I’m not dead, in case you were curious. Last week was the week between my two weeks at camp, and contained all the things that needed to get done between being away from regularly-scheduled work for nearly all of July. Meetings, meetings and more meetings. And an ordination (yay!) and More meetings.
So Sunday was nearly a relief. I was back again at the Friendly Local ELCA parish, where I forgot no major portion of the liturgy, and actually recognized the setting! (they have 10 in the new book. This seems excessive to me, especially since they aren’t really mix-and-match, like ours).
Here’s what I said.
July 3, 2011
Proper 9, Ordinary Time. Year A
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
What is the wisest thing you’ve ever heard? Do you think of catchy needlepoint sampler sayings, or sentiments from greeting cards? Or quips from bumper stickers? Quotes from sermons, dare I hope?
Or do you remember the voice of your mother, your grandfather, your neighbor down the street, making some sage comment about life?
What is it that catches our ear, makes us stop and say, “that right there, that’s worth listening to. That’s wisdom.”?
For the people of Jesus’s day, wisdom meant something pretty specific. It wasn’t just something someone says that sounded halfway smart. Wisdom was an entire theological tradition within Israelite religion, wherein it was believed that by studying the world, nature, people, the sun, the moon, etc, you could learn to understand God, since God set all these things in motion in the first place. Wisdom wasn’t just being smart– it was coming close to God through understanding.
It’s this wisdom tradition within Judaism that gives us several books in the OT: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and several in the Apocrypha. In these books, the idea of wisdom, this powerful understanding, is personified. Wisdom is depicted as a woman who beckons and encourages seekers to look for her, and find her, so that she might lead them to God. Check out Proverbs 8: wisdom personified says, “to you, oh people, I call, and my call is to all who live…the Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.
35 For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
Some gorgeous stuff in the murky corners of the Old Testament, huh?
So this is wisdom. The joyous wisdom that delights in the creation of God, and the human race, and gleefully brings humanity closer to God.
I mention all this, because in the gospel for today, Jesus begins by disparaging the crowd for refusing to listen to either John the Baptist or himself, no matter what they do. And he uses the image of children playing games in the marketplace– first playing wedding, and then funeral. (this is common in lots of different parts of the world for kids to act out wedding ceremonies as a game, as well as act out funerals. People died a lot back then).
No matter what we did, he says, you wouldn’t play along. John was too strict, so he has a demon. Jesus is too lax, so he must be a glutton and drunkard, and all of you should be sure to remember this passage, because it sure comes in handy the next time you have to have a proof-txt battle with someone.
No matter what we did, he says, you couldn’t join the game.
But it’s ok, because wisdom is justified by her fruits.
And throughout the prayer that follows, Jesus, the Son, becomes the one who can show best what the Father is up to. Jesus becomes that embodiment of joyful, freeing, knowledge. For the hearers, Jesus becomes that sought-after wisdom.
Which causes me to wonder: in our lives as Christians, is this the picture of Jesus that we present to the world? Is the Jesus that we tell the world about a Jesus of figure of joy, of comfort, someone who can talk freely about the games of children,
who, we can picture, rejoices in the inhabited world, and delights in the human race? Is our Jesus a figure of wisdom?
I came home the other day to find a tract on my front door from one of the local storefront churches. On it was a question: “if you died right now, can you be sure you’re going to heaven?”. Below that was the classic, dante’s inferno type picture of hell burning away, as if to suggest that the writers of this pamphlet did not share my confidence.
Inside was the usual– we’ve all sinned, which made God mad, so you should say the sinner’s prayer, and then you too can go to heaven. Oh, and please come to church on Sunday!
And it made me wonder, what sort of Jesus, what sort of God does this sort of thing show people?
We are in the business of the gospel, we are in the business of good news. And good news should sound….good. It should sound joyful. Good news should sound like Jesus does– come to me all who are heavy laden and I will refresh you.
But good news is hard to hear, if not impossible, when it comes with a threat. When it comes presented with anger and condemnation. When it comes stripped of comfort and joy and wisdom at all. We in the church so frequently forget that our news is good. That Jesus is joyful. And delights in humanity, And comes to give us comfort. Anything that detracts from that central truth of who Christ is needs to take a back seat.
From somewhere, maybe, we got the impression that more people would listen if we just scared them out of their wits. But this isn’t working, and what’s worse, it clouds the good news. It’s hard to believe that Jesus wants to comfort and console if he’s depicted as a scary bouncer at the gates of heaven.
We’ve spent years selling ourselves short. We’ve spent a long time telling ourselves and the rest of the world that Christianity is an extremely scary, and serious business, with little room for joy, and mirth and delight.
Whether the world admits it or not, it has a hunger for good news. Too long, it has only heard of a God of anger, wrath and fear. Our world longs for exactly what we already know, the good news we have to share.
The world needs to hear of the Jesus who calls us to sing and dance, and who calls to bring us comfort from our burdens, not to add to them.
So remember the good news you have to share. Remember that it is good news, not frightening, not angry, not hateful. This is the news the world so longs for.
So in everything you do, and say, and are, remember to do it in the name of the Jesus of comfort and love and wisdom, who came to share our burdens. Maybe you’ll get called names, get called a glutton, a drunkard, a weirdo. But someone needs to hear words of comfort and love and grace, and you’re just the one to speak them.
This week: back at Chapel Rock, for an actual camp session with actual campers, opposed to training the counselors.
I do promise, though, another Rob Bell post before the week is over, however. I promise, I promise.
And one final note: one thing among many I learned this week: it is significantly harder to preach on Wisdom when you are speaking to a congregation that does not consider the Apocrypha to be canon. (imagine the NBC PSA music playing).