Sermon: “Wisdom Calling” (August 16, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Wisdom Calling” (Proverbs 9:1-5)
August 16, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Have you ever received phone calls from telemarketers at your home? How have you responded to those calls? In a hilarious moment from the classic television hit Seinfeld Jerry and his friends are in his apartment when a telemarketer calls.

Jerry answers the phone, “Hello.” “Hi,” the telemarketer says, “would you be interested in switching over to TMI Long Distance Service?” “O gee, I can’t talk right now,” Jerry replies, “Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you later?” The telemarketer is caught off guard, “Uh, sorry, we’re not allowed to do that.” “Oh, I guess you don’t want people calling you at home,” Jerry says. “No.” “Well,” Jerry says, “now you know how I feel” and he hangs up the phone (from Season 4, Episode 3, “The Pitch”).

It can be tempting to follow Jerry’s example and be short with telemarketers or unexpected callers. Many years ago I was in my office in South Carolina, and I had recently received several sales calls that week. Our administrator buzzed me, “Dave, you have a call on line 2.” “Who is it?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. So I irritably took the call, “Hello?” “Yes, is this Dave Johnson?” I suspected it was yet another telemarketer and responded rather rudely, “Yes it is, and what do you want?” To my shock the voice on the other end said, “This is Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia.” Oops! He was gracious with me, but I felt like a heel. I was expecting a call from a telemarketer, not the Bishop of Virginia.

Expected or unexpected, today’s Old Testament passage from Proverbs contains a call to all of us. Using personification the writer of Proverbs states:

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table…she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:1-5).

Wisdom “calls from the highest places in the town.” Did you notice to whom Wisdom calls? Wisdom calls to “the simple” and “those without sense.”

Oprah Winfrey once wrote, “Follow your instincts. That’s where true wisdom manifests itself.” Now with all due respect to Oprah Winfrey if I’m honest about my own life, there have been times when following my own instincts manifested anything but wisdom, times when I have proven myself to be simple and without sense. Personally I have found the words of Theodore Levitt, the late longtime Harvard Business School economist and professor, to ring more truly, “Experience comes from what we have done,” he said, “Wisdom comes from what we have done badly.” Maybe some of you can relate.

Wisdom matters—it can prove to be the decisive factor between life and death.

In the classic 1987 film, The Princess Bride, a Sicilian named Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) is holding Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) captive and Westley (Cary Elwes) is attempting to rescue her. Vizzini begins, “I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.” Westley replies, “You’re that smart?” Vizzini goes on, “Let me put it this way…have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?” “Yes.” “Morons.” Westley responds, “Really? In that case I challenge you to a battle of wits.” “For the princess?” Vizzini asks. Westley nods yes. “To the death?” Westley nods again. Vizzini agrees, “I accept.”

Westley then takes two chalices of wine from the table, turns away from Vizzini for a moment, then turns back and tells him that he has put a bit of tasteless, odorless iocaine poison into one of the chalices. Returning the chalices to the table he says, “Where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.”

Vizzini is effusive, “But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine what I know of you. Are you the sort of man that would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool so I could clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool. You would have counted on it, so I could clearly not choose the wine in front of me.”

Westley asks, “You’ve made your decision then?” Vizzini retorts, “Not remotely, because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to not having people trust them as you are not trusted by me, so I could clearly not choose the wine in front of you.” Westley smiles, “Truly you have a dizzying intellect.”

This banter continues and eventually Vizzini attempts to distract Westley, pointing behind him, “What in the world can that be?” As Westley turns to look, Vizzini switches the chalices. Westley says, “Where? I don’t see anything.”

“Oh well,” Vizzini says, “I could have sworn I saw something. No matter,” and then he begins to chuckle. “What’s so funny?” Westley asks. “I’ll tell you in a minute,” Vizzini says, “First, let’s drink—me from my glass, and you from yours.”

Cue the ominous music…they both take a drink. After putting his chalice down Westley tells Vizzini, “You guessed wrong.”

Vizzini is ecstatic, “You only think I guessed wrong, that’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses while your back was turned. Hahaha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this—never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Vizzini begins laughing hysterically and suddenly mid-laugh, he falls over dead. Westley then reveals to Princess Buttercup that there was iocaine in both chalices, and that he had spent several years slowly developing his resistance to it. Wisdom had indeed shown who was right and who was dead.

On summer nights in the Northern Virginia suburbs many of us neighborhood kids would play Hide and Seek into the night. After the one who was “it” found someone and tagged them, they would call out, “Olly, olly oxen free!” This meant that if you were still hiding, you were free to come back to home base. When “Olly, olly oxen free!” was called out, kids would scramble out from under bushes or behind trees or in the shadows and run back to home base.

“(Wisdom) calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’” Wisdom here refers much more than learning from what we have done badly. Wisdom here also refers to Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus Christ is the One calling out to the simple and those without sense to come home.

And not only does Wisdom, Jesus Christ, call us home, he also invites us to a meal, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” This not only points to the incarnation of Jesus Christ but also Holy Communion, as the 8th century scholar Bede, also known as the Venerable Bede, wrote in his commentary on this passage:

By divine eloquence, the nature of his divinity and humanity conjoined in Christ’s one person is expressed through this bread and mixed wine…the sacrament through which we are satiated at the table of his altar is clearly shown in the bread of his body and in the mixed wine of his most holy blood (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IX, 75).

One of my favorite Emmylou Harris songs is “Calling My Children Home.” Her 1998 live album Spyboy features a stirring acapella version in which she and her backup band sing:

Those lives were mine to love and cherish
To guard and guide along life’s way
Oh God forbid that one should perish
That one alas should go astray

Back in the years with all together
Around the place we’d romp and play
So lonely now I oftentimes wonder
Oh will they come back home someday…

I gave my all for my dear children
Their problems still with love I share
I’d brave life’s storm, defy the tempest
To bring them home from anywhere

I lived my life, my love I gave them
To guide them through this world of strife
I hope and pray we’ll live together
In that great glad hereafter life

I’m lonesome for my precious children
They live so far away
Oh may they hear my calling, calling
And come back home someday

On the cross Wisdom gave his all for his dear children, including you.

True wisdom manifests itself not in following your instincts. True wisdom manifested itself in Christ crucified, as the Apostle Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

On the cross Wisdom gave his life to atone for all the times you have acted simple or without sense, for all the times you guessed wrong. On the cross Jesus drank from the deadly chalice so that you could drink from the cup of salvation. On the cross, with death on the line, Jesus won the universal battle of wits, in a way a foolish world “entirely peopled with criminals” never expected.

And the good news of the gospel is that the death of Wisdom, Jesus Christ, is indeed the decisive factor between life and death, eternally so—and his resurrection sealed the deal.

So if you feel simple or without sense, or in some way are still hiding, perhaps today you may hear Wisdom, Jesus Christ, calling, calling you to come back home.

And if you pick up the phone, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that Wisdom is not calling to sell you anything. Instead, Wisdom is calling to invite you home—“Olly, olly oxen free.”

Amen.