This is a sermon I preached on Proverbs 8:1-11, 22-36 during a summer series about the Psalms and Wisdom Literature at Woodlake Lutheran Church in Richfield this weekend. The lead pastor was looking for some more preachers as they look for an associate pastor, and I said “Sure!” This lead pastor was also the pastor at our first church-away-from-home church in Minnesota in 2010, so that was fun. He’s never on the interwebs, but Fred: Thanks. I thank you, and blame you, for lots. P.S. I cut off like 8 inches of my hair after this. I’m not sure what that means, but I did it.
Hi, my name is Allison. You might remember me preaching here a few months ago. You probably know my husband pretty well by now, Timothy Siburg, who is the Intentional Interim Director of Music, Worship, and Stewardship.
I’m a Master of Divinity student at Luther Seminary, working toward ordination in our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. One of my last credits is being completed this summer in a different kind of classroom for 11 weeks: a hospital. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you any gross hospital stories, mostly because I haven’t come across that many (knock on wood). I’m a chaplain at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, and as crazy as it is, my class is almost done. The start feels like years ago, but in a weird way I can’t believe how fast it’s gone.
Today’s a little bittersweet for me. This is the last sermon I’ll be preaching in Minnesota and at Woodlake Lutheran as we move in a few weeks to my internship congregation in Washington state near family. Thanks for accepting me, not just as a staff member’s spouse but as a person all on my own. It’s been a blessing. So here’s what I have to say:
My chaplain orientation was at the end of May. I sat in front of my computer with all of the Allina healthcare system chaplains in the Twin Cities metro and we learned how to record our visits with patients in the hospital-wide chart system. Imagine the fanciest Excel page you’ve ever seen, color-coded, almost a mini-internet of every detail you could ever want on a single patient. Yes, I am legally-binded to not share details about any patients, so don’t get too excited, this isn’t going to get too juicy.
Now on that first day I clicked on the page that showed specifically all the patients at Abbott who had requested a chaplain visit.
My heart broke. In the weeks to come, reading about diagnoses, blood pressure measurements, social work records, and physicians notes would become a daily routine, but in this first encounter, my breath was almost taken away.
First, in this feeling of emptiness I thought, “this is what God must feel like.” Anyone see the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” where Jim Carrey’s character is trying to answer all of God’s emails, and is just goes on forever? That’s what this felt like.
Which led to my next feeling: anger. Who was on this spiritual care staff anyway? Didn’t they do any work? It’s like assuming pastors have nothing to do during the week after the Sunday service – HA. But in the moment I had no empathy for my colleagues. All I had was contempt. I didn’t want to understand their meetings, their self-care, their preparation, complex visiting schedule, and under-staffed situation, most likely due to budget constraints. Which led me to my third feeling:
Shame. I must have to become the most super pastor-chaplain to do all this stuff. Notice that sentence started with “I,” not “we,” as in, why don’t we join the movement of care already happening at this place. In the face of my anxiety I put all the weight on my shoulders. Not only feeling afraid of the unknown (walking into a sick person’s room, probably blood spurting onto my clothes, which by the way was an incorrect assumption, that hasn’t happened yet), but feeling inadequate as I mentally compared myself to all the fabulous pastors I’ve known in my life. My first tactic then, naturally, was to imitate those pastors I knew, my uncle, my friends, my home pastor, my professors: walk like them, lead like them, and talk like them. You see where this is going.
I was in need of a little wisdom.
Today, we’re going to sing: “Wisdom calls throughout the city/ knows our hunger and in pity/ gives her loving in invitation/ to the banquet of salvation.”*
What a pleasant picture. You can just taste it now, right? Maybe some spaghetti. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. But wait, the pasta’s a little crunchy like it’s boiled too short. The potatoes taste a little bland like there’s not enough butter. My grandma would have a problem with that, and honestly so do I. I guess I’m having a hard time tasting it.
Wisdom! What is this banquet of salvation? Who is wisdom? I know I’m in seminary and supposed to see this perfectly abundant feast, and yet I see an abundance of violence around me, people being shot in church in South Carolina, churches being set on fire, earthquakes striking nations that cannot sustain the damage to their buildings and infrastructure, college graduates finding work that only barely makes a dent in the heap of student loans whose interest only climbs year by year. I see best laid plans in the world, in our lives, falling apart.
As I read about the book of Proverbs I learned that it was written to men to seek out “the good life.” It is a book that was written by bureaucrats, full of their wisdom and has folk wisdom woven into its pages. This is a beautiful image for how God weaves the haves and have-nots to serve the world and make a difference; but I’m just not seeing it. Wisdom takes the form of a woman, some argue, to lift up women’s work, women’s essential work in Israelite history of teaching children, caring for the home, and supporting the family, but even this makes me feel like women are then told to dream only in one particular way. Yes, woman, you are wisdom – but Jesus, he was a man, and we most often use male words to describe God, he, himself, our Father. These ideas and questions still stick with me. What does it mean to be the same sex/gender as an embodiment of God?
So where is the banquet of salvation and will I know it when I see it? Wisdom, what are you inviting me to see?
I think that God is saying that wisdom is not something stuffed in the past, but alive in the now. God is speaking through woman wisdom when she says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates.” This means we are radically together – we truly are one and are never alone. Wisdom is with us, in those around us, and in us. Wisdom was with God in the very beginning acts of creation in Genesis, and Wisdom is with us now as we try to make sense of today. Wisdom is with us when we try to answer, “How was your day today?” and we try and share with our loved ones the meaning and “take-away” of the day. Wisdom is with us in the ebs and flows of daily work. If there’s anything the book of Proverbs is trying to do, with all its voices that created it, this book is proclaiming, choose life, choose it daily, and choose the good life.
When I looked at that patient list in my chaplain orientation I tried to calm my worry by creating a solution to my problem all on my own. Wisdom in that moment was, I’m sure was laughing, saying, “Ok, you try that for a while.”
Through the weeks since, my questions to nurses and doctors of, “How are they doing?” asking about patients, have turned, as I’m asked by the nurses and doctors, “How are they doing?” Some days I’m giving spiritual care. On other days, on every day, the nurses are giving spiritual care. On other days the social worker is giving spiritual care. Sometimes the custodian is giving spiritual care. They might not call it that, but when I see my colleagues take time to listen attentively to a patient’s story, walk with them in their pain, celebrations, or boredom, they are caring for that patient’s spirit. We are not alone as we care. I am not alone as I care. You are not alone as you care.
A nurse asked me recently while I was charting on a computer, “What’s going on?” and I pointed to the room of a retired baker who I just left, shouting, “The Twins game is on in there!” He smiled and we paused in the swirl of activity and asked about each other’s day, big questions, and where we grew up. Now, this was after a month of me approaching other staff for conversation or ideas about which patients to see. It took persistence and showing up consistently, but finally nurses and staff were coming up to me to talk about big things or little things.
I felt like I was finally being seen.
Someone saw me, and I’m betting that others do too, and have seen me all along. The way we relate to each other is changing. Our tone of teamwork and passing the baton to each other is changing – like we are co-creating the vibe of our hospital unit. We are shaping how we show up to leaders, and this could only be made possible by creating a new reality together, through the power of Wisdom and the God that works with her and through her. The banquet of salvation, of the good life, is within the gestures of generosity and time set apart to see the staff there as workers yes, but first, humans, and children of God. Helping hands are everywhere if you just see each other.
Help abounds. Kindness abounds. Hard words, true words abounds. Just a taste of this banquet – just a taste; it just might be among us, in the serving, in the leading, in the caring, in the trusting.
But, like, I have just rationalized this whole thing. It’s up here in my head, I can see the banquet. Ok yes, in this line of work, caring for sick people and the fabulous staff, yes, yes I get it.
But I don’t feel it. Where is the banquet of salvation? Wisdom, what are you inviting me to see?
We read today Wisdom “takes her stand” – at the crossroads, beside the gates of town, the gates of the city. Maybe she’s inviting us to see the crossroads at which we stand, within us. What does it feel like at that crossroad?
You’re at one. I know you are. I’m at my own too. What does it feel like to stand there?
Know that you stand at the same place as Wisdom.
She cries through you, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… I was brought forth by God, I was there when he drew a circle on the face of the deep… when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”
You are daily in God’s delight daily and at all times. You were there. You were brought forth by God. You are a master worker. Through you, wisdom is at work. Wisdom lies in you. What does that feel like, to know wisdom lies in you?
Wisdom takes her stand. In God’s royal priesthood we love and care through our work, our lives, on behalf of those entrusted to our care. I know it’s hard to stand at those crossroads. It feels uncomfortable. But stay there. Stand there. Feel changed there. Know that you are seen there, even if by no one else than by God and the Wisdom God creates with. Wisdom lies within you, in whatever shape that takes.
So in closing, I got a call at 2:30am the other day for a family who wanted a chaplain to be with them as their grandpa died. So I came into a packed room, expecting to see silent, solemn faces, staring into the deep. Instead I heard laughter. I heard stories about grandpa. Yes, there were tears and big cries, but there were memories and gratitude shared in a sense of abundance that I have rarely experienced. They cared for one another as a family does as one passes into eternal life.
So I’m standing there – what do I do? What wisdom do I have to share here? I have a Bible – so what? I have an order of service for healing or something – so what? These people need hugs, not Bible verses shot at them. So I put down my Bible. We gave each other hugs. I gave them oil to draw hearts and crosses on their grandpa’s forehead & share a word of love and gratitude. This is usually a ‘healing’ service, but he was about gone. His heart machine was toast. What do we do? How do we define healing? What is quality of life?
Wisdom takes her stand. She says, “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” I was there when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, like a master worker, I was daily his delight.
Wisdom shows up when we show up. Wisdom, all the different kinds of wisdom, shows up at our crossroads and says put down your instruction manual. Put down your guards, your solutions, your fears. I want you as only you can be. If you feel like crying, cry. If you feel like telling a story, tell a story. If you feel like coloring in a coloring book at 4:30 with squirrelly grandkids in a hospital conference room, do that too. If you feel like hugging, hug. But in all of your big and small decisions, wisdom call us to choose life. Stand at your crossroads, listening to wisdom’s weaving in and weaving out, proclaiming life in the Lord and living like you mean it. See the banquet as wisdom takes her stand, this day and forever more.
*”We Eat the Bread of Teaching,” by Omer Westendorf & Jerry Rae Brubaker, (World Library Publications, 1998).