Wisdom, be attentive

Tiles from Trinity EastonA sermon for
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 19, 2018

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty and eternal God,
so draw our hearts to you,
so guide our minds,
so fill our imaginations,
so control our wills,
that we may be wholly yours,
utterly dedicated to you;
and then use us, we pray you, as you will
and always to your glory
and the welfare of your people;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are many dramatic moments in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. If you have a liturgy that lasts three hours you have to do something to keep people awake and interested. So, it is not surprising that this is an experience which engages people on many levels. There are beautiful icons, haunting minor-sounding melodies, two major parades (I mean processions) with richly clothed ministers—and literally, clouds of incense billowing up to heaven. Just before the Gospel is chanted, the Deacon proclaims: “Wisdom, let us be attentive.”

In explaining the significance of this message, a blogger has this to say: “You’ll hear that exclamation from time to time during Byzantine liturgical services. It usually precedes the reading of holy Scripture, which is the wisdom of God in human words, and hence deserves our undivided attention. (It can also serve as a sort of wake-up call if you happen to be daydreaming during the service.) I think it was introduced rather early in the history of the Byzantine Churches, evidently because they really did have to call to order the sometimes unruly and boisterous congregations!”

The idea here is that Wisdom is an invitation from God to have an encounter, an experience of God—mediated through the Word of Revelation. To receive and welcome this Word we are called to be attentive. Our ears are open, as are our hearts and minds to hear and to perceive God. Wisdom is also a truth—for the reality which is disclosed to us is something which only comes through God’s self-revelation—it is not something which would ever have come to us apart from God communicating to us. Most importantly, Wisdom is a person—it is an encounter with God’s own Word—the only begotten Son of God, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

We should not be surprised that Wisdom was a hugely important concept for the Church of Constantinople—the Second Rome. The Cathedral of that great city was named “Hagia Sophia.” Holy Wisdom.

Rosemary Radford Reuther has written extensively on the genre of Wisdom Literature. She points out that Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is a feminine concept. Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, for instance, is a lady who throws an elaborate banquet and invites all to attend. The imagery used to describe this meal was so inviting and attractive that it was used by Christians, across the centuries, to speak of their own imagining of what the heavenly banquet would be—choicest meats (they were clearly not vegetarians), finest wines (clearly not Bible-belt fundamentalists), an abundance of milk and honey (no one was lactose intolerant or allergic)—and the most attractive of decorations. It is an experience of “abundanza.” The surprise, though, is that this amazing hostess who meets every desire and welcomes every person—without exception—is God. Yes, God is depicted as a woman. This powerful image provides a balance—and perhaps a corrective to all that masculine language about God. Not a warrior, not a Father—but a hostess, perhaps a mother. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

St. Paul too speaks of Wisdom. He admonishes us to be wise. He suggests that Wisdom is the product of prayerful discernment. As we come to understand the will of God, for us as individuals, as families, and as communities, we will be empowered to live wisely. Gradually, we will be filled with the Spirit—perhaps another feminine concept (we think of words like “Consoler,” “Healer,” and “Comforter” which are used to describe the actions of the “Paraclete.” They all sound very maternal to me). And this indwelling of God’s loving presence in our lives will have a noticeable impact—the best word to describe this is joy. We will be moved to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We will make a melody in our hearts. We will be filled with gratitude for all the incredible blessings which God has given us through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

As I grow older, (and perhaps ever slightly wiser), I come to feel ever more strongly each day that the most important reality is that of making connections. There is a longing, a desire, a passion in each of us to feel connected. Sadly, all too often we do not feel connected. In the twentieth century two French thinkers: Sartre and Camus, addressed this reality. They concluded that it is the essential nature of humanity to fail to connect—the concept of “existential angst.” They suggested that the normal state of humanity is loneliness, alienation, and isolation. In a world which was undergoing unprecedented social, economic, political and behavioral transformation such critiques are understandable. Anyone paying attention to the recent Opioid crisis appreciates that their warning must be heard.

This is not the revelation of God, though. In fact, it is just the opposite. We might say that God’s Wisdom in one of “existential connection.” Wars, pestilence, famine, injustice, poverty and division are not the only reality. These are factors which challenge us—they do not defeat us. And they are not the final word. Life is not empty and meaningless. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

When I have been confronted by those who are “Spiritual, not Religious,” I often have two thoughts. The first is that we have clearly failed to help them be connected. There is almost some story of having been hurt or wounded by People of Faith. It is not the message which has wounded them and turned them off—it is the messengers. It is not God, but people who have claimed that they acted on behalf of God and in the name of God. As an aside, it would be impossible to be unaware of the tragedy of the sexual abuse of children and young people which took place in our own state over so many years. If you have not had the opportunity to do so, I invite you to prayerfully read the pastoral letter from Bishop Sean Bishop Sean Letter 08-17-18 regarding this issue. Father Andrew posted it on our web page, and it is readily available.

Secondly, I am reminded that religion really means “to bind back together.” Religion is ultimately about being connected to God—and being connected to a community. It is not only about believing certain things, or acting in a certain way. It is about building bridges. It is about undertaking a journey—a pilgrimage of faith that ultimately leads to God. It is not only about heaven. It is about seeking and finding God in the here and now. It is about a life which is full of joy and gratitude. It is about the abundance and generosity of God which offers an abundance for every person—if we learn to share God’s generosity with others. It is about justice, healing and reconciliation. It is about living in harmony and peace. It is about the affirmation of the beauty and dignity of every person created in God’s image and likeness. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

For Christians, the fullness of God’s revelation, the fullness of God’s Wisdom is the “good news” that Jesus Christ is “God with us”—fully and completely God—fully and completely human. This revelation, though, is shocking. We have a sense of that in the Gospel today. Many of those who were listening to our Lord found his words to be foolish. They just did not make sense. “How can someone give us their body to eat?” That just did not make sense! It was this teaching which forced his audience to discern, and to make a choice. For some, it was just too much! Later in this same chapter of John we hear what I refer to as the saddest words in all the Bible, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

What Jesus offers is an opportunity to be connected to him-and through him to a life lived in unity with God our Father and Mother and with the Holy Spirit. This is not just an abstract concept, though. Jesus offers himself to us in the most intimate and personal way imaginable. He comes to us as bread—to feed our hungry hearts. An abundance of food which will be all that we ever need. And a meal shared in community with others. This is the table of God’s altar. True food and true drink—and for dessert, eternal life. Wisdom, let us be attentive.