Monday, 07 June 2010 17:16

May 30, 2010 Sermon

“Sister Sophia”
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
John 16:12-16
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 30, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Twenty-one years ago this weekend, I had my first of three Ohio ordination councils.  It’s a long story that I won’t bore you with right now, but suffice it to say that my beliefs were slightly askew of those of the Columbus Baptist Association, and they made sure that someone as dangerous as me would not soil their churches.  I was denied ordination twice before finally being ordained in Cleveland, Ohio.  One of the questions posed to me was whether I had a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit.  I said yes, but got all tangled up when the person kept calling the Holy Spirit “he”.  My friends joked that the questioner was referring not to the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spir-he.  It was just another one of those ways that we spoke different language.

The male name for the Holy Spirit comes from John’s Gospel.  I think it’s a misreading of scripture, but it fits with the patriarchal worldview of many people.  The reality is that assigning a gender to God is always a dangerous business.  We’re always going to misrepresent or minimize the diversity and power of God with our narrow constructs.  I actually find myself imagining the Holy Spirit in a more feminine manner.  Maybe this balances the maleness of Jesus in the Trinity.  There is even a hymnal dedicated to adding the name Sophia to Christ in order to be more gender inclusive.  I find that a bit clunky, and yet also intriguing.

Sophia is the name given to Wisdom.  She appears a good bit in the book of Proverbs.  She is also prominent in the book of Sirach.  She is the closest thing the Hebrew Bible has of the Holy Spirit.  It’s no accident that the name of the heroine in The Da Vinci Code is named Spohie.  Somehow by the time we get around to John’s Gospel, Wisdom is no longer female, but male.  What’s up with that?  Throughout the Hebrew Bible Wisdom is feminized.  What would it mean if the church throughout history had identified God more explicitly in feminine imagery—feminine energy?  How might the church have developed differently?  That, I think is the real threat that people who ask these questions pose.  When we challenge a Biblical passage, that’s one thing, but when we challenge the mores and customs and assumptions of patriarchy, now that’s downright uppity.

So let’s look at sister Sophia today.  After all it’s Trinity Sunday.

Today’s scripture reading, which seems like a midrash on Genesis 1, tells us the identity of sister Sophia.  But not only that, she announces her presence.  She calls us to come to her.  She cries out “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads…beside the gates…at the entrance of the portals.”  In other words, Wisdom is everywhere, if we just pay attention.  In a world where stupidity seems to be everywhere, it’s awful good news that sister Sophia, Lady Wisdom is everywhere, too.  This is the conscience trying to break through.  It is the calm thoughtfulness not seduced by the easy intoxicants of intolerance and narrow-minded nihilism.  

Lots of people speak for God these days.  Sometimes Wisdom is present, sometimes Wisdom is missing in action.  God is invoked in congressional campaigns.  God is trumpeted in pious ways to show how one is more pure than another.  God’s name is used to fight wars and to make enemies.  But somehow, Wisdom does not lend itself to such abuse.  Wisdom is an intuitive posture of truthfulness.  Wisdom is a propensity to see things clearly.  Wisdom is an ability to discern right from wrong.  It’s an ability to see through the facades of those who use religion for personal gain.  Wisdom gives life and points us in the right direction.  Could you imagine our political, social and even religious landscape if Wisdom was our leader instead of tired and combative Dogma?

The poetry of Proverbs reminds us that Wisdom was created by God at the very beginning (8:22).  Wisdom was no afterthought.  She was there at the beginning, witnessed all of creation and worked alongside God as a master worker (8:30).

In essence, sister Sophia says, “I am not a Jill-Come-Lately.  You can trust me.  After all, I have been with God from the very beginning.  In fact, I was God’s helper, working right beside the Creator.  My references are impeccable.  Listen when I speak.” (Jeff Paschal from Feasting on the Word, 2009 Year C, Volume 3 page 29-31) The point is that Sophia was there.  She was always there.  She is always here, too.

Most of us are familiar with the famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel where God stretches out his finger toward Adam to impart life.  What most of us don’t realize is that in the crook of God’s arm is Sophia, creating alongside God.

We all have human wisdom.  Call it intuition, call it life experience, we all have wisdom.  Wisdom often exists beneath our consciousness.  In a secular sense, wisdom is the sum of our experiences, the perspectives and insights that are part of our core being.  Why can’t this form of wisdom be seen as an aspect of God’s presence in our lives?  As we are innately wise, so are we innately connected with God.   We are wiser than we know.  Sister Sophia lives within you, between you.

I just got back from Cleveland, Ohio visiting my parents and sister.  As often happens, we rehearse and remember the old stories when we come together.  Part of who I am, for good or ill, comes from those who have gone before.  I was poised to go into the family business.  It was called Donley’s Construction.  It was founded by my grandfather and employed several family members over the years, including my own father until they eliminated his part of the company.  I went to college seeking a degree in electrical engineering, because I enjoyed building things.  I thought this would be my entrée into the business.  One semester of calculus ended my engineering dreams.  I worked in the construction yard over the summers while I was in college.  I had been drifting toward service and sociology and even religion.  My grandfather pulled me aside one day in the yard and advised me to continue my interests in helping people.  He said I could do that on the weekends at church, like he did.  If I wanted to, he said, I could still work in the front office of the family business.  All I needed to do was say the word.  But I couldn’t shake this calling of mine and I realized that the weekends weren’t going to do it for me.  I appreciated his wisdom, and his willingness to let me follow my dreams.

We need wisdom’s presence and voice.  We need to see her beauty, acknowledge her integrity, appreciate her fresh perspective.  Remember your wisdom, it’s of the same essence as Divine wisdom.  Sister Sophia has given it to each of us as a gift, if we just recognize it.  If we use it.  We are connected most closely to the Divine, in as much as we use our wisdom, our intimate knowledge of truth.  Through the lens of Proverbs 8, Wisdom becomes more than simply the nondescript Sustainer.  She becomes the Advocate highlighted by John’s Gospel.

Here’s something else to consider.  In verse 24, Sister Sophia says, “When there were no depths I was brought forth.”  The Hebrew word for brought forth may also be translated as whirl, dance or writhe.”  When there were no depths, no evil, no war, no judgment, no job losses, no court cases, I danced.  What’s that old song, “I danced on the morning when the world was begun…”  When we consider great wisdom, don’t we often consider cold, sober, old sages?  A killjoy judge in a black robe?  But Sister Sophia, Lady Wisdom on the other hand is not dour drudgery.  She’s in our joyous laughter, our dance, our play.  And the best part of it all is that she rejoices in us, in humanity.  For we are the greatest of her creations.  And we were made to dance along with her.

When I was seeking ordination, people advised me that it would be foolish to kep standing up for my beliefs in an ordination council.  “You know what they want to hear.  Just say what needs to be said, get the credential and then change things from the inside.”  Well, I couldn’t do that with integrity, which is why it took me three tries to pass an ordination council.  And I have the believe that sister Sophia was beside me through it all.  While certain doors closed, other doors opened, like my active solidarity with the LGBT community, or the close affinity I feel for the Baptist Peace Fellowship and the churches and people that stood by me when others did not.  When I am discouraged, I remember that sister Sophia is by my side.  And she will often reveal something new.

I thank God for Sister Sophia.  She is the great Sustainer, the Advocate.   We all need Wisdom doesn’t spout platitudes, but gets deeper and sustains us during the darkest nights of our souls.  When we are feeling lost and alone, remember that your wisdom is connected with a Wisdom that has been there since the beginning of creation.  Sister Sophia urges you forward.  She calls you to claim your own true self.  She sets you free to become the child of God you were called to be.

Let me close with an image of Sister Sophia that might sustain you.  I’m paraphrasing something written by Jeff Paschal.

I was out shopping yesterday, and whom did I run into?  Sophia.  Yeah, there she was.  She called me over and we began talking Lady Wisdom and I.  Then, I went down to the Courthouse, and there she was again, making a plea for justice in some dingy courtroom where somebody had been unjustly accused.  After that, I dropped by the school, and she had gotten there before me, calling for students and teachers alike to always seek truth.  Then I went for a walk in the woods, moving along the trail in quiet meditation.  Wisdom snuck up on me and said, “Now that we’re along, I have something I want to share with you, a present I want you to enjoy.  You know, I have been around a long time whirling and dancing with God all along.  I am God’s delight, laughing and playing.  I want you to know the lightness of spirit and gladness that comes when you welcome me.  Will you set aside those thoughts, words, and deeds that make life heavy and sad for you and others?  Will you come and laugh and play with me?  Will you come and dance with me? Will you?

Sister Sophia wants to be your playful, joyful companion.  And as you laugh and dance and release those healing endorphins, you open yourself to your creative powers.  And just like at the beginning of time, you create.  And sister Sophia is right there.  Like always.