Elders offer us wisdom and grace, 12 Pentecost, Proper 15 (B) – Aug. 19, 2012

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111 (or Proverbs 9:1-6 and Psalm 34:9-14); Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Two old friends recently met at a school reunion. They had not seen each other for 35 years. During that time they had each married, raised children, worked to support their families and, they discovered, been active members of their churches. As they walked into dinner, one looked at the other and said, “We’ve aged well, but our hair has gotten gray, and we’re sagging in places. What have we got to say for ourselves?” His friend smiled and said, “Wisdom!”

A local Rotary club was having a hard time getting a major fundraiser off the ground. People were distracted and nobody was volunteering for the jobs that needed to be done. The organizers were both discouraged when they met with their club president, an older woman. As they talked over lunch, their president had many suggestions for how to move forward, and all of them involved giving precise tasks to people and asking them if they would do a certain job, rather than a general asking for volunteers. At the next meeting all the tasks were assigned and the activity was a success.

These two stories illustrate something we all know: maturity and experience are valuable traits in our culture. They are in our churches as well.

From the earliest times of our ancestral faith, wisdom has always been upheld as a part of spiritual growth and development. As we grow in knowledge and love of God, we should expect to see changes in ourselves. Our tent should become bigger, not smaller. Our generosity of spirit should broaden and deepen. And we should see elders among us as gifts of wisdom and grace, especially in times of difficulty.

A church was having a conflict over worship times. There were those who wanted one service, and those who preferred an early service without music. As the discussion went on and became more divisive, one member said, “But we’ve never had an early service.” An elder stood up and replied, “Oh yes we have. I can remember …” and her explanation and tone changed the whole focus of the discussion. Elders are often sources of wisdom, and they carry the corporate history of a congregation.

But there is another side to all of this talk of wisdom: it comes in today’s gospel reading from John. Jesus says, “I am the living bread. … Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” It seems that wisdom alone does not grant us participation in the kingdom. Wisdom is rather a doorway to spiritual living that includes the Eucharist as part of our regular practice. The Eucharist feeds us with the living bread that sustains us, helps us grow in Christ, and brings us peace and maturity of life, at whatever age we may be.

As we watch Jesus dealing with the people who come to him, some pleading, some confronting, others curious, we see him over and over again answering their questions with simplicity, kindness and great power. He cannot be trapped by the powers of this world, except by his own choice; he cannot be bought or tempted by the devil; and he is not compromised.

The prayer after Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer says that when we are baptized we enter into new life and are anointed with gifts: “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” These gifts are ones that result in spiritual wisdom and maturity. These are gifts that help us embrace the world as God’s creation rather than rejecting it as merely sinful and degraded. And that is spiritual maturity.

Right now there is a lot of posturing and shouting going on as we approach the November elections. Some want to join in the name calling and finger pointing; and there is plenty of reason to do so. Some Christians have always been drawn into this fray, choosing to publicly support a candidate or a cause, but we know Jesus did not do this. He saw all temporal power as limited in its scope, subject to the whims and wills of the people who put others in power, and unable to address the issues of peace and justice for many. We need to remember that, and while we hold our leaders accountable in a democracy, we also look to Jesus for leadership. At our recent church convention the person giving the noon address reminded us that the question we need to ask in not “What would Jesus do?” but “What did Jesus do?”

Our Christian wisdom should direct us to act in terms of our Baptismal Covenant, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Our spiritual maturity should energize us to work to see the Christ in all persons. Our spiritual wisdom should help us know that does not mean we have to give others what they want, but what they need. Our combined maturity and wisdom should lead us to remember our own need for Sabbath, the rest that restores and renews us.

Finally, the living bread that sustains us should always be our quest: Jesus, whose prayer, mind and deeds show us what to do, Jesus whose flesh and blood instill new life within us, Jesus who lives in us that we might live forever. As the collect for today has us pray, “Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work and to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He and his wife live in nearby Holiday Island. 

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