I don’t mean to shock anyone here, but summer is over. School is ready to begin.
Notebooks, 3-ring binders, colored pencils, and pens are in hot demand, and students and teachers are preparing to return to the classroom. The long, lazy days of summer are ending, and calendars are filling up again with soccer practice and piano lessons. This town moves with the rhythm of the university, and the flow of students adds energy (and different traffic patterns). As kids get ready to return to homeroom and homework, today’s text is a helpful reminder that smarts and achievement are not always the ultimate goal. Learning is important throughout a lifetime. God celebrates those who yearn to be wise and thoughtful in how they live faithfully.
The rap on King Solomon is that he was the wisest man of his time—maybe even all time. He was always on the A honor roll. He is remembered for his wisdom, and this text is the foundation of that reputation. King David has died, and King Solomon does what he can to follow in his father’s footsteps of faithfulness. He loves the Lord. He worships God and makes sacrifices. He visits sacred space. Solomon strives to emulate the best traits of his father. The Lord takes note of his devotion, and comes to Solomon in a dream, offering the king a chance to ask for whatever he wants. And Solomon does not waste this opportunity. He humbles himself and gives thanks for God’s steadfast love before asking for an understanding mind, a discerning spirit to best govern the people under his rule. Solomon asks for wisdom so that he can be a better servant; he requests clarity in determining what is right, so that the people will thrive. He doesn’t ask for fame, millions of Instagram followers, or wealth (for himself); he asks for an understanding mind for the benefit of God’s people. Solomon requests a clear mind with a full heart.
God responds with joy and abundance. The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s request and replies by granting his desire and then some, saying, “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” Fame and honor will be his too, and Solomon will enjoy a long life if he continues his path of faithfulness. God recognizes that Solomon’s request is not selfish; he wants to use the blessing to bless others. There is wisdom in his very request: Solomon hopes his mind will be led by the clarity of God’s heart. The king wants to do right by his God and his people. Solomon shows us a deep form of wisdom.
Poet Mary Oliver helps us see how wisdom can come from ordinary observances. Oliver takes note of God’s world and learns by paying attention. Listen to her poem, “Mindful:”
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Mary Oliver reminds us that wisdom does not have to begin with a startling or grandiose event. Wisdom can come through everyday observances and daily presentations, like the ocean’s shine and prayers made out of grass. So, when you’re waiting for the bus or walking across campus for you 8:30 class, pay attention to the “untrimmable light of the world.” Oliver prompts us to pay attention to the small, subtle ways we can learn from the ordinary and the common. Wisdom doesn’t only arrive through a dream of the divine. You don’t have to be a king to be wise. Wisdom can show up through everyday experiences, glimmering with mystery and the eternal. Like Solomon, we can strive to be scholars of steadfast love and righteousness, to model our lives like faithful parents and teachers, coaches and neighbors who demonstrate faithfulness, righteousness, and a tender heart. All of us, even those who are no longer officially students, are called to pattern our lives after the Master Teacher.
I’ve had the joy of learning from many master teachers, with 21 years of classes to choose from. Today, I will share my gratitude for one in particular. The Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon was my advisor in seminary, and she taught me Christian Ethics and whole host of electives. Last week, Dr. Cannon died from leukemia. The gratitude for her wisdom welled up from students around the world and Presbyterians across the country. Dr. Cannon was the first black woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church; she was a woman of deep, abiding faith. She was renowned for her scholarship as the pioneer of womanist theology, an interpretive approach to empowering the voices of African American women and those from the African diaspora. Her gift to the church and academy was to lift up the wisdom she learned at the kitchen table, from her mother, grandmothers, aunts, and other black women. She valued the voices that were ignored and considered ordinary, and she taught her students to value each voice at the table, and those who were missing. While she taught classes in ethics and theology, she taught life lessons about how to sustain your devotional life, how to attend to your mental health, how to notice oppression and extend God’s love to the marginalized. This week, I went back through my class notes, and here are some of my favorite sayings from Dr. Cannon I wrote in the margins:
Do the work your soul must have.
Even when they call your truth a lie, tell it anyway!
To not see signs of divinity is to be disgraceful.
Think with your heart and feel with your brain.
Dr. Cannon shared the stories of her life to teach her students how God instructs us to be wise and discerning. She insisted that theology is not a neck up enterprise; we needed to embody what we were learning and engage our hearts. She emphasized the necessity of connecting the heart with the head. Dr. Cannon taught her students, she taught me, how to live well as disciples of Christ, loving God and loving one another. She was not a ruler like King Solomon, but she had a clarity in declaring righteousness and pointing out the value of all people. Dr. Cannon now rests in power, but her legacy and her insight live on.
Since our text today focused on a king, it’s only fitting to close with a queen. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, left her own legacy of love and justice, of wisdom and faith. Like Solomon, Franklin’s family and faith were the foundation of her legacy. She grew up singing gospel music in the Baptist churches where her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin preached. Gospel music influenced the way she played the piano, and the way she incorporated call and response arrangements with her backup singers. Her sisters, Erma and Carolyn also sang and wrote songs. And they “…also provided backup vocals for Franklin on songs like ‘Respect.’ From 1968 until his death in 1989, her brother Cecil was her manager.” Before she was 10, Franklin spent time teaching herself how to play the piano and began singing her first solos in church. By the time she was 12, she went with her father on tour, joining the stage with other acclaimed gospel singers.
As her own reputation grew in her teens, she began to sing for justice and empowerment. Franklin received an award for excellence from Martin Luther King Jr., a family friend, and later toured with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte to help raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of 1967. In the 1960’s, Franklin’s “contract included a clause that she would not sing for segregated audiences.” She is known around the world for her hit, “Respect,” which became the anthem of the Civil Rights and the Feminist movements. During the Civil Rights Movement, Franklin “held free concerts, housed activists and helped them fundraise” to support the cause. She crossed genres, singing jazz, pop, R& B, and the blues, while returning to her gospel roots throughout her career, that spanned over five decades. Aretha Franklin used her gift and celebrity to raise her voice for justice and righteousness. In tribute after her death, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “She used her platform to inform others. She did not put her career before principles.” Throughout her career, Franklin sang on behalf of ordinary people, sharing her passion and faith to sing for justice and equality.
Like Solomon, Dr. Cannon and Aretha Franklin, we are called to love the Lord.
We are called to be good scholars of steadfast love,
to pay attention to God’s ordinary graces of the everyday,
to strengthen our minds and our hearts so that our lives serve God and our neighbors.
Ephesians reminds us “to be careful how we live, as wise people making most of [our] time.” With God’s wisdom as our guide, we unite our head and our heart to love our neighbors well. Living with such grace is learned throughout a lifetime, as we model our lives after great teachers who have gone before us. As the school buses return and syllabi are received, remember that each day we grow in wisdom, “thinking with our heart and feeling with our brain” to develop an understanding mind.
To God be the glory. Amen.
 Oliver, Mary. “Mindful.” Why I Wake Early. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. 58-59.
 “Katie Geneva Cannon raised up black women’s voices for the sake of the church and the world” The Christian Century. 16 August 2018. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/katie-geneva-cannon-raised-black-women-s-voices-sake-church-and-world
 “Katie Cannon, 68, Dies; Lifted Black Women’s Perspective in Theology” The New York Times. 14 August 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/obituaries/katie-cannon-68-dies-lifted-black-womens-perspective-in-theology.html
 “Aretha Franklin, Indomitable ‘Queen of Soul,’ Dies at 76” The New York Times. 16 August 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/16/obituaries/aretha-franklin-dead.html
 “Aretha Franklin, Civil Rights Stalwart: ‘In Her Voice, We Could Feel Our History’” The New York Times. 17 August 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/17/arts/aretha-franklin-dead-civil-rights.html