July 16, 2017 Sermon – The Wisdom of Desire

Summer Sermon Series – What Does It Mean to Be Wise?

Week 4 : The Wisdom of Desire

Proverbs 8:1-21, Matthew 6:19-21

Wisdom, according to the Book of Proverbs, is a woman.

Perhaps more accurately put, Wisdom is a feminine noun, and is personified as a woman in the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

When I first learned about this some 20 years ago, I was pretty excited. There is a lack of female representation in the Bible, and “getting” Wisdom seemed like a pretty big deal. I still think it’s kind of cool. But I have to say, my enthusiasm has been dampened by closer study.

Yes, Wisdom is personified as a woman. But so is foolishness and folly. In contrast to upright wisdom who will always lead you in the right paths, there is also a “loose woman.”

Listen to these lines from Proverbs 5:1-14 (Common English Bible):

My son, pay attention to my wisdom.
    Bend your ear to what I know,
        so you might remain discreet,
        and your lips might guard knowledge.
The lips of a mysterious woman drip honey,
    and her tongue is smoother than oil,
    but in the end she is bitter as gall,
    sharp as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead to the grave.
She doesn’t stay on the way of life.
    Her paths wander, but she doesn’t know it.

Now children, listen to me,
    and don’t deviate from the words of my mouth.
Stay on a path that is far from her;
    don’t approach the entrance to her house.
    Otherwise, you will give your strength to others,
        your years to a cruel person.
    Otherwise, strangers will sap your strength,
        and your hard work will end up in a foreigner’s house.
You will groan at the end
    when your body and flesh are exhausted,
    and you say, “How I hated instruction!
    How my heart despised correction!

I didn’t listen to the voice of my instructor.
    I didn’t obey my teacher.
I’m on the brink of utter ruin
    in the assembled community.”

When we began this sermon series on Wisdom Literature, we talked about how Proverbs and Ecclesiastes at their heart answer the question, “How does someone live a good life?” And even though we are separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, the answers put forth by the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes have much to say to us in our time.

However…first we have to acknowledge that the intended audience for the Book of Proverbs, the target market for its instruction—young males.

So…do you see why it made sense to portray both wisdom and folly as women for young males? Certainly, describing the choice of how to live in terms of two women vying for their attention might make their lessons more interesting. If you’ve been reading through Proverbs on your own, you know there are some decidedly PG-13 passages, warning about the dangers of being seduced by what (or who) is very desirable but ultimately destructive.

At first glance, I admit that I found this rhetorical device rather prudish, not to mention more than a little unfair in its portrayal of women. Previous generations have warned of the dangers of alcohol, gambling, sex outside of marriage, sometimes even dancing. The “desires of the flesh” were portrayed as dangerous.

Younger generations today (my own included) have poked fun at this prudish perspective. But as Krista Tippett points out in her book, her Southern Baptist preacher grandfather frequently warned in his sermons about “the body as the entry point of danger” because he lived in the age “before Twelve Steps made addictions like gambling and alcoholism something less than a death sentence, before sex was unhinged from a high probability of pregnancy, before childbirth out of wedlock upended many lives.” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016, “Flesh” p. 62)

There was wisdom in those warnings.

For those of us who live in an age in which science and psychology have blunted if not eliminated the possible consequences of such behaviors, biblical scholar Ellen Davis makes the case for how these passages still speak to us:

“In using the language of love and desire, the sages alert us to the hidden but essential connection between what we want and what we may come to know. Those two things are always connected, for good or for ill. Through holy desire we may indeed gain what Israel called wisdom, which is a true, realistic knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world. But we may also waste our desire, by turning it to things that are unworthy of us. Or perhaps we desire things that are good in themselves, but they are not the things that God wants to give us now. So our desire, which is meant to draw us closer to God, instead sets a barrier between God and ourselves. For desire is never spiritually neutral. It either sharpens our perception, so that we may see something of what God sees in us and the world, or else it distorts our vision. In countless subtle ways, wrong desire skews our understanding of our God-given situation in the world. In other words, wrong desire deprives us of wisdom and thus brings us, often by slow degrees, into misery.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001, p. 149)

It seems to me that we live in an age in which we are encouraged to follow wherever our desires lead us. If there is something we want to have or possess or accomplish, we should do it because we deserve it. Everything is allowed.

Now, to be clear, I think our culture has done well to dismantle the shackles of shame that were so often clamped on anyone who stepped out of line. Saddling someone with shame can destroy a life every bit as much as whatever the “original” sin was. We still shame people, but we find fewer behaviors shameful all the time. So, anything goes!

Another dynamic in our culture is the constant buzz of marketing messages. From birth, we are programmed to desire products so that we buy and consume…and immediately start the cycle over again. Our economy depends on a never-ending cycle of desire, consumption, and dissatisfaction. It goes without saying that this cycle is folly and foolishness, wasteful, the wrong kind of desire.

Ellen Davis again: “Wrong desire separates us from God. It blinds us to the goodness of the situations in which God has placed us. It separates us from one another. We may indeed learn something from following wrong desire, but too often what we come to know about the world and about ourselves embitters us.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001, p. 150)

A laundry list of wrong desire in our modern culture would include

  • The pursuit of wealth at the expense of the well-being of others
  • The use of pornography and its exploitation of women, children, men
  • And I might add, romance novels that can give women an utterly unrealistic image of the “ideal man” or marriage
  • Winning in politics at any cost, including working with our nation’s enemies in order to defeat the opponent, as we saw in the news this week.
  • And I have to say, only somewhat tongue in cheek, HGTV—it’s an entire channel devoted to making people dissatisfied with where they live and what they have. I didn’t know how terrible my bathroom and kitchen were until I started watching HGTV!

Even right desire can go wrong, such as when the pursuit of health and fitness, self-improvement and personal growth, education and learning, etc. becomes such an obsession that they take too much time away from our family, friends or community, or lead to us judging or condemning others.

And there is another phenomenon in our culture that is worth noting:

Our tendency toward numbing behaviors. Sometimes life can be overwhelming and we need to escape reality for a little bit—so we watch TV or movies, play video games, surf the web or scroll on Facebook. Sometimes we numb our worries and anxieties with food, alcohol, sex, working out. We need escape sometimes but any of these behaviors can go too far so that there is far more numbing happening than dealing with and working through.

Krista Tippett writes, “[There] was a pattern of unintentional self-destruction glorified in the twentieth century–to enrich on the outside, and impoverish within.” (Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016,, p. 169)

I fear that too often in our nation we are keeping up appearances on the outside while we are impoverished within.

And this is where True Wisdom, God’s Wisdom, comes in. God invites us to more, asks more of us.

When we cultivate our relationship with God, when we make time for regular prayer, reading, meditation, being in worship, yoga, whatever spiritual technologies bring you into communion with God…

when we spend time appreciating the beauty of creation and the world around us…

when we cultivate a sense of gratitude, contentment, “enoughness” in our life, our family, our home, friends and community…

when we see our lives and well-being as integrally connected with others, whether across the street or across the globe…

THEN we have learned to desire what God desires for us and our neighbors.

May each of us open ourselves to the leading and healing of the Holy Spirit, that we, too, may grow in wisdom and desire for the truly good things in our world, and for our world. Amen.

Preached by the Rev. Lori Wunder at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, Iowa on Sunday, July 16, 2017. With much gratitude to Ellen F. Davis and Krista Tippett!

Summer Sermon Series

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Dr. Seuss, Social Psychology and the Body of Christ

Summer Sermon Series

Zax

As a kid, Dr. Seuss stories were some of my favorites. His playful, imaginative drawings and use of language were (and are, as a parent) irresistible. But many of his books offer important commentary on human beings and how we treat one another that children of all ages understand. Indeed, although some his stories are over 50 years old, they still feel like fresh commentary on the divisions we see in our world today!

Recently, I’ve been reading Social Psychologist Christena Cleveland’s book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Up Apart. In it she explains the cognitive processes (the way our brains work) that both help us and work against us when it comes to how we think about others. We very naturally divide the world in Us and Them and our brains work in all kinds of ways to reinforce that. But being aware of those cognitive processes is a big help in correcting that automatic “othering.”

The processes Christena Cleveland describes are at work in many of Dr. Seuss’s stories. AND they are also implicit in Jesus’ call to us to change our hearts, minds and lives and follow him and the faith community being like the body of Christ in which everyone is necessary and valued.

Join us this summer as each Sunday we explore what a Dr. Seuss story, social psychology and scripture teach us about being humans, faithfully following in God’s way.

 

God’s Love – No Exceptions

Have you ever met someone and within minutes discovered that you have all sorts of connections and people in common?

This happened to me recently with Ben Thiel who led an Adult Forum with his wife, Mary Vermillion, back in February.

From emails beforehand and conversations that day and after, I learned that we both grew up with parents who were VERY active in the Presbyterian Church. Both of Ben’s parents became Presbyterian ministers while my parents served the church in other ways. Our mothers served on several committees together and even traveled as part of a study delegation to Central America in the 80s. It also turns out that when Ben was a student at Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant he was active in the local Presbyterian church where a close friend of my parents was the pastor. Truly, the world is small and connected and wonderful!

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Ben and feel like we have so much in common. We have both have loved the church since childhood, love talking about how Jesus calls us to live and witness in our lives today, and are concerned about the ways in which our beloved church is a faithful witness to the kingdom of God in the world today—and when it is not.

Part of the challenge, of course, is Christians do not agree on what that faithful witness looks like. One of the most visible and vocal disagreements among Christians right now in around the place of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning) persons in the church, society, and public bathrooms.

Ben and I share a similar understanding of what the church’s response to LGBTQ people should be. We were both raised by parents who taught that God loves everyone (no exceptions) and that all have a place in the household of God, particularly the outcast and those called “sinners.”*

However, we recognize that not everyone else shares that perspective. Christians do not have a universal understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible, where to put the emphasis in interpretation, and what it means to love someone else.

Ben has a unique perspective on this “issue” because while he was born a girl, from a very young age he identified as a boy. At the February adult forum, Ben and his wife, Mary, read from the memoir they wrote together. For much of his early life, Ben lived in the uncomfortable tension of his outsides (birth sex = female) not matching his insides (gender identity = male). When puberty came, Ben (then Beth) buried those feelings…until several years into Beth’s and Mary’s relationship, when that cognitive dissonance came back with a vengeance and Beth made the transition to Ben.

What was most impressive to me when listening to Ben that Sunday was no matter how he questioned his own identity, what was never in question was God’s love for him, exactly as he was. (A close second was Mary’s story of how she came to understand that she loved a person and not a particular gender.)

Because I think that message is so important for all of us to hear in our own struggles as well as part of the debate surrounding the rights and “rightness” of transgender people, I asked the Session if we might have Ben share more about his story and the role his faith has played in that in worship one Sunday. They agreed and Ben will be preaching on Sunday, June 19.

While we may not all agree, view or understand human sexuality (in its ever more varied expression) the same way, I hope we can agree that God’s love is bigger than us. Please join us—and invite others, too—to hear Ben’s witness to God’s love for him, no matter what.

Grace and peace to you!

Pastor Lori

PS If you find yourself feeling in any way troubled about this, I hope you will talk to me. I would be very glad to have a conversation with anyone!

 

*Here’s a slightly fuller explanation of my own interpretation of scripture:

All of scripture is best read in light of the whole story. What I see in the biblical story arc is a trajectory towards acceptance for all:

  • Early on, God chooses Abraham and Sarah to be his particular people, but blesses them for the purpose of blessing others. In doing so, God attempts to move people from the tribal, circle the wagons mentality toward an understanding of how we belong to each other.
  • Strangers and foreigners play an important role in critical moments of Israel’s history—for example, Rahab the prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2), Ruth the Moabite shows what loving-kindness looks like (Ruth), Cyrus the king of Persia allows the Jews in exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1).
  • In Matthew 1:1-17, Jesus’ own genealogy includes the names of four women who were either foreigners or women of questionable character. In his ministry, Jesus was always pushing the boundaries of inclusion—for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30).
  • The boundary pushing continues in the Acts of the Apostles—for example, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch (condemned by the law as unclean and an abomination) whose faithfulness astounds him (Acts 8:26-40) and Peter receives a vision and an encounter in which God challenges his understanding of what and who is “clean” and “unclean” (Acts 10).

Because of this trajectory, I see God’s invitation to us to constantly question who is “insider” and who is “outsider” and to do everything in our power to break down those barriers.

April “Shower” for Babies in Need!

As part of our “Love in Action” program, our children and youth are asking church members and friends to donate baby items for families in need. Bring them to worship on Sundays, April 10, 17 and 24 and the kids will then deliver the items to Waypoint Services on Wednesday, April 27.

The most needed items are:

  • baby wipes
  • baby shampoo and soap
  • diapers (size 3 and up)

 

Waypoint Services (located in downtown Cedar Rapids) helps women and children  living in poverty and provides shelter for families escaping domestic violence.

Thanks for supporting our kids and the wider community!

diapers and wipes

Reflection for Good Friday

Preached at the Good Friday Service on March 25, 2016

Text – Mark 15:16-39

The news, Dear God, the news. This week, and every week lately.

An ever growing list of terrorist attacks, most recently in Brussels, Yemen, Turkey.

An ever growing list of mass shootings in our own country

Endless political rhetoric on the news, on talk shows, on social media.

The anxiety so many people feel about Donald Trump, what he says, what he does, that he keeps winning, and what that says about the state of our country.

There’s also the refugee crisis in Europe, growing anti-Muslim sentiment there and here, and in the US the ever-present problem of racism, and the latest backlash against LGBT people.

Closer to home, I was disheartened this week to read about the apartment complex in Iowa City that is one of that offers affordable rent in that city, essentially evicting tenants in order to renovate. Where will these families living so close to the edge financially go?

And, we’ve had a rash of burglaries in our area. Sometimes while people are in their homes. Many of us choose to live here because we haven’t felt like we had to lock our doors and windows. Until now.

The news, dear God, the news. It’s been disheartening for weeks, for months.

I’ll admit something to you—I have been incredibly grateful for the season of Lent in the midst of all of it.

Because Lent is a time during which we are encouraged to take a careful, honest look at ourselves, our families and communities, our world. Are we living as Christ wanted us to live? How are we missing the mark? In what ways have we failed God and each other? We turn to God in prayer, asking God to show us what we might do differently, how we might live and think and view things differently, more in tune with Jesus.

It is also a time—Holy Week, especially—in which we acknowledge the suffering and injustice that continue to exist.

I was tempted to have us sit with the suffering tonight, but I feel like we need to get to the hope part. At least a glimpse of it. And here again, this season offers that as well.

We started Lent with ashes, a symbol of death, the reality that none of us gets out of here alive. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

More than that, ashes are a symbol of the worst we human beings can do to one another, to our planet. But they are not the last word, the final word because God makes beautiful things out of dust. So these ashes are both honest and hopeful.

That’s how the season of Lent begins, and now we reach the end today, on Good Friday—the day when everything went wrong. Jesus was betrayed by Judas and abandoned by the remaining 11, those who were supposedly closest to him; the most powerful in the land—the religious elites, the ones who operated hand in glove with the Roman Empire—removed the threat Jesus was to them through the official channels—and unjust trial, trumped up charges, and horrific violence meant to terrify everyone, with a healthy does of humiliation thrown in for good measure.

For Jesus’ followers, the bottom dropped out of their world and it appeared that all hope was lost.

It is this last experience of Good Friday—the bewilderment, the disappointment, the fear for the future—that I think many of us can relate to right now. Am I right? Do you feel we’re somewhere in between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, everything shifting and appearing to have gone terribly, terribly wrong? Afraid of what the future might bring?

Honestly, because I have felt sparks and embers of hope in this season. I almost hate to have Holy Week and Easter be in the rearview mirror.

Because in them I feel less afraid. This story does not end with Good Friday, with Jesus’ death on the cross and his body laid in a tomb. This story promises that what seems like the end of the world is not, and that even when all seems lost God is up to something we can neither see nor imagine. God is on the side of life, of love, of hope, of goodness. Always. Whether we can see what God is up to or not.

Let’s be honest for a moment, as we take a peek ahead to Easter Sunday. In spite of the empty tomb, the risen Jesus, the bewildered disciples, do you know what still remained? The Roman Empire. The corrupt religious authorities. They were still there. By some inexplicable divine power, God raised Jesus from the dead but the earthly powers remained in place.

And yet…the world, the balance of power was different.

After the truth of the resurrection had a chance to sink in, after the disciples trusted the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in themselves and in the world around them, they were no longer afraid. And they got to work, following in Jesus’ footsteps, living with love and mercy.

So here is the truth: On the face of things, the resurrection changes nothing. And yet, it changes everything.

Mark tells us that at the very moment of Jesus’ death the temple curtain, that heavy fabric that marked the boundaries of where it was believed God lived—God’s very address—that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.

The implication? God was on the loose, no longer contained in the temple (if God ever was) but out there and active in the world.

Here is the truth of this day:

God is with us, at work in us and in the world. This is where we can place our trust.

When all seems to have gone wrong, when the world seems shrouded in darkness, placing our trust in hope, in God, in the promise that since God is for us, who can be against us—

this is the ultimate act of faith, it is the ultimate work of faith.

Let us pray:

O God who never lets us go, whether in times of darkness and fear or times of joy and gladness: You are in the present moment, working your purposes out. Be with us now (or rather, help us to be present with you). Help us not to fear shadows, whether those around us in the moment or the ones we fear may come to pass. Help us to listen for your voice as we walk through the valley of darkness. Give us the courage, strength and faith to trust you, to follow you, to hang on to hope. In Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.

light in the darkness photo

Photo by B.S. Wise

Making Paper Butterflies – March 20 & 23

On Easter Sunday this year, we’ll be covering the cross with paper butterflies instead of fresh flowers. We need your help to make those butterflies!

Sunday, March 20 – During Sunday School (11:00-Noon), the children will make butterflies out of coffee filters, paper plates and plain paper.

Wednesday, March 23 – Starting at 2:00, adults are welcome to make butterflies, too.

Or, you can make your own at home. There are LOTS of ways to make butterflies, but here are the links to the methods we’ll be using:

http://uklassinus.blogspot.com/2008/06/butterflies.html

http://www.redtedart.com/2015/03/09/coffee-filter-butterfly-crafts-for-preschoolers/

http://www.pinkstripeysocks.com/2015/08/make-watercolor-paper-plate-butterflies.html

Easter Sunday – March 27

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, three broken-hearted women approached the tomb of their beloved friend and teacher, Jesus. They expected to anoint his body for burial, making their final good-bye. Instead, they found the stone was rolled away, the tomb empty and an angel declaring, “Don’t be afraid! He has been raised, he is not here!”

Join us for worship at 9:30 am as we sing “Alleluia!” and celebrate this good news that “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”

Service includes the Butterfly-ing of the Cross, as we cover the cross with paper butterflies as a symbol of new life and rebirth. (Make your own or use a butterfly created by others.)

An Easter Egg Hunt for children up to Grade 4  will take place following worship in Memorial Park (rain/cold location – in the church)

 

Good Friday Service – March 25

Join us as we gather to remember the day that terrible day when all seemed lost. Even when the events of our lives and our world seem hopeless, with God, it is never the end.

Service includes the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

7:00 pm in the Sanctuary

Jesus on the Cross photo

Photo by lars hammar

 

Palm to Passion Sunday – March 20

On this first day of Holy Week, we begin with waving palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” as we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will have palm branches for everyone. Children of any age are invited to process in with their branches.

Then, our focus turns to “the rest of the story” as we read through Mark’s version of the last hours of Jesus’ life–the last supper, praying in the garden, Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ arrest, the trial, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the crucifixion, and his death and burial.

9:30 am in the Sanctuary