August 27, 2017 Sermon – Nevertheless, Joy

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

Week 7 (Final) – Ecclesiastes: Nevertheless, Joy

Ecclesiastes 2:18-3:8

Preached by Rev. Lori Wunder at First Presbyterian Church, Mount Vernon, Iowa on August 27, 2017

So, I’m reading a novel right now. Actually, I’m re-reading it. I finished it on vacation and decided it was so good, I wanted to read it again. It’s called When the English Fall by David Williams and it was just published last month. (Fun Fact: The author is also a Presbyterian minister, serving a church in Maryland—which is why I know about the novel. Because Presbyterian pastors stick together.)

The book is written as the journal of an Amish man named Jacob as he describes a huge solar storm that causes planes to fall out of the sky, phones and computers and motors of all kinds to cease working, and all that comes after this event. The Amish community in which Jacob and his family live is largely unaffected, but the “modern” (as the Amish call it, “English”) society around them begins to unravel and before long, it reaches the Amish, too.

It’s a fascinating premise and I have to admit—it feels somehow timely with the general madness of the world around us.

It is also a book about faith. Jacob prays and reflects on how he believes God is at work in him, in the crisis, in the world. Even with such a troubling backdrop, there is hope and trust in this book.

Why am I beginning my sermon with a book review? Because I think it is Ecclesiastes in a nutshell.

Just a few reminders about Ecclesiastes:

It is attributed to Keholeth, the Teacher, who is purported to be Solomon, the wise heir of David. Like Proverbs, the collection of wisdom writings here is very likely aimed at young men of means in Hebrew society. Unlike Proverbs, rather than teaching mainstream thinking that living in ways that are righteous, taking the straight and narrow path, will lead to wealth and happiness, Ecclesiastes recognizes that it’s not always that simple. Chapter 7:15 says, “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.”

One of the Teacher’s favorite words is “hebel,” a Hebrew word that is difficult to translate. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is translated as “vanity” but in the Common English Bible that we read two weeks ago, it was “pointless.” Other possible translations include meaninglessness, absurdity and emptiness.

Ecclesiastes begins with, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (1:2, NRSV)

This morning we read, “This also is vanity and chasing after the wind.” That phrase “chasing after the wind” is also a bit difficult to translate; the point is that it is pointless and impossible.

This theme of vanity and pointlessness is heard throughout the 12 chapters.

And so is this:

“There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.” (2:24)

And a few verses after the “everything has its time” section:

“I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (3:12)

But let’s be clear—the Teacher is not advocating, “ do whatever feels good.” This is not about a life of hedonism and self-indulgence. It is about finding joy in the everyday things of life—eating and drinking, marriage and friendships, satisfaction in our work. We enjoy these things in spite of the reality that calamity may strike at any moment, and that people don’t always get what they deserve. Rather, the Teacher wants his students to understand that God works in mysterious ways, AND is the creator and provider of life’s blessings and gifts.

As Ecclesiastes 11:5 puts it, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”

Ellen Davis again:

“The key verb in the book is not “seize” but “give,” which occurs twenty-eight times in these twelve chapters—and most often the one who gives is God. The essential message, then, is “Receive the gift.” We practice the core religious virtue of humility by noting with pleasure, day by day, the gifts that come to us from God. And the truth is, most of those are given so regularly that we never even pause to recognize them for the gifts they are.”[1]

And this is why the novel I am reading is shouting “Ecclesiastes!” at me. Jacob, the Amish narrator constantly expresses gratitude for God’s good gifts of family and friends and community, the earth that produces so much abundant food, the satisfaction of hard work done well. He sees everything in his life as a gift and blessing—his wife and children, their home and fields and trees and animals, their community, their faith. There is a clear recognition of their need for one another, such as when a tree in a storm lands on a neighbor’s roof and the community comes together to fix it the next day, or to harvest apples or shock oats. Not a blessing goes by that Jacob does not recognize and give thanks for.

He is not immune to the terrible confusion and difficulty that hits the English, and the anxiety that comes with hardship and the unknown. However, through prayer, through trust in God’s provision and those with whom he shares his faith, Jacob and his community persevere in faith, hope and love.

In contrast are the English, who are so busy and distracted, so stressed and unhappy, even before the catastrophe.

While it is “only” a novel, and it’s premise of our technology-based society coming to crashing halt is only fiction (or so I hope!) there is much truth in it.

Our culture, our economy depends upon our relentless consumption and the pursuit of more, as well as a constant injection of whom or what we should fear. When we are busy eating the bread of anxious toil (as Psalm 127 so aptly puts it), how can we possibly be aware of the goodness, kindness, and provision that surround and uphold us?

The Teacher, Kohelet, would say—we can’t determine the future, we can only live in the present and receive the pleasures and opportunities it offers [paraphrased Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God, p. 113].

This is not to say we ignore the problems that exist in our own lives, our communities, the wider society. But it is to say that as we seek to live in God’s way, to teach our children kindness, to demonstrate love in all we do, to work for justice for all creation, we also keep our eyes and hearts and minds wide open to receive the joy.

Henri Nouwen said, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

Here’s an invitation for you: today, or tomorrow, or throughout the week make a list of ten things—at least ten things!—for which you are grateful. Remind yourselves of the many good gifts, the blessings that surround and uphold you. Choose joy.

Life is a mystery, and it is a beautiful gift. It is not a rose garden, but there are roses to be found. And there is nothing better for us than to sing in the lifeboats. Amen.

 

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, 2001. pp. 107-108

 

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!

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