“The Wisdom of Church”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
September 13, 2015
I have a couple of bad jokes for you, and it’s OK to groan afterwards. I will groan with you.
Here goes: What’s the difference between a wise man and bigfoot? There have actually been several bigfoot sightings. Groan!
Why does NASA include female astronauts on missions these days? Because if they get lost in space, at least someone will ask for directions. Groan!
OK, this is not a joke, but a real story from my life:
One time, I was at the hardware store, buying some tools, and I handed the clerk my credit card. She turned it over and said, I’m sorry, sir, but you haven’t signed your card. I said, OK, may I sign it now? She said, Yes, and handed it back to me. I signed the back of the card and handed it back to her. She ran the card through the machine and handed me the slip and I signed it. She took the slip and carefully compared the two signatures and nodded. As luck would have it, they matched, and she approved my purchase!
In a world full of foolishness, where do you look for wisdom?
In Christianity: Scripture, tradition, reason, and life experience have often been cited as the four main sources of truth and wisdom.
We look to the Bible for wisdom because it roots us in the experiences and perspectives of the Israelites, of the prophets, of Jesus himself, and of the early church.
We look to tradition because we who are alive in today’s world are not the first ones to face life’s challenges and tradition is one way to draw upon the wisdom of our ancestors.
In the last few years, there seems to have been an increase in those who are ignoring reason as a source of wisdom when it conflicts with their religious or political beliefs. I am committed to a life where reason and faith can live together in harmony within individual lives and communities.
In today’s world, life experience is probably the one source of wisdom that has eclipsed all of the rest, and I think that’s unfortunate because life experience is necessarily limited.
What we live through each day – the work we do, the things we learn, the people we encounter, the struggles we face, the blessings we receive – all of it teaches us something about life.
But we run into trouble when we assume that our own experience is universal. One of you recently said something like, One person’s experience doesn’t negate another person’s experience. How wise! When we remember that, when we accept the fact that each of us has a different experience of life every day, all sorts of wisdom opens up before us.
When we remember that everyone’s life experience is different, we perhaps will take the time to listen to the stories and perspectives of others and glean wisdom from them. When we acknowledge that everyone walks a slightly different pathway – or a very different pathway — through life, we will hopefully become less judgmental, less prejudiced, and more compassionate.
We may become more curious as well. If there are about 350 official members of Hingham Congregational Church, plus about 60 kids (or maybe more this fall), just think about how much wisdom exists right here in our own faith community – but only if we take the time to engage with one another on a meaningful level and ask good questions.
Thinking about our psalm this morning, I am so grateful for scripture sometimes. Psalm 19, written and then rewritten so many centuries ago, testifies to the wisdom that comes to us from creation, from the natural world.
Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.
I remember, when I was in my late teens, lying on a dock on a lake in Connecticut, looking straight up into a star-filled sky. I was on a retreat with my church youth group so there were several of us out there on that dock. And, as we looked up, we were silent for a while, just taking in the great expanse of darkness, pinpointed with light. Then we began asking each other questions about life and death and the meaning of our existence on earth. It was those stars and those planets, so far away, so abundant and beautiful and mysterious, that got us wondering and inquiring and learning from one another.
Wisdom, which is so difficult to obtain and doesn’t just automatically come with age, can come through the natural world, through God’s powerful-yet-fragile creation, if we are ready to engage with the questions it asks us.
If the stars ask us, What is the meaning of our lives on this puny little planet, one of countless planets in an unfathomably large universe? then what do other facets of creation ask us and what can they teach us? What are the oceans asking us about moderation in consumption? What do our fading tomato plants and the dying blossoms on our hydrangeas and the first few yellow leaves of autumn have to tell us about the cycle of life?
Psalm 19 reminds us that there is much spiritual truth to be found in the questions posed by creation and in the unwelcome facts it places before us. Ice is melting all over the world for a reason.
To me, this leads us not just to talk about our responsibility to heal the planet, but about our need to heal our relationship with God, the Creator of All.
How might we look at this in a positive way as well? How might individual and shared experiences in the outdoors help us to forge a stronger relationship with the One who is the Source of all life and all things?
About halfway through, Psalm 19 shifts gears and starts talking about God’s precepts and ordinances. To the Psalmist, these laws were the heart of scripture. You and I can add to those precepts the many wise actions and sayings and stories of Jesus and those who wrote about Jesus in the New Testament.
The Psalmist believes that these rules, these nuggets of wisdom from scripture, are more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey.
But the Bible is often opaque and difficult to discern. The same stories, the same passages, the same words seem to take on new meaning at different stages of our lives.
Here at church, thankfully, we are not left on our own to try to decipher the meaning of the Bible. We’re in this together, and I don’t just mean that you have Sara and me to explain it all to you.
You have one another, and we have you to tell us when we are going a bit too far with our creative interpretations.
The original Congregationalists back in England in the 16th century decided that they didn’t want a hierarchical system any more. They wanted a community of the Spirit. They wanted to pledge themselves to one another and to walk with one another in faith and discern scripture together.
I am thrilled to gather with you today for Homecoming Sunday and to begin this new program year together. And as we get started, I look forward not only to providing leadership and support for our church, but to learning and growing in wisdom side by side with all of you – and to and watching and listening as you do the same with one another.