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The Beginning of Wisdom -- 1 Kings 3:1-15 (13th Sunday After Pentecost)

My husband Jeff had a high school teacher – Mrs. Mae T Ingram – whose wisdom he often quotes. Regularly throughout the year, Mrs. Mae T Ingram would tell her students something like this:

· Anyone who knows, and knows that they know is wise.

· Anyone who knows, but knows not that they know is asleep.

· Anyone who knows not, and knows not that they know not is a fool.

Well, applying Mrs. Ingram’s wisdom to today’s text, we can say this:

King Solomon is no fool.

Here, King Solomon is. He has just become king. His father King David was Israel’s great king. King David had survived rebellion and insurrection, but now King David is gone. And it is all on King Solomon. He’s the king. And he looks around at his new calling, and all the challenges that lie ahead, and Solomon acknowledges that he knows not:

Who can govern this people?

How can I do this?

Solomon knows that he knows not.

He knows this from experience – he knows this from his father’s reign. King David wasIsrael’s great king. But even King David, with all his power, knew not. We’ve spent some time with David this summer. We’ve heard of all his promise, of his love.

· And we’ve also listened to his wife Michal’s story of being traded back and forth like she was property.

· Dvera Hadden spoke plainly of David and Bathsheba – of the violence that King David did to Bathsheba, how he had her husband murdered.

· We didn’t hear how King David’s own son, Absalom, rose up in rebellion against him – and David had no idea what to do – he asked his generals not to kill the rebel son Absalom – but his generals had Absalom killed in battle anyway, and when David found out – his heart ripped in two – “Absalom, Absalom, oh that I would have died for thee!

Solomon saw firsthand how hard all this was – for David. Solomon saw that even kings often know not.

And Solomon’s kingship – in its first months, well, it’s off to a rocky start, and the beginning of this morning’s text is a subtle indictment of Solomon.[1] Solomon has married an Egyptian princess as his first political alliance. Solomon has married into Egypt. Remember Egypt? The place of slavery and oppression. Solomon has married into oppression.

Solomon hasn’t yet built a Temple for God – which he is supposed to do. Solomon plans to build his own house – his palace – and then he’ll get around to building a house for God.

And, if that weren’t bad enough – the text says, “Solomon loved God – EXCEPT that Solomon worshipped in the high places.” That may not mean much to us. But that’s a serious offense in Solomon’s world. The ark of the covenant – where God dwells – is in Jerusalem, but Solomon is worshipping somewhere else. It’s like the story says, “Solomon loved God, but Solomon didn’t worship God.”

So here Solomon is this new king. And he looks around at his life, and his kingdom, and at himself, and the task before him, and he says:

Who can govern this people?

Who can do this?

How do I do this?

Solomon knows that he knows not.

We don’t have to look too far to find similar instances of not-knowing in our public life. We just have to watch the news. We are watching our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the human cost. The Administration says they had no clue that it would like this – basically saying, “we knew not that we knew not.” With the hubris of a superpower, we thought we could change course and control all of the outcomes – without first acknowledging all we didn’t know about the cultural and political terrain of the nation we said we were trying to help. We knew not that we knew not. And we went ahead and acted anyway. And the cost of that is being borne by the people of Afghanistan.

Our anti-racism work begins with a substantial amount of acknowledging what we know not – or what we haven’t known. For those of us who are white, our work begins with acknowledging our whiteness – and all we haven’t known – and haven’t had to know – about how American racism is at work throughout the systems and structures we inhabit – all the time. In our anti-racism learning, we have to say I don’t know, before we can start to learn what we need to stop doing, what we need to dismantle, and what we need to help build up.

And pandemic... we now have the technology – a vaccine – that if universally delivered has the potential to end pandemic – and we here stand at a moment of not knowing how we can do that together in the face of vaccine denial and masking resistance.

As Solomon might say, who can govern this people?

How do we do this?

But it’s not just in our public life. Maybe we know something of this not knowing in our own lives. Reaching those moments when we just don’t know. One of my best friends has two kids – one of whom is a senior now in high school – and I’ve got to watch them grow up. I think my friend is a great mom – and I told her that once – that I have so much respect for how she and her husband are raising their kids. She just chuckled and said, “Really? Because most of the time I feel like I have absolutely no idea what I am doing.”

We know not.

And, you know, sometimes life throws us things that are just utterly incomprehensible.

A diagnosis that makes no sense. Treatments that are hard.

A life change where everything we have known is turned upside down.

A broken relationship – broken so much that we don’t even know where to start to seek reconciliation or healing or closure.

Sometimes in life, we know not.

Who can do this?

How can I do this? How can we do this?

And that’s where Solomon is in this morning’s text – maybe on a more public scale – but in the midst of his world, and his life, he looks around and he says, How can anyone do this? How do I do this?

And God comes to Solomon in a dream and says to him, “Solomon, what do you want? Tell me what you want.” Solomon looks around, he knows in his heart that he knows not.

God says to Solomon, “Tell me what you want.”

And of all the things in the world that Solomon could ask for – that a king could ask for – armies, wealth, more power, the death of his enemies – Solomon says this: “Help me do this. Give me a listening heart. Help me, God, to know the paths that are right and the paths that are wrong.”

And the text says, “This answer pleased God.” God names all the things that Solomon could have asked for. And God says – of all these things, you ask me for a listening heart. There is hope for you yet, Solomon. I will give you a listening heart, and if you walk in the ways that I will show you, you will find your life.

When folks talk about Solomon or this story, they usually summarize it by saying that Solomon asks for Wisdom. And that is what Solomon comes to be known for – Wisdom. Wisdom is a deep tradition in the Scriptures – it’s more than just knowledge or intelligence.

Wisdom embodies the concept across Scripture that there are ways of life that lead to more life – ways of living that lead to more life – that, as we move into life and experience life we learn that there are ways of living that bring us more deeply into relationship with God. Solomon asks for wisdom: Help me do this. Help me find the ways of living that lead to more life.

Solomon asks for this wisdom by asking for a “listening heart.” Now, in the English translations of Scripture that we usually read they say that Solomon asked for an “understanding mind. But the Hebrew word is quite clearly “heart” – in the Hebrew what Solomon asks for is a “listening heart.”[2] Some modern translator somewhere made a choice between heart and mind when it comes to wisdom. Translation is interpretation.

But in Hebrew there’s not the heart-mind dichotomy that our culture often imposes – thinking of mind as thinking, and heart as feeling. In the Hebrew language and culture, “the heart is the seat of wisdom.”[3] The heart encompasses the intellect and so much more – it embraces our emotion and our “will” – the particular embodied way we move through life – our “whole self” – all that we are. Solomon asks God for a listening heart – a listening whole self – heart, and mind, and soul, and body – help me tune the whole of me to listen for you, God, to listen to others – to listen for my life.

Parker Palmer – a Quaker educator and writer – has written a great little book called, “Let Your Life Speak.”[4] In that book, Palmer notices that too often we try to tell our life what we intend to do with it. He suggests that we take more time to pay attention to what our life intends to do with us – to pay attention to the unique way that each of us is created – to how we live life each of us uniquely in the presence of God – to listen with our whole heart – our whole self – to our life.

Ms. Mae T Ingram might say it this way: We assume that we know, when in fact it may be wiser and healthier and more liberating to say out loud that we know not, and to then pay attention and learn.

Palmer writes, “We need to listen to what our lives are saying and take notes – lest we forget our own truth or deny that we ever heard it.

So this week, I want to invite us into the spiritual practice of saying “I don’t know” – of noticing those moments when we just don’t know – noticing when we know not. And saying it out loud. So I’m going to offer us an assignment. This week – I invite you – invite us – to pay attention to our life with an eye out for those moments when we just don’t know. A problem in our work life – a challenge in our family – a story on the news that leaves us baffled – and before we charge forward, to say – “I just don’t know” – “I know not.”

It’s often said that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of Wisdom.” It says that in the Hebrew Scriptures. And sometimes we try to translate that fear away – say something like – oh it’s more like awe or reverence. “Awe of God is the beginning of wisdom” – the sense of standing in front of something so much larger than ourselves. And that may be partly true.

But that. Can be scary. It may be that we do actually experience fear in the face of things that are bigger than us – that we don’t understand – that we can’t control.

I think the Scripture for today may get to the heart of the matter. This Scripture suggests that the beginning of wisdom is simply this: Standing in the midst of life – with all its troubles, and joys, and challenges, and complexities – and saying, “You know what? I know not. God, help me.”

I know not. God help me.”

The promise isn’t that we will immediately have all of the answers.

Life’s not that easy.

The promise is that God will be there present with us in the questions, in the struggle, in the real stuff of life.

That is, after all, the promise of the whole of the biblical story.

For Solomon, God says, I will be present with you as you are king. Listen and walk with me in ways that lead to life.

That’s just one moment in the story. God has been present with the people when they found themselves in slavery. God is present with us in every place that we find ourselves oppressed, held back, or pushed down – present with us, leading us into freedom.

God is present with us when we find ourselves wandering in desert places – struggling and confused by new experiences, by financial difficulty, by illness, by life – God present with us, leading us into places of healing and peace.

God is present with us when we find ourselves in exile – left out, excluded, separated from those we love, lonely – God present with us, leading us home.

It’s the story of the New Testament too – not just that God is present with us – but that God loves us so much that God has come to us – and dwells with us and in us. God has come to us in Jesus Christ – experiencing with us the whole of life – present with us in the whole of life – even unto death – and even then leading us into new life. God’s Wisdom embodied in Jesus, embodied in us.

The beginning of wisdom is knowing that we know not, and listening with our whole heart – our whole selves – for the steadfast, loving presence of God, walking with us always into life.

Mrs. Mae T. Ingram said one more thing. She did say that

“Anyone who knows not, and knows not that he knows not is a fool.”

But then she also said this: “Anyone who knows not, and knows that they know not, that person is a student – and they can learn.

Solomon says to God, “O God, I know not. Help me.”

And God gives to Solomon a listening heart and says to Solomon, I am here with you in all of this, walk with me, and I will show you your life. That is the beginning – and maybe justthe beginning – of wisdom & of life.

© 2021 Scott Clark

[1] See Choon-Leong Seow, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), pp. 37-41; Dora R. Mbuwayesango, Commentary on Working Preacher, ; Cameron B.R. Howard, Commentary on Working Preacher, [2] See Katherine Schiffendecker, Commentary, Working Preacher, ; Garrett Galvin, Commentary, Working Preacher, [3] From a conversation with biblical scholar Professor Yolanda Norton. [4] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishing, 2000).

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