When I saw the reading for this week on Jesus as the bread of life something twigged that I’ve done a sermon for this reading before. And sure enough. August 19, 2012… the exact same reading and the exact same date! What a coincidence! I talked about food, it was 9 minutes long and we left church early that day.
Some have suggested I just repeat the sermon but I decided to do something new because six years on, I’m older and wiser. Well maybe.
In our first reading Solomon, a new and very young king of Israel asked God for Wisdom when God was handing out wishes. God was very pleased that Solomon had asked for something so, well, wise. He hadn’t asked for riches or power but something more valuable. “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!” it says in Proverbs (16:16).
Wisdom does sound like a good thing to have. But what is wisdom and how do we get it? According to those who study such things, wisdom has three factors: Cognition, reflection and compassion.
Cognition is what we know and how we think. Experience certainly teaches us a lot. We look back on our youth and say, if I only knew then what I know now. That’s experience. But wisdom is more than just knowing a lot. Being able to reflect on our experiences and gain insight into them and then use that understanding to help ourselves and others is what turns our experience into wisdom.
When I was working in nursing homes 20 years ago, I remembered being surprised at the number of elderly people I met who did not seem wise. To be honest there were many who were silly, exasperating and annoying. Don’t get me wrong. I loved them anyway. I learned then that people often carry entrenched patterns of behaviour and personality throughout their lives and older and wiser doesn’t always apply. But one woman I cared for I remember particularly and thought of as wise. What was the difference? Florence had a multitude of physical ailments: crumbling bones, pain, a tremor, and a heart condition. But whenever I had to take her medication or provide care I would always sneak in some extra time with her. I felt good in her presence. I loved to chat with her. She radiated a quality of peacefulness despite her considerable challenges. She was gracious, grateful, had a good sense of humour and a genuine interest in others.
What I read about wisdom from the definitions I found on the internet may explain the wisdom I found in Florence, the nursing home resident. Wisdom is maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges. Florence certainly displayed those qualities. It’s not like she never complained or expressed pain but she did not allow the hardships to define her. But to get to that point we have to look within. As well as the hardships in the world around us we have to see and acknowledge what is negative within ourselves and own it. We have to accept our negative qualities, learn from them and forgive them which leads us to have greater empathy for others. Wisdom is characterized by a reduction in self-centeredness. Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, not just their own. But it is understanding ourselves more fully that allows us to see things through others’ eyes.
Someone wrote to me the other day that we really need more sermons on when life doesn’t work out. And I’m aware that in the midst of heartache, broken dreams, devastating illness or loss, fears about the state of our world and its future that this road map to become wise I’ve just outlined is small comfort. When you have an experience, reflect on it, turn that insight into compassion and you’ll be wise. Poof! No problem. Easy peasy. But while that’s an important formula, I think there is more to it than that.
There is a wisdom in the world that is deeper than the psychological processing of our minds and behaviours. We see this in children who come up with surprising gems of wisdom. The same can be said for people we would describe as unsophisticated or “simple”. I spent years working with people with intellectual disabilities who taught me more about being real than I ever taught them. There is the wisdom of nature: the amazing world of animals, and how plants and insects and other species find a way to thrive and survive. And there is the deep wisdom of your own being. You know there have been times in your life when you acted on wisdom from within yourself that steered you in the right direction at the right time. I think of the two times in my life, twenty-five years apart when I experienced an overwhelming urgency to come home while living or vacationing abroad and cutting my plans short and getting home in time to be with my parents when they needed me most even though I had no idea beforehand. In the first case, my Mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer 10 days after I moved home, and in the second, this spring, I cut my vacation short to go to my Dad who died 3 days after I arrived, much, much sooner than anyone could have predicted.
If there is this deep wisdom flowing through the universe and us, and I believe there is, then I think it is that wisdom that sustains us through the difficult times and ultimately changes us for the better.
How can we trust and cultivate that wisdom from God? How can we grow in the wisdom we need to make a difference in the world and in our own ability to cope with the challenges of life? I do think we have to work at it and the first step is to desire wisdom and to ask for it.
Solomon was not older and wiser when he became King. But he had the wisdom to know what to ask for to be the kind of ruler that was needed and that he wanted to be. He knew he needed more wisdom and God blessed him with that and more. We might be in position where we have a steep learning curve ahead. Or we recognize things aren’t working for us and life is full of dissatisfaction and we might think there’s got to be a better way and cry for help. This is a cry for wisdom. Or we are visited by tragedy and the suffering leaves us unable to imagine going on and shaking our fists at God in anger and asking why. That honest response can be a call for wisdom. And when we call for wisdom, wisdom answers. Hear from Proverbs, which are the Proverbs of Solomon: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honour you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a fair garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” (4:7-9)There is a line in one of our hymns that God is wiser than despair. We too can be wiser than despair. And what a gift to the world we can be when we are.
So there is working on ourselves to gain wisdom and there is asking for wisdom. But there is another beautiful way we become wise and that is by being with wise people. Richard Rohr, a wise man and author says “Transformed people transform people.” What that means is by being in the presence of someone wise, holy or transformed, we are changed ourselves. The reverse also applies. If you do your own inner work and gain wisdom, others you are with will gain something from you that you don’t even realize you are giving. Think of the wise people in your life…grandparents or other relatives, teachers, people in this church. Remember how it felt, or feels to be around them. I think of one of my grandmothers. My memories with her are coloured by a sense of unconditional love, safety, wonder and desire to learn and become my best self. When we hang out with wise people they hold up a mirror of positive acceptance which helps us discover our potential for wisdom within. I think of all my nursing mentors, including my own mother, who showed me the art of nursing with compassion and intuition. Not only does a mentor like this give us a model to emulate but they too give us the encouragement to believe in our own abilities.
I think of all the farmers I grew up with who seemed to be wise by absorbing the wisdom of the land and the cycles of nature and I think of my own farmer father who faced his death earlier this year with such grace and wisdom that I have rarely seen.
I think of the people of this church. When I sit up in the choir, I am surrounded by the wisdom of those other choir women. Their collective life experience, their joy (we laugh a lot) and their compassion inspire me constantly. I have so many examples of women I want to be when I grow up. We need wise elders as models for our own aging. And I think of the many members of this church whose lives I’ve been privileged to share in a deeper way in my role as Parish Nurse, hearing their amazing life stories and seeing their compassion and humility in the face of living through incredibly challenging times like a world war, or the loss of a child. I am humbled and inspired by the people of this church every day.
Finally we as a church are inspired and changed by the wisdom of Jesus. We know the stories of Jesus and have a template for a moral, compassionate life. But there is something more here, something deeper than pretty stories.
In our reading from John, Jesus talks about being the bread of life, the living bread that came down from heaven. Then he tells his disciples that the bread is his flesh and they must eat it and drink his blood to have life. Talking about eating flesh and drinking blood is too gross for me. Too many horror movie images. But eating bread, I can think about that. I love bread. And bread as body works symbolically. That’s why I made the little bread bodies for the children. And of course there is the sacrament of communion, the ritual that Jesus gave us. When we eat bread or anything else we take it into ourselves. It becomes us. We chew on it and chewing on something is a metaphor for thinking things over, reflecting and processing, one of those steps of wisdom I mentioned at the beginning.
Jesus wants to pass on his wisdom which he received from his Father, our God. Eat me, Jesus says. I am the bread you want that satisfies, that gives life. Take me in, chew on me. How do we do this? By spending time with him. We do this when we come together in worship. We do this when we read the bible, not just reading the stories but chewing on them, taking them in through repetition and study. We spend time directly with the wisdom of Jesus in the mystery of silence and in prayer. And we do this indirectly as well, by spending time with those who have taken the wisdom of Jesus into their own cells. We have a library here in our church of good books, of spiritual wisdom just waiting to be feasted upon, wisdom from the path of Jesus and from parallel paths of other faiths. There are wise people in your own life to remember and give thanks for. There are wise people around us on every side whose wisdom will rub off on us. There is the created world to spend time in and absorb its wisdom. There are sources of wisdom all around us if we have an open heart and eyes to see and the desire to eat some good bread.