Saturday, August 21, 2021

Wisdom: a Sermon for Proper 15, August 15, 2021

So, as I prepare my sermon for Proper 16, here is my sermon from last Sunday on Proper 15.

I am a big fan of teaching stories, especially middle Eastern Sufi and other teaching stories. This is one from the person I read most often, an Afghan Englishman named Idries Shah. He said that two men found themselves crossing a river on a ferry. This was an old ferry in an old country, and it was strung on ropes. And the ferrymen basically pulled the rope to get you from one side of the river to the other. So these two men were on the ferry. One of them was a professor of logic and rhetoric. And the other one, he was a local farmer. In the midst of their conversation, the rustic gentleman said, “Well, you know, if’n y'all were really prepared,” at which point the academic stopped him. He said, “Wait, no, there is only one of me. It has to be ‘you.’ And there is nothing to be added to ‘if. It’s not, ‘if’n,’ it’s just ‘if.’ If you haven't learned proper grammar, you've lost half your life.” At which point, the cables holding the ferry snapped, and the ferry began to rise on a rush of water and the head down river quickly. And the farmer said, “You know, professor, if’n y'all, hadn't learned how to swim, you've lost all your life.”

The theme today is wisdom. What is wisdom? And it's an interesting thing to think about, what we think of as wisdom or as wise. You know, we live in a time where a little owl appears on our TV screen and says that being wise has to do with taking the right antihistamine. (And as somebody with perpetual sinus issues, I pay attention.) Now, wisdom is something we talk about a lot in scripture. We say that there are portions of scripture that we speak about as “wisdom literature.” For example, that includes Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, or Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus is a favorite of mine.)

They are, as we say, about wisdom. And the wisdom they are about is how to live a proper and righteous life in the world. Now, granted, in all of this, walking before God, as it were, is assumed, but it's not really what they talk about very much. They talk about right relationship between one person and another, or right ways to fit in with the structures of society, or ways, if you can, to do well for yourself and others. You know, the, the content is somewhat different from Confucius, but the intent, if you will, is the same. This is how to live a righteous and sober and productive life in society. And, if you get the opportunities, to do well. 

We still talk about wisdom today. Unfortunately it seems to me to have a bit of a different edge. It’s more personal; it's more selfish. It's less about having a successful life and more about winning - and all too often winning at any and all costs: you know, weakest to the wall and the devil take the hindmost. “I've got mine, and you have to look after yours.” We're told by voices around us, that “wise” means, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

But in the lessons today, we have a different standard for what is “wise.” It's in Ephesians. We’ve been in Ephesians for the last few Sundays, and the last half of Ephesians is all about what it means to live in Christian community. And there's a bit of a summation, if you will, in today's lesson, because it says to be careful - or more accurately, be thoughtful, be attentive  - to live in the world as wise rather than unwise, That has to do, Ephesians tells us, with understanding what the will of the Lord is.

So, in Ephesians, it's clear that living wisely is understanding and participating what the will of the Lord is. And perhaps that shouldn't be that hard for us. I don't mean it's not hard to do. Sometimes it is. But I mean, it shouldn’t be hard for us to have a handle on this idea of living with what the will of the Lord is. That is because we are people who say the Lord is not just coming. We say the Lord is with us. That’s all through the Gospel of John, and I’ll get back to today’s lesson in a minute. But it is in John that Jesus keeps saying eternal life is now. This is not something you wait for. Life in the kingdom is already ongoing. And we are the spiritual descendants of that. To live by understanding what the will of the Lord is begins with understanding that the Lord is present here and now.

One of my favorite spiritual writers focused on that. Perhaps some of you will know of him, Brother Lawrence at the Incarnation whose collected works were published as The Practice of the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was an interesting character. He was a Carmelite monk in Paris, and he was a sculler. You've heard of a scullery maid: He was a sculler brother. He worked in the kitchen. He cleaned vegetables. He hauled out the trash. He wasn't even the cook. And also, he was so recognized by his order as being wise, so wise that he was in a number of cases the ambassador of his order to the civil authorities or the ambassador of his chapter to other houses of the Carmelites. And in fact he was a famous spiritual director in his own time. And his focus was on practicing the presence of God. That is, “If I operate with the assumption that God is with me right now, then how should I behave in light of that?” You know, we have that old joke, “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” But Brother Lawrence was really focused on the concept that Jesus is here; and it's not about looking busy, but it is about participating in what it is that Jesus and God and the Spirit have going on in the world around you.

In his way, that's exactly what Solomon asked for. David has died. By the way, I can't tell you how many commentaries and podcasts I listened to this week that said, “Let’s stop using a euphemism. David didn't sleep. He died.” However, to say “he slept with his ancestors” means that he died at peace. He didn't die in war. He didn't die because he was smitten. He died of old age. 

So, David died. And because Bathsheba who had been a victim had also learned how to be a sharp political person, Solomon, who was not the oldest son, becomes king. And so King Solomon is offering sacrifices. He’s offering sacrifice at Gibeon. And he has a vision, a dream, that’s really a message from God. God says, “How shall I equip you?” And Solomon says, “What I really need is the wisdom to lead, to lead this people who are yours.” Now, capture that. It's not that he's simply leading Israel, his kingdom, but he is leading the people who are God's people and is asking to be part of God's will for that people. So as with Brother Lawrence, Solomon is in the presence of God; and he’s thinking wisdom is about how does he, as king, participate in the will of God.

If you read the rest of Solomon's story, you'll discover that he's pretty spotty about actually doing that, but it's the right prayer. And God says it's the right prayer. And he says, “There will be no one of wisdom ever like you after nor has there been anyone before.”

 So we have clear guidance in our own tradition and in scripture about this idea that to be wise is to seek the will of the Lord. And it shouldn't be that hard for us to understand what the will of the Lord might be. Now, never claim perfection in this. I have this personal conceit. I believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven is certainty. Always hold a little bit of humility. I'm bad at that myself, but always hold a little bit of humility about one’s sense of what God is doing. 

But we have plenty of guidance in the Gospel of John. We know about God's commitment to God's people because the Word became flesh to live with us;  because the Word came, as in my favorite passage from John, John 3:17, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved through him. That the Incarnation is about bringing salvation into and among all of creation. And Jesus in today's lesson brings that Incarnation home because what the Greek says is, “those who munch on my meat.” We don't like to translate it that way, but this is different in the Greek from other places where he talks about eating flesh. It's a different word for eat. It's a different word for flesh. It is those who are “those who are chewing my muscle tissue abide in me and I in them:” that God's will, is that all of us and all of creation be so intimately involved in God and in what God is doing that salvation embraces all. And when I worry about what "all" means, I always come back to another passage of John and the Good Shepherd where he says, “and remember that I've got sheep you won't recognize. But when I call them, they will come.” All, all, all.

So to be wise is to participate, as best we can, in our own circumstances and in our own moments, with the will of God; that the love of God should be so demonstrated in how we live, that we share that sense of God's purpose to embrace all people and all creation in salvation. That is what Ephesians tells us wisdom really is. 

So, we have that standard to live by. We are called, not to be careful because we're afraid, but to be observant and careful and particular about living wisely. We are committed to live in a world of wisdom where wisdom is to seek to understand and to seek to participate in what the will of the Lord is. That in and of itself will bring us sufficient joy that the alcohol won't be necessary; sufficient joy, that we will be singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs. If we are going to live, we are called to live as those who are wise which means we're seeking to understand and to participate as fully as we can in what the will of the Lord is.

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