Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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The book of Proverbs. Have you ever read it? It’s a collection of wise sayings, gathered together with indiscernible pattern. Scholars like to say that this book is the loose cannon with the canon, the most inexplicable book in the Bible, a bunch of pithy lines that are easy to say and hard to forget.

Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained with a righteous life. [1]

Like a god ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.[2]

The eye that mocks the father and scorns to obey the mother will be pecked out by the ravens and eaten by the vultures. [3]

Proverbs aren’t limited to the Bible, though. Every culture, every people, every tradition has them. Surely, you’ve heard these:

The grass is always greener on the other side.

A watched pot never boils.

The early bird catches the worm.

The thing about Proverbs is, wherever you find them, the wisdom they contain isn’t concerned with the lofty or profound moments of life. Their wisdom is all about the ordinary every day moments of life.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

When your head is in the lion’s mouth, treat the lion very gently.

The last one came from a teacher of mine, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon. Dr. Cannon died just a couple of weeks ago; her memorial service was this past Monday. Dr. Cannon was the first black woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church. She was the first woman who earned a PhD from Union Theological Seminary here in the city. She was one of the foundational voices in womanist theology. It is impossible to overstate the impact she had on the church. She taught ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and her classes were the toughest and most intimidating of them all, though it wasn’t until I was writing this sermon that I could articulate why.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Inspired, talks about her journey with the Bible. At an early age, she learned it was an owner’s manual for life. She was taught to call it her BIBLE, her Basic / Instructions / Before / Leaving / Earth. On one level, I understand this. All of us want instruction. All of us long for some sort of how-to for this life, don’t we? How do you care for aging parents? How so you maintain civility in an increasingly uncivil time? How do you manage both expenses and generosity in New York City? How do you do marriage or divorce or singleness? How do you approach overworking or unemployment? How do you tend to the endless number of responsibilities that pull and nag?

Some instruction would actually be pretty nice, wouldn’t it?

But, what Rachel Held Evans learned, and what I think we may already know, is that life cannot abide with something as simple as an IKEA manual, where everything is spelled out step by step, with pictures. There simply is no single, easy answer for every one of life’s questions.

Proverbs itself contains contradictory pieces of wisdom. One moment wisdom seems to demean the poor: A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. [4]This actually turns my stomach, because it pays no heed to systemic poverty and looks only at laziness rather than class, race, generational inequity, education, and, oh, I don’t know…a whole host of complex dynamics.

In the next breath, though, Proverbs says, Defend the rights of the poor. / A righteous man knows the needs of the poor and extends generosity.

A few weeks ago, I told you about another odd couple:

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.[5]

If we try to reduce the wisdom of Proverbs to simple, direct questions and answers, we end up spinning in circles, dogs chasing our own tails, exerting all sorts of energy without getting anywhere.

But, if you were to take crayons or highlighters and mark up every time Proverbs uses the words “way” or “path”—your Bible would end up looking like a Candy Land board, where almost every square you can land on is brightly colored.

You see, if I understand it, wisdom is a path. It is not a static list of shoulds or a ream of rigid rules. It is a journey we take one step at a time.

Bill Brown, one of the leading scholars on Proverbs, says “To live in Wisdom’s world is to experience the delight of discernment, and to walk the communal path she forges, a path that is “like the light of dawn, shining brighter and brighter until full day.” But, the “full day” that ushers in all knowledge and insight never arrives within any given lifetime,” he says. “In Wisdom’s eyes there really are no grownups. The quest for wisdom is ever ongoing, and progress on the way will always be marked with baby steps.”

Wisdom itself insists: not everything is measured and neat, cut and dry. There is always something new to learn.

My friend Meg[6], who parents three young girls, including four-year old twins who are, she says, the pickiest eaters on earth, who moan and argue over everything from broccoli to brownie batter, can recite this Proverb by heart: Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. [7]She shared it at a recent meeting, in full-fledged day dream of eating a dry piece of toast in a silent house, when someone else in the room interrupted her and said: I bet a lot of people would take the strife when they’re sitting lonely at night. Better is a dry morsel with quiet, except when it’s not.

Or another piece of wisdom: Like vinegar on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. When I am sad, I don’t really want someone standing there singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow”. That is the honest truth. Except when it’s not. Because when I’m sad, sometimes singing is the only thing that will crack my heart open and allow healing to seep in.

Wisdom’s way, it seems, is situational. It depends, always, on circumstance. Wisdom isn’t just about knowing what is true, it’s about knowing when it’s true. And the good news, I think, is that this way, this path of righteous living is not some secret, hidden course you need a PhD or a private investigator to find. The wisdom of Proverbs dwells within the ordinary moments of everyday life.

In our text this morning, we encounter this way of wisdom personified. She’s called Lady Wisdom. She is the one who watches over us and issues these Proverbs to us. She is the one named for the Wisdom she dispenses, so that we might be better today than we were yesterday. Did you catch how she does it? “Wisdom cries out in the street,” we read, “In the square she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”

She’s right in the mix of it all: at the train station on the morning express bus waiting for an elevator during Day School drop-off, fighting through the crowds at the 72nd Street entrance to Central Park. Right there in the busyness of our daily routines, she cries out to everyone—no matter their age, faith, class, education, race, or gender. She is not particular about who hears her, because, she says, anyone who listens can learn.

It gets a bit rough from there, though, for Lady Wisdom then says, “How long will you simple ones love being simple? How long will you scoffers delight in your scoffing, how long will you fools hate knowledge?” Lady Wisdom has some hard words for us to hear. But, I’ve become convinced those harsh words come not from a place of indifferent anger, but from a place of deeply concerned, irreversibly invested love.

Dr. Cannon was not known for her easy classes. She was not known for giving high grades. And yet students flocked to her. Every semester, wherever and whatever she taught, students lined up to sign up, because of what she taught and how she taught it. She was among the most sought-after instructors in theological education anywhere precisely because her students knew they would not be coddled. They knew they would be challenged.

Not long before she died, she was asked, “Why do you nurture students the way you do?” And she said, “Before I began to mentor and nurture students, there were others who mentored me. There were teachers and especially my Grandma Rosie. She taught me to love reading. I was then and am now always reading and creating, because what I want to do is take the best from the Black teachers that formed me and bring it to my teaching. Every Black teacher I had told me, ‘I’m going to give you the best that I have, and I want you to make it better.’ That is how I approach nurturing and mentoring my students. That is my ministry.”[8]

I think that is Lady Wisdom’s ministry, too. Not to coddle, but to challenge, giving us the very best she has, so that we can make it better. Lady Wisdom’s deep desire that human life flourish is why she occasionally speaks with such an edge. Follow me, she says, with an almost frightening degree of intensity. Follow me and you will find life. She doesn’t say, “Follow me for it will be easy.” She says, “Follow me because the struggle is worth it.”

I told you earlier it wasn’t until I was working on this sermon that I realized why Dr. Cannon’s classes were so hard. It’s because Dr. Cannon walked the path of Wisdom. Her classes did not allow me to simply read and regurgitate, study and spout. I couldn’t just learn the facts and soak up the knowledge. I had to journey through it, because in Dr. Cannon’s classes, it wasn’t what you believed that you were evaluated on, but how you came to believe it. The process. The wresting. There was no roadmap provided.

She always used to say, “This is not a paint-by-numbers class.”

Well, no. And neither is Lady Wisdom’s. And thanks be to God, because neither is life.

In these recent days, Dr. Cannon’s students, we’ve discovered we all have different memories, different lessons we learned from our teacher. But every one of us remembers this: near the end of every semester, she would say, “We’re coming in for a smooth landing. A nice, smooth landing.” She would push us throughout the entire semester, unrelenting in her desire that we learn as much as possible, but toward the end, as every other class was gearing up for a final exam, Dr. Cannon’s classes were intentionally gearing down.

You’ve endured the struggle, she would say. You’ve done the work. You’ve found out something more of who you are, and why, something more of how to move through this world in faithful measure. Class isn’t over, she would say. Class is never over. But, take a deep breath, because right now, we’re coming in for a smooth landing.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

That’s what Proverbs and Lady Wisdom herself want so desperately for us.

For ours to be a life so well lived, so thoroughly considered, so intentionally faithful, that no matter what the circumstances around us, we can hold tight to God’s ultimate promise, God’s ultimate claim on our lives: we’re coming for a nice, smooth landing.


[1] Proverbs 16:31

[2] Proverbs 11:22

[3] Proverbs 30:17

[4] Proverbs 10:4

[5] Proverbs 26:4-5

[6] My friend and colleague Rev. Meg Peery McLaughlin of Burke Presbyterian Church, who was a significant conversation partner with me in the crafting of this sermon.

[7] Proverbs 17:1