Sunday, May 26, 2013

Wisdom From On High

We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast...

Trinity C 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, and our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, presents us with an opportunity to think about one particular aspect of the nature of God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This portion of Proverbs begins with what is sometimes referred to as “The Song of Wisdom” — and it forms an important part in a whole complex of “Wisdom Literature” — a collection biblical and inter-testamental texts, the latter so called because they come between the Old and the New Testaments.

In the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom is not only praised as an abstract virtue or concept, but is personified, often, as in the text today, portrayed as a regal woman. Wisdom is portrayed as a woman in part because both the Hebrew and the Greek words for wisdom, ḥokmah and sophia, are feminine in gender, and the latter obviously even came to be a common woman’s name. So Wisdom is seen as a woman... but, I’m sorry, my friends; to the women here today I have to alert you not to take too much pride in this relationship with Wisdom, because the Book of Proverbs also personifies Folly as a woman! From a biblical standpoint, it seems women just can’t win, at least not all the time. Thank goodness some things change!

And one of the things that changed over time, particularly in the Christian era, was how Wisdom came to be seen, and about whom the texts were said to speak. And that is Jesus!

Now, you might well wonder how this movement from an abstract idea of wisdom as a virtue, to wisdom personified as a regal woman, a princess or queen, to wisdom incarnate as the Son of God, Jesus, took place. And so I’d like to explore that process with you a bit today, on this Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year when theology steps to the forefront.

+ + +

First of all, we know that the Jewish people had long valued wisdom as a virtue. Wisdom for them included knowledge, and people who knew a lot of things would be accounted wise. Solomon, for example, is held up as the supreme example of wisdom, as it is written of him in the First Book of Kings:

God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt... He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.

I’m not all that sure that Solomon would have been a great guest at a dinner party; but in addition to this kind of “know-it-all” wisdom, there was also high admiration for what we would call common sense, or even crafty shrewdness, or even cunning. There is no doubt that given the scrapes into which the patriarchs got themselves, the ability to be clever, shrewd, or even crafty, came to be admired. Being able to get out of a difficult situation, even if by the skin of your teeth, is an admirable quality. You will no doubt remember that parable Jesus told about the business manager who is about to be fired and who comes up with a scheme to win friends for himself by marking down their debts to his master — and then the master turns around and praises him for his shrewdness. So being a smooth operator was admirable, in a down-to-earth way.

And so it is that both book-smarts and street-smarts both come under the heading of Wisdom in this first understanding of the word. But as the poets and wise men, such as Solomon himself, began to extol the virtues of wisdom more and more, they began to take poetic license by personifying wisdom as that regal woman, Sophia. As I noted before, this plays both ways, as the writers of the Wisdom literature believed that there were few things more valuable than a wise woman, and few things worse than a foolish one, and they would play these images against each other by comparing and contrasting a wise wife with a foolish harlot. The Wisdom writers also wrote of how a man could be blessed by a wise wife but destroyed by a foolish harlot, and he would be a fool indeed after her tempting ways.

But wisdom itself they saw as the pinnacle of goodly virtue: a woman more precious than jewels or gold. The passage we heard today from Proverbs is typical: she is described as being with God from the beginnings of creation, working with God, like a master-worker cooperating with God in creation itself.

The author of the intertestamental Book of Ecclesiasticus, Joshua ben Sira, took the analogy even further, picking up where Proverbs leaves off and extolling Wisdom even more; he writes:

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people... “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High... I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway... Before the ages, in the beginning, God created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion... in the beloved city he gave me a resting place... Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.... Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more.”

I think it is easy to see how the early Christians, hearing these texts, even though they are describing Wisdom personified, and though even here less as a woman than as a kind of emanation coming from God himself, could come to see that these texts are referring to Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. But there is one more reason even more telling, because the passage I just cited ends by saying, “All this” — that is, all that has preceded, the whole description of Wisdom — “all this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us...” In short, Wisdom is identified as the Word of God, coming forth from the mouth of God and recorded in the Holy Scripture, most especially the Torah.

As you know, Jesus came to be understood to be the living and incarnate Word of God. This was due largely to the Gospel according to Saint John, and from there it was an easy step to go back to the Wisdom literature and see Jesus foretold in those texts. And so Jesus came to be understood by the early church as the “Wisdom from on high” dwelling with his people, inspiring them, as the Word of God incarnate, fulfilling both the law and the prophets.

+ + +

It is written in Proverbs, in the chapter after the one from which we heard the reading this morning, chapter 9:

Wisdom has built her house..., she has mixed her wine, she has set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town..., “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.”

What the wise men wrote of, what the prophets foretold, we have come to realize at last. Jesus, the Wisdom from on high, calls us to this house, calls us to his table, and gives himself to us his faithful believers much as Wisdom gave herself to those she summoned — and he gives himself to us in that bread and in that wine. Jesus our Lord and Savior, and also the Wisdom of God and the Word of God, calls us to Take and eat, to take and drink — more than bread, more than wine, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We would be very foolish indeed to ignore such an invitation, to turn aside from such a host, to abstain from such a feast. May we always gladly eat and drink at the table of the Wisdom from on high, in the Eucharistic feast committed to our hands by the Word of God himself, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Better Than A Babel-Fish

We are not building a proud tower to assault heaven or to make a name for ourselves. Rather we rely on the presence of our advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God has poured into our hearts in a spirit of adoption so that we may call out as children call out to their father or their mother, to call out in the name of the Lord our God, who is our Father in heaven.

Pentecost C • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.

Some years ago the late Douglas Adams wrote a satirical novel called, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It went through many different incarnations as a radio show, as a British TV series, and even as a live-action Walt Disney movie starring Martin Freeman as the main character, Arthur Dent. He would later go on to another kind of adventure, as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. The Hitchhikers Guide is in the guise of science fiction, but it is actually a satire, in which the author gets to poke fun at all sorts of institutions, sacred and secular.

Right from the start, the author satirizes political bureaucracy: the planet Earth is about to be destroyed by a galactic construction authority in order to create a hyperspace bypass, at the same time that Arthur Dent’s house is about to be bulldozed by a highway construction authority to put in a traffic bypass — and in both cases the officious officials announce, when protest is made, that planning permission, with public notice, has been on file in the galactic headquarters and town planning office respectively, so no one has any reason to complain.

Well the novel would be very short indeed if Arthur Dent did not escape the destruction of his house and the planet Earth. He manages this with the help of an alien who has been living on Earth for some time, and who has chosen, while on Earth, to go by the name Ford Prefect. (The joke is likely lost on Americans for whom it might have been better to name him Ford Fairlane!) Ford, in any case, helps Arthur to hitch a ride on the spaceship belonging to the planet-destroying construction company. And the first thing he tells Arthur he must do, if they are continue their travels, is insert a small fish in his ear. When Arthur protests, Ford explains that it is a strange species called the Babel-Fish, an alien species that lives on your brain waves and which, when inserted into your ear, takes up residence in your head and allows you to understand any language you hear, and the everyone in the universe wears them — because that’s how they can communicate with each other. And so Arthur is off on a series of highly improbable adventures, but able to communicate freely with any and all of the strange creatures he meets.

+ + +

In this morning’s reading from Genesis we heard the tale of the original Babel, which is not about gaining the ability to understand languages, but losing the ability. Like a number of the other accounts in the book of Genesis, this passage serves to answer a question about why things are the way they are, much like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. I don’t know if any of you remember them, but when I was growing up that was a favorite children’s book; the one story that sticks in my mind is, “How the Leopard Got Its Spots.” Genesis offers us, in a more serious mode, ancient answers to timeless questions such as, “Why do people get sick and die?” “Why do people get married?” “Who invented music?” and “Why don’t snakes have legs?” In this case, the question is, “How did all of the many languages on the earth come to be?”

And the answer to this last question is that this is God’s response to the presumption of mortals who set out to make a name for themselves and build a tower with its top in the heavens. To show just how presumptuous they are, they name their city Babel — which in Hebrew means “the gate of God,” but which after the confusion of their languages comes down to us with its other meaning ever since recognizable as “babble.”

+ + +

Why, you might well ask yourself, should we be concerned either with Babel or Babel-Fish, on this day of Pentecost, the last day of the Easter season, the day that celebrates the birthday of the church, and on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit in flames as of fire lighting upon the heads of the apostles? And of course it is because of what the Holy Spirit enables those apostles to do: suddenly to begin to proclaim the saving word of God in many languages — so that people who have come to Jerusalem from all over the known world can hear them proclaiming salvation through Christ in their own languages.

Pentecost undoes Babel — you might well say that it rewinds the tape (but who rewinds tape any more! So let’s say, it clicks the “back” button or the “undo” button). God looked at what the people were up to in those ancient days — in their pride and their desire, not to honor God’s name, but to make a name for themselves. God rightly and simply frustrated their plans by disrupting their ability to communicate with each other. Fast-forward some several thousand years to Jerusalem, where the apostles are gathered not as a prideful or self-asserting bunch, but in humble obedience to that final command that their Lord and Master Jesus has given them: to go to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. There they gather, and there the Spirit comes, giving them the ability not only to speak with eloquence, but in languages that none of them has ever learned, so that all of those outside in the city, from where-ever they come in the know world, can hear that powerful message of salvation — in their own languages, spoken right to their hearts.

And as I said a few weeks ago, God doesn’t just undo — God does something new. God doesn’t just press the undo button, he doesn’t just press the back button, he opens a new document, and starts a whole new story of salvation: ours.

+ + +

Thus the scattering of humanity because of pride is reversed and undone by this obedience — and the possibility to unite humanity in humility is made manifest, and the new story begins. The people of Babel had gotten too big for their britches, thinking that it was up to them to make a name for themselves, and even giving the work of their own hands the blasphemous name, “the gate of God,” because they wrongly thought their tower reached to the heavens (though in reality it was probably not much taller than the municipal parking garage across the street! When you live in a world where most buildings are one or two storeys tall, something six storeys tall may seem miraculous to you — but it wasn’t; wasn’t a gate of God — just human pride.) Such is not the Spirit of God, but the spirit of human ambition, human pride.

But the Spirit of God works differently, and comes to those who know that they are children of God. In fact, by coming to them, it makes them children of God, children by adoption. Because God has adopted us, because Jesus our brother has interceded for us, the Spirit empowers us to call God our Abba, our Father, as he taught us to pray. This is how the new story begins — our story — with that one word, Abba, Father.

Only that one word, Abba, Father, is necessary. We need not build a tower to the skies. We need not speak in many languages, either by miracle or by careful study; we need not speak in tongues as some wrongly think is needful for any who are touched by the Spirit of God. We need not make a name for ourselves, because God has given us a name as his children. We need not understand all other languages, or have the ability to interpret them. One word only is necessary, Abba, Father.

With this word we proclaim both our humility and our relationship to God and with God. We are not building a proud tower to assault heaven or to make a name for ourselves. Rather we rely on the presence of our advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God has poured into our hearts in a spirit of adoption so that we may call out as children call out to their father or their mother, to call out in the name of the Lord our God, who is our Father in heaven. It is God’s name, not ours, that is important.

This is the start of the new story, the church’s story, that tells us how we became children of God. This one word, Abba, Father, overthrows the towers of pride, and establishes our trust in our relationship with God our Father in heaven. May we who have received this spirit of adoption, persevere in it all our days, to the glory of God our Father, and Christ our Brother, through the Holy Spirit, our advocate and guide.