Wisdom is embodied in justice and right relationships, says Harper


The Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper, minister of older adults at the Riverside Church in New York City, delivers her sermon “The Gift of Wisdom” on Sunday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In her childhood, the Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper and her friends played a game on the playground or at slumber parties, where a genie would give them each three wishes. “We would come up with things like meeting a favorite movie or rock star, having exotic animals as pets, living in a mansion, driving a sports car; someone would probably mention world peace and someone would ask for infinite wishes — which was brilliant, but not fair,” she said.

She continued, “But God is not a genie, and Solomon was not playing a game when God asked him, ‘What can I give you?’ We might mull it over, but without skipping a beat, Solomon asked for an understanding mind, to distinguish good from evil, and to rule well.”

Harper preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “The Gift of Wisdom,” and the Scripture text was 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14.

Solomon did not know how to rule, but he bent his request of God to the well-being of his people. 

“In our day, he would have been encouraged to fake it until he made it, but his honesty and humility is disarming,” Harper told the congregation. “His thirst for wisdom sits at the center with the common good and compassion for the people. This pleased God, because wisdom sits at the center of the divine essence.”

Acquiring wisdom was at the center of Jesus’ life. The Gospels say he grew in wisdom and stature.

When two women came to Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a baby, he had to determine who was the real mother. He knew that if he told them to cut the child in half, the real mother would want to see the child live, even if she had to forfeit the child. 

“All Israel heard of Solomon’s judgment and said it was the wisdom of God in him to render such justice,” Harper said. 

Harper told the congregation, “We have to learn what wisdom is and what it is not. It is not a Mensa brain-teaser or a guru on a mountaintop, or a single technological genius on a stage giving a talk. Wisdom impacts our life together. It is justice and ethical and moral understanding. Wisdom is on the ground, in the body. It is not in some rarefied realm.”

Wisdom is connected to right relationships, Harper told the congregation. Wisdom is connected to justice, too, and speaks to the complications of love and loss. Wisdom can discern good and evil to do what is right for the common good. Wisdom is humble in heart and says, “I do not know how.”

“Wisdom is a divine gift that we receive to nurture the world. It goes deep into the world, in our deepest beings that brings the truth of life together,” Harper said. “I learned a lot about holy wisdom from people with dementia and their caregivers. From the son who sat with his mother in silence showing her a photo album. He said, ‘If you wait, something always comes.’ Or the daughter, sitting with her dying father, reciting the names of all who loved him and playing Chopin for him. Or the nurse who knows how to read people’s body language and respond with care. Wisdom is a nation that prioritizes its most vulnerable and pays their caregivers.”

Harper shared stories about a Bible study class she led in the continuing care home where she worked for seven years. She talked about Mary, who had anxiety issues as well as memory problems and had a hard time getting out of bed. Mary was a mainstay of the Bible study, often helping other patients to get there.

One day Harper was sharing a contemporary translation of the Beatitudes. Harper read, “Blessed are you when you don’t have it all together.” Mary responded, “I must really be blessed.”

“Her honesty, wit and humanity enlivened us,” Harper told the congregation.

A patient named Greta arrived at the group for the first time and said that she was struggling to adjust. “My doctor said I forget a lot,” Greta told the group. Mary said, “It’s ok, we all forget things.” Ellen, who was in a reclining wheelchair, said, “It’s good to forget some things and have a blank slate.”

“They welcomed Greta with an outpouring of grace and compassion,” Harper told the congregation. “They were building a community. Can you tell me that isn’t wisdom at work?”

Clara, another resident of the home, could not walk or talk, and could hardly swallow. She needed to touch and be touched. “If I came close, she would touch my face and the harsh world yielded to her gentleness. She calmed the staff, too, and blessed us with wisdom beyond words. She offered what she had available: a sacred presence,” Harper said. “These people have trouble thinking, but not understanding.”

Harper quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “When I was young I admired the clever; now I am old I admire the kind.” 

She continued, “Wisdom is the gift, the art, the capacity for compassion, rooted in the divine touch in the soul. The temporarily able-brained need to listen to and listen for divine wisdom. If you listen, you might gain wisdom when you don’t have to have it all together.”

Solomon, at his best, was humble and heard wisdom to lead his people justly and kindly. “Yet ultimately he fell short,” Harper said. “He chose wealth over justice, and dalliance over wisdom; that ended with the divided kingdom and a society tainted by forced labor. Wisdom was left hungry at the gate.”

She continued, “We have to tell the truth about Solomon and ourselves. We have fallen short on justice and pursued private pleasures and not the common good. Through divine wisdom we have to be honest and face the truth. As Samuel Beckett and Cornel West have said, ‘We need to try again, fail again, fail better.’ ”

Achieving wisdom does not happen with a one-off prayer. It is a gift that requires nurture and cultivation to try again, fail again, fail better, Harper said. “Chautauqua is a community founded on the pursuit of wisdom. This is the right place to pursue wisdom in kindness and in just relationships, caring for the most vulnerable. It is the right place for us to say Solomon’s prayer and to live it out in our time. May the immortal, invisible bless us as we try.” 

The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Stephine Hunt, the manager of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Octagon, read the Scripture. For the prelude, Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music, played “Cantiléne,” from Symphony No. 3, by Louis Vierne. Members of the Motet Choir sang “The Call of Wisdom,” with music by Will Todd and words by Michael Hampel based on Proverbs 8. The offertory anthem was “To Splendid for Speech, But Ripe for a Song,” sung by members of the Motet Choir. The music was by Frederick Swan, with words by Thomas H. Troeger. The piece was commissioned by the Chautauqua Choirs in honor of Jared Jacobsen. The postlude was the finale from Symphony No. 3, by Louis Vierne. This week’s services and chaplain are supported by The Edmund E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy.

Tags : 1 Kings 2:10-121 Kings 3:3-142021justicemorning worshipRev. Lynn Casteel Harperright relationshipsthe gift of wisdomWeek Eightwisdom

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.