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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 AND Psalm 111:1-10 OR Proverbs 9:1-6 AND Psalm 34:9-14, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

Most of this week’s lectionary readings touch upon issues of understanding and wisdom. The biblical words vary in their usage and meaning, but for a working framework some have suggested this. First there is “knowledge,” getting a grasp on the facts. For instance, while there is some debate about the dimensions of economic sluggishness, unemployment, even poverty, all look at “facts” that suggest things are not going too well. Second there is “understanding,” perceiving the meaning of the facts, knowing the impact the facts have on real people and businesses, war and peace, and world commerce. At that point political debate begins to diverge, some seeing things moving toward total collapse while others are more optimistic. Third there is “wisdom,” being able to act for the welfare of all on the basis of the “facts.” Great disagreement arises at this point, each “side” adamantly holding to competing ideological visions, crying out about the dangers and destructiveness of what the other will do.

Wisdom is finding a way to a compromise that brings the greatest good for all, that builds up the body rather than tears it down. Such wisdom has from time to time risen to the top as an ideal, and there have been leaders who clearly put finding the common good ahead of petty and narrow agendas. We haven’t seen much of that lately.

Our readings remind us of the importance of wisdom in our dealings with one another. We begin with King Solomon, remembered for his “wisdom.” After continued jockeying over who would succeed King David, Solomon rose to the top. In this week’s reading from I Kings, chapters two and three, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign, the Lord appears to him in a dream with the invitation, “Ask what I should give you.” (I Kings 3:5) We don’t know how old Solomon was. Some say as young as 12 or 14, certainly no older than 20, none of which would have been a surprisingly young age in those days. Probably when Solomon responds to God saying that he is “only a little child” (vs. 7), it is more an act of humility, bowing before God as a child, rather than a literal statement of his status. Whatever his age, he feels overwhelmed with the responsibility before him, saying, “I do not know how to go out or come in.” (vs. 7) So this is his request: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (vs. 9) Wouldn’t it be great if every leader of every nation prayed something in that spirit each morning—and perhaps many times during the day, certainly whenever facing great decisions that will have an impact on many? God grants Solomon’s request, giving him “a wise and discerning mind.” (vs. 12) How often do we pray for a wise and discerning mind? The hearts of those who seek wisdom are humble hearts, beginning with the declaration that we don’t have all the answers, we don’t know. When was the last time a political candidate demonstrated such humility, and would we elect a candidate who did?

Proverbs often depicts “Wisdom” as a person, a female Spirit. In Proverbs, chapter nine, Wisdom calls out “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.’” (Proverbs 9:3-6)

Our Gospel lessons for the past few weeks have given us thorough opportunity to consider the bread of life and living bread. I’m pretty much ready to move on, but this reading from Proverbs won’t quite let me. Wisdom, some kind of personification of God, offers us bread to eat—and wine with it. For Christians of our era the symbols immediately evoke the practice of Communion in so many of our churches. Does partaking of the bread and cup nourish us with wisdom, give us insight about the paths into which we are called? Do we even seek such wisdom when we come to the table? What if we looked on our celebration of Communion as a feast of wisdom? Perhaps one of the truths about wisdom toward which the Gospel lesson is pointing is this: Wisdom and understanding are the ability to discern and choose the things that lead to life, the things that last and endure. Let us pray that we may choose life in all that we do and say.

The reading from Proverbs ends with an emphasis upon maturity and walking in the way of “insight.” Proverbs 9:6) Older translations use the word “understanding” where the New Revised Standard Version has “insight.” Wisdom here, as in Solomon’s prayer, is gained in the process of moving from being only a little child to mature adulthood. When we are in a judgmental mood, we sometimes look around at this person or that person and say that he or she needs to “Grow up.” On some days, I look at today’s political debate and cry out, “Why don’t you guys and gals just grow up?” The writer of Ephesians puts it in loftier language, when (not in this week’s lectionary selection) he calls “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:12-16) It’s a pretty high standard for maturity, but it keeps our focus on what brings life, on what has eternal significance. The lectionary selection from Ephesians begins, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time . . . So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17) Notice the phrase, “making the most of the time.” Some older translations speak of “redeeming the time.” The Greek word for “time” here is “kairos,” a descriptive word we have used in the name of our congregation, Kairos Milwaukie United Church of Christ. It is time which is full of promise and opportunity. We are to seize the day rather than squander it. Too often hopes and dreams get bogged down in debates full of empty promises. Wisdom is seeing where God is still speaking and acting today and joining in that divine project.

By the way, if you want a translation of Ephesians 5:15-17 that gets your attention, consider this from The Contemporary English Version: “Act like people with good sense and not like fools. These are evil times, so make every minute count. Don’t be stupid. Instead, find out what the Lord wants you to do.”

That leaves the two lectionary readings from the Psalms. Although the reading from Psalm 34 does not specifically mention wisdom, it says, “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11) It goes on with instructions to “keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” (vss. 13-14) Can we this week at least see these words as a contribution to the discussion of what it means to act wisely?

Psalm 34 can be linked with the reading from Psalm 111 in its reference to “the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 34:11 and Psalm 111:10) In Psalm 111, it is called “the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (vs. 10) So what is this “fear of the Lord”? Does it just reenforce stereotypes of a God who breathes fire and brimstone, sets up surveillance cameras watching our every move? Does it suggest that, when we think about God and seek wisdom, we should quake in our boots? No! To fear the Lord here means to feel a sense of awe and worship in the presence of the opportunities and challenges life offers us.

It takes us back to wisdom that is rooted in humility. One never learns anything, nor makes any real progress in building up society, if one begins with the assumption that one has all the answers. Many scientists speak of the awe and humility as they face the wonders that are at work in life. Wisdom starts with that kind of awe (or “fear”). Maybe if an epidemic of such awe and humility breaks out men and women of wisdom will once again be chosen over their rivals, as Solomon was chosen over those around him who were grabbing for power and personal gain.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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