When I was a kid, in the days before my grandfather died of a heart attack at age 87, when he walked with great difficulty because his hip hurt from standing all day every day selling men’s suits and ties and jackets at John Norman Clothes for Men in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, before the downtown collapsed and all the business moved out to the malls, before the malls began to give way,
In the days before my grandmother gradually faded into old age, finding it difficult to keep track of what was going on and to remember things, spending several months in a hospital bed in her living room before dying at the age of 103,
When I was a kid, my parents used to take me and my two sisters to visit my grandparents. If it was the right time of year, Gramma would go out to the Amish settlement at the edge of town just outside Roanoke, Virginia to get fresh, crisp green beans and silver queen corn.
She would wash the green beans and carry them out to my grandfather, who would snap them in half for her, removing the wiry string that ran along the outer edge. Then she would put the green beans into a pressure cooker along with some fatback and just a little brown sugar, and let it cook, so that the aroma of cooking green beans filled the kitchen all afternoon. Then she would boil the silver queen corn for three minutes, three minutes only, and draw it out of the pot with a pair of tongs, and set it on a plate. She would scoop out the green beans, glistening, onto a porcelain platter and put it on the table, along with some cornbread muffins.
My grandfather would pray. I remember the beginning and ending of his prayer but not the middle. I’m not sure he did either because he would never tell me. He would say “Accept our thanks, heavenly Father for these and all of our blessings, something, something, something, something, forgive us our sins and save us for Christ’s sake, Amain. He always said Amain.
While we were eating my grandfather would get us children, age five and seven and nine to hold up our arms like strong men, and he would grab them with his fingers and go “Pwick, Pwick, Pwick!” That made us laugh. He would tell silly jokes like, “Is your refrigerator running?” We’re five and seven and nine so we’d say “Yes.” So he’d say “Then you’d better go catch it.” He would say that he’d rather have a glass of water and a toothpick for supper at home than a steak out somewhere else.
We would dig into the beans and corn and cornbread, and it would taste like heaven. There was a lot more going on there than just food.
In our Old Testament lesson for today, Lady Wisdom stands on the street corner, calling all of us simple folk into her feast. I wonder whether she might have green beans and fatback and silver queen corn on her table. Lady Wisdom is part of several books in the Old Testament that we call the Wisdom Literature. It includes the book of Proverbs, some of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Job. The wisdom literature includes some down to earth observations, such as the fact that if you work hard, you probably will do well. If you don’t you won’t, or that a reputation for trustworthiness and honesty is more valuable than a pile of gold.
Wisdom literature addresses questions of science. Solomon, the wise king of ancient Israel is said to have known all the trees, from the greatest cedar of Lebanon to the smallest hyssop that grows in of the wall, as well as animals and reptiles, birds and fish. It is said that people came to inquire of him from all over the world, that the queen of Sheba came from her realms in Africa, with camels and gold and spices to ask him questions, and she was answered.
Wisdom literature addresses some deep questions, like, why do bad things happen to good people. Job asks this question. God comes to him and says, essentially, that life is not fair, but it is beautiful.
Jesus extends this response when he comes to us and shares our suffering, the unfairness and brutality of life with us at the cross. Jesus associates himself with lady wisdom in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, when some people criticize him for his crazy behavior. He says “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Jesus dies on the cross for our salvation, our healing and freedom and life, and then is resurrected. So that the cross becomes God’s sanity, not our insanity, the resurrection becomes God’s reality, not our fantasy.
Wisdom literature also addresses the question of meaninglessness. What do we do with the fact that all of our accomplishments, all of our great monuments will crumble away into dust, and we will die?
The book of Ecclesiastes suggests that we take this moment that we have and give thanks for this moment, appreciate the life in this breath that we take today.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus extends this response as well. Like Lady Wisdom, he invites us into a feast. It’s a feast that has a whole lot more to it than just food. It has to do with a joy and a laughter and a rage and a hope that moves beneath all things and touches us right now.
The crowd has come to Jesus asking for more bread, which he gave them the day before. Jesus tells them, you have to seek more than just bread.
This was challenging in Jesus’ day because you were lucky if you got enough bread today, if your stomach was full. Jesus says, if we want to really live, we need more.
Same for us, if we want life, we need to see beyond our need for a healthy bank account, our fear and stress over huge amounts of debt, we have to seek something bigger than our illnesses and health, our old age and our grades at school, our position at work, our possibilities for romance, our satisfaction at home.
There is a joy and laughter and rage and hope that moves through this day. Jesus even brings it down to the level of his blood and bones and muscle and skin and flesh. That’s how close God’s life comes to us. At communion, God’s life comes into our bodies, our bones and blood and muscles and nerves and flesh. So, yes, God’s life waits for us beyond the grave, but it also moves through us right here, right now today.
Toward the end, my grandfather knew his heart was giving out. My grandmother also was aware that she was failing. She would sit and watch the trees blow back and forth in the wind. Sunset would come and she would say “There, that’s where I’m going.”
But even when my grandfather was failing, he would sit and talk with people who came from across the street and next door, to simply be themselves there on the back porch with him as the birds and the clouds went by.
And even then, when my grandmother was at her most confused, sometimes she would put her tiny, wispy hand on my Dad’s forearm arm just calm down without saying anything at all.
God’s life is deeper than just food, or debt, or health, or romance, or even death. God’s life comes to us here, today.