“Hungry for Wisdom”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
19 August, 2018
“You are what you eat”, so the saying goes. It’s a rather oversimplified sentiment in some respects, of course—especially if you consider that those of us with substantial a “sweet tooth” aren’t necessarily so sweet an hour or two after our last sugar binge.
But the aphorism gestures toward the more reliable truth that what we spend time doing or consuming—mentally, spiritually, as much as physically—will shape the character or sort of person we become. Whatever we invest our time, abilities, and money in—these will show what we value, where our deepest commitments lie. Jesus’ wisdom put it this way, “Wherever your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
As many of you already know, the first thing I did on my summer vacation (along with Joel, Finny and Eli, and my mother, my seven siblings, their spouses, and their children) was go on an Alaskan Disney cruise. There were 29 of us in all—we practically took up an entire wing of the ship, and multiple tables at dinnertime.
I’ll be honest: before we departed, I wasn’t really sure what I thought about the cruise—I mean, it was a Disney cruise ship. Was it going to be twee, cheesy, over-the-top princesses and awkward encounters with life-sized cartoon characters? Nonstop saccharine musical tracks encouraging us to, “Be our guest, be our guest, put our service to the test; tie your napkin ‘round your neck, Cherie, and we’ll provide the rest”), or “Whistle while we worked” (by which I mean eat—because eating was our chief exercise that week), or should we just “Let It Go, let it go!”?
Seriously, though, it was wonderful. The trip was an extravagant gift from my mother to all of her children and grandchildren. There’s no question that the treasure—her precious time, thought, and money—she put into bringing all of us together for that week (it was at least a year in the planning!) displayed to all of us that her heart, spirit, and prayers are very much with her family.
With all the feasting we did, I couldn’t help but notice the hungry people on board. I’m talking about manifestations of spiritual hunger, of course, as physical starvation was hardly an issue for any of the tourists on the ship. Despite all the food, I nonetheless observed a good deal of hunger. Kids hungry for meaningful attention from parents or grandparents. Husbands and wives hungry for an experience of the deep connection and romance they once shared, but had somehow lost amidst the demands of parenting, caregiving, and work. Lots of people clearly hungry for something they couldn’t name, aware of a gnawing emptiness despite the cluttered pile of plates and drained glasses in front of them.
The entertainment was fantastic: Broadway-level talent in their live productions every evening; endless movies; Bingo; magic, comedy, live game-show games open to anyone; opportunities to meet your favorite Disney characters for a chat and an autograph; and informational talks about everything from salmon to gemstones to timeshares to Ketogenic dieting, to how to become a cartoon artist…the list went on and on. And yet, even with all of that to choose from and take in, it was impossible to miss the look of hunger and emptiness in so many faces wandering around that smorgasbord.
Truth be told, it wasn’t so different from the faces you can see at the Pheasant Lane Mall, or pick a restaurant or bar, or any other place where people congregate looking for things to fill the aching void. And if I’m really honest, I can admit that I recognized the look of hunger because I’ve felt it myself at various times in my life.
What is it that we’re craving? And how can we find the lasting satisfaction, the soul nourishment, so many of us feel famished for? Our scripture lessons this morning both point toward answers.
Our first lesson came from the Book of Proverbs. We don’t often have lectionary texts assigned from the Proverbs, so when we follow the Revised Common Lectionary we wind up missing out on a lot of really good, rich soul food. I highly recommend a complete reading of it—maybe read a chapter each day for a month: there are 31 of them (and they’re not long), so that makes it easy. You’ll be amazed by the wisdom and insights you discover there.
The first eight chapters of Proverbs describe a rivalry between two women—Wisdom and Folly. Dame Wisdom is portrayed as God’s consort and companion. In Chapter 8, we read that the LORD created Wisdom at the beginning of his work, the first of God’s acts of long ago. “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth”, Wisdom tells us, “when [God] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Prov. 8:25-31)
“And now, my children,” she continues, “listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways . . . Happy is the one who listens to me . . . for whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death.” (Prov. 8:32-36) That’s our introduction to Dame Wisdom.
Ms. Folly, on the other hand, is portrayed as a noisy, brazen character who’s always making promises she can’t keep. Folly is the one who swears she can make your fantasies a reality. She’s the one whose clothes are deliberately two sizes too small, whose makeup is too heavy, whose perfume you can smell from down the road. She’ll invite you to dinner, tempting you with all the tasty smells of Kentucky Fried Chicken, but she’ll never tell you that what she serves up invariably gives you heartburn, and will leave you feeling like it never actually hit your stomach.
She’s a bit like a female version of Sweeny Todd—that horrible barber (barbaric) character in the macabre musical of the same name, who entices people to come to his barbershop with smooth talk, charming songs and irresistible promises. But as soon as he gets them into his barber’s chair, well, let’s just say . . . he doesn’t only cut their hair. And the once-struggling mincemeat pie business downstairs undergoes a mysterious revival.
Like the enticements that draw customers to Sweeny Todd’s barbershop chair, Dame Folly is alluring—but ultimately deadly. Listen to the verses a little bit beyond our lectionary reading this morning—starting at Proverbs 9:13, we read about Folly’s invitation and promise: “The foolish woman [Folly] is loud,” it says; “she is ignorant and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’ And to those without sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” (Prov. 9:13-18)
Secret bread and stolen water may sound just naughty enough to be exciting, especially when fun-loving Ms. Folly is doing the inviting. But as we heard in our first lesson this morning, Dame Wisdom offers far more than just a fast-food meal.
The first verse told us that, “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.” In other words, she’s worked hard on the solid construction of her home—it’s got seven pillars (seven is the Jewish number of completion, perfection), which the formidable woman hewed herself. Furthermore, she’s taken time in her preparation—personally butchering the livestock for the meal, mixing her own wine, and setting her table. She’s been deeply involved in every last part of laying on this feast. “Come,” she calls, “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” In other words, no illicit goods here; everything you’ll receive from my table is substantial, and legit. There will never be cause for regret, no implication in questionable activities. (Prov. 9:5-6)
Our Epistle lesson moves us from the dining table to actually living by the nourishment of Wisdom’s feast. In her final words to us this morning, Dame Wisdom encouraged us to, “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Prov. 9:6)
Almost as though he was picking up where she left off, the apostle Paul writes, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”(Eph. 5:15)
Paul was writing to an audience who were deeply conflicted: they wanted to discuss their thoughts, beliefs, and convictions—but they knew that to do so risked alienation by family and friends, community members they’d known for much or all of their life. Government corruption was rife, and they were being ruled by an increasingly oppressive, fearful and fearsome regime. People in positions of political and religious trust were routinely abusing their power for personal gain, and no one knew whom to place their confidence in, but even God’s faithful people wanted to believe that someone in leadership was trustworthy. The threat of war was constantly lurking, and tribalism was rampant—along with the accompanying fear and loathing for those unlike themselves.
In short, although the specifics and the cast of characters were different, the spiritual and relational dynamics were quite similar to our world today. (People have recognized this in almost every generation, by the way.) Paul understood that the temptation under such circumstances is to just numb ourselves, to escape the worries of the mind with a bit of tipple, to get a little drunk . . . which is why he says, don’t do it. “So do not be foolish,” he writes—don’t be taken in by the wiles of Dame Folly—“but [instead] understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” as you worship—“sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks to God . . . at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 5:17-20) Staying fully engaged in our relationship with God through regular worship and learning, through ongoing faith formation in community—this is what will feed our deepest hunger, more surely than overindulging in wine or electronic diversions or entertainment, whatever other drug we might find to deaden our awareness to the pain of life’s complexity.
Friends, although it may seem a bit over-the-top to some of you, to declare the days we live in as “evil”, there’s no denying that they’re complicated and often confusing. We, no less than those in Paul’s original audience, are susceptible to powers and influences that can cloud our vision and deceive us into thinking wrongly—so many enticing, distracting, entertaining, mind-numbing options to choose from! So, Paul’s advice throughout his letter to stay connected to a well-defined Christian community, to engage in regular worship, educate ourselves in the church’s tradition, and invite the indwelling of the Spirit—all of these suggestions represent items on the smorgasbord available to us as people of faith in search of Wisdom’s ways and soul-nourishing sustenance.
As we move toward the end of summer, that time when most of us deliberately allow ourselves some extra time and space to unwind and unplug, possibly providing room to reflect, now might be a good time to ask: Am I pursuing the life of wisdom, or am I squandering my life on that which doesn’t satisfy?
And as our church prepares to engage in a new program year, we might ask ourselves collectively: Are we embodying a mature faith—a strong, healthy faith that expresses our trust in God and our discernment of God’s wisdom and leading us forward? Or are we expressing our fear of change, or of the future, or of being asked move beyond our comfort zones?
What choices will we make, what actions might we take, to help us move in the direction we know will draw us to the feast that’s been set for us at Wisdom’s table—the feast that Jesus Christ himself presides over and invites us to enjoy with him? And how will we share the bounty of this banquet with everyone who comes seeking a place of refuge, welcome, and food for their souls?