Woman Wisdom – August 19, 2018
The Rev. Debra Slade, St. Francis Episcopal Church, Stamford, CT
It’s a good week when you learn something new, and this week I learned two things that I didn’t know much about before. I learned more about the figure of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs when researching this sermon, and I learned about my great-grandmother, Emma Louise Slade who died in 1911. Learning about Emma was significant because I knew quite a lot about the other three sides of my family, and had met at least one great-parent from those sides as a child. But the female Slade side from Halifax, Nova Scotia was a big mystery until this week. I first found Emma’s picture when going through all the albums I had brought home from my mother’s house after she died in January. Those albums and other family heirlooms are currently strewn all over our dining and living room, and because of my slowness about doing something with these important testimonies to our family and my mother’s work in preserving the family memories, we have stopped using those two rooms and now affectionately call them the Slade Archives. I know many of you have been there, too — taking home precious family records following the death of a parent or relative, but overwhelmed with the task of how to do it justice to it, and where to finally put all that stuff. But my 23-year-old daughter Emma was visiting over the last two weeks, and had promised to look at the albums with me as I insisted she needed to know who the folks in the pictures because at some point she and her sister will get them. So there with my Emma, we found her great-great grandmother Emma Louise Slade. In one of the albums there was a picture of her, and a picture of her grave, taken on a trip to Nova Scotia when my mother was doing some of her Slade family research. For some reason, those two pictures set me off on quest to learn more about Emma.
Now at the same time, I began researching my sermon, and not being too interested in the Gospel reading from John – important, but the repeated references to drinking blood had always kind of put me off, and the Epistle from Ephesians – again important for the significant – spirit part — but also somewhat humorous for the entire verse: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery but be filled with the Spirit.” I had always put that one in the same category as the more recent adage – “I don’t get high on drugs, I get high on life,” or in some versions – “I get high on Jesus.” So with those scriptural reservations, I moved on to the Hebrew Bible reading from Proverbs, and then got really excited. Who is this Superwoman Wisdom who is the Queen of multi-tasking? She is talking to men with authority. She is there with God during creation. She is truly doing all of the heavy lifting here. And even more importantly, she holding up all these important domestic things that women have been doing without recognition throughout time but she gives them legitimacy. And this is what makes her Wisdom with a capitol W. So at the same time I went on my Emma Louise Slade quest, I also went on the quest to find out more about Woman Wisdom in Proverbs – what is her role – who is she – and what is her message for us today?
In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Carole Fontaine suggests two interpretations of Women Wisdom and her inclusion in Proverbs. She says: “The figure of Woman Wisdom may be a survival of goddess worship within the monotheistic structure of Israelite theology” coming out of the wisdom traditions of Mesopotamia and Egypt. And, “at the very least, Woman Wisdom represents a synopsis of all the positive roles played by wives and mothers in Israelite society…
“She is an amalgam of the highly valued roles of wife, mother, wise woman and princess-counselor” combined with a “striking amount of power attributed to a female figure within a male –dominated society.” And while, like so many times in the bible, her positive role in Proverbs is pitted or compared against a negative image of women – the foolish woman also called the Woman Stranger – a figure of temptation that scares men, let’s focus, at least for this sermon, on the Woman Wisdom side that was included in our reading today.
In Proverbs 1 – 8 we are introduced to Woman Wisdom who is a strong multifaceted female figure. In Proverb 1:20 – “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” In Proverb 3:17 we learn – “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.” In Proverbs 8:22-31, Woman Wisdom is described as being the very first creation of God – the first of God’s acts of long ago. “Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth…When he established the heavens I was there…then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight rejoicing before him always rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race…for whoever finds me find life and obtains favor from the Lord.” And finally, in our reading today – Proverbs 9:1-6 – she is many things –she is a house builder – she slaughter her own animals – she mixes her own wine – and calls out to the highest places in the town to all to come and “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Women Wisdom has been called – the female aspect of God – the Holy Spirit – the tree of life – the representation of hospitality – the positive side of humanity. But sadly, Woman Wisdom is also a figure that, at least in my experience, and in Christian theology is mostly forgotten, rarely discussed in sermons, and relatively overlooked.
And this brings me back to Emma Slade. Having discovered her full name and grave stone details, I went on to a website called “Find a Grave” and there on that site were many details of her life supplied by a second cousin Mary whom I immediately contacted through the email she had posted. Mary, whom I had never met or known about, told me that she and my mother had been in touch over the years, and had shared their research about Emma Slade, some of which she posted. And what she and my mother had found was this — Emma Louise Sinfield had married Willoughby, known as Billy Slade a week after she turned 17 in 1888, and then proceeded to have 10 children! Her first and her last child died within a day of their birth, one child died at 8 months, and another died at 4 years. Of the children that survived one was my grandfather, and his sister was Mary’s grandmother. Tragically, Emma, our great grandmother died six days after giving birth to her 10th child. Emma was only 39, and left behind six children ages 4-20 – my grandfather was only seven. Emma’s short life was no doubt marked by hard, hard work, nurturing children, cooking, hospitality, multitasking, and, I would like to believe, wisdom. I remember my grandfather, Worrell Slade as a very kind, loving person. I would like to believe that Emma’s mothering was responsible for the man he became, and that all the positive virtues that are symbolized in Women Wisdom were in Emma Louise Slade too, and are in ALL the forgotten women throughout history. The figure of Woman Wisdom is an important and powerful one. Let’s hold up this aspect of the divine alongside all those more familiar and male images, and let’s honor all of our forgotten women whose wisdom, hard work, and hospitality made us, and fed the world. Amen