Living With Wisdom

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Mark 7:24-37

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Good Morning! It is a pleasure to speak to you once again from the pulpit of  Marsh Chapel. I want to thank Dean Hill and the rest of the Marsh Chapel staff for their support and encouragement as I have taken on my new role as Interim  University Chaplain for International Students. As many of you know, I’ve served as the Lutheran Chaplain here at Marsh for the past three years, and all I can say is that the sermon you are about to hear may be my least Lutheran sermon at Marsh as I’m preaching on an apocryphal text (those books that Martin Luther outright rejected from the Protestant Bible) and I’ll be quoting the Pope.

One of the things I’ve noticed in my new position is that there is a definite learning curve. Even though I’ve worked here for the last three years, taking on more responsibility and having a broader presence to the BU community comes with learning new names, navigating new systems, and finding new ways of relating to a population of the student body that itself is quite diverse. After all, “International” basically means anyone not from the United States, a globe’s worth of culture, tradition, and faiths to relate with and welcome. (I promise it sounds more intense than it actually is, though!) But let’s think about the reverse of this, an international student coming to a completely new culture, expected to not only to seek education, but also to grow as an individual and somehow “fit into” what maybe a very different context. Learning facts and figures in class may be the easiest part of this! Cultural wisdom can be elusive. Expectations of students in the U.S. differ wildly from those in other countries. Social interactions are defined by different standards in the U.S. And even just speaking in a language that is not native to you can feel like a terrifying experience. But fear not.  Fortunately, there are plenty of resources at BU which are designed specifically for International Students to help them get acclimated, to have a place to feel comfortable, and to find ways to meet new people. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m one of those resources.)

Additionally, every year, BU Today, the daily e-news source for the university complies a “Words of Wisdom” video for the incoming class. The wisdom comes from the previous year’s graduating class, offering advise and guidance on those every day things that you won’t necessarily learn in the classroom or at orientation.

Here’s some of what was offered to this year’s class:

On meeting new people:

“One of the first things you should do at BU is make some friends…Pretty much everyone’s in the same boat you are. Everyone wants to make friends. Everyone’s terribly alone.”

“If you see somebody that just looks interesting, just say “hi!” They might become your best friend.”

On new eating habits:

“The freshman fifteen is absolutely real.”

“There’s a lot of stuff you can grab from the dining halls. There’s a lot of cookies. There’s a lot of brownies. Don’t be tempted to touch all that.”

On abbreviations:

“So, when you come on campus, you’re probably going to notice that we love our abbreviations here at BU.”

“Acronyms. Learn acronyms really quickly.”

“Whether it be COM, CAS, GSU, SHA, HTC, and what is SAO?”

“By the way it’s CAS not cas. That’s a pretty important one.”

On being an adult:

“Get used to doing laundry on your own and also do it often, because people will notice if you don’t. And you don’t want to be that person.”

“I think that no matter how grown up you feel in college, always talk to your parents. Always just tell them “Hey, what’s up? This is what’s happening.” Whenever they hear your voice, I’m sure they’re just like “Yes! They called me!””

Now, I intentionally selected some of the funnier words of wisdom from this video, but you get the point. These are things that you can only glean from experience. Or from someone who’s had more experience. But they’re important to know in order to be successful as a student here at BU. And much of this wisdom can be carried forward into life after BU – being a responsible adult who is healthy, clean, respectful of others, and has a community with which one can relate. Wisdom is more than just knowledge. While the University administration hopes that students acquire knowledge while they’re here, we also hope that students’ experiences and interactions with others will lead them to wisdom. Wisdom is not just facts and figures. It’s experiential. It’s dynamic. It comes from interactions and experiences. It can be passed from one person to another, but sometimes is best when it is developed internally. We generally think that wisdom is attached to age – the older you are, the wiser you become. Now this may not be true in all cases, but the logic behind it stands to good reason. The longer you have been alive, the more experiences you have had which have enabled you to learn about which are the best choices (sometimes by making the wrong choice the first time around). This can lead you on a path that enables greater clarity into the ways people interact, how the world works, and the best ways to apply the knowledge that you’ve acquired. Some cultures revere their elder members because of the wisdom they possess – their life experience is seen as valuable for future generations. But wisdom from those who come before us is only as valuable as the amount of attention we’re willing to give it.

Wisdom is relational – it allows us to form connections with others by sharing our experiences – don’t you feel closer to those students I quoted earlier, maybe because you somehow relate with the advice they were giving? Or who among us cannot think of someone – a parent, an older sibling, a friend – who has shared their wisdom with us to help us become who we are today? Because of its relational nature, wisdom necessitates a certain way of approaching the world and other people. It requires us to seek it out by processing our experiences in a way that will educate us into the future. We must be aware to live with Wisdom. It surrounds us, but has to be sought out. Wisdom is pervasive, but we must take it in of our own accord. It does not just hit us over the head in an obvious way. We must

do some work to be intentional about our development into wise people.

Wisdom is also a pretty awesome female symbol in the Bible who isn’t necessarily talked about extensively. She is Justice. She is Righteousness. She is Equity. She is in all things. She guides humanity (for those who choose to follow her). To have full knowledge of Wisdom is to be the closest one can be to God. In today’s readings, particularly the reading from Proverbs and the Psalm reading from Wisdom of Solomon, we hear two somewhat contrasting versions of the biblical description of Wisdom. In the Proverbs selection, the Woman Wisdom is a prophet. She is crying out to the people who fail to see and take in her essence to become closer to the will of God. She bemoans the foolish who fail to heed her warnings and listen to her thoughts. She goes so far as to laugh and mock those who foolishly rejected her while they experience panic, calamities, and distress. This Wisdom is rooted in a fear of God, of God’s power, a very common notion in the Hebrew texts. We’re often uncomfortable with these kinds of texts which paint a picture of a violent, sometimes vengeful God whose believers act purely out of fear. I would disagree, in our context today, that our wisdom necessarily must come out of fear of God. Instead it should come out of a desire to make connections with others, addressing wrongs in the world, establishing justice, and seeking out righteousness.

In Wisdom of Solomon we have a gentler, almost enamored, description of Wisdom. The Woman Wisdom here is a righteous and beautiful expression of God’s eternal light. Evil cannot prevail against her. She is goodness and light. The author, depicted as King Solomon in the text, in other parts of the book announces his desire to wed Wisdom in order to be the closest to God he can be. But like the description in Proverbs, Woman Wisdom is omnipresent. She is accessible to all, but one must have a certain desire and drive for her to access her. It is an on-going relationship wisdom seeks, not an initial flirtation.

These descriptions are opposite sides of the same coin. Wisdom is beautiful and strong, full of goodness and light, but the results of rejecting her can lead to suffering. Wisdom is a transmitter of the will of God, but rejecting her will ultimately lead to negative consequences. Wisdom and God have a symbiotic relationship. God creates Wisdom, but wisdom exists with God and enables God’s action in the world. As the text states, she is “a spotless mirror of the working of God, an image of his goodness.” Biblical scholars refer to Wisdom and God’s relationship as “hypostasis” – in which Wisdom acts as and on behalf of God, but is not equated with God.   In Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-23, just before the passage we read today, the author

states:

“There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.”

These descriptions could easily be swapped to describe God. Wisdom is the means by which all of creation is ordered and coheres. Wisdom is a changing and transforming entity, found permeating all of life. While ever-present, we must choose to acknowledge Wisdom and engage with her – she will not force herself on us. But if we choose to reject wisdom, then we choose to reject God’s will in the world.

In Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical, “Laudato Si” or “Praised Be,” his main focus is on the Catholic Church’s response to climate change as a justice issue that not only concerns the wellbeing of the Earth, but also as a justice issue for the poor and oppressed. I highly recommend reading it – it is very well written and accessible for both theologians and laypeople alike.  In addition to a rousing call to the global populace to recognize the need for action around this issue, the Pope also deals with the idea of wisdom as necessary for building community to face the challenges of today and into the future. He states:

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. “

The Pope points out a new way that wisdom has been obscured in our, now global, society. While we have increased our connections, we have decreased the quality in those connections, and actually created distractions from what true wisdom really is. We have access to data and information, knowledge, really, but we lack the wisdom we need to effectively address the challenges that climate change will create environmentally, socially, and economically.

Our present world experiences so much pain, alienation, struggle, and conflict that we often fail to see how wisdom could ever shine through to lead us forward into a new way of being, into a global community. Syrian refugees seek asylum from a tumultuous civil war and political situation in the face of closed borders. U.S. citizens are denied rights and in some cases their ability to live because of their race, who they love, or how they identify. Global climate change is creating droughts in some areas, flooding in others, endangering those who do not have financial or technical means to combat it and also crippling national economies. These problems seem so large that we feel helpless, we bury our heads, we pretend it’s not happening, we say “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Or “That doesn’t affect me directly, so I don’t necessarily need to do anything about it.” Or “It’s easier to keep living my life the way I live it. I can’t devote time to fixing these enormous problems.”

Prophetic Wisdom is calling out to us, standing on our street corners, imploring us to see her and process her ways. In ignoring or denying that we have anything to do with the global struggles that happen every day, we also deny opportunities for becoming part of the solution. However, it’s not too late for us to seek out and live with wisdom.  Just like it seems that pain and struggle pervade so much of our shared global life, beyond them is wisdom from our experiences and those who have come before us which can guide us to face these challenges. Maybe the wisdom we have is not a one to one match with the challenges we face today, but that’s the cool thing about wisdom: when people bring the bits of wisdom they have from their own experiences and share them with each other, in a deep, relational way, new wisdom forms. New ways of seeing the world. New ways of seeking justice. New problem-solving tactics.

At BU, we’re lucky. We’re in a place of privilege, studying everything from neuroscience to medieval literature. We come from places as close as Brookline to as far as Beijing. Our community is a global place, allowing for so many conversations across ages, cultures, religions, sexuality, gender, and economic backgrounds. There are immense possibilities for new and creative wisdom to shine through to address the challenges of today and tomorrow.  So yes, we can share wisdom about how to be a successful student and adult while at college, but we can also share the wisdom we’ve developed by taking the knowledge that we have and applying it to our lives. There are glimmers of these wise conversations happening all over campus – at the Howard Thurman Center, here in Marsh Chapel, in the classroom…but we must be intentional in seeking them out. Our congregation is also a great resource for these kinds of conversations. We have folks of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures who can all share their wisdom with each other. I invite you to do just that. Today, after our service, we will have our weekly coffee hour in the Marsh Room in the lower level. This is a great opportunity to chat with someone you don’t know, meet someone who is different than you, make a new friend. And we have lots of international-themed snacks to help nourish your body while you nourish your mind. We must invite Wisdom into our lives, live with her, and not expect that she will appear to us without our concerted effort.

In conclusion, let’s return to our “Words of Wisdom” from the class of 2015. We started by talking about the difficulties of being a new or international student on a campus such as BU, but this time, I want you to think about these words of wisdom and how they might apply to your life:

“Definitely focus on academics, but understand that a lot of your personal growth is going to happen outside of the classroom.”

“So many people have so many different perspectives and ideas and it’s important to kind of take that in and internalize it and kind of make it your own too.”

“Enjoy the time that you do have here because it goes dang fast.”

Amen.

–Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students ad Interim

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