Show of hands: who here has ever been in a canoe? Okay. Keep um up. Who has ever fallen out of a canoe? I see most of your hands are still up. Well, after your cool plunge into the lake or river, what was your take-away. In other words, what did you learn from the experience of tipping over? Balance …right? You quickly discovered that the key to staying dry is balance.
Well, balance is also key as we begin our discussion on Wisdom today. But first, a little background. Last week, Jesus closed his instructions to his disciples, before sending them out on mission, with words of blessing for anyone who welcomed them with even that simplest of gestures, a cold cup of water. As we move into Chapter 11, we come to realize that Jesus has tasted the bitter cup of rejection rather than welcome. After sending out his disciples, he himself went out on a mission to “their cities,” teaching and proclaiming his message by healing the sick, restoring the outcast, and bringing good news to the poor. But those cities, at least the establishment within those cities, closed their hearts and minds to him.[I]
And I’m sure we’ve all experienced this kind of rejection at one time in our life or another. Well, so did Jimmy. Jimmy had a tough beginning to life. Born to addicted parents, he spent the first six years of his life traveling between foster homes. Now, for the most part, the foster parents were good to him and he gained a certain degree of self-worth. But he still felt like something was missing. And that “something” was found the day this final foster parents became his forever parents.
Now, it’s with this background in mind that we come to the Christmas play at church. Young Jimmy landed the part of the innkeeper. And as the innkeeper he had only one line. “there’s no room in the inn.” And because this was such an important part, Jimmy practiced his line over and over again; there’s no room in the inn.” Well, the night of the play came and in front of a packed house, the young innkeeper Jimmy made his appearance as Joseph knocked at his door. But instead of saying his line, Jimmy just stood there for a long moment, silent. You could even hear a Sunday School teacher feeding him the line from behind the cardboard inn. But all the sudden, Jimmy spoke up. “Come on in!” he said, “we have plenty of room.” Which, as you might imagine, threw the play into chaos. But, order was soon restored and the baby Jesus was once again born in the stable. After the performance, however, Jimmy’s parents asked him why he said what he said. “I don’t know,” he said, “I guess I remembered what it was like to feel left out; to not have a place to call home. And I didn’t want them to feel that way.”
When we talk about “sharing the good news” I think Jimmy had it right. Sharing the gospel, according to Jesus, has to do with healing and restoration; it has to do with innkeepers who offer an extravagant welcome; it has to do with compassion; it has to do with giving a cool drink of water to someone who’s thirsty; it has to do with advocating for justice out in the world and practicing peace within our own lives.
So, the question I think we need to ask ourselves today is this: “Do we share our faith through the way we live as much as through the identity we claim as a people of faith?”[ii] Do you see what I’m getting at here? We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus without backing up that claim with acts of kindness, welcome, and compassion. We cannot be a church without BEING the church.
And when the disciples of John the Baptist, earlier in this chapter, came asking Jesus about his identity, he told them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”.[iii] When asked “who are you” Jesus answers with a list of actions. So, who he was, who we are, our identity, is defined by our acts of lovingkindness.
Now, James, in his epistle, had something to say about this subject as well. “What good is it,” he said, “if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.”[iv]
“But wait a minute now,” you might say, “Didn’t Martin Luther, among others, say that we cannot earn our salvation through good works?” And you’re right. It’s very important that we understand that God’s grace comes without a price. Grace is available to every person who desires it, no strings attached. But that fact doesn’t allow Christians to claim salvation and call it a day. That’s what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” And even Luther agreed with this. “Where there are no good works,” he said, “there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known.”[v]
So, what do we do with all this? Well, this is where the whole balance thing comes into play. As people of faith we must find balance. We must find a balance between the faith we claim and living that faith out in our lives. We must find a balance between emotional expressions of our faith and rational thought. We must find a balance between speaking out and knowing when to be silence; when to carry the banner and when to sit on the sidelines; when to give a hand out and when to give a hand up. All these things are important and all of them, at different times and in different situations, are appropriate.
Knowing when to choose one of these things over the other, however, can be difficult sometimes. But this is where Wisdom enters the picture. In our passage for today, Matthew says, “wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”
And this is really an important concept in Matthew. You see, for Matthew Jesus was more than just a great teacher, he was the Wisdom of God enfleshed in a human person. And repeatedly in this gospel we see him “proved right” as he attempted to bring things into balance. Jesus took those who were downtrodden and lifted them up; to those on the outside looking in, he opened the door; to those who were oppressed, he brought justice. He touched and he healed and he loved. But he also challenged, corrected, and called out those in power. It was a balancing act.
One final thought on Wisdom. The Author of Ecclesiastes says that there’s a time and a purpose for every matter under heaven. And he goes on to offer us a whole list of “complementary opposites.”
a time for giving birth and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted, a time for killing and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up, a time for crying and a time for laughing, a time for mourning and a time for dancing, a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces, a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking, a time for loving and a time for hating, a time for war and a time for peace.[vi]
It seems to me that this is a kind of balancing act as well. In his Wisdom, the Philosopher of Ecclesiastes, in these few short verses, offers us a formula for living a balanced life and a wise faith. But with the coming of Christ into the world I think we can add one more to the list: “a time for identifying our faith and a time for living that faith out”
My friends, “Wisdom IS proved right by her works.” As we continue to seek balance in our life and faith, as we continue to be a reflection of Christ’s wisdom through our acts of welcome, kindness and compassion, and as we attempt to keep our canoes upright and our inns full; may we do so under the watchful eye of the One who was, is, and shall always be the Wisdom of God.
[ii] David Hill, New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1981
[iii] Alyce M. McKenzie, Preaching Biblical Wisdom in a Self- Help Society (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2002
[iv] James 2:14b-17 Common English Bible (CEB)
[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 Common English Bible (CEB)