Text: Proverbs 3:19-35
Theme Verse: “Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you.”(Proverbs 3:29)
In some traditions, the term skillful means is used to describe an approach to making decisions and dealing with problems in a way that is appropriate to the situation and causes no harm. Skillful means always arise out of compassion and when a problem emerges, the idea is to address the offense without denying the humanity of the offender. The book of Proverbs is thick in wisdom and deep in thought. Even the Apostle Paul borrowed freely from its work suggesting in Romans 13:10 that love does no harm to a neighbor. What skillful means are you applying to the many neighbors you encounter daily in your life? Perhaps a little proverbial wisdom is just what we need.
opening : 'Breathe on Us' (K.Jobe) :: The Rising Band
reader : Chad Roberson
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
closing : 'Nothing is Greater' (M.Hall) :: Kevin Howe, vocal; Tom Jurena, piano
It was a burgundy Chevy Caprice Classic. Can you picture it? The interior was that thin tan cloth that was mimicked on the ceiling – held in place by that little round dome light. Do you remember those? The ceiling fabric didn’t sag but oh it had such potential. The 8-track player was as solid as they come and the big brown radio knobs were fun to twist as a boy, watching that orange line go back and forth, left and right, just as fast as my fingers could make it twist. What once was my grandparent’s car had become my nuclear family’s vehicle and by the time I was 13 or 14 years old, it became the vessel that my older brother and I used to haul our push lawn mower around town, servicing the little business we had going. We’d load up that mower catawampus just so with the trunk lid of that Caprice Classic left to bounce up and down along the little lumpy streets of Macon, Missouri. We had a number of regular clients in town, mowing their yards week after week. Without a doubt, my favorite client was my Grandpa and Grandma Briley. It was a sweet gig as a kid. My grandpa would always have a fresh plate of chocolate chip cookies baked and ready. I’d mow about half the yard before he’d tap my shoulder and say, “I’ll take a turn. You go eat some cookies.” Of course our motto was the customer was always right so who was I to argue with the customer? Grandpa would mow several strips of grass in the backyard dressed fully in his slacks and dress shoes (which dubbed as his casual wear and work out gear and mowing clothes – and pajamas for all that I knew). Grandpa and Grandma always way over paid for the effort too. No matter our attempt to do any of the work out of love, they treated us like we were the one business in their life they couldn’t exist without. The best part of mowing their yard, especially as I reflect some twelve years after they passed from this life, was sitting on the deck with grandpa when the smell of the fresh cut yard was still hovering in the air. He would ask me questions about life and he would lean in as if he feared missing even a single word. But a time would come – as organically as anything ever does – when he would drop me a line of wisdom, or two, that opened my mind or heart or both to a deep truth about life. Proverbial-style wisdom. And what I wouldn’t give to have another moment on that deck with him.
Cracking the book of Proverbs is sort of like sitting with Grandpa on the back deck. You open your Bible – pretty much split in the middle – and you can almost smell the grass clippings and taste the lemonade. Proverbs is full of that practical earth-as-it-is-in-heaven stuff. It’s wisdom with legs. One practical theologian says “Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves. It has virtually nothing to do with information as such, with knowledge as such. A college degree is no certification of wisdom – nor is it primarily concerned with keeping us out of moral mud puddles, although it does have a profound moral effect upon us.” He goes on. “Wisdom has to do with becoming skillful in honoring our parents and raising our children, handling our money and conducting our intimate lives, going to work and exercising leadership, using words well and treating friends kindly, eating and drinking healthily, cultivating emotions within ourselves and attitudes toward others that make for peace. Threaded through all these items is the insistence that the way we think of and respond to God is the most practical thing we do. In matters of everyday practicality, nothing, absolutely nothing, takes precedence over God.” And then this line: “Proverbs concentrates on these concerns more than any other book in the Bible.”
Solomon, David’s son, Israel’s king – is credited with most of these sayings found in Proverbs, “written down,” as Proverbs 1 says, “so we’ll know how to live well and right, to understand what life means and where it’s going; for learning what’s just and fair; to teach the inexperienced the ropes and give our young people a grasp on reality (like a grandfather to grandson on the back deck). Chapter one continues, “There’s something here also for seasoned men and women, still a thing or two for the experienced to learn (like a grandfather leaning into every word of his grandson) – Fresh wisdom to probe and penetrate, the rhymes and reasons of wise men and women.” This is the purpose and gift of the Proverbs which can feed us even still if we’ll allow an opening of heart and mind. So we draw from this wisdom well today as we continue our walk through our “Hello July!” series which has been an dance between various preachers and our community as we navigate this month together of denominational assemblies, Vacation Bible School, and the partnership launch of 27 of our own to the heart of Nicaragua.
The Proverbs are clear in their direction – “Start with God.” That seems obvious and fair, perhaps, and yet we don’t heed that strategy much of the time. We start with me. Even Okie Toby Keith sang, “I like talkin’ bout you, you, you, you, usually; but occasionally, I wanna talk about me.” Even the most faithful among us struggle with a ‘me’ tendency sometimes. Even in our prayers, we may pray for God to bless what I want to do rather than seeking God’s wisdom and asking to be pointed in the direction of God’s effort in the world. This is not to say that God is not concerned with our petitions or our desires – bring ‘em on in your prayers. But let us not lose that Jesus mentality of “Not my will, but yours, O God, be done.” It’s a prayer that says, “May your loving way prevail and may I find peace in the midst of that way.” It’s a spiritual orientation that we’re after.
The first three verses in the Proverb we are highlighting this morning start there too – verses 19 and 20. Remember, by wisdom the Lord founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open…” How beautiful and what a reality to ground our lives within. These two little verses set the foundation for us to build upon. God’s creative energy wrapped up in God’s wisdom, understanding and knowledge is the fuel by which we are to engage all of the practical pieces that follow. It was like the Hero Code we shared at Vacation Bible School this past week. I was honored to be a part of setting the theme for each night, playing the role of Captain Shield along with my partner in service Captain Courage and our sidekick, Flame. While I did draw the line when the suggestion was made that I wear spandex (kids don’t need to see their pastor in such form), I happily wore the costume and enjoyed the joy it brought to (most) of the kids. My own kids didn’t even know I was going to be one of the characters so when I leapt out onto the stage on opening night, my six-year old’s eyes grew by super hero proportions and he shouts out, “That’s my dad!” I hoped my cover wasn’t blown but such was confirmed on night two when I was mingling with the kids. One of Hayes’ classmates came up to me and said, “You’re not a super hero. You’re Hayes’ daddy!” Apparently both statements cannot be true at the same time. Nonetheless, we shared the Hero Code every night which was grounded in Psalm 34 which says, “Do good, seek peace, and go after it!” That’s not a bad prayer to start your morning with either. God, how can I do good, seek peace, and get after it today?
The following five verses from our text for today set up this grounding in the Lord. Hold on to this grounding in God’s creative energy and what will happen? Solomon says, “The Lord will be your confidence.” Do you catch the theme of humility that runs through the Proverbs? My confidence is not grounded in my own abilities but in the faithfulness of God. This is a matter of trust which is different from a matter of belief. Many scholars point out some subtle, but significant, differences in that reality – something we will actually be fleshing out further in our August sermon series. But for just a moment consider this difference when it comes to our interpretation of faith. Much of Paul’s letters include phrases that are often translated as “faith in Christ.” The scholarly suggestion is that the translation would be more accurate if presented as “the faith of Christ.” This isn’t just a change of prepositions. “It means we are all participating—with varying degrees of resistance and consent—in the faith journey that Jesus has already walked. Most people think having faith means “to believe in Jesus.” But, “to share in the faith of Jesus” is a much richer concept. It is not so much an invitation as it is a cosmic declaration about the very shape of reality.” Richard Rohr opened this most recently to me. He said, “By myself, I don’t know how to have faith in God, but once we know that we [can exist and dwell in the faith of Jesus], we know we have already been taken on the ride through death and back to life.” We’ve already been through the ultimate and have been revived. I think this is what the Proverbs suggest is to be living in the confidence of the Lord. It’s what Paul’s notion of faith is conveying as well: a foundational confidence or trust that God cares about what is happening right now and desires for us to live within.
This is why Jesus was so clear and demanding about the move from law and verbal assent to this doctrine or that doctrine and pushes us constantly to move toward love and set up camp there. You can believe any doctrine you want and not enjoy a radical confidence in love or God at all. This is lived most faithfully in times of tragedy and despair. Our city and people within our church have taken on more than our share of grief this week. A tragic car accident claimed the life of Erin Van Horn and three beautiful children: Zach, Beck and Liz– these were classmates of our kids, neighbors to our families, loved ones of those we love. What pain we hold in such sudden tragedy. Another of our own lost a friend tragically. Another awaits a plan for a dire health situation. Yet another lost a family member to a sudden heart attack. The list can, and does, go on. And in these tender, vulnerable, and desperate moments, your list of doctrines to which you subscribe means way less than your living in the confidence of the faith of Christ and being that loving presence to those hurting the most. I hope to say that when the end comes for me and I stand before my maker I can say I spent my time and effort being a loving presence more so than being concerned with whether I got my doctrine right about any particular matter.
This is Jesus’ concern and the third Proverb drives us to some practical efforts in this regard as well. “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” You may ask, “Well to whom is it due?” Best to refer to Jesus’ definition of ‘neighbor’ in the story of the Good Samaritan. Any and every one. Are we stingy with mercy or are we generous? Some more grandparent-ish advice comes next: “Don’t tell your neighbor to come back tomorrow in hopes that you’ll have something to offer when you have it already in your hand to give. Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you. Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you. Do not envy the violent and do not choose any of their ways.” And when you think violence here, think about your actions, yes, but pay very close attention to your words. Our culture is tense with such violence – but couldn’t we be the counter example to such violence? Isn’t that what we are about as people of the Table? Solomon presses on to say, remain in God’s confidence, be humble, be honorable. And this is all well and good but how do we live that out. When we shut the Bible and we can’t smell the freshly cut grass any longer, how do these wise sayings take root in our lives?
You accept that it all boils down to relationship. Everything is relational. There is no such thing as a consumer transaction to a person of faith. Everything is relational. Verses 19 and 20 say, “Hey, stay grounded in the creative, loving energy of God and from there, engage in these tangible ways of relationship and you’ll step closer to the kingdom of God.” Jesus lived out this idea of tirelessly loving our neighbor. Paul picks up in Romans 12 and 13 these very ideas from Solomon – “Practice a love that does no harm to a neighbor,” he says. It’s what some cultural and faith traditions have called “skillful means.” Skillful means is an art of relationship that arises from a commitment to compassion above being right and the address of conflict or concern without denying the humanity of the offender. You discover someone is hurting that once hurt you – bridge the gap of pain and reach out with a word that heals. You’ve been holding back help you could offer a neighbor for no good reason, show up with the help you can offer and see what transformation can occur – in their life and yours. Are you caught up in right belief – good at arguing a theological point but never lifting a finger or word in love to help someone who doesn’t believe like you? Reach out with the faith of Christ instead of your list of beliefs and see if you don’t learn something new about the Holy.
A friend of a friend, named Mark so he’s got to be a solid dude, shared something poignant this week as his church’s monthly men’s breakfast uncovered new appreciation in his own spirit. The topic of conversation that morning concerned the attitudes and presuppositions that we bring to people in the service industry. He said, “We spoke about barbers, hairdressers, the person at the front desk of the hotel, waiters, bartenders, concierges, hostesses etc.” For the most part, the conversation was about our emotional reactivity when things don’t go our way or our steak isn’t cooked right. Do we respond fairly (or more importantly, kindly)? Mark thought about this 45-minute dialogue later wondering, “Would a first-time guest to this church breakfast wonder if this were a spiritual community at all?” They didn’t discuss doctrine or practice meditation or cite twelve proof-texted scripture verses that angled toward an agenda. They did, however, discuss this interaction as a type of spiritual discipline– the ingredients of ego, patience, anger, and moral imagination and how they all play into how we deal with a paid person that we don’t know. I might call it an exercise of skillful means. “Particularly in a culture in which “the customer is always right” the dynamic of power in favor of the customer challenges us all to do something which is, in a particular frame of conception, quite spiritual.” I’ve been told more than once that if I really wanted to see another’s character, go out to dinner with them and see how they treat those who serve us while we’re there.
Mark wrote, “Any spiritual tradition worthy of being called spiritual, engages all of the disciplines that allow us to see fully that no person is a tool or means for achieving some instrumental end. They are, if we see them rightly, our family.” Then he told this story, “Years ago, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a young waiter misstepped and poured a fair amount of iced tea into my Dad’s lap. My father insisted to the young man that it was fine, and that his pants would dry. I was about 14 at the time, and I was waiting to see how my Dad would tip him. I was boggled to see that my Dad tipped him 50% of the tab, and so I asked him why, given the wet lap incident. He responded: “In a case like this, you don’t tip the person based on how well they did. You tip them based on how you want them to feel.” And that is the type of moral posture that one brings to any friend, even one whose name you don’t know.”
We easily get lost in our heads when a simple act of kindness, a reach from the pages of Proverbs into the lives of our neighbors is the most Christ-like thing we can do. Live the faith of Christ and the Lord will be your confidence. May the smell of freshly cut grass, the sip of a glass of lemonade, and the wise voice of a grandparent remind you moving forward of the skillful means of an embodied love. Practice a practical and loving faith. That’s heroic. Somebody’s hurting, questioning, wondering if God is indeed Love as we claim. Who will you be that for today, tomorrow, this week? You can. You will. Do good. Seek peace. And let’s get after it.
 As found in the introduction to Proverbs in the Message version of the Bible. Eugene Peterson. Navpress. Colorado Springs. 2002.
 https://cac.org/ Shared from this website as part of Richard Rohr’s daily devotionals. You can sign up at this website to receive one each day.
 Post from Facebook authored by Mark Weathers, pastor of First Christian Church, Canyon, Texas. https://www.firstchristiancanyon.com/