Sermon

Matthew 11:16, 25-30

Looking Around For Wisdom

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

This Third Sunday after Pentecost
features a gospel
where Jesus makes reference to wisdom.

Tomorrow is a great national holiday,
commonly called the Fourth of July,
whose official name is Independence Day.

This proximity of wisdom gospel
and national holiday
summons us to consider
the very practical question
of where wisdom can be found
in our society, our public endeavors,
and our personal lives.

May we ponder this practical question
with the help of the one God:
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel,
Jesus registers a complaint.
He finds the people around him to be childish
in how they respond to him and to John the Baptist.

John is a fearsome ascetic, a desert-dweller,
uncompromising in his demand
for righteous living
at every level of society.
People cannot stomach his austerity,
and so they turn from his message.

Jesus, on the other hand,
seems to them a party animal;
he lives and breathes audacious mercy
and keeps company with the disreputable.
People cannot stomach his freedom,
and so they turn from his message.

Yet, Jesus claims,
wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Or, as Luke’s version phrases it,
wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  1

The point seems to be
that despite their evident differences,
wisdom is at work in both Jesus and John,
and too bad for those
who do not recognize this.

The question then arises
of what is meant here by wisdom.

There are many references to wisdom
in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha,
and the New Testament.
It is a large concept
that encompasses a range of meanings.

For example,
the book known as the Wisdom of Solomon,
found in the Apocrypha,
provides a list of attributes of wisdom
that is sublime, yet also perplexing.
The list consists
of twenty-one attributes in all!

We are told how in wisdom
there is a spirit that is
intelligent,
holy,
unique,
manifold,
subtle,
mobile,
clear,
unpolluted,
distinct,
invulnerable,
loving the good,
keen,
irresistible,
beneficent,
humane,
steadfast,
sure,
free from anxiety,
all-powerful,
overseeing all,
and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.  2

Later in scripture,
in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians,
we hear in the opening chapter
that divine foolishness
is wiser than worldly wisdom,
that Christ crucified and risen
is the power of God
and the wisdom of God.

Five centuries later,
one of the greatest of all church buildings,
now a museum in Istanbul,
was consecrated under the name Hagia Sophia,
the Greek term for Holy Wisdom,
which is a title for Christ.
Perhaps some of us have seen
this outstanding example of Byzantine architecture
located beside the Bosporus,
the meeting place of Asia and Europe.

So Holy Wisdom is a title for Christ.
Wisdom is sublime, mysterious.
As gospel references suggest,
wisdom produces works,
results that occur in the world,
and wisdom bears children
in whom a lineage appears.

Much more could be said
about biblical and Christian understandings of wisdom.
And much is being said,
for in our time
interest in the topic flourishes.

But now I would like to consider
a practical application of all this.
Where does Wisdom wait for us
in our time and circumstances?

In developing this question,
I intend to be faithful
to biblical and Christian perspectives.
Yet I will invite us to be bold
as we read the world around us.

• Wisdom appears among people
who do not see conflict as ultimate or inevitable,
but work for reconciliation
even in circumstances that show little promise.

For Wisdom is not dualistic or adversarial.
Wisdom views diversity as enrichment,
but goes past that commonplace observation
to make the audacious claim
that finally everything belongs together,
conflict does not have the last word,
and reconciliation will prevail.

Wisdom speaks the truth,
but speaks always in love,
and appears where the atmosphere
is not reactive, but reflective.

Where in our time do we see
the children of Wisdom:
practical mystics,
agents of peace,
people who live unafraid?

• Wisdom is concerned
with something greater
than the satisfaction of our ego,
whether that ego is personal or collective.

Wisdom keeps beckoning us
to grow up,
to surpass our self-centeredness.

Another way to say this
is that Wisdom leads us in our travels
through early innocence
and later egocentric concern
to a new and final simplicity
where we see the world as it is,
whether again
or for the first time.

Where do we encounter
neighbors free from undue attachments,
stunning in their simplicity,
people whose presence announces
that in the end all will be well?

• Caution is required, however,
in any search for Wisdom.
Wisdom is elusive,
cannot be institutionalized,
cannot be legislated or guaranteed.
Because Wisdom is somehow divine,
it is sovereign and free.

Yet Wisdom does appear sometimes
in persons, in groups, in communities.
Those who manifest Wisdom
are not wise
because of the offices they hold
or popular acclaim,
but because they move among us
as servant leaders
and servant followers,
loyal to a reality beyond themselves
and greater than any human collective.

As we remain dissatisfied
with immature politicians,
well-dressed greedy people,
and shallow cultural icons,
where do we encounter public figures
and obscure citizens
who are refreshingly real,
people who make the world less a madhouse
and more a paradise?

• Wisdom is different from information.
It is different from knowledge.
No education or diploma
can certify wisdom.

Wisdom is not something we master,
like geography or arithmetic.
Instead, Wisdom masters us.
In each of her children,
Wisdom becomes uniquely and curiously personalized.
The church terms for these children
include prophets and saints,
yet Wisdom is also apparent
in lives lived elsewhere.

Our schools and universities and libraries
focus on knowledge and information.
Where then, in our time,
shall we go in search of Wisdom?
What are the places, the circumstances,
where people become human,
where the image of God that we are
is burnished like the brightest gold,
and our collective enterprise
grows more completely
into a clear mirror of Christ?

• In a society where denial
is a standard operating procedure,
where excuses outnumber confessions,
and forgiveness is rarely considered,
Wisdom issues a challenge,
a call to something authentic.

In place of denial,
Wisdom beckons us into lamentation and hope,
both of them
exercises in telling the truth.

Lamentation grieves over
all the horrors and follies
that overshadow human existence;
it dares to weep with those who weep.

Hope refuses to surrender,
it never gives up,
aware that God still works in the world
and makes a way where there is no way.

Wisdom stubbornly prevails
through lamentation’s long midnight
into the sweet sunrise of hope.
Wisdom does this every day.

We numb ourselves with illusions,
some sophisticated and expensive,
others as cheap as too much time
spent on electronic mindlessness.

But Wisdom begs us to grieve
and dares us to hope.

Tears sometimes
must be public and political,
lamenting slow-motion disasters
as well as sudden ones,
legal injustices
as well as violent crime.

Where are such tears,
what future do they water
and bring to blossom?

Where has denial been driven back
through cries of lamentation
and cheers of hope?

What is manifest at such a moment
is the gritty Wisdom
that comes from God.

Our reflection on Wisdom
can be summed up in five phrases
useful in the search for Wisdom.

• Everything belongs.
• We must arrive at a new simplicity.
• Servant leaders are the only ones worth having.
• Information and knowledge are not enough.
• Denial must be replaced by lamentation and hope.

Here is the face of Wisdom for today,
the face of the eternal Christ
turned toward us.

Will we seek out and accept Wisdom
in the midst of our circumstances?

Will we become children of Wisdom?

On our answer
hangs the future of this society.

1.  Luke 7:35.  Some manuscripts of Matthew use the phrase from Luke.

2.  Wisdom of Solomon 7:22.

3.  1 Corinthians 1:20-25.

4.  For example, see The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind: a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala, 2008) by Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest, teacher, and retreat and conference leader.  The perspective she sets forth is not new in an absolute sense, but represents a revival of ancient insights.

Copyright 2011 Charles Hoffacker.  Used by permission.