All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 October 2017

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 October 2017

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses

Readings:  Proverbs 2.1-11; 1 John 2.1-17 

There is a Jewish legend that Solomon – the king of Israel associated with wisdom– wrote three books:

The Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; 

  • the Song of Songs, a poem of love, in lusty youth,
  • Proverbs, with its practical counsel, in sober middle age,
  • Ecclesiastes, with its “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” in disillusioned – even disgruntled  –  “Victor Meldrew” – grumpy old man- like – old age. 

It is unlikely that any of these books go back to Solomon, but they all deal with what it means to live wisely before God – so they form part of what is  called the “Wisdom Literature.” 

Proverbs is probably not high on the reading list for many modern Christians. Yet in past ages, this book has been to both Christians and Jews one of the most valued parts of the Bible.  When ancient and medieval rabbis wanted to talk in concrete terms about the practice of righteousness, they often turned to Proverbs.  17Th century Puritans, too, treasured the book as a reliable guide to the holy life.  

In the C19th, the sophisticated essayist and art critic John Ruskin, whose views on architecture influenced William Butterfield, and who, in turn admired his work in this place, would say that the four chapters of Proverbs his mother had made him memorize as a child were “the one essential part of my education.” 

A common factor in this literature is the prominent role played by poetry.  The proverbs themselves are little poems, each about the length of a Japanese haiku or a Zen koan.  Like these Asian literary forms, they are highly concentrated, and sometimes riddling, reflections on common elements of human experience.  Read straight through, they are tedious, with no plot, development of a logical argument or moral theme. 

The Wisdom literature seeks to open the world to us by the use of words. These speak at multiple levels and in suggestive ways – rather than through rational explanation.  Words are used to generate deep, imaginative reflection on the realities they deal with – the ordinary and out of the ordinary experiences of life:  birth and death, poverty and wealth, education and work, grief and joy, love human and divine.  

Poetry is the language best suited to probe the mystery of the human situation as a whole as wisdom seeks to do.  Prose is the language of analysis, of explanation, of scientific and academic research.  But poetry, not only rhythmic and rhyming language, but any designed to engage our imagination, I looks at things whole. “ 

Too often, we consider the imagination to be an “extra”; nice enough but hardly necessary, not really serious.  In fact, as the biblical writers know, the imagination is the chief faculty of moral discernment.  It’s what enables us to project ourselves into a situation which is not completely clear (where we are most of the time) and choose a course of action.  Imagination allows us to enter into relationship with people who are not fully known to us – and that’s  everyone, including those closest to us.  All but the briefest of encounters demands that we imagine what the other person might feel, what their needs might be, how our words and actions might affect them for good or ill. The sages, the people of wisdom, understood that living the moral life requires that we continually strive to exercise a truthful imagination – for the imagination can be perverted by selfishness and devoted to the service of lies.  That truthful imagination is what the Book of Proverbs aims to help us cultivate in our various roles of parent, spouse, friend, teacher, neighbour, worker, boss, citizen. 

As poetry, they must be read slowly.  As Francis Bacon – that’s the philosopher not the artist – said:  “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”  Wisdom books demand that we read then a little at a time – even verse-by-verse – paying close attention to particular words and even the form of the poem, and at the same time, letting our minds move freely to follow associations they suggest – pondering echoes from other parts of scripture. 

This kind of meditative reading, what the Church calls Lectio Divina or sacred reading, does not come naturally to many of us.  We have been taught to “speed-read”: to get at the facts; to find out what happened.  Our culture has less patience than most with carefully considered words, written or spoken. In the age of email, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like, this is becoming worse; so much so that even some of those who have been heavily involved in the design of social media – having realised the negative impact they have had on their powers of concentration, and their relationships – are deliberately limiting their use or giving them up altogether. A network of them is called “Time Well Spent.” The name itself suggests that much of the time we spend on so-called “social media” is not good for us – and, indeed, it not very social!  Think of all those people sitting in Carluccio’s, supposedly enjoying a meal together – but all glued to their smart phones. 

The wisdom writers teach us to read not just for information but for a kind of deep, heart knowledge that we cannot gain quickly but only with practice and discipline. 

In the ancient Near East, wisdom literature was considered a high achievement of culture. Kings bolstered their image by sponsoring collections of wise sayings.   In the modern world, this sort of poetic yet practical reflection on the nature of reality is rare. We have followed the Greek preference for analytical prose writing – that is philosophy – the love of wisdom – and in recent centuries – science. 

The worldview of Wisdom literature stands over against the modern scientific approach – which values specialized knowledge rather than a broad understanding of the world and our place in it.  Abstract, theoretical thought is valued over concrete ethical reflection. Invention and discovery are valued over received tradition. 

The clash between these two approaches has become more acute with changes in working and thinking which have accompanied the rise of computer culture. We now “process” words rather than “ponder” them.  

This climate is also hostile to the traditional idea that the learning of elders and ancestors is essential to living a decent and contented life.  Instead, traditional views are often suspect; regarded as out of touch with human needs, even oppressive.  In a culture that flatters itself into believing that we are inventing a new way of living, a new way of being human, ideas of trusting out predecessors to provide guidance can only seem foolish.  

Yet even in our culture, it is possible to detect, in groups like “Time Well Spent,”  signs of a longing for something that like wisdom literature will guide us in making right choices in the midst of bewildering flux of immediate experience.  

In the modern Church, the wisdom books may not be much read in worship or chosen as preaching texts. 

By some, in the past as well as now, they have been considered rather secondary among the texts of the Old Testament.  Unlike Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the law, or prophets thundering the word of the Lord, they do not claim immediate divine authority. Sometimes they do not speak about God at all. They are part of a wider culture in the ancient Near Eastern world and in places show its influence. That is not a reason for rejecting them but rather for seeing the influence of divine Wisdom, of the Holy Spirit, beyond the narrow confines we sometimes place on it. 

A careful (that is, a slow) reading reveals in them a model for reflection on the religious significance of the full range of human experiences  –  including and even especially things we do not normally think of as being “religious.” For them, the sacred and secular are not separate realms of experience and concern.  So, the wisdom literature may speak with particular power to the spiritual needs of a highly secularized age like ours by making connections with its concerns. 

Wisdom in scripture is not the same as being clever or learned. It is demonstrated by living day by day in ways that honour and glorify God; living in the world in such a way that God and God’s intentions for it, are acknowledged in all that we do. 

Doing theology does not just mean defining and explaining doctrines, although that is part of it. Theology is what we all do as we strive to respond to “the first and great commandment,” to love God with all our mind  (Matt. 22.37-38); and the second which is that love of neighbour which John speaks of in our second reading as inseparable from the love of God.  To do theology is simply to reflect on our experience in the context of our relationship with God.  

The wisdom writers do not see this possibility as being for only a very few saints or sages, but within the grasp of any who desire it wholeheartedly.  It does not require special intellectual gifts. We do not need to be Socrates or Thomas Aquinas. 

While much of the wisdom literature may have been compiled by editors in royal courts, much of it the fruits of an oral culture, of advice tried and tested over generations.  It may have been collected by members of an intellectual elite for the instruction of a governing class, but at root it is spiritual guidance for ordinary people like us. 

The fruits of wisdom – a well-ordered life and a peaceful mind – spring not from high IQ but from a disposition of heart that the teachers of the wisdom of Israel call the “fear of the Lord,”  which is “the beginning of wisdom.”