A sermon preached at the United Parish of Upton, MA on August 16, 2015
Proverbs 9:1-6 Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. . . .
Ephesians 5:15-20 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise. . .
What is it that makes life worth living? How do we find value in what we do with our lives? All of us would love to think that what we do makes a difference in the world, but that’s not where many of us end up. For every person whose research saves lives, there’s a pile of people processing mindless pots of paperwork for some faceless organization. And even in the most rewarding work in the world, there will be days when nothing goes the way we expect.
It’s not a new problem. From the very first, we’ve wondered what it is that makes life worthwhile. Is it money? How about a great car? A good-looking spouse? Any spouse? Well-behaved children? A powerful job? Fame?
If we followed that line of thought, we’d have to think that Tom Brady has the most worthwhile life of anyone in Massachusetts – all that money, nice car, beautiful wife, lovely children … and, oh yes, some problems with the NFL? Even the greatest sometimes have cause to wonder what’s worthwhile.
Back in the day, eons ago when the book of Proverbs was assembled, folks asked those same questions. They began to collect their answers, the words of wisdom which gave them comfort when everything else fell apart. They began to describe a way of life. Instead of getting, it focused on giving. Where we thought about life “me” first, it calls us to see the world as “we” oriented.
Folks began to collect ideas that worked for them.. . . the sorts of things that, today, would end up as Facebook memes: Trust in the Lord; raise your children in the way they should go; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; pride goes before destruction; a soft answer turns away wrath.
All those proverbs are built on a foundation of intentionality, a sense that the good life, the wise life, doesn’t happen by chance, but is the result of deliberate choice. There is a structure to the wise life; it’s not hodgepodge, it’s not casual, happenstance, but – at it’s most powerful – it is a very intentional way of living.
There’s always a tension in life between me and us, between what we want and what’s right – for us, for our world. We could say we often find ourselves captive to a desire to take the easy road.
Look at the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt. They were promised freedom. In Egypt they were oppressed by their captors, worked unto death, kept from raising their own children and generally treated as if they were unimportant, disposable, not-quite-human, slaves.
And then came Moses…. the secret son of two Israelites, raised in an Royal Egyptian household, a man who fled to the desert after killing an Egyptian — and a man supremely unsure of his worthiness for the job. And God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of their captivity in Egypt, into the Promised Land of milk and honey, where they assumed that everything would be great.
It turned out, of course, that getting to the land of milk and honey was somewhat more challenging than walking from here to the Sooper. . . in fact, as it ended up, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before coming into their promised land. . . and Moses himself died before they got there. More than once in the journey, the Israelites pled to go back to Egypt. “Better to be a slave,” they said, “than to die here in the wilderness!”
Now you would think that this would have been a simple decision — stay in Egypt and be beaten to death or journey in the desert to something better — but the rigors of searching for the better made the bad look awfully good.
They wanted to substitute safety, comfort, the familiar, for the challenges, maybe even the prickly edges of the desert march.
The story of the Exodus is much more than just a literal history of the escape of a band of nomads from slavery – it is the story of each of us seeking to be free of what enslaves us, seeking our own land of milk and honey, of each of us seeking a life of wisdom.
Most of us are not in captivity to people who force us to make bricks without straw, at least not in the literal sense. At the same time, the story of those laborers, beaten because they couldn’t do the work for which they were unequipped, seems awfully familiar. We know what it’s like to be asked to do the impossible and then punished because we haven ‘t succeeded, and we know what it’s like to be caught in the middle between the demanding higher-up, and the underling who can’t produce.
Most of us aren’t in captivity to the desire to run back into the burning house, or even to a literal Golden Calf, but some of us know how challenging it can be to deal with an abusive personal relationship in a healthy way, and we know for sure how tempting it is to make ourselves substitute the outward signs of success for the inward reality of success.
We have our own Egypts, and we are in captivity to them as surely as the Israelites were in captivity to Pharaoh. Like those long-ago Israelites, we too are fleeing captivity and fleeing captivity isn’t easy.
Now, why is that? What makes it so hard to move from the bad to the good?
Well the Israelites make it clear that one problem is simply that the bad is familiar while the good is unknown….and that, no matter how bad the familiar is, there’s a certain amount of comfort there, and a certain amount of risk in leaving the familiar for the unknown.
Yet another problem is that, often, when we try to step out in a new direction, we have to leave behind something we loved in order to get somewhere we can only vaguely see. Change, growth, has it’s good side, but it also means losing something – often something we loved and cherished.
We trade in soft, snuggly, sleeping toddlers for challenging teens with their own ideas… it’s exactly what we want – children who are growing into thoughtful, perceptive adults, but it costs us the simple comfort of that limp sleeping child.
This way of wisdom is expanded upon by Jesus Christ. In his life, his ministry, we see the wise life lived out.
There’s a way of living prepared for us, the way of wisdom, personified by Jesus Christ. It’s a way which helps us move from finding value in what we have to finding it in who we are.
There’s no doubt that taking up the life of wisdom can be a challenge. Jesus himself acknowledged that when he called us to “take up our crosses” and follow him. There’s no 4 lane super-highway to satisfaction, as if we could just follow a map and get there, but there is a guide — Paul writes that we are called to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good, and is outlining for us the true path of wisdom.
The Israelites moved to a new physical place, but for most of us, the journey to a life built on wisdom takes place right here and right now, as we re-focus our lives on a different set of values, on values which build a world of peace and justice, values which express a love for all of creation.
God calls us saying, don’t let the difficulty daunt, don’t let the lure of the familiar hold you back, but let go of that which holds you captive and step out in faith for the promised land, and I will be with you, guiding you with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. You will never be alone; you are my people and I am your God. Come, now, and follow me.