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The Wisdom of Love: Sermon for Proper 9A, July 9, 2023




I am pretty certain that, if you don’t remember hearing them and studying them before, the readings we just heard may have you a bit mystified. Our gospel itself is puzzling—except maybe for the last bit which at least offers some hope. But if you look closer, our readings today are about two things: the wisdom of God, and the love of God. Scratch that—it’s all actually one thing. God’s wisdom IS God’s love- love which ignores human expectations or limits.


Today’s passage from the prophet Zechariah might ring a bell. It predicts that the Messiah will enter Zion, or Jerusalem, riding on a donkey’s colt—and if you think back to Palm Sunday, that is exactly what Jesus did as he triumphantly entered the city to the waving of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” Anyone hearing that in Zachariah’s time would have considered a leader doing such a thing to be incredibly foolish—it’s like someone trying to race in a Formula 1 event while driving a minivan. Great leaders should ride impressive animals—not donkeys.


This detail, though, has an important purpose: the reign of this Messiah will not be based on military strength, one where “might makes right.” Instead, his humility reveals God’s wisdom and values: that prisoners will be set free, and that hopes will be fulfilled rather than lying empty and unfulfilled. This God does not seek dominion but restoration—not overawing people with might, but working to relieve burdens and enabling a culture of shared plenty, of gratitude and rejoicing.


Then there’s the reading from the Song of Solomon, a passage known as “Springtime Rhapsody” a beautiful collection of very frank love poems that most of us hardly ever remember is even IN the Bible. And here’s why it gets skipped over when it comes time for Bible study or preaching: it’s kinda steamy. It’s like Danielle Steele was suddenly invited to turn in a couple of chapters to Holy Writ. Strangely, God is not mentioned anywhere within its verses—instead, we get a conversation between two lovers. This is also unusual because it gives the woman her own voice, and she admits her passion for her beloved—in fact, in a world in which women were often silent, she is the one telling the story. Hers are the opening words in chapter one, imagining the kiss of her sweetheart.


According to our puritan forebears, this passage isn’t about desire and human passion in all its enthusiasm, bodies bursting to discover each other. Nope. According to our 16th and 17th century friends, this passage is about “the Church’s love for Christ” and “Christ’s love for His Church,” with Christ as the bridegroom. This understanding is based upon the idea that the covenant between God and God’s people is similar to the covenant of marriage.


I’m not sure about that. First of all, marriage was much more often NOT about love throughout most of human history than it was about the security of property and inheritance. But there is a second and more obvious problem here: that of faithfulness and passion on the part of the Church.


While I am certain that this passage could be interpreted as Christ’s never-ending, deep, passionate love for the Church, too often the Church seems to fail to return the favor, if you know what I mean. Fallible, distractible, self-deluding, foolish, frightened, wounded humans that we are, too often we are concerned about our own wants, needs, power-madness, and concern about authority to truly love Christ to the depth that we should-- especially if one takes this passage as a guide. But we can do better. We just have to remember that real love puts the Beloved Other ahead of its own selfish satisfaction, and takes delight and finds completion and true bliss in that self-giving love.


Our failure to love stems from a conflict within ourselves- between our worldly concerns versus our spiritual aspirations. What if we were to unite these understanding rather than untie them? For we fail to love each other for the same reason we fail to love God—because we get afraid, because we lose faith in our ability to give of ourselves. Yet the Song of Songs holds out the hope that love CAN be mutual and deep and intimate. Our love for each other can be deep and lasting. Our love for God can fill us completely, and our longing for intimacy is one we need to set free in our relationship with God.


Our failure to love stems from a conflict within ourselves- between our worldly concerns versus our spiritual aspirations. This leads us to our passage in Romans, which then meshes well with our gospel. Paul talks frankly about knowing what he SHOULD do, which is to act lovingly in the world, but being unable to follow through due to his weakness to sin, which leads him to act selfishly.


Paul almost sounds like a member of a twelve-step group here, forthrightly admitting his powerlessness over his addiction to sin. And that may be a really good analogy to make to describe the power that sin can wield in our lives, especially when we lull ourselves into taking our eyes off the horizon of love that we have to work toward in our lives as children of God. Real love, and true holiness, do not come naturally. Yet there is hope. In verse 24, Paul cries out: “Who will rescue me?” and immediately, he gives the answer in verse 25: God, through the Incarnate One, our Savior Jesus Christ. He then continues to point out that our intellectual assent to be disciples is often at war with our own weaknesses.


What all our readings are seeking to do is remind us that what is considered wise or clever in the eyes of the world is usually the exact opposite of what God’s wisdom is.


Our gospel passage takes this up especially at the end. And what is absolutely vital is that here. Jesus is speaking, literally, as the Wisdom of God, personified. And there’s an interesting tie to the Song of Solomon here: in the Hebrew scripture, Wisdom was personified as female—possibly because wisdom gets rejected as an authority as much as women did, then, and now.


Jesus is actually paraphrasing a passage from the Book of Ecclesiaticus, known as a wisdom work that appears in some Bibles.


It was allegedly composed about 200-175 BC by a scribe named Ben Sira in Jerusalem, which means Jesus could have known of it. Speaking as Wisdom, a traditionally female character in scripture, we hear Jesus trazcing much the same argument as the author of Ecclesiasticus:


51:23 Draw near to me, you who are untaught, and lodge in my school.

51:24 Why do you say you are lacking in these things, and why are your souls very thirsty?

51:25 I opened my mouth and said, Get these things for yourselves without money.

51:26 Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

51:27 See with your eyes that I have labored little and found myself much rest.


The wisdom that Jesus seeks to give us makes the need for asuffocating load of regulations pointless—those same regulations Jesus’s opponents loved to enforce on others as the self-righteously religious. Jesus’ load is in fact quite light compared with the heavy burdens the scribes and Pharisees place upon others: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”


The wisdom of God does not seek to punish but to enlighten. In place of oppression, it offers love and cooperation. And I believe this speaks of a need in our time as much as in the time of Jesus. Just like now, self-identified “religious folk” were especially good at pointing the finger at others and justifying themselves. They would use the 613 commandments in Torah to denigrate and oppress others, laying burdens upon their backs, while overlooking the parts of the Law that would require themselves to be burdened or to sacrifice what they wanted to do.


And boy, does that resonate for today. How many people do you know who justify lying, cheating, violence, misogyny, or turning a blind eye to the suffering or poverty of others in the name of their own comfort—yet who will scream about how “sinners” who act or love differently than they do deserve being cast out, oppressed, dehumanized, and punished? As if being in a marginalized group isn’t hard enough? And they justify it more often than not in the name of “religion.”


Yet Jesus, speaking as Wisdom herself in our gospel verses, identifies with the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus, speaking as the Wisdom of God, invites all to come unto him, especially those who are weary and feeling burdened by the numerous strictures of the religious leaders.


How is Jesus’s yoke “easy?” First, a yoke is meant to be shared—it works by two creatures sharing the burden and pulling side by side. And rather than lay burdens about hundreds of laws on our backs, Jesus offers to get into the yoke alongside us and help us bear the burdens of being a disciple—a burden that is already lighter because it is based on love, not fear.


That is certainly an easier burden in comparison to the way the religious leaders were apply the law to those around them.


If it was easy to be yoked under Christ, wouldn’t everyone do it? And here is where Paul’s words apply: we often do the thing we know will not be good for us in the end, because we do not attempt to penetrate the ways in which we delude ourselves. Christ’s yoke is easy because he takes away the yoke of the Law.


Yet the most important thing to remember is that Jesus refers to a yoke, and not just a harness. And a yoke is meant to be shared. Christ’s yoke is the yoke of Love. And sharing burdens with each other—in the name of love—is all we need, as the Beatles sang. All those great songs of our youth insist the same thing: “Lean On Me,” by Bill Withers. “He Ain’t Heavy—He’s My Brother” by the Hollies. “Climb on a Back That’s Strong,” by Shawn Colvin. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkle.


What matters is our care and empathy for each other. As we live in Christian community, we are yoked to Jesus and to each other, and we all pull together. We share each others’ burdens. We literally “pull for each other.” As Jane Siberry wrote in her song “The Life is the Red Wagon:”


The life is the red wagon rolling along The life is the red wagon simple and strong …oh, it's no big deal But when the feet are dragging

you pull for me, and I pull for you,

you pull for me, and I pull for you…(1)



Have you ever experienced the grace of someone pulling for you when you feel that you just can’t go on? Have you ever received a random act of kindness? That’s living life under the Wisdom of God.


We have a lot in common with the cultural landscape of Jesus’s time. Believe it or not. Just think: we have those who seek to divide and conquer, and they are not unashamed of using religion to further their schemes, and to oppress and denigrate marginalized groups by pulling little bits of scripture from here and there to justify their hatefulness and sense of superiority.


We see legal systems being used to oppress people—to take away their ability to be redeemed for injury, to allow a small minority to try to impose their wills on others because they have the ability to buy their way into the system.


Jesus would be the first one to object to this scheme. If your faith causes you to hate and judge and hurt others, you are doing it wrong. As Jesus points out, those “others” were exactly the people he hung out with, ate with, and taught among. Even more than that, those are the ones to whom he encouraged to take up his yoke. So that he could pull alongside them and help carry their burdens. Not condemn them.


Throughout the gospels, Jesus consistently points out that the wisdom of God, and the way it orders our lives, turns worldly wisdom upside down. He is very clear to go even further: the “wisdom” of the world is very often absolutely contrary to the wisdom and ways of God, as he himself exemplifies. Jesus, as the Wisdom of God personified, lives and acts in very specific ways to show US how to live and act.


The way of wisdom, the way of welcome into God’s household, is also the way of mercy, grace, and above all, love. It’s the wisdom that is embodied in our baptismal covenant. This is the wisdom of welcome, beloveds, that we are called to commit to as disciples. Wisdom that doesn’t seek advantage or calculation, but, always and everywhere, serving each other in purity, gentleness, and love.


We worship a God whose wisdom is often seen as foolishness in the eyes of that very same world. A God who tells us to love people the world sees as broken, and love them fully.


May we all be so wise.


Readings:

Citations:

1) Jane Siberia, "The Life Is The Red Wagon," from the album Bound By The Beauty, 1989.


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