January 15, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Proverbs 1:1-6
Psalm 119:1-16
Ephesians 5:6-20
Luke 2:40-52

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“Pondering Proverbs”

The idea of doing a preaching series on the Book of Proverbs came from the Christian Education Committee. It wasn’t my idea, and I probably wouldn’t have come up with it on my own. I’ve only preached from the Book of Proverbs a few times before, mostly from the final chapter – Proverbs 31 – about the wise and capable woman. You may not remember, but I actually preached on that text thirteen years ago (the first time I stood in this pulpit) when I preached for the call to St. Andrew’s.

But most of the Book of Proverbs is made up of these short little sayings. If you read through some sections, you’ll notice that they’re often not even organized thematically. They’re just collections of wise sayings… interesting, but rather difficult for preaching.

And then there is the added challenge that some of them are kind of weird… Like this one: “Those who keep the law are wise children, but companions of gluttons shame their parents.” (Pr. 28:7) Or this one: “The lazy person says, ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’” (Pr. 22:13) Or this one: “A violent tempered person will pay the penalty; if you effect a rescue, you will only have to do it again.” (Pr. 19:19)

And besides the ones that are difficult to make sense of, there are the ones that seem a little bit offensive or inappropriate. Like this one: “The one who lives alone is self-indulgent, showing contempt for all who have sound judgment.” (Pr. 18:1) Or this one: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (Pr. 13:24) Or this one: “A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike; to restrain her is to restrain the wind or to grasp oil in the right hand.” (Pr. 27:15-16).

But despite the fact that some of the proverbs need to be read carefully, thoughtfully, and sometimes re-interpreted for our time, it is a wonderful book full of wisdom to be pondered and applied to our lives. As I went through it this week, I was amazed at the number of proverbs that call us to justice and care for the poor, like this one: “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.” (Pr. 28:27) Or this one warning against tricking your customers in the market: “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight.” (Pr. 11:1)

Then there are proverbs about avoiding conflict and strife; about discouraging gossip, greed, and cruelty; about encouraging hard work and generosity; truthfulness and humility; loyalty and patience. Although the proverbs aren’t phrased as commands, they are pretty consistent with the ten commandments. Not only does God WANT us to live in loving, kind, and generous ways with each other, but the proverbs encourage us that these are also WISE ways of living that will benefit us in the long run.

Just like when we are reading and reflecting on the commandments and laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, when we are pondering the proverbs, we must keep the gospel message in mind as well. Even as we strive to heed the wisdom of the proverbs, we remember that we will not be able to follow them perfectly. Nor will we be saved by how well we are able to fulfill them. We remember the good news of God’s love and grace for us in Jesus Christ. And we also remember that we are called to follow his narrow way of service and self-giving love.

We have Christ’s teachings and parables and the stories of his life and ministry to guide us, but the whole Bible is given to us as a guide, and the proverbs also may contain some helpful advice as we seek to live as God intends.

In the reading this morning from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle tells the early Christians that their new faith calls them to be careful how they live, and to be wise. He challenges them to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” and tells them that with Christ in their lives, they should be producing good fruit.

In this day and age, sometimes our Christian reflection on what is good and right and true, our trying to find out what is pleasing to the Lord, consists of asking WWJD (What would Jesus do?) It’s a somewhat helpful, if simplistic, way of approaching difficult moral questions. And it may not always work if we can’t find a comparable situation or circumstance in the fairly limited information we have about Jesus’ life and decisions.

But one thing that we do know about Jesus was that he was into reflecting, praying, questioning, debating, and pondering the Scriptures. The story about Jesus as a twelve-year-old staying behind in Jerusalem shows us that his reflective practice started early. “Where else would you expect to find me?” he asked his parents. He was at home in the place of worship, listening, learning, questioning, and offering his own answers to the great questions of God and life.

And although he could be found many times throughout his ministry pondering God, and grace, and how we humans are called to live in relationship with each other and with God, Jesus also took that pondering and turned it into practice. He taught about love, and then showed us what it looks like. He encouraged forgiveness, and then he did it himself. He called us to compassion, and then opened his own heart to bring healing and hope to so many suffering people.

Sometimes Christians get divided up into those of us who do a lot of thinking, pondering, and theologizing, and those who get out in the world doing justice and good deeds. Of course, we know that we are called to do both. We need to study, reflect, pray, and try to find out what is pleasing to God. And then we need to engage in the world, consciously putting those priorities that we have learned from the Scriptures into practice in our families, work, friendships, politics, projects, and pastimes.

As the Book of Proverbs tells us, choosing wisdom, and learning wisdom, and living according to wisdom will actually benefit us. If we trust the author of the proverbs as well as the author of today’s psalm, living according to God’s wisdom will make us happier, healthier, more peaceful and content, enjoying better relationships with family, friends, neighbours, and enemies, as well as receiving the approval and blessing of God.

And so, we are encouraged to explore and to ponder the proverbs this month. Although they are attributed to the wise King Solomon, they are more likely a collection of wisdom from a variety of sources. The first chapter of the book tells us that the purpose of the proverbs is to learn about wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to be schooled in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity.

And the proverbs are not written only for a particular group of people, but may be helpful to many people… those who are simple and have lots yet to learn, and young people who don’t yet have much life experience. But they will also be helpful for those who are already wise and discerning so that they can continue to grow in understanding.

So let’s ponder a proverb together. How about this one? “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Pr. 16:24)

I wonder… have you experienced that proverb to be true in your own experience? I certainly have! I think about the way it makes me feel when I hear words of praise, thankfulness, or encouragement from people like you. I think of the way it makes me feel when I hear “I love you” from my husband, or “You are a gift” from a friend. I think about the way it makes me feel when a stranger engages me in pleasant conversation in the grocery store, or on the bus, or in the park. These words lighten my spirit and bring joy to my heart.

And by contrast, unpleasant, hurtful, rude, or hateful words can do so much harm. They cause stress, worry, self-doubt, bitterness, and so many terrible feelings that surely take a toll on me psychologically and physically. And I’m sure the same must be true for you.

Our experience tells us that the proverb is true, but how do we respond to it? Do we seek out people in our lives who can be relied upon to speak positive and helpful words? Do we take care of ourselves diligently enough to keep our distance from others who constantly belittle, mock, or insult us? God does not intend for us to be punching bags for angry people, whether they are using their fists or their words.

And then we must ask ourselves about our own words. How often do we express our love and appreciation for our family members and friends? Do we remember to give praise when it is due, rather than always telling others what they have forgotten or done poorly? Do we take the time to share pleasant conversation with people we encounter in our daily lives, or are we too distracted by our own lives, concerns, or phones?

This week, won’t you consider pondering a few more proverbs? You can open up the Book of Proverbs, and just pick one randomly, or read through a chapter or two and choose one that piques your interest. I’ve selected a bunch of proverbs that I think are kind of interesting, and as we sing the next hymn feel free to come up and select one or two to take home. You might want to ponder the proverb as we continue our prayer together, or maybe discuss it with others over coffee after worship today. As you ponder… consider whether and how you have experienced the proverb to be true, and then be sure to ponder what the proverb is calling you to do.

May God’s Spirit guide us to what is good, and right, and true, so that we may know what is pleasing to God and live according to God’s wisdom. Amen.