Wisdom in belonging

St Andrew’s Indooroopilly

October 17, 2021

Richard Browning

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Mark 10:35-45

This text here is a recollection from notes used this morning. It is a close, but not exact recollection. 

Prayer

O Lord, your works a many, in Wisdom you have made them all. I stand before you now and seek to be the servant of your Word and those who hear. Amen.

Introduction

Have you ever played the game: ‘You don’t know what you are asking?’

A traveller arrives in a land where snow falls and a quick thirty mins of the skis fills them with confidence. Standing there at the top of the lift, looking at strange markings from green to black, asks the guide: can I join you on the black diamond run? 

The guide, picturing the near vertical slope says: you don’t know what you are asking.

The same traveller lands on some idyllic near Asian shore (clearly not recently) and sees the host hoeing into the chilly dish. Can I help myself asks the intrepid traveller who has tomato sauce on everything: you do not know what you are asking.

A child begs his father, “Dad, can I come with you to work today?” Knowing full well that thirty minutes into the day would usher in an endless boredom the father says “you do not know what you are asking”.

A husband looks at the travail of his full term wife struggling through her third birth and says “If I could I’d gladly do the birth.”

She looks at him, pauses and says: “that is not a question. Don’t you know how to play this game? And if you did you don’t know what you are asking”.

If you could ask a question of God and know God would have it done, what would you ask? (As you consider your response, a little heads up, our questions will be a fair reckoning of who and where we are at this moment.) 

Slavery and Wisdom 

So when those two bustling disciples ask questions so closely twinned to their grasping egos, Jesus says, ‘you do not know what you are asking’. Because the wisdom Jesus reveals and embodies is explicitly set against the powerful of the day. Unlike those who lord it over others and act as tyrants and despots, the first among us is a slave. This wisdom is beautifully described in Philippians 2 where Jesus, though equal with God does not cling there, but empties himself, takes the form of a slave and is born in human likeness. 

No one, in their right mind asks: make me a slave. Yet a slave is the disposition Jesus reveals is God’s eternal heart. 

A slave is one who belongs to another. Surely no one chooses to be owned or ‘belong’ to another?

Yet listen to Jesus in John 17 groan in single syllable gravity:

As you God are in me and I in you, 

may they be in us, I in them and you in me.

There is a wildness to the boundary of God that bleeds beyond God’s self into the other. Wherever are the limits of Jesus, we and the whole of humanity are swept in, we are ‘in Jesus’, just as Jesus is ‘in God’. 

That same passage from Philippians invokes Jesus as the model who looked not to his own interests, but to the interests of others. So in Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself, there is already a greater truth at play, the boundary of ourselves extends beyond the limits of our body. There in the other is a continuation of our being, and serving the interests of the other is serving our own, and loving the other can be a gloriously selfish thing to do. That is, we already belong to the other, neighbour, stranger, even enemy, and our peace is lived through service. 

Jesus is this slave in essence. When we receive ourselves from his love we find ourselves through service to others.

This is the Wisdom sewn into fabric of creation (Psalm 104.24), let alone our faith. 

Wisdom and Suffering

It would be appropriate to begin our whole service with this injunction: “This is Wisdom. Let us attend.” The ‘this is’ is the liturgy, song, word, symbol and sacrament. Wisdom is hidden here before our eyes, to be encountered, and if encountered, manifest in our own lives.

If this is so, then who we are, as we are, where we are, in the raw honesty of our lived lives, can be brought before God, the Servant of all who lovingly receives us. 

And it is here I wish to dwell briefly. When unhurried enough to notice, the most honest questions often rise from our experiences of loss, sadness, loneliness, pain or suffering.

For the last three Sundays we have been following along with Job. Job is the plaything used as an instrument to ask on behalf of every human: what is with blameless, senseless suffering? Where are you God in the face of it? 

Job cries out from incalculable, unspeakable loss. He rightly demands an answer from God.

The only reason I can mention suffering so late in a homily, is that there is no adequate answer. In acknowledging its reality and the just expectation that God needs to give an answer, there would never be a satisfactory explanation. Job lost seven sons and three daughters! Who cares what the reason may be, those lives can never return. No left-brained, cognitive logic could satisfy such gaping wounds. 

The only ‘god’ who can attend to the protest and shouting questions that erupt from suffering is a God who has experienced suffering. The only ‘answer’ Job has is an encounter with this God. What is available to us is available to Job. It is God whose being has embraced suffering; this being of God belongs to and draws in human experience. In that encounter, our experiences are drawn into God.

A litany of unanswerable questions point to the pointlessness of trying to understand. So today, following God’s reply to Job, we join the Psalmist in a hymn of Praise (Ps 104). 

This is what can be said of praise. If it isn’t rooted in lament and the raw experience of suffering, then it is not real. If our praise does not look the suffering ones in the eye; those who cry in anguish and distress; if we do not know them or cannot name them, even if it is ourselves: then our praise is pale and thin.

Yet also, if our lament doesn’t rise up into praise, then we do not know God.

This knowable God is revealed in Jesus. On the cross Jesus draws on the whole of Psalm 22 by uttering its opening line: “my God my God, why have you forsaken me?!” This psalm, read last Sunday, is an exquisite account of the extremes of suffering – “I am a worm and no longer human … I am poured out like water … my bones are visible and out of joint …”. And almost without blinking, this lament pivots at verse 22 and flips into praise. It seems incongruous. But the turning point is the notion that the petitioner has been heard. And this is the only thing on offer, to Job or anyone, and it is the only thing that can satisfy: an encounter with the crucified God, the slave who belongs to human experience. God belongs to humanity and works for our healing, and in God our experiences are gathered in.

The great Psalm for the journey through travail is Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd, I have no wants … even though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil”. This psalm is for using now, for through it we can come to see:

  • The “shadow” in death’s valley is cast by the tortured body of Christ—strung to a tree between thieves;
  • when the Lord prepares a table before the presence of your enemies, the feast is not for you, it is for your enemies who you serve at the table of the Lord; 
  • the goodness and mercy that follows where you go is not for you but it is what those around you experience in your midst as a result of your life having been deeply formed by being in the valley of death with Christ.

Conclusion

I conclude with an extraordinary poem by Malcolm Guite. It draws together beautifully the mystery of being in each other and in Christ. Its preface comes from a Sixth Century advent carol, known to us as ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’. 

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

The poem is by Malcolm Guite. I am late to his work, but it is legion. His words bring together the Word, the love of you the listener, this Wisdom in which we find ourselves belonging to each other, a belonging first found in Christ, the Slave and Servant of all.

O Sapientia (O Come O come Wisdom)
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
O Light within the light by which I see,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.

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