Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wash Your Hands And Study

Proper 19.Grace in the Desert
I don’t want to take sides on any political issues
because I don’t want to offend either Fr. Dale or Fr. Sherm.
But sometimes public events are good jumping off places
for religious points.

This week the President gave his welcomed
the nation’s youth and children back to school.
He made two basic points:
Students should wash their hands frequently
and study hard.

His remarks were controversial.
Some commentators were surprised that anyone
such a speech could be divisive.
But, as one who has worked in the church for two decades,
I was not surprised at all.

Just last Spring, during the first wave of swine flu anxiety,
I sent a letter to our priests urging them
to wash their hands.
It immediately sparked a controversy.
Some felt I had gone too far.
Others thought I had not gone nearly far enough.

So I am not going to talk about hand washing today.
For one thing, our Scripture lessons are not about it.
For another, from what we can find about hand washing
in the Bible, it looks like Jesus was against it.

So we will not talk about hand washing.
That leaves us with studying.
Our Old Testament lesson is about study.
There are actually things we need to know
in order to live the Christian life.

When one of our priests, Fr. Vince O’Neil,
was in the second grade, his teacher was a nun.
She would make little Vince stand at his desk
and grill him on his catechism.
“Vince,” she would say, “Why did God make you?”
And Vince would answer “To know, love, and serve him.”
She would say, “That is correct. Now notice what comes first.
Knowledge. Knowledge is the basis.
So study, Vince, study.

Sometimes in the Eucharist we recite the summary of the law.
It comes from an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer.
But the same summary of the law is in the teachings
of Jesus’ contemporary, Rabbi Hillel.
Someone challenged Hillel to summarize
the entire law while standing on one foot.

The great Rabbi said, “Love the Lord your God with all your mind,
all your soul, and all your strength.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
The rest is commentary. Go study.”

Rabbi Hillel said the central point is simple.
But how we live it in a complex world is complicated.
So Jews don’t just have the summary of the law.
The rest of the 613 commandments are commentary.
So are the applications in the Mishna
and the interpretations in the Talmud.
So to be a good Jew, you have to study.

It is the same for Christians.
There is a lot to know.
And it all adds up to Wisdom.

The lectionary actually gives us a choice
of three Old Testament lessons for today.
One is from Isaiah, “the Lord has given me the tongue
of a teacher.”
Jesus was a teacher too. The apostles were teachers.
The Lord sends us teachers
because he expects us to be students.

The other lessons are from the Wisdom literature
of the Old Testament.
In Proverbs, “Wisdom cries out in the street;
In the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out . . .
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . .
I will pour out my thoughts to you.
I will make my words known to you.”

And in the Wisdom of Solomon we read,
“for wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God . . . .”

The Jewish idea of Wisdom, hachma, in the Hebrew,
evolved into a philosophy of God.
At first hachma meant knowing how to do your craft well.
There was a wisdom of the farmer, a wisdom of the basket weaver,
a wisdom of the camel trader.
We might say there is a wisdom of the gambler,
that is “to know when to hold ‘em,
know when to fold ‘em,
know when to walk away,
know when to run.”

The writers of Scripture eventually realized
what Wisdom teacher Kenny Rogers makes so clear.
The ways of a craft can be expanded into a way of life.

Just a basket can be woven well or badly,
just so, life can be lived well or badly.
Just as you must know certain things
to be a good farmer, camel trader, or gambler,
you must know certain things in order
to be a good human being.

By the time today’s lessons were written,
Wisdom had come to mean a very part of God.
Wisdom is the order of things, the pattern of the cosmos.
Wisdom is the mind of God expressed in the world.
We learn Wisdom by keeping alert to the world.
But we also learn Wisdom from the past.

Scriptures and Tradition
– the lives of the saints are
– the teachings of theologians
– the insights of mystics
all these together are a rich storehouse of Wisdom
We can’t learn all that in Vacation Bible School
as children.
It’s a lifelong project.

That’s why the Episcopal Church has adopted
the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation
calling on each diocese to keep educating our people
all their lives long.
That’s why Nevada has created
the Frensdorff School for Christian Formation
to teach the teachers.

And that’s one of the reasons I am so glad
that the good people of Grace in the Desert
have built your new Parish Hall.
A church is a worshiping community,
a praying community,
and a caring community.
But it is also a learning community.
This is a wonderful diocese.
We do lots of good ministry here.
But the adult education programs
of all but a few of our congregations
are woefully behind.

We have to change that,
and we need a few strong parishes to lead the way.
Grace has the critical mass of people
for a first rate adult formation program.
Grace has people with the gift and the passion to teach.
Grace has lacked only one thing:
the place to house the program.
In only a few weeks, you will have then place.
But one thing yet is lacking – the students.
That brings us to the point.

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
In the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out . . . “
God invites us to learn Wisdom’s ways
so that we can live better, fuller lives.

In our Baptismal vows we promise
“to continue in the Apostle’s teaching.”
There are two ways we can do that.
We can teach or we can study.

We need to know the Bible.
We need to know that fundamentalism
is not the old way of reading the Bible.
It was invented between 1910 and 1915.
The earliest theologians taught that each text
must be read on four different level – not literally.

Did you know that the idea that whatever happens
is part of God’s plan is a highly debated point
in Christianity?
Do you know why we bring the bread and wine
from the back of the Church to the altar?
It means something – something profoundly important.
Most of the divisions in the Church today
come from the failure to study and to think.

So, study, brothers and sisters.
It is fascinating stuff we have to teach.
It will touch your hearts as well as your minds.
It will change your life.
Wisdom’s ways are the Way of Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.