Weekly preaching September 12, 2021

September 7th, 2021
Available from Cokesbury

Proverbs 1:20-33. Previously I spoke of my dream of preaching a series on Proverbs. As people navigate what they perceive as boundaries between sacred and secular, it’s intriguing that Proverbs appears to teach about secular things, while the sacred was covered by priests, temple, sacrifice. Wisdom understands that nothing is merely secular; everything is sacred. God made and cares about everything. What we do with our pots and pans, whether you step on a worm, the next check you write, or a tree in your backyard: all are part of God’s world, all require some patient attention from the spiritually attuned. John Wesley’s great gift to Christendom is what he called “practical divinity.”

Derek Kidner described Proverbs well:

“Its function in Scripture is to put godliness into working clothes; to name business and society as spheres in which we are to acquit ourselves with credit to our Lord, and in which we are to look for his training . . . There are details of character small enough to escape the mesh of the Law and the broadsides of the Prophets.” Wisdom is comprehensive discipleship.

Our text is the key in the nine-chapter overture to the book, which sets the pithy sayings of Proverbs 10-22 in rich context, originating with God, intimately interwoven into the life of faith. Alternating voices, parent with child, then the Wise Woman in the street, back home, then to a more wily, dangerous Woman in the street, back to the family, before the Wise Woman has her final say. Wisdom is all over family life, ants crawling in the yard, and also the street, the workplace, shopping, friendship, strangers, politics, and real dangers to body and soul.

Street dangers? Ask a parent of an adolescent, any anybody with a pulse. Out there we encounter real danger, delusion, the very real, possibility that poor choices will be made, that wisdom will be frittered away or flat-out rejected. This is the drama of the inner life. Real, daily life with God is a thousand little choices in hundreds of reenacted scenes. Are you going on to perfection? Or just sliding by, hoping God isn’t interested in business, romance, or friendship, or that all will be forgiven—so why risk becoming fastidious?

“Wisdom shouts.” Wisdom isn’t inaudible. She’s like a street preacher or a peddler, but with holy wares. If Proverbs fretted over the competing racket in the world, how much harder is it for us today to hear Wisdom’s voice above the din? Some inner quiet, and an attentive ear are required.

Wisdom asks “How long?” Usually this question, frequently occurring in the Psalms, is voiced toward God by those puzzled by God’s seeming absence. How often is our sense of God’s absence a predictable outcome of a life that has “paid no attention” to Wisdom? Tone of voice is hard to determine in Scripture. “They didn’t want my advice”: is Wisdom annoyed, or disgusted? Or is there a plaintive pain in her voice?

Her shouts in the public square remind us of the origins of Methodism, where the Wesleys took the gospel out of the churches and into the streets and factories. We also recall that Jesus—“the foolishness of God . . . wiser than human wisdom”—was executed on a wide street for all to see; his voice still calls to us, “How long will . . . mockers hold their mocking dear? . . . I invited you, but you rejected me.”

Psalm 19 is inviting for a sermon. We begin with Creation, big creation, that is from 15 billion years ago, inviting us to be in awe, not because it’s photogenic but because it reveals God’s mind and heart. There’s music in the air… ancient people believed the stars left music in their wake as they streamed across the sky. Science says No (except for radio noise), but then we miss the awe, the joy. Paired quite naturally with this is the psalm’s pleasure, sheer delight in the Instruction from God. Not a burden, not to make us chafe, but the marvelous gift of the God who created so we then can be created, re-created as beautiful people in sync with God’s lovely, sweet ways in the world.

Let's explore this healthy, joyful approach to the Teaching from Moses, leading off with Zora Neale Hurston's great capture of the moment Moses came down from Sinai with the tablets:
"Moses lifted the freshly chiseled tablets of stone in his hands and gazed down the mountain to where Israel waited. He knew a great exultation. Now men could be free. They had something of the essence of divinity. They had the chart and compass of behavior. They need not stumble into blind ways and injure themselves. This was bigger than Israel. Israel could be a heaven for all men forever, by these sacred stones. With flakes of light still clinging to his face, Moses turned to where Joshua waited for him. Joshua, I have laws!"

And then on being "perfect," consider this lovely reflection from Kathleen Norris. She was asked by a priest if she'd pray for him. She fretted about whether she could do this well or not:

"I realized that was my pride speaking, the old perfectionism that’s dogged me since I was a child. Well, or badly was beside the point. Of course I could pray, and I did. Perfectionism is one of the scariest words I know. It is a marked characteristic of American culture, a serious psychological affliction that makes people too timid to take risks and causes them to suffer when, although they’ve done the best they can, their efforts fall short of some imaginary standard. ‘Perfect’ isn’t about striving for impossible goals. It is taken from a Latin word meaning ‘complete, entire, full-grown.’ To those who originally heard it, the word conveyed ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’"

James 3:1-12 is a scary text for the clergy. We’re judged against some higher standard. We might push back against laity who think so. They have a biblical point – although they might veer into irrelevancies. We are called to lead, not just by droning on up front in worship but in living a life that is interesting, and at least veering toward the holy. James’s word “perfect” in verse 2 is teleios in Greek, meaning mature, complete, not squeaky clean, mistake-free, unbroken. We clergy in the Methodist tradition promise at ordination that we will be going on to perfection. Not a flawless but a purposeful life and ministry direction. A wise old preacher once said “If you’re not going on to perfection, then where exactly are you headed?”

The image of the bit in the horse’s mouth illustrates, as Plato envisioned, the controlling of the passions in the opening sentences of The Phaedrus. It’s not tamping down our passions but directing them. If you’ve ridden horses, or driven a motorboat (the rudder image here also!), talk about that, how it’s not afflicting the horse or the boat but the only way in peace to move forward in a beautiful manner to some attractive destination.

St. Augustine humbles us: “The Lord wants gentle, compliant animals for his use. So, be the Lord’s beast. Be gentle. He sits on you. He controls you. Weakness is characteristic of you, but think who your rider is. A donkey’s colt you may be, but you are carrying Christ.”

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The genuinely scary small thing is, of course, the tongue. We’ll face an uphill battle persuading our people that how we talk, what we post to facebook, our chatter at a dinner or by the watercooler matters to God, and is our witness. It’s not mouthing sugary sweet things but asking if our words build up, are constructive, and in some way mirror the fruit of the Spirit. 

Richard Bauckham, commenting on this passage in 1998, was remarkably prescient about the sad, rancorous place we’ve found ourselves when it comes to that perilously fiery small thing, the tongue: “The best instance in which a contemporary concern approaches James’s moral interest in the tongue is that of the mass media, whose power to distort the truth and to do considerable harm to private persons, as well as exerting considerable influence on political events, for good or ill, has become more and more evident.”

Mark 8:27-38 is the axis on which the entire story of Jesus turns. If you’ve not preached well on this, you should… although I may go with Proverbs and James as I’ve covered this text quite a few times.   I would add these spot-on insightful renderings from Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Gospels: instead of “He spoke openly,” she has “He was giving this discourse with confident freedom.” Peter spoke “sternly” to him. Jesus then “castigated” Peter. And then her championship line: “If someone wants to follow behind me, let him renounce all claim to himself, pick up the stake he’ll be hung on, and follow me.” Boom. All spiritual sentimentality swept aside in a moment.

About the Author

James C. Howell

James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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