Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eat This Bread and Drink This Wine: The Way of Wisdom

RCL Proper 20B
19 August 2012

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Proverbs 9.1-6; Psalm 34.9-14; Ephesians 5.15-20; John 6.51-58
         As I look back on my two and a half decades of teaching at Vancouver School of Theology, I realize that I belong to a select club.  I am the only professor of liturgical studies whom I know who has supervised two graduate students whose research involved the connections between Christian worship and cannibalism.  If you know of any others, please let me know.  I am sure that we can start our own academic society!

         One thesis was on the recovery of aboriginal styles of music among the indigenous people of Taiwan.  The graduate student, Hayu Yudaw Chang, who now teaches in the Presbyterian church in Taiwan, looked at traditional songs associated with raids that usually led to the execution of captives and ritual cannibalism.  These style of song was banned by the early missionaries but maintained a strong following among the people.  He examined whether the style of music could be rehabilitated and suggested that it could.

         The other thesis was written by the present Archbishop of Melanesia, David Vunagi.  His question was this:  Why was the 'high-church' Anglican tradition accepted by the people of Solomon Islands rather than the 'low-church' tradition?  Among the reasons he identified was the tradition of ritual cannibalism that existed on many of the islands.  'High-church' missionaries spoke of eating the body and blood of Christ and sometimes used rather realistic imagery to teach about the eucharist.  This language connected with cultural patterns.

         In today's readings we are confronted with the challenge of following the way of wisdom.  For the writer of the gospel according to John, the way of wisdom involves an intimate relationship with Jesus, a relationship that results in a union of Christ with the believer.  The language the evangelist uses is graphic and it is little wonder that there are some early followers of Jesus and some of the Jewish opposition who cannot accept this idea as expressed by John.  The law of Moses forbade eating meat that still had blood in it and contact with blood rendered a person unfit for participation in Jewish rituals until he or she underwent a period of purification.

         But the evangelist is using language which the communities represented by my two graduate students would recognize.  They would appreciate the idea that intimacy and union require some kind of physical communion with the person whose qualities were attractive.  This meant either sexual relations or, in the case of some Taiwanese and Melanesian communities, ritual cannibalism.  But lest we think this language is limited to distant aboriginal communities, let us remind of ourselves of some of our language, such as, "I love you so much, I could just eat you up!"

         Now, be assured that I am not advocating the introduction of ritual cannibalism to contemporary Christian practice.  What I am trying to illustrate is the deep-seated desire of every human being to have a relationship with another person, with a community or with that mystery we call God that involves our whole being:  soul, mind, heart and strength.  We long for a wholeness of self that unites us with one another, with God and, dare I say, with the sometimes confusing and competing elements of our selves.

         What we are seeking is expressed in today's reading from Proverbs and reiterated in the Psalm.  In Proverbs there is an extended reflection on wisdom, not as an idea but as a person.  Wisdom is accessible to those who "[lay] aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight" (Proverbs 9.6 in the New Revised Standard Version).  But Wisdom is not simply gained; one must actively seek it, and so the writer of Psalm 34 invites us by saying, "[come], my people, I will teach you how to reverence the Holy One" (Psalm 34.11 in Songs for the Holy One).  What Jesus offers to his listeners in today's gospel is difficult and it is no wonder that some turn aside from this path.

         Wisdom is not found by reading the Scriptures but by exploring with others what these words, written to an audience separated from us by time and culture, mean to us in our time and in our own context.  Wisdom is not found by reciting creeds but by 'loving the questions' these ancient seek to engage:

  • Who is God?
  • What is the relationship between this God and Jesus of Nazareth?
  • Does God continue to work in time and space?

Wisdom is not found by disparaging the insights of other faiths and cultures nor by ignoring the insights gained by contemporary social and scientific research but by entering into a conversation with these other faiths and cultures and by considering how contemporary social and scientific research helps us understand ourselves and our universe.

         Wisdom, you see, is not a collection of proverbs or a particular code of behaviour; wisdom is a way of living.  It is a path towards understanding who we are and what God expects of us as we travel towards our final purpose.  As Christians we believe that this final purpose is the kingdom of God, the restoration of relationships between God and humanity, between each and every human being and between the whole of creation.

         Because wisdom is not a thing but a way, you and I have to learn what to bring along as we journey together.  We bring the Scriptures, a corporate witness to the God who is the source of wisdom.  We bring our reason, that wonderful common sense that comes from experience, a faculty that always asks questions.  We bring our traditions such as the sacraments, daily prayer and study that help give some coherence to our journey.

         Most importantly, we travel together.  The way of wisdom is best travelled in the company of fellow seekers.  When we travel together, we benefit from the insights that even the most unexpected pilgrim can bring to the journey.  No one has all the gifts necessary for this journey; we need each other, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, sometimes wise and often foolish.

         The way of wisdom leads us to action.  While contemplation is a necessary part of the religious life and thoughtful reflection on matters indispensable, wisdom eventually calls us to act.  In Luke's gospel Jesus responds to a challenge to his ministry of reaching out to the disenfranchised, those whom the conventionally religious thought lost for ever, by reminding his critics that "[wisdom] is vindicated by all her children" (Luke 7.35).  Wisdom may call us to act in ways that some think foolish or unconventional, such as putting a playground in our front yard or establishing a centre to support newcomers to Canada and the poor, but act we must.

         My friends, we are all on this journey together because we seek to be one with God and with God's purposes for us and for all God's children.  We listen to the words of Scripture so that God's words might become our words.  We offer our prayers for ourselves and others so that God will empower us to be the answer to what we ask.  We share in this bread and wine, symbols of the life of Christ, so that the life of God present in Christ might become present in us.  The way of wisdom is "a way of life that all should reverence, and none should lightly undertake" (The Book of Alternative Services, 542), but a way of life in which "(we) give (ourselves to each other and to God) in love, (so that we) shall grow together and be united in that love, as Christ is united with (the) Church" (The Book of Alternative Services, 541).

         Come, my friends, let us lay aside immaturity and live and walk in the way of insight.  Amen.

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