August 19, 2018

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

“Blessed by Wisdom, Saved by Grace”

When you think about WISDOM, I wonder if there are particular people that come to mind. Wise people that you have known, who have taught you and guided you in your life. Or perhaps there are some words of wisdom that you always remember, that you go back to, that you reflect on regularly and try to take to heart.

When I think of wise people in my life, I always go back to an elder from my home congregation when I was a child, George Lee. George was like a grandfather to me and many others. I don’t remember what he taught us, but I remember what it felt like to be near him. It felt like we were safe, and loved, and precious. He was in his early 80’s, and I remember him sitting on the floor with us children at Vacation Bible School and telling us stories. And it felt SO important to be still and listen to what he would say.

Back then I had no idea that I would one day become a minister. I never imagined that I would have so many opportunities to sit on the floor (or the steps of the sanctuary) with children, or stand in a pulpit, or teach in a Bible study, or journey with people through the ups and downs of their lives. I couldn’t have guessed that I would be the one sharing words of wisdom like George Lee had once shared them with me.

Last weekend I attended the ordination of the new minister who will be serving at St. Andrew’s in Saskatoon. Roberto deSandoli graduated this Spring from the Vancouver School of Theology, so St. Andrew’s is his first call. And, of course, being there for Roberto’s ordination, and anticipating our celebration of Bob’s 50 years of ordination, caused me to think about my own ordination almost 15 years ago and what it was like as I embarked on this great, challenging adventure that is ministry.

The folks at St. Andrew’s are very excited about their new minister, but I did hear a few people comment about how young Roberto is. “Sure!” I said in reply, “But do you remember how young I was when I started?”

When I first started to hear God calling me to ministry, I thought perhaps I might be able to do it “some day.” I loved the experience of leading worship and sharing my faith, but I didn’t feel ready to be a minister yet. I told people who asked that I wasn’t WISE enough yet to be a minister. I needed to get more experience, to grow older and wiser first.

But it wasn’t much longer before God’s call became too strong to resist, and I went off to seminary and preparation for ministry. I was inspired by a short worship song from the Iona Community. It said, “Take, O take me as I am. Summon out what I should be. Set your seal upon my heart, and live in me.” When I prayed and reflected on those words, I received the assurance that I didn’t have to be perfectly wise. I just needed to let God work in and through me and be faithful to the call.

Our Scripture readings today are all about WISDOM. After many Sundays in a row of hearing about King David, today we encounter his son, King Solomon. And Solomon is well known as being the wise king of Israel.

And Solomon sounds like a pretty great guy to be the king. We are told that he “loved the Lord” and he “walked in the statutes of his father.” We remember that David was a good king (with some significant faults as well) but his son Solomon sounds like he could be even better with the added skill of great wisdom!

But if we read carefully and check out the historical context, we will notice that Solomon was not perfect either. Although he loved God and followed the commandments, the exception was that he also “sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.”

On a first reading, that might just sound like he worshipped, and we would expect that to be a positive thing. But worshipping and sacrificing at “the high places” instead of Jerusalem was considered one of the most egregious religious sins at that time. It might have just been improper worship of the God of Israel (in a place other than the one that God chose as a dwelling) or it might have actually referred to worshipping other gods and making sacrifices to idols. Either way, King Solomon is not as great as we might have assumed.

But he was wise. He becomes well known for being wise. And there’s even a book with 19 chapters in the Apocrypha called the Wisdom of Solomon – full of his reflections and advice.

In chapter 7 of that book though, Solomon reflects that he also is “mortal, like everyone else.” He says, I was “a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh… For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.”

But then he explains how he got his wisdom: “Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” And later, he says, “May God grant me to speak with judgment, and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received; for God is the guide even of wisdom and the corrector of the wise.”

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of Solomon’s wisdom was his request for wisdom in the first place. Unlike some leaders today who are full of arrogance and self-importance, Solomon approached God with humility, confessed his lack of ability, and when asked what he wanted from God, he asked for God’s help. He asked for “an understanding mind to govern God’s people, able to discern between good and evil.”

One commentator reflects on the need for wisdom in leadership: “Leadership, be it governmental, religious, or otherwise, requires us to hold in tension humility and confidence, finitude and limitless capacity, the gifts we have and the gifts we have yet to acquire. Solomon is by no means a “perfect” model for leadership, as his prayer reminds us. At the same time, his prayer also testifies that effective leadership demands boldness, calling us to act in wisdom even as we pray to have wisdom enacted in us.”

But what exactly is the content of this wisdom? What wisdom do we need from God for our various leadership roles in the church, in our families, or our workplaces and communities?

In Paul’s advice to the Ephesian Christians this morning, he begins with the simple admonition to “BE WISE.” “Be careful how you live,” he warns them, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…”

Now, he may simply be telling them to follow the moral advice that he has already given them in the letter. Things like speaking the truth, forgiving one another, maintaining unity, living in love, putting away greed and impurity and vulgar talk. These are all good pieces of wisdom, which we should heed as well. But, of course, like the ancient Ephesians, we also have a much wider store of wisdom to draw on in heeding this instruction to “BE WISE.”

Wisdom was a virtue in both Jewish and Gentile traditions, and while Jews and early Christians no doubt looked to the Old Testament wisdom writings for understanding, wisdom is by nature inclusive and expansive – it is to be sought and accepted wherever it may be genuinely found.

For Christians, then and now, there is also another side of wisdom – Christ is the true wisdom of God, in contrast with the foolish wisdom of the world that did not recognize Christ for who he was. The admonition to be wise, then, is not as simple as it may sound at first.

Solomon’s great wisdom was shown, first of all, by the fact that he knew that true wisdom could come only as a gift from God. And one of the key lessons of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is that the foundation of moral living, of living rightly, of being wise, is understanding what God has done for us in Christ.

To be wise is to know that we cannot be wise on our own. To be wise is to know that we cannot be good enough on our own. To be wise is to know that although we will never get our lives sorted out completely or become the smart, successful, well-regarded leaders that we all wish we could be… that God loves us, and Christ saves us, and the Holy Spirit gifts us with what we truly need for life and leadership and service as God’s children.

I was getting a hair cut the other day and chatting with my hairdresser. And she asked me about how things were going in my first week back to work after holidays. She wondered if I was really busy catching up after being away.

I said that since it was summer, it was pretty quiet in terms of meetings and programs, but that my week was easily filled with pastoral visiting, mostly checking in with folks who had been ill, or experiencing loss or struggles or difficulties in life this summer.

Although a hairdresser does a lot of listening to people’s stories and hearing about their lives too, she wondered how I would know what to say to encourage people, what wisdom I would offer. So I told her that I don’t always know what to say. Actually, I often don’t know what wisdom I can bring… especially when the questions arising are the ones without answers like “Why is this happening to me? Why did she die? Why is there so much suffering?”

But I told her that the most important part about pastoral visiting is just being there. It’s about joining with people on their journeys through life, sharing the struggles, and celebrating with them too when life is good. And the gift I bring, and that Roberto will bring, and that Bob has brought over 50 years, and that all of us can bring, in fact… is that when we are there, people are quietly reminded that God is there too. And if there is one wise thing that we can do in the midst of sorrow, or grief, or struggle, or pain, then it would be to point to Jesus.

Like John the Baptist did in the Gospel of John when he saw Jesus walking along… He told his followers, “Look, there is the Lamb of God!” And many of them went and followed after Jesus and received his grace and his love.

Presbyterians really do value education and learning. Our ministers are prepared for ministry by completing theological degrees and engaging in field placements, and we know that years of experience and regular continuing education can be extremely valuable for our ministers’ work. We are blessed by the wisdom we receive and equipped for fruitful ministries through what we learn.

But when it comes down to it, the message of the gospel is pretty simple. We don’t need a bunch of theological degrees to get it and our perfect understanding is not what saves us. Just as wisdom is a gift from God, so is fullness of life here in the world and salvation for the world to come. We are saved as a pure, undeserved gift from God through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Just listen to the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading today. Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread of life that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Now, when the people heard him say this they had just finished up an amazing meal of bread and fish. It was a miraculous meal in which Jesus received 5 small loaves and 2 fish from a young boy and multiplied them to feed the crowd of at least 5000 people.

And then he began to explain to them what it meant. And they began to dispute among themselves about his statements. Can you imagine that discussion? That debate?

As much as the theological discussions we have in Bible study or online or over coffee can be exciting and interesting, Jesus put a stop to the debating that day. He said, “Just take it and eat it. Just receive me into your life, into your body, and you will live forever. Abide in me. Let me fill up your spirit like bread and drink fill up your stomach.”

You see, Jesus is offering the absolutely free gift of God’s grace and we are invited to receive it. We don’t have to earn it, or completely understand it. We just need to take and eat, take and drink, and let Jesus sustain and strengthen us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

No matter how much wisdom we may have, let us ask God to give us what we need. And no matter how much we understand, may we open our hearts to receive God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.