A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 25 August 2019- 10:30am- 10 After Trinity
Ecclesiasticus 1: 1-30 and Matthew 11: 16-30
“Where then does wisdom come from?” This ancient question from the book of Job, one of the many books of the Bible that we call wisdom literature, has echoed down the centuries. Both the readings we’ve heard this morning, from Ecclesiasticus and Matthew’s Gospel- also in the genre of wisdom literature- give us answers. And yet the question of where wisdom can be found has never felt more pressing and relevant.
Whichever side of the Brexit divide we find ourselves on, we can probably all agree that the quality of wisdom feels in short supply in our political debates. And wisdom feels lacking in other spheres too.
This last week, I was reading about the well-known mathematician Hannah Fry, who will give the Royal Institution Christmas lectures this year. In her view, mathematicians, computer engineers and scientists should take a Hippocratic oath to protect the public from powerful new technologies they have developed in laboratories and tech firms, an ethical pledge like that taken by doctors and other health care professionals that would commit them to think deeply about the possible applications of their work, compelling them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society. We know so much, and that rapidly advancing knowledge is vitally important, but it doesn’t follow that we know how to be wise in applying it.
On a smaller scale, I’ve been participating this week with others in interpretation workshops to help us know how to present the Cathedral and its treasures to those who will come in 2020, our anniversary year. Between the hundreds of guides and staff, clergy and volunteers, we have a lot of accumulated knowledge, but it requires a bit of insight to know how to apply it in a way that presents it well to visitors and that will have fresh appeal to them. We need wisdom.
Wisdom, then, is something more than knowledge. Sometimes it’s the voice of experience- I still remember my grandad laughing when my sister, aged about 9, told him he was like “a wise old bird”. Or sometimes, as in our Gospel reading, wisdom is the voice of a child: think of the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, speaking out on environmental issues and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wisdom can be ethical; it can be spiritual or practical, complex or simple. We search for it in the writings of the Dalai Lama or the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Like happiness, it’s one of those things that feels obvious once you’ve found it, but that all too often eludes our grasp.
If wisdom eludes us in the world, it can sometimes also feel absent in the church. In 15 years, of being ordained, I’ve never preached specifically on the theme of Wisdom, at least as it relates to the Wisdom tradition in the Scriptures. The corpus of books that constitute Wisdom is huge- Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and more, in the Old Testament; 1 Corinthians, James, the Gospels of Matthew and John are full of it in the New.
Then there’s a whole tradition of Wisdom books in the Apocrypha, from which our Old Testament lesson today is taken and whose beautiful words have been set to music by composers such as Philip Moore and our own director of music David Halls. Yet- like Proverbs and Job- these books rarely feature in the lectionary, the regular cycle of readings set for services. Wisdom is a title of God, yet only once a year in the Advent Antiphons do we really hear it used in our Liturgy: “O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,” we sing, “reaching from one end of the earth to the other mightily, and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.”
Wisdom, according to our Ecclesiasticus reading, is universal, present everywhere: from “the sand of the sea, the drops of rain, and the days of eternity” to “the height of heaven, the breadth of the earth”. Gendered female, hokhmah or Wisdom can be found in creation, yet at the same time, her depths can only be fully appreciated through an intimate and personal relationship with God. Humility, or the fear of the Lord- is referenced over 60 times in Ecclesiasticus- an attitude not of dread but of reverent awe before the holiness and otherness of God that leads to wisdom, binding the worshipper to God and locating Wisdom firmly within the traditions and attitudes of Israel and its people. Wisdom, for this author, is a basic orientation of life towards God, and is lavishly bestowed on those who love him, raining down knowledge and heightening the glory of those who hold her fast.
Well if Ecclesiasticus sees wisdom as a gift from God, another book of the Apocrypha, the Book of Wisdom, goes one stage further. Here Wisdom has divine status, viewed as a kind of person separate from but derived from God. Here, wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other (Wisdom 8:1). She sits beside God’s throne (Wisdom 9:4) and speaks, “from the mouth of the Lord”. She sees deeply, refusing to skate over the surface. Wisdom holds all things together (8:1); she “delivered Israel from a nation of oppressors” (10:15). The “love of Wisdom is the keeping of her laws” (6:18). To desire Wisdom is the utterly essential thing, the secret of all good leadership- “all who govern rightly” (Proverbs 8:16) do so through wisdom. A wise king prays for this divine attribute, not because Wisdom is everywhere, but because she comes from God and is of God.
Wisdom is an aspect of God that is intuitive and practical, embodied and dynamic and patiently active in the world. Wisdom is relational; creating and sustaining the earth and impressing on us the responsibility to do the same, to use the breath-taking scientific and technological knowledge we have developed wisely, for good and not for harm.
Where then should we seek Wisdom? Matthew, of all the Gospel writers, depicts Jesus as Wisdom’s child, delivering the oppressed, befriending the outcast. Much of what Matthew says in his Gospel of Christ is the same as what the Old Testament texts said of Wisdom; teaching in wisdom modes (short distilled sayings; parables; reinterpretations of scripture), Jesus- in our Gospel this morning- criticises the current generation that has rejected him, in whose very being the up-side-down wisdom of the Kingdom of God resides- and by whose deeds Wisdom herself is vindicated. In Jesus we see Wisdom’s fulfilment, God’s inclusive care and compassion made concrete in his gentleness and humility, his preaching, lifestyle and relationships with others.
In her book on the wisdom tradition, She Who Is, the Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes that “The mystery of God, Holy Wisdom… is the dark radiance of love in solidarity with the struggle of denigrated persons…to… lay hold of their genuine human dignity and value”.
“Whenever the human project comes crashing down through systemic oppression,” she continues, “… or wherever the earth and its life-systems are being damaged or destroyed, there the pain and suffering and degradation do not necessarily have the last word. They are bounded by the livingness of [the] God [of wisdom] who gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist”.
Wisdom, she concludes, “accompanies the lost and defeated… on the journey to new, unimaginable life.”
So not just in Advent, then, Wisdom reminds us to be patient. God, in her extravagant and gentle Wisdom, is coming to bring comfort to the weary. May we be ready to love and to use every gift and resource at hand in the service of compassion, and we too shall enter the joy and unimaginable life of the Wisdom of God.