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The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 08/16/2015

Sermon on Proverbs 9:1-10, by Samuel D. Zumwalt

Wisdom has built her house;
    she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine;
    she has also set her table.
She has sent out her young women to call
    from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
    To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
    and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways, and live,
    and walk in the way of insight.”

Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
    and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
    reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
    teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

 

GOD’S CHILDREN: WALKING WISELY

 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s a dangerous question for the preacher to ask: “What are you hungry for?” Because if the preacher talks too much about food, soon that’s all anyone will be able to think about. So it’s walking a tightrope to go there in the first place. But we can blame it all on Proverbs.

Today Wisdom says: ““Whoever is simple [as in gullible], let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Now this perfectly illustrates that Proverbs is wisdom literature which contrasts the way of the foolish with the way of the wise. It’s target audience appears to be young folks. But if you read Proverbs at one sitting, you will agree with Methodist bishop Will Willimon that it’s like going on a long road trip with your mother. There’s no shortage of advice, and your eyes start to glaze over. “Want to listen to the radio, Mom?”

But, taken in smaller bites, the book of Proverbs makes you think about where you are in life. The entire book is best summarized by verse 10, which echoes Psalm 90: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”

Sensitized by our culture’s overemphasis on feelings, a part of us blurts out: “Well...that means awe or reverence not actually to be afraid.” But, as good parents know, a little fear from time to time isn’t a bad thing. Everyone needs to learn to respect her or his limits. God isn’t our buddy. God is always God, having no ending and no beginning. Unlike you and me! Note to self.

Many centuries later, St. Augustine shares what it took a long time to learn: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee” (Confessions).

By the time he wrote his Confessions, Augustine was like that guy who was known to have the best judgment in the world. When asked how he got there, he answered: “Experience.” And when asked how he got experience, he answered: “Bad judgment!” Augustine spent a lot of years taking after his pagan father instead of his Christian mother. When he finally stopped climbing Fool’s Hill, Augustine could talk from experience about what he learned.

Now it would be best, as Augustine wrote, to get wise sooner than later. I wasn’t a happy 17 year old when Dad told me I couldn’t use the money I saved from my summer job to buy a motorcycle. Actually, he said I could buy the motorcycle as long as I had enough money to pay for an apartment, utilities, food, gas, insurance, and all other living expenses, because I wasn’t living under his roof and driving a motorcycle. Ten years later when I was a hospital chaplain at a trauma hospital and saw a 17 year old on life support from a motorcycle wreck, I understood. Dad had been dead for six years at that point, but I went outside and said: “Thanks, Dad.” Many years later I offered to take some other teenagers for a Friday night visit to the Parkland Hospital Emergency Room to see why driving a motorcycle on city streets might not be a wise choice.

Of course, the greatest wisdom is not commonsense. Proverbs says: “Stop stuffing yourself at the world’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and let God feed you with what you need most!”

WISDOM IS KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

            New pastors, even when they are second career pastors, are often blind to what we don’t know. I’m sure I was quite a passionate preacher when I was younger, but I took a look around at all those older pastors I had met and felt quite sad they were not as smart as I. After all, I had not only graduated from a seminary that focused on preparing good parish pastors, I had spent another year training in a major hospital, and had worked part-time in a congregation, so frankly I was certain I had the total package: smart, personable, and multi-talented. Still climbing Fool’s Hill! So, in addition to a great lack of experience as a parish pastor, I also was quite short on humility. A common trait in the young. How do you get good judgment? Ah...bad judgment!

            The scary part is not knowing what you don’t know, because you can cause a lot of damage to vulnerable people. Teachers and parents don’t do the young any favors when they keep telling them how smart and talented they are. Rather wise leaders will tell the young and those without experience the truth: You can’t do everything well; You have a lot to learn; You have to recognize your weaknesses and seek help; You are a part of a team; Defer to those who can do something better than you; Don’t expect to have today what it took others years to have.

            Frankly the scariest part for me as an older pastor, whom I hope has miles to go, is how many Christians operate on narcisstic feelings instead of thoughts. Christian love (agape) is not a feeling. It is a deliberate daily choice to follow Jesus in giving one’s life away in humble service. Truth (alatheia) is not relative, not a malleable concept contingent upon new information gleaned from the myth of progress and only recently discovered by seminary professors. There are not many paths to God: Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.He is God in human flesh, the One through whom all things were made. Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life (zoe) in you!  

Do you remember that quote from Sri Lankan pastor Daniel T. Niles? “Evangelism is one beggar showing another beggar where to get food.” That’s the wise work and the wise walk to which all Christians are called in Holy Baptism. If somewhere along the way a pastor has lost sight of that, shamefully as part of seminary education, all that’s left is to do a good deed daily. Pastors need to learn that faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which is not socialism but salvation) doesn’t mean hating one’s non-Christian neighbors. Just the opposite! God so loved the world that is hostile to Him that He gave His only begotten Son to deliver it from sin, death, and the devil. When the neighbor doesn’t know where to get the Bread of Life, we tell her/him!

I will always be grateful for a wonderful training program called Word and Witness. My mission parish scrimped to send me for training after I had been their pastor for one year. Rich Nelson taught me how to read the Bible to tell God’s story better. Craig Lewis taught me how to share my faith story with others. Then, I got to take that back to the parish and teach a small group how to do the same thing. And that little parish grew because lay people shared their faith. You see, I didn’t know what I didn’t know until someone told me. And that’s true of everyone!

When we love our neighbor as God loves the neighbor, we don’t want them to starve to death while they’re still gorging on the world’s all-you-can-eat-buffet! We beggars tell beggars!

 

WITNESS AMIDST THE HATRED OF SCOFFERS

            St. Paul [yes, the traditional author] writes to the Ephesians: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:15-17).

            God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not summed up as: “Hey, it’s all good, man! Whatever!” Grace is getting what we don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what we do deserve, which is to be left like that bishop in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce who didn’t understand he was in hell.

            People who love to gorge themselves at the world’s all-you-can-eat-buffet are going to hate those who tell them they’re dying of starvation. Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton’s said: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” And some of the biggest scoffers in the world will claim to be Christians, but they’re not. As Chesterton also said: “Being in church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.” If you aren’t willing to learn what you don’t know, who can help such a fool? Please God deliver the Church from pastors who aren’t fools for Christ but just damn fools!

            Christians pray for the neighbor who is starving to death especially when that neighbor is someone we really love: a member of our family, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a dear friend. While we are praying for them, we learn to tell our faith story: who brought us to be baptized, who taught us to pray, whose faith in the midst of adversity moved us, and how we came to understand we are empty-handed beggars always in need of the only One who can save us from sin, death, and the devil. And while we are praying and while we are learning to tell our story, the Holy Spirit is working on that neighbor. And He will provide the right moment and the right person to share the Good News that what the neighbor has been seeking and not finding is right there and free for the receiving. We will remain hopeful even if it takes years. So never give up!

            The most powerful witness remains practicing the Christian faith for the whole world to see. When love is not mere emotion or sentimentality, but love is a conscious daily choice to follow Jesus in giving our lives away in humble service, even hateful scoffers can’t discount that.

            But, and this is vital, dear ones, from where will the power for walking wisely come? We are always empty-handed beggars who return regularly and faithfully to the Table of the Lord to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, so that we can have His eternal life in us!

          In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 



The Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Zumwalt
Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
E-Mail: szumwalt@bellsouth.net

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