September 12, 2021 - Proper 19 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)
Wisdom is at the heart of today’s readings. Wisdom - the great teacher of humankind whose witness is present not only in the words of a teacher, but also in the ordered patterns of the universe and our planet - is often in conflict and contrasted to worldly values. We are challenged to align ourselves with God’s wisdom in our daily lives and to let divine wisdom motivate our words and actions. Our leaders and ourselves are healthy when we go beyond our self-interest to be oriented with the patterns of nature and human well-being. When we deviate from these patterns of justice, we put ourselves and the planet at risk. Divine wisdom contrasts with worldly values, especially as it relates to suffering and sacrifice, both divine and human. We can be great only when we are good, not just for ourselves, but also for future generations and the planet as a whole.
The words of Isaiah proclaim the value of wisdom. Wisdom is embedded in the nature of things. Those who align with God’s vision will flourish, regardless of their circumstances. Those who turn from divine wisdom will struggle and eventually fail despite their prosperity and success. The gifts of wisdom are spiritual, and not necessarily material. We do not hear that the wise will be healthy and wealthy. Rather, wise ordering of life brings happiness and contentment, and the willingness to choose God’s way rather than the ways of the world.
The message from our reading from James today could be summed up the same as the ending of Psalm 19, which we didn’t read today: “Let the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my strength and redeemer.” The tongue can be trouble. Words can hurt. We know that from everything we’ve heard during the past 5 years of politics in our country. We see it in our own thoughtless remarks that can hurt rather than heal, that can diminish rather than affirm or build up. When we hold our tongue, we guard our inner lives, since our words often reveal our innermost thoughts.
Words can join or separate. James counsels us to use words that deepen our love with others. Words of gratitude, reconciliation, and affirmation can transform people’s lives. This applies when we have such a need for correctness -- using the right language or saying the right thing -- that it leads to alienation when we criticize the well-intentioned speech of others. It applies, also when we think we know without knowing -- and among the younger generations, this includes using the person’s right pronoun, whether it’s he, she, they, it, or something entirely different. James reminds us that even our most politically aware language can harm others and hurt our cause if it lacks grace and understanding of others we are tempted to correct.
Jesus uses some tough words in today’s Gospel reading. He begins by asking his followers, “Who do people say that I am?”. But then he asks the more personal question, “Who do you say that I am?”. This is the question that many people ask about our church. They know what they don’t like about Jesus’ church - homophobia, intolerance, judgment, opposition to other faiths. They are looking for a Jesus who can be good news, a loving savior who embraces seekers as well as believers. Someone who is on the side of liberation rather than legalism.
And then come Jesus’ toughest words, “The son of man must suffer.” How can the Messiah suffer? Isn’t the Messiah defined by power and victory, not suffering and loss? But friends, only a suffering God can save. And Jesus is the fellow sufferer who understands. Jesus’ saving love is suffering love, love that takes on the sin and pain of the world. Love sacrifices so that we - the broken - might find wholeness.
Divine wisdom is ever-present. It inspires us to awe and wonder. It helps us to see holiness in the mundane aspects of life, and then urges us to work toward a world reflective of God’s values. God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.