Scripture: Proverbs 8 & Acts 16:11-14
Given on 05/11/2014
When I was 9 or 10, one Sunday I was sitting in the sanctuary of my home church getting ready for the service to start. At that point in my life, going to church was indelibly linked to the presence of my grandparents but especially my grandmother. Each Sunday, sitting down next to her meant a Werther’s original before the service started and a quarter bound for the collection plate pressed deep into each brother’s palm. It meant nestling into her when the sermon started and it meant walking with her and my grandfather to their car after the service and trying to figure out some way for us all to get together for Sunday dinner. On that particular Sunday, the interaction with my grandmother has resided in my memory for almost 30 years. And there is no chance, I don’t think, that she had any idea that she was saying something that was going to alter the path of her grandson for the rest of his life when she spoke. I don’t think she was saying something that she knew was going to stick in my brain and emerge time and again in my own contemplation of the path my life would traverse but as she spoke, her words did just that. “Jamie,” she said. “I’m going to give you two choices of what to do with your life. I want you to either become a doctor and discover the cure for the common cold or to become a minister.” Now, a couple things. The first career choice was, for my grandmother, I think, the highest rung that anyone could reach within this life we are given. You see, as the story goes, my great grandfather, my grandmother’s father, had worked for the Vicks company of Greensboro, NC on a team of chemists who developed the first Vicks 44 cough drop. The best part of that story is that as the chemist were developing Vicks 1-43, and evidently before there was an FDA, or near as I can tell rules of any kind, my great grandfather would bring in samples of Vicks 1-43 to my grandmother’s elementary school classes and have the kids taste test the cough drops until they got the formulas right. I swear this is the story as it was related to me. So the common cold and its eventual demise was a big deal in my grandmother’s house growing up and in reaching out to me and telling me that one of my potential pathways in life was taking on the germ that causes the common cold was to connect me with the part of her life that was also taken up by her father. But I get queasy at the sight of blood. Like, really queasy. And I stink at chemistry. Like, really stink. So it was, that particular offered pathway was what was not going to happen. But the second one stuck. And I suppose that it is a bit of a question of the chicken or the egg as to what came first, my grandmother’s words of suggestion or my own love of faith, and belief in the sermon, in the spoken word, as something that can move people to be and do better than they previously thought possible, my own call to the ministry. But I never have nor will I ever forget that Sunday in which an otherwise innocent conversation between a grandson and his grandmother would raise up in me the deep longing and desire to offer my whole life to Jesus and in his service.
Growing up I can think of no better example of Jesus and the love he showed made tangible in my life than that of my grandmother. In her, my brothers and I had an important guide in navigating the world of a young child moving into our teenage years. She was a genteel southern woman through and through and sought to impart that same sense of manners within her own grandchildren. It meant chastising when one of us came in her house wearing a hat and I still instinctively take off my hat when ever I come indoors. It meant, teaching us to speak kindly of everyone or to just remain silent but to never speak ill of anyone at anytime. It meant teaching us to approach everything we did with a measure of what she called “sticktoitiveness.” It meant, advising us that if something sounded too good to be true, in all likelihood, it was. More importantly, it meant teaching us to be modern day followers of Jesus. Shortly after the car accident my mother and I were in when I was 10 months old — that rendered my mother mentally challenged, and the scars of which I still bear — it meant coming to the hospital where we were recovering. My mother’s road to recovery was long and her ability to parent compromised. It meant coming there to that hospital and taking me home to live for the remainder of time my mother was hospitalized. Thus, forming an impenetrable bond between a grandson and a grandmother that could never be broken.
In today’s passage from the book of Proverbs we are introduced to an understanding of wisdom in the same manner that one might think of a Goddess in other faith traditions: as a spirit that moves back and forth between the God of creation and the creation that sprung forth and continues to spring forth. And this Hebrew concept of woman wisdom, better known as Sophia in the Biblical Greek language, speaks to the presence of an ethereal character that resides deep within creation pulling us to be our best selves and to envision the world in starkly different terms, a woman calling to all those who would listen, moving all those who would hear to action and movement. Action and movement. Action to better do justice and love kindness, action to make today better than tomorrow, action to move beyond the things that separate humanity and towards great wholeness and justice and love and peace. But she also calls us to movement. Movement from love and back to love. Movement from grace and back to grace. Movement from God and back to God. As she emerged from the beginning of time, as did God the Creator, as did God the Christ, so she returns back to God. Just as we all emerged from God the creator, so to God the spirit, woman wisdom takes us all back home. All back to God. If we will but listen to her siren-like song, a song of peace for our world and our creation, a song of love for all humanity and all creation. A song. She sings, she moves, she calls all of God’s children back home. And on this Mother’s Day, it is important that we recognize that Wisdom, in the ancient traditions, is thought of, is conceived of, as a woman. The first born of God, forever co-creating with God. From my youngest days, I was taught to conceive of God strictly in male terms. For the longest time, the only way I knew to picture God was as an old guy with a long flowing beard who sat on a throne, more resembling Santa Claus than anything else. This is fine for a 5 year old to conceive of something that lacks shape or body because there is certainly that kind of language that exists within the scriptural witness. But when these sorts of understanding of the Divine get spun into whole traditions in which women have no place in leadership, whole traditions in which to be a woman is to be forever considered a second-class status, a faith in which we are given the option to consider God to be either an older man, a younger man, or a bird, where are our mothers and daughters, our sisters and nieces supposed to locate themselves within this tradition? Does not wisdom also call and with understanding raise her voice?
From the beginning of time, Woman Wisdom was with God. Wisdom, in a lot of ways was God. Residing at the beginning of time to bring the world, the universe, into existence. To birth new life and love into a dark and desolate world. To pass over the waters of chaos and with each step she takes having new life emerge from her footprints. To be constantly seeking to bring order out of turmoil. To bring justice. To be about the work of justice in the world. Standing with those who hunger for food and calling all her children to stand with them ,too. Standing with all those who seek a more just world and calling all her children to stand with them, too. Standing with the lost, the lame, the abused. The forgotten, the child, the one who thinks that no one cares. And just like those things that my grandmother sought to impart upon her grandchildren, Woman Wisdom implores all God’s children to make sound judgments, use common sense, honor God and abhor evil, and to never turn anyone away from seeking the knowledge of God.
And perhaps it is that we see the mystical union between the creator wisdom and the created in the second passage for this morning. As Paul and his followers were moving throughout the Roman world seeking to bring more folks the knowledge of Jesus Christ, they came to the town of Thyatira and a wealthier woman named Lydia. And, as the scripture tells us, Paul and his company focused their preaching on the women of the group. And Lydia, upon hearing the words of Paul finds herself wrapped up in the love of God, in the person of Jesus and awashed in the Wisdom of the spirit and is converted almost instantly. And we know that this conversion is instantaneous and complete because she is moved to immediately offer her home to this traveling company. And more than that she implored that her whole household should be baptized immediately. There are a few things of note in this passage. First, Lydia is seemingly a self-sufficient person, owning her own business and garnering great acclaim for her product, purple-dyed cloth in the color of royalty. Second, there is no mention of a patriarch within her household. In a world and a time in which women had few rights, especially regarding ownership of property, and connected to that, this is a woman inviting a group of men to stay at her house without any sense of the impropriety that this would have represented both then and now. And so it is that the omission of any sort of male head of household is curious if the author is not trying to say something profound about the freedom that is found in Christ. And perhaps it is that Paul’s interactions with Lydia, later with Junia and Priscia, with Phoebe and Chloe, are all in the back of his mind when he would later write that in Christ “there is no male or female” because all are made one in the light of Christ. Perhaps it is that Lydia dwells at the center of Paul’s experience with women and his declaration of equality even in the patriarchal world of ancient Rome.
There is no way to fully know why some language remains meaningful in the life of a tradition while other language falls away. With each year new words are incorporated and others left behind. And so it is that within the Christian tradition, we have embraced the language of Spirit, of Holy Spirit, as that which emanates from God and creates with God but have left behind the language of Wisdom, as a woman, calling us all to be our best selves, to work for justice, and to someday return to the God of love and wholeness. We have conceived of God as Creator, and Christ, and Spirit without retaining the language of Woman Wisdom, and given our mothers and daughters images from which they can be made in the Divine image. At this time in our history, on this day in which we honor the women who have made our lives what they are, our mothers and daughters, sisters and nieces, grandmothers, in which we seek to tell our young women that they are made in the image of God with all the abilities that come with that, maybe its time that we reincorporate the language of Woman Wisdom, calling to all of us to do justice, to honor God, and to come home. Does not wisdom call? With understanding raise her voice? Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.