Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection June 26, 2016
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday I preached my first sermon on the Book of Proverbs. A few people asked if I might be able to present the summary of Proverbs that was contained in the sermon. I will do so and I will include a few thoughts from that sermon as well.
Proverbs are pithy sayings - which try to bring a kernel of wisdom to anyone who might need such wisdom. In one sense, the Book of Proverbs is an ancient version of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most of the proverbs in Proverbs were addressed to children, especially one’s sons.
After re-reading the Book of Proverbs, here is how I sum up the wisdom found therein:
1) Be humble, not arrogant;
2) Pursue wisdom, not wealth;
3) Avoid evil people, especially evil women;
4) A good wife is a treasure that is hard to find;
5) Be careful around angry people;
6) Do not yourself be given over to angry outbursts;
7) Discipline and moderation lead to a well-lived life;
8) Do not drink alcohol in excess;
9) Don’t oppress the poor;
10) Work hard if you want to prosper;
11) Don’t be a bully;
12) Serve God.
This, I believe, is the Book of Proverbs in a nutshell. We should also be reminded- as we are on a number of occasions in Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But we should understand that the Hebrew word for “fear” - yirah - can mean fear but it can as easily mean awe or reverence.
I believe awe is a better translation than fear. I don’t believe making people afraid of God leads to the divine mystery of God. As I recently read in a Hebrew commentary: “Yirah includes the idea of wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment, gratitude, admiration, and even worship. The ‘fear of the Lord’ therefore includes an overwhelming sense of the glory (and) beauty of the One True God.”
In Proverbs, we’re called to seek wisdom - but a special kind of wisdom: God’s wisdom, the wisdom that leads to peace. As Proverbs 3:17 notes: “The ways of wisdom are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” But this peace, in the words of our brother Paul, surpasses understanding.
We’re called in Proverbs to wisdom and to peace but we are also called to awe - awe at who God is. Let me share something from the spiritual writer (and friend) Richard Rohr: “Religion has always been about honoring mystery. (But in our churches) we have created people who are afraid of ambiguity - afraid of mystery.”
I believe this assessment is true. Is this not why so many of our Christian brothers and sisters have fallen into the diabolical trap of fundamentalism? To live in and with mystery is not always easy to do. But fundamentalism is a false certainty.
As Professor Gordon Kaufman writes: “We find a certain security in believing ‘our way’ is the only way. This is a natural part of any religion - But far greater faith is required to seek and trust that which lies beyond human comprehension. It is a challenge is retain faith in the face of mystery.”
We live and move and have our being in divine mystery. And to live in mystery requires 2 things: openness and flexibility. Openness leads to godly wisdom. Flexibility opens us to godly wisdom.
As I have preached many times over the eight years I’ve served as pastor of our beloved church: our faith, our Christianity, is primarily about HOW we should live (and treat one another); it is not primarily about WHAT we need to believe.
And, yet, the great divisions, the great battles, in past, as well as present Christianity are primarily battles about WHAT to believe! And I know so very well how vexing it is - how disappointing it is - to keep battling brothers and sisters in Christ over how the Bible should be understood and interpreted. Instead of all these battles, we should be standing mute before the mystery of God, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of our shared life in Jesus Christ.
Why do we, as American Baptists, have to defend ourselves and the name “Baptist” from those who are constantly trying to hijack our good name? Why do we have to endure the craziness of pastors such as the pastor of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, California who preached on June 12 how happy he was that 49 “sodomites and pedophiles” were gunned down in Orlando?
Why must we have our beloved Morgan Park Baptist Church maligned in peoples’ minds with such anti-God hatred and twisted humanity? Are we not all tired of having to say: “We’re not like that - we’re not like those Baptists?”
I add some thoughts from Professor Marcus Borg: “You can believe all the rights things and still be a jerk. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable - still be in bondage … The emphasis upon belief is both modern and mistaken. It’s also divisive - once people start thinking that being a Christian is about believing right things, then anybody’s list of what the right things are to believe becomes a kind of litmus test as to who’s really a good (and true) Christian and who’s not. But being a Christian is really about one’s relationship with God (and others).”
We have much to learn about how to LIVE as a Christian. Not everything we need to learn is in the Bible. As the Quaker peace-maker, Rufus Jones, wrote in 1948: “Vital Christianity cannot be maintained and preserved on the theory that God dealt with our human race only in the far ages past and that the Bible is the only evidence we have that our God is a living, revealing, communicating God. If God ever spoke, then God is still speaking! God is the Great I AM - not a great I WAS!