August 24, 2014 - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
“It’s my property and
I can do whatever I want here!” As a newly elected member of our homeowner’s
association board of directors, I was hearing horror stories. One owner who has
a yard full of trash and junk told her neighbors she could do as she pleased
with her home. No one else has a say about it. That sort of self-centered
arrogance makes neighborhood relationships “interesting” when other
well-meaning people try to create some sort of shared community life.
Proverbs 18:1 describes that overly independent and selfish woman. “The one who lives alone
is self-indulgent, showing contempt for all who have sound judgment.” That’s
the opening to this chapter, the first of three verses describing the attitude
of what verse 2 calls a “fool.” It’s not about those who simply live by
themselves, whether by necessity or choice. It’s about people who smugly
isolate themselves from others and live without consideration for those around
Likewise in verse 2,
the fool has no interest in what others say, but is engaged in an unbreakable
monologue about her own opinions. This is not just a person who talks a lot,
but the one who is always right, who never listens but only keeps telling you
the answer to every question that is raised. Raise your hand if you have
encountered a person like that.
That foolish, ugly
spirit of self-centered selfishness and correctness is the opposite of what
Paul counsels Christians to be in Romans 12:3 as we heard this morning, “I say
to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to
think.” He goes on to talk about living together as a body, as people
not isolated from each other, but connected and sharing with the body the
various gifts God has given us.
Inevitably, if you cut
yourself off by ignoring what others say, and snub their good judgment about
the effect of your actions on everyone else, you experience the community’s
response. So verse 3 tells us, “When wickedness comes, contempt comes also; and
with dishonor comes disgrace.” At our HOA board meeting, that woman with the
yard full of garbage was disdainfully called “a hoarder.” “She’s sick,”
declared someone else. Contempt and disgrace is what comes to the person who
speaks and acts like a fool.
This chapter focuses
on the way fools talk. You may notice I’ve titled many of these Proverb
sermons using the adjective “Good,” followed by a word I’ve found at the heart
of each chapter. This sermon was originally “Good Words.” But I realized I’d
already preached “Good Talk” on chapter 12, and that many of the “words” in
chapter 18 are not good, but bad. So, carefully differentiating this from last
year’s Jason Bateman film, which I haven’t seen, I’d like to say that Proverbs 18 zeroes in on bad words.
Thus verse 4 says “The
words of the mouth are deep waters…” We might think of a person who is “deep”
as wise, but Proverbs is picturing a still, stagnant pool where you can’t see
the depths, can’t look through the murky water. These are the words of
deceptive people, whose talk hides ugly, unseen thoughts and feelings down in
“Deep water” like an
ocean or lake was often a symbol of fear and danger in Bible times. Verse 4 is
using a metaphor to say what James 3:6-8 says about the tongue, that the words
we speak are powerful and dangerous, and can drag us down to disaster. In
contrast to the murky, deadly deep water of bad words, the second half offers
the gushing stream or “bubbling brook” that is words of wisdom. When we speak
truly and compassionately, it’s like a stream of pure clear water that brings
refreshment to those around us.
I can’t really escape
saying something about Ferguson, Missouri and the reaction to the shooting of
Michael Brown, even though we are already drowning in the deep water of an
ocean of words about it all. I’d still like to heed that warning in verse 2
about only expressing personal opinion without understanding. As we see also in
verse 13, it is pure folly to speak first without trying to listen and understand
what others feel and say.
When we turn our
thoughts to Ferguson, verse 5 jumps out at us, “It is not right to be partial
to the guilty, or to subvert the innocent in judgment.” That proverb calls for
us to cautiously listen before we form an opinion or respond to reports we
hear. From our mostly white perspective some of us will note Michael Brown had
committed a petty theft and that he very possibly struck the police officer who
shot him. That, we might think, would make him the guilty person.
African-American perspective takes much more listening and discernment. Imagine
what it’s like to be a person forced by the color of your skin to live in fear
of the police. Many of my African-American pastor friends tell stories of being
personally stopped and hassled by police for no good reason. Maybe a black
person had recently committed a crime nearby. Maybe they were in a neighborhood
where dark skin is seldom seen. But many respectable, law-abiding
African-Americans have a story like that. You and I teach our kids that the
police are their friends. I just heard an African-American parent on the radio
say they have to teach their children to keep their hands in plain sight and
say, “Yes sir” and “No sir” when they meet the police.
If we stop and
consider that very different African-American viewpoint, then we might understand
better how our black brothers and sisters feel when they hear news that “an
unarmed black man was shot six times in the street by police.” Maybe we can
grasp the feeling that lies behind the outrage and the protests in Ferguson, and the African-American view that Officer Wilson is the guilty person to whom
we must not be partial.
Maybe a grand jury and
a court trial can sort out the facts of the case, but we still must realize
that deep and powerful feelings are at work alongside whatever the facts are.
It does no good for we as white people to desire more facts, unless we are
first ready to ponder the emotional impact for others of the simple fact that a
white man shot a black man.
So let us weigh our
words before we speak about Ferguson, or about our own smaller concerns and
disputes, keeping in mind the next few verses like 6, “A fool’s lips bring
strife…” and 7, “The mouths of fools are their ruin…” and maybe especially the
warning about gossip in verse 8, “The words of a whisperer are like delicious
morsels…” Let’s not just listen to words we want to hear, that taste like candy
going down, but to words that challenge and confront us with our own bias and
isolation from people who are different.
Like so often in
Proverbs, verse 9 seems to change the subject, talking about being being lazy,
as we found weeks ago in chapter 6. But consider the “work” at hand. We want to
work to listen well, to understand each other, and to find good words that help
rather than hurt. Those who refuse to do the holy work of careful listening and
speaking are “kin to a vandal.” Slacking the effort it takes to really
understand vandalizes relationships. That lazy spirit in regard to others caused
literal vandalism in Ferguson.
What do we do when we
don’t know what to say or even what to pray for the people of Ferguson? Verse
10 points us to the one good Word which is always safe. The beginning is on the
front of your bulletin, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower,” followed by
“the righteous run into it and are safe.” If we don’t know what to say, then it
would be wise to retreat to secure ground, to offer prayer for others in the
name of the Lord.
In our Gospel text
from Matthew 16 we find the disciples wondering what to say when Jesus asks who
they think He is. Peter has the good answer when he simply names Jesus as “the
Christ, the Son of the living God.” Arising out of that clear recognition of
our Savior’s identity, Christians for centuries have prayed what is sometimes
called the “Jesus Prayer,” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a
sinner.” When we see our nation and our world torn apart by hatred and violence
we could do a lot worse than simply turning that prayer into one for us all,
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.”
As silly as it sounds,
a simple prayer in the name of Jesus is a much safer place to be than within
locked doors or behind strong borders. It’s more secure than a healthy bank account.
So verse 11 tells us the rich imagine their wealth is a stronghold, like a high
wall around them. But verse 12 echoes a warning we heard last week. That sort
pride in wealth or power or intelligence only precedes destruction, but
humility, humble prayer and calling upon the name of the Lord, will bring both
honor and true security.
Verse 13 brings us
back to the work of listening before answering, of seeking understanding of
others before trying to advise or judge them. We may answer before we’ve
listened because of a person’s color, or because they are homeless, or gay, or
female, or old, or young, or uneducated or well-educated. But all those
pre-judgments, says this verse, are folly and shame and they will lead to harm
and ruined relationships.
God be praised that
those two missionary medical people came home and got cured of ebola. As verse
14 says, “The human spirit will endure sickness.” But who can cure the feeling
of hopelessness people develop when they are constantly mistreated, when they
have no hope of a good job, when their cities are constantly being bombed, when
it seems no one really cares? The verse ends, “but a broken spirit—who can
That’s why verse 15
pushes us to acquire understanding, knowledge about the people and situations
around us. Don’t just talk, listen to the stories of pain and injustice which
our fellow human beings experience. Have an ear open to the sort of knowledge
which is not always comfortable, but which makes us truly wise in our
conversations with others.
The next verse reminds
us of a basic fact about our world and a case like the one in Ferguson. Verse
16 says, “A gift opens doors; it gives access to the great.” People with
wealth, people who give gifts, have access to those who hold power, who make
decisions. Those who can give “gifts” are often white people. Why are
African-Americans so enraged about Michael Brown? Consider that there are six
times as many black men as white men incarcerated in prison or jail, and that
ratio is increasing. Let us hear and remember those who can’t afford bail and
attorneys and all the other expensive ways those who have the means navigate
the judicial system.
Again verse 17 tells
us to listen, to hear the whole story before judging, before deciding who is
guilty and who is innocent, “The one who first states a case seems right, until
the other comes and cross-examines.” Even when we’ve heard both sides, prayed
and tried to understand, we may not truly know what is right. So verse 18 tells
us that sometimes the only way to settle things between two powerful contenders
is to cast a lot, to flip a coin.
I doubt there will be
many coin tosses in American courtrooms anytime soon, but the idea that
sometimes we just can’t know who is right should stick with us. Remember that
two weeks ago in Proverbs 16:33 we heard that the cast of the lot is decided by
God. We have to leave the final judgment to the Lord. It’s not up to us to
decide if Officer Wilson or Michael Brown is more guilty. We may never know.
Yet God who made and loves both of them knows, and it is what He knows that
Verse 19 warns us that
bad words can even offend our allies, our friends, and when we speak
quarrelsome words to those whom we should love it’s like landing ourselves
behind the bars of a castle dungeon. There’s no easy way out when our words
It comes down to
whether we can live with the things we say or not. Verse 20 talks about being
satisfied with “the fruit of the mouth” and “the yield of the lips.” Can we
stomach our own words? Watch what you say. In the end you may have to eat those
words. As verse 21 declares, the tongue can produce both death and life. Those
who like to talk, who love their words, are going to have to swallow whichever
fruit they grow.
Now we come to one of
those seemingly abrupt changes of subject with verse 22, “He who finds a wife
finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” I would agree. I love my
wife and believe she is a gift from God. But what has that got to do with how
we talk and the words we use with each other?
On the literal level
we understand that finding a good spouse and a good marriage follows from
learning to use words well, to speak in ways that show genuine attention and
love. One thing I do with couples preparing for marriage is an exercise in active
listening and clear assertive speaking. Learn how to say plainly that you need
more hugs or a little time by yourself. Listen to those needs without
mistakenly thinking your spouse wants more sex or doesn’t like being around you.
Good words make good husbands and wives.
Yet on another level,
turn back to Proverbs 8:35 and read what Wisdom says about herself. It’s the same
language, “For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord.”
Marriage is a good thing, but the highest satisfaction comes when God favors us
as we seek the wisdom He gives. Anyone can have that favor from God,
married or not. Our lesson from Romans 12:2 told us to be “transformed by the
renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is
good and acceptable and perfect.” Proverbs slips in this little verse about
finding a wife to have us recall that the greatest thing we are seeking is to
know and love God and to enjoy Him forever.
Verse 23 yanks us back
into the territory we’ve been in most of this chapter, how we speak to each
other, especially how we speak across our differences. It reflects the reality
that most of the time in this world the poor are asking for help and the rich
are giving them a hard time. We’ve heard enough today to know that’s not how it
should be. I have to remember that when I talk to someone I find sleeping in
our church doorway. May we all remember it when we meet and exchange words with
those who ask us for help.
The first part of the
last verse is tricky to translate. It either talks about having many friends
or, as the version I’m reading does, about pretending or playing at friendship.
Either way it’s about the fact that so many of our friendships are superficial,
casual, taking each other for granted, exchanging many words perhaps, but with
little significance. In contrast, the second part is about a different sort of
friendship. And I simply have to use the older language, “but there is a friend
who sticks closer than a brother.”
When we set aside the
bad words which separate us from each other and from God, when we run into the
secure and safe tower of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we find there a
friendship that goes even beyond blood ties. Again in Romans 12, Paul pictures sisters and brothers in Christ all as one body, members of one
another, connected closer even than family is connected.
I’ve seen that happen
here. I’ve seen you stick by each other, be there for each other even when
family is not. You bring food when one of us is sick. You help out a member who
is moving. You offer listening and advice. You loan tools and give financial
aid to help when there is a need. And you do it here in the Lord’s church, in
the strong tower of His name, as fellow Christians. You do it because you know
and want to be like the One who is most of all and before any of us, the Friend
who sticks closer than a brother.
I praise God that you
know how to be friends in Jesus’ name and I praise God that you don’t just keep
that friendship to yourselves. You show up to show that same friendship in
Jesus name to children who will start school next week and to people who have
nowhere to go when it’s cold out and to people around the world who need food
and medical care and to know the name of Jesus for themselves. You want to be
friends with everyone in Jesus’ name, whatever color they are. Jesus’ name is a
good word. He is a good Friend. May you and I keep living in that friendship.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj