So, you may be surprised to know that I keep a book of etiquette on my bookshelf.
Not just any book of etiquette, The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette: a guide to
contemporary living—revised from the 1952 edition and expanded for publication in 1978. This
thing has index tabs: Family, Weddings, Funerals, Forms of Address, Public Life. Within those
sections are instructions on things like, “teaching a child self-control,” “children’s manners at
table,” “grooming, shaving, and make-up for the teen-ager;” not to mention, perhaps my favorite:
“Household management in a servantless society.” Naturally, weddings take up a great deal of
space, as does entertaining. There is even a chapter on “The White House” that includes
‘invitations, a state dinner, gifts to the white house, etc.’ This is followed by a section on the
flag, and our national anthem.
I’ve kept this book for decades—it’s sat in boxes, moved up and down the coast, across country,
twice—for the sole purpose of ‘doing something’ with it; something creative, something…
subversive, even cheeky. You see, my mother, Phyllis, gave me that book when I was young
because she found such things important. She was always concerned about image, about looking
like she belonged in society, and she tried to pass on that anxiety to me, in the form of this book;
that I know how to behave properly.
This was one of my first lessons that knowing things is not the same as having wisdom. To my
teen-aged mind, it was far more important to just try to be honest with yourself and others. (And,
to be honest, I generally resisted anything seen as “proper” or catering to how others perceive
you. It was the early 90s, after all.)
So, not surprising, one thing I love about Jesus is that he isn’t big on manners. . “Get behind me,
satan” he says to Peter. Well, that’s not very nice. I’m sure Peter didn’t appreciate hearing
that—certainly not right after having blurted out that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised
Liberator. Our dear, impetuous Peter thought he knew exactly who Jesus is: the One who would come to the aid of Israel against the horrible, ugly, malicious Roman oppressors. Yet, when Jesus shares what will become of him, Peter cannot accept it. He turns away
.There is knowledge. And then there is wisdom.
In thinking about wisdom and who is wise, I stumbled across a few challenges as I went to write
this. To be clear, I have no hesitation naming each and every one of you a wise person. Lord
knows you’ve lived long enough on this planet to have learned a lesson or two. And the fact that
you are here (virtually/ in person) suggests that you are at least curious about this notion called
‘God’/the divine—which is, as scripture likes to say, a form of wisdom. But when I think about
where in our society we look for or recognize “wisdom” there seem to be a few repeated (maybe
even tired) tropes.
For example: Age = Wisdom (at least in many children’s story books). There’s the wizened
storyteller who seems to know what happened from every angle, or the slightly grumpy old man
with the amazing curiosities in his dusty home who opens up to the tenacious child. Furthermore,
not to put too fine a point on it, Age + [a certain] Gender = Wisdom. Here I’m thinking of the
(vaguely or explicitly ethnic) grandmother who can recount stories and songs of the old country,
or who recreates foods and flavors from a distant land that surround the senses. Perhaps she’s the
one to whom everyone goes for advice, or who is trusted with the family secrets, knowing that
her wink and nod signal Fort Knox levels of protection when the parents start asking how the
lamp was broken. These are the familial safeguards of wisdom. We can learn from them, sit
under their tutelage, maybe even carry forward a little piece of identity that is grounding and
Then there is the notion that Spiritual Expertise = wisdom. This can be seen in a kind of
reclusiveness that comes from removal from the world; the spiritual guru who is buffered from
the winds of chaos because either they are unattached to fads and frenzies, or they have found
their method for mindfulness that keeps them calm. (For those who have seen the show on HBO,
Silicon Valley, Gavin Belsen at certain points could fit this mold.) Taking that spiritual expertise
one step further gets us to, Exotic Asceticism [= wisdom]. The monk on the mountaintop. They do not come to you, you must go to them. St. Anthony in the desert, a Christian monk from
roughly the second or third century is a prime example of this—and one who periodically
surfaces in popularity among Christian circles.I’m poking a bit at these types and stereotypes because, arguably, they both are and are not
helpful to us in this particular moment. Now—here comes a caveat—for those blessed with a
familial elder, or who have journeyed through your own quest for detachment, what I am saying
here is not intended to diminish such experience. What I want to suggest is that, as a society, as a
collective, I suspect that these projections of wisdom (always) onto others cast shadows of doubt
on our own capacity to pursue wisdom daily, to (want to) be wise—yet this is the very thing
scripture calls us to do.
Let me ask you something that might sound a little odd: Who is Wisdom? Who do you say she
Perhaps you noticed that our responsive reading this morning was not from the book of Psalms.
It was from a book called the Wisdom of Solomon (or, simply, Wisdom for short). Psalms,
Proverbs, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, are all part of a genre that’s rather aptly named, the ‘Wisdom
literature’ of the Bible. Many of the passages in the Wisdom literature describe not only what
constitutes wisdom, but they describe who is Wisdom. And Wisdom is always she for the
simple reason that the Hebrew word for wisdom, hokmah, and the Greek term, sophia, both take
feminine articles and both are described in personified form.
(So,) Who does scripture say Wisdom is? She is a reflection of eternal light…an image of
[God’s] goodness (v.26); she is more beautiful than the sun and excels every constellation of the
stars (v.29). The verses we read were taken from a longer passage in which the narrator,
Solomon, is describing how he prayed for Wisdom, and fell in love with her. In the verse
following where we ended he says, “I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take
her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. . . If riches are a desirable possession in
life, what is richer than wisdom, the active cause of all things? And if understanding is effective,
who more than she is fashioner of what exists?” In other words, everything we see and don’t see
exists in this world through Wisdom.
Do these attributes sound like someone else we read about in scripture? (hint: what’s the most
common Sunday school answer? Jesus.) As early church writers were working through what
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant, some turned to this familiar figure for guidance as they
developed their christology. She can do all things, she renews all things, she makes holy souls
friends of God; she is a breath of the power of God (7.25).
We need Wisdom, perhaps now more than ever. To say this is also to say we need Jesus Christ,
who is Wisdom-in-the-flesh (incarnate).
We like to think that wisdom comes with age, with the passage of time. . . But, what if Jesus is
inviting us all to seek Wisdom at any time, to desire her as Solomon did when he says, “Wisdom
is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those
who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to
seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.”
Yesterday marked twenty years after the attacks on the Word Trade Centers, and the Pentagon.
Nearly two weeks ago the U.S. military was said to conclude its efforts to leave Afghanistan
after twenty years of involvement there. So, what have we learned? What knowledge have we
accrued that has changed the global situation for the better? What do we know now that we
didn’t then that has changed us? Have we become wise? If so, what does that wisdom look like?
If I am honest with you, I don’t see her, in the remembering. I don’t see her in the way we talk
about Muslim peoples, Muslim Americans. I don’t see her in the way we have cared for (and not
cared for) our military veterans and personnel. I don’t see her in the way we turn our gaze on one
another. . . “see something, say something” is one of the many relics of this era—and that’s just
one example of how we surveille one another. We have learned to be suspicious of all people.
The narrative that “they” are “jealous of our freedoms” took hold of our national imagination,
and we turned to the belief that our freedoms need to be protected by any means, and at all costs.
You see, as a nation, turning our gaze and our anger outward allows us to look away from the
trauma, the pain, the intense anguish of losing so many loved ones. We no longer see the couple
falling hand in hand. Similar to Peter, we want to turn away from the prospect of suffering. It
feels too difficult to sit with so much emotion, so, instead, we develop communal practices of
self-protection. Allegiance to the nation as shown through certain behaviors, a certain manner of
being, a recognizable level of conformity, becomes the guidebook. We bless ourselves and throw
curses upon others. We are always concerned about image and looking like we belong in this
Contemporary theologian, Wendy Farley, says this, “We humans are free only to be what we are:
bearers of the divine image. Everything else is bondage, and it is this bondage from which
incarnate Wisdom seeks to free us.”
Wisdom/Sophia/Christ is well acquainted with suffering and grief, and she is waiting for us to go
out and meet her so that she may journey with us. Wisdom is the one who befriends us to divine
Love. Wisdom is the one who reminds us to love our neighbor as ourself, as she reveals who (all)
is our neighbor. She is the one who encourages us to pick up the etiquette of an/Other, as we let
go of our anxieties. Wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other in divine
embrace. And against Wisdom evil does not prevail.
Who do you say Wisdom is? Do you hear her calling at the gate? Will we pursue her, together?