(a sermon for October 11, 2020, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Proverbs 22:1-11)
While going through some scrapbooks and photo albums up at my mother’s house this week, I came across something I literally hadn’t thought about in years: clippings from the newspaper column I wrote for a couple of years in our hometown’s little weekly paper, The Katahdin Journal. Now, that’s not quite as impressive as it might sound: basically, I was a high school reporter and the column was a weekly conglomeration of basketball scores, student events and teacher interviews. But I do have to say it was kind of neat; since in those days I fancied myself as a latter-day John-Boy Walton, writing something that actually ended up in print was quite a thrill for me, and the admittedly minor notoriety it garnered me in my home town wasn’t bad either!
It was fun to read some of that stuff again, but what really made me laugh came at the end of my weekly report. You see, early on I got into the habit of ending each column with a “quotable quote.” And the quote was usually along the lines of this: “Until next week, think about this: ‘To get ahead in life, don’t stare up the steps, step up the stairs!’” Or, “Till next time, ask yourself this question: ‘Is your mind open, or is it just vacant?’” Just little one-line bits of wisdom that I’d scoured out of quotation books and my family’s small collection of Ideals magazines! In retrospect, it was kind of an early foray into church newsletter writing, and yes… I’ll admit, it was a little cornball! But as it turned out, it also was quite popular!
In fact, what I started to find out was that the thing people remembered most about what I’d written were these silly little quotes I’d stuck in the last paragraph! People regularly started asking me about those quotes and where I’d found them; and even the newspaper editor confessed to me that if on a particular week he had to cut it out for lack of space, he’d inevitably get a phone call from an irate reader asking where it was! But the best thing of all was that I’d go over to friends’ houses and I’d often see these tiny little clippings from the end of my column on their refrigerator doors!
It got to the point where I ended up spending nearly as much time finding good quotes as I did writing the column (I even managed to get a couple of Bible verses in there; which was quite a trick, considering the decidedly non-religious nature of my editor at the time!). I suppose that it was an early indicator that my destiny did not lie in the world of hard-core journalism but rather behind a pulpit; but it was also a small lesson in the truth that people need, want and appreciate some encouragement in their lives, even when that encouragement comes in the form of a “pithy” little saying.
To put this another way, we all need some proverbs for our lives… and that’s what our text for this morning is all about.
By definition, friends, proverbs are short, one-sentence bits of wisdom drawn from everyday human experience, and they are intended to help us find our way in a confusing world. Or as the Alyce McKenzie of Perkins School of Theology has said it, “proverbs help to create order and reliability in an often unreliable world.” Historically speaking, Biblical scholars believe that what we know as the Book of Proverbs arose during a time of great social upheaval and moral dissolution in Israel, a period when society was rife with corruption and moral weakness; which means that a great deal of what we read in this part of scripture grew out of a time much like our own: a moment in time when culture seems to be in chaos, when accepted ways are coming unglued and old truths are being questioned. What’s needed in such times is an affirmation: a reminder, writes William Willimon, “that life has some answers, that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, morally speaking, in each generation. Proverbs,” Willimon concludes, “point the way.”
Very true; most especially in times such as these. In fact, it would seem to me that now more than ever, we need some “proverbial wisdom” for our lives, a world view that’s spun not on the dreams of riches, the desire for power or the wish to prevail over others at all costs but rather wholly focused on the Word of God.
The trouble with the Book of Proverbs, of course, is that every verse is its own sermon, and the topics often vary widely from verse to verse: from child rearing (“Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.”), to care for the poor (“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”), to taking a proper attitude towards God, self and others (“Those who love a pure heart and are gracious in speech will have the king as a friend.”). And if you read for very long in Proverbs, you’re going to run headlong into some fairly harsh and explicit advice in dealing with the perverse, the wicked and those who engage in loose living; not to mention some verses that, given the times in which they were written, certainly don’t jibe with our modern sensibilities as regards discipline and the treatment of women and children. Suffice to say that there’s a whole lot to digest in the Book of Proverbs!
So maybe what we need to do, at least for our purposes this morning, is to find a way to somehow bring all these proverbs together. And for me, the key to this can actually can be found in the very first verse we shared today from the 22nd chapter of Proverbs: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”
What’s interesting is that if you ask someone what they want out of life – particularly if you ask someone this question as they’re starting out in life – odds are this person will answer in one of two ways: either they will say something to the effect that they want to be successful (that is, to be powerful or popular or influential or rich) or that they wish to build a life that is based on happiness or security (you know, falling in love, raising a family, having a home, getting a job that not only pays the bills but offers some satisfaction). Now, don’t misunderstand: this is not to say that these two points of view are mutually exclusive from each other, nor that one choice is all bad and the other all good – there are those who do seem to “have it all,” as it were – it is just to suggest that when it all comes down in life, most of us end up in one way or another choosing in which direction we wish to go. Whether we actually reach the destination we’ve chosen is almost beside the point; what matters is how the choice we’ve made defines who we are along the way.
So… when this proverb for today advises you and me to choose for ourselves a good name over great riches, you can’t help but wonder what true wisdom really is! For instance, you might remember my telling you a few weeks ago how Lisa and I have been “binge-watching” old seasons of “Survivor” this summer and fall; well, I can share with you from that experience the insight that the most memorable players of that million-dollar game succeed through cunning and deceit, backstabbing and a decided lack of personal integrity! Likewise, you don’t hear an awful lot of politicians running for office these days who focus solely on matters of one’s own goodness, mercy and worthiness for office, but rather on tearing down the character of that his or her opponent… even as they rail against negative campaigning! But that’s the choice that they’ve made, and we refer to it as “politics as usual.”
By the same token, however, think for a moment about the handful of people who have meant the most to you in your lives: family members, friends, teachers, mentors of one sort or another; the people you love and who have loved you. When you describe these people, what do you say? I’m guessing that you’ll say that they were kind and generous to you; that they could be counted on through thick or thin; that they did so much good without ever saying anything about it. The point here is that these are the people who have for you personified love and faith: they may or may not have ever had anything in their lives approaching worldly success, but they were and are of good character, people who have chosen in their lives to make a good name for themselves; and that has made all the difference.
The very word character comes from the Greek word charaktíras, meaning “a engraving tool,” that is, that which creates and sharpens the unique traits of one’s personality. So character does matter, doesn’t it; and it matters to you and to me as we walk the pathways of our lives. Character is determined by the choices you and I make in how and which way to walk, and not only does that become integral to the way that life unfolds for us, it also has a profound effect on those who walk with us. As theologian and author Stanley Hauerwas has written: “Be well assured,” he says, “that our character will conform to some account of what’s going on in the world.”
The question is – it always is – which account… and is that account true?
I think I’ve shared with you before that one question I always ask every couple that comes to me wanting to get married is where they see themselves in, say, five or ten or twenty years? What would they like to be doing? Where would they like to be? Actually, it’s a good question for any of us, married or no, to ask ourselves from time to time; basically, what do we want out of life, even as that life is being lived? How do we wish to be seen by others – be they friends, neighbors, or even strangers – and who is it that we want to look like in terms of who we are? When all is said and done, what is it that we fervently hope that the people who know us will say about us?
Will those people say we were “pure of heart and… gracious of speech?” That we were generous to a fault, kind to others in their distress, both cautious and clever at the right time, people who live life in “humility and fear of the LORD,” and thus knew “riches and honor and life?” Will they say of you and me that ours was a good name?
Well, the answers to such questions and so many others come down to the choices we make here and now… today, tomorrow and in every day that comes. Because, beloved, the nurture of a good name is work that stretches over a lifetime.
And it begins and is rooted in the power and presence of God, because as the Book of Proverbs reminds us, “The rich and poor have [at least] this in common, the Lord is the maker of them all.”
Yes, a good name is of greater value than anything the world can provide; so rest assured that what we do out there – as persons, as people, as the church of Jesus Christ – matters; and how we’re seen in these strange, divisive and distressing times is not only important, but crucial. May it be truly said of you and of me that the light of our character and wisdom was but a reflection of our God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.