July 30, 2023 - Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12A)
There is a vault deep inside the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole where open source software is being meticulously preserved for future generations in a decommissioned coal mine. This amazing repository, called the GitHub Arctic Code Vault, includes even the simple explanation of the purpose of a computer, anticipating the possibility of future life forms who have no awareness of what we use every day to connect to others in our world.
And an arguably even more important treasure exists close to this technology vault. Near the GitHub repository is another underground storage space, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It contains seeds of millions of plants–a treasure chest that could allow the earth to repopulate much of the plant life we rely upon for sustenance and existence.
Talk about treasures hidden in fields!
With these two projects, humanity could start anew, should the need arise.
These projects are the result of wisdom—the wisdom to imagine the possibility that humanity may, indeed, one day need to begin again.
Wisdom begins with the recognition there could be knowledge we lack. Now, you know I would be remiss to preach this Sunday without some reference to either Oppenheimer or Barbie. So, first from Oppenheimer. “No man should escape our universities without knowing how little he knows.” Or, the same point made with irony by the inimitable Barbie when she says to Ken (who was quite sure there was no knowledge he lacked to do his highly-important job called ‘Beach’—not lifesaver or marine biologist, or engineer, mind you—but just ‘Beach’), sure of his boundless knowledge, “And what a good job you do at the beach, Ken!”
We have a lot of fear of not knowing. We are all Kens carefully hiding our ignorance at some time or other.
On this weekend of the 49th anniversary of the Philadelphia Eleven, I am reminded of the video footage of a priest who declared at the time—“Women can be many things—president, a judge, a physician…but there is one thing a woman can never be,” he said. Well, Eunice…here we are! Indeed, we are all Kens at one time or another.
Knowledge is highly revered, worshipped even, in our culture. After all, knowledge is power, we say. We want to know, and that is not a bad thing.
But knowledge apart from wisdom can put us in a perilous position. As Oppenheimer observed, we need to know how little we actually understand. When we think we know it all—we become, well, know-it-alls—which is a dangerous thing to be. The exploding field of AI brings this danger into sharp relief, as we consider the possibilities that our knowledge may already be outstripping our wisdom in ways that compromise our future.
It is the gap between our knowledge and our wisdom that Jesus addresses in today’s parables. In a world where knowing it all is the prized possession, Jesus is calling us to go on a quest to recover the pearl we have lost—our wisdom.
Wisdom is that priceless gift that allows us to appropriate knowledge for good, instead of for evil.
Because to be wise is to be humble about the vast fields of treasure we have yet to find. Wisdom is that place within us where we learn the practice of discovery, absent jaded hearts. Wisdom, you might say, is the kingdom of God within us.
It is our sacred duty, as followers of Jesus, to cultivate wisdom.Wisdom begins with our awareness of what we do not know.
Solomon is considered the wisest person in Hebrew Scriptures. How did this come to be so? In today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson, we discover that his wisdom began with an invitation from God, “Ask what I should give you.” Solomon knew what he did not know. He understood his need for wisdom. And that is what he asked God to give him. “And now, O Lord my God,” he says, “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.”
It was Solomon’s recognition that, even as a king—he was only a little child. He did not know, he told Yahweh, how to go out or to come in. This was the beginning of his wisdom.
In the passage we heard today from Romans, Paul describes what happens when we do not know how to pray: the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.
We live in an era of much knowledge—so much that it overwhelms us on a daily basis. Simply choosing a new kitchen appliance requires encountering more attention to data for that one choice than generations before us might expend in a lifetime of selecting means to tend to household chores. There are currently 9.1 million online retailers globally. And millions more local businesses. Decision fatigue is a real thing.
In the midst of a pace our ancestors could not have comprehended with choices that stagger the mind, what does it mean to seek the kingdom of God? Put another way, what does it mean to pursue the wisdom that comes from beyond our knowledge and capacity to generate and consume in this life?
Cultivating wisdom, which is another way of saying seeking the kingdom of God, begins at the edge of our knowing. It is to this edge that Jesus calls us.
Life inevitably brings us events we do not understand, much less desire or like. We are born to be attached to others, to this world, to our own lives. To love and be loved is our purpose. And that purpose necessarily involves suffering. When the suffering comes, it drives us to the edge. To the edge of our understanding. There, at the precipice of all we thought we knew, our most cherished companion is wisdom. If we try to live in the illusion that we know it all, when the trials come, that knowledge will surely fail us. But, if we make wisdom our companion, we will find we can begin again.
At the edge of all we thought we knew, the Spirit holds us in our unknowing with sighs too deep for words. There, we can begin again.
St. Catherine’s, you know the importance of this edge. Even your name reflects the value of wisdom—named as you are after Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of librarians and philosophers—those who spend a lifetime being curious about the knowledge they lack.
To follow Jesus in a world of certainty is to embrace the likelihood that there might be truths we had not even imagined that await us, buried deep underground like in the GitHub repository or the Svalbard Seed Vault, or tucked in a tiny seed, or hidden in an oyster bed.
As we confirm the newest seeker of the kingdom of God, Scot, this morning, I want to say—to you and to all who have come to this sacred community today, welcome to the field where we cultivate wisdom. Here, amid a culture where knowledge is power, welcome home to your not knowing. Welcome to your wondering, to your seeking, to you questions, to your curious mind. Welcome to the place where there is no shame in beginning again—where, in fact, to begin again every day is your sacred calling.
Here, in the beloved community of Jesus, we practice listening, wondering, seeking, and imagining that there is knowledge we have yet to discover. Knowledge that the Spirit has buried deep within us like scientists buried the github code vault and the seeds in the Arctic Circle.
Ours is the work not only of seeking wisdom, but of curating it, of caring for it, nurturing it, burying it to be discovered by those who come after us when they need it most.
May we rely upon the Spirit who groans with sighs too deep for words. May we tuck away treasures that those who come after us on this fragile earth may discover them and begin again. May we cherish our unknowing. May we seek the treasures another has placed within us. That finding them buried there with love, we, too, might find the courage to begin again.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.