When I was in high school, I took an English class where I had to present and analyze a poem in front of the class. I chose a poem by Ogden Nash. I don’t remember which poem of his I chose, and his poems are still copyrighted by his estate so I can’t recite one here. But the thing to know about Ogden Nash is that he was… not a serious poet.
My teacher gave me a decent grade on the presentation. She also let me know that choosing Nash as my poet was brave… but that discretion is the better part of valor.
Sometime after college, I was playing clarinet in a wind ensemble in worship in a Presbyterian church. There’s a challenge to that. The clarinet is a finicky instrument. A lot of learning the clarinet is learning to get the reed and the embouchure and the air support and everything else just right. So that you get that beautiful warm tone. So that you don’t get the dreaded squeaks and squawks that you might be familiar with if you’ve ever had a beginning clarinetist in your house.
And when you’re playing in worship, you get to warm up before the service… and then sit there… through the call to worship… and the passing of the peace… and a hymn… and the scripture reading… and the children’s time… and whatever else. And all that time, your reed is drying out, and your mouth is getting loose, and all of your warming up is wearing off.
So on this particular Sunday, I and the rest of the ensemble got up to play. And on my first note I let out a horrendous—and very short—squeak. And while the rest of the ensemble played on, I made some quick adjustments. And I came back in a few measures later.
And, after the service, the pastor—who was also a clarinetist—told me that discretion is the better part of valor.
Discretion is the better part of valor. Wisdom is the better part of skill. It’s good to know that tomatoes are a fruit; it’s better to know that they don’t belong in a fruit salad.
Today’s reading is from the book of Proverbs. It’s easy to think that Proverbs is a book of… well, proverbs: short pithy sayings that share a general truth or a piece of advice.
You probably know one or two proverbs from the book of Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” or “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” or “Those who spare the rod hate their children.”
And you probably know a few from outside the book of Proverbs: “The pen is mightier than the sword,” or “People in glass houses should not throw stones,” or “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
It’s nice to think that wisdom comes neatly packaged in proverbs. But the book of Proverbs isn’t really about short pithy sayings. It’s about something deeper. And today’s reading is about that something.
Wisdom is the first of God’s works. When God created the heavens and the earth, the very first thing that he did was create wisdom.
I don’t know if that’s right. God has wisdom. God is wise. The very first thing that God did was take some divine wisdom and put it where the world would be.
Wisdom was there when the deeps and the mountains were formed, when the heavens and the earth were established. She was there when God established the limits of the sea and when he marked out the foundations fo the earth.
She was there at the beginning. She was present for the creation of the universe. And she is still part of this world.
Even today, she is calling to us. Not from books of proverbs—at least, not just from books of proverbs—but from the high places and the roadsides, from the crossroads and the city gates. Wisdom is everywhere, demanding our attention.
And it’s nice to think that wisdom comes neatly packaged in proverbs. But you and I know better. Wisdom is everywhere. And we need to keep our ears open… because wisdom is calling.
And this world needs wisdom’s voice.
God loved the world this way. God made a world, and gave it as a gift to itself. God made this world, and handed it over to our care. And, Lord, we have done a poor job.
According to NASA, in the last 140 years, the average temperature of the earth has increased by about one degree celsius. The vast majority of that warming has happened in my lifetime.
And while it’s harder to predict the future, the people who study these things think we’re on track to see the average temperature of the earth increase, compared to pre-industrial temperatures, by about 2 degrees celsius as early as 2030… and by about 4 degrees celsius by the dawn of the 22nd century.
And that may not sound like a lot. What’s a few degrees one way or the other? But already, seas are rising and coastal communities are experiencing more flooding; wildfire seasons in the west are getting longer and more severe; hurricanes and other storms, and heatwaves and droughts, are getting more intense.
The increases in temperature that we’re likely to see will destroy agriculture; make parts of the world uninhabitable; and result in hundreds of millions of people falling into extreme poverty, becoming climate refugees, or simply dying.
Almost no matter how bad we think it’s going to get… it’s going to get worse. Two degrees celsius is almost a certainty… and it is certainly catastrophic. It is bad enough that students have gone on strike to demand that we do something about it. It is bad enough that teenagers have sued governments to demand that we do something about it.
It is bad enough that it is sinful.
God loved the world this way. God made a world, and gave it as a gift to itself. God made this world, and handed it over to our care. And, Lord, we have done a poor job. We have broken it again and again. And we are on a path to destroy it.
We need to listen for the voice of wisdom—wisdom that has been here since the beginning, watching God establish the heavens and the earth; wisdom that is calling from the very world that we are breaking—if we are to have any hope that there will be a world left for our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren.
Wisdom knows how to care for this world we live in; this world that God made for us and entrusted to our care.
It’s nice to think that wisdom comes neatly packaged in proverbs. Proverbs are safe. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is safe. “Discretion is the better part of valor,” is safe. Knowing that tomatoes don’t belong in fruit salads is safe.
But in a foolish world… wisdom is disruptive; wisdom is wild; wisdom is unexpected; wisdom is, dare I say it, dangerous.
Tomatoes may not belong in fruit salads, but… if you shift your point of view a little bit… if you change your angle a little bit… blueberries and peaches… and avocado and basil leaves… and salt and pepper… and olive oil and balsamic vinegar… and cherry tomatoes… well, that sounds like a fruit salad with tomatoes in it. And it sounds pretty good.
Wisdom knows that when you have spent your life being shamed, you need pride. Wisdom knows that recklessness can be part of valor. Wisdom knows that tomatoes can fit in just fine.
Wisdom knows the proverb, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Wisdom knows that it’s important to use the washable cups instead the styrofoam ones.
And wisdom knows that that isn’t going to be enough. Wisdom knows that leaving a livable world for our young people is going to take big, disruptive, wild, unexpected, scary action.
So wisdom is crying out. In the voices of young people who are participating in school strikes to demand action. In the work of young people who are suing governments that refuse to protect their future.
From the high places and the roadsides, from the crossroads and the city gates. From the floods and hurricanes and wildfires and blizzards. Wisdom is calling to us.
This is one of those sermons where I don’t have an answer. I cannot end on a proverb—on a pithy little saying—and let us go on our way. Because the wisdom that we need to address climate change… the wisdom that we need to address gun violence… the wisdom that we need to address hate groups… the wisdom that we need to build the kingdom of God…
The wisdom that we need is so much bigger than a proverb and so much deeper than a saying.
The wisdom that we need is divine wisdom, which sees as wise things that are big and disruptive and wild and unexpected… like creating a world, and giving it as a gift, and handing it over to our care… like healing a world, so that we can pass it on, and entrust it to the care of those who follow us.
Let us open our ears. Let us open our minds. Let us open our hearts. That wisdom might find a home in us. That we might be a blessing to this world. Amen.