Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Lately, I’ve been thinking about George Bailey a lot. If you’ve listened to me preach for a while now, then you know that George was my mentor in ministry. I met him when I was 26 and fresh out of seminary. He was 61 and serving in his last call before retirement. And together we spent four years pastoring the people of Ridgewood Church in Cleveland, Ohio.
George is 90 now and ailing. He has dementia and recently moved into assisted living. That’s been hard for him and his wife Betty. And so I have been pondering my love for him and his oversized influence on my life.
But I was not always so appreciative. When I first met George, I thought he was a bit odd. You see, back then I was very sure of what I believed, but certainty was not George’s style. Instead, he thought of the life of faith as a great adventure. To open one’s mind to change was a sacrament. George Bailey was thinking outside the box before anybody came up with that phrase.
George would stand in the pulpit and wax eloquent about the happy marriage between faith and science. Every time there was a new discovery, he saw in it the wisdom and the glory of God. George used to preach about things like time travel and past lives and heavenly visions. And I would sit in my pulpit chair and try to keep a straight face while he went on and on in his excited way.
George loved the notion of the Trinity. He saw in it - not some convoluted doctrine - but instead a description of a relationship; of God in community. One Trinity Sunday, he preached from the book of Revelation where there is this odd reference to “the seven Spirits of God.” And using that odd reference as a jumping off place, he declared: “God is at least a Trinity.” I remember holding my breath and just wishing he would stop.
But George was on a mission that day and one that I now appreciate. He was trying to get us to open our minds about an idea for which words are inadequate. On Trinity Sunday in particular, we come face to face with the utter failure of words to capture the ineffable mystery we call God.
You may already know that the word “Trinity” is found nowhere in the Bible. The concept is at best implied by the certain passages. And so on Trinity Sunday, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have to dig deep to find passages that somehow, if you squint your eyes just right, make reference to a God who has more than one face.
The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings. And every now and again we read from it, but preachers rarely preach from it. Its non-narrative format makes preaching a challenge. But as I prepared for this sermon by reading all of the lessons appointed for this day, I was drawn to this passage because of a mysterious presence known as Woman Wisdom.
Proverbs makes the very bold claim that she has been around almost as long as God has. Verse 22 reads: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” Who knew?! That means that when God set this universe in motion, Woman Wisdom was beside God, participating with God. She was in the beginning with God, in the same way that Jesus was. The Gospel of John declares that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God...” But Proverbs says that in the beginning, Woman Wisdom was with God. To confuse things even more, the Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the first born of all creation” and in another place calls him “the wisdom of God.” So what’s going on here? Who was at the beginning with God? Jesus? Woman Wisdom? Are they distinct or are they one and the same? And if they are the same, does that mean that the Christ defies the very gender constructs that have made America’s public restrooms a war zone?
Whatever the answer, Wisdom was there at the beginning. And while you’re adjusting your thinking, make room for his new insight as well. Woman Wisdom is most commonly found in the most ordinary places. But that’s not how we think of spiritual insight. If you ask most people where they might gain some spiritual wisdom, they might tell you to try a monastery or an ashram or a mountaintop. But Proverbs says that Woman Wisdom is found in the rush of day-to-day life, in the pressing of bodies on a subway car, in buying a cup of coffee. The writer of Proverbs puts it like this: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” You get to be wise by being in the world.
So what is the result of finding Woman Wisdom? Is it to understand spiritual mysteries or deep theology?
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Creation, with God reaching a finger toward the finger of Adam. If you look closely, you will see a woman in the crook of God’s left elbowMost scholars believe that she is Woman Wisdom. She is literally at God’s side, and she is delighting in the moment of Adam’s creation. Adam delights her because people delight her. Wisdom is in love with the human race. In the Bible paraphrase called The Message, the author puts it like this: Woman Wisdom was “...delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family.” The end result of God’s wisdom is to delight in the potential and promise of humanity. And that is a wise and good place for all theology to begin. That is a wise and good place for the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles of Jana Isabelle Husek to begin – with the notion that she has the potential to bless the whole world!
So who is this Woman Wisdom? Is she part of the Godhead? Does she somehow join the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in a quadrinity? Is she another manifestation of a gender-bending Christ? Who knows?
But that not knowing is such a blessing. In his poem “The Real Work” farmer and essayist Wendell Berry writes: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Yes, Mr. Berry, you are so right! The only proper response to the mystery we call God is a song or a dance or a painting or a poem. God is not about an equation. God is about an experience so profound that we fall down in adoration.
So blessed be Woman Wisdom, who was at God’s side when the planets began to spin! Blessed be the Father, Son and Holy Spirit invoked in the waters of baptism! Blessed be the many, many faces of Love, the One God who is at least a Trinity!