16/06/2019 Sermon - Wisdom by Rev Dr Mark Bratton

Published by Zoe Bell on Thu, 11 Jul 2019 09:07

Trinity Sunday C–Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31 

 In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 1. Introduction

1.1 Twenty years ago, a legal case involving twin girls joined at the stomach galvanised the country.  Without surgery to separate them, the doctors predicted that both twins would die within the year. However, if separated, one twin would survive to live a normal life while the other would die straight away. 

1.2 Their parents refused to allow surgery because they thought it would be immoral to cause the death of one daughter to save the other. But the doctors wanted to proceed because they thought it was better to save one at the expense of the other, rather than allowing both to die. Because the doctors weren’t sure whether it would be lawful to separate the twins, they asked the courts for guidance. The courts said they could go ahead with the surgery, but each of the judges involved gave different reasons for their decision.

1.3 According to the newspapers, it was ‘The Judgment of Solomon’. You may remember that King Solomon also had a dilemma involving baby slicing. Solomon used a trick to solve his dilemma, but that wasn’t an option for judges in the conjoined twins case. They weren’t sure what the right thing to do was. Killing is almost always wrong. But so is refusing to choose the lesser of two evils, such as allowing two babies to perish rather than saving one to live. They decided that it was necessary to kill one baby to save the other in these unprecedented circumstances. In doing so they stretched ethics and law to their limits. But what ultimately guided judgment?

2. Wisdom and The Book of Proverbs

2.1. Wisdom cannot be reduced to law and ethics. Wisdom is more about seeing ‘in the round’, based on insight into human character and circumstance that we build up through experience. All the major religions have ‘wisdom traditions’ that contain the insights of human communities built up over thousands of years. 

2.2. The Book of Proverbs is part of the biblical wisdom tradition. Tradition holds that King Solomon was the author. But it is more likely that the Book of Proverbs is the work of an editor or editors gathering together the wisdom of the community over the ages.  Our Old Testament passage is from the Book of Proverbs which focuses on wisdom. The passage does not define wisdom. Instead, it paints a portrait. 

2.3. Wisdom takes the form of an alluring woman:

Does not wisdom call out? 

Does not understanding raise her voice? 

2.4. Wisdom is engaged with the main spheres of human activity:

At the highest point along the way,

where the paths meet, she takes her stand; 

beside the gate leading into the city,

at the entrance, she cries aloud

3. Wisdom and the ‘language of the commons’

3.1 The places where the paths meet was where business was customarily transacted. The gate leading into the city at the entry was where justice was traditionally dispensed. Wisdom makes her presence felt in the marketplaces and in the law courts.

Wisdom is the language of the commons. 

3.2. I do not think we can any longer witness directly to Christianity in the way we once did, because people are no longer familiar with the language and the forms that Christianity has traditionally taken. I am acutely aware when I conduct baptisms that the moment I lapse into jargon or church-speak, people’s eyes glaze over. I have to find a different way of witnessing to fundamental Christian values using language, which is naturally accessible to people outside the Church, but which is convincing in its own right. That language is the language of wisdom. 

3.3. Tomorrow week, I will attempt to do this with the charged subject of assisted suicide and euthanasia.  This is one of the most debatable ethical issues in the country. First, I will consider what Christianity has to say on the topic. Then I will consider how we can apply Christian insights in language thoughtful people outside the Church can understand. If I were to assert that that Bible says this or that, people who don’t accept the authority of the Bible would dismiss my arguments out of hand or contradict me to my face. If, however, I could commend fundamental Christian values without using explicitly religious arguments and show how these values contribute to the common good, I would be more persuasive. 

3.4 For example, I could, in a culture that prizes personal autonomy, draw attention to the importance of human solidarity, that we do not live completely isolated lives but in relationships with others. “No man is an island, but a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Our choices are never wholly individual but deeply influenced by the society and culture in which we live. Our choices affect other people, and those effects have moral significance. 

3.5 This stress on the human community is not distinctly Christian. But Christians hold that God calls human beings to reflect the nature of God in their own relationships and social arrangements. Because community or communion is the essence of God’s nature. The act of creation itself happens in community because Wisdom is in God’s presence when it takes place:

 I was there when he set the heavens in place,

when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above

and fixed securely the fountains of the deep

 3.6. And because God creates the universe through Wisdom, God embeds wisdom into the structures of the universe, making wisdom accessible to all human beings:

 To you, O people, I call out’

I raise my voice to all mankind.

You who are simple, gain prudence,

you who are foolish set your hearts on it.

Wisdom is not the monopoly of the intelligent but available even to the simple and foolish.

3.7. There is one more thing to notice, the joy and delight that attends creation:

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

rejoicing always in his presence, 

rejoicing in his whole world

and delighting in humankind. 

4. Genexis

4.1. I have just got involved with a big project called Genexis which is the brainchild of a distinguished barrister, Paul Downes, who leads a church in Leamington. I want Berkswell Church to become a partner of the project. They will be holding a live event at Coventry Cathedral on the 9th September consisting of 7 presentations by the worlds leading academics and scientists, such as the American physicist and geneticist Francis Collins and Professor John Lennox, a mathematics professor at Oxford. They will be examining issues of common interest: why there is something rather than nothing, why the structures of the universe ‘track’ the structures of the human mind, the nature of consciousness and the origins of ethics.

 4.2 This is an example of public theology par excellence. These issues engage the interest and galvanize the minds of all. We can talk about these issues to agnostics and atheists respectfully in common language. The biblical wisdom tradition, however, offers a profound analysis which Christians maintain is convincing in its own right. The universe is not ultimately a cold, value-neutral, cosmos resistant to human understanding. Our tradition holds, that God through wisdom builds love, joy and delight into the very structures of the universe. It follows therefore, as our tradition holds, that Wisdom is the means of access to the living God.

 4.3. There was no obvious solution to the conjoined twins case, but there is the world of difference between a heartless ethical decision, however logical, and an agonised one, made with love, respect and faith.

 4.4 Today is Trinity Sunday. But perhaps we should also call it public theology Sunday. All knowledge and understanding ultimately leads back to the author and framer of the universe, who created the world through wisdom, whose very nature is love, a love which circulates in that communion of love which exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.





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