Standing in Wisdom’s Way

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 23rd September 2018.  It was a service at which Holy Communion was shared and my last service as minister of that congregation.

Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Today is a day of mixed emotion for me because it is my last Sunday in Morwell.  While I hope as many of you as can come to Newborough will do so next week, today is my final service in this building and the last time I will preside at Holy Communion in Gippsland.  I shall leave any profound words of parting until next week’s service, but I am pleased to say that today’s readings offer me some excellent words of wise departure.  So, yes there is mixed emotion: I am looking forward to the future (mine and yours), and I do get to teach from one of my favourite preaching passages Proverbs 31:10-31; but it is also time to say goodbye.

But before goodbye, and before Proverbs 31, let’s have a look at James as we have been doing all month.  Last week we read how Jacob commends the work of a teacher to only the bravest and surest of Christians, and how everybody who walks the Way of God must guard his or her speech, and in today’s reading from James 3:13-4:5 we read more about what the wise actually do with their wisdom.  When a wise person is found and is set aside as a teacher let that person model gentle wisdom; let him or her avoid and denounce arrogance and corrupted ambition, and let the congregation follow that example.  Jacob reminds us of what was written in James 1:6 that any one of us can and should ask God for whatever we need, confident in God’s grace to provide and confident because of God’s wisdom previously given that whatever we are asking after is good.  The evidence that a supposed answer to prayer really has come from the grace of God is that it displays the character of God – pure, peaceable, gentle and considerate, submitted and willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and not hypocritical. Does that sound like the answers to your prayers?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no, more yes than no I hope.  But if not I urge you to keep pressing in because God is faithful and it’s okay that we are still learning that.

One of the signs of the Kingdom of God, a sign that it has come and a sign that it is on its way, it peace.  God is not a deity of war, God is peace and God is love.  That is not to say that God cannot or does not fight, or that God did not strengthen the Hebrew, Israelite and Judahite armies back in the day, but the end of God’s engagement in battle is not empire or territory but peace and rest.  So, when Jacob writes in James 4:1-3 that war is caused by human ambition, the temptations of power and the accrual of stuff, then we know he is speaking with God’s wisdom.  When peace is brought about righteousness shall flourish amongst all people and especially amongst the peacemakers: where conflicts arise or remain these come from competitiveness and from self-seeking desires for something other than God.  Choose God or choose the world as your source of identity, says Jacob, because you cannot have both.  Jacob makes it very plain that to try to have the best of the world (stuff, power, honour) and the fullness of God is to engage in idolatry and adultery.  Indeed, the New American Standard Bible specifies adulteresses in James 4:4 and the Complete Jewish Bible says unfaithful wives in reference to Hebrew traditions that God is husband to Israel.

So, follow God.  Seek God, learn the wisdom of God, walk in the way of God, and live in a world where righteousness is rising, and peace is flooding.  To live otherwise is not only disobedient it is disrespectful, in fact it’s kind of slutty – male or female.

Speaking of male and female, but not of slutty, have a look at Proverbs 31:10-31.  The first thing I want to tell you about this passage is that it is directed at married women.  That should be obvious.  Why should it be obvious?  Well it’s obvious in a more than obvious way, and also in a less than obvious way.  This passage is directed at married women because…it speaks about a wife, and a great wife at that.  But, that’s the less than obvious way.  The more than obvious way that this passage is directed at married women is because it’s scripture and all scripture is useful for teaching and exhortation through the inspiration of the Spirit of Holiness.  It’s Bible, it’s directed at everyone, wives included.  So yes, it’s a passage for wives but it’s a passage not just for wives.  It’s a passage for women who have never married, and it’s for all men, married or otherwise.  In James 4:4 we read Jacob calling to church away from love of the world, hatred of God, to the faithfulness God as husband deserves.  In Proverbs 31:10-31 we read perhaps the words of the mother of Lemuel to her son the king, perhaps the words of Abraham to his beloved wife Sarah, perhaps someone else writing as God’s instrument, what faithfulness to God as husband looks like.

The address in Proverbs 31:10 is often rendered in English as “capable wife” or “such a wife”, but that really waters down the Hebrew sense.  The New King James Version says it best with a courageous wife, but even that falls short.  The best translation is “woman of valour”.  She is heroic, mighty and strong – she’s a Deborah, maybe she’s even a Boudicca.  And in that phrase at least she’s a “woman”, not necessarily someone’s spouse.

Much as I’d love to unpack this reading for you we don’t have time for two sermons, or perhaps three.  I really like Proverbs 31:10-31, so I have needed to contain myself and keep the focus on James 4 and how the proverbs of Hebrew Wisdom connect with the Hebrew wisdom Jacob wrote almost 1000 years later.  So, I’m going to focus on one of many different interpretations of this passage, because that’s the one that best matches with what Jacob wrote.  That’s not to say other readings of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” are not correct, or less correct, or less good, it’s just that today’s version matches today’s context.

So, today let me say that the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an actual woman.  This is not, as far as today’s message is concerned, a book of instructions for Christian wives nor is it a checklist for Christian bachelors in search of a wife.  If you are a “Proverbs 31 Woman” then I commend you, and let me express my sincere hope that your husband is one as well: here’s why, because this is a poem about wisdom.  The woman in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for wisdom: Sophia in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew, Sapienta in Latin and regardless of your gender or your marital status this is how you are supposed to act as a member of the people of God, (and a disciple of Christ).  Be resilient, be trustworthy, be industrious, be wise, be righteous, be generous, be prudent, be loving, be compassionate, be brave, be virtuous, be humble, be bold, be kind, be vigilant, be honest, be honourable, be an example.  These are the attributes of wisdom personified, these are the attributes of Jesus, these are the attributes we should aspire to and the characteristics we should display.

And so, when we read in James 4:6-10 that God not only desires our loyalty, but our submission, we read with the eyes of a wise woman or man.  We understand that God does not need minions or sycophants, that we are to be submissive, but that we are to live submitted to God, honouring God as LORD and pursuing God’s desires for us to have wisdom aware that wisdom is best found in God.  Loyalty to God brings loyalty from God.  Imagine that the wife of noble character, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is a real-life wife and mother and think of how her husband, the father of her children would treat her.  Can you imagine God looking at you like that?  Wisdom says it’s true, that God does look at you like that when you pursue wisdom.  We are told, if we choose to believe it, in Proverbs 3:34 that God comes close in all faithfulness and love.  Jacob further encourages us in James 4:8a that the healing grace of God will transform for the better the one who comes to God in desperate hope and openness.  Come with confidence, come without doubt or double-mindedness, come to the one who welcomes you as the best beloved of all beloved ones.

Come and receive all that the faithful One has prepared for you.

Amen.

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Tongue Tired

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Narracan as the Yallourn Parish and Morwell Parish Uniting Churches, clustered for the purposes of ministry on Sunday 16th September 2018.

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Hopefully you aren’t sick of the stories from my time living in England just yet.  If you are that’s fine, I don’t care and I’m going to tell you another story this morning anyway, but as far as you are concerned there’s only today and two weeks to go before I leave Gippsland, so you just hang in there.  Today’s story takes place at the Education Support Centre where I worked as a specialist teacher, and an episode where something seemed to change.

For those of you new to my stories, or who have heard about my time in gaol but not my time in school, let me give you some background.  Between December 2003 and October 2004, and again between February 2005 and February 2006 I taught at an Education Support Centre north of London.  In very much an oversimplification this a school for high school kids who had been expelled from their “normal school”, or who were in danger of being so.  Onsite I taught one class of year seven to nine students and another class of year ten and eleven.   I taught a broadly defined subject called Humanities, which was made up of bits of the Geography, History, Civics, and Religion curricula as stipulated in the National Curriculum for England.  Offsite or on “outreach” I went into local high schools and worked 1:1 with boys (because I’m a boy) from those same age groups who were on their “last chance”.  At outreach I was liked, and the boys looked forward to my sessions.  Onsite I was disliked, and I was regularly sworn at, spat at, threatened with violence and arson, and I was assaulted in class on four occasions.  The onsite cohort called me “Squeak” because my large front teeth and my then goatee beard made me look like a mouse, apparently.  There was a loose confederation of students charged with the responsibility of “getting Squeak out”, trying to bully me into resigning.  Eventually they gave up, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they had run out of ideas.  They still didn’t like me, they found my resilience unnerving, but the conspiracy and the all-out attacks died out.  So, there’s your background.

And here’s the story.  One Friday afternoon, when classes for the week had ended and the students were about to go home, as was our regular practice, the whole school gathered in the big classroom to count up the week’s merits.  Merits earned you points, and points bought you food.  So anyway, we’ve added up the merits and points, and determined who has earned and who will be rewarded.  And then there’s a race for the kitchen were the food it kept and one of the girls is in there and into the cupboard and into the potato chips and grabbing her allocation of packets.  I was the first teacher into the room, and seeing her there I called out, “Sarah (not her real name), please don’t take all those chips, we need to share the flavours.”  Sarah (not her real name) rolled her eyes, gave a big huff in the way that only a sixteen-year-old girl can do, and said “Oh my god Sir, this is England not Australia, they’re called crisps!!”

I was shocked: are you shocked?  Did you catch it?  Sarah (not her real name) had called me…sir.  Not “Squeak”, not “effin’ Stuart Little”, (which I once copped in class, with “effin’” given its less polite pronunciation).  Sarah had called me “sir”.

“Umm, Sarah, did you just call me ‘sir’?”

“Umm, ummm…”

By this time the kitchen’s other inhabitants were laughing at the joke.  “Oh, my effin’ word Sarah, you showed respect to Mister Tann innit?  You has brought shame upon your entire family now.”

I can’t say that the ice entirely thawed that day, or that Sarah (not her real name, she was actually called Melissa) and I became best mates after that, but it did mark a positive change.  Even so, when I read James 3:1 where Jacob writes not many of you should aspire to become teachers I do not think only of the added responsibility that God places upon the shoulders of pastors and preachers.  Teaching is a rewarding job in church as well as school; but it is also, almost, insurmountably treacherous at times, in church as well as school.

In the first twelve verses of James 3 set for us today we read where Jacob turned his attention to leadership in the community of faith.  Now, remember that Jacob is the brother of Jesus, the second son of Joseph and Mary and possibly Jesus’ first ever best friend.  We read in the gospels how Jacob along with his younger siblings thought that Jesus had lost the plot: now we find him with a fresh revelation of the Messiah and undertaking pastoral responsibility for the nascent Church in Jerusalem.  Jacob is probably a solid man to write about leadership and teaching, so let’s take a look and what he wrote.

So, Jacob unpacks what it means to be a leader by returning to the themes we have encountered in the last two weeks, especially around the ways in Christians should speak.  True wisdom, true discipleship is shown by speaking well – not just as a discipline in itself but also as an indication that what else is going on in the Christian’s life is under the blessing of God.  One of the things that really messed with Sarah and her cohort at the ESC was that I was generally kindly spoken.  Anyone can say nice things, many people can be nice even in the face of meanness, but something about the way that I seemed genuinely unfazed by the ways in which the students plotted my downfall, and over about six months of their best efforts, unnerved them.  These teens knew that I was a Christian, in fact of the five classroom teachers onsite three of us were strong in our faith, but there was something else about me, something they couldn’t break, something they needed to destroy because it was a threat to them.  That they didn’t destroy me or the thing inside me has everything to do with the grace of God, which of course was the thing inside me.  I am not claiming anything other than a vast supply of grace from my Lord in this one; but when unbreakable kindness, even in sadness, confronted them even violent, vicious bullying was left undone.  As a teacher, as a leader, as an adult, I was a grace-bearer; carrying grace inside me and sharing it with my students.

The scriptures teach that a fool cannot speak wisdom and a sinner cannot teach righteousness.  Again, almost anyone can fake pretty much anything for a short time; but longevity and perseverance cannot be built upon weakness and falsehood.  The wise and good can make mistakes, but that is seen as an aberration: the stupid and evil cannot speak true wisdom by accident.  As a pastor-teacher living alongside temporarily you I invite you to look for the signs of grace in yourself and in your leaders: and if you want to be a leader then be ready for examination.  Maybe the examination will come (as it did for me) with violence and hatred, maybe it will come in seduction and flattery, maybe it will come as damned hard work and lots of it.  If you’re not ready for the test amongst the people then you’re not ready to be their teacher or a leader.  If no one is ready for the test then the whole community will be leaderless, teacherless, and heading for calamity.  Pray for your leaders and teachers, and if you don’t know who they are then pray that God will send you some.

In the last portion of  James 3:6 Jacob sets out a frame for understanding how the ways in which members of a local church (body) speak about each other can destroy the church for generations.  Maybe this is a mixing of theologies; Paul writes more about the body as a metaphor for the Church, it’s perhaps not Jacob’s first thought, but it rings true for the big-C Church, the whole collection of Christians from Jacob to now, and it rings especially true for the local church.  I have been in congregations where there is implicit and explicit enmity – these congregations do not grow, they die.  Gossip, whispers, half-truths, complete lies, all are destructive to friendship communities, how much more so the people of God?  If Paul’s metaphor is good, and we are the body where Jesus is the head, and some of us are hands and some of us are feet, if you are a tongue then Jacob warns you to be very careful.

One of my commentators suggested, and I agree, that Jacob’s key learning outcome in this short passage is consistency.  Consistency in purity for sure, no one wants a consistent evil, although at least that would be easier to manage – there’s no deception there.  No, speak with the voice coming up from your depths, from your heart and guts, be consistent with yourself.  If you like what you hear, then honour God and stay on course, and consider offering yourself to the church as a teacher or leader.  If you don’t like what you hear, then honour God and seek healing.  “I don’t like the way I speak,” or, “I don’t like how I get so angry so quickly”, or “I don’t like that I use so many swear words without thinking.”  All are good, if they are honest.  So, seek God and look for the teachers and leaders who can help you – that’s why God has raised them up amongst you.  As was read to us this morning from Proverbs 1:20-33 heed wisdom’s warning, in other words let yourself be taught by the best teachers.

Lest you think me worthy of a double portion of Frequent Martyr Points following my story about Sarah and her classmates, let me tell you about one of the times I stuffed up.  Sarah was in the room on this, an earlier occasion, back when the scheme was still underway.  So, there were five students, all in that older group so 15 or 16 years old, and two of them were heaping the insults on me.  “Oh, my days Squeak why is you even here?  No one likes you, no one respects you, no one is listening to you, your whole life is a mess man.”  Maybe it was late in the day, or late in the week.  You know, Thursday afternoon when it’s not yet Friday and it’s been one of those days for the last nineteen days in a row.  Anyway, I snapped.  Not angry and shouty snapped, just let my guard down.  “You have got to be joking,” I said, in my normal classroom voice, “I am the most sorted person here.”  That was all I said, and I said it and didn’t yell it, and I said it and I didn’t sneer it.  In hindsight I probably said it more for my own benefit that theirs, a reminder to myself that whilst the first three points were undoubtedly true amongst the kids themselves, and some of the staff – that I was not liked, respected, or listened to – my whole life was not, in fact, a mess at all.  All I did in fact was annoy the other, silently hateful, students.  Suddenly all five of them were shouting, “Oh my days man, I was just sittin’ here and now you says I’m a mess?  You’re an effin’ mess you effin’ rat look-alike.  An’ why can’t you even speak English and why don’t you jus’ go back to effin’ Australia,” and so forth.  I didn’t lose any friends, I didn’t have any; not in that room anyway, but I lost my teacherly and leaderly for a moment.  One slip in my internal dialogue and I was set back a few weeks’ worth of slow progress toward shalom.

So, I urge you, heed Wisdom’s advice and the wisdom of Jacob.  Look for leaders amongst you and pray earnestly for them, especially if your search for a leader points to you.  Do not lose heart, stay close to God and follow God’s way as Jesus did and as Jacob and Paul and the Proverbalist taught.

And above all else remember this: in England they are called crisps.

Amen.