September 2024


Choosing How We Shall Live

Uncommon Wisdom

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

This week, the lectionary text features three different couplets from Proverbs 22, all of which point us toward how to engage wisdom-driven decision-making in our daily lives.

Last week, I offered some thoughts about how to use Wisdom Literature as if you were planning a trip. Proverbs is perhaps the book where it is most important not to assume that turn-by-turn directions from chapters 1 through 31 will get you where you want to be. Some of the Proverbs contradict one another; many have a sarcastic flavor, and they almost certainly were not given by a single author in the order we have them now. When the Book of Proverbs offers us a collection of several sayings, they are like the corrections one has to make when using a compass to chart a course. Your location on the Earth might subject you to magnetic alterations called variation, and nearby technology might interfere with your compass and cause something called deviation. Depending on the circumstance, this could significantly alter the compass heading you need to follow. If the compass on a map tells you to head north at five degrees, environmental factors might require you to follow a drastically different heading of eleven degrees. I give thanks to my days in scouting for teaching me these skills. The key thing about this, though, is that the original heading, “true north,” never changed. You’re not going the wrong way by adjusting your compass heading, you’re just responding appropriately to your environment and making sure the path you follow is still fruitful. This practical responsiveness is essential to the Wisdom Literature ethos. These books call us to employ wisdom that works.

I owe many thanks to my colleague, Dr. Lisa Hancock, for giving me another idea about how to describe what the Proverbs can do for us. She and I are both classically trained musicians, and she tells me Proverbs can work like something we call études. Études, from the French word for study, are exercises musicians use to strengthen a particular style or skill that is part of the much bigger quest to be a better artist. As a French horn player, I can recall a few important collections of études in my training. Some of them were very fast; we call those technical études. Their goal is to help you master flexibility and finger patterns. There are others, called lyrical études, that are meant to teach style and expression. Their notes and rhythms aren’t particularly difficult, but only a true musician can make them sound like art.

In this week’s selections, we have three études. Verses 1 and 2 are likely familiar to you and your hearers, just like the first études in all the standard collections are familiar to musicians. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to gain from studying and internalizing them. Musicians often use études when we identify a certain aspect of our performance that isn’t up to snuff. In other words, études are most useful to us when we find ourselves forgetting what they’ve taught us. I plan to extend my congregation invitations to tangible discipleship practices throughout the coming year. One of those practices is to memorize a verse or short passage of scripture, and I think some of these Proverbs could be great candidates. My hope in inviting others to memorize scripture is that its words would become so deeply internalized that they are almost reflexive. As a highly liturgical Methodist, I’d like to think that’s how much of the non-prose literature in our scriptures is meant to be received. Once you hear and repeat it enough times, you believe it and live it.

How can we preachers present these études in a way that inspires our hearers to practice them? Perhaps you could break up the reading of the scriptures to have one lector proclaim each proverb. Or you could have shorter reflections or homilies offered on the meaning of each one. This idea could be further enhanced by having different preachers offer each reflection. The reflections could also be interspersed with musical selections of some kind… maybe short lyrical études! However you present the Proverbs, remind your hearers that they are not just boxes to check. The Proverbs are begging not to be forgotten. In the same way that Wisdom herself is our companion in a time of need, the Proverbs individually are meant to be called upon when we need guidance for real life. When the rubber meets the road, what Proverbs will we call upon? Will we settle for common wisdom or press ourselves to strive for the uncommon?

Rev. Tripp Gulledge is a provisional elder in the Alabama—West Florida conference and a pastoral resident at Highland Park UMC in Dallas, TX. He graduated from Perkins School of Theology with highest honor in May 2023.

In This Series...

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B - Lectionary Planning Notes