Monday, July 13, 2015

Sermon: "Yin and Yang"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, United Church of Christ
July 12, 2015 – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36

“Yin and Yang”

We live in the age of information.
Most of us carry in our pockets a device that is capable of accessing the knowledge of the world’s libraries, universities, and think tanks.
Through the power of the Internet we can become experts in any field that interests us;
we can read peer-reviewed articles and cull through research that supports or disproves our preconceived ideas;
we can form educated opinions and devise insightful ways of looking at the complexities of our world’s problems and we can use the power of instantaneous communication to work cooperatively with people all over the world to seek solutions to those problems.

Thanks to the Internet, we now have a gateway to knowledge and wisdom unlike any the world has ever known.
And yet what do most of us do with this gateway?
We use it to watch cat videos and to argue with people that we don’t know.

You may have seen the cartoon that shows a man typing away furiously at his computer while he says to his wife, “I can’t go to bed now, honey, somebody is WRONG on the internet.”

Just because the knowledge of the world is available to us at our fingertips, it doesn’t make us any wiser for having access to it.

But the fact that the Internet exists and that we’re collectively adding our knowledge to it and building on it exponentially by the millisecond, shows that we as a species have an insatiable curiosity and desire to grow in our wisdom.
Even if we can’t always trust what we read on Wikipedia. 
We might say the book of Proverbs was ancient Israel’s version of Wikipedia.  While the book is largely attributed to King Solomon, it contains the culled knowledge of a people who passed down oral and written words of wisdom over the course of hundreds of years.
Wisdom that has now become part of our everyday vernacular, such as:
“Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
“Many are the plans in a human heart, but it is God’s plan that prevails.”

A proverb by definition is a short pithy saying that has a truth or common sense to it. 
Taken on their own these words of wisdom can give us pause and cause to look at an issue, a challenge, or an every day occurrence in a new way.
And amazingly, even as languages change over time, these saying endure.

 “The early bird catches the worm,”  dates back to the 16th century.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” is from the 12th century.

Benjamin Franklin is famous for compiling his own book of Proverbs in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac” – in which he shared such nuggets as:

“A full belly makes a dull brain”
“A countryman between two lawyers, is like a fish between two cats.”

We haven’t lost our love of proverbs by any means.
Except now they show up in the form of humorous memes on facebook: 

“Always give 100%, unless you’re giving blood.”
“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in a dark room with a mosquito.”

And then there’s this twist on a familiar favorite:
“The early bird gets the worm, but it’s the second mouse who gets the cheese.”

Pithy sayings do get our attention and the good ones stand the test of time.
But the Book of Proverbs goes beyond imparting wisdom through the use of clever sayings….The Book of Proverbs gives us the story of Wisdom herself.

Here Wisdom is personified and made real and whole, so that we may better see Wisdom not as a thing to be obtained but as a presence of God that we are meant to live in relationship with.

"Wisdom” is the most developed personification of God's presence in the Hebrew Scriptures; and, yes, the terms used to describe this presence are grammatically feminine in gender.
The word for Wisdom in Hebrew is “Hokmah,” and in Greek it is “Sophia.”

Christian Theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, writes:

         The biblical depiction of Wisdom herself is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, preacher, judge, liberator, establisher of justice and a myriad of other female roles in which she symbolizes transcendent power ordering and delighting the world.
          She is that presence which pervades creation, interacting with both nature and human beings in an effort to lure them along the right path.1

Wisdom makes her first appearance in the book of Job.
Job asks, “If we can mine the earth for silver and gold, where has God hidden understanding, where can Wisdom be found?”
The answer that Job receives is that only God knows the whereabouts of this treasure, and we can only catch glimpses of her that serve to point us in the direction of God.

After this elusive appearance in Job, Wisdom strides into the Book of Proverbs noisily proclaiming her message to anyone who will listen. 
She is a preacher and a prophet, crying aloud in the market, on the street corners, and at the city gates with a message of reprimand and promise.2    

For centuries, women of faith have found inspiration in this image of Wisdom and have embraced her by her Greek name, Sophia.
Sophia is the antithesis of the stereotypical woman that many of our world cultures promote. She is not quiet, unassuming and submissive. 
She is a street-wise, justice-driven, passionate figure who wants nothing less than for everyone to follow in her footsteps as she seeks both to transform and delight in the created world.3

For Christians, Wisdom is sometimes conflated with the third member of the Trinity - The Holy Spirit - The guiding presence that God sent into the world to be with us when Jesus no longer could.

But while theologians argue that the two are distinct from one another because the Spirit has always existed along with God while Wisdom was said to have been created by God, seeing both God’s Spirit and God’s Wisdom as feminine resonates with the part of the Creation story that tells us that God is pluralistic in nature – and that God is both male and female.

In the first chapter of Genesis, God the Creator says:
 "Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness; So God created humankind in his image; male and female he created them."  (1:26-27)

This pluralistic understanding of God is not unusual.
Biblical scholars point out that even the very names used for God in the Old Testament, Elohim and Adonai are plural nouns that were typically used to refer to a collective group of Gods, but over time came to refer to the one true God of Israel.
The one true God that even we Christians see as containing multiple parts.
God the Creator, God the Redeemer in Christ, and God the Sustainer in the Holy Spirit.

Still, to place gender on these aspects of God is troublesome for some of us.
For some, referring to God as a “she” is unnerving.
For others, referring to God as a “he” is unnerving.

And here in the United Church of Christ, despite our move towards inclusive language, and our emphasis on God as being Spirit and therefore genderless, the image of God as Father and God as masculine still prevails, as it does in the wider church and in the wider culture.

One of the exercises we do at the beginning of our confirmation class every year is to have the teens draw a picture of their image of God.
Inevitably, every boy and every girl draws a picture of God as male –
The stereotypical image of an old man with a long white beard or a younger version that looks more like Jesus but is still obviously male.

We might say that 13 and 14 year olds have a limited understanding of God based on what they’ve been taught in their young lives… but what are they missing if OUR emphasis in Sunday School and in worship is always on God the father and God the son – on the masculine image of God – with little to no mention of the feminine image of God – personified in the Holy Spirit or in Wisdom.

We may not think our image of God influences how we treat our fellow human beings, but the stark reality is that even in 2015, two-thirds of religious Americans belong to faith communities that don’t allow women to hold leadership positions.4
As we’ve seen throughout the ages and in most cultures, when God is exclusively male, the male is seen as God, and women are subjugated as a result.

How might Wisdom free us from this limited understanding of our Creator and this limited understanding of ourselves?

The ancient Israelites were on to something when they personified Wisdom as an aspect of God. 
Wisdom is no longer this vague amorphous thing that is hard to define and even harder to obtain.
Wisdom instead takes on form – in this case a female form – that represents justice, compassion, joy, and freedom from tyranny and disorder. 

If we think of the people in our lives who are free and just, who radiate joy and compassion, and how we naturally gravitate towards them and desire to have them in our lives, Wisdom personified is meant to do the same.
And by seeking a relationship with Wisdom we are opening ourselves up to a relationship with God.

Wisdom comes to us through experience, introspection, and insight.
Wisdom comes to us through the relationships we build with others and the often difficult work that we do when we examine our own hearts.
Wisdom is our awareness that we are connected to something so much greater than ourselves.

Out of wisdom flows compassion, empathy, mercy, grace, forgiveness – all the inter-relational acts that say, “I am connected to you, and I value that connection, so I am willing to do what it takes to reach out to you, to lift you up, to heal you, and in the process lift up and heal myself, and bring us back into right relationship with each other and with God.

The words of Wisdom contained in the book of Proverbs point us in the direction that God intends for us to go in life and in our interpersonal relationships, especially in this age of internet interaction.

Proverbs 15:1
 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

 Proverbs 11:12
“Those who have no sense deride their neighbors, but those who have
understanding hold their tongues.”

Proverbs 22:6
“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

Sophia has wise words for us to heed.
She rejoices in God’s inhabited world, and delights in the human race.
She calls to us from the street corner and the market square and invites us to join her in her quest to help birth a just and joyous world.

And Sophia’s inclusion in the ancient Wisdom texts is an invitation for us to expand our image of God.  
To see God as masculine and feminine.
As protector and nurturer.
As strong and gentle.
As correcting and forgiving.

Where can Wisdom be found?
In the knowledge that we all are created in the image of God,
and we find God in each other.     

Amen and Thanks be to God.

[i] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.
[ii] Ibid, adapted.
[iii] Ibid, adapted.

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