Founder’s Day – June 9, 2013
When I was growing up my grandma used to make rhubarb pies. She would grow rhubarb in her backyard and put it together into a wonderful dessert. Now not everyone likes this treat. My father loved rhubarb pie. He could eat it all day. His brother did not like rhubarb so usually would complain bitterly when it appeared. So, for my grandma, it was a reminder that we all have different tastes and gifts and to get along we need to find ways to meet people where they are.
It also provided teachable moments as she would show my sister and me how to cook and bake. I can remember putting the rhubarb in place in one of her pies with my hands in hers. As Jeanne read, the author of the Book of Proverbs says that nothing is more valuable than wisdom. That it is something to be treasured. Ideas we consciously or unconsciously pass down through the generations.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that wisdom is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He wrote: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another, the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”
Paul distinguished knowledge, or ability to understand and teach doctrine, from wisdom, the ability to apply and use that knowledge. Like love, wisdom is one gift that actualizes all others. For it is the gift that allows us to know when to apply which parts of our knowledge and when to use other gifts.
There is a Persian proverb that “For every pound of learning a person has, that person needs ten pounds of common sense to know how to use it.”
J.I. Packer once called wisdom the “the practical side of moral goodness.” You’ve heard me tell the story of an “old country farmer who took his nephew camping for the first time. This young man was very intelligent, tops in his class. They pitched their tent and quickly fell asleep. Sometime during the night the farmer awoke and nudged his nephew. “Look up, what do you see?” he asked. “I see millions of stars,” answered his nephew. “And what does that tell you?” the farmer asked. The nephew pondered and then said, “As an astronomer, it means there are billions of galaxies. And as a meteorologist, it means it’s going to a beautiful day. As a theologian, I believe it’s a statement that God is a wonderful creator.”
And turning to his uncle the farmer he asked, “What does it mean to you?” The old farmer shook his head. “It means someone stole our tent.””
This past week for me has been one of hearing and experiencing the wisdom of members of this community and beyond. On Monday I began completing staff reviews and I am struck by the wisdom I experience from many members of our staff team. Tuesday we had our Lay Ministry night. Each Lay Ministry night when we gather I hear the collective wisdom of our community and it makes me proud: lay leaders who are committed to Bradley Hills and whose creative leadership makes me want to imitate them.
On Wednesday I was planning to bring communion to one long time member but she decided that we should wait for another day. I was anxious that the bread and juice would not be good anymore. In her wise way she reminded me that communion is more about the spirit than the elements.
Friday evening I accepted a Sustainer award on your behalf from the National Center for Children and Families for the work of this congregation over the years in supporting and helping sustain that mission organization. I thought about the wisdom and passion of the young people I saw at the gala whose life experience, often different from my own, broadened my horizon.
Last night we had our dinner for our endowment to support the education of women in Asia. Hearing Carol Yost speak the needs and opportunities across the globe helped me reflect on the challenges and opportunities of global mission.
Confucius said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
Reflection, imitation and experience. Three ways we might gain wisdom for our living. And all three are Biblical.
Our first introduction to Biblical wisdom each new calendar year comes through reflection around Epiphany. The wise men in the Christmas story are able to figure out from the star where to find the Christ child. But what makes them wise is not the knowledge of how to follow the star, but the instinct they show at the end of the epiphany passage not to follow the directions of Herod.
King Herod asked the wise men to help find Jesus because he felt threatened and wanted to kill him. But they listen to advice in a dream, reflect and follow their instincts which tell them not to return to Herod, but instead to go home by another way.”
Think about how you process information and experiences when you reflect. Sometimes something happens during the day and when you “sleep on it” you wake with an answer. I think this is what happened to the wise men. They took time to reflect on their impressions of Herod, thinking about what kind of person he is, and they sense that Herod is a bad guy and they should avoid him. To paraphrase Kenny Rodgers, they knew “when to walk away, knew when to run.”
Secondly, wisdom is found in the advice and imitation of others. Maya Angelou once spoke of “the collective wisdom of generations” The author of Proverbs would have agreed.
David Hubbard of Fuller Seminary writes that “the chain of tradition linking the wisdom of the generations is the basic theme of the fourth chapter of Proverbs.” The context of Proverbs 4 is that it’s all about a father talking to a son, and giving him wisdom to pass on.
Today, we might get ideas from the internet, newspapers, from traveling.
In Biblical times, people learned sacred ideas when they were passed from one generation to another around meals or in gatherings. It was a culture of oral traditions. Advice was learned not in books, but when one generation of parents, of teachers, or tradespeople, passed down wisdom directly to the next generation.
It’s why the Hebrew word for “learning” implies receiving something from another.
Much of the wisdom we have today, wisdom of faith, of worship, of being a church, and of supporting each other, comes from those who have walked a particular path before us.
Hubbard writes further, “More important in this wisdom speech from Proverbs than the specific commands is the presence of representatives of three generations: the teacher, his parents and his children.” The author of Proverbs gives thanks for the “contributions to his life of those who proceeded and those who follow him.”
This Sunday we do the same as we honor the intergenerational nature of Bradley Hills. Those who founded and continue to lead us with energy, ideas and wisdom. And the legacy that continues is represented by the youth we commissioned for mission this morning. Our church is strong because men and women with experience use their wisdom to actualize their other gifts so as to lead our congregation in so many ways. They share their stories and we learn from their advice.
Now a word of caution. For wisdom to catch hold, one has to be open to receiving it. Too often we now think we know it all. The writer of Proverbs implores his son to prize wisdom though it might “cost all you have.” By “cost all you have,” he doesn’t just mean money; he means we have to surrender our belief that we have all the answers.
Gaining wisdom might cost us our assumptions, our preconceived notions and our prejudices. We have to be open to the possibility that someone else might be right.
The author of Proverbs wrote of the wisdom he was passing onto his son, “Do not let my words out of your sight, and keep them within your hearts.” In the Hebrew Bible, “heart” was a metaphor for a person’s deepest and truest self. It was the “gut” as well as the place for love. It was the place where experience and intuition met. It’s the perfect place for wisdom to be housed.
What makes wisdom useful, relevant and long lasting are not the times when it’s locked in our hearts, but when it’s shared. That is what the father in Proverbs 4 is doing. Sharing wisdom. He is hoping that his son will treasure the advice in his heart and then will share it with his children.
It is gratifying to me to see many people who grew up in this church still very active in the life of this community.
We on staff so appreciate the wisdom you share. The notes you place in our mailboxes, the news clippings, cartoons, and letters you send. The thoughts you share in emails or in spiritual groups. The wisdom of spiritual friends who have been a part of this community longer than we have shapes our life and ministries.
This week Tom, Caroline and Lora Jones move to Atlanta. Tom, a PCUSA pastor for 58 years, has been on staff here as a parish associate and has provided good advice for our team, a sounding board for ideas and a powerful model for living out values. We send every best wish for Tom, Caroline and Lora for the next stage of life’s journey.
Finally, we learn wisdom by experience. On Thursday, I went to Philadelphia to help remember the father of a good friend – one of the friends who traveled to Europe with Bridget and me in April. His father died last weekend and was remembered this week in quite honest terms. His personal and professional lives knew great ups and downs.
It is in what Confucius called the “bitterness of experience” that we learn some of our best lessons of wisdom. Lessons that stay with us throughout our lives because they sting. It’s why the writer of Proverbs indicates that wisdom can be costly. Oscar Wilde once said, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” While painful, I am thankful for many mistakes in my life as they have prevented bigger ones. ”
On Wednesday afternoons Harriet Powell serves as our office volunteer in this community, as she has for many years. If you are at church on a Wednesday afternoons I highly recommend stopping by the outer office, for since the early 90’s Harriett has cooked food and now bakes desserts for whoever is there.
One of the wonderful things about Harriet is that she gets to know the people who tend to gather and then brings in what they like. Often letting others in the community know what she is bringing on a particular day so they can stop by to enjoy. This past Wednesday Harriett brought in rhubarb pie. She knows I like rhubarb and that I would be in that day along with another member who would be there and likes it as well.
She kept a plate waiting for me. Rhubarb is a specific taste. Like my uncle, not everyone likes Rhubarb pie. So not only does it help to have the knowledge to make it, but the wisdom to know who to give it to. As I was eating the pie, Harriet came over and said, “You know, I think I have finally figured it out, ministry is about caring about each person and in your way letting each person know you are speaking to them.”
In a variety of ways, Harriett’s actions on Wednesday of caring, sharing knowledge, showing appreciation, reflecting and experiencing, and being a wise steward of gifts is what ministry is indeed about.
And in her own way, through her rhubarb pie, Harriett was speaking to me.
In the ministry and wisdom of this long time member, I was transported to my experience as a child learning lessons that connected generations.
That was the goal of the central character in our Proverbs lesson after all.
Bill Gothard once wrote that “wisdom is seeing life from God’s point of view.” Because of the wise caring of so many foundational and longtime members in this house of God, the teachings of our faith, the stories of our people, and a vision of God’s church in our world continue on at Bradley Hills. May they continue long into the future.
Thanks be for them and to God. Amen.