April 16 (Easter Sunday) Sermon – A Changed Perspective

Scripture Text – John 20:1-18

So it is Easter morning and so that means we are going to talk about really important things. And I will begin with a question, so get ready:

Ham? Or egg casserole? Or lamb?

Brunch or dinner?

Chocolate bunnies? or Cadbury eggs? or Peeps?

My question, of course, is a bit tongue in cheek, but not entirely. Holidays, in large part, are centered on special foods, and gatherings with family and friends, yes?

During the last week or so I have had a number of conversations with people about Easter: what it means—is it about bunnies and eggs and baskets, or an empty tomb? but also how some like Christmas better than Easter.

And I can understand that, for many reasons. Easter is a moving target—the date is different every year because Easter falls on the first full moon after the spring equinox. Last year it was March 27; the year before that, April 20; next year it will be April 1. It is difficult to pin down and to plan accordingly.

Christmas is always, reliably, on December 25.

Christmas is about a baby being born, and who doesn’t like that?

Easter, on the other hand, besides being difficult to keep track of, involves a good deal of suffering and death, and if there is anything we human beings want to avoid talking about, it is suffering and death. We don’t even like to say “death.” We say “passed away” instead.

No wonder neon colored, rabbit shaped marshmallows are such a thing.

The celebration of spring and loved ones getting together and delicious food and getting creative with eggs are all good things. But they are not the main event.

To paraphrase the Grinch, “Maybe Easter…perhaps…doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Easter…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

The main event is that empty tomb, God’s big surprise, and what it means for us.

And let us be honest for a moment: this whole notion that God raised Jesus from the dead—it does not make sense to our rational, empirical, scientific brains. So if you get stuck there, no judgment.

More important is this:

The event of Easter is not about proof, it is about perspective.

The truth is, we can’t prove that the resurrection happened.

And the predominant message I see about Easter in hymns, cards, memes on Facebook is, “Jesus died so we can have eternal life.” But the resurrection is so much more than a get into heaven free card.

Easter is about a different way of seeing, perceiving, understanding. It is a way of living. A lifestyle, if you will.

We see this transformation from the old way to a new way in Mary Magdalene.

When Mary headed to the tomb at dawn on that first day, she was a wreck. The crucifixion of Jesus had dropped the bottom out of her world. We don’t know why she was going to the tomb—in John’s version of the story, Jesus’ body was already wrapped with linen cloths, spices and ointment. Maybe she just wanted to be near him, to see if it was all real. Maybe she just didn’t know what else to do with herself and wanted to get away from her friends who were also in shock and deep grief.

Of course, Mary finds the tomb empty and instead of being joyful, she is terrified. If possible, her grief is intensified. A missing body can only mean foul play—grave robbers, or someone wishing to inflict further indignity on her beloved friend. So her grief is compounded. Everything was terrible, and getting worse.

Perhaps that explains why Mary doesn’t seem moved at all by seeing two men in white inside the tomb. When she turns away from and sees another man, she assumes he is the gardener.

Then he says her name, and somehow, there is something about his voice, because all of the sudden, she recognizes him and she calls him, “Teacher.” Jesus tells her not to hold on to him and sends her to the others. When she gets there she says, “I have seen the Lord!”

Now, seeing is a huge metaphor in John—John includes stories about people who are blind understanding who Jesus is, while the religious authorities who are supposed to know everything get caught in the weeds of whether the healing happened on the right day, etc. Rather than saying, “Come, follow me” to prospective disciples, in John Jesus says, “Come and see.”

So when Mary says, I have seen the Lord, this is significant. It means, she gets it. Which means, we are supposed to get it, too.

We are supposed to see that it is about relationship. When Jesus said her name, she responds by saying, “Rabbouni”, teacher. Not his name, but that he is her teacher and she is his student, his disciple.

Although John’s Jesus doesn’t say it here, the message is, Do not be afraid. Trust me. Follow me and do what I do, live how I live.

And that is the new perspective that is so different from the world’s view.

Now—I think it is critically important to point out that in many ways, the world that first Easter morning was no different than it had been the day before. The Roman Empire still ruled their land with an iron fist; the religious authorities were still in cahoots with the Romans; the powerless and vulnerable were still suffering. Nothing appeared to have changed.

But those who followed and believed had a different perspective. They lived as if the world had changed and guess what? They changed the world.

Let me say that again:

After the resurrection, the followers of Jesus lived as if the world had changed and because they did, they changed the world.

The Roman Empire is gone and other empires have risen in its place. The Jewish religious authorities who use religion to benefit themselves? Still around, just in more religions. People are still vulnerable and suffering. And yet…when we live as if the world is different because of Easter, we still change the world.

That’s perspective. That’s a change in perception. That’s an amazingly hopeful call to us in a time in which it feels the world is swinging off its axis.

You have probably heard it said that “Perception is reality.”

You have probably seen the inspirational message, Believe there is good in the world. Be the good in the world

These are true. But we don’t do it entirely on our own.

Farmer, New Testament scholar and co-founder of Koinonia Farm Community Clarence Jordan said,

“The resurrection of Jesus was simply God’s unwillingness to take our ‘no’ for an answer. He raised Jesus,
not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life.”

This is the message of Easter, one not for just this day, or the Easter Season that lasts for fifty days, but for every day and ever more:

Jesus has taken up permanent residence,

standing beside us as teacher, friend, encourager,

whispering constantly to us that the world has changed, that the world is different, in spite of the evidence…

so that we can—side by side with him—change the world.

 

Friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

~Rev. Lori Wunder

October 2 Sermon – Disciples Wrestle with God

What Disciples DO Sermon Series – Week 4

Genesis 32:22-31

Yesterday we celebrated the life of Paula. She died last Sunday at the age of 66. She was too young. Cancer. Stupid, senseless, cruel cancer.

Paula attended regularly here for the last 6-7 years. She found peace here after years away from the church. She had never left God, but she hadn’t felt at home in a house of worship for years. She was raised in a more fundamentalist tradition and was deeply hurt by the judgment and blame she experienced there during and after her divorce. Paula told me many times how much she appreciated this church, the welcome she received here, and that we are “real” as she called it.

After the service, one of her friends said to me, “You’re gray.” (And that’s g-r-a-y, not g-r-e-a-t as I thought at first!) “You live in the gray, not in the black and white.”

I take that as a great compliment. Because we are not afraid here to wrestle with God, about what’s in the Bible, what it means for our lives, what being faithful looks like. And the answers, we have found, are not always clear.

We do live in the gray, that place where the answers aren’t always obvious and clear, in which ideas and issues have multiple perspectives and facets to them and that sometimes, sometimes—two or more things—sometimes even seemingly contradictory things—can be true at the same time.

For example, it is possible that it is respectful to stand for the flag and the national anthem as a sign of respect for our nation and the men and women who have served in our military AND that so is kneeling during the anthem in protest over the ways our country is not yet the land of the free for all of her citizens. Both of these can be true at the same time.

I was trying to think last night of an example of something that is truly black and white.

Thou shalt not kill.

Well, for the most part, I agree with the commandment and–with the exception of mosquitoes and those teeny tiny black bugs that really hurt—and the dozens of spiders that have invaded my house—I will follow this commandment all the days of my life. But are there times when killing may be allowable, forgivable, understandable—in self-defense, or a mercy killing, for example. I know I’m not comfortable in saying that no one should ever, ever kill.

Even abortion. I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a youth advisory delegate in 1987. That assembly passed a resolution saying that abortion is sometimes the least sinful of many sinful options. You may, of course, disagree with this resolution, but I thought it was a nuanced, compassionate position for the church to take about one of the most difficult decisions some human beings face. It acknowledges the Gray area in which we live.

This is one of the reasons I am glad to be a Presbyterian. Because at our best, we acknowledge the complexity of being human and being faithful. We allow for struggle and for searching and for questioning—for wrestling with those important issues.

There are some in our Christian family tree who say when it comes to the Bible, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

But one of my high school Sunday School teachers said, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.”

Think about it: How often did Jesus speak in black and white terms? He taught in parables, in which his point was not always entirely clear. And when Jesus spoke plainly—the two most important commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves—he challenged his audience by defining “neighbor” as everyone, even the people we define as enemy.

The Bible itself calls us to wrestle with God and faith.

But let’s also be honest: it is difficult work. It’s a lot easier when everything is black and white, cut and dried, when the rules are simple.

Sara Groves has a song called “Second Guess Girl” that gets at this tension exactly:

Is it time for a speech or for silence
Are you calling for peace or defiance
Is this darkening counsel or wisdom
Are we all perpetrators or victims?

Is this childlike simple rote history
Is it complex deciphering mystery
Is this blessing or ill gotten wealth
Am I speaking for God or myself?

It’s a hard world for a second guess girl
With one hand and another
I try to take it in but it leaves me spinning
Trying to love my sister and brother

[Hear the whole song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BkV2Qkc7PM]

I so appreciate this song and the tough questions she asks, questions that—while difficult—are so worth asking. Because we ask them not simply out of our love for God, but for the sake of loving our sister and brother. That is, loving God with all we are and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I can’t help but think of Paula and her experience of deep hurt in those black and white churches. And bless them, they probably thought they were being loving.

I have so much admiration for Paula because even after she left the church, she kept her faith. She found the healing and hope she needed through the twelve steps she learned through Al-Anon. Talk about wrestling with God—this was hard work! But it rooted and grounded her in a faith so strong and so deep, she was able to help others to find hope and healing, too.

Wrestling with God is a fundamental part of faith for those who want to follow Jesus. Sometimes we wrestle with God about theological beliefs, personally, as a congregation, as a denomination, even as the whole church. Other times we wrestle with God about things happening in our personal lives. We are also called to wrestle with God over how the gospel and our faith intersects with political and social issues happening in our communities and world. What is the faithful response to Black Lives Matter, to the Syrian refugee crisis, to Islam, to the Bakken pipeline, to allowing transgender people to use the public bathroom in which they feel most comfortable? How should a Christian vote in the upcoming election? These are just a few of the reasons wrestling with God is so important—because our beliefs become the actions and attitudes that shape our world. And ultimately, our actions and attitudes are the fundamental expression of our faith to others.

Martin Theilen, a pastor and author, wrote bout this passage:

“…don’t be afraid to wrestle with God. Instead, join Jacob in the match. Jacob’s wrestling match did result in a limp. But it also brought a great blessing. And in the struggle, Jacob saw God “face to face.” Such is the mystery, the pain, and the beauty of wrestling with God.”

Amen.

 

Does Church Camp Make a Difference?

CW Campfire Worship

This summer, First Pres paid the way for eight of our children and youth to attend Camp Wyoming. It’s an investment we’ve felt was worth it.

But now we know it is. Vibrant Faith Ministries recently conducted the Effective Camp Research Project. They looked at three Lutheran (ELCA) camps in Wisconsin, talking with campers, staff, and parents.   Here’s what they found:

  • 90% of parents said their kids grew in faith
  • 89% of parents said their kids learned something new
  • Six camper focus groups at the three camps reported it was a good thing to be away from technology like phones, computers and television. Instead, they enjoyed time with friends, being in nature, experiencing new things and growing in faith.

To read more about it for yourself, check out this blog post:

Does camp make a difference?

Or read about the research project here:

Effective Camp Research Project Phase 1 Findings

We would love to know what our congregation’s families’ experience of church camp was this summer. Let us know on our Facebook page, or talk with Pastor Lori.

June 12 – We Are ALL Sneetches

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series

Mark 9:38-41, Galatians 3:25-28

I am indebted to Christena Cleveland’s work, particularly her book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity Press, 2013). 

Ah, the Sneetches.

This was one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories. The snootiness of the Star-bellied Sneetches was so ridiculous. And the idea that there was a machine that could put a star on or take it off? The story, the rhymes, the drawings—all so fun.

But to be perfectly honest with you, I suspect the reason I liked this story so much was because I could feel so smug in comparison. I would never be like a Sneetch, thinking that I was better than someone else because of something so…so…superficial!

And then I learned a bit about social psychology.

It’s just like I told the kids—we boost our own self-esteems by putting others down. It doesn’t matter that for me, these “others” were fictional characters. Feeling smug and superior to the Sneetches improved my self-esteem.

And the ridiculousness of the Star-Bellied Superiority?

It’s really not so ridiculous. Or at least not so far-fetched.

For example, I grew up in Ames. Who was the enemy? The Hawkeyes, of course! Why? Because they weren’t Cyclones, they weren’t us. If you’d told my 4th grade self that one day I would graduate from the University of Iowa and LIKE it, I would have told you you were nuts.

When we step back, these divisions seem so silly, but they are sadly real. Consider these divisions that exist locally:

Lisbon vs. Mt. Vernon

Cornell College vs. the town

Roundabout vs. No Roundabout

Community Center vs. No Community Center

New Football field vs. the Bellamy Bowl

Athletics vs. Fine Arts

And this does not even touch on politics or religion. We know all about those.

We started talking last week about the ways that our wonderful, amazing brains not so wonderfully or helpfully categorize everyone and everything we experience. These cognitive processes are helpful in that they allow for the efficient use of our brain power. However, categorization goes too far.

As social psychologist Christena Cleveland wrote “…a natural by-product of categorizing is that we automatically create distinctions between the ingroup and the outgroup. In fact, we often distinguish ourselves from other groups even when there’s no reason to do so.” (Disunity in Christ, Ch 4 p 67)

Stars or no stars. One sports team over another sports team. Differing positions on issues that affect the communities we love. These small things are all our brains need to start creating boundaries.

In fact, maintaining boundaries for our categories becomes a priority for our brains, causing us to fixate on differences while ignoring the glaring, neon-sign things we have in common. If we aren’t mindful of how our thoughts work, our focus becomes distinguishing ourselves from other groups. (p. 68 and 69)

Have you ever found out a new piece of information about someone you don’t know very well, an unpleasant or disappointing something so that you lost interest in pursuing friendship with that person? It’s a very, very human thing to do.

Last fall I very publicly supported Washington Elementary’s guidance curriculum that talked about gender identity with all the kids, kindergarten on up. There are two women in town with whom we had been friendly when we occasionally met; they came out against that curriculum. Since then, neither of them will make eye contact with me, let alone talk to me. But I will admit—while I try to make eye contact, I haven’t attempted to start a conversation.

This tendency to divide is a part of our human condition. What do we do about it?

The good news is, being aware that we do it is a great place to start. Be mindful; be an observer of your thoughts and become aware of when you do this.

A second step is intentionally, consciously choosing to remember and highlight the things that all of us have in common.

The Sneetches are a great example of this. What finally helped them see beyond their tiny difference to the similarities they shared? It wasn’t something they did intentionally so much as it was something they had done unto them by somebody else. All of the Sneetches—stars or no—had been fleeced by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

It was in their shared distress that the Sneetches were reminded that they really were the same.

And here’s how that works—shared distress, while unfortunate, does help dissolve (at least temporarily) the emphasis on how we are different and focuses us on what we share.

Do you remember the sense of unity and common purpose after the floods in 2008? People came together from all walks of life, all opinions to work together to fill sandbags, deliver water, help muck out houses. There was a feeling of “we’re all in this together” and it was really beautiful.

Celebration is a great unifier, too. I expect that Summer Olympics will offer our country a few moments of national pride that transcend the divisions we’re experiencing right now over politics, race, and religion.

Our scripture readings today echo this same problem and offer a solution.

In Mark’s story, it’s pretty easy to imagine that the twelve disciples were excited and proud to be part of their particular ingroup and spent some considerable mental energy on Us vs. Them thinking.

So, when they saw someone who was not in their ingroup doing one of the things Jesus had given them the authority to do—casting our demons—and who was doing it in Jesus’ name? Well, they were NOT happy. John approached Jesus to point this out, probably expecting swift back up, but instead, Jesus responds by saying what could be interpreted as, “Don’t sweat it. We’re all in this together, so its all good.”

Paul has a somewhat similar situation with his letter to the Galatian congregation. Paul had started this church but after he moved on, other teachers arrived and taught them something very different. The congregation was breaking up into factions, lots of ingroups and outgroups and mental defenses against one another were going up. Paul’s solution? Remind them of what they have in common—they are all followers of Jesus, and that identity transcends nationality, gender, or social status.

As a person of faith, I find Paul’s advice very helpful. It’s not only because I am a Christian and therefore proclaim that Christ is Lord, that my most fundamental allegiance and obedience is to Jesus’ way, not my country, or political party, or even my religion or family.

The more I learn about how the human brain works, the more grateful I am to my faith that directs me to something higher and smarter than I, especially when at the heart of that faith is my own belovedness to God, and every other person’s belovedness, too. It helps take me outside of my own thoughts, encourages me to look at things from another perspective.

This belief that we are all beloved, that we belong to one another is, quite literally, counterintuitive. It’s not how our brains were made to function. But it is how we can function. It is a way of thinking and believing and living that God calls us to. And by the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit we can, each of us, live with ever more open minds and hearts, and thereby be part of God’s healing all of creation.

Thanks be to God for this! Amen.

June 5 Sermon – Trouble at the Table

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series – Week 1

1 Corinthians 11:17-26

Late Wednesday afternoon, a man came to our house with a stump grinder. It was amazing to see how quickly he was able to turn all the stumps (big and small) into mulch, dirt and holes in the ground—just around an hour. I can’t imagine having to do this work by ourselves. We are very grateful that somebody invented this particular machine.

Human beings we are geared toward figuring out new and more efficient ways of doing things.

Our friends Bill and Donna Warhover have a large scale vegetable farm just south of Mt. Vernon on Highway 1. We’ve watched them go from grow lights in the basement to putting up a high tunnel to extend the growing season; from weeding with a hoe to having John Kroul lay down lengths of plastic and then straw in their huge veggie beds. They poke holes in the plastic for the plants and the plastic cuts down on the weeds and means they don’t have to water nearly so much. (I might do more vegetable gardening if I had that set up!)

Of course, they don’t have a choice. The more vegetables they want to grow for more and more people, the more efficient they have to be in their practices or they would not be able to keep up.

Our brains do a similar thing.

Consider how much work our brains are constantly doing—receiving an influx of information, scanning to figure out what’s going on, if it’s safe, and if a response is needed.

Because the brain is working so hard all the time, it has streamlined several processes to make them more efficient. People who study brains coined the term “cognitive miser” to describe “our natural tendency to conserve…mental energy by selectively choosing what we’ll pay attention to, using mental shortcuts…and avoiding situations that demand a lot of cognitive resources.”[1]

One of those mental shortcuts is categorization.

Social psychologist Christena Cleveland describes categorizing this way:

“Imagine how much time you would waste each day if you didn’t have a concept for chairs. Every time you encountered any object with four legs and a seat, you would examine it, stare at it and wonder whether you were supposed to walk on it, eat it, fear it or sit on it. This would consume a ridiculous amount of…time.”

Instead, we “categorize all sturdy objects with three or more legs and a seat as chairs…So lots of different varieties of chairs.are all tossed into [our] chair category. Anytime we encounter an object that remotely fits [our] concept of chair, [we] automatically know” what to do with it.[2] Which is a good thing.

Categorization and being cognitive misers are mental processes that are really helpful to us…except when they are NOT. Because we go too far with these processes. In order to conserve mental energy, we avoid any situation that might make us uncomfortable and therefore be cognitively taxing. And our categorization leads us to think in terms of ingroup and outgroup, Us and Them, For Us and Against Us. Social psychologists call this “Group Polarization” and it gets us into a lot of trouble.

Now, you may be wondering, ‘How did Lori get so smart about social psychology?”

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. In it she describes all the cognitive processes (like being a cognitive miser and group polarization) that both help us make sense of the world and work against us when it comes to how we think about others. It’s been absolutely fascinating.

We are seeing the divisions in our country in Technicolor these days, whether we’re talking about politics, religion, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else. It turns out we are hardwired to divide the world into Us and Them and our brains work in all kinds of ways to reinforce those divisions.

There has been a kind of relief in understanding the why and how of human beings’ tendency to splinter ourselves in groups, but even more in learning that we CAN overcome these tendencies.

Because I am also the mother of a young reader, Dr. Seuss books are on regular rotation at our house. And it occurred to me that the processes Christena Cleveland describes are at work in many of Dr. Seuss’s stories. They don’t just offer imagination, creativity, and clever rhymes. Many of Dr. Seuss’s stories are sharp social commentary.

Now, the Zax are a better example of being stubborn and single-minded than they are of being cognitive misers and going too far in categorization. However, I can’t resist beginning with the Zax, and that image of them, standing face to face, toe to toe, refusing to budge. It feels like an apt metaphor for the divisions we see all around us. Except that I think more truthfully, we have turned our backs on each other.

Where does the Bible fit into all of this? The more I reflected, the more I recognized how the Bible’s stories and instructions can be what circumvents our human ways that get us in trouble. They offer us a mental framework, a perspective, a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to God and the world that counters our reflexive tendency to divide and circle the wagons.

Last week we talked about how our brains are wired to hold on to negative thoughts rather than positive ones so that we must savor and acknowledge the great things that happen in order to remember them. The Bible offers us a way to overcome the negativity bias, as it repeats the instruction to be grateful over and over, to appreciate the beauty around us, and be thankful for all that we have received.

And what does the Bible have to say about group polarization and categorization gone too far? One “antidote” it gives us is the Lord’s Supper. As we share this meal, we are reminded that Jesus himself is the host and we are invited guests. We are ALL invited guests, including the very people we would not choose or even think about inviting.

In the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded that just as it took many grains of wheat to make a single loaf, and individual grapes to make the wine, so at this meal, we who are many are made one. We belong together. We belong to God, and we belong to each other. This meal invites us to be part of something that is far bigger than we are, far outside of our usual thinking.

In Isaiah, the prophet speaks these words for God:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(55:8-9)

I for one am grateful that God’s thoughts are not ours, and that in the God known to us as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit offers us an alternative to the messes we make for ourselves. I look forward to exploring these with you over the next few weeks.

[1] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. Pp. 44-45

[2] Cleveland, Christena, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. p. 44