Sermon - 13 Pentecost
In the Name...
The English soldier Thomas Edward Lawrence is best remembered for the part he played in WWI during the Arab Revolt against the Turks when he became immortalized in history as - Peter O'Toole - I mean Lawrence of Arabia. After the war, Lwrence wrote an account of his experiences. The title of his book, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", was inspired by today's reading from Proverbs - “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.”
I don't know if any of you have read Lawrence's book, but at first glance, being a narrative of his wartime desert adventures, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the title. The "Seven Pillars", in Middle-Eastern philosophy, refers to questions about the relationship of God, Man, and the Universe. Lawrence, however, believed that the answers to these questions could be found by examining the story of a man's life. Hence his choice of title for what is really more a personal search for wisdom than a military history.
This is relevant for us, because the book of Proverbs belongs to what we call the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. Unlike the Law and the Prophets, wisdom literature does not focus on the events of Israel's past or God's plans for its future, but instead reflects upon universal principles of life which apply to all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike. The Book of Job, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and Sirach all belong to this genre.
In the verses we heard today, Wisdom is described as a woman who is a generous hostess. She sets out a table filled with food and drink. She sends out her servants to proclaim the invitation. "Come and eat my bread", she says, "Drink the wine I have prepared."
Now, later in book there is another hostess introduced whose name is "Folly." She is flighty and frivolous. She also sits at the door of her house and invites people to come in, but, it's a meagre meal they find waiting for them, and of poor quality. All the food on her table has been stolen from others and, to top it off, when the lights go down, the guests find that the exit door leads to death.
In this style of Biblical literature, the Hebrews identified their figure of Wisdom with the God of the rest of the Bible. When, therefore, we are told that Wisdom has built a house, set a table, and called people to the banquet, we are to interpret these as actions of the same God who created the heavens and the earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and the Exile, and, for Christians, the God Incarnate in Christ Jesus.
Indeed, St. John's Gospel is particularly rich when it comes to making the connexion. It doesn't begin with a birth narrative - no shepherds or wise men here. It begins by proclaiming that Jesus is the pre-existent Word, the Wisdom of God. And when John reports Jesus saying that he is the "light of the world", the "door", the "good shepherd", and the "way, truth and life", we need to know that Jesus is effectively taking the imagery straight out of the wisdom literature and substituting "I am" for "Wisdom is."
For the past several weeks our lectionary has taken us through the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel and today we hear Jesus saying that not only does he invite people to the banquet, he is the banquet. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. The words of the Holy Eucharist - the Last Supper.
Now, if you compare the four Gospels, you might be surprised to find that while Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the Last Supper in detail and quote the “words of institution”, as we call them, John does not. John is less concerned with the events of Jesus' life as their meaning. That's why he skips a birth narrative – no manger scene for him. And there's no Eucharist in his version of the Last Supper because here, in Chapter Six, he's already explained to us what the Eucharist is all about. It is the banquet of Wisdom which saves us from the dinner of Folly.
By the time John was writing his Gospel, the Eucharist was the central focus of Sunday worship - the source of life for the Christian community. Whatever else Christians in Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Rome were doing, "Do this in remembrance of me" was the one thing they all did together because it gave them the strength to carry on in the face of official persecution and popular disdain.
Over thirty-five years of ministry at the altar, I've sometimes seen parents who aren't sure if their children may or should take communion. I remember one mother said to me about her young daughter, "She doesn't understand." I was tempted to reply, "Neither do I." Because the Eucharist is a profound miracle. I can't explain how Jesus becomes incarnate again under the appearances of bread and wine. I just know it happens. By the same token, I don't understand anything about electricity, but, I know if I flip a switch the light comes on regardless of what I believe or understand about it.
As Episcopalians, we owe a great deal of the character of our church to Queen Elizabeth the First. She lived in an age of controversy and was often criticized for her refusal to take sides on religious doctrine. She personified what later became known as the "via media" or "middle way" and, by her example, England was spared the religious wars which engulfed Europe.
Once, when challenged on what she believed about the Eucharist; whether it was a God-made miracle or a man-made memorial, she made this classic reply:
God spake the word and made it.
He took the bread and brake it.
And what that word doth make it.
That I believe and take it.
A wonderfully wise response.
God spake the word and God has used the Eucharist to make miracles, one of which involved a Portuguese woman named Alexandrina deCosta. Born in 1908 near Oporto, she suffered a spinal injury while a teenager and remained an invalid the rest of her life. She devoted herself to a life of prayer and meditation, particularly on the Passion and Suffering of Christ. As part of her spiritual rule, she would receive the Eucharist every day.
Then, in 1942, she received a vision in which she was told by Christ that she would no longer need to eat earthly food. She interpreted this to mean that she would soon die and so she began a strict fast, refusing all food except the daily Eucharist. But, instead of dying, she continued to live. In fact, she lived for 13 more years and died in 1955 having eaten nothing other than the daily Eucharist. And that is physically impossible. But, it shows that the power of Wisdom's feast is not merely spiritual.
So, as you come to this altar, today, keep in mind that the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the great truths of the relationship between God, Man, and the Universe can indeed be found in a life - one life in particular. He who is the Life of the world.
The one who eats his bread will live forever.
In the Name...