August is a slow month on our calendar here at Trinity. We don’t have a lot of scheduled activities this month. But the calendar does not tell the full story. The needs of the poor and hungry in our midst are as acute as ever and our response to those needs is evident in the regular stream of groceries that come into our sanctuary each week. We welcomed yet another family into the Green House apartment this month. We concluded yet another successful session of our Summer Camp. Our sacramental ministers have been faithfully visiting our homebound and ill members. We continue meeting on Wednesday evening for prayer throughout the year. So don’t let the calendar fool you! The dog days of summer are filled with mission and ministry!
Our lessons this week all seem to touch on “wisdom” in some way, shape or form. The ninth chapter of Proverbs contains a beautiful poem in which wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman, calls people to abandon foolishness and simplicity in order to pursue understanding. The psalmist issues the invitation, “Come, O sons, listen to me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The author of Ephesians admonishes his hearers to “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” In the gospel lesson from the sixth chapter of John, the dialogue between Jesus and the hungry crowd he fed with the loaves and fishes continues with a pointed discussion about what truly sustains life.
The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.” “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?
The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing can be the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and view it from their perspective. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.
These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and its literary characteristics, see the post for Pentecost 11.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 110:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.
Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…” Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.”
The author of Ephesians admonishes us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant.
Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader vision of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.
I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!” The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get to comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.
It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.
These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.