31 The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him: 2 No, my son! No, son of my womb! No, son of my vows! 3 Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. 4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; 5 or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted. 6 Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; 7 let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more. 8 Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. 9 Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Wisdom is a presence. You know when it’s close. It doesn’t force itself on you but knowing that you’re so close to it, you have this natural aching to receive it. I lived on a dead-end street when I was a kid. A dozen houses on the street. The street was on an incline; a hill from the bottom of the street clear to the top. First house on the street was ours – it was the church parsonage actually – and it was home for all of my formative years. 113 Bennett Avenue. We were surrounded by these remarkable women – the four closest homes to ours occupied by these seasoned women, each widowed before we ever moved in. I mowed their yards in the summer as a teenager and raked their leaves in the Fall. Crystal lived right across the street. She was quiet but taught me a thing or two about rock ‘n’ roll. Mary lived up the hill that separated our two homes – she brought out skis in the wintertime for my brother and I to ski the Bennett Ave mountain (which was not much more than the size of a couple of moguls but it was all the mountain we had). Donna was the most grandmotherly of the bunch and would come with me to school on Grandparent’s day before I had any grandparents living in town. Maudie lived up that same mountain but across the street from us. Whenever I’d ride my bike up the street, she would walk out slowly with her large walking staff to see me. I always thought she looked like Master Splinter, the wise sage of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. She spoke softly, with focused eyes and would call me out for not watching my diet during my pudgy childhood years. But I listened. I remember one time on the hill, my feet planted on either side of my bike, Maudie’s staff holding her body in place, she says, “Don’t be afraid to learn from anybody. You’re never gonna know it all yourself.” And probably after making a comment to “Lay off the Twinkies,” I put my feet back on the pedals and floated back down Mount Bennett Ave. I couldn’t name it at the time but now I would call it the presence of Wisdom. Each woman taught me something about life. I didn’t always understand but I could tell they had been through some things, their wisdom came through life experiences that shaped the direction of their lives. They helped me see life through a lens I would not have otherwise seen.
Maybe you have experienced the presence of such wisdom. It would be fun to go around the room and name those wise sages in your lives. I could certainly name my parents and grandparents, some youth leaders, teachers, coaches, church saints, colleagues and friends. Proverbial wisdom. Proverbs are ultimately observations of life. Personal witness; personal experience passed from one to another. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour,” we sing. But both wisdom and courage are not self-manufactured. They come through experience and trust of God and others. Many people think that what’s written in the Bible has mostly to do with getting people to heaven. There is some of that, of course, but Scripture is mostly concerned with living on this earth – “living well in robust sanity,” as Eugene Peterson puts it. Robust sanity. Who couldn’t use some of that! Jesus prays for life on earth to be as it is in heaven. Wisdom is the biblical term for this on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven everyday living. It is not a tag-along afterthought. How do we practically wade through life skillfully – honoring parents, raising kids, handling money, dealing morally and ethically with others, working, leading, crafting words, cultivating healthy emotions? There’s not really an app for that. There may be but you and I know that it’s the thread of our relationships with God and one another that ultimately cultivate, or eliminate, the collective wisdom of the spirit of God discovered in one another, each made in God’s very image. The question for us today? Are we willing to glean wisdom from the Other or have we got all the wisdom we need?
Tony Kriz is an author, and post-professional Christian who is guiding a neighborhood faith collective in Portland, Oregon. He picked up the practice of engaging students at Reed College about matters of life, faith, wisdom and spiritual curiosity a few years ago. One semester, he met a student named Jared. They agreed to meet for lunch. While Tony sat at the table waiting for the famous, steamy man-hole sized pita bread to come out to the Table – the main reason to meet at this particular Lebanese restaurant – Jared arrived. Before jumping in with all the new-friend pleasantries, the decade younger Jared says bluntly to Tony – “Before the waiter gets here, there is something that I need to say.” Tony, admittedly slightly put off by this clear break from social norms, says, “Okay. Go ahead.” While he built the suspense a little to the point that Tony knew whatever he had to say was a draw-a-line-in-the-sand moment, Jared says, “The thing I need to know from you is this… Can you learn from a college student?” Odd way to start a friendship, Tony thought, but he was curious. “What do you mean?”
Jared proceeds to share about his experience growing up in the church, being a part of Christian groups, knowing a number of pastors. He said, “One consistent truth from my experiences is the total inability of Christian leaders to learn from their subordinates.” Listening a bit more to Jared’s explanation, Tony responds, “Jared, I think your question is a reasonable one. Listen, I can’t speak for the pastors you have known. I wouldn’t try. But I can speak for me. To be honest, I have all the tools for organizational abuse. I am tall. I am male. I am reasonably articulate. I am older than you. Everywhere I go, I am always one of the largest personalities in any room. And I have spent much of my life in the role of ‘leader,’ particularly in religious contexts. All these factors and more make me someone that you should be suspicious of.” Tony searched Jared’s face for any response but Jared just sat, unmoved, eyes fixed. Uncertain of the meaning of Jared’s non-verbal cue, Tony continued: “The odds are that if you and I start to spend time together in any sort of group capacity, I am going to let you down. It is also safe to assume that there will be times when I will not learn from you, when I should just shut up and listen… but I won’t… and it will be to my detriment.” A bit of the tension escaped the moment. “Here is what I can tell you,” Tony said. “I have been kicked in the gut quite a few times in my life. I have known failure. I have known shame. And whether or not I do it consistently, I want to live as a learner. I want to live with the posture that any and every person is my teacher. My hope is that you can believe that and we can have a relationship of genuine exchange. Beyond that, I don’t know what else to say.” After a bit of silence and the serendipitous arrival of the waiter with the manhole-sized pita bread, Jared says, “Well then, do you know what you want to order?”
What Tony learned of Jared and many of the students he engaged at Reed College was that most of them wanted the same thing Jesus wants. They want authenticity, not hypocrisy. They want faith that leads to activism, not institutionalism. They want to believe in something not because it is redundantly preached but because it is sacrificially lived. Proverbial wisdom put to practice. Are we so willing? I think this is an important part of learning to Love (an)other, the spiritual quest of our current sermon series. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Loving one another… and loving an Other… comes from a willingness to draw upon the collective wisdom of everyone. Being a willing learner.
Anna is an actress, waitress and recovering alcoholic living in New York City. Through no straight line, which is the case for most of us, she eventually found her way to faith in Christ… and she became passionate about connecting the church to the world. With fresh eyes on what church was like, she struggled to find how the values of Jesus were making their way from the church to the rest of life lived outside of the building. She said, “We simply cannot love one another as Jesus commanded, if our lives only overlap in fifteen-minute segments before and after programmed Christian events.” Anna is looking for an integrated life – and I’m guessing we are too. If so, if we’re going to love one another authentically, we’ve got to find a way to live together, engage one another, and use our abilities to bring out the best in others. And… we cannot expect that of others if we will not rise to that expectation ourselves.
This seems to be what King Lemuel’s mother is sharing in her oracle we find in Proverbs 31. Let me clear up from the onset – this is not Lin Manuel Miranda – the Hamilton guy, okay? This is King Lemuel – the only appearance he makes in Scripture at all is right here at the end of Proverbs. He drops these words of advice that he received from his Momma. Rev. Denise Anderson describes his mother in terms of the African American archetype of wisdom; one often called Big Momma. “She is the matriarch,” Anderson says. “Conductor of wisdom. She can tell the history and how everybody in the family is connected. She offers proverbial wisdom to her son about how he is to carry himself as king.” These first nine verses typically get overlooked. The later verses of the chapter are more familiar and come up occasionally at funerals describing someone’s beloved spouse. The first nine verses tackle the way a person of power is to handle such responsibility. It’s not unlike Uncle Ben Parker’s advice he shares with his nephew, Peter Parker – the guy we know as Spiderman. Uncle Ben says, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” We are often hungry for power, control, and authority but not ready for the responsibility that comes with it. We so desperately want to win the election but then… “Now I have to lead?” We want to win the Bachelor but then, “Wait, now I really have to marry that guy?” I’m not running for office or trying out for The Bachelor but we may find this to be true of ourselves. We seek power and control and winning and we think we can handle it when it comes but it’s not so simple. I heard a friend say this week, “I like to think money wouldn’t change me. Yet when I’m winning at Monopoly, I’m a terrible person.”
King Lemuel’s mother gives it to him straight. She starts with that sort of, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” sentiment. She’s no nonsense – “Son – I dedicated you to God, I raised you right – to keep it clean and honest; clear-headed and respectful. Don’t get mixed up in the wrong things and don’t you go getting drunk all the time.” She taught him temperance. Lots of really folksy advice. If he’s going to have such power, she wants to know he will use it the right way. Her most pointed word? Verses eight and nine: “Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!” Great power; great responsibility. Friends, the political battles wage on – and I know the issues on our southern border are complicated and there are ideas about that, even in this room, that are all over the map. Shane Claiborne said, “Trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be sort of like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.” But if we’re going to quote the Bible, it’s going to get messy quick. Jesus was sent to the cross for breaking the laws of the land when it came to preserving the dignity of another human being. He had been a refugee himself in a land that didn’t want him there. Like I said, I know there are ideas from both sides of the aisle that will be needed to make any policy work. It is, in part, why Machiavelli, Italian philosopher from the Renaissance era said, “Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things.” He desired to not waste time writing about things of an imaginary world but by getting right at reality and confronting it; one of the primary reasons Tupac Shakur was inspired to take on his alias at one point in his own poetic career. It’s hard to achieve a new order, to reconcile differences and systems that have long been entangled with any multi-sided agenda. I pray for our leaders to pour into these efforts.
But what is ours to do? If we’re about letting the example of Jesus be our guide, above all else, we must be concerned with preserving dignity, giving voice to the voiceless and choosing compassion. This almost universally begins with listening. We craft so many of our ideas without even listening to each other and to the many unheard voices. It’s like the young college student says, “Are you willing to learn from me?” Is a child of someone crossing our borders illegally a nuisance or the face of Christ asking us to learn something… even if the lesson is hard and difficult for us to process? If we’re not willing to learn, we’re not going to make progress and loving one another gets road blocked by any who don’t have ears to hear.
Listening and learning from one another was the only way the early church survived. An event happened – the resurrection of Jesus – and then you’ve got a rag tag bunch of ordinary folks who are left to figure out how to be the church. Can you imagine? Sitting in that circle – amazed by the resurrection but also in the shock of, “Now what do we do?” I’m sure somebody was like, “We could put on a VBS for the neighborhood kids.” Never a bad idea. In reality, they didn’t have a book, there was no church strategy or leadership conferences. They just had to live, learn, and love based on their experience of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Richard Rohr notes, “During Paul’s lifetime, the Christian church was not yet an institution or a centrally organized set of common practices and beliefs. It was a living organism that communicated the Gospel primarily through relationships. This fits with Paul’s understanding of Christ as what we might call an energy field, a set of relationships inside of which we can live with integrity.” And this expanded as the collective wisdom of experience expanded. It took Peter some fifteen years after the death of Jesus but he has an encounter with a Roman Centurion named Cornelius – somebody he wasn’t supposed to like or trust; someone who was wrong in all of the important ways – but that encounter was a game changer. Peter wasn’t too proud to learn, to grow, to expand the possibility that God’s love was wider than he first thought. And that encounter opened the church up to you and more whereas before, we were outsiders, unclean, unholy, beyond redeemable. Cornelius asks Peter, “Are you willing to learn from me?” What if Peter was unwilling. What if we are unwilling today?
That question stuck with me this week. I’ve caught myself repeating the question in my head when I’ve encountered someone new. In making eye contact with them, I’ve imagined them asking me that question, “Are you willing to learn from me?” To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve always been willing. It’s easier not to be willing. Gleaning such wisdom takes too long, too much listening, too much energy. We live in an instant society. We want instant wisdom. But that’s not the way wisdom works. I’m not the same man I was when I became your pastor nine years ago. Would you want me to be? That’s 25% of my life – I hope I’ve grown and changed and been open to the ongoing work of the Spirit in my life. I’m learning from you and our city and my neighbors and children from Nicaragua … and my buddy I met on an airplane flight a couple of months ago who said, “I’ll look you up when I’m back in town.” He flew out of Newark this morning at 5 AM to get here for worship today. Laurence – thanks for being here.
Master Maudie up Mount Bennett Ave from my childhood home said, “Don’t be afraid to learn from anybody. You’re never gonna know it all yourself.” We see this in the attitude and character of King Lemuel’s Big Momma. We see it in Peter, and Paul, and even Jesus. And like them, I want to live as a learner. Wisdom is a presence. Wisdom is not static – it’s growth over time through experience, grounded in one’s greatest fundamental belief. And that fundamental belief? For me? You are created in the image of God. Jesus loves you just the way you are. I can learn from you… and love can be the current that carries us forward.
 This account shared in Tony’s book, “Neighbors and Wise Men.” Thomas Nelson Publishing. 2012.
 As found in the participant’s guide to “Q Society Room: Engaging Post-Christian Culture.” Zondervan. 2010.
 As told on her video series bearing the same title as our sermon series. Can be found at www.theocademy.com. Scroll to find the Love An Other series. Our sermon series are inspired by her efforts found there. She notes the Ben Parker quote as well.