Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I’ve long been interested in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible – particularly the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes – but I find I’m approaching them in a different way this time around.
In part, I suppose, because my own life has changed substantially since I first taught these books 25 or so years ago. I remember conveying at the time that the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible is some of the most ecumenical in all of Scripture – proverbs, for instance, being something many Ancient Near Eastern cultures shared. But my primary interest back then was a theology of rewards and punishments and how it varies across the three wisdom books. In Proverbs it’s all fairly straightforward: the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Job and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, highlight painful exceptions to that rule, telling the truth about situations where the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to get away with murder. The raw honesty of Job and the matter-of-factness of Ecclesiastes appealed to me greatly and I’ve leaned into both in my preaching and in pastoral care over the years. We’ll come back to some of this later in the series.
But it was really that inclusive nature of the Old Testament Wisdom books that drew me in this time. Biblical wisdom literature is in some ways the easiest to translate for those outside the culture of the Church. Perhaps more than any other portion of the Old Testament, it’s a helpful basis for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue because its focus is less narrowly Israelite. It repeatedly identifies God as Creator of the whole world and is fascinated with all aspects of the created order. In addition to universal human questions about innocent suffering, Wisdom also deals with far more mundane subjects that we all share in common: how to get along on the job, how to raise our kids, how to respect our parents. What we find, by and large, are the kinds of insights our neighbors could get behind. Wisdom with the potential to build bridges. And as we’ll see, particularly in Proverbs, a lot of it is wisdom learned in community, too – the insights of parents and grandparents, schoolteachers and their students. We’ll find the kind of observations shared across dinner tables and between neighbors over a backyard fence.
I’m also approaching the Wisdom Literature of the Bible differently this year because of a new program we’ve begun recently through our presbytery. Representatives from our congregation, in a cohort with eleven other churches in our area, have begun a deep dive into what it means to be invested and engaged in our communities in transformative ways. As part of this Thriving Congregations program, we’ll be seeking out conversations with our neighbors and learning from their insights.
More often in the past, churches like ours have done our discernment work in what Rev. Tali Hairston calls a “holy huddle.” We gather together our church officers, for instance, and ask – how should we be reaching out to our neighbors? And we can have some meaningful discussions about that; I’ve been part of plenty of those conversations here at MPC over the years. Our fellow churches around the presbytery have done these kinds of exercises many times too. It’s a familiar strategy. But why have we so often asked ourselves questions about community engagement in isolation from the very neighbors with whom we’re trying to connect? What could it look like to learn directly from and with our neighbors, to make use of that shared wisdom?
The guiding principle is simply that we in the church don’t know all of the things worth knowing about our communities. It seems so obvious once someone points it out to us, right? If we’ve been talking mostly to the small subset of voices in our own church family about our purpose and relevance as a church, or if we’ve been listening primarily to neighbors who look like us and sound like us and who would already feel completely at home in our church, we’re missing out on a whole lot of things we need to know to engage more fully as disciples of Jesus in our neighborhood. There are other teachers we should be seeking out. The communities around us have valuable insights to share. After all, if God is actively present always and everywhere, God is perfectly capable of speaking and working outside of the Church. Why wouldn’t other voices be able to convey God’s wisdom?
If you think about it, as Christians we’re always learning from sources outside the Church. We learn from schoolteachers and classmates and work colleagues. From books and articles and podcasts and television programs. And heaven knows this year we’ve learned a whole lot this past year from Dr. Fauci and the CDC. We bring with us when we gather as a Church the knowledge that comes from different upbringings and places and professions. There are insights that come from our children and youth, and wisdom that comes with the age and experience of our older members, too.
We also know we can only continue to learn and grow if we don’t become an echo chamber listening only to ourselves. This is one of the great things about partnering with other churches in our presbytery – we can learn from their experiences, their best practices, their mistakes, too, and they can learn from ours. This is why it enriches our understanding of what it means to be the Church when we visit other congregations – even online as we’ve done this year – and visit with people of faith from other traditions as well, as we’ve done in years past on mosque and synagogue visits.
You see, we’ve been community-based learners all along, it’s just a question of how we’ve defined community and what kind of learning we’ve been after. What kinds of teachers and mentors have we sought out? How similar are their life experiences to our own? How might that be limiting what we’re in a position to learn?
We’ve also been learning a whole lot over the past year, especially, about sources we’ve leaned on in the past that have had a vested interest in our learning things a certain way. History books, for instance: who else’s mind has been blown by the sheer number of things you were never taught in school about our country’s deeply embedded racism? For all I thought I knew, I’ve been both embarrassed and horrified at how much of the truth I was never exposed to before. And I’m grateful to those of you who’ve been sharing articles and videos and other information to help me correct this major deficit in my education. So we’ve already been learning again how to learn. We’ve been doing some of this work as a church family anyway. And I believe we’ll find that both the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible and the Community Based Learning we’ll be doing as part of our presbytery’s Thriving Congregations program will support us in those efforts.
Meanwhile today’s Scripture texts remind us where we need to start. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 1:7) Biblical Wisdom has as its starting point, its goal, its whole orientation, the fear of the Lord. It’s a saying that’s turns up quite a lot in Proverbs. The fear of the Lord is not a fear of divine punishment, mind you, but an appreciative awe of God, a respect for God, and an acknowledgement that God is the source of all things – including all the insights that guide the community. It’s a reminder that for all its down-to-earth practicality the Wisdom tradition remains deeply rooted in faith. Human understanding is limited; true wisdom is never possible apart from God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).
I’m also struck by the way that same verse concludes: “fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Perhaps you’ve encountered someone who seems to resist new information or be fearful of learning new things. But why wouldn’t we want to approach life with a growth mindset? Why wouldn’t we want to be lifelong learners? There is wisdom in admitting what we don’t know and doing our best to seek it out.
Incidentally, did you notice a familiar phrase a little earlier in that same text? A phrase you may have heard often recently, perhaps in the news, in your antiracism reading, or even in your workplace? Let me read it again: “for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity.” Justice and equity are words being used a lot these days, as well they should be, but for those of us who ground our faith in Scripture, they are by no means new. Our biblical God has required of us justice and equity from the start, offering us laws, prophets, and wisdom writings in the Hebrew Bible to teach these fundamental lessons, reinforcing those same lessons in gospel and letter form in the New Testament. Justice and equity are things many of our neighbors care deeply about too. So another point of connection. Another bridge building gift.
I’m realizing now, looking back at wisdom texts I’ve been reading for years, that I’ve generally heard them addressing me as an individual. I’d thought the proverbs we’ll be studying over the next few weeks, for instance, were intended to offer me personally wisdom and instruction, insight and knowledge, and to offer the same for you and for other individuals of faith. And certainly, that is part of their value. This time, though, I’m eager to discover what they have to say to us as a congregation of learners, as we seek wisdom from and with the larger communities in which we’ve been placed.
As we begin that journey together, I pray the words of this morning’s texts from Proverbs will ring true for us. May we recognize the folly in pretending we know all we need to know and rejecting new sources of truth. May we instead be quick to admit how much we have to learn. May we seek out wisdom in a way that leads us to concrete acts of righteousness, justice, and equity. And may we find the insights we gather from our neighbors to be precious, and God-given, leading us into paths of life. Amen.