a photo from above of a large bowl of chicken and vegetable soup, a loaf of bread, and a bowl of clementines.

Epiphany 6 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 12 February 2023 | Sirach 15:15-20 | Psalm 119:1-16 | 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 | Matthew 5:21-37

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of wisdom who gives us growth. Amen.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany. We are still in this season of light, which is also a season of growth; our church color is green, and it’s a growing season like the time after Pentecost. And today I want to talk about how we might grow in wisdom. We’ll take an aerial view of our scriptures to do that.

Because growing in wisdom is part of what St. Paul has been getting at throughout his letter to the Corinthians. This church is struggling with divisions and a lack of focus; St. Paul longs for them to learn the spiritual maturity it takes to find their way through these struggles wisely and lovingly and well. Their own choices will be part of this growth, and so will the teachings they’ve learned, and so will God’s grace. There are many ways to grow, and many kinds of wisdom.

One of the kinds of wisdom that’s at play for the Corinthians and for us is sometimes called “practical wisdom.” There’s a Greek word for it, φρόνησῐς. And there are whole books about it, in secular leadership and in spiritual contexts. This is wisdom that’s about shaping our actions well, relating the parts to the whole, and knowing what we need to do next to get where we want to go.

You may have encountered this kind of wisdom if you’ve tried to cook with your grandmother, and you asked her how to season the soup or the sauce, and she says you just season it until it tastes good. She knows exactly what needs to happen as the process unfolds, even if she might not be able to write out a recipe.

It’s a precious practical skill that she’s built up over decades, and she can’t teach it to you all at once. If she also happens to have built the skill of teaching, she might be able show you over time. It’s practical wisdom that has to be learned by practicing.

Or maybe you know a mechanic who can tell what’s wrong with an engine just by listening to it. Maybe you know a coach or player who sees one play and envisions a plan for the pattern of the whole game. That’s practical wisdom.

My husband Brian has learned this practical wisdom in the way that he makes music. When he works with his bandmates, he is really good at figuring out what needs to happen next to transform a handful of good parts into a cohesive song that has its own character and direction. He knows the next move to connect the pieces to the whole.

I have practical wisdom as a baker. I can add a new ingredient to a recipe and have a pretty good idea of what else I need to change to rebalance the flavors and textures and make the cake or the bread turn out tasty. I can work with a very wet dough and not make a sticky mess. And if you wanted to learn how to do these things, I could give you some good advice, but I couldn’t fully tell you how to do it; it’s a wisdom that’s as much in my hands as in my head. 

Most of us have practical wisdom in one thing or another. Maybe you can guide a complex conversation to what matters. Maybe you’re good at intuiting what animals are feeling and how to calm them. Maybe you can look at a chart full of numbers and see a whole financial story.

And we can also think about practical wisdom at a larger scale—about what it means to make wise choices in the course of our life, and how we decide what to do next in our careers and our identities and our relationships and our communities. This is the kind of wisdom Paul has been longing for throughout our readings this season from Corinthians.

Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to have the maturity to recognize what the big picture is and which details are relevant to it. Paul wants them to be capable of eating solid food in their faith, of moving past the basics and coming of age as fellow church leaders who know what to do next on their own.

He wants them to be able to see how the parts relate to the whole and to find their own place in the field that God is growing and the structure that God is building and the mission of love and reconciliation that God is unfolding in the world.

And what a beautiful goal for us too—to grow in wisdom so that we understand where we are in the big picture, and we know what to do next as we try to follow Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to puzzle out every little choice, and we just knew what to do? Wouldn’t it be great if we could move confidently toward what’s good and beautiful and Godly without getting stuck in unnecessary conflict or worry or indecision?

I long to grow in this kind of wisdom in my own life of faith, and I long to see those I love and care for grow in this wisdom. It’s a beautiful thing when we can see this wisdom in action; wise choices have an elegance and a radiance. And it’s also a very hard thing to teach and to learn.

To go back to the soup making image, even if your grandmother is both an amazing cook and an amazing teacher, she can’t teach anybody what she knows about flavor in a day. She’s taken decades to learn it, and there is no Cliff Notes version that will do it justice. Anybody who wants to learn it will have to get in the kitchen with her and watch and listen and taste and smell and touch.

The person who wants to learn will have to pay attention to what she says and does, and eventually, they’ll have to try some things on their own and see how it goes. They’ll have to fail a lot of times and decide to keep going. They’ll have to ask for advice sometimes and try trusting their own instincts sometimes. They’ll have to eat some soup that’s not very good before they find out how to make it delicious. That’s how practical wisdom is learned.

And it’s the same in our faith—we learn practical wisdom by trying things over time. There’s no short cut. However, there are skills and tools that can help us grow.

There are ways that we can make the most of our experience if we are intentionally trying to grow in wisdom. We’ll look at two of these moves today: following directions with purpose, and reflecting on the larger vision.

So first, directions with purpose: This is like the part of learning how to make soup where you follow your grandmother around with a notebook and you write down everything she does, and then you try to do it on your own. She’s not cooking by measurements, but if you can get her to slow down, you can measure, and then you have directions to follow. Or if you don’t have a grandmother to follow around, maybe you get recipes from the internet, and you start to follow them exactly. This is part of learning.

(By the way, no judgment if you follow recipes in your actual cooking and don’t like to improvise in that area. However you like to make or get your food is great as long as you’re eating! This is just one metaphor for a process of learning wisdom.)

In faith, we can also learn by sticking to the recipe, by following the directions. As our reading from Sirach says, we have commandments that God has given in wisdom, and we’re capable of choosing to follow those commandments. Choosing to follow the commandments we know can lead us toward life. And it can also be part of how we grow.

And there’s yet another level of growth to be had when deepen our awareness of the purpose of the directions as we follow them. I think Jesus is teaching this kind of growth in our Gospel today. As Holly said last week, Jesus is building on the Torah, the Jewish law, rather than taking it away. In each of these statements, he wants people to be even more thorough about being good to each other.

Jesus is taking the directions and drawing them even closer to their purpose, to the heart of the law: loving God and loving our neighbor. Jesus is interpreting the law in a way that heightens expectations by moving closer to this purpose.

And there are some cultural complexities to these particular commands and interpretations that we can talk about some other time. For example, marriage served different purposes in Jesus’ time than now, and divorce had different consequences, especially for women divorced by their husbands. It’s a worthwhile study to dig into these particular commands and Jesus’ relationship with the law’s expectations, and I’m happy to do that another time.

But for now the point I want us to notice is that Jesus takes each of these commandments a step further, and in doing so highlights the purpose of the commands. The purpose of the directions is that we have to take care of each other, that we are responsible for one another, that our integrity and our commitments matter because our relationships with one another matter, and that our love for one another is connected with God’s love for all of us.

A few verses after what we read today, Jesus states the purpose of following these commandments: the purpose is so that we can be children of God, who cares for everyone. 

Jesus asks his followers not just to follow the directions as they’re written, but to go even farther toward the purpose of the directions. And this is part of how we learn wisdom—we practice following wise directions, and not only following them as they’re written, but leaning into the purpose behind them. This is like when the person teaching you to cook doesn’t just tell you what to do but why. Add extra pepper early because we’re going to add cream later that will tone it down. Add the potatoes before the green beans so they’re done at the same time.

We’re following directions, and we’re getting in touch with the purpose behind them—and this helps us to build practical wisdom for the times when we don’t have directions and we have to improvise. When we understand the reasons for the directions, we get a sense of the whole harmony.

And that brings us to today’s second tool for growing in wisdom—reflecting on the larger vision. St. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to be wise enough to see how they are part of what God is building in the world, and make their choices and organize their relationships in that light. And if we want to know how our own movements are part of what God is building in the world, we need to try and get a glimpse of what that building looks like. What is God up to on the whole? And then: How are we part of what God is up to?

And of course, we can never fully know the mind of God; anyone who claims they can is probably lying or trying to lead a cult, or both. And yet, there are things God chooses to reveal to us. There things God wants us to know about what God is doing and how God is loving us and what God takes delight in and God’s vision for all creation to flourish. We can look to saints and holy people and mentors in the faith to show us a part of this vision, of what it looks like to walk in God’s ways and live in God’s love.

We can also learn a lot about it as we read scripture with care in community. In Psalm 119, the poet has seen this larger vision and shares the wonder and the awe of it. In reading the Law, the Torah, this Psalmist doesn’t just see a list of rules, but a guiding light. The Psalmist sees that God has given guidance to help us become wise and good and loving. God lets us in on God’s vision so that we can walk in God’s ways. The Psalmist has glimpsed the big picture and now delights in the wisdom God has shared.

And this is part of how we grow in wisdom too. When we can imagine what we want the food to taste like, we start to understand what to do. This is when we say, I want this sauce to taste zesty; or I want this soup to be earthy and herby and rounded; or I want this chocolate cake to be rich and dark with the raspberry in the icing to give some brightness. We can form a vision that guides our choices so that we’re taking actions with purpose even when we’re not following a pre-set list.

And of course, the vision can change—we can adjust when we get a new opportunity or idea, and we can recover from a mistake. This is the beauty and the value of practical wisdom: that we can adapt to meet the unexpected. Yet even as we adapt, we reflect on a guiding vision.

When we can glimpse a vision of what our own lives could be, or what our church could be, or what our world could be in the light of God’s love, we grow. We start to align our own actions with that vision, and we become more confident and creative and joyous. We can tell which details matter in this moment and which ones can wait. We lean forward to see the vision a little closer, and we find we’re walking toward it without looking at our own feet, one step after another.

So to grow in practical wisdom, we practice, and we follow directions with purpose, and we reflect on the larger vision. That’s our work, and it’s good and worthy work to do. And yet, thanks be to God, our work is not the whole story.

Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” And it is God who gives our growth too. In today’s collect we pray: “give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed.” And it is God’s grace that strengthens us to practice wisdom, and it is God’s grace that gives us purposeful directions, and it is God’s grace that illuminates our vision, and it is God’s grace that carries us through it all.

God gives the growth. God calls us to choose well and to seek out wisdom and to share a common purpose in God’s love. And the wisdom we learn is a part of God’s wisdom, a movement of God’s grace, beyond any good deeds we could do or wise choices we could make or theology we could learn.

So friends, let us grow together in wisdom in this season. Let us practice our faith together with purpose and vision. And let us always call on the help of God’s grace.

Amen.  

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