Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Headphones in, listening to music on a walk through my neighborhood the other day, I suddenly realized I’d been hearing a song lyric incorrectly. Has that ever happened to you? You’re singing along, either out loud or in your head, and your brain substitutes words it thinks it hears for the words being sung by the artist? The line I’d heard before in the song was: “I pray for wisdom and understanding” – this already piqued my interest, since I’m preaching on the wisdom books of the Bible this spring. But hearing the song again I realized the line was actually: “wisdom and overstanding.” Naturally I looked up the word as soon as I got home to see if others use it too. And it turns out they do. (Maybe you already knew this. It was new to me.) The term overstanding as it comes from Caribbean and African American cultures conveys not just a working knowledge of something but a far deeper, richer understanding. To overstand, in other words, means not just to have gathered a certain amount of information about a subject but to really get it, to see the big picture. I love that. I wonder if the sages who wrote the book of Proverbs were trying, in a sense, to encourage overstanding in their students, too.
I say this because the Proverbs is, among other things, a book about choices. Wise teachers offer their students advice on hundreds of different topics, but most of them are ultimately about choosing righteousness over wickedness, wisdom over foolishness. And often these choices are presented as different ways or paths. In Proverbs, the road of life is full of forks, and wisdom is about knowing which direction to go in each situation. So we find in the vocabulary of Proverbs words having to do with guidance, navigation, steering as well as words for paths and roads and so on. These kinds of words were all over today’s Scripture lesson. Listen again to a few excerpts from that passage, this time from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Proverbs 4 in The Message:
Dear friend, take my advice; it will add years to your life. I’m writing out clear directions to Wisdom Way, I’m drawing a map to Righteous Road. I don’t want you ending up in blind alleys, or wasting time making wrong turns. . . Don’t take Wicked Bypass; don’t so much as set foot on that road. Stay clear of it; give it a wide berth. Make a detour and be on your way. . .
The ways of right-living people glow with light; the longer they live, the brighter they shine. But the road of wrongdoing gets darker and darker—travelers can’t see a thing… Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions. Watch your step, and the road will stretch out smooth before you. Look neither right nor left; leave evil in the dust. (Prov 4:10ff)
Sometimes life does seem to be all about making choices. Some of them trivial – what to have for dinner, what color shirt to buy. Others with more lasting consequences—like which career to pursue, or when or whether to marry. We make choices every day of our lives – how we spend our time, what we purchase, how we vote. And in some cases, we sense we are making a really significant choice. So we ask ourselves, our friends, wise mentors, if we have them: which path is likely to end in success, and which in failure? Which path will be life-giving, and which one draining? Which choice is the smart choice? Which way is the way of wisdom?
It’s worth noting that not everyone has as many alternatives available to them as most of us do. What privilege to live a life full of decision making rather than always being caught up in circumstances beyond one’s control. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to remember that it could be otherwise. How many of our fellow children of God long for the kinds of choices we find ourselves able to make every single day?
For those of us who do find ourselves making plenty of choices, some are easier than others. Sometimes the road forks, and the way of folly is dark and creepy and overgrown and the way of wisdom is clearly marked with brightly colored signs and a yellow brick road. Those are the clearer choices between right and wrong. But sometimes the road forks and each path could be a way of wisdom – it all depends on who’s walking the path, and when, which way they should go. The right path for me to take might not be the right path for you to take. The right path for me to take today might not be the right path for me to take a year from now, or next week.
Certainly, some things are true always and everywhere. The Bible is quite clear, for instance, that wisdom is always better than folly, and righteousness is always better than wickedness, and we are always, always to remember our place before God. But some pieces of wisdom simply don’t apply in every situation. So we need to apply wisdom to the task of determining which good word to apply when. Your Session members praying faithfully for months now about returning to the church building for worship, wrestling with the many dynamics at play in that decision, is an example of trying to seek God’s wisdom when the path is less clear. It isn’t a question that has a single correct answer for all congregations everywhere. We have to determine what is the right path for this specific situation and these specific people.
As I mentioned last week, we are doing some longer term discernment work as a congregation these days, too. Think about these photos I held up for the kids during children’s time today. In a sense that’s us as a whole church right now, looking out at a range of possible paths, potentially poised to make some exciting choices. In a season in which we’ve already been pivoting and adapting to changing circumstances, which is the path we’re called to take next into our future as a church? What is the particular road God has in mind for us? We’ll be praying for God’s wisdom and insight to guide us, and we’ll be partnering with other congregations in our presbytery who can help us listen for God’s direction.
We’ll be invited to bring yet other voices into the conversation as well. We who have been around MPC a while probably have a decent understanding of our congregation from within, but what would it mean to ask neighbors and community partners who they think we are as a church, what theyfeel our purpose is, or our role in the neighborhood? We’re going to take our time with this process, so it may be a little while until we work out the details of how to do this. But just to get the creative juices flowing, one of our presbytery staff challenged some of us last week with a wild thought. What if a church brought together community partners and other neighbors outside our congregation and asked them to weigh in on an annual church budget? Think about that shift in perspective. Granted, there’s a lot of pragmatic stuff in a church budget that will naturally make more sense from the inside. But might there also be some bigger picture overstanding we church folks are missing, we who have been looking at the same budget models for years? At the very least, it makes you think, doesn’t it?
However we proceed through this process of discernment, whatever the logistics of who we draw into conversation and how we do so, we’ll be praying for God’s direction. Borrowing the words of today’s text from Proverbs, we’ll be asking God to lead us in “the way of wisdom,” that “when [we] walk, [our] step will not be hampered; and if [we] run, [we] will not stumble.” If there are paths that would lead us astray, may we have the sense to “turn away” and “pass on.” May God turn a bright spotlight on the paths we should take, so they “shine brighter and brighter.” May God “keep straight the path of [our] feet, [that] all [our] ways will be sure.” (Proverbs 4:10-27)
It can be a little daunting to be faced with as many choices as life puts in front of us, both as individuals and as communities, because we can’t always know how things will turn out in the end. In the movies, people sometimes get a chance to sneak a peek at the road-not-taken. In the real world, of course, we don’t get those opportunities. We can only do our best to imagine where each path will take us, when we’re faced with a decision. Ultimately we have to make a choice and step out in faith.
Again, it can be instructive to remember the privilege it is to be able to choose how our life unfolds. It could be otherwise. It can also keep us from getting overwhelmed by the complexity of decisions before us to remember we have more than a collection of useful words of wisdom in Scripture, more than a guidebook full of directions – we have the promise of a divine Companion.
As we read elsewhere in Proverbs, if we trust in the Lord with all our hearts, God will be there to direct our paths. (Prov 3:5-6). Both for each of us as individuals and for whole communities, life can be complicated, with all kinds of choices in front of us. But we can step out in confidence and hope knowing that we never face life’s decisions alone. We walk together along life’s paths, and we walk with God.
Thanks be to the Giver of wisdom and overstanding for calling us forward, providing us with travelling companions, and accompanying us on our way. Amen.
 “Country Road” as sung by Paula Fuga & Jack Johnson, see for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QIJBOu_t_E