09/16/18 – Words of Wisdom


September 16, 2018
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

We began our scripture readings today with a passage from the first chapter of Proverbs in which Lady Wisdom takes on the role of a street preacher. She admonishes the people:  2 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” Reading this passage, I see the image of a short and wiry black man in dreadlocks speaking similar words with a Caribbean lilt in the New York subway. This past Monday I was waiting for the Q train in a nearly empty station (It was Rosh Hashanah) when this modern Sophia railed against the foolishness of a society that has turned away from God. I was concerned he might approach me. Usually, with aggressive evangelizers, all I must do is say I am a pastor and they leave me alone. But, this guy was not giving anyone a pass. He cited the Church as one of the foolish offenders. Fortunately, my train came before he got up close and personal.

Proverbs is a unique book. It reads more like the old Poor Richard’s Almanac than sacred scripture. And people confuse the source of their quotes from these two works all the time. Proverbs is a collection of pithy sayings that seem more like common sense than divine revelations. There was some reticence to include Proverbs as Old Testament canon because God is not mentioned by name very often. But, if you read from start to finish you see these words of wisdom are unequivocally God-centered. Verse 7 in chapter one gives us the main point of Proverbs: 6to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles. 7The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;”

The collection of Proverbs was written with the context of an elder teaching a young person how to live a good life. At times the elder tells the youth that he or she will “prosper” if they heed the advice. Contrary, to popular understanding, that this means financial rewards, “prosper” in Proverbs refers to living in close relationship with God. In the passage we read, Lady Wisdom is chastising those that refuse to listen to God’s word and go their own way. Our Psalm for the day is a bit more positive in its outlook on humanity’s future. The psalmist writes that we have been given the knowledge that will lead us into the green pastures of the Great Shepherd. God has given us the Torah – God’s Word to guide us.

Our epistle reading is not like the letters of Paul and his students. James is not a letter addressed to anyone. It is more like the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament. James gives instruction on how to be a Christian disciple. In our reading James is continuing the theme of the introduction — bridling the intemperate passions that lead us away from Christian principles. James is particularly concerned with the dangers of “unbridled” speech.

I don’t usually put words in the mouths of the people that wrote the bible, but I am going out on a limb here and say that James would have hated Twitter. It seems every morning I turn on the news and the leading news story involves a tweet. Twitter serves as the presidential “bully pulpit.” It is also the purveyor of gossip, propaganda and all sorts of meanness. James’ described such speech as “unbridled.” Today we call it “talking without a filter.”

James insisted one should speak carefully to avoid using words that are harmful or untrue.  The Bible tells us that “in the beginning” God created the world with words. God spoke, and the creation of the world began. Words are powerful and can create worlds. Made in God’s image, we have the power to create new realities with our words. James identifies the awesome responsibility we have with our gift of speech, which can either bless or curse.

Right from the beginning, we read in the bible that the snake in the Garden of Eden changed the future of humanity with a few manipulative words.  Eve relayed those words to Adam, who sinned and then lied to God about what he had done. It is said that the cover-up is worse than the crime. What if Adam had told God the truth? Alas, the doctrine of Original Sin has more evidence of its truth than the story of Adam and Eve.

We are constantly causing trouble for ourselves and others with our words. The internet ups the ante exponentially. In less than a second, our words can be transmitted to millions of prying eyes on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SnapChat, etc. We can even make unintended errors in our communication. We can send e-mails to the wrong person; or, the auto-correct feature can change the words we type in, leading to disastrous consequences. Being technologically challenged, I have “shared” many a Facebook posting I did not intend to send to all my Facebook friends and their friends. I have heavy fingers on keyboards. I tend to touch screens and keyboards as if I were working on an old manual typewriter. I have re-posted Facebook content I had not even finished reading because my finger happened to touch the screen. In the age of computer communication, there are many opportunities for communication errors.

When I read political commentary on the Internet and the “comments” with which people respond, I often cringe at the hurtful language used. In a commentary entitled: “Who Would Jesus Troll?” the author, Marchae Grair, observed:

“We’d rather assume being right is more important than being kind. We’d rather dismiss a viewpoint than encouraging a conversation. We’d rather be the first to make a statement than the first to start a movement. God’s commandments to love don’t change just because we’re in front of a computer screen or a smartphone.”

Yet, words also have the potential for greatness. Words can be used to create beautiful worlds of poetry and prose. Words can express great ideas that can change the world for the better. Words can build relationships between people. James recognized that words can be either life-affirming or death-dealing.

James challenges Christians, especially leaders, to express themselves carefully, as befits sisters and brothers made in the image of God. When James warned about the dangers of teaching, he was particularly concerned about religious teachers. If the teacher speaks falsely, he or she is responsible if the student takes the words as truth and says or does something harmful. I was warned by my mentor; “preachers don’t bring many new members into a church, but they sure can empty one.”

How many of us have been profoundly affected, for good or bad, from words addressed to us from influential people in our lives? Psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors make their living from people who have been damaged by words. Comments from childhood such as: “You’ll never amount to anything,” or, “You’re not smart enough or pretty enough or big enough or good enough !” can negatively affect the rest of one’s life.  Yet, likewise, broken lives have been healed by a few simple words of encouragement. James understood the importance of Christian disciples’ choice of words and their choice of speaking or remaining silent. I can say with confidence that I have seldom regretted times I have kept silent, but often regretted my words.

The message for us is that even a small gesture of providing a listening ear to someone whom many ignore; sharing a meal with someone aching for friendship; saying “good morning” to someone to acknowledge their humanity rather than just walking by or sending a note of encouragement to someone struggling with depression may alter the course of a human life. James tells us that small things, like the rudder of a ship, may be the impetus for major change. Guided by God’s wisdom rather than what masquerades as wisdom from a worldly perspective, we are made to prosper, to realize God’s good gifts and blessings that have nothing to do with worldly rewards.

In our gospel passage, Jesus is also in teaching mode. He feels the urgency of imparting his divine wisdom to his disciples before he must leave them. He has started his journey to Jerusalem and his crucifixion is imminent. Jesus’ most eager student was also the hardest to teach. Peter always seemed to want to keep things “simple,” and he was especially resistant to change. He wanted Jesus to be a Messiah in his image, a real winner. The suffering servant that would be put to death for the sake of humanity just didn’t fit Peter’s worldview. What good is a dead Messiah? Jesus rebuked Peter for hanging on to traditional Jewish hopes and the Roman Empire’s societal expectations. Jesus admonished him for a worldview that did not come from above, from God, but from the world culture in which he lived. “Get behind me, Satan” Jesus charged.

Throughout history, the Church has not been immune from this same type of foolishness. The Church has been seduced by the quest for measurable outcomes just like those of the secular world. Jesus is telling his disciples they must look at the world with a totally different lens. Once again, Jesus is telling his disciples not to look at ground level, but from above.  Jesus proclaimed that the mission of a disciple is to care for those without status who cannot fulfill their own needs without help. Christians are called to be helpers, not competitors.

Jesus rebuked Peter for not understanding the wisdom from above because he held onto the foolish ideas of the world, James gives us similar advice:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…. wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (NRS James 3:13)

In the God’s view from above, our superficial differences are blurred, and we look a lot more like one another. May God’s wisdom guide our speech, our thoughts, and our deeds.




© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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