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She Was Bent Over

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. Luke 13:10-13

Where did he touch her?  When Jesus laid his hands on the bent woman to heal her, where did he touch her?  It matters, you know.  Did he place his hands on her back as he stood over her, looking down on her crippled spine, feeling the bow of her brittle bones underneath his fingers?  Did the pressure of his hands add more weight to a back and a life already crippled by weight?  Did he tower over her in order to heal her in a posture that would remind anyone, especially this poor, insignificant, crippled old woman, of his power and authority?  I seriously doubt it.  I mean this is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus didn’t loom over people who were in need of healing.  Jesus didn’t add weight to those already struggling with heavy burdens.  Jesus didn’t use his power and his influence in a way that might make an already suffering woman feel even smaller, even more insignificant, even more oppressed.  No, I don’t think Jesus stood over this bent woman, putting his hands on her back.  I think he got down on his knees, his robes swirling in the dirt, his hair falling in his face as he stooped to meet this stooped woman face to face.  I imagine he had to crane his neck after he got down there so he could look into her eyes.  And then, in this position, I think he must have had to touch her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet, in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.  And by doing so, by touching her in this way, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.[1]

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] This image was developed from Jana Childers’ sermon on this passage entitled, “The Kyphotic Woman.”  Found on 30GoodMinutes.org

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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

I’ll be preaching on Mark 2:23 – 3:6 at a couple of different churches over the next couple of weeks.  It might be a little cheesy, but I’m thinking of starting with a couple funny church signs.  This one’s probably my favorite.  But the one that I want to take exception to is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  While Jesus’ “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” may at first blush have some relation to the relationship /  religion dichotomy.  I want to talk about how you can’t have the relationship without the religion.  The religion piece is only there to be used as a tool with which we strive to encounter Christ and have a relationship with God.  But without religion we can not have the relationship.

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By Faith–Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16

We recently discovered “Scaredy Squirrel” by Melanie Watt at our local library.  He’s a very funny squirrel who is very scared of “The Unknown.”  So he served as a wonderful metaphor for those of us who understand that God often calls upon us to take risks and jump into the unknown. Scaredy Squirrel also made for a very fun Children’s Time.  What follows is the sermon from the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“By Faith”

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 1st, 2010

Today’s text requires us to use our imagination.  In today’s text the unknown author of Hebrews recalls how Abraham and Sarah faithfully follow God to an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  The text describes this incredibly huge and difficult move by saying simply, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Surely it could not have been that simple, though.  Surely such a move could not have been as easy as the text makes it sound.  So we need to use our imagination to fill in the gaps and discover why Abraham and Sarah really do deserve to be honored as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah struggled when God called them to leave their country and their kindred and their family’s home and follow God into a yet to be seen land.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah needed some time to discern whether or not that was really what they wanted to do.  Sure, they were faithful people.  But when God calls you to something risky, even the most faithful need some time to decide whether they have the courage within themselves to make that leap of faith.

So I imagine Abraham and Sarah struggling with this decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine God’s call weighed heavy on them, consuming their thoughts and distracting them from all their every day tasks.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a long day of shepherding, his head full of thoughts, his head full of all that God had been asking of him…..and then, dog-gone-it, he goes and misses his exit.  Now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of stress-induced insomnia.  I imagine her keeping her mind busy by folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Hebrews defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is assurance.  Faith is conviction.  But because faith is believing in things not seen, faith is not certainty.  So faith brings risk.  We all know that those who step out in faith, those who follow God’s call, do not always live into happy endings.  Sometimes things just don’t work out.  Sometimes the faithful must face disappointment.

I read a pretty heartbreaking story in the Christian Century this week written by Craig Barnes.  Dr. Barnes teaches at Pittsburgh Seminary and writes to tell the story of one of his students.  “Martha Tidwell,” he writes, “sat before me wearing a blue pants suit and a weary face.  Four years ago she left her high-paying job as an accountant after having discerned, with her church’s help, that she was called by God to begin the process of becoming a pastor.  Her husband, Ted, was supportive and quit his job as well so that they could come to Pittsburgh to begin her studies.

They sold their house at a loss and moved their young family into a seminary apartment.  Although they lived frugally with Ted’s new, lower-paying job, they still had to take on considerable debt.  Over the next three years Martha devoted herself to theological studies while concurrently progressing through the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s lengthy process of discernment.  Finally she graduated with honors and was ready to serve as a pastor.  All she needed was a [church].

But after a year of applications, she hasn’t received even an interview.  The economic pressure is so great that she wonders if she should get another accounting job.  She was neither tearful nor angry as she told me this story,” Barnes writes.  “Mostly she was just confused as she wondered aloud if she and her church had misread the will of God.”[1]

Martha Tidwell’s story is not unique.  There are lots of people who feel called to a certain profession but who cannot find work.  There are lots of people who feel called into marriages and then find themselves facing the heartbreak of divorce.  There are lots of people who feel called to take stands on certain issues and then have to face the disappointment of friends turning their backs.  There are lots of people who feel called to do something, to say something, to be something, to follow God into unknown and risky land, only to find heartbreak, and disappointment, and confusion because things just didn’t work out like they had hoped and believed they would.

Abraham and Sarah’s own story could in fact be told as a story of disappointment.  Our text today says that “all of these (which includes Abraham and Sarah) died in faith without having received the promises.” God blessed Abraham and Sarah with children, with a family, with multitudes of descendents.  But Abraham and Sarah died before God made good on the promise of a homeland and of their people becoming a great nation. Abraham and Sarah lived the life of nomads, moving their tents from one place to the next.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have been a disappointment.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have left them confused and heartbroken and wondering why God had made them leave what they had behind.  “What’s the point of this?”  They could have easily been asking God.  But instead, our text says, those who died in faith without having received the promises saw those promises from a distance and greeted them. In other words they kept on believing.  They kept on hoping.  They kept on in their faith even though it was a faith in things that are not seen.

Not everyone understands faith.  Not everyone understands faith in a God whose promises can often only be seen from a distance.  Faith, for some, is just some overly sentimental delusion that keeps us from facing the realities of life.  Faith, for some, is simply not worth the risk.

But those of us who have taken the risk, those of us who have decided to go with God, go because we have faith that we do not go alone.  We trust that we are not left hanging all alone on this adventure of faith.  We trust that God is with us, just like God was with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Jesus.  The author of Hebrews reminds us today that the faith of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy faith and the God of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy God.  So we persist in faith even when the job doesn’t come.  We persist in faith even when our marriages break.  We persist in faith when we lose someone to death.  We persist in faith when we face challenges and situations that keep us up at night with worry and make us miss our exit on the drive home.  We persist in faith, not to delude ourselves from the realities of life, but to face them, head on, with hope, and conviction, and assurance that a better day, a new day is on the horizon, a better day, a new day is to come, a better day, a new day can be seen from the distance and can be greeted by all of God’s children.

And so we carry on by faith.  We move forward by faith.  We face our disappointment by faith.  We live through our heartache by faith.  We sort through our confusion by faith.  We risk everything and follow God by faith.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith brings risk.  Faith is not certainty.  Faith does not always lead us to the happy ending in this life.  But faith does keep our eyes tuned to the horizon.  Faith keeps our head up in hope, because we know that although God calls upon us to take the risk that comes with faith, God takes an even greater risk on us.  God takes an even greater risk in loving us fearful, hesitant human beings prone more to wander than to follow our Creator’s path.

God is willing to take a risk on us.  God is willing to step out in faith for us.  God is willing to sacrifice for us.  Such a God deserves the same from us.  Such a God is worthy of our faith and the risks that faith brings.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Cloud and Fire”, The Christian Century, July 27, 2010, pg. 35.

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Faith brings Risk

I am preaching on Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 this Sunday in which the author recalls the story of Abraham and Sarah who faithfully follow God into an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  About this incredibly huge and difficult move the text simply says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” This is one of those stories that requires us to use our imagination and read between the lines.  Because such a move, such a leap of faith on Abraham and Sarah’s part, could not have been as simple and as easy as the text makes it sound.

In fact, I imagine Abraham and Sarah really struggled with their decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine the decision plagued Abraham and Sarah and consumed their thoughts.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a days worth of shepherding, his head full of thoughts…..and then missing his exit—he just wasn’t thinking, he was so distracted—

and now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of insomnia over the whole thing.  I imagine her folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling just bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Faith means following God on the basis of a promise; a promise that God will be God, no matter what happens.  And that, no matter what happens, God will be with you.  So is it worth it?  Is God worth it?  Will you take the risk?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Distracted by Many Things–Luke 10: 38-42

It felt great to get back into the pulpit after two weeks of vacation.  Although it is a bear to write a sermon week in and week out, I miss the rhythm of it when I am away.  I miss the spiritual rhythm and practice of giving Jesus my full attention.  What follows is the sermon from the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

“Distracted by Many Things”

Luke 10: 38-42

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

July 18th, 2010

Imagine with me, if you will, that your spouse has just run into Jesus at the local Piggly Wiggly and invited him to your house for dinner tonight.  Knowing that this is a big deal, Jesus coming for dinner and all, your spouse appropriately calls you on the way home to give you a heads up.

Hi, honey, guess who I ran into at the store?  It was our old friend Jesus.  He was passing through town on his way to install an air conditioner unit in a friend’s mobile home.  I think he just needed a cold drink before heading out into this heat.  And well, anyways, we got to talking and I remembered what a great guy he is…so I just invited him over for dinner tonight.  Hope that’s okay with you.  He really seemed to appreciate the invitation.  What’s that? What time is he coming?  Oh…I guess around 6 or so.

You check your watch….it’s a quarter to 5.  Jesus will be in your home, sitting at your dining room table, eating your food, drinking your wine, and making conversation with your family in a little over an hour.

So what do you do?  How do you prepare?  How will you host the Savior of the world?

Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and under beds?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?  What would you do if Jesus was coming to your place in a little over an hour?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part.

Lots of people have struggled with this story from the Gospel of Luke.  It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to take Mary’s side who has left Martha to do all the work.   It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to ignore all of the hard work that hospitality requires.  I mean, c’mon Jesus, somebody has to cook the dinner, and set the table, and wash the dishes.  Somebody has to make sure the house is presentable, and the kids’ faces are clean, and the dog has been put out.  If Martha had ignored her many tasks, if Martha had wiled all of her time away sitting at Jesus’ feet like Mary, then Jesus would have gone home hungry.  And–as all you folks trained in Southern hospitality know– you never let your guest go home hungry.

So why is Jesus so hard on Martha?  Why does he say that Mary has chosen the better part?  The story that precedes this is Jesus telling the lawyer that he needs to go and do good, just like the Good Samaritan has done good.  Aren’t we supposed to be doers of the Word?  Aren’t we supposed to be people of action?  So why has Mary done better here?

Hospitality was very important in Jesus’ day.  So I believe that Jesus appreciated all of Martha’s hard work, I believe he appreciated what it takes to make someone feel truly welcome.  But in Martha’s welcome, in Martha’s hospitality, there was one crucial missing ingredient.  She did do lots of things.  But in all her doing, in all her busyness, and distractedness, and worrying, Martha didn’t pay attention to her guest.  A warm meal and a comfortable place to rest are wonderful but true hospitality means giving someone your full attention.

I’m sure we have all entered a conversation with someone who, after the conversation has started, you realize that that person is not all there.  That her mind is elsewhere, that she is distracted and that she is only pretending to be interested in you and in what you have to say.  Remember those conversations?  They don’t feel good, do they?  They don’t leave you feeling appreciated, or respected, or welcomed.  And that’s because they are inhospitable.  True hospitality means giving someone your full attention.  And this is what Martha failed to offer Jesus.

Which is odd seeing as Martha certainly would have understood the rules of hospitality. She too was living in a society and a culture where hospitality was of the utmost importance.  So why did Martha ignore her guest?  Why did she allow herself to get so distracted?  Why was she only half-listening when Jesus spoke?

Well, I think part of the answer lies in Martha’s own fear.  Jesus was sitting and talking to Mary in what was obviously a very intimate conversation.  Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently to everything her Savior was saying.  And Jesus, no doubt, was also directing all his attention to this beautiful woman at his feet, to this beautiful woman who had not only welcomed him into her home, but also into her mind and into her heart and into her life.  Mary and Jesus were fully wrapped up into one another.  And this, I believe, frightened Martha.  It frightened her to get that close to Jesus.  It frightened her to have all of Jesus’ attention fall on her.  It frightened her to be known by Jesus in such an intimate, close conversation, because Martha knew that she wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  So she avoided him.  She distracted herself from the whole situation.  She worried herself over the food that she was serving and over the house that she could never get clean enough.  She fussed over little things like the 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch that just never would hang straight and the bibles that always looked so dusty and unread.

Small talk is an interesting thing.  We make small talk when we don’t have the energy, or the time, or the interest in making ‘big’ talk….or real talk….I’d prefer to say.  Real talk delves deep.  Real talk allows us to really get to know each other.  Real talk brings us close.  Oftentimes I believe our spiritual lives and our relationship with Jesus amounts to a bunch of small talk.  We go to church, but our minds are sometimes elsewhere.  We offer up prayers to God, but we are only half-listening.  We do the right thing and we live good lives, but we don’t let Jesus come too close.  We don’t sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention.  Why? Well perhaps because we know that we aren’t good enough for Jesus either. And perhaps because we’re afraid that once Jesus gets a load of who we really are, once Jesus trains his attention on the real me, then he won’t be interested in coming around anymore.  So we avoid Jesus.  We distract ourselves and we worry ourselves with many things.

And the truth of the matter is that our fears are justified because we aren’t good enough for Jesus. We aren’t.  But Jesus comes anyway.  Jesus comes and gives us his full attention.  Jesus comes to us and welcomes us and offers us his hospitality, because even though we aren’t good enough he loves us anyway and he wants more from us than just a bunch of small talk.

I think the other reason why Martha didn’t offer Jesus her full attention was because Martha didn’t trust that Jesus really had anything for her.  Sure she’d heard all the stories of healings, and exorcisms, and miracles.  But what could Jesus do for her?  What could he possibly offer her?

We might think Martha is crazy for thinking this.  It would be crazy to think that a man whom you actually knew could heal people and perform miracles had nothing to offer you.  But she must have doubted.  She must have lacked in faith, or else she would have paid more attention to Jesus.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Martha, though, because I / we too often don’t trust or believe that Jesus has much to offer us either.  Sure, Jesus is great and all, but he isn’t a magician.  He can’t make all our troubles go away.  He can’t pay our bills or find us that great job or keep bad people away from our children.  Jesus can’t do all the paperwork that has piled up on my desk.  Jesus can’t get rid of that boss that I hate. Jesus can’t fix my relationship with my spouse or my friend.  Jesus can’t make my painful arthritis go away or bring back my loved one whose loss I am grieving terribly.  Jesus doesn’t have much to offer me.  Jesus doesn’t have what I really need.  So I give him some of my attention.  I mean he certainly deserves some of my attention.  But I don’t give him my full attention.

But, again, Jesus gives us his.  Jesus gives us his full attention.  Because apparently he has something he wants to give us that we’re just not getting.  Apparently he has something to give us that he thinks is worth our time and our attention.

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Yes, Jesus is not a magician.  Yes, Jesus can’t solve all of our problems.  But by sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  We will choose what is better than all that is worrying us and distracting us.  We will choose what is better than all of our fears and all of our small talk.  We will choose what is better than all of our grief, and all of our pain, and all of our hell on earth.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  Because by sitting at Jesus’ feet we sit in the presence of a peace that passes all understanding, we sit and receive words of truth and words of challenge said with care, we sit and focus not on the things of the world but on the things from above, we sit and receive an understanding of our own significance, we sit and receive a vision of hope, not of despair.  When we sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention we choose that which is better.  And according to God’s Word to us today, that which is better, that which Jesus offers, will not be taken away from us.

Now to the God of all that is better be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Distracted by Many Things

I am preaching on the Gospel text from Luke this Sunday.  It’s the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.  Martha runs around the house, busying herself with many tasks, until Jesus finally says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Imagine Jesus has just been invited to your home for dinner on short notice.  Take a look around.  Are you ready for Jesus?  Or would you make some changes?  Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and closets?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place where Jesus might notice?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?

What would you do if Jesus was coming to your home, to your private space, to your personal haven?  Could you let go of all worry and simply sit at Jesus’ feet?  Or would you be distracted by many things?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Don’t be a Fool!

It’s been a busy few weeks here.  So I am looking forward to two weeks of vacation to regroup and renew myself. I will be back in the pulpit on Sunday, July 18th.  What follows is the final sermon in my summer sermon series on Proverbs from this 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

“Don’t Be a Fool”

Proverbs 1:7, 15: 32-33

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 27th, 2010

Proverbs is not for those with fragile egos, it is not for those who get their feelings easily hurt because Proverbs is quick to call you a fool.

One of the principal characters in the book of Proverbs is the fool.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. According to Proverbs, the fool is someone who refuses correction or reproof.[1] Foolish people cannot seriously entertain the possibility that they might be in the wrong.  They are right and don’t you dare suggest otherwise!  And seeing as they are right, they have no need of criticism, constructive or otherwise, so they avoid it or shrug it off as inconsequential.  Foolish, foolish people.  You probably know someone like this.  You’re probably already fantasizing about handing a copy of this sermon to that foolish person in your life.

But….let’s be honest here….aren’t we all a little foolish sometimes?  How do you respond when your spouse, or your friend, or your parent ventures to tell you something about yourself that you know is true but that you don’t want to admit or accept as true?  When you are critiqued do you stop and say, “Why, thank you for sharing that with me!  I’ll certainly try to work on that in the future” and then go off and seethe and sulk for days or even months, all the while passively aggressively attacking the person who dared to say such a thing to you?  Or, when you are critiqued do you immediately take offense and then quickly and fiercely tick off all the things that are wrong with your critiquer?  You’re critiquing me!  Take a look at yourself!  Or, when you are critiqued do you smile, and nod, and say thank you, and then quietly and oh-so-subtly cut yourself off from that person, remove yourself from that relationship so you might never have to hear those difficult words again, so you’ll never have to face that truth again?  Aren’t we all a little foolish sometimes?

Wisdom is hard won.  Wisdom is hard won because it means not being foolish.  It means being open to criticism and critique and accepting those critiques that are true.  Wisdom means disciplining ourselves to seek out instruction, even when that instruction is in the form of truthful critique that is difficult and uncomfortable and leaves us feeling vulnerable and exposed, like we have just been gutted open and left for dead.

Most mainline churches today require their ministers to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Education.   For my friends and I in seminary, this meant spending a summer serving as chaplain interns in a clinical setting such as a hospital or a prison.  I did my CPE work as a chaplain in a mental health hospital.  The work is challenging.  Usually you face issues in these settings that you have never in your life faced before.  But even more challenging is the group work, IPR group, we called it, which stood for Interpersonal Relationships.  Once a week, you met with your IPR group made up of a number of your peers in ministry and a CPE supervisor.  In this group you confidentially discussed your cases and you discussed yourself, how you responded to people, how you cared for people, how you related to people, etc.  The CPE supervisor would constantly prod the discussion to go deeper and deeper, to get right down to the truth, to get right down to all the things you really didn’t want to talk about and all the things you didn’t want to hear.  Just imagine it as a group of people who would, week in and week out, call you on all your issues and force you to face them.  If you had issues with anger, you’d get called on them.  If you had issues with personal and professional boundaries, you’d get called on them.  If you had issues related to your family of origin, it would all get drudged up, hashed out and drawn out before God and the whole group.  It was terrible!  It was excruciating!  But we had to do it.  Every pastor friend I know has a horror story to tell from his or her CPE experience.  But, we all also grew from it.  We grew in wisdom.  We grew in self-awareness.  We grew in understanding.  And in that sense, the experience was invaluable.

Unlike some of their contemporaries, the Israelite sages subscribed to a dynamic understanding of human personhood.[2] We humans are made in the image of God, in the image of our dynamic, active, living God.  So human beings, the sages believed, are characterized by constant change, growth, or progress.  To avoid criticism and the growth that comes from it, then, to avoid new sources of knowledge and self-understanding, is not only foolish, but contrary to who we are as human beings, and contrary to who we are as reflections of our living God.

The one who breaks loose from discipline rejects his own self, but one who hears reproof acquires a heart. When we reject wisdom, the sages say, we actually reject our own self.  We reject who we were created to be as dynamic, growing, changing, and learning human beings.  When we reject wisdom, we reject life itself.

I planted a garden once.  It didn’t go so well.  At first I was all excited about the project.  I spent the majority of one whole day working on it.  I tilled the soil.  I planted sugar snap peas, and zucchinis, tomatoes and peppers.  I planted marigolds all around the edge.  When I was finished I was exhausted.  But I had the perfect, neat little garden.  And then I forgot about it.  I guess my enthusiasm for the whole project just waned after spending all that time on it at the beginning.  I still checked on the garden every once in a while.  But I didn’t weed it.  And I didn’t water it.  I didn’t do anything to actually help it grow.  Eventually the weeds took over and choked the life out of my neat little garden.  It wasn’t long before it shriveled up and died.

We human beings are a lot like a vegetable garden.  If we want to know life as God intends us to know life, then we need to be watered and nurtured, loved and fed.  We also need to be weeded and pruned, directed and redirected by people in our life who love us enough to tell us the truth.

We can foster these relationships.  If we value the growth that can come from them, then we can seek people out who will tell us the truth.  I’m excited about a friendship that I have had for about five years but that is just now getting to the point where we can tell each other the truth; the hard truths, I mean.  My friend and I have always been truthful with each other but now we are getting to the place in our relationship when we can say things like, “You know, you hurt my feelings when you said that.”  Or things like, “I know this may not be what you want to hear, but I think this is something you really need to work on.”  I’m excited about this friendship because such relationships don’t just happen.  It takes a while to get to this place of trust.  It takes a while for us to feel safe enough with another person to give and receive the truth.

Dan and I work hard on this aspect of our relationship.  We know that a healthy marriage means being able to tell each other the truth.  And after you work at it, you come to learn how to best tell the truth so the other person can really hear you.  For instance, Dan knows by now that he needs to tell me something he likes about my sermon before he tells me what he hates about it.  We need people in our life who love us enough to tell us the truth.

The fear of the Lord is discipline, wisdom; and before glory, meekness. The NRSV actually translates the end of this verse as “and humility goes before honor.” Proverbs, as I mentioned before is not for those with fragile egos.  The Israelite sages who wrote these words of wisdom meant to knock us down a peg or two.  They meant to call us foolish if we so arrogantly believe we are always right, if we so arrogantly act as if we are above criticism and critique.  Humility and meekness are the virtues they applaud.  Humility and meekness, an open heart, a willing spirit, and a desire to grow, and change, and better ourselves so we can truly reflect the God in whose image we were made.

As I conclude this sermon series on Proverbs, I am thankful for all the practical wisdom that has emerged from this underutilized book of the Bible.  I am thankful for its reminder that we are to keep good company, that we need to surround ourselves with people who bring us to life, not to death.  I am thankful for its teaching on money and on prudence, that we are to live and act and spend with care and thought for the future, not just our future.  I am thankful for its insistence that we raise our children with good moral character, and for its reminder that the morals for which we are to strive are righteousness, justice, and equity.  And I am thankful to know that the beginning of knowledge is fear of the Lord, not fear of the world or fear of what others might think, but fear of the Lord and what the Lord might think.  It would be foolish to avoid such advice.  It would be foolish to avoid the truths offered to us from these ancient, yet timeless words.

The end of the first chapter of Proverbs reads, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.”[3] My friends, let’s not be deemed a bunch of fools.  Instead, let’s open the gates and let wisdom in.  Let’s open the gates to this wise woman of Proverbs who has come to tell us the truth so we might truly live.

Now to the God of all wisdom, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA, 2001), pgs. 98-99.

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA, 2001), pg. 99.

[3] Proverbs 1:20-21

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