Christ Centered Resources

No Fear, Just Do It!

Rev. Ed Searcy

Mark 8:27-38, Proverbs 1:20-33
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 14, 1997
The makers of a movie recently stocked Times Square with a 'typical New York city crowd'. The producers' itemized the mass of humanity needed. Among others, they called for 200 nondescript businessmen and women, 100 assorted New Yorkers, 60 nondescript tourists, 4 sanitation sweepers, 8 cab drivers, 15 homeless people, 5 prostitutes, 14 police and 2 end of the world preachers. As long as there have been street corners there have been preachers ... although these days, street corner preachers have a bad name. Thursday's Globe and Mail tells the story of actor Robert Duvall's new movie: "The Apostle". It depicts the life of a Pentecostal preacher from Texas. A man who is full of flaws and self-righteousness yet also a person of genuine sincerity and devotion. No one in Hollywood would touch the script. It doesn't portray the standard image of street corner preachers. As Duvall says: "So much of what you see is indictments, caricatures, judgements. I don't want to do that." So Duvall himself put up the millions to produce the story. It's not only in the world that street corner preachers don't get a hearing. They are distanced from the church, too. We Sunday morning pulpit preachers find their unpolished style and 'in your face' attitude to be an embarrassing stain on the profession. Take the Woman Wisdom who preaches from the Bible this morning, for example. 'Sophia' as she is known in Greek. She is the personification of God's own voice. Yet when she speaks she doesn't do it in church. Instead "Wisdom cries aloud in the streets, raises her voice in the squares. At the head of the busy streets she calls; at the entrance of the gates, in the city, she speaks out." Still, you wouldn't know it. Not from the deathly silence of sermons and stories about her in the pulpit all these years. Maybe it is just me but I don't recall learning of her in Sunday School. There were no pictures of Lady Wisdom speaking in the square, no female forms to colour and label as the voice of God. All these years her voice has been crying out from the Bible's pages but like pedestrians in Times Square we have lowered our eyes to avoid her gaze or walked the other way to keep from hearing her cry. She knows. She can see that no one is paying attention. Don't kid yourself. The professor at the front of a class of hundreds can tell when no one is listening. The preacher in the pulpit can see the heads nodding off and the eyes staring blankly into space! But it is not often that the class or congregation are confronted like this: "How long will you untutored ones love ignorance ... or you fools hate knowledge? Since you refused me when I called, and spurned my advice I will laugh at your calamity." This is one frustrated teacher. Called to teach God's Wisdom she goes to the heart of the city and finds no one who will listen. Why? Well, let's be honest. Through many centuries the image of a feminine face of God has been simply unacceptable in the church. This street preacher was not one to be honoured and respected. Instead she was to be hidden and ignored ... an embarrassment not a treasure. So today, when we rediscover God personified in a Wise Woman's voice it comes as a shock and surprise to many. We can hardly believe that she has been preaching on the street corner all this time. It's true ... we have not paid attention to God's Wisdom because it is delivered in a Woman's voice. Today, then, let us listen to her like untutored students in the most basic of entry level courses in the Department of Wisdom. Although, on second thought, we are not really untutored. We have already learned much that passes for wisdom. Wisdom, remember, comes to us in the form of proverbs ... those little snippets of insight that have been called: "the wisdom of many, the wit of one". They are the sayings that we tape to the fridge and carry around in our purses, wallets, date books. Students on campus must already be familiar with the pearls of wisdom in their chosen field of study. Over in the computer science building they say: "Garbage in, garbage out". At the history department you will overhear: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it". And in the weight room someone has written on the wall: "No pain, no gain". But not only on campus. You walk into visit at the nursing home and above the bed is a poster with a bright flowering plant with the caption: "Bloom where you are planted" A relative arrives to help in the byelection in your riding. When you wonder aloud about her dedication to the cause she quotes the saying that the party workers live by: "An ounce of loyalty is worth more than a pound of brains". And marketers have caught on. Running shoes are sold in the millions with words of wisdom: "Just do it!" they tell us. And we do. Then there is the note taped up in the real estate agent's office: "Everybody has his price" and the sign on the high school teacher's desk: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." Once you start to watch for it you see that wisdom is being preached at every turn. There is no escaping it. Truth is, we crave it. When we find a proverb that speaks to us we hang on to it ... we put it on the office wall or in our suit pocket. A while ago a close friend found himself living a nightmare with his teen-age son. It was one heartbreak after another. During the worst times, he said, one thing that really helped was the saying of Sitting Bull: "You are powerless against my prayers". Yes, Wisdom is what the world craves. No wonder it is what the marketers sell. Why then have we, the church, been so deaf to God's Wisdom? There is the femininity of the voice, it is true. But there is more. It is the very ordinariness of wisdom that rankles us. Wisdom is specific ... it is everyday ... and it is shared by the most common of folks. It is the stuff of street preachers untrained in the refined language of systematic theology. Besides, proverbs often offer conflicting wisdom. Perhaps you have played those games where one says: "Look before you leap" and the other responds: "He who hesitates is lost." To which the first replies: "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched" to be followed quickly by the rejoinder: "Plan ahead!" Even Dame Wisdom knows this. Right here in scripture, back to back in Proverbs 26 verses five and six play the same game: "Answer fools according to their folly or they will be wise in their own eyes". Good advice, don't you think. When a foolish remark is made, don't let it go ... say something. But then in the very next verse we find: "It is like cutting off one's foot and drinking down violence, to send a message by a fool." In other words, no matter how hard you try they won't get it. So don't even bother. And we are left to decide which of these two words of wisdom it will be. Here is the problem with Wisdom. There is too much of it. We receive words of wisdom at every turn. Much of it is true ... to a point. Little of it works all the time, in every situation, for every person. Yet there always seems to be someone who hauls out the same well worn gem no matter what the occasion: "Every cloud has its silver lining" "Judge not that ye be not judged'" "God helps those who help themselves". These wisdom sayings may be true for some of us some of the time but none of them are true for all of us all of the time. The truth is that it takes as much wisdom to know which proverb to quote and when as it does to come up with the proverb in the first place. So we pulpit preachers look with disdain on Wisdom. She looks too simplistic, not sophisticated enough. She is to classical preaching what folk art is to fine art. The only problem is that God's Word of Wisdom is not spoken in the language of the academy or the concert hall. but in the language of the street. In Sophia, and in Sophia's offspring Jesus, God speaks in the idiom of ordinary proverbs and everyday parables. As much as we would like to think that the church can simply ignore the wisdom of the marketers of the world Woman Wisdom knows otherwise. She knows that she must enter the marketplace and offer an alternative Wisdom. As one teacher of preaching has said: "The question is not will people live by proverbs, but what kind of proverbs will they cherish?". A year ago or so an entire generation of teens appeared to be living by the same proverbial wisdom. If you walked into any clothing or department store the racks were full of proverbs ... full of the line of t-shirts known as "No fear: Dangerous Sports Gear". At one level these shirts were about looking fear in the eyes, taking risks, earnestly striving to reach a goal: "Wherever the fear may be, look it in the eyes." "Heaven is living in your hopes. Hell is living in your fears." But flipping through the t-shirt racks you sensed something else: "No crybabies. Not so much as a whimper." "Winners do what losers don't." "Living with boundaries is not living." This is a moral philosophy at work. It is a worship of winning, a condemnation of limits and hostility to weakness of any kind. And, for a year or two, it was the hottest selling t-shirt in North America. This gave our son Matt and two of his friends an idea. They created their own line of t-shirts and called them "No guts". The slogans on these shirts offered a satirical view of the ‘No fear’ vision of reality: "Winning is for losers." "If you're not living on the edge you won't fall off." "If you don't play you can't lose." Lo and behold, the shirts took off. Soon other kids at high school were ordering shirts faster than the three boys could produce them. An alternative wisdom had found a receptive audience. It was a good joke ... but it was more ... it was a subversive act. It worked quietly, from underneath to challenge the dominant wisdom of their culture. Which is what Sophia is about these days, too. She is crying out in the streets with a Wisdom that few heed: "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it." (Proverbs 15:16) 'The fear of the Lord' is her constant refrain in our 'no fear' culture. It is not a song that is much in vogue ... even in the church. It suggests a life lived in constant awareness of God. We hear 'fear' and think 'terror'. She says 'fear' and means 'awe'. Most of the proverbs spoken by Sophia sound like ordinary wisdom still today. There is nothing subversive or revolutionary about them. Except for this ... that all of them are spoken with the intention that they will lead to lives formed by a healthy and, yes, appropriate fear of our Maker. Just in case you had begun to imagine that 'the fear of the Lord' is a nasty remnant of the Old Testament think again. Perhaps you didn't hear Jesus' proverbs for the day: "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it." "What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" Only those who 'fear the Lord' dare take the kind of risks that Jesus calls wise. Let's face it, gaining the whole world is what we want, right? The lottery corporation reminds us incessantly: "You never know. You never know." How about this advertisement for Compaq computers? Look at the soft, rich, warm colours. See the mother sitting on the couch typing on a laptop computer as her daughter lies beside her reading a book. Hear the proverbial caption that reads: "You can make sacrifices for your career. You can make sacrifices for your family. Or you can choose not to make sacrifices." This is what passes for wisdom in our world: 'Have no fear. You need not sacrifice. You deserve not only a break today ... you deserve it all.' Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the United Church General Council thought it wise not to say the words 'we are sorry' last month to a people forever scarred by our attempts to do good in the Residential Schools. We have been schooled well in the wisdom of the world. We listen to the wisdom of lawyers and insurers who fear that we might lose millions. We ignore the possibility that our desire to cling to assets at all cost may signal our death as a living witness to Christ. We ignore Divine Wisdom, who calls us to fear the Lord not the loss of property. Instead, the General Council adopts the careful language of theology. It goes on record as being on 'a journey of repentance' ... but a repentance that carefully, craftily and purposefully admits to no wrongdoing. Perhaps the church is too faithful a reflection of you and me. Wanting to live by the Wisdom of God ... but afraid. Afraid of the loss such a life might mean: the loss of respect, the loss of income, the loss of power, the loss of all that charades in our culture as life. Could it be that those who 'fear the Lord' no longer fear such loss? Could it be that this Cross, this 'tree of death' that stands at the crux of our life together is, in truth, the 'tree of Life' ... the 'tree of Wisdom'? Could it be? Down on the street corner we hear Wise Sophia answer ... "Yes", she says, “yes”.