Lectionary Commentary

August 16, 2009
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 15

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]


1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
Psalm 111
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Today’s scriptures counsel us to seek God’s creative wisdom in all things. Divine wisdom embraces, inspires, and joins the cosmic and the local and divine handiwork and human creativity. The universe reflects the movements of divine wisdom in the heavens above and in the orderly progression of the seasons. God’s “precepts,” giving order both to the human heart, political life, and the regularity of nature, are “established forever and ever.” (Psalm 111:7-8) The key question for today’s scriptures is: how we acquire a heart of wisdom that will guide our response as parents, professionals, citizens, and persons of faith?

The narrative of Solomon’s dream invites us to consider the wisdom to be gained by opening ourselves to non-rational – or “trans-rational” – experiences. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once noted that consciousness is just the tip of the experiential ice berg. Experience exists globally, in human and non-human life, in what we notice and in what is beneath or above the realm of normal human experience. In a time of transition, as he prepares to lead the nation, Solomon receives God’s wisdom through the medium of a dream. We can imagine that Solomon has cried out for guidance as he ponders his own inexperience in light of the great issues facing the nation. His cry becomes the catalyst that awakens him to the wisdom of the unconscious world of divine messages through dreams and visions.

God comes to him in a dream, offering Solomon everything: “Ask what I should give you.” Perhaps, this is the first and greatest test for Solomon and us: “What do you really want?” Jesus once asked Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, “what do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) While God is not a genie in bottle, the questions from God and from Jesus remind us that God seeks our abundant life; divine wisdom invites us to consider what we truly want out of life and, in the asking, invites us to explore our deepest desires.

God will, as Philippians 4:19 affirms, “satisfy every need”; but, the divine questioning and responsiveness helps us discern what we truly need in order to live abundantly.

Solomon’s response transforms his life, “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?” In response, God gives Solomon understanding, but also something more: “a wise and discerning mind,” able to intuit God’s presence in the simple and the complex, the small and the large details of life. Apart from the guidance of divine wisdom, we will lack the insight and self-transcendence to conduct our personal or professional lives.

Psalm 111 proclaims that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Most scholars suggest that “awe” is a more accurate and helpful translation than “fear” in this and other wisdom literature passages. “Awe” evokes a sense of God’s grandeur and the recognition of God’s creative wisdom, guiding the ordered novelty of galaxies as well as human life. Psalm 111 describes wisdom as immanent in all things. God who is present everywhere seeks a universe of order, beauty, and creativity in all of God’s interactions. The heavens declare the glory of God and so do our circulatory and immune systems. Long ago, the philosopher Plato noted that the ordered movements of the cosmos serve as inspiration for the ordering of our souls. This same spirit is at the heart of the wisdom tradition’s affirmation of the ubiquity of divine inspiration. “Adventurous faith sees divine inspiration as both personal and universal, and as intimate as your next breath….Bidden or unbidden, God inspires us with every breath. New ideas, behaviors, and practices flow into our lives with each breath.” (Bruce Epperly, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, p.47-48)

Ephesians continues the counsel to seek divine wisdom in all that we do. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Wisdom brings both order and novelty to Christian community. In the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the “radical amazement” we experience as we look at the heavens, rejoice at the first fire fly of summer, give thanks for the tenderness of faithful companions, or embrace divine guidance in our lives, inspires us to seek first God’s wisdom and guidance in the conduct of our personal and communal lives. Healthy Christian community emerges from living wisely, alert to God’s presence in the community of faith, our own insights, and the world surrounding us.

Jesus’ words also point us in the direction of divine wisdom. Jesus counsels us to seek “soul food” rather than “fast food.” Jesus’ mysterious words – “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” – point not only to ancient Eucharistic celebrations and the life-giving nurture of the “body of Christ,” that is, the incarnate presence of Christ in healthy Christian communities, but also to the life-giving spiritual food that truly sustains us.

Recently, a study of 143 nations conducted by the New Economics Foundation, evaluated countries on the basis of life-expectancy, overall well-being, social creativity, and ecological impact. According to these criteria, Costa Rica was the happiest nation, while the United States ranked 114th in overall happiness. Another recent survey ranked the USA in 23rd place, according to a variety of social well-being metrics. Clearly, our sense of being the “greatest” country in every way may be an illusion, at least according to some standards of health and well-being.

Then, what brings wisdom and the joy that goes with it? While there is no one path to well-being, today’s passages point us in the right direction, and do so in a holistic manner. Today’s preacher might focus on the following wisdom-giving spiritual practices either in her or his sermon or in an adult education opportunity:

Today’s scriptures call us to live wisely. “The days are evil,” that is, we are tempted to live by scarcity, fear, and anxiety, personally and corporately; we are tempted to eliminate congregational mission programs because of budget limitations and turn inward simply to survive. Wisdom calls us beyond individual or congregational survival to embrace relatedness and the dynamic movements of grace and inspiration that call us to seek healthy spiritual nurture. Soul food abounds, inspiration is as near as the next encounter or tonight’s dream. God is touching us, luring us forward, especially when we want to retrench. We need wise people, wise leaders, and wise congregations, who are willing to “make the most of the time” in which we live – to see our current national and global economic malaise as a call to creativity, generosity, and transformation, and to seek the bread of life that sustains us today and into God’s everlasting adventure. Seek a heart of wisdom, and then listen for God’s wisdom moving in every aspect of your life.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church, a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the trilogy on ministerial spirituality and faithful excellence, Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout, Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness, and  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.

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