Grant us Wisdom (A sermon on 1 Kings 2-3)

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That’s not my normal opening prayer for a sermon but I suspect that many of you are familiar with it nonetheless. You may know it as the AA prayer for the NA prayer, as it’s a prayer used regularly by those in 12-step programs. What you may not know (and I didn’t know until I did a bit of research on it) is that the prayer is believed to have been written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The only thing that has always puzzled me about the prayer is why it’s called ‘The Serenity Prayer’ when it’s not really a prayer for serenity!

Well … it is a prayer for serenity, but it’s also a prayer for courage and a prayer for wisdom, with the emphasis really falling on this final petition – ‘grant us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change’, and indeed, that’s something worth praying for!

I thought of that prayer this week as I read again King Solomon’s prayer, which is, even more straightforwardly, a prayer for wisdom:

“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)

Wisdom – that’s the focus of the prayer and, frankly, that’s the focus of all of today’s readings, though most obviously with this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures where the newly anointed king Solomon prays for the wisdom needed to govern his people.

Wisdom – I feel that this great theme has been thrust upon me today as a preacher, and it’s probably very appropriate that I do preach on wisdom every now  and then because it is a very prominent theme in the Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible where entire books such as Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes have come to be classified as ‘wisdom literature’. Even so, wisdom is not something I generally ever preach on, and this for one extremely solid reason – it’s a very boring topic.

‘Boring’ may not be the first word that comes to mind for you when you hear the word wisdom’, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone for whom the Book of Proverbs is their favourite book in the Bible. Mind you, I don’t know anyone for whom Proverbs is their favourite book (or I don’t think I do) and if that is you it probably reflects the fact that we are on quite distinct spiritual tangents.

Mind you, ‘boring’ is not the first word that comes to mind either when you read Solomon’s prayer in the context of the greater story told in these chapters from the first Book of Kings where ‘wisdom’ seems to be all about knowing who you should kill in order to secure your throne!

The beginning of Solomon’s reign was indeed bathed in blood. First, he kills his brother, Adonjiah, which involves him in breaking a vow he has made to his mother. Then he kills both his high priest and the general of his army, demonstrating that, like his father David, he could be a real man of blood!

Is this wisdom? These killings happen before his prayer so perhaps they displayed his lack of wisdom at the time? Perhaps if he’d had more wisdom he would have seen a way of securing his throne that didn’t require him to murder so many people?  Either way, this is the business of wisdom, which essentially involves having an understanding of the way the world works. In Solomon’s case that meant understanding the workings of the court and the way power structures operate. In our context the application of wisdom is inevitably more mundane.

I still remember some of the lectures I had back at Moore College on the wisdom literature. I remember enough of them, at least, to remember that amongst the many boring lectures I received there, those were amongst the most boring!

I remember too one year we had a visiting speaker from the US who gave an entire series of evening addresses on the topic of Biblical wisdom literature, and those evening talks were even more boring than the lectures I endured by day!

Mind you, I still remember from those evening lectures how the speaker defined Biblical wisdom for us, as an understanding of the way the world worked, and for some reason I still remember the illustration he gave us.

He told us how he’d been building a cupboard (or something like that) and that he’d discovered that if you hammer a sharp nail directly into wood it tends to split the wood but that if you blunt the nail a little bit first it tends to make an appropriate hole without doing the wood any damage. The great academic had, in fact, composed a proverb on the basis of this insight that ran something like ‘the sharp nail splitteth the wood but the blunt nail goes straight through’. This could indeed be a very useful piece of wisdom to have if you’re trying to build a cupboard, but not withstanding that, if you’re sitting up late trying to endure yet another lecture, it’s still very boring!

Wisdom is an understanding of the way things work – whether it be nails or nature or business or politics – and while that can be boring, the truth is that it is all rather necessary too and, in all honesty, it’s something I personally need a lot more of.

I’m not wanting to pretend that I’m an idiot, but in terms of the serenity prayer that asks for wisdom, peace and courage, I do a lot better at the courage end of that spectrum than the wisdom end. Over the years I’ve shown myself to be pretty good at summoning up courage to jump into a boxing ring or wrestling cage and put my body on the line to fight for some great cause. What I’m realizing now is that I never had the wisdom to know how to make the most of those events. If I had, our work today would probably still be being sustained on the strength of those performances.

I’m pretty good at breaking into detention centres on Manus Island, even if it means almost drowning as I spin around in a disabled boat, trying to escape the local navy. What I’m not so good at is knowing how to use that experience and the knowledge I gained through that experience (and the enormous store of unpublished film footage that we still have) such that we can really make a difference for those poor men.

I’m really good at leaping into warzones in Syria – boxing in the ancient ruins of Palmyra where ISIS held their ghastly executions, and engaging with kids in a part of Homs where suicide bombers had just blown apart half the street. What I’m still learning, and seem to be learning very slowly, is how to use those experiences to make a real and tangible difference in the work of peace.

I really struggle with this. I’m struggling particularly at the moment with the whole ‘Freedom for Julian Assange’ campaign.

I really want to make a meaningful contribution to the man’s freedom, and, of course, It’s not just about the man himself but about the things for which he stands – for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, for the need to keep private information private but to make public officials publicly accountable for crimes they commit.

All those things are deeply important, I believe, and I’m more than ready to put on my boxing gloves or sneak into a detention centre or parachute into a warzone if that will help. The problem is that none of those things will help. What I need here is not more courage but wisdom.

I had breakfast with Julian’s dad last week and he’s a wise man. He gave me a much clearer understanding of the constraints our politicians are under – those that would like to help Julian.

Apparently, there are a number of politicians who would like to help but they are never totally free to speak out or to act as they please. Even the most senior political figures in our country have very limited options. They have colleagues in the wings, waiting to destroy them if they make the wrong move, and, unlike Solomon of old, they can’t just order an assassin to go and take out those who are limiting their hold on power. For better or worse, our system just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve been focusing on issues particularly close to my own heart, but we face the same need for wisdom in everything we do as a community.

We have a strong and passionate movement in our church, wanting to see refugees and asylum-seekers get a fair go. Even so, it is not always obvious how best to channel that energy. We need wisdom (and guidance).

I believe, likewise, that all of us who are the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill are passionately committed to maintaining an inclusive community where everybody is welcomed, and where everyone, regardless of race, gender, education or orientation is accepted and affirmed, where their humanity is valued. At the same time, we don’t want to unnecessarily alienate ourselves from other sisters and brothers in the broader church community who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on these areas, any more than we want to unnecessarily alienate other faith communities. In other words, we need wisdom as well as passion.

I’m tempted to say that we need a balance, except that the word ‘balance’ normally implies that you have to reduce one side of the equation in order to increase the other. In this case I’m not suggesting that we decrease passion in order to temper it with common sense. On the contrary, we need passion running at full throttle! We just need wisdom running at full throttle too.

That’s how Parish Council meetings are supposed to operate, I think.

I note that this is, in fact, the first time I’ve mentioned the Parish Council in this sermon though I suspect that for many listening the Parish Council has already come to mind more than once over the last ten minutes. I’ve used the word ‘boring’ quite a number of times now, and I think that for some of us the two concepts – ‘Parish Council’ and ‘boredom’ – are so intrinsically linked that you can’t say one without bringing to mind the other. If you fall into that category, don’t feel bad! One of the core themes of this sermon is that mundanity is a vital part of the process.

I’m not really suggesting that all our Parish Council meetings are boring either. They aren’t – not all of them, at any rate, and none of them are boring all of the time. Even so, in my twenty-eight years in this parish I am yet to hear one of the faithful say to me, “Oh, I can’t wait for the Parish Council meeting next week!”

In truth, that is not a criticism. Parish Council meetings aren’t supposed to be like a trip to Luna Park. Wisdom doesn’t work that way. Wisdom is the more softly-spoken sister in the family of faith. She keeps her head down for the most part. She does the maths. She balances the budget. She negotiates quietly. She connects with the right people and earns their trust. She gets the job done.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I can never say that prayer without remembering the time I said it at the death-bed of a man named Les who used to live here in Dulwich Hill.

Les had been an alcoholic for many years and yet he got sober and in his later years he devoted his time to working as a boxing trainer with young men, helping to keep his young charges on the straight and narrow. He was a beautiful soul who had an enormous impact on the lives of many people. I buried him more than 20 years ago and yet I still her his name mentioned regularly (and always with great respect).

In his final days his doctor suggested that he lighten up and have a few beers to help relieve the pain. He refused. The doctor said he’d write out the order for the beers on a prescription form, but Les wouldn’t do it. He was a wise man to the end. And so, in his final hours, we stood in a circle around his bed – me with his wife and children – and we all prayed the prayer together.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We need more wise men in this world. We need more wise women. We need more wisdom. Yes, we need passion, daring, charisma, commitment and compassion, but we need wisdom too. We need it in abundance.

Lord God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us your peace. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 19th August, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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