August 13, 2017 Sermon – Is Everything Pointless?!??

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

Week 6: Is Everything Pointless?!??

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (Common English Bible)

There is nothing new under the sun, says “the Teacher” of Ecclesiastes.

What a fitting verse since I have been feeling a strange sense of deja vu this week.

We have had a verbal sparring match with North Korea that could lead to the launch of nuclear warheads. I thought we had settled this in the 80s and decided nuclear war was mutually assured destruction and therefore a bad idea?

Then Saturday morning, President Trump suggested at a press conference that military intervention in Venezuela—where democracy has truly gone off the rails—was a possibility. I thought we had figured out that invading another country because we don’t like the way their leader is doing things doesn’t work and only puts us deeper in debt?

And then, of course, there was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. Confederate flags, but also Nazi flags and arms raised in the “Heil Hitler” salute; rhetoric lifted directly from Nazi propaganda from 80 years ago. All of it done quite openly and without apology. This is the one that really gets me. I thought that, except for a few hold-outs, humanity had collectively decided that the Nazis are the universally acknowledged bad guy.

But apparently, history is repeating itself.

Which is not to say that I am viewing these events with a shrug of my shoulders. It is more with disbelief and grief.

People of Color—who are on the front lines every day—aren’t surprised by what is happening in Charlottesville. A friend and colleague in Raleigh, NC, who is black, posted on Facebook yesterday:

“… Outside of my prayers and concerns for all involved, I really don’t have anything to say (this is the point at which you may or may not understand that what is happening makes people of color like me “tired”). I am not shocked or surprised at what is happening. Many may blame the current administration for what is happening but in reality we are seeing the fruits of racism that has been planted and rapidly germinating – since about 1619.”

Our Jewish brothers and sisters have been warning us this was coming. That was part of the reason we decided to include Hebrew as well as Arabic on our “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign.

There are a few things that need to be acknowledged this morning:

White supremacists carrying torches on Friday night and surrounding a group of University of Virginia students; groups of angry young white men attacking individual black men with the poles of the flags they were carrying; driving a car into a crowd of people; and yes—paramilitary groups dressed in tactical gear and armed with assault weapons—these are violent actions specifically designed to intimidate, to make those who disagree with them afraid.

We need to name this for what it is: Racism. Sin. Domestic Terrorism. Wrong.

And deeply embedded in our history and culture. White people—this is in us and on us. My fellow white people, we do not have the luxury of looking away. We have soul searching to do.

Because although this is happening in Charlottesville, far away in Virginia, it could be happening anywhere.

Charlottesville is a progressive college town, surrounded by more conservative areas of the state. Just like Iowa City, or Ames, or Cedar Falls.

The car that plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors? It was from Ohio. This was not just a “local problem.”

Charlottesville is us. White Supremacy flyers for a group called National Alliance were distributed in the Quad Cities this week. I not infrequently see trucks flying confederate flags in Cedar Rapids. Thanks to the internet, groups promoting these beliefs are available to any angry young white man (and yes—that is the demographic we need to be concerned about), anywhere. The sin of racism is right here in our midst.

Still here in our midst. Shouldn’t we know better by now?

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

The opening lines of Ecclesiastes seem right on target—cynical, jaded, weary.

Biblical scholar Ellen Davis notes that she met a Vietnam War chaplain who said Ecclesiastes was the only part of the Bible his soldiers were willing to hear. And she has a former student prone to depression who said that reading Ecclesiastes is like “slipping into a warm bath.”[1]

The Book of Proverbs exhibits mainstream thinking on wisdom, that living in ways that are righteous, the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness while the ones who follow temptation or steal from or mistreat others will end up ruined. It’s like a reliable mathematical equation—do that, and this will happen.

Ecclesiastes knows that while this equation sometimes holds true, sometimes it doesn’t. Chapter 7:15 “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.”

There have always been those who wondered why Ecclesiastes made it into the canon, but I am grateful for the recognition that when we are being honest and vulnerable before God, even cynicism has a place.

As Ellen Davis says, in Ecclesiastes, “Alienation and despair are recognized as one moment, at least, in the journey toward faith.”[2]

We need this honesty, this lament for the times when we are feeling tired and weighed down by the events of our own lives, or the world around us.

But we don’t stay there. Ecclesiastes is one of 66 books in the Bible. I’ll talk more about Ecclesiastes on August 27 but let’s look to the rest of the Bible for guidance here, too.

One of the things we hear over and over again throughout scriptures in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is “Be not afraid.” And while it is rarely said, the idea is, “Don’t be afraid because God is with you.” We can trust God to help us, to guide us in our thinking and doing. White Supremacists and other terrorists are trying to make us afraid. The media use fear to keep us tuned in. Don’t be afraid. Trust God instead.

Here’s another thought:

At Easter this year it finally occurred to me that even though the tomb was empty and Jesus had been raised from the dead, the Roman Empire was still in charge along with the religious authorities who were more concerned about their position and power than the well-being of the poor. That was all still there. On the surface, it seemed like nothing had changed. But when Jesus’ followers trusted in God, and lived their lives as if the resurrection promises were true, they changed the world.

It was the people of God who believed and trusted in God who changed the world. And have continued to change the world. WE are the ones to change the world.

So even though we’re sitting here in disbelief that in 2017 we are still dealing with the KKK, with people who think the Nazis might have something to offer us, with people who think Jews are to blame for our problems, we are going to stand up and say, No. That’s not okay.

We are going to lead with love and compassion.

And we are not going to lose hope. Because that’s what it means to be the people of God.

Many years ago Voltaire wrote something which Ecclesiastes would agree with:

“Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”

So friends, let’s sing in the lifeboats. Together. Amen.

 

~ Rev. Lori Wunder

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Westminster Bible Companion: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, 2000. p. 159

 

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!

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.

 

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

 

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