Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wisdom vs. the Scoffers

This morning we are treated to a rare reading from the Wisdom of Solomon – a book from the Apocrypha that is part of what is called the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. Other books of the Bible that are included in the Wisdom literature are the booksof Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ecclesiasticus. And one could also argue that the Gospels are themselves part of the Wisdom Literature, in that the teachings of Jesus and the person of Jesus both represent this tradition.

It’s too bad we don’t have more readings from these books of the Bible, because of all the books of the Bible, the Wisdom literature is probably the most compatible with the world view of the modern Episcopalian. In the Wisdom literature, the Creation is celebrated and human experience is honored; God takes on a female aspect and delights in humanity; and sin is defined not as the priests defined it in other parts of the Bible - as a violation of the Purity Code - but instead as simple ignorance and a general stubbornness.

In the first chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom, who is a female form of the Godhead,

"cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice...
How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?"

I don’t know about you, but those are questions I have asked often - especially during this long election season, when it seemed we were in an endless season of scoffing, I asked that question: “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”

But, of course the problem is that it’s hard to ask that question without sounding like a scoffer yourself. I mean, whether you are, say, a governor from Alaska scoffing at the liberal media, or a fake newsman on Comedy Central scoffing at a governor, either way there was a whole lot of scoffing going on. And if there’s anything that I look forward to now, it’s a time of less scoffing and more listening.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a None-of-the-above, I’m sure we all can be proud of what our nation achieved on Tuesday night. Of course, as the parents of a bi-racial child who hopes to be president one day, Rose and I were deeply encouraged by the election results. Our son is just that much closer to the White House now.

Except, of course, it will no surprise that we were disappointed with the outcome on Proposition 8. I grieve for all of my friends who have just been informed by a majority of voters in California that some people are less equal then others. And I also grieve for how the debate was conducted. Whether you voted for Proposition 8 or against it, I think all of us would agree that the debate was dominated by a complete ignorance of the Bible.

It is incomprehensible to me that a Christian pastor, a man who claims to know the Bible, can stand before his congregation and say with a straight face that “the Bible defines traditional marriage as one man, one woman.”

Where, I would like to know, is that found in the Bible? All I know is that in 1 Kings, it says that Solomon had “seven hundred [wives who were] princesses and three hundred concubines.” I know that in Genesis, Chapter 16, it says that when Sarah was unable to conceive a child, Abraham took their slave, Hagar, as a wife. I know that in Jesus’ own time, the law was that if you were a married woman and your husband died, you were required to marry your husband’s brother, whether you liked it or not - whether he was married or not. I know that throughout the Bible, marriage as we understand it today is almost nowhere to be found; that women were considered a form of property, and that women had virtually none of what we in today’s society would recognize as basic human rights.

So for a Christian minister to stand up in front of God and all the world and proclaim the Bible as a model and standard for traditional marriage – well, either he hasn’t read his Bible, or he is willfully misleading his congregation. Which do you suppose it is?

I don’t know. But the fact that these pastors got away with it – the fact that they were not hooted out of their pulpits - well, that just speaks to a profound ignorance on the part of Christians for their own Holy Scriptures.

Wisdom cries out in the street... How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?

God forgive me for being such a scoffer.

I blame myself for not doing enough to address this state of affairs. Maybe we don’t teach enough about the Bible here in this church. Perhaps I should speak more often about what Biblical scholars have to say about the Scriptures we read in our services. Maybe I should talk more, for example, about the scholarship behind this morning’s gospel reading, which most objective scholars doubt ever came from the mouth of Jesus. As one group of scholars put it, this story lacks all of the traits that we associate with Jesus’ authentic teaching: it “lacks humor, exaggeration, and paradox, it is straightforward, unimaginative, and moralizing... its application is obvious... and in addition, the parable emphasizes the social boundaries” that Jesus himself challenged throughout his ministry. [The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus by Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar]

So what does this mean for us? I think it means that the reading of Scripture is not simple. That sometimes life gets complicated. That of course when we come to church and we kneel at this altar rail, we open ourselves to communion with God on the most elemental level – but that doesn’t mean we check our minds at the door. That the spiritual life that has integrity demands our best thinking and a critical reading of Scripture.

I heard a Unitarian pastor on the radio the other day (The Rev. Forest Church) who said that “our church does not give answers to unanswerable questions.” I loved that – and that’s the Episcopal Church too.

Maybe I, and other clergy, need to be more explicit in our teaching on the Bible; so that we can teach one another to be more discerning of Scripture - not just so that we have more educated congregations, but so that when people start representing the Bible in completely fictitious ways, there will be more of us who have the tools to argue the truth.

Well, if you are interested in deepening your understanding of our sacred Scriptures, I encourage you to consider joining one of the home Bible Study groups that are forming now in our church. You will hear more about them and other small groups next week, when Mitch Garcia will be preaching.

So getting back to Wisdom, this female aspect of the divine: she stands before us and begs us to come to her. In the book of Proverbs she pre-figures what Christians would later claim about Jesus Christ: she is the Hebrew version of Logos, this ordering principle of the universe; this aspect of creation that makes all knowledge possible. The author of John’s gospel clearly had meditated very deeply on this aspect of Wisdom when writing the prologue:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
When he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above... I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom is presented in the book of Proverbs as the companion or the consort of God the Creator: her partnership with God the Father becomes what later Christian mystics would call the “marriage of the sacred masculine and the divine feminine.” As Jesus takes on these aspects of Wisdom, incarnate, this sacred marriage of the masculine and the feminine is revealed to the world in the form of a fully integrated human being.

Centuries later, Christian mystics like Hildegaard and Theresa and Meister Eckhart would proclaim their own visions of this divine marriage made manifest in Christ; and in the process they would reveal a sacred balance between the masculine and the feminine, both in how we represent the Godhead, and how we understand our own selves.

Perhaps it is time that we more fully embrace this Wisdom; perhaps it is time that we celebrate this divine aspect of the Godhead; maybe then, Christians will be less afraid of men who embrace their feminine side, and women who accept their masculine side.

This is the Wisdom of Scripture; this is the Wisdom of the ages, speaking to us. She is begging us to live a more balanced life – because “the desire for wisdom leads to the kingdom of God.”

Somebody say.... AMEN.

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