091221 Pentecost 16 Wisdom Cries out: How Long?

The sermon begins at minute 22:30 of the video

Prov. 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

        Like many of you, I watched a lot of images of 9/11 this past week. They showed many people scurrying on the streets, running away from the twin towers. They focused on other who just stood and gazed at the burning buildings. As I watched those images throughout the week, the texts for this morning were swirling around in my head: Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” But the responses to that horrendous event weren’t all simple. The term first responders  came into use in those days, as we allowed our wounded hearts and minds to be grateful for so many brave fellow human beings. Nevertheless, the dominant response filling the airways was overly simplistic: revenge. Twenty years later we have seen the folly of that kind of simplicity. But will those in power learn? Will we?

       Current political campaigns don’t seem to have learned. The recall election’s Republican front-runner, Larry Elder, who blames the problems of Black people on Black people and denies the reality of systemic racism, has won support because he offers up the simple mantra: Hard work wins.

      I also watched the MSNBC show, Echoes of 9/11. There I saw another kind of wisdom musing in a video booth, offering a different answer to wisdom’s question. In many of those reflections, I heard wisdom speaking after listening. Proverbs said, those who listen to me will be secure. The security is not what any of them had imagined. It was evoked by unimaginable pain and loss. And the wisdom didn’t speak in unison – it was an often-discordant harmony still seeking resolution. But it was listening-wisdom.

       Then we come to the Gospel’s question: Who do you say that I am? During the last few Sundays, we have seen Jesus break out of the molds that people, including us, put him in. He breaks purity codes, and supports others who do the same; he allows himself to be taught by a questionable woman; he refuses to correct people’s misunderstandings about who he is; and prefers to allow people to abandon him than soften his message.

       Today’s question confronts another mold-breaking teaching: he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. This may have been the hardest one for the disciples: how can a true-to-life Messiah suffer and be killed? The Messiah is a victorious liberator, not an assassinated failure. How will we ever be freed from oppression if Messiah doesn’t come to successfully liberate us? That was the simplistic response of folly, and Jesus confronted it harshly: Get behind me, Satan. Wisdom only came to the disciples after the resurrection, when they saw that pain and loss are part of the same world as life and joy.

       Last week, Stephanie Spellers, assistant to Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, posted a long reflection in Facebook after a self-proclaimed four-month break from posting. Her reflection engages Jesus’ challenge today: how can I engage both the life-shaking events facing the world, and what she calls the tender, healing presence of God and God’s people. After living through a series of racist experiences as a black woman, which she describes poignantly in her post, she returned home to a doctor’s diagnosis of an ulcer. My first response was actually fury. Racism had literally made me sick. Then she reports on the other side of the challenge. She writes, I’m thankful to report that medication makes a difference, but I’ve spent the last two months tending body, mind and spirit. More prayer journaling, scripture reading and silence. More worship, walking and breathing. Instead of watching TV, read a book. Instead of writing a post, grab the journal and talk with Jesus.

       Stephanie proposes that this challenge isn’t only hers. It’s all of ours. She writes, there’s still a pandemic, still death and long-hauwl suffering, still White supremacy, still poverty, still the Big Lie, still a planet on fire, still family stuff and work stuff and old narratives that float back to the surface and threaten to drag you under. How can anybody hold it? The only way I know is with Jesus, the One who speaks truth in love, holds us tenderly when we get shook, and endures the cross only to rise again. We’re made in the image of God, which means we can cultivate the capacity to speak truth in love one to another, to keep holding each other tenderly, and to rise up from whatever takes us low. I’m grateful to Stephanie for reminding us that it is possible to take up our cross daily, follow Jesus into a world of suffering and death, and still find rest in Jesus the Christ.

       Possible, but not easy. And more necessary than we would like to admit. It’s challenging to let rest and suffering, life and death, quietness and anger share space inside us. They compete for space inside our bodies. That’s what James was addressing when he spoke about the tongue: the tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. 

    It’s so challenging that we don’t always want to choose the way of wisdom. But we must do it anyway. Few things matter more. Yes, God is gracious with us. But abandoning wisdom has consequences. Proverbs warns us, because they have ignored all my counsel, therefore, they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. Consequences are inherent in folly.

       James Baldwin was another wise soul who learned this. He was filled with rage about racism in America. He was also angry with his stepfather for the abuse he had to endure at his hands and tongue. He struggled to find the space to be otherwise …the hatred that consumed his stepfather threatened to consume him… [Yet] no matter how much David Baldwin frightened his stepson, he was the victim of America’s lie. He died believing, tragically, what white America said about him. Jimmy understood that. He also knew that hating his stepfather only imprisoned him. He had to leave that hate behind and confront his pain and trauma, if he was ever to truly be free. Baldwin’s own life experience led him to conclude: one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain. (Gaude, p. 35-36)

       William Sloan Coffin might have been describing James Baldwin when he described this both/and nature of wisdom: A wise person accepts the challenge of the darkness and develops a catlike ability to see at night. Such a person perceives that good and evil have an incestuous relationship; that nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, and nothing is more difficult than to understand him. It is of course emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that righteousness that nourishes itself in the blood of sinners. But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can also be spiritually devastating. And it is spiritually devastating to claim more light than is shed by God upon the human situation and to project a brief, narrow vision of life as eternal truth. Life doesn’t sit around to have its portrait painted, and besides, who could ever catch its shimmering depths? (Credo, p.128)

       It’s easy to point the finger at those whose anger leads them to destructive actions and policies- even at those who started a war in Afghanistan . Liberals see conservatives doing this, and conservatives see liberals doing it. But all of us do it. Like Peter confronting Jesus about the impossibility of the Messiah suffering, we want it to be simpler than that. Jesus had to demonstrate that it’s not either rest or suffering, life or death, peace or anger. It’s always both/and. The late Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood understood this challenge. In many areas, the gospel, instead of taking away peoples’ burdens, actually adds to them. Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of problems. (Dr. Peter Marty, “Christ and Everything Else Thrown in”)

       True wisdom, then, is simple but not simplistic, questioning but not cynical, and faces death to discover life. It integrates and is congruent with the deepest experiences of our life, which are not always comforting or safe, but can be joyful and meaningful. Let’s follow true wisdom.