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Woman Wisdom Makes a World

July 8, 2019

JanetMcKenzie-The-Prayerartist Janet Mckenzie depicts Wisdom and Revelation
http://www.janetmckenzie.com

Word of God, Word of Earth – Part I
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

This was the first sermon in my summer series called Word of God, Word of Earth in which I am exploring ways the natural world challenges, comforts and gathers out attention so that we might be gathered in by God and awoken to our responsibilities in, with, and for creation.[i] For the next few weeks we will be exploring this topic through the Elijah and Elisha narratives in First and Second Kings.

Wow. So unfortunately I don’t have this sermon. I preached this day without notes and with only my heavily marked up bible and a photocopied quotation with me in the pulpit. It is unlikely I will come back to reconstruct it, though it was an important one for me. It introduced the theme of my summer sermon series – God comes to us and wakes us up in, with, and through the natural world, and in particular the figure of Woman Wisdom of Proverbs 8. Instead of trying to remember all that I said, I‘ll jot down a few memories from that day, and, in place of the exegesis, a reflection on Woman Wisdom that I wrote for my Monday evening bible study when we covered this same material (which is clearly not a sermon). I thank Rev. Sarah Henkel for reminding me of the artwork of Janet McKenzie who graciously allowed us to use her images in worship many years ago. They will accompany my post during this series. 

I opened my sermon by sharing how hard I find it these days to keep track of the big picture. I have trouble keeping my sense of emotional focus. The newspaper, radio and media feeds expose me to stories that keep me afraid, then suddenly hopeful, then on the edge of despair, then rejoicing in something beautiful – sometimes all within the same half hour. I move emotionally up and down, up and down, like a yoyo. Years ago I used to experience good weeks and bad weeks – today I don’t even use the terms good day or bad day; its more like a succession of moments. I relate to Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

In the midst of chaos, I said, the Wisdom traditions in scripture come as a breath of fresh air, lifting us to cosmic visions of God’s work and God’s ways. I practice mindfulness mediation, which helps with keeping myself focused and calm, but two recent reads reminded me that the question of ultimate meaning is inescapable, and each of these books wrestled with meaning in a cosmos without a center. Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a theoretical physicists’ quest for permanence and certainty in an impermanent and uncertain world. Paul Wallace’s Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos is a study in biblical wisdom (and the Book of Job, in particular) from one who both teaches physics and astronomy and is also a pastor (a pretty cool combo, if you ask me). Each encouraged me toward this sermon, the bulk of which was an introduction to the figure of Wisdom personified (incarnate?) as a Woman in Hebrew Scripture (Job 28, Proverbs 8) with generous selection from the apocryphal (Baruch, Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon) and pseudopigraphal (1 Enoch) writings. I suggested that the cosmic visions of wisdom (increasingly) incarnate were themselves a search for a place to stand in the midst of chaos.[ii] On what this tradition says, see me letter below.

Here is the quote I ended my sermon with. I found it in a collection of prayers to the feminine divine by poet William Cleary. Cleary wrote, and by the end of the sermon I felt…

It’s when the second hand is ticking around my watch and I am plodding from task to heavy task, just holding my world together so another hour can come about, that I feel those futile doubts: those doubts I wish I did not have to have. Is it worth it? Am I achieving anything? Is there hope after yesterday’s tragedies? Then I almost haven’t time to believe, no time for a vision or a hope or a prayer.

But when I’m touched with wonder, then I can begin to believe and not to doubt. It happens when I see a courage and beauty that seems greater than human, when I see plain humanity but suspect inspiration, when I hear a harmony among impossibly disparate sounds, when the grace of a series of events so take me by surprise that I cannot not pay attention.

It’s when events like these revive a deep hope beneath my own despair that I begin to doubt my worthless doubts, to doubt that some doubting is really wise and justified, when I may live for a moment in faith and glimpse a faraway land of light as small as a star on the dark horizon of my inner world.[iii]

And finally, here is a letter I wrote to my bible study that day after I covered much of this same material with them in preparation for reading the Gospel of John. By the time we get to this rather unusual gospel we encounter a quite gender-bending idea: Jesus is Woman Wisdom incarnate, a queer Jesus.

jmjepxartist Janet Mckenzie depicts “Jesus of the People”
an African-American Jesus modeled by a woman

THE LETTER

Good morning Interpid Travelers,

As a couple of you have already asked me this morning – yes, I found my book bag and bible. Thank you for your prayers concerning that.

Now, some thoughts about last night. I dropped a lot of information on you on topics often skipped over in churches, and we read from books most of you were unfamiliar with. Let me try to sum up a bit.

The Wisdom Tradition has it’s origins in the long exile of Israel in Babylon (587 – 520 BCE) and kept developing right down to the time of the Greek Empire (until around 200 BCE). During the time of exile there was neither Temple nor Holy City. Priests in exile performed no sacrifice. The traditions of ancient Israel were in shambles. All God’s people had were their stories and a need to survive. While the end of exile in 520 BCE allowed a some to return to Palestine and rebuild the Temple and City, the successive ’Empires Over Israel’ always remained.

The Wisdom Tradition tries to make sense of this world by developing practical advice for human life, often centered around home and business. (you might usefully ask, what, then, is left out?) Proverbs is at times too confident in our ability to discern and live by wisdom. Job stands in awe before the wisdom that created a truly wild world that exists for more than humans alone and challenges the idea that suffering and death are always the result of sin. Ecclesiastes almost despairs in coming to terms with the reality of death and the temporary nature of all things.

The universally accepted canon of scripture includes the wisdom writings of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, as well as some of the Psalms and sometimes the Song of Songs (as well as portions of Isaiah). All were written in Hebrew and were, with the exception of Job and Isaiah, said to have been written by Solomon (who had, of course, died 500 – 700 years earlier).

The Hebrew Scriptures we all think we know were translated into Greek starting sometime around 250 BCE. The translations took place in Alexandria, Egypt, the cradle of Greek Wisdom. Over the next 250 years the tradition continued to develop, and new books were written: The Wisdom of Ben Sira (or Sirach), the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch, and even parts of Daniel. All were considered Scripture in the New Testament period, and are quoted by Paul, Peter, Hebrews, the synoptic gospel writers, and especially John. The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon are considered scripture in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Coptic churches. 1 Enoch is contained in the Psuedopigrapha (other writings).

Within this collection of writings sits Dame Wisdom, Woman Wisdom, wisdom personified. She was God’s first creation, God’s co-creator, through whom and with whom all things were made and all things sustained. As a master-crafts-person she formed the cosmos that so awed Job, she visited Solomon and guided him, she called fools in the marketplace to repentance and richly rewarded the righteous. She draws all to God with beauty and reason. She could not be grasped with the intellect but could only be given, or give herself, to the just. (In some ways, she was a Jewish response to the popularity of the Goddess Isis in Egypt. Wisdom is not a goddess, though, but God’s first creation, or an aspect of God him/herself).

The wisdom tradition vacillated as to whether wisdom could make her home on earth (Wisdom of Solomon said yes) or whether she would always find ’no place to lay her head’ (the perspective of 1 Enoch). Ultimately, the community that formed and was formed by the Gospel of John came to understand Jesus as the Wisdom of God, Woman Wisdom, incarnate. 

In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through her, and without her not one thing came into being. What has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This is of course unfamiliar to us to us, and might even sound jarring, because the Gospel writer used the masculine Greek word for wisdom (logos), then dominant in the West, instead of the more familiar and scripturally warranted feminine word (sophia). Logos is translated as Word, while Sophia is translated as Wisdom. Both Jesus and the Spirit embody aspects of Wisdom.

This is a tradition were rarely spend time with in church, and even more rarely preach from (unless we are quoting some of the aphorisms). This is one reason everything was unfamiliar last night. As we have spoken of before, we can no longer speak of Judaism and Christianity as if they were (or are) monolithic traditions. There were (and are) Judaisms and Christianities (plural). The diversity of traditions in the world of our scripture is dizzying. which is one reason the Word is unfathomably rich. The Wisdom Tradition is one one these traditions that has powerfully shaped our understanding of Jesus. We will understand and benefit infinitely more from the gospel by having this tradition under our belts, so to speak.

So that you have them, the relevant passages are

  • In Your Bible
    • Proverbs 8
    • Job 28
  • In Bibles containing the Apocrypha
    • Sirach 24 (is the one I couldn’t find last night)
    • Wisdom of Solomon 7 (but also the narrative of chapters 1-30)
    • Baruch
  • In the Pseudopigrapha
    • 1 Enoch 42

Finally, how might all of this have come from Alexandria, Egypt all the way to Ephesus where Prisca, Aquila, and Paul, and then later the Elder and “John” may have learned it? [Our bible study had just finished read the Johannine letters]. I don’t think we need to think hard to imagine the links that brought together scholars and teachers and preachers across the Roman Empire. Just look at the movement of soldiers and taxes. But if you want a scriptural text to hang on to, I am quite taken by the powerful preacher Apollos, who learned about Jesus in Alexandria and brought the good news, as he understood it, to Ephesus, where he was further instructed by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24). If the gospel as he knew it sounded anything like the opening poetic prologue in John 1, we can see why his preaching was so powerful.

See you next week,

Pastor Jeff

[i] David Napier published Word of God, Word of Earth in 1976. It was a fresh translation of the Elijah Narrative with an eco-focused interpretation and served as the inspiration for this sermon series. He reworked and revised the entire book in 1992, publishing it as part of The Best of Davie Napier through Abingdon Press. Throughout he pays attention to this juxtaposition of the Word of God which speaks in our scripture through the Word of Earth. Recommended, if you can find it.

[ii] I know I cited Kee Beom So’s reflection in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice (WJK, 2012).

[iii] I found this passage in William Clearly’s Prayers to She Who Is (Crossroad, 1995), which ‘turns the third-person theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson’s classic [She Who Is: The Mystery of the Divine in Feminist Theological Discourse] into second-person prayers that everyone can say. With beautiful drawings by Morningstar, here is an “open it anywhere” prayerbook to help us speak–and listen to–the God who cares as passionately about us as a mother for her children in pain.

 

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