How Will We Know?

First Congregational Church UCC, Wareham MA, June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-11 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth; wickedness is an abomination to my lips. All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them. They are all straight to one who understands and right to those who find knowledge. Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. 

Mark 4:1-9 Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

First, another story, from the Rev. Craig Barnes, President of the Princeton Theological Seminary

Perhaps my greatest joy as a seminary president is placing diplomas into the hands of our graduates at commencement. They’ve worked hard for their degrees, and they have so much promise that it annually renews my faith in the future of the church. But occasionally a student slips through who makes me wonder.

Some years ago, a student was told by the registrar that he couldn’t graduate because he hadn’t completed his course re­quirements. 

He complained that no one had told him he was behind in credits. She explained that at the beginning of the semester she had emailed all students who were expecting to graduate, telling them to check the website that depicts their progress through their degree program. 

But he was not about to take responsibility for his mistake, and so he appealed to the dean, who upheld the registrar’s decision. Then the student came to see me for his final appeal.

 “My parents have already bought their plane tickets to come to commencement,” he tried. “They’re going to be so embarrassed if I can’t graduate with my friends.” I responded, “That has to be rough,” and then I mentioned his responsibility to ensure he had completed all of the courses necessary to graduate. 

The student next tried to blame the website for being confusing. I pointed out that all of the other students seemed to navigate it well. 

After that he took a stab at the administration for not being very responsive to his problem. I indicated that I was at least the third administrator who had seen him in two days. Finally, he slumped his shoulders and said, “This really hurts my feelings.” Christian Century, “Everyone In Ministry Gets Their Feelings Hurt”, June 14, 2019

What do you think?  Should the student get a diploma, be graduated without completing the course? Should the school at least let him march in the ceremony?

Princeton let him march, but made him come back in the fall to complete the program before they would sign off on his completion of the degree program…and all the time they marveled at the story of a student who could not learn. He couldn’t learn, not because he was cognitively limited, but because he refused to open his ears, refused to take responsibility for his part of the process.

But that’s not the point of this story for me… what struck me when I read it was how hard the student worked to avoid learning anything about how the world worked.  Right up to the end, he steadfastly refused to acknowledge that his choices had consequences.  

He may have acquired book knowledge, but he had not opened himself to wisdom.

And wisdom is the subject of the day.

Our lesson from the book of Proverbs sets the scene:  Wisdom is there, right in front of us, waiting for those who know there is always more to learn, waiting for those who have the humility to learn prudence, acquire intelligence, so that they might know and do the right thing.

Words are good to the one who understands; with wisdom, knowledge can turn the world upside down, but it will at the same time, strengthen the foundation of our understanding of good and evil.

Not everyone gets that.  Not everyone wants the responsibility that comes with wisdom.  Jesus makes that plain in his story we heard from the Gospel of Mark.  Some people listen, some don’t.  There’s a direct relationship between listening to God, learning wisdom, and creating a thriving, abundant, community-changing church community.  And there’s a direct relationship between being the stony ground on which the seed falls, and seeing no growth at all.

Last year I planted two high quality rose bushes in my back yard. They came from David Austin, and were nice and healthy when I planted them, in a part of the yard which – it turns out – was overrun with thick, obstructive roots from a nearby tree.  It wasn’t wise, once I saw the root system, to insist on planning the bushes.   But I did. And then I proceeded to neglect the bushes during the driest part of the summer.  I was lazy; I refused to re-read the instructions; I refused to learn. And my bushes died.  the bushes were guaranteed to not die the first year, but you know, I’m too ashamed of my negligence to even think of putting in a claim. But there’s more – this spring, one of the bushes came back!  And today it’s got three lovely rose blossoms on it.  It’s not as strong as it should be, but if I can learn from last year’s mistakes, it’s given me a second chance.  Will I have the wisdom to take care this time?  Ask me again in September!!

It’s never too late to learn wisdom.  We can’t, of course, go back and change our past, but we can allow wisdom to change our future.  

There’s a sheep-farmer in the Lake District of England, who’s been involved for the past few years in changing the way he and his neighbors handle their fields.  The received wisdom is that its best to grow animals in large feedlots, and then to deal with the byproducts as a pollution hazard.  

This guy says, the best way to grow meat animals is in small herds, grazed on grass, where by products become natural fertilizer and actually improve the land.

It’s a hard sell.  People think it’s easier to handle large herds of animals.  They think it’s cheaper, and maybe it is.  And, besides, it’s the way the bigwigs, the scientists, have told them to do things for the last one hundred years.

But they’re wrong.  Growing animals in small herds, on grass, not only produces healthier animals and better meat; it also improves the soil on which the animals graze, and that means – in the long run – better, tastier crops all around.   

With wisdom, he’s changing minds.  It’s never too late to learn wisdom; never too late to change our world.

Wisdom isn’t acquired accidentally.  It’s something we have to work towards.  Learning wisdom can be painful because we have to admit, at least to ourselves, that we don’t know everything.  Sometimes we’ll push back against the call to move ahead.  We may even have to admit we are wrong, that we have not taken the right path.  And that’s hard.  People may be hurt, even us.

Here’s the good news:  

God knows we are not perfect.  

God knows we are learners, people who struggle to understand right and wrong.

God knows that we much prefer to handle things without any fuss ever anywhere.

God understands.  God stands here before us to encourage our first steps, to keep us trying in the face of failure.  God is here to help us learn wisdom, to keep us headed in the right direction.

The offer is in front of us, every day, for that is the wisdom-blessed gift of God.


© 2019, Virginia H. Child