June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5


Nobody talks about the book, “The Shack” anymore.  It was published in 2007, made some waves for a while, was turned into a movie and made some more waves, and then we all moved on to other things.  The writing wasn’t especially good, but I thought the book made some useful theological points.  One of those points was that God comes to us as we need God to come, in ways we might best receive God, and not as a singular image upon which God insists.  Some of the controversy over the book was that the author depicted “God the Father” as an African American Woman.  Some argued that this was heresy of some sort, and even Mack, the main character of the novel, voices his confusion, which gives the author the opportunity to point out that Mack wouldn’t have been able to receive God if God had come to him looking like his own father.  There were just too many traumatic memories wrapped up in that relationship.  So, God came in part as a joyful, nurturing, mother figure, which is what Mack needed.

There’s another moment from the book that stands out.  Today’s reading from Proverbs brings it to mind.  Mack encounters Sophia, who is not God but is somehow the embodiment of God’s wisdom.  And, it is here that Mack is asked to consider forgiving the murderer of his daughter.  Mack refuses, sees the murderer before God and demands that he suffer.  But Sophia asks Mack to think about the father that so twisted this man to become what he was.  And what about the people who so broke and corrupted him?  And, where do you stop?  How far back do you go?  Do you go all the way back to God and judge God for allowing it all to happen?  Mack has no answers, nor does he forgive at this point, but this strange “lady Wisdom” has stripped him of something, changed him and challenged him into the next steps of his journey.

I remember thinking what an odd move it was to introduce Wisdom as a person into the story.  We spent some time in seminary, not tons mind you, on Sophiology, as the study of God’s “essence” expressed in wisdom.  It was somewhat controversial because many argued that it amounted to introducing a fourth person of the Trinity.  And, if you read our passage today from Proverbs you can kind of see why.  “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth.  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, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Thanks to Proverbs we’re introduced today to a concept that mattered mostly to some Orthodox theologians, a few seminarians, and the author of The Shack.  But who is this person with a woman’s voice who tells us that she cries out to all that live?  Who is this Sophia who was there at the beginning of time and witness to the wonders of God’s mystery and might?

I don’t think we’re meant to answer these questions with words.  We’re meant to imagine our answers.  We’re meant to feel them in a way.  For me, it’s akin to thinking about that ancient papyrus that I shared with you from Beinecke Library.  The oldest fragment of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the entire world in a library 30 minutes from here.  Imagine that letter’s journey from the third century, all the souls it touched along the way, how it ended up here.  Imagine the author, so moved by the manifestation of the divine as to write what would become scripture for billions through the ages.  Imagine pen on ink expressing the infinite love of Christ perceived by a man whose whole life changed almost 2,000 years ago because the same God alive in us was alive in him.

It’s the same with this woman named Wisdom.  She’s meant to be imagined for the sake of feeling and sensing something of God.  We can imagine her being brought forth, ages ago before the beginning of the earth. We can imagine her witnessing the establishment of the heavens and the parting of the primordial waters, and then we can imagine her response, which is the thrust of the passage.  “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  Delighting in the human race.  This is the response of true seeing and knowing, full understanding; it is delight.  Delight in the human race even though God is fully aware of the horrors we’re capable of, delight despite our failings, delight despite our sin, delight despite the brokenness of which we are apart.

I remember my Aunt Pat saying to my cousin Danny, who was a fun kid but lots of trouble,  “Danny, I love you, but I do not like you.”  That’s a reasonable human response, but it is not the response of God.

I admit that I don’t quite understand how such delight is possible.  My joy and love tends to be more conditional than that.  But, I’ll also say that I’m more ready to make the stretch to believe in that divine delight when its my own failings that I’m hoping God will see with understanding and forgiveness.  Do you know what I mean?  God’s grace toward sins greater than our own becomes a reality we need to admit if we are hoping for grace for ourselves.

And it is this confession that brings us to our Romans passage.  It is here that we come to the hope that Paul is talking about.  “Hope does not disappoint us,” says Paul, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”  Hope is something we have because it is rooted in the pouring out of God’s love.  It is rooted in something beyond our own capacities and abilities.  It is possible because God’s wisdom is not our own.

I came across this 60-second radio spot from Rev. Stephen Bauman a couple weeks ago and its been playing in my mind ever since.  He says,

“My friend had been beaten down by several tragedies.  Her daughter had drowned in the backyard pool while celebrating her third birthday party with friends.  During the subsequent counseling, her husband fell in love with the therapist whose professional boundaries were exceeded by passion.  Divorce ensued.  Two years later I sat with this same friend whose other daughter now lay in a coma following an accident.  She told me she had lost all hope.  And she asked where she might find some.  She was not optimistic about her future.  At that moment I didn’t have the words, but I did take her hand.  Later that day I stumbled on this wisdom from Vaclav Havel, who said, “[Hope] transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…  Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism.”  Those of us in the religion business dare to name and describe that source of hope.  We use different words and images, but all point to something larger than ourselves because we instinctively know that hope can’t really be hope, unless its capacity outstrips our own puny powers.”[1]

We hope because God’s wisdom outstrips our own.  We hope because God’s love is beyond our own.  We hope because the God who is with us is also ever greater than us.  We hope because to this God we remain a delight.


[1] Simple Truths, page 42.