True Cleanliness – Lectionary 08/29/2021

Mark 7:1-16

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

Sermon Text

Today, I begin my message with something that may seem counter to what we just read. Please, wash your hands before eating. I’ll go further, please wash your hands often and thoroughly. Two years, almost, have passed since this pandemic began and I hope we have some idea about how important soap and hot water are. However, having used public restrooms recently, I know that not everyone took anything away from that exercise.

Now, lest I seem like a pharisee in our story today, I want to look at our scripture a little more closely. The preaching of Jesus attracted attention from all corners of Judea. There were followers of Jesus who believed in violently rebelling against Rome, these were called the Sicarii or “knife-men.” There were the Torah thumping fundamentalists who called themselves Sadducees. Alongside them were the trendier, far more accepting and prophecy loving Pharisees. Even the reclusive and mystical Essenes sometimes made their way out from their enclaves to see what Jesus was about. All flavors of belief and expression were drawn to Jesus because Jesus had something to offer no one could deny. He had truth, and an authority in the way he spoke it, that was irresistible even as it was controversial.

We should see the initial approach of the Pharisees and Scribes, not as antagonistic toward, but likely genuinely interested in Jesus. Pharisees, despite our modern use of the term, were not mustache twirling villains. In fact, Jesus taught many of the same things they did, just in different ways. The disagreement between Jesus and Pharisees was something like a Baptist fighting with a Methodist. Where they differed was important, but where they agreed was equally so. For the Pharisees, individuals decided whether or not they sided with Jesus, except in larger cities where politics and faith were more closely intertwined. When we get too close to judging the Pharisees, remember Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both among them.

The interest of the Pharisees who visited that day quickly turned into disgust as they saw Jesus’s followers. Some among them ate food without washing their hands. This was not a washing to eliminate dirt and grime, but to remove any potential unclean debris. This way a person could avoid accidentally becoming ritually unfit for prayer. This practice of adding precautions against violating God’s teachings is called “building a fence around the Torah.”[1] This term was seemingly coined by Rabbi Akiva, a teacher and likely Pharisee who was born a few years after Jesus’s ministry on earth. When we read that the people washed pans, hands, and foodstuffs, we should see it as an attempt to make sure God’s law was being followed. Even unintentional transgression was to be avoided. By avoiding doing what is wrong though, the goal wasn’t just to avoid trouble, but to eventually become better at being good.

To understand this, let us use a different example. If I wanted to avoid being hurtful to other people, I might start by forbidding certain language from leaving my lips. I do not mean swearing, although honestly most of us are too comfortable with the practice, but instead hurtful talk. Our tendency to abuse others is shown in the way we default to certain terms, “Stupid,” “Thoughtless,” “Dumb,” “Ugly.” Those abusive terms that put down a person rather than promote them to grow. Beyond these are many more that are best left unsaid. However, beyond not saying abusive language, hopefully my careful consideration of what I’m saying will show me how to be more considerate generally. Then, all of a sudden, I’m not just avoiding speaking ill of people, but actively encouraging them!

This practice of “building a fence,” is not in itself bad. Jesus uses this tactic a few times, imploring us not even to hate people, building a fence around the prohibition not to murder. Likewise, we are told not too look at other people like objects (even being told to pluck out our eyes if we cannot learn better!) This builds a fence around adultery. In this way, Jesus resembles those same traditions which are being discussed here. So, why is it that the question of hand washing upsets Jesus here?

The difference seems to come in how stringent the Pharisees who visit Jesus are. Though my reading of the Talmud is likely imperfect, a second century text separates out washing hands before a meal from doing so before prayer. The first is called a “mitzvah,” and the second is called a “choveh,” or obligation. The distinction is made clearer in William Davidson’s translation which adds context so as to read,” [the first] is a [command] by Rabbinic Law, [the latter,] is an obligation.”[2]This suggests that while one is generally practiced as essential, the other is open to some debate. To draw a more easily understood parallel, it is customary and good to yield right of way to the car on your right at a four way stop, it is an obligation to stop at the sign.

Jesus then is not mad at the idea of a tradition, but at the idea that a nonessential tradition is now central to the identity of his critics. Instead of listening to the teachings of Jesus, they scrutinized his followers. For some issues that would be sensible. Many people look down on the Church as a whole for the conduct of Sunday brunch patrons toward waitstaff. Yet, to look at an optional custom as essential is to make what is essential seem trivial and what is trivial seem useless. It is to toss both into a shared pool of hurt feelings and broken hearts.

Lat week, we discussed communion at length. Though I won’t rehash all the details involved, it is strange that we let the outside bits of that rite cause so much conflict. The exact way that Jesus joins us in the meal is secondary to the fact Jesus shows up! The kind of bread and whether juice or wine is used is likewise auxiliary to this. What matters is Christ being with us and us being with Christ. All other materials, though important, must take a back seat to the unity that that table affords us. This is not just true for communion, but every ritual of the Church and every doctrine we teach from the scripture.

The conflict in this scene might have been avoided if the pharisees and scribes had come to this disagreement from another angle. Having seen Christ as a teacher worth seeking out, they should have trusted him in how he taught his disciples. That some of them were shirking a lesser statute was not worth a public dispute, something that was especially serious to begin in the ancient world. Jesus’s response, though perhaps a bit harsh to modern ears, was necessary to counter the critics he faced. By publicly raising this issue, the Pharisees were trying to shame Jesus, to question his legitimacy. The response that Jesus gives is direct, but it cuts through any pretenses we might place upon his teachings.

Jesus does not immediately address the idea of washing hands. Instead, Jesus points to the rationale behind the practice. It is a, “tradition of the elders.” These ideas are not completely written of by Jesus, but he points our how easily misused they are. While the Pharisees before Jesus are questioning hand washing, Jesus points to a custom that has become all too common among Judeans of his time. This is the denial of help to parents by donating money they need to the community. Jesus interprets :honor thy mother and father,” to mean ensuring they are fed, sheltered, and cared for.

Despite this responsibility, when parents become too old to take care of themselves, people would throw their hands up and say, “I gave too much money to the poor! I cannot help them!” Whether or not the person claiming this had really given that much is anyone’s guess. The practice of giving something as “Korban,” was meant to feed the poor in the community. Those who claimed to be unable to support their elderly parents were then creating a different sort of fence, one where people would be uncomfortable pointing out their failure. After all, how can you criticize someone for taking care of the poor? It would be like if I taught you all that it was fine to let your children go hungry or your parents live on the street so you could fund our food pantry. Our responsibility to do one thing, like feed the poor, is dependent upon our responsibility to do other things, like care for our parents. The opposite, it must needs be said, is also true.

Jesus brings up this trading of one responsibility for another to say that it is not external actions alone that defines a person, but the virtues within and the intention behind them. To wash your hands before eating is fine and dandy if it is truly done with the intent to serve God. Likewise, donating money to those in need or to causes that serve them is laudable. The problem emerges when the act itself is divorced from the true purpose. When we give money to look impressive, rather than to care for others, or act holy for clout rather than to please God and live a better life. In this, we fail to meet the expectations this teaching lays out for us.

If I may tell another short story, growing up, I knew a minister who worked with youth. He would guilt us into coming to services, even when we had obligations our parents had set for us. It seemed holy, to want to go to youth group more than visit grandma, but it only bred a misplaced sense of rebellion in us. We did not grow any holier through it, but we sure felt that way.

For us in our daily life, we can take two lessons from our scripture. The first is to interrogate our beliefs and decide which are essential and which are helpful, but ultimately not absolutely necessary. In the Church this is traditionally called “adiaphora,” a word that essentially means, “not worth fighting over.” I define it as a something worth talking about over dinner, but not worth leaving that dinner in a huff about. If it is still important enough to discuss after that, then we first speak with one another personally and seek understanding. By beginning with public disputes (and social media of all kinds counts,) we set ourselves up for hurt feelings.

By seeking to understand one another, we open up a new opportunity, the change to learn together and grow together. The biggest struggle Jesus’s opponent seemed to face was that he had not come to fight them, but to offer them an alternative to the world as it was. IF they had listened, if they had interacted with a bit more grace, more of them may have found their way into the Kingdom after all. By assuming that their differences from Jesus were insurmountable, they lost out on all the teachings that waited behind those minor squabbles.

The second lesson we take from this text is more universal. The things we do, though important, only matter when they produce inner change. The Wisdom we accumulate in life is lived out and grown through us acting out God’s instructions. There must be a two way interaction of one good and another. Many people will not start to do good until they feel they are doing it for the right reasons. Well, to quote Lemony Snicket, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.”[3] Likewise, we cannot use one good deed to avoid doing another. Instead, if we struggle to be generous, we must give things away. If we struggle to be chaste, we must deny ourselves more. If we fail in anything, we must simply act till we succeed.

By striving to do good, we shall become good, and in becoming good we shall know what it means to be cleansed of our sins. To be truly clean, we must not settle for the way we have always done things but seek out every opportunity to improve upon our personal and corporate methods. God calls us before we are ready, but unlike most callings, God makes us ready by getting us out and active. If we want to know God’s grace, we must live a life full of it. By pursuing what is good, the Spirit will supply all this is necessary, if only we go out and try.

So, let us take a deep breath before we snap back at someone. Let us seek to understand before dismissing their words. Likewise, we must lead ourselves into goodness with goodness. If we love when we do not feel like it, we overtime begin to really mean it. We cannot let excuses or substitutions get between God’s will and our souls. Let us seek to live a Godly life together, for that alone is what it means to truly be clean.

[1] Pirkei Avot 3. Available at:

[2] Chullin 105 a:13. In The William Davidson’s English Talmud. Available at:

[3] Lemony Snicket. The Ersatz Elevator. (New York, New York: HarperCollins.) 2009

This Teaching is Difficult – Lectionary 08/22/2021

John 6: 56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Sermon Text

 This week concludes our time looking at the tables which God has set for us. Where we began, we come to once again. The communion table is God’s ultimate sacramental gift to us. A sacrament is usually defined as, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” which was instituted by Christ.[1] The United Methodist Church believes there are two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Whereas baptism is a washing we only experience once in life, the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, is something which we celebrate again and again. The bread we break, the juice we drink, represents to us more than just a meal. This is something which Christ began at his Last Supper before his passion, and which we faithfully continue until we gather once again to “feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet.”[2]

There has been, across all of Christian history, few teachings less clearly articulated or more hotly contested, than Holy Communion. The many wars and schisms of the Church are often rooted in a variety of problems, but inevitably tied in with all the political and doctrinal disputes are questions about what this meal means to those who eat it. It should be no surprise to us that we read Jesus’s first hints about eucharistic theology in the words, “eat my flesh and drink my blood,” that people immediately respond with the greatest possible understatement by saying, “This teaching is difficult.” The foundational rite of our church is found in this cup and this plate, and we should feel strongly about what it means to us, and the mystery it reveals, but we must also acknowledge there is something unknowable to it.

What I hope to do today is to explain history, but also to lay out why we have talked for so long about tables and how God gives us strength, wisdom, sustenance, and even just good things. More than that, by looking at the progression of Eucharistic theology, I hope we can establish what the basic belief of all Christians is about communion, and what we specifically as United Methodists hold to be true about it. While we will certainly continue conversations about communion beyond this one, truthfully, in two weeks, today is meant to give us the background we need for any future conversations. Today we look at this central aspect of our faith, we seek to know what is absolutely true about it, what is a matter of contention, and what we cannot even entertain.

The first celebration of Communion is recorded in the Gospels, where Jesus breaks bread and blesses wine as part of a celebration of Passover. The Church kept this ritual close to heart, celebrating it at least once more in the presence of Christ on the road to Emmaus. Paul lays out two separate meals that the church celebrated in its early days throughout his letters. The first was the Αγαπη (Agape,) and the second was the Ευχαριστιας (Eucharistias.) The Agape, or love feast, was a celebration of the community. Here people shared food, kinda like a potlcuk, and cared for the poor in so doing. The Eucharist was the thanksgiving offered to God for all good gifts, but especially Christ’s salvific work on the cross. These two rituals eventually combined to form “Communion,” as we know it today. Orthodox churches, it should be said, still have a basket of bread apart from Communion to serve as an αγαπη.

The first celebrations of the eucharist were overseen by apostles and elders. The prayer of Thanksgiving which was offered is recorded in the Didache, an early instruction manual of the Church, is short and direct, and goes as follows.

Lifting Cup. “We give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant, to you be the Glory forever.”

Lifting Bread. “We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge that you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant; to you be the glory forever. Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and made one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”[3]

This prayer, obviously different from our modern Great Thanksgiving, would adapt regionally and corporately across the next ten centuries. Eventually, this became the Latin mass as we know it in the West and the Great Liturgy as it is practiced in the Orthodox Church. The center of worship was always in the offering of the Eucharist, as it should be, but that centrality bred a certain worry in the West. For a variety of reasons, Communion became shut off to lower castes of people. First only the bread was given, and not the wine, and then many places stopped giving either to those outside the priesthood, instead simply having people look at the elements and engage in “ocular” communion. While some ministers faithfully administered the sacrament, these concerns naturally led to change.

We in the Protestant Church often cast Martin Luther as the first to see the problems which Western Christianity had developed. Yet, plenty of his Catholic peers had begun to name the many problems the Church was facing. These would be settled, after Luther left, in the Council of Trent, which solidified Catholic doctrine and practice in response to Luther’s reformation. Luther, by formally separating from the Church, initiated the second great schism of the Church, the first being between East and West. Luther took the seven sacraments widely accepted by the church and pared them down to two, baptism and communion. Likewise, he mandated Communion be given fully to all people, not just priests. The Catholic Church would mandate the same, universally, later on.

More than just ensuring Communion was available fully to all, Luther rebelled against an idea that was relatively new in the Church (about 400 years old.) The Church had always believed that Christ was somehow present in Communion, after all Jesus did say, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Yet, in explaining how this was true, the works of Aristotle were brought in and, over time, transubstantiation was born. This took Aristotle’s claim that everything had two aspects – its substance, what it was, and its accidents, what we sensed about it – and applied them to communion. To explain those two concepts further, the art you might accidentally sit on at an art museum, though it looks and feels and acts like a bench, is still art even if it seems otherwise (as the security guards will quickly make known.)

Transubstantiation holds that, in the moment a priest said the words, “Hoc est corpus,” the bread changed in substance to be the body of Christ while staying accidentally bread. It was Jesus, on the cross, that we ate, but it tasted, smelled, and looked like bread. Luther refuted this explanation but believed its core claim. We ate Christ in the Eucharist, but to explain how was to try and explain a miracle. For that reason, Luther preached consubstantiation, the idea Christ was present in this meal, but that we could never truly know how.

Ulrich Zwingli, father of the anabaptist (re-baptizing,) movement that would someday become the Mennonite, Amish, and by a few permutations Baptist movements, not only preached that adult baptisms were the only valid baptisms, but that communion was not an act of God. Zwingli founded memorialism as eucharistic theology. Communion was a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, but did nothing other than remind us what Christ did and fulfill Christ’s command to observe the supper. John Calvin, meanwhile, founded the “Reformed,” tradition, and was a precursor to presbyterian and puritan movements. He taught a middle position between Luther and Zwingli. To Calvin, by eating communion we were spiritually present with Christ, but the bread and juice remained simply that, a means to remember the work of the Spirit.

We fast forward two hundred years or so and look at the foundation of our modern United Methodist Church. John Wesley, an Anglican priest is managing a religious revival taking part on two continents. Philip Otterbein has begun a congregation in Baltimore, Maryland which will be called “the Brethren.” Both write in a world torn between Catholic and Protestant, Puritan and Anglican, Calvinist and Arminian, and increasingly, American and European. As with all aspects of their theology, the two thinkers had to write in a way that honored the truth of all these movements, while still holding to their own convictions. Their writings on communion were no different.

Otterbein is sadly not widely documented. This building was built as a United Brethren congregation, a number of people here were baptized into the Brethren, and as such the roots of this congregation must be traced to Otterbein. While I could not find many statements from Otterbein himself, I found an article that spelled out his eucharistic theology through the materials he used in his church.[4] Otterbein was a reformed thinker, and so he followed Calvin’s belief that communion was a spiritual meal where we engaged with God and drew strength from the Holy Spirit, yet the elements were physically unchanged. Otterbein pioneered the idea of “Open Communion,” allowing any baptized Christian from any church to participate, as long as they were prepared to do so ahead of time and covenanted to be part of the community. To take communion in the Brethren was to commit oneself to the community, to eat the body of Christ and to become the body of Christ together.

John Wesley is much more extensively recorded, and his beliefs are too. Wesley talked about Communion in a way that was not offensive to those who leaned toward consubstantion, but that was not shut off to more Calvinist ideas either. To Wesley, to eat the bread and drink the wine is to physically eat just those things, but to spiritually eat and drink God’s grace, and in so doing to spiritually have eaten the body and blood of Christ on the cross. It should be said that Charles Wesley, the hymn writer and brother of John, leaned more explicitly to the bread and cup being transformed into the body of Christ somehow, but John I think too held that something happened to the bread and wine, just not anything he was willing to tie down to a definite description. Even today, when pressed Methodists usually describe Communion as a “Holy Mystery,” containing the “Real Presence,” of Christ, because we acknowledge it is better to say “I do not know,” than to be wrong about some things.

The next three centuries bring us to today. Our liturgy for communion was written in 1969 with the ecumenical movement and our 1968 merger in mind. It is largely a recounting of the book of Romans, with the words of institution from Luke, and the occasional prayers being at the minister’s discretion. Whereas Wesley celebrated communion at every gathering, it was not uncommon in the Brethren or any protestant group to celebrate only occasionally. This was in part because ministers were over large areas and could only be in some places sometimes. Perhaps on the other side of the Pandemic, we can strive toward a more constant celebration of communion.

I hope you are still with me. Occasionally, I do launch into historical survey sermons, but who can blame me when my undergraduate degree focused on, “historical theology.” In the brief time we have on Sunday, I can only cover so much, but I hope we learned something, and I hope that from here we can have more discussions about this table and what it means to us. More than any theory, I hope we can understand that this table, meant to bring us together, is more often than not a source of separation in the Church. The first-time people leave Jesus’s ministry is in John 6, and it is over the idea of what this meal could possibly mean.

“This teaching is difficult,” but it is important. I talk as long as I have about it, because I think we don’t acknowledge that fact enough. I have had countless conversations with people who tell me they don’t care how communion is done or who does it, and that breaks my heart. Not because I want to shut out those who think or do differently, but because this central ritual of our faith has become a formality to many of us. We eat bread and drink juice because we always have, or we like the moment it gives us to think of Jesus, but we do not see anything more than that behind it. People have fought and died over a ritual we see as simply checking a monthly box.

It seems a shame not to offer communion now, after talking about it for so long, but over the next two weeks I hope we can really think about what this table means. Here we acknowledge we are all sinners, and no one can pretend to be better than any other. Here we submit to Christ, nor to any other leader, and say he is savior and Lord. Here we remember that our salvation was costly, but that God expects only love from us in return. This love transforms us, but in such a way that we and those around us thrive as much as we sacrifice. Christ is really with us when we celebrate communion, however it happens, it’s just the truth. Its not just a memorial meal, it is Christ with us, somehow God comes to dinner.

“Christ our Lord invites to this table all who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to live in peace with one another.” The opening line to our Eucharistic liturgy makes clear why we cannot take this for granted. This is a gift of God that we too often take unworthily as something we “just do.” Let us take time to see the glory of this meal, that as this bread and cup somehow become Christ, we too can become like Christ. Here we rehearse our salvation, and here we are transformed. May God prepare our hearts and humble our spirits, as we wait to gather and feast once again. – Amen.

[1] John Wesley. “Means of Grace,” II.1

[2]  The United Methodist Church’s  Service of Word and Table I

[3] Didache 9

[4] Kenneth E. Rowe. “Otterbein’s Eucharistic Faith and Practice” in Methodist History. 49:4 (July 2011)

The Table of Wisdom – Lectionary 08/15/2021

Proverbs 9: 1-6

          Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Sermon Text

Wisdom as a concept is different depending on who you ask about it. Different countries, cultures, and traditions across the world and across time have defined the concept in similar, but profoundly different terms. For some, wisdom is the realization of how life truly is. Others see wisdom as something which transcends the physical plane and takes on some spiritual existence. Regardless of the particulars which wisdom traditions hold onto, wisdom is always something which interfaces with our mind and allows us to interact with the world in a different way than we would on our own.

Wisdom in the Biblical tradition is discussed mostly in the Old Testament. While the New Testament speaks of wisdom a few times, it is usually in the context of philosophical discussions of what it means to be wise as defined by Greek culture. While I am personally a fan of Aristotle, it does not make sense for us to begin to understand Hebrew wisdom by going to Greece, at least not as our first destination. To understand our scripture calling us to come and eat at the table of חָכְמָה, (Chokmah) Hebrew wisdom, we cannot lose ourselves in Σοφια, Greek wisdom.

But, enough being abstract, what does it mean to be wise? There is a near universal understanding that wisdom is distinct from knowledge. A person can be wise without collecting expertise or miscellanea and while I am a big proponent for learning, and so I will never downplay the importance of always seeking more knowledge and more skills, but I would be lying to say that simply knowing or developing practical skills is the height of human achievement. We have to develop a more holistic approach to how we grow as people and part of that holistic growth is the pursuit of wisdom. Wisdom, across all traditions, is the art of seeing truth in a way most do not.

Specifically, within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom can be described as the practical knowledge by which a person can learn to live a good life. This can be literal skills, how to properly steward money or respond to trouble. It can also be more general maxims about life, the lessons we learn and the virtues we develop. There are several books of the Bible that are traditionally considered to be “Wisdom,” writing. The books of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, chunks of the Psalms, and even sometimes the Song of Songs are listed as Wisdom writings. These books focus in on the benefits of wisdom, and likewise, the dangers of foolishness.

It is important to note that this is a scholastic association of these books. Nothing in the texts themselves indicate they must be read together outside of their shared themes. However, we must take a moment and acknowledge that the Tanakh, the Jewish composition of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scripture, includes all these books in one place, alongside Ruth, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Lamentations, and Chronicles. These are collectively called, “Ketuvim,” or “Writings,” because they are neither prophetic or a part of the Torah. In other words, though it is modern scholarship that took these books and called them “Wisdom Writings,” their association with one another has been known since the creation of the Tanakh.

So, now that we know where to find Wisdom in the Bible, that is the Wisdom tradition, and why we read them as a structural unit, we can begin to seek after what is behind all this talk of “wisdom,” and “foolishness.” Afterall, to live a good life is one of our chief goals. We in the Church hold, as all people who cleave to scripture do, that in our quest to know God, to see God face to face, we necessarily transform to become better people, wiser people one could say. To become wise though, we must first meet Wisdom personally.

Wisdom, is usually personified as a woman in scripture. This is in part because that name which Hebrew gives Wisdom, Chokmah, is a feminine noun. However, that does not determine gender of an object in the ancient world anymore than it does in modern gendered languages. No, Wisdom is personified as a woman because she is the administrator of the household of God’s people. Though it is difficult to explain fully in anything other than several books, it is fairly accurate to say that a woman of some means in the ancient world ran the day-to-day life of the house she was a member of. Poorer people were more roughly egalitarian, but among the nobility, women held power over the house and men held power over… most everything else.

This means that, in trying to imagine the world as a household, the writers of scripture saw the need to place God as the chief of that house and Wisdom as God’s partner in caring for that house. Wisdom is sometimes described as part of God, an aspect or emanation that we know God through. Other times, especially in Proverbs, Wisdom is named as a creation of God, through whom God created the world. If that sounds familiar, that is because John adapted the language of Proverbs 3:19-20, to describe Jesus (though specifically stating Jesus was not created, like Wisdom was,) as the architect of Creation. “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens,” reads Proverbs, and John 1:3 tells us, “All things came into being through [the Word], and without him not one thing came into being…”

We should not take Wisdom and her personification too literally otherwise we have some complicated conversation to start about Jesus that will not fit into a Sunday morning. Wisdom is not a being, not a second God beside God, Wisdom is a concept, and idea, a gift, that we are able to interact with and benefit from. God has created the world for a purpose, and God made the world sensibly, so that we can live a life that is not just empty. God gave to the earth some sense of rationality, not that the dirt may become sentient, but that life may be conducted orderly.

Wisdom runs the world. Or at least, Wisdom should. The Wisdom literature, even in its most critical iteration in the form of Ecclesiastes, wishes to see a world that benefits those who do good. Those who are kind, those who are thrifty, those who seek the good of others, and worship God faithfully ought to do well. That is the dream of Wisdom. Yet, we know the world is crooked. Many times, those who succeed, succeed precisely because they are cruel, or reckless, they seek to hurt others, and they do not care what God says except when convenient. The dream of Wisdom is that we all might become wise, and through becoming wise, we all might live life a little better than we had before.

The call of Wisdom, throughout scripture, and especially in today’s reading, is to come and be made wise. We talked about how Wisdom is distinct from knowledge, yet we must in some way learn how to become it. The word that Wisdom uses in describing those who are invited to the feast are those who already know what to do, and those who, as the NRSV renders it, “are simple.” I don’t like that translation, nor do I like others that render it “naïve,” mostly because I hate when people call me naïve. Naïve suggests an unwillingness to accept what is true, or else an innocence to the point incompetence. No, I prefer to translate this verse more simply. “Come to me, those who do not know, and those who do know, and eat my bread and drink my wine.”

God sets several tables for us in life. The daily bread that sustains us, even in our darkest days. The Eucharistic table which spiritually enlivens us, and reminds us of Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. Here, yet another table is shown to us, this one of Wisdom. Again, the food is bread and wine, the two staples of Israelite produce. Yet, where one meal gives strength, and another grace, this meal gives us understanding about the world and how it is to be.

In my digging around to write this sermon, I found a quote that was thrown around pretty loosely defining a Hebraic stance on Wisdom. A footnote led me to look in the Talmud, a massive compendium of Jewish commentary and commentary upon that commentary, written by Jewish sages across time. I often find that, for the Old Testament, you need the Talmud or the Mishnah to understand the interpretation of the text throughout history. Two key passages defined Wisdom, or the person who is wise with two key phrases. A wise person is, “The one who can see the consequences of their actions.” [1]And a wise person is the one who, “learns from everyone.”[2]

As a starting point for us this week, I encourage us to take those two maxims and apply them to ourselves. We should think about what we do, not just one or two steps after we do it, but as many as possible. We have to be willing to anticipate and accept the consequences of our actions, no matter what they are. Likewise, we must learn from anyone we can. This does not mean we esteem all opinions and perspectives as equal – some people lie or seek to harm, and there is no reason to see those who act in bad faith as contributing to a conversation. No, instead we must be willing to listen to those different than us and those with whom we disagree as eagerly as we do those we agree with and are like.

The table which Wisdom has set, is open to all, and around tables conversation must be had. I do not like the common phrase we throw around these days that, “No one knows how to have a conversation anymore,” because I do not think it is usually said with any actual desire to have civil discussion, only to excuse our ideas as normative and anyone else’s as unreasonable. Yet, there is a truth to it. As we have become more divided and striated as a society, we do naturally stop talking and learning from one another. We are backed into a corner we have made and point fingers at other people as though they pushed us there. That cannot be how we go forward, it is certainly no way to learn.

To live a Wise life, is to learn. Not just raw information, but practical aspects of what it means to do good. I know I should feed the hungry, but unless I sit and talk to them, and to those who are serving them, how will I ever know what that looks like. I know I should be better with my money, but unless I give money away and save rather than spend what is leftover, how can I ever develop any sense about what money is meant to be used for? How can I house the homeless, if I’m only ever worried about what they do to property values and liability coverage? How can I love someone, I never talk to, and that I have written off as beyond conversational participation with? To be wise, we must listen to all who are willing to sit with us, we must look to what our actions do to others, and we must trust God’s gift that has brought all things to be.

So come, all that hunger to be good. The table is set, by God and by Lady Wisdom. A table spread with all fare you could ever imagine, at which all sages from all of time have eaten. It is not a table set only for men or women, it is not limited by sex or gender. It is not a table set only for the rich but open especially to the poor. A good life is available to us all if we listen and if we think. The dream of Wisdom is a better world for us now, and for our children, and their children’s children. So let us live into that dream, let us put away all foolishness, and let us glory in God’s gift of Wisdom to all who seek it on this earth. – Amen.

[1] William Davidson. “Tamid 32a” in The William Davidson Talmud.

[2] Pirkei Avot. 4:1.

Strength Enough for Today – Lectionary 08/08/2021

1 Kings 19: 4-8

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Sermon Text

             Sometimes we reach a point in life where it seems best just to give up. Life can throw trouble after trouble towards us till we just cannot take it. Sometimes it’s a lot of small trouble, a bill deposits later than it should on the same day we need to make a car payment on the same day we forgot to eat breakfast because we were running late for work. Other times just a few things happen alongside a larger one – we snap at someone who bumped into us because the phone call we got that morning was only bad news. Then, of course, comes the terrible potential that we are not facing any combination of bad news, and we have instead suffered world shattering news and tragedy time and time again.

The perspective we take in our life is never static, especially when something goes wrong. Sometimes trouble bolsters us in some way, strengthening our resolve and making us better than we were before. Sometimes it breaks us down and remove any sense of comfort or peace we otherwise could depend upon. We respond to trouble differently at different points in our life and it is only when we begin to scale the mountains that we face that we begin to realize how we might do it.

Our scripture captures a moment in the life of the prophet Elijah in which he, fresh off his triumph over the prophets of Ba’al has landed at the lowest point he has ever been. The triumphant rain of fire that consumed the altars and offerings was initially enough to bring awe and certainty to those who saw it, but this quickly faded in their memory. When trouble began to brew, nothing could be certain. After the fire had burned to cinders, the anger of those in power raged against Elijah and he was forced to flee from them southward. We are not given a timeframe for this journey, but it would have been several days of walking, across over one hundred miles of hills and valleys.

Elijah stops briefly in Beersheba, the southernmost tip of Judah, to allow his servant to stay there. He then walks out several miles into the Negeb desert and this is where our scripture for today picks up. Having tried to end the idolatry that was rampant in Israel, having prophesied and seen the end of a drought, the threat of death was still real enough for him to throw all that aside. Elijah had done nothing wrong by fleeing South, he had work to do that he could only continue if he lived. Yet, after a week or so of travel and a plenty of time to think over the journey, Elijah was running out of energy and hope.

It is unclear if Elijah had any intention when he went out into the desert other than to die. The wilderness was not impassable, several nomadic tribes seemed to permanently inhabit the area, yet it was not the sort of place an individual could easily traverse. Wild animals, poisonous snakes, blistering heat, and overwhelming cold all threatened those who entered the Negeb. To me it seems that, having run away from death, Elijah could not imagine a future that did not end in his execution. Choosing between being killed by Ahab and Jezebel in Israel or dying to the elements out in the desert, Elijah looks up to Heaven and asks that God be quick in bringing about the end of his life.

This sort of thinking is what Elsa Tamez, a scholar of the Old Testament, describes as thinking “when the horizons close.”[1] This is a sort of resignation to the way things are that can be generative, pushing us to do what we can within the limited scope of opportunities we have. It can also bring us to become stagnant, paralyzing us and leading us to wallow in the desperation that sets in. The former, clearly better, is not always our first instinct. We can, however, find ourselves moving toward generative responses to trouble, but only if we are willing to take care of ourselves and accept offered help.

As a culture, we have gotten much better at acknowledging the fact that we are not always capable of acting at 100% capacity. Over the course of, even just this past decade, we have become more willing to discuss our problems openly and allow others to do the same. The concept of “mental health days,” is a testament to our willingness to give space for people to recover from the mundane and exceptional sources of stress in their life. While there is a lot of work to be done, we are much more willing to acknowledge the toll that trauma has upon our life.

The detail that stands out in this text we have looked at this morning is how honest God and Elijah’s interaction is. Elijah is willing to say he does not see a way out of his current situation, God responds by sending an angel to feed the prophet and to command him to rest. The long walk from Israel, through Judah, and into the desert, was enough to exhaust Elijah and to make him hungry, but a deeper purpose was behind this gift which God gave in this moment. God showed Elijah that there was a future, not by pushing him to abandon his worry or his pain, but simply by rejecting his plan for death by offering him life.

The impulse which many of us have when someone we know or love is hurting is to fix their problem. We want to flip a switch and make them better. While sometimes this is easy, removing something that hurts them or adding something that helps, it gets more complicated the larger the problem is. I have known people with chronic pain and chronic depression who have had countless people try to fix them with well-intended, but ill planned words. “At least its not… It could be worse… Be thankful that…” With more acute problems the impulse to fix becomes even worse. When a loved one dies or a friendship ends, “Chin up,” is not good enough.

God, being the perfect companion, does not offer this sort of comfort. God takes the long way round toward our well-being because God knows we must sort out our recovery as we go. When we cry out, God is not always quick to speak, because God is listening to us. God is not always quick to act because sometimes we need to cross a threshold on our own, to really see the other side of it.

This willingness to take time and to give us space to recover is not an excuse for inactivity. God is at work even in silence and in waiting for us to move. To return to our scripture, God sent Elijah an angel to care of him long before Elijah began his journey and longer still before God would speak to him at Sinai. God was preparing Elijah, God was caring for Elijah, God was active in loving Elijah through his grief, through his pain, through all his fear and doubt.

The care Elijah received in the wilderness was by no means extravagant. The food he ate was called “עֻגַת” (ugat) and seems to have been a simple bread that was cooked on top of hot coals. If you were lucky, that meant stones heated by coals, as the NRSV assumes. If not, then it meant the cake was more or less cooked directly upon the wood ash. These were not yeasted rolls, nor a flatbread. These were simple, and they were washed down with just a little bit of water. While last week we saw God lavishing good gifts upon the Israelites, this week our scripture acknowledges that sometimes we see just the simplest means by which to get by.

When I was in seminary, there was a day when a good friend and I were having particularly bad days. This friend, who goes by “Tater,” for reasons I don’t care to explain, had just left the cafeteria where we had picked over some food, but not really found anything satisfying either to taste or to restore our energy. When exactly in the evening this next part happened, I cannot remember, but it saw us going to a lounge on campus to study.

At some point, another friend of ours, named Grace (yes, that one,) brought pepperoni rolls into the lounge. Now, even in the Eastern Panhandle, we there was a reverence for pepperoni rolls. Likewise, Tater came from Big Stone Gap, a little town in Western Virginia that had adopted this tradition just as we had. Tater and I had eaten a meal in the refectory that did nothing to settle our minds or revive our spirits. Yet, in this simple packet of bread, cheese, and meat we found something greater than the sum of its parts. The blend of nostalgia and simple enjoyment these gave was mingled with another sensation. In receiving these rolls, we were reminded that we had a network of support, we had people who loved us.

When something goes wrong in life, it can take time to truly recover from it. The longer a problem persists, the harder it can be to reach that point. Yet, when we are willing to take time to get back to where we need to be, we might just find an all-around better outcome. God could have pushed Elijah back to Israel or chastised him for running, but God saw Elijah as a part of the divine family, not just as a servant to be ordered here or there. God took time to set his prophet back in good health before taking him to Sinai to meet him face to face.

Life is sometimes meant to be a celebration, but other times it is just a matter of getting by. We need rest, we need recouperation, we need to take time to become well. Thanks be to God that we have an advocate in that process. A God who hears us, who cares for us, a God that feeds and empowers us. The way to make it through life is not always triumphant, sometimes it is in asking God for just enough strength for today. Sometimes, it is enough simply to be sustained.

Yet, there is always a future on the horizon. Even when we cannot see it, we can make it past our own present troubles. For Elijah, that meant looking ahead to God’s Mountain and the literal presence of God in a still small voice at its summit. For us, it means trusting that the sun will rise, our sorrow will end, and joy can come back even when every last ounce of it seems beyond us. Let us trust God and give thanks for the strength we are given to make it through, even just to tomorrow. – Amen.

[1] Elsa Tamez. When the Horizons Close: Rereading Ecclesiastes.” (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock) 2006