Antoinette Tuff and Wisdom at the Crossroads

Sermon originally preached August 25, 2013


In the first week of this two week sermon series on Wisdom, we attended to Proverbs 8 and James 3—heard the brother of Jesus encourage the recipients of his letter that there are two kinds of wisdom: one that inspires bitter envy and selfish ambition, and one that is pure and considerate, and inspires mercy and impartiality and sincerity.  Proverbs 8 spoke mystically about Sophia, the female embodiment of Wisdom (pictured on the front of your bulletin) who according to that chapter “takes her stand at the crossroads.”

The crossroads are a potent symbol of decision and challenge.  In folklore, it is the Roman goddess Trivia who oversees crossroads and thresholds and also light and magic.  In southern folklore, the crossroads is the domain of the devil, as Robert Johnson supposedly sang about an encounter at the crossroads of highway 61 and 49.  But in the Bible, the crossroad is the domain of Sophia and our only challenge is to heed her direction.

The crossroads are a symbol for where many of you today find yourself, at the beginning of another schoolyear, and perhaps the beginning of a college career.  And if we see our own lives from a higher vantage point, we may see many crossroads in our past and in our future.  We have decisions to make.

I heard a powerful story this week about a woman at a very dangerous crossroads who fortunately heeded the voice of wisdom.  She had a decision to make in how to encounter another person, and she chose to heed Wisdom’s advice to relate to that other person in a pure and peace-living, considerate, merciful, and sincere way instead of losing her mind to fear and terror.  Because of Antoinette Tuff’s courage, which Mark Twain describes as a resistance to fear, a mastery of fear, not an absence of fear,” but because of her courage, countless young lives continue instead of being halted by a man at the end of his rope.

In listening to the interview with this hero, there were a few things that struck me: she stopped a tragedy by relating to the potential perpetrator in the sense of sharing strife.  It is a powerful thing when we feel we have someone we can relate to who has an inkling of an idea about our pain and misfortune.  It is what Henri Nouwen called “The Wounded Healer.”  It is what the Author of the Universe called “Jesus Christ.”  Ignorance, says Paul to the Ephesians, is cultivated by a “hardening of heart.”

We like to imagine that we have everything together.  We carefully curate facebook pages that edit out our embarassments and mistakes and regrets and failures.  We don’t broadcast to the world around us when we feel ashamed or guilty.  With this revisionist history in real time, we create “false selves” that make some of our neighbors who are undergoing struggles of some kind or another feel like a desperate failure.

But Paul implores the early Christians in Ephesus that the “new self” is formed by a “new attitude of the mind,” and we must “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.”  You see, Antoinette Tuff (what an appropriate last name) saw her opponent as a fellow human being, and in so doing, she brought him over to the light.

What a beautiful saying we find in the Wisdom of Solomon, which we read responsively from in the “Canticle of Wisdom” this morning, “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion. Because of her purity, wisdom pervades and penetrates all things.  For she is a breath of the power of God.”  It is this breath, in the Greek the text was originally composed in the word is “Pneuma,” is also the Greek word for “Wind.”  When one is carried on this wind, on the breath of God, one is mentally and spiritually agile.  This Wisdom is more “mobile than any motion,” even the destructive motions of violence.  Yes—wisdom can out manouvere all things.

Antoinette described that she had just learned about “anchoring” in church, and that this method of keeping a cool head aided her in her conversation with a man seeking to do spectacular harm.  Since she is carried along by the Spirit, she knows to anchor herself in the Rock that will withstand the tempest.

Those who “enact my words,” says Jesus, reminding us that wisdom is only powerful when it is enacted.  A theory isn’t going to hold up in adversity, it must be trusted and put into action.  Going back to the father of the faith tradition that our lay speaker preached about while I was on vacation, enacting that wisdom is living with Trust.

Trusting God whole-heartedly emboldens us to act with decisiveness and courage.  Courage doesn’t mean that we won’t feel fear, the house on the rock and the house on the sand have one thing in common—Jesus says, “the winds blew and beat against the house” of both of them.  Courage and Wisdom—“hearing these words of Jesus and putting them into practice,” simply means you won’t be toppled by the winds of adversity.

So speaking about trust and actually practically using it to withstand fear and adversity are two different things.  What are some of those practical things that Antoinette Tuff does in order to stand firm with compassion and love and wisdom?  One thing we all learned by Antoinette Tuff’s stand is that the tools we need in a time of crisis are sometimes within us.  Antoinette didn’t just receive the wisdom she showed on Tuesday.  She cultivated it.  She prioritizes her life of faith—that is obvious by the interview she gave to an Atlanta news station that the man she encountered told her to call that fateful day.  She speaks about a lesson she had learned just that Sunday as part of a series of teachings that she is learning in her community of faith.  Attending to a life of faith will plant seeds within you that bear fruit.

Another practical lesson from Antoinette Tuff’s crossroad experience is that our stories matter.  Sharing your story might just save someone’s life.  Whereas the man Tuff encountered felt like he was beyond help and unloved, Tuff held out her own story, including her own lonliness and sense of failure, as a way for him to see that he wasn’t alone.  Now, she’s succeeding perhaps beyond her ability to comprehend.  She has been attempting to build a bus and tour company in order to help inner city kids get outside the Concrete Jungle and in a new context where they might broaden their horizons.  At a “Gofundme” website that she had started to invite people to help her with her goal of “helping inner city kids see the world,” by changing their vision, we can change their lives, she says with a meager goal of $1500.  Well—in one day, almost 2000 donors have given her more like $100,000.

Perhaps she had just been planning to take them to Athens, Georgia to inspire them with a taste of college life—well, now she can take them to Athens, Greece and give them a taste of the original academic life! As Wisdom says in Proverbs 8, “With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity.”  Wisdom doesn’t say that it’s all for us!  Indeed, true wisdom and righteousness inspires generosity and an eye for what society needs.  Wisdom says, “I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full.”

We are about the project of “being made new in the attitude of our minds and putting on the new self.”  The new self is a sturdy house built on the rock.  It will withstand the wind.