The Beginning of Wisdom

A Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15 – Year B – 19 August 2012

by Megan Limburg, St. Christopher’s Lower School Chaplain


Psalm 111 Page 754, BCP

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the LORD! *
they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor, *
and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; *
the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him; *
he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works *
in giving them the lands of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; *
all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever, *
because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever; *
holy and awesome is his Name.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; *
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures for ever.

  “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

I want to begin by saying how happy and grateful I am to be with you all today and how much I appreciate John’s invitation to preach this morning.  I am grateful too for the hospitality and welcome I have received from Eleanor and from David. It is truly a joy to be here!

When John asked me to preach, he kindly gave me the option to preach from the lectionary readings or readings of my choosing.  I decided to begin with the lectionary as I mulled over and prayed about the possibilities for today. As I reviewed the readings, I had an amazing sense of being right where I needed to be. I saw that the psalm designated for this day is Psalm 111, which just happens to be the St.Chris School psalm. A little St. Chris background on this psalm, it was chosen as our school psalm by our founder, The Rev. Dr. Churchill Gibson Chamberlayne, and our school motto, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” comes from the psalm’s final line.  As St. Chris just concluded a year of celebrating its 100th birthday, having been founded in the school year 1911-1912, this psalm, and particularly this motto, have lately been on my mind!

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Over the past 19 years of my ministry at St. Chris the boys have shared a lot of their wisdom with me, from the amazing to the profound and even occasionally, the profane!  I especially remember one little fellow, just 6 years old, who was in my office many years ago (he now a happy, well adjusted young man!).  A close family member was very ill and he was having nightmares and worries hence a few visits in my office to talk.  I can tell you that counseling boys is a wonderful, hilarious, deeply moving and always unpredictable experience!  With any boy I chat with we spend a lot of time talking about whatever interests them….. baseball or roller coasters or dinosaurs or sharks, then a deep insight….then back to baseball and sharks, another insight, then dogs and camp and their little sister, one more insight and….you get the picture.  So this fellow was chatting with me about cars, at 6 years old, fascinating to him, and he was envisioning and drawing his first car.  I asked him if, when he was 16 and had his driver’s license, would he come back to Lower School and show me his car.  I was trying to help him to think ahead and to see hope in the future, despite the current illness in his family…..but my counseling techniques were of no interest to him.  After I asked if he would come back to LS in 10 years, he put down his crayon, looked at me solemnly and said those words of wisdom: “Oh, Mrs. Limburg, you’ll be in the Windsor by then.” 

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As a school motto it is, despite all of their wisdom, a difficult saying to explain to 5, 6, 7 year old boys.  FEAR of the Lord?  That sounds, understandably, scary to them, and perhaps to us.  The boys and I  spend many hours in Chapel together, and over and over I work to introduce God to them: God as the shepherd, tenderly, lovingly watching over us, God as a very present help in times of trouble, God as our fortress, God as our rock… does any of  this include fear?  Especially as the place to start, “the beginning of wisdom”?

As you probably know, the dictionary definition tells us that “fear”, in the midst of synonyms like fright and anxiety, also includes “reverential awe, especially to do with God”.  So our school motto is better understood as, “Awe, reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”.  Ok, awe, and then wisdom….where does this take us?

Well, let’s begin with awe and….yarmulkes.  Not what you expected, is it?  Well, in my ministry as chaplain I also teach World Religions to all of the 4th graders; the boys are fascinated with the details of each faith, looking for the all the ways our practices overlap and differ.  The very concrete details of each faith, like food and clothing, particularly capture the boys attention, and I get a lot of questions, especially ‘why’ questions.  Why do they eat that or not eat this? What does this head covering mean? Why do they eat at that time of day?  Now St. Chris is located less then a mile from an orthodox synagogue, so after some initial lessons in our unit on Judaism, the boys begin to realize who our neighbors and they start to notice some of the fascinating details of Jewish and especially orthodox life, the families walking not driving on Saturdays, the tall black hats of the gentleman, the long skirts of the women, and the yarmulkes.  And the why questions come, as they often see our orthodox neighbors not just wearing them at worship, but all the time, walking in the neighborhood, shopping at Martin’s, why? So it is not just to cover your head in worship, so why?  The best explanation comes from the movie we watch in which a rabbi places the yarmulke on the top of his head, and says that it reminds us, that even at our highest point, the peak of our skull, that something is above us, we are not the highest thing in creation, that God is above us and we need to remember and be humble. “Reverence, awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Several of the boys inevitably put there hands on their head, feel the place where a yarmulke would go on their highest point, and think, ok, maybe I am not the highest creature!  In a world of dizzying change, extraordinary technology, and unprecedented power, remembering that something, indeed, is above us, is a radical thought, and hopefully one that gives us pause, maybe even a reverential pause.

“Reverence, awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  We have touched on reverence, awe, so now we must turn to wisdom, which is directly addressed in a couple of our readings today. The Old Testament lesson from Proverbs presents Wisdom as a woman, a wise, perceptive, thoughtful woman, who sets out a banquet for everyone, including even, or especially, the simple and those without any sense; we are all invited to the banquet.  The passage from Ephesians is even more explicit about wisdom: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” This short passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus reminds them, and us, that our lives are finite and to be wise is, in part, to use our time wisely, thoughtfully, following Jesus in how we spend our days, serving and caring for others.  Here we might be reminded of those powerful words of Ash Wednesday, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.  We are mortal, there is an urgency to not put off living wisely, and thoughtfully, to not say, I will think more deeply, listen more carefully, really notice those in need around me, later…….no, now is the time Paul reminds us.

An overwhelming reminder, and such a high mark to reach, except for the conclusion of the passage reminding the Ephesians and us to live wisely  AND to do so“….giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Strive for, grow towards living wisely, but always with gratitude.  Live wisely but lightly always with eyes open to see the joy and blessings surrounding us. 

In a few minutes we will join together at this table to receive as our Gospel reading reminds us, “the living bread come down from heaven”. The service of Holy Eucharist purposefully begins with the Great Thanksgiving;  I urge you to listen with new ears to the words Eleanor will say in invitation to us: “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” And we will reply, hopefully not without thought, but wisely: “It is right to give him thanks and praise.’ And then hear: “It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” 

“Fear, reverence, awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Let us bring anew that reverence to this table, receive the bread of life, and be strengthened to begin again to live in wisdom, using our days to serve, and always with thanks.