The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 19, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
One of the standard jokes in New Yorker cartoons is the mountaintop guru – a person climbs a mountain seeking wisdom, and when they get to the top, the guru answers their question. One cartoon reads, ‘What’s the meaning of life? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be sitting on this mountain.’ In another, the guru pouts to the climber, ‘Don’t you want to hear about the day I had?’ In still another, the climber is shocked to discover as he reaches the top that the guru is his mother.
The search for wisdom can take us to strange places.
In the Old Testament reading today, Solomon is smart enough to know that he needs wisdom as he becomes Israel’s king, so he asks God for it. Rather than just go for the cash, he uses his one request of the deity to be for an understanding mind and the ability to discern between good and evil, so that he can govern the people well. God is pleased with his request, and maybe also pleased at his self-knowledge and honesty too – his willingness to say, I’m really not sure what I’m doing here, so help me out, God. So God gives Solomon what he seeks, and he is renowned throughout the generations for his wisdom.
Almost as if on cue, the author of the letter to the Ephesians says in the part we heard today, ‘Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.’ The writer is speaking not just to the people of Ephesus, but to us – Solomon isn’t the only one urged to seek wisdom.
Just what is it to be wise? Sometimes we mix wisdom up with being smart, or being educated. That doctor went to an Ivy League medical school, we say, she must be very wise. Or this business guy is super smart, we should listen to him. But of course we can all think of people who went to the best schools and yet seem to have no common sense – or who scored really well on their SATs but we’d never trust their advice. Some of those people, unfortunately, are our elected leaders, or CEOs of important businesses. And yet somehow, we know, they don’t quite ‘get it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. Which allows us to mutter about them a lot amongst ourselves, which has its own pleasures.
But then, if someone asked us if we thought ourselves to be wise, we might not want to claim that either. Wisdom seems like one of those things others might attribute to us, but that we shouldn’t announce about ourselves. No one says, Hi, I’m Kate, and I’m a wise person. It’s the kind of thing where if we say it about ourselves, it probably isn’t true. Or at least that’s how we tend to think of it.
So just what is wisdom? There are some clues in today’s readings. Solomon asks specifically for the ability to discern good and evil. Which is exactly what Eve is seeking when she takes the fruit in the Garden of Eden, of course – discerning wisdom, which will make her like God. That’s been the subject of much debate in theology, just what the problem was in that. Good discernment is the hallmark of being a grownup, that we can know what is right for our own selves, without having to follow our parents’ lead. If we have wisdom enough to navigate a situation, then we can look and tell which decision to make, which way to go. Obviously this varies depending upon whether we’ve experienced something like this situation before, whether in this particular area we have wisdom to assess things. In big decisions, it also helps tremendously to discern along with other people, to sift what is the right path and what is not. That’s the whole principle behind our discernment committees here at St Michael’s, people who have been trained in deep listening and who pray and talk together with someone who has a question. On their own, someone might feel uncertain about whether to pursue a new career, or take on a new role in the church, or to marry. With the aid of others well versed in good discernment, the wisdom of the community can help make something clear that was murky before. That group process is required for those seeking ordination in the church, but it is hugely helpful for all kinds of other life decisions as well.
So there’s an element of wisdom that is about looking at things and discerning, knowing what is right and what is wrong. But there’s more to it than that. The letter to the Ephesians urges us to be wise, not foolish, by ‘making the most of the time.’ In other words, to be wise we need to live out our wisdom. The fruits of our wisdom are shown in how we live our lives, what use we make of our time. We have a lot of anxiety about this in our culture these days, with a lot of alarm bells being sounded about our dependence on phones and social media – we fear that a society that spends much of its time scrolling through other people’s posts is not living wisely. And so much the worse when young people, whose brains are more prone to addiction to technology, are not helped to set limits by supposedly wiser grownups. The alarm bells are all the louder for the fact that we already know all this, at some level – I know very few people who thoughtfully choose to spend hours on Facebook or Instagram, and yet somehow many of us do. Or in any other number of unprofitable pursuits, like binge-watching MSNBC, just to pick a random example. We know perfectly well that making wise use of our time looks like daily exercise, cooking and eating our vegetables, spending time with loved ones, serving others, you can fill in the rest – that’s why we keep telling ourselves over and over to do these things in every self-help manual and magazine there is. And yet somehow we struggle to live this way.
I wonder if the clue to being discerning and truly living out our wisdom is in that last bit of the Ephesians reading. The writer urges us not to get drunk – fair enough – but instead to ‘sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Singing in our hearts and giving thanks at all times, for everything. How many of us can say we do that? It’s more likely something we’d think of as a symptom of things going well, not a cause – when we’re happy and walking down easy street, we’ll be singing and feeling quite grateful indeed. But the letter tells us to do it not because all is well, but simply because – as a discipline. To stop and give thanks for every single thing in our lives is work. It’s work for us even to give thanks just for the good things – starting a practice of keeping a gratitude journal, for example, can help us notice what is good in our lives. We stop at the end of each day and make note of what there was to be thankful for that day, and so we start to train ourselves to relish the good as it happens – the taste of a ripe tomato, the wonderful time with a friend, the beauty of the sky. But it’s really advanced wisdom discipline to name what we are thankful for in all things – to give thanks in the bad days, in the midst of suffering, in the midst of tragedy. Very few people can really do that – and the ones that do, we call saints. We might even be appalled by their ability to be thankful when things are truly horrible – and yet, they are doing just as the scripture says to do, giving thanks all the time and in everything. Feels like a tall order. But like any other discipline, we only gain it by trying.
But in this as in every other seemingly impossible thing we have before us, we don’t have to try it alone. We promise to live out our faith with God’s help, not by our own bootstraps. We are able to give thanks in everything by being filled with the Spirit, not being filled with our own good intentions. Jesus invites us to abide in him by eating and drinking what he feeds us, being nourished by God, sustained along the way. The way to wisdom is right there in Solomon’s request – knowing that we don’t have it all together ourselves, we ask for God’s grace and help, we are ready to receive. We have the humility to reach out our hands. May we do so, knowing that they will be filled – and so we can be thankful. Amen.