom says, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

What this passage is suggesting is that Jesus drew from both the law and the wisdom traditions in Judaism. He summarized the law as the law of love and he embodied and taught the way of wisdom. But not all were ready to receive and emulate his love and his wisdom. In fact, Jesus says that the way of wisdom is hidden from the wise and the intelligent, but revealed to infants.     

Now what does that mean? Wisdom hidden from the wise and the intelligent? It means that enlightenment and wisdom are only given to those who have the humility to receive these gifts. No one who overly cares about position or place or power, no one who wants to control others, can receive these gifts. The religious elites, the religious gatekeepers in Jesus’ day were closed to the wisdom of God. Why? Because they lacked the humility and readiness needed. They were not about to welcome truth from John or Jesus. They had the truth. They had the answers. They were the gatekeepers. They said who was “in” and who was “out.” They were the gatekeeper of a worthiness system. They labeled and categorized people according to who, in their judgment, was worthy and unworthy. And you know sisters and brothers, there’s a lot of religion, particularly a lot of Christianity just like that today.

Without humility, without recognition that we are all infants in need of being nurtured and taught the way of wisdom, there can be no growth. Wisdom cannot be received by the proud, by the know-it-alls, by those who think they are better or smarter than others. This is just how grace works sisters and brothers. The grace of enlightenment, the grace of wisdom, the grace of being able to understand and receive and live the way of Jesus is given to us in response to our awareness of how desperately we need such grace, how desperately we need the wisdom of God.  

Christians talk a lot about grace, but I’m not sure we all get it. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about becoming irate one afternoon when she was at Yale Divinity School in the 1970’s. The books she wanted she couldn’t find in the library, even though there was no record at the front desk that they had been checked out. When she asked the librarian what was going on, he told her that the Divinity school had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university. Barbara said, “How embarrassing. Why do you suppose that is?” “Grace,” he said, with a rueful look on his face. “You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want.”

Terrible isn’t it? That sense of entitlement is not grace at all. It’s interesting how many Christian folks get this all screwed up. I am going to venture into the health care discussion for a moment or two. I am not going to name any names so don’t worry too much, but there is a point here that needs to be made about grace. As you well know Congress is trying to push through a bill to repeal and replace the ACA that will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, give a number of tax breaks to the wealthy while it will over the next decade push millions (not thousands, millions) of low income persons and families off of health insurance. Health insurance will be so costly that low income folks won’t be able to afford to get it or what they can afford will be so bad, it would be like not having any coverage at all. Here’s the point I want to make about grace. Some (not all of course, but some) who support this bill argue that the people who will be pushed off of health insurance don’t deserve it any way. They argue that they don’t deserve it because they haven’t worked as hard as those who deserve to have the tax breaks. They argue that somehow those who get the tax breaks deserve them, while those who are struggling just to make it from day to day are, for whatever reason, not entitled to receive government subsidies to help them get decent health coverage for themselves and their families. The people who make this argument, many of them Christians, may talk about grace in their churches, but they have no idea, no clue what grace really is. By the way, in my judgment for what it’s worth is that adequate health care should be no different than public education. It should be the right of everyone who lives in this country.

The worthiness system that Jesus challenged and contended with in his day in his own religion is really no different than the worthiness systems we experience today in Christianity, and I’m sure other religious traditions in their own way contend with this  too. Life transforming faith, authentic faith, faith that heals the broken, that forgives and restores sinners, and that liberates and frees the oppressed is never about being worthy, it’s never about rewards and punishments.  Worthiness systems close and harden the heart to true grace. They turn faith into a system of comparisons and competition. They divide and label and offer condemnation rather than salvation. Worthiness systems spread fear and insecurity and they produce anxiety.

But the way of wisdom, the way of grace, the way of true enlightenment and transformation nurtures the very opposite. The way of Jesus is rooted, not in a system of meritocracy, not in a system of rewards and punishments, but rather it is rooted in the unconditional love and graciousness of God who abolishes all exceptionalisms and elitisms. The way of Jesus breaks down barriers of division and brings us all to the same table to share the same meal as sisters and brothers in one family.

And yet the wisdom of God while freely given does not come without some costs, which is why Jesus also advised his would-be followers to count the costs. The way and wisdom of Jesus is called a “yoke,” but it is also called an “easy” yoke. Now, it’s not “easy” in the sense of what this wisdom asks of us. Jesus said, “If the world/the system persecuted me, it will persecute you (his followers).” Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, if you want to walk in the way of wisdom, then you must deny yourself (your ego self, your little self), and take up your cross and follow me.” "I’m headed toward a cross, says Jesus, and you must be willing to follow me there.” How is that easy? That is not easy. And yet, here’s the paradox (almost all spiritual truth is paradoxical) when one truly encounters real grace and comes to see just how gracious God is and how connected we all are and how beautiful life is, then following the way of wisdom is an “easy” decision that brings “rest” to our weary souls.

If you are unsure whether or not you are operating out of a worthiness system or whether you are living out of the experience of divine grace you may want to engage in a little self-inventory. Ask yourself these questions: Does my faith cause me to feel better, more special, more chosen, more blessed than others? Do I think others are excluded because they don’t believe or live like I do? Do I feel some fear and anxiety in practicing my faith? If you say yes to any of these, then there is a possibility you may be caught up in a worthiness system.

But if you are walking in the way of wisdom, if you are living out of a sense of union with God and connection to everyone else, if you are living and experiencing grace, then you will know something of the deep “rest” of God. You may be going through hardship, you may be encountering suffering and living under great stress, you may face opposition and rejection, but paradoxically and inexplicably you will also know at a deeper level peace and gratitude and feelings of generosity and thankfulness – what was called in a recent film I watched “collateral beauty.” For such is the burden that is light and the yoke that is easy that comes with the way of Jesus.  

So sisters and brothers, whether it’s Lady Wisdom of the ancient Hebrews beckoning all to listen, or whether it’s John the Baptizer thundering repentance out in the desert, or Jesus of Nazareth healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and throwing dinner parties for sinners, the way of wisdom invites us to receive grace and be part of something much larger than ourselves. The invitation may even come from some crazy preacher on a Sunday morning in July, 2017. If we would just open our hearts to the wisdom of God in humility and generosity, in trust and compassion, then we would know at a deeper level, below the surface of the waves that beat upon our lives every day, the peace and gratitude and joy of Jesus, then we would find true “rest” for our souls.


O God, as we now come to this table in thanksgiving for grace given and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and Christ, open our hearts in humility that we might receive your wisdom and experience our connection to you, each other and all creation. Amen. 

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