By Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture Proverbs 8: 22-31
A few years ago, I was given my first opportunity as a pastor to visit with an elderly woman in my previous congregation who was experiencing a rapid and steep decline in health. I had been serving as pastor of children and families, so this visit was a departure for me, because I spent most of my time with the children, but due to several logistics at that time I was the pastor called to the living room of this woman in her late ‘90s, who I’d known for many years but never had the chance to really get to know her. Her name was Marjorie, and she was so gracious to me in this visit. Without much prodding from me at all, she shared with me about her life, about the large dairy farm she had managed with her husband as they raised their children, now grown with children of their own. She had been a person of faith her whole life, having played the organ for 30 years in her church and been a leader in United Methodist Women. There was a strength of spirit in Marjorie. As I learned from others after this visit with her, Marjorie had a reputation for the care and attention to detail she extended in all things she did – the perfectly crimped crust on her homemade pies, the handwritten cards with exquisite penmanship she sent to church members until just the previous year as her health failed. She was known for her generosity, quiet kindness, and her mentorship of other women going through tough times.
And as she shared with me on the afternoon of my visit, her own life had been filled with plenty of hardship. She had been the caregiver for both her mother and husband through years of chronic illness. She had lost a child before the age of two. She had lived through not one but several lengthy seasons of instability and suffering. And then she said something that made me realize that although I had come to give her pastoral care, she was the one delivering sacred wisdom to me. She looked at me and said intently: “Suzanne, nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.” And what she meant is that there is nothing in this life that God cannot touch and use for his redeeming purposes. God is all-loving, all-powerful, and ever-present, and when we give our life over to him, he will, in his time, bring his grace to bear on us in all circumstances. “Nothing is wasted in God’s economy.”
As I drove away from my visit with Marjorie that afternoon, I was keenly aware that I’d been in the presence of someone with great wisdom. Marjorie had accumulated 97 years of life experience and it had been the desire of her heart to trust and lean on the Spirit through the challenges in her life. She had first-hand knowledge of God and God’s ways as solid and faithful. And I could sense that her soul had been refined over time such that she embodied fruits of the spirit – love, peace, faithfulness, generosity, self-control. The wisdom she carried wasn’t just the accumulated knowledge about life that she could share with others; her wisdom extended to her very presence, the way she walked through the world; the spirit in which she interacted with others. I bet you all know people who, when you’re with them, you know you’re in the presence of someone with true wisdom, both because of what they know and the way they approach life and manifest light and peace and hope in the world.
I would not have a chance for another visit with Marjorie. She passed away a few weeks later, and I’m so grateful for that one chance to witness her great faithfulness and wisdom. We live in a time that is desperate for real wisdom, aren’t we? There are so many problems that need to be solved, and the prevailing mood in our society is full of fear and tension. We distrust each other, and yet somehow we want things to be fixed with immediate results. We tend to listen to the loudest voices, often the ones that make promises that are impossible to fulfill. On a more personal level, I think we also yearn for wisdom to navigate the messiness of our individual lives. Because life is messy, isn’t it? And hard. And some of us have what feels like more than our fair share of suffering, and so we need wisdom for making sense of and moving through the sharp edges of life.
Well, I have good news for us today, because God is wisdom and God’s desire is to share wisdom with us. Our scripture today from Proverbs tells us that wisdom was with God from the very beginning, from before the world being formed. In fact wisdom takes part in creation and is described as a master worker or artisan, right there beside God as all of creation comes into being. There’s a way, then, of understanding wisdom as threaded into the fabric of life. And wisdom delights in all of creation, including humankind. Wisdom is full of joy. But most importantly, wisdom is of God; wisdom is with God.
And in parts of the Gospel, especially the Gospel of John, we know that wisdom is associated with Jesus. Jesus is the Word that was with God in the beginning. Jesus is God’s wisdom manifest in human flesh, revealing God’s truth. This wisdom is a gift freely given out of love and compassion for God’s beloved children, for each and every one of us. Jesus came to show us, through both his teaching and how he lived, what wisdom is. And last Sunday, as we celebrated Pentecost, we remembered that Jesus continues to teach us through the Holy Spirit, which is God’s truth that dwells within us and among us as a community of faith. When Jesus left the disciples, he told them that there was so much more he wanted to teach them, but they weren’t ready to learn all of the truth yet. But their state of un-readiness was OK, because Jesus was sending the Spirit of Truth, so that when they were ready, God’s wisdom could be planted and grow in their hearts.
Our God is all-wise, all-loving. Our creator, accompanied by wisdom from the very beginning and throughout the act of creation; our savior, the manifestation of wisdom in humanity; and the Spirit, God’s voice of truth for us in the here and now. Wisdom then is about more than gaining knowledge or knowing what is or isn’t the right thing to do in a given situation. It’s not having a high GPA or IQ, or achieving professional or financial success, or maximizing one’s health or one’s happiness. Wisdom is about knowing how to live in the world. It’s about understanding how to see and how to be. Wisdom is nothing less than the grounding of our spirituality.
And yet, discerning wisdom can be tricky for us, I think primarily because we are quite vulnerable to substituting the world’s wisdom for God’s wisdom. I’ll share an example from another time period, because sometimes I think an example with some distance can be easier to understand. Native American Chief Seattle, who was chief of the Suquamish indigenous people who lived in northwest corner of what is now the United States, near the city that bears his name, was the leader of the Suquamish tribe through the mid 1800s. Chief Seattle watched the first white colonists arrive in the lands where his people lived, and as their numbers grew and they disrupted the natives’ way of life, he knew he had to figure out a way to deal with the colonists. He refused to engage in violence and tried his best to dialogue with them. He converted to Christianity and tried to integrate his indigenous spiritual beliefs with the beliefs and ways of life of the white colonists. Yet he struggled to do this, and he eventually came to the conclusion that the heart of the problem between the Suquamish and the colonists was a spiritual one, one of seeing and being. The values of his people conflicted with the values of the white colonists, who believed the land could be bartered or traded or sold as if it were a commodity. This was very different from the Suquamish, who held all the land as sacred. As a last resort, in order to preserve the very lives of his people, Seattle agreed to the removal of his tribe to a reservation, where he lived with his people until his death in 1866. In reflecting on the wisdom of his tribe, Chief Seattle observed, “Humankind did not weave the web of life. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Chief Seattle held a reverence for God and for the wisdom inherent in the web of creation, the sacred interconnectedness of creation. The white colonists, though professing Christian faith, somehow found it reasonable to kill the Suquamish or forcibly remove them from their land in order to own and colonize the land for their own purposes. The colonists were unwittingly attached to something other than God; they had come to idolize exploration and colonization and had fooled themselves into thinking that they were spreading the kingdom of God through their actions. Our difficult task, and it’s harder when we’re examining our own context, is rejecting the ways of the world that try to masquerade as truth and goodness. We need God’s wisdom, not the world’s wisdom, in order to see as God sees, and to be in the world in the way that God desires us to be.
In the passage from Romans, Paul is also trying to disentangle worldly understanding from spiritual wisdom. Paul is writing to impart a truth about life. He writes about suffering, and many at that time, and many in our contemporary time, find suffering to be at odds with the presence of peace and also with the presence of God. How can a good God permit suffering? – You’ve heard that question posed before, haven’t you? Or, if someone is suffering, one might ask whether or not their suffering is the result of an inner state of moral weakness. We’re familiar with these kinds of questions about suffering, aren’t we? But Paul is trying to correct this notion. The web of life that we are born into includes suffering. And, at the same time, there is hope for those who find themselves in places of darkness. When someone experiences suffering and is able to stay present in their suffering, patience is produced. And then out of patience comes the shaping and growing of character traits like hope and gratitude. This is not something that we can do on our own. Only with the help of the Spirit filling us with love and peace can we patiently persevere with hope that new life can be created, that good will come from bleak circumstances.
And friends, God is nowhere close to being finished with us. God wants to continue to breath new and good life into us. Part of the wisdom of God’s design is that creation is an ongoing act of God. And it is often through the difficult, dead-end parts of life that we are reshaped over and over again to resemble more and more the image of God. I shared the story of Marjorie, who by her late 90s had cooperated with multiple invitations over her lifetime to grow in grace. Although age is no guarantee that one will be open to the Spirit’s movement, we do have more opportunities as we grow older to grow in wisdom and compassion. This is one of the reasons I so love my work here at Trinity with our esteemed group of seniors. They show me weekly how to grow in trust, in faithfulness, in openness to the surprising ways that God brings hope and goodness into our lives.
But of course, age isn’t the primary criteria for a life of wisdom. The most important quality is openness. God has a hard time speaking to people who already have all the answers. Are you ready to be open and listen for God’s voice with the ear of your heart? Are you ready to let go of the hold that the world’s wisdom has on you? And even if you’re not ready, or if you’re unsure if you’re ready to listen and be open to change, what a consolation it is to know that that’s OK, that the Spirit patiently awaits our readiness. For God’s economy, expressed through the constant renewal of creation, the sacrificial love of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Spirit, is so much grander and gracious and eternally loving than we can even imagine. Thanks be to God.
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