©Joanne Bouknight, 2016

Wisdom

Sermon by the Rev. Marek Zabriskie on Sunday, November 8, 2020.

The topic that I wish to address this morning is of great significance to all of us, and just as you would want me to respect your thoughts, I hope that you will return the favor. Most of all, I hope that this sermon will be the beginning and not the end of a fruitful conversation for all of us.

Our nation has just experienced an incredible week as we watched news feeds and waited with baited breath for days to hear the results of Tuesday’s election. It was like watching paint dry.

Alas, yesterday, shortly before noon, the world received news that Joe Biden had won. A leader with 47 years in public service, who had gleaned much wisdom about Washington, our nation and our world, will become our 46th President. Whether we voted for him or not, he will need the support of our entire nation.

Our country has experienced much division. We must now come together and heal. Last evening, as President-Elect Biden spoke to our nation, he quoted from the Bible, noting,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to kill, and a time to heal… (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3)

That quote comes from the book of Ecclesiastes, a book of what is called Wisdom literature. The books of Wisdom are sprinkled throughout the Bible. They include Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, the Song of Solomon, and two books from the Apocrypha – Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. They offer wisdom about the art of parenting, the dangers of speech, the blessings of faithfulness, the harm caused by adultery, the hazards of alcohol, the inequalities of life, the sufferings of righteous people, and the skill of leadership.

The wisdom found in the Bible is often common sense spirituality, which is sometimes beautiful and lyrical and other times pedestrian and practical. It teaches us how to cope, it speaks to our quest for self-understanding and shows us how to discover abundant life.

Such wisdom is actually more precious than money, because it helps us reach our highest potential. It comes not from our fellow humans but from God. If our President-Elect wants to be a good leader, he must seek God’s wisdom. Proverbs notes, “With my help, leaders rule, and lawmakers legislate fairly. With my help, governors govern, along with all in legitimate authority.” (Prov. 8:15-16)

God promises wisdom to all who seek after it. Proverb 8:17 notes, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.” The Apostle James adds, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God… and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) You and I are free to seek wisdom at all times, and God will impart it if we truly seek after it diligently and pray daily for it.

We live in a world overflowing with information and starving for wisdom. We have more data at the flick of a finger than a person living in the 15th century could acquire in a lifetime, but true wisdom remains rare. Voltaire famously said, “The problem with common sense is that it’s not so common.” The same applies to wisdom.

For democracy to hold and our country to flourish, we need wise leaders who can unite us. Every President must engender trust. Every government must be honest and compassionate. When that is not the case, it can deeply divide our country.

Reasonable people may have very different viewpoints about taxes, immigration and regulating businesses. That is in part why the election results were so close. Now, there is vital work to be done. Our nation must continue to confront the pandemic, listen to science, combat racism, care for the environment, oppose dictators, align with allies, respect the press, build bipartisan support and be a beacon of hope to the world. Each President has countless responsibilities.

It was a close election – just a few thousand votes in various states made the difference. Perhaps this is fortuitous, because it will force political parties to work together if we are to accomplish anything significant. No party can achieve major goals on its own. The only way to make progress will be to overcome our divisions and heed our better angels.

At times, our country has drifted from its moorings. We can become too self-focused and independent as a nation. But this was never what has made our country great. The United States may be the greatest democracy on earth, but it won’t stay that way unless we unite, support democracy and respect the dignity of every human being. St. Paul spoke of “a more excellent way.” We must discover that way.

The person most associated with wisdom in the Bible is King Solomon, who succeeded his father, David, as ruler of Israel. After he became king, God appeared to Solomon in a dream and offered him a life-changing invitation: “Ask me what I should give you?” Solomon reflected and then asked God for “an understanding mind to govern people…” and the ability to “discern between good and evil.”

Solomon asked for wisdom, which was the wisest thing that he ever did. God replied, “I will give you a wise and discerning mind… I will give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life.” After waking up from his dream, Solomon expressed his gratitude to God.

God gave Solomon his wisdom, and he became one of the greatest kings in Israel’s history. He wrote scores of proverbs and made countless wise decisions. Word of his wisdom spread throughout the nations. The Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to test his wisdom and learn from him. Our first lesson this morning came from a book attributed to King Solomon but was actually written by a different author. We read,

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her… (Wisdom 6:12-13)

As we get older, we appreciate the importance of wisdom. In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington notes that she found extraordinary success of money and power, but in 2007 she nearly collapsed from exhaustion. The way that she measured success and life needed to change. As a result, she embraced an additional metric of success beyond money and power, namely well-being, wonder, giving and wisdom. Here’s how she defines it:

  • Understanding life as a classroom where we can learn even from our struggles
  • Practicing and expressing gratitude
  • Paying attention to our intuition and interior life
  • Slowing down our culture of hurry sickness
  • Being mindful instead of operating on automatic pilot
  • Appreciating the difference between information and wisdom

We live in a world that is awash with information but adrift with understanding. Information alone cannot save our marriages, make us into the kind of parents that we long to be or help us to reach our greatest potential. Wisdom is also required. Oprah Winfrey says, “Follow your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.” But listening to your intuition is horizontal. True wisdom is vertical. It comes from God.

God longs more to provide us with wisdom, but we must seek it. If you read a portion of the Bible each day, you will marinate yourself in wisdom. If you pray each day, “Lord, please give me your wisdom, which is pure, peace-loving, merciful, considerate, impartial and bearing good fruit,” God will never refuse such a prayer.

One of the reasons that our nation is deeply divided is that for decades, our schools have become divorced from wisdom and virtue. When there is no correlation between education and virtue, it effects public decision-making, produces leaders who lack wisdom and a populace who struggle to discern good from evil. As a result, we can elect leaders with deeply flawed character, and when we do, we always pay a price.

For most of history, wisdom was the capstone of a good education. Schools and universities were responsible for offering students moral guidance. Professors and teachers imparted not only knowledge, but also wisdom. They knew something about truth, beauty, wisdom and how to lead a good life. But today, much of American higher education is producing graduates who are ethical illiterates. We must find a way to return values and moral principles to education.

Virtue starts with respecting the dignity of others and having an awareness of our own actions. Aristotle wrote in his Ethics, “If you would understand virtue, observe the conduct of virtuous men.” Our nation needs a virtuous President to lead us. While Joe Biden has flaws, like each of us, I have a sense of great hope. I close with the words of Terry Tempest Williams, who wrote:

“The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?”

Let us pray. O gracious God, we pray for wisdom for our President and Vice President and for our President-Elect and Vice President-Elect and wisdom for our nation in this time of transition. Please unite and heal our country and may your grace always guide us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.