Text: Matthew 7:24-27
I begin today a fall sermon series on the Seven Virtues. Last
fall I preached on the Seven Deadly Sins, and someone said
afterward, "Now that that's over, can we go to the virtues?!"
So on the Seven Virtues. Next fall I am preaching on the Seven
Dwarfs (Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy)!
Just as the Church picked out seven sins as the major categories
for sins, it chose seven virtues. The first four were borrowed and
adapted from classical culture: Wisdom, Justice, Temperance, and
Courage. The last three were the biblical virtues of Faith, Hope and
Love. We begin today with Wisdom.
We could speak of them all as growing in grace, or growing in
holiness, what Fosdick called "Christlike graces."
We may shy away from the word "holiness," but the Bible tells us
repeatedly that God has called us to be holy people. Do we shy away
because we've seen too many poor substitutes paraded as holiness?
Have we in despair lowered the bar? Buechner writes that too often
we in church "settle for niceness or usefulness or busyness rather
"Holy," Buechner writes, "is what we are going to be if God gets
his way with us."1 Holiness is the character of God, "Godness,"
and this can only happen as we dwell in God and God dwells in us.
The anthem for today sings a yearning for holiness, "Come Dwell
in Solomon's Walls." As we dwell in God's temple holiness dwells in
us - - and wisdom and justice and righteousness and strength. Let's
not settle for niceness and usefulness and busyness instead of
Wisdom is the perfect beginning virtue on the road to holiness.
It is almost synonymous with humility and reverence,
which mean, respectively, to know our human frame and to bow before
That is why Hebrew scripture says in various places: "The fear of
the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). Not a cringing
fear before a threatening God, but awe and reverence before a good
and merciful God.
Wisdom, then, knows how much it does not know.
Scripture is candid about how scarce true wisdom is. "Where can
wisdom be found?" it asks over and over. Where is its abode? We
cannot buy it with gold and silver. We cannot find it in books,
though books may help.
Our contemporary world has seen an explosion in knowledge and an
avalanche of information available to us. But wisdom is as scarce as
So what is wisdom? It has been defined as practical, moral
knowledge. It sometimes goes by the name "prudence." C. S. Lewis
Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to
think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.2
Thomas Hobbes likened wisdom to the hedgerows along the side of
the road that keep us from wandering into open country with no maps
and full of perils: dangerous cliffs, bogs, deserts, trackless
forests and robbers. He is right, but sometimes our roads have no
There has been a scientific investigation into the nature of
wisdom the past fifty or so years. Here are some key characteristics
of wisdom these studies have identified.
a clear-eyed vision of human nature and the human predicament
emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in face of
an openness to other possibilities
and a knack for learning from a life-time of experiences.3
William James in his nineteenth-century classic, The
Principles of Psychology, wrote: "The art of being wise is the
art of knowing what to overlook."
But wisdom in the Bible probes even deeper. In Proverbs wisdom is
personified as a woman, the daughter of God. Hochma is her
name in the Hebrew, or, translated into the Greek, Sophia. God has
given her to us. As we learn from her we grow wise. So in the
beautiful words from Proverbs we hear:
Do not abandon her, and she will keep thee safe.
Love her, and she will stand guard over thee.
Cherish her, and she will lift thee up.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that wisdom in
...needs to be understood as a serious way in which
responsible, reasonable knowledge of the world and passionate
trust of God are held together.4
I like this. We must fearlessly face what is real, looking truth
and reality directly in the face. Wendell Berry says, "There is
relief and freedom in knowing what is real."5
And then for people of faith this knowledge of what is real is
joined to a passionate trust in God. A Psalm 23-kind of trust where
we trust there is a faithfulness at the heart of things, that
goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days. I have seen this
wisdom in some wise older people in my life who've lived long enough
to have seen it all and who have also learned to trust in the
goodness of God.
As you enter the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, to the right
side of the great front doors you see the virtues and vices arranged
in sculpted stone. There is a double row of figures. On the top row
the virtues are depicted by women holding shields bearing the
symbols of the virtues. On the bottom row are men engaged in the
corresponding vices! Women: virtue. Men: vice. The joke inscribed in
stone! Perhaps the sculptor was harking back to Hagia Sophia, holy
wisdom as the daughter of God. Perhaps he/she just knew what was
On the wisdom shield was the figure of a snake, as captured on
your cover art. The serpent has from ancient times been a symbol for
wisdom - - as for example in the symbol of the practice of medicine.
Jesus himself took up the image when he taught his disciples to
be "wise as serpents and gentle as doves" (Matthew 10:16). He was
sending them into the world where they would be as sheep among
wolves. So be careful and be smart, he counsels. Keep your eyes
open. "Be wise as serpents." But at the same time he adds, "be
gentle as doves." Not only smart, also gentle. Gentle and kind to
others and gentle and kind to yourself as well. When Marcus Borg was
here he left us the beautiful words of a French Hugenot missionary.
I was reminded of them recently at Jeane Benton's memorial service.
She had included these words in her collection of wisdom sayings she
typed and kept:
Life is short. And we do not have much time to gladden the
hearts of those who travel with us. So be swift to love, and
make haste to be kind.
Jesus had another important word to say about wisdom: Live
Torah!, the way of God, the rule of God, the law of God revealed to
us through Israel. Wisdom is hearing and doing the word of
God. Not just hearing. As I've said before, one great danger of
coming to church is that it might tempt us to think that hearing
alone is enough. So Jesus told the parable: Everyone who hears
and does these words of mine will be like the wise man who built
his house on rock. And when the rain fell, and floods came and winds
blew, it did not fall because it was founded on rock.
Then he said, Everyone who hears these words and does not do them
will be like the foolish man who built his house on sand. And when
the rains and floods and wind came it fell, and great was its
So I close the sermon with the question the Bible often asks:
Where can wisdom be found? The words we say after the reading of
the morning scripture point us to the answer:
For the word of God in scripture
For the word of God among us
For the word of God within us
Thanks be to God.
The wisdom of God is found in scripture; it is found within us;
it is found among us as we seek wisdom together in community. These
three sources are like our three branches of government each
checking the other. All are important. But we tend to ignore the
inner life as source of wisdom.
If we were indeed created in the image of God, this means that
the wisdom of God dwells deep within. It arises from the whole
self: mind, heart and body. It arises from the deepest places of
the true self where mind, heart, body, spirit dwell together.
Sometimes as we go deep we know when things are true,
know when things are right; we know when things are false
and know when things are wrong. Our minds tell us, our hearts
tell us, our bodies tell us. To use the words of spiritual teacher
and friend: There is a spirit of guidance always trying to
communicate to us through our minds, our bodies, our hearts, our
spirit. On all these levels. And Christ is the embodiment of this
spirit of guidance.
I love the words of contemporary composer David Pomeranz:
It's in everyone of us
To be wise
Find your heart
Open up both your eyes.
At my last church, a downtown church, we gave a couple hundred
sack lunches out every day. Inside each sack lunch was a strip of
paper with a scripture verse on it.
One day a man got his bag and sat down on a curb nearby. He
rifled through his bag looking for what was inside. We thought he
was looking to see what food was included for this day: Spam, vienna
sausages, an apple, a cookie? He came back. We thought it was to ask
about the food. He said, "Where are the words?" The scripture
verse was missing. He was glad to get the food, but the "words,"
that was what he needed too!
And so do we who hunger for holiness, hunger for wisdom. We need
the word of God, the word of Christ. In scripture, deep within us,
and there among us as we seek wisdom together.
Some people go to church looking for answers. And there are some
churches ready with the answers. Some people go to church looking
for a place they can ask their questions. Ours is such a church. But
both are really searching for something deeper. They, we, are
1Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (New York:
HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 140.
2C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillian
Publishing Co., 1952), p. 74.
3Stephen S. Hall, "Wisdom...." The New York Times Magazine,
May 6, 2007, p.60.
4Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1982), p. 68.
5Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (San Francisco: North
Point Press, 1983), p. 200.