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Posts Tagged ‘proverbs’

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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I am enjoying preaching through Proverbs because I am learning so much about the book as a whole. Doing a sermon series such as this also keeps my preaching fresh because I am challenged by all these passages that I have never preached before.  I hope others are getting as much out of these sermon series as the preacher!  What follows is the sermon from the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Getting Rich Quick”

Proverbs 13:11, 20:21, 28:20, 28:22

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 13th, 2010

They say, “Money talks.”  But we don’t talk much about money, do we?  We, meaning we people of faith, we church folks, we Christian-living types.  Sure we’ll have our occasional stewardship drive.  We’ll talk about the church’s budget and how we are going to pay for that new fellowship hall.  But none of this gets too personal.  None of this involves our day-to-day financial decisions.  I mean we are polite people after all.  We certainly don’t want to offend.  And talking about how we manage our personal finances….well that just might really offend.

Money is one of those taboo topics avoided in polite conversation because it hits close to home.  Our money is our security.  It is our key to every locked door.  It is our god (little “g”).  We underestimate the power money has over us until, like a disgruntled lover, it threatens to leave us…or actually does leave us, and we suddenly realize what an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with money we actually had.

I didn’t want to preach about money today.  I’ve been stewing over this sermon all week.  Not only do I not want to offend.  But I’m also afraid of what I might hear.  I asked a Christian friend once to help me with a decision over whether or not to buy a new car.  She said I should go buy a nice used one.  Which wasn’t what I was hoping she’d say.  I’m also a little afraid of exposing my own bad behavior.  I bought that new car….lured into it by it’s new car smell. So I’ve been stewing over this sermon.  Wishing I could avoid it.  But also knowing that talking about our money would do us all some good.  The last sermon in this series will reveal that a recurring theme in Proverbs is that a fool is someone who avoids wise council.  And I certainly don’t want to be a fool.  So we’re talking about money today.

Proverbs does share some good, practical wisdom when it comes to our money.  Some good, practical wisdom that would be foolish to avoid.

Proverbs preaches against fast money.  According to the Israelite sages, money that is quickly made (and quickly spent) is unstable and easily lost.  An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end. (20:21).  Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little will increase it. (13:11) In a culture that values fast food, fast cars, and instant-gratification-impulse-buys, Proverbs advises us to slow down when it comes to our money.  Be more deliberate.  Be more careful.  Be more conscious of what you are buying and what you are supporting with your powerful dollars and cents.

Amazon.com knows my weakness for buying books so they exploit it terribly by placing a large glowing button on my computer screen that says, “BUY NOW with 1 CLICK”.   Yes, with one quick click of my mouse I can buy a book, or a DVD, or a new pair of shoes, or anything else in all the world (since Amazon sells literally everything now.)  I don’t have to go and get my credit card.  They conveniently keep all my information on file.  I need not worry about shopping around for a good price because they guarantee a good price.  In fact I need not worry at all, or think for that matter.  All I need to do is click “BUY” and the book will be delivered to my door in days, or seconds if I decide to go with a wireless book.

The Israelite sages certainly had no frame of reference for online shopping and the speed with which money comes and money goes in our society today.  But even in the days when shekels were exchanged the writers of Proverbs recognized that fast money isn’t very valuable because we don’t stop to consider what it is worth.  We often hear the advice to stop and ask yourself if you really need something before you buy it, or if you just want it.  But beyond purchases of food, clothing, and adequate shelter, it’s pretty hard to label much of anything as a real need. So in light of what we have already learned about the wisdom of Proverbs perhaps we should be asking ourselves if the desired use of our money is just?  Is it righteous?  Will it promote equity amongst our friends and our neighbors here in this country and around the world?  Are we using our money in ways that will give glory to God?  Or are we just glorifying our own desires for more?  Slow down when it comes to your money, Proverbs advises us today.  Be more deliberate.  Be more thoughtful.

Proverbs also warns us about the unstable, unsteady character of a person who wants to get rich. The faithful will abound with blessings, but one who is in a hurry to be rich will not go unpunished. (28:20) The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come. (28:22) This last proverb can be more literally translated as, “The person who is in a hurry to get rich is troubled for wealth.” The person who wants to get rich is troubled. The person who wants to get rich is not content with what he already has.  He is not at peace.  He wants more.

This morning Dan is preaching a brilliant sermon at Brownson Presbyterian in which he tells the story of King Ahab.  King Ahab was a man who had much more than he deserved.  He reigned as the King over Israel for twenty-two years.  He was successful in battle.  He had many sons.  He managed his affairs from a stronghold in Samaria while also maintaining a palace in Jezreel where he spent his winters. But all of this was not enough for Ahab.  He wanted more.  He noticed a nice spot for a vegetable garden.  Problem was that there was already a vineyard there that belonged to a man named Naboth.  Naboth refused to sell the vineyard to Ahab and so the King sulked, he grew sullen, he was “troubled” by the vineyard that he could not have.  He was so troubled in fact that his wife Jezebel decided to act on Ahab’s behalf.  She had Naboth stoned to death on false charges.  Ahab got his vineyard in the end.

We don’t have much sympathy for a character like Ahab.  We don’t have much sympathy for corrupt CEOs, for greedy Wall Street tycoons, for individuals who have bankrupted themselves and lost their homes because of their exorbitant debt.   We don’t have much sympathy for such characters.  But it is hard not to be “troubled” for more while living in America today.

We are constantly ambushed by advertising and by messages meant to tap into our selfish, self-centered, and greedy desires.  We are constantly deluded into thinking that we need and even deserve the bigger house, the better car, the faster computer, and the latest in style.  And it’s not just material things we covet, we can also be “troubled” for more recognition, more success, more love, more time.  Proverbs warns us, though, that such greed leads us fast to shaky moral ground.  And it leads us to an uncertain, unstable state of discontent, a troubled state where we cannot be at peace with what we have because all we can see is what we don’t have.

Finally, Proverbs advises us to be prudent with our money.  Prudence isn’t a virtue highly admired among us any more.  Parents no longer name their daughters Prudence.[1] But it is a biblical virtue to which our scriptures consistently point.  To act prudently is to act with care and thought for the future.  To act prudently in the proverbs sense is to act with care and thought for the future keeping the Godly ideals of righteousness, justice, and equity in mind.  Being prudent with our money, then, will require us to slow down and carefully consider each purchase.  Is this purchase just?  Is this purchase righteous?  Will this purchase promote equity amongst the people of God?  Being prudent with our money will also require us to overcome our selfish greed as we act with care for the future, not just our future.

So when we consider what food to buy, when we consider the produce at the local farmer’s market or the produce at our local grocery store, we need to think prudently, we need to consider the future, not just our future.

When we consider what clothes to buy or what toys to buy or what coffee to buy, we need to consider where these products were made and by whom, we need to think prudently, we need to consider the future, not just our future.

When we consider where to invest and in whom to invest, we need to consider the corporations we are supporting with our money, we need to think prudently, we need to consider the future, not just our future.

When we consider drilling a new oil well off the Gulf of Mexico, when we consider drilling a new oil well in deeper water than we have ever drilled before, we need to think prudently, we need to consider the future, not just our future.

Now I know all this prudent thinking can get overwhelming fast.   Life was a lot simpler and a lot slower when the Israelite sages were scribbling ink on papyrus and recording the wisdom of proverbs.  Our daily financial decisions come and go in the blink of an eye.  But this doesn’t mean that the wisdom of Proverbs no longer applies.  This doesn’t mean that living prudently is impossible.  In fact, the true wisdom of Proverbs lies in its simplicity.  Slow down.  Think about what you are doing with your money.  Consider the wider implications of your purchases for the children, for the planet, for the future.  Living prudently doesn’t sound so overwhelming when stated so simply.  Proverbs offers us wise council today, wise council that would be foolish to avoid when the future is at stake.

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


[1] Ellen F. Davis,  Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, (Westminster Bible Companion, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 118.

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Getting Rich Quick

Money talks.  But we don’t talk about money.  It’s one of those taboo topics.  Why?  Perhaps because it hits so close to home.  Our money is our security.  It is our key to every locked door.  It is our god (little “g”).  Money is powerful. It can be the root of all evil or it can do great good.  It all depends on how it is used.  So we should talk about it.  Especially in the church where we talk about the things in life that really matter.

This week Proverbs gives us all some good, practical advice on how to use our money wisely.

Proverbs preaches against fast money.  According to the Israelite sages, money that is quickly made (and quickly spent) is unstable and easily lost.  An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end. (20:21).  Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little will increase it. (13:11) In a culture that values fast food, fast cars, and instant-gratification-impulse-buys, Proverbs advises us to slow down when it comes to our money.  Be more deliberate.  Be more careful.  Be more conscious of what you are buying and what you are supporting with your powerful dollars and cents.

Proverbs also warns us about the unstable, unsteady character of a person who wants to get rich. The faithful will abound with blessings, but one who is in a hurry to be rich will not go unpunished. (28:20) The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come. (28:22) The person who wants to get rich is not content with what he already has.  He wants more.  And he usually wants more quickly.  It’s really hard not to be this kind of person living in America today.  We are constantly ambushed by advertising meant to tap into our selfish, self-centered, and greedy desires.  We are constantly deluded into thinking that we need and even deserve the bigger house, the better car, the faster computer, and the latest in style.  Proverbs warns us that such greed leads us fast to shaky moral ground.  It also leads us to an uncertain, unstable state of discontent, where we cannot be at peace with what we have because all we can see is what we don’t have.

Finally, Proverbs advises us to be prudent with our money.  Prudence isn’t a virtue highly admired among us any more.  Parents no longer name their daughters Prudence.[1] But it is a biblical virtue to which our scriptures consistently point.  To act prudently is to act with care and thought for the future.  To act prudently in the proverbs sense is to act with care and thought for the future keeping the Godly ideals of righteousness, justice, and equity in mind.  Being prudent with our money, then, will require us to slow down and carefully consider each purchase.  Is this purchase just?  Is this purchase righteous?  Will this purchase promote equity amongst the people of God?  Being prudent with our money will also require us to overcome our selfish greed as we act with care for the future, not just our future.  This means slowing down to consider whether our money, our investments, our tax dollars are going towards building, sustaining, and redeeming God’s creation so that there can be a future for all of God’s children.

Proverbs gives us a lot to think about and talk about when it comes to our money.  So I pray that the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of all of our hearts are acceptable to You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] Ellen F. Davis,  Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, (Westminster Bible Companion, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 118.

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This past Sunday we recognized two young women from our congregation who have just graduated from high school and will be attending college this fall.  Proverbs has lots of advice for young people and the text for Sunday seemed particularly appropriate for these two young women who would soon be heading off to college to meet and make new friends.  But, of course, we can all stand to be reminded to choose our friends wisely and to be advised about what to do when we don’t.  What follows is the sermon from the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“Keeping Good Company”

Proverbs 1: 8-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 6th, 2010 – Graduate Recognition Sunday

TK, SH, I saw your prom pictures.  Beautiful!  You are beautiful young women.  This is one of those moments in worship when I wish I had a big screen….I could display your pictures…..10 feet tall….

I didn’t go to prom, but I did get married and I imagine it’s a lot like that where getting ready for the party or the wedding is just as much fun as the party itself.  You go in search of the perfect dress.  You match it with the perfect accessories.  On the day of the event you get someone to help with your hair and makeup.  You spend hours getting all dolled up.  And then you go out for what you hope and dream will be a night you will never forget.  Fun.  Getting ready for the party, getting all dolled up, is definitely half of the fun.

This is what we are going to do today at church.  Yes, we’re going to get all dolled up here today.  We’re going to weave fair garlands through our hair.  We’re going to put beautiful pendants….let’s say diamonds….around our necks.  And we’re going to get beautiful, in the Proverbs sense of beautiful.

Hear, my child, your father’s instructions, and do not reject your mother’s teaching; for they are a fair garland for your head, and pendants for your neck.

Last Sunday I introduced the purpose of Proverbs, which is to share words of wisdom, knowledge, and instruction.  Proverbs gives us lots of practical advice that we can weave through our hair and hang like pendants around our neck as we go out into the world, into this confusing and complex world where such advice is extremely valuable.  The wisdom of Proverbs won’t get you a good job, it won’t get you any credit towards your college degree, it won’t bring you success by the world’s definition of success.  But it will make you more Godly; more righteous, more just, more equitable.  And there’s nothing more attractive than a woman who has adorned herself with such Godly jewels.

Today’s text from Proverbs has some specific advice to share with us that I think is perfect for the two of you as you graduate from high school and head off to college. When you get to college you will be introduced to a lot of new people and you will be wanting to meet and make new friends.  And as you do, Proverbs advises you to choose those friends wisely.

My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent.  If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent….throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse”—my child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood.

The sages of Proverbs encourage us, in particular, to avoid associating with people who are “greedy for gain,” people who will “swallow others alive” and take them down to the “Pit.”  These are the type of people who will do anything to get ahead.  They will do anything to make money.  They will do anything to get in with the “in” crowd and stay there.  You know some of these people.  We read about them in the newspapers after they have been exposed.  Or we hear about them once all their lies and deceit have caught up with them and come crashing down upon them.  Proverbs warns about how easy it is to fall prey to such people. Proverbs says that they are “enticing” and that they “lie in wait,” ready to ambush the innocent, unsuspecting soul.

The Israelite sages believed that bad company is one of the chief sources of personal disaster.”[1] And there certainly is truth to this claim.  The people with whom we associate have tremendous power to influence our lives for good or for ill.  The friends we choose play a huge role in the decisions we make, in the lives we lead, and in the people we become.  So choose wisely, advises Proverbs.  Take care with this very important decision.

But also know that you are bound to make mistakes.  As I reflected on this practical advise from Proverbs I couldn’t help but recall all the relationships that I had entered into, thinking I had chosen wisely, only to realize later how unwise the decision actually was.  Haven’t we all pursued a relationship, a friendship, a job with a certain employer, only to realize after the relationship has been built that the person with whom we are associating is not a good person after all?  Or, he or she is a good person, but the relationship just doesn’t work.  The relationship doesn’t lead you to that which is good and that which is Godly.  We don’t really know a person until after we have built a relationship.  So how wise can we actually be in choosing those with whom we associate?  And sometimes we don’t even have a choice.  Sometimes we are simply assigned to people and expected to become fast friends.

I remember the day my parents drove me to college for the first time.  We arrived at 109 Bruske Hall at Alma College in Alma, Michigan and found a very bare room with two bunk beds, two desks, and two small built-in closets.  It smelled like college in that room; like old mildewy books, laundry detergent, and piles of dust.  And the cold tile floor did nothing to warm up the place.  But it didn’t matter too much because I was so excited and scared, scared and excited.  I was about to meet my new roommate.  And I was about to meet my new quadmates who were all moving into their dorm rooms just like I was.  I was really fortunate to have a roommate with whom I got along really well.  We became best friends and are still friends today.  But not everyone is so fortunate.  College sort of assigns you friends for good or for ill.  So in considering Proverbs advice to us today, how wise can we really be in choosing those with whom we will associate?

Well, perhaps the wisdom does not just lie in the choosing, but also in how to respond once we realize where the relationship is going.  When we find ourselves in relationships that are dragging us to the darkness of Sheol, that are dragging us to the place of death, that are dragging us to that place that just doesn’t feel good and doesn’t feel Godly, then we need to set our feet on an alternate path.  We need to consciously choose a different route.  But this is difficult to do, to say the least.  It’s difficult to change directions and to change friends.

But it will be easier if you have help, companions along the way, people who bring you to life, so you can more easily recognize the ones who are bringing you to death.  And so here we have come to the point in the sermon when I remind you, before you head off to college, why it is good to stay connected to a church….a real church where there are people older than you and younger than you, a church that will take you places that will stretch you and challenge you, a church that introduces you to new thoughts and new wisdom, a church that will foster honest conversations about the things in life that really matter.

As I think back over my years of involvement in the church I think back over life-giving people and life-giving relationships with which I never would have been blessed had I not been involved in the church.

I think about the older woman in my first church who taught me about death when her husband died.  She allowed me into her heart and into her grief in a way that I never expected.  She was extraordinarily generous to me.  By teaching me about death, she taught me about life.

I think about an older gentleman in this church whom I love talking to because he has so much wisdom to share.  In a recent conversation he reminded me that my mother is the best friend I’ll ever have.  Speaking from the perspective of someone who lost his mother years ago, these were words of wisdom good for me to hear.  These were words of life.

I think about the woman who helped us raise our son through his first year of life, a woman who taught me all those little things like how to check my baby’s temperature with the thermometer, how to give him a bath when he is all slippery and soapy, and how to tell if he is dehydrated.   The church brought this woman into my life.  The church brought me this life-giving relationship.

I think about the little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, who came and climbed into my lap at a daycare for underprivileged children in Washington, D.C.  The church had brought me there to serve.  The little girl’s name was Destiny.  As I sat there reading to little Destiny, I couldn’t help but think that this was our destiny….to love and to serve and to hold those who need holding.  Life…people who bring you to life.  The church is full of life-giving people and opportunities to meet life-giving people.

Including the One who is present among us when we gather around his table.  The One who knows our need for life.  The One who knows the temptations that can so easily lead us to death.  The One who clears a path for our feet whenever we need to change directions or change friends.  The One who feeds us, and nurtures us, and sustains us with bread and with juice.  The One who feeds us with life so that we will never, never be trapped by death.

Keep good company.  Choose your friends wisely.  More beautiful jewels we will not know than these wise words from Proverbs today.

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


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 30.

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Keeping Good Company

The theme for this Sunday’s sermon from Proverbs 1: 8-19 is “Keeping Good Company,” or the more familiar words of wisdom; choose your friends wisely.  “The Israelite sages believed that bad company is – along with foolish speaking, anger, and laziness—one of the chief sources of personal disaster.”[1] And there certainly is truth to this claim.  The people with whom we associate have tremendous power to influence our lives for good or for ill.

But how wise can we be in the choosing?  Haven’t we all pursued a relationship, a friendship, a job with a certain employer, only to realize after the relationship has been built that the person with whom we are associating is not a good person after all?  Or, he or she is a good person, but the relationship just doesn’t work?  The relationship doesn’t lead you to that which is good and that which is Godly?  We don’t really know a person until after we have built a relationship, so how wise can we be in choosing those with whom we associate?

Well, perhaps the wisdom does not just lie in the choosing, but also in how to respond once we realize where the relationship is going.  The sages of Proverbs encourage us to avoid associating with people who are “greedy for gain,” people who will “swallow others alive” and take them down to the “Pit.”  But Proverbs also wisely points out that such people are “enticing” and that they “lie in wait,” ready to ambush the innocent, unsuspecting soul.  So it’s easy, these sages admit, to find yourself caught up with such people.  It’s easy to get in a relationship that can carry you to the darkness of Sheol, rather than to the shores of salvation.

So….if I were to read the minds of the sages….I would venture to say that the trick, then, is to surround yourself with people who bring you to life, so you can more quickly recognize the ones who are bringing you to death.  The trick, then, is to rely on your life-giving relationships to help you avoid, or overcome, or recover from those that are dragging you into death.

We’re celebrating Holy Communion this Sunday, thanks be to God.  Because what better example do we have of a relationship that gives us life than the body and the blood of the One who died so that we might truly live….in this life….not just in the next.

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] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 30.

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The Wisdom of Proverbs: Proverbs 1:1-7

What follows is my first sermon from my summer sermon series on Proverbs.

“The Wisdom of Proverbs”

Proverbs 1: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

May 30th, 2010

I eat Dove chocolate.  I eat a lot of Dove chocolate, in fact, because the chocolate is so irresistibly smooth and because the packaging is ingenious.  You see, inside the foil of each carefully wrapped, irresistibly smooth chocolate is a little saying, a little proverb if you will, that you must savor while you savor the chocolate.  Why, just this past week, I opened a chocolate to read, “Compromise is a sign of strength not weakness.”  And another chocolate that read, “Let your light shine, the world is watching.”  And another chocolate that read, “Live well, laugh often, and love much.” And another chocolate that read, “Happiness is an inside job.”

So, you see of course what is happening here, you see that by eating this wonderful chocolate you are actually learning something, gaining in wisdom and instruction, growing from the teachings that have been laid before you by the god of marketing that is Dove.  I find that I learn so much from these little Dovisms that I need to eat lots of chocolate, every day, so as to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow….both in mind and in girth.

There is something about a proverb that we love.  It’s short, that’s good, because we have short attention spans.  But it also makes us pause and ponder.  Not much in this busy world of ours can make us pause and ponder, but a proverb does just that.  Even the simplest (some may say stupid) of proverbs such as those found in a Dove chocolate or a fortune cookie make us pause for a moment and ponder the insight that has been given to us, like a tiny little gift, on a foil or a sliver of paper that fits in the palm of our hand.  Yes, there is something about a proverb that we just love. Which is interesting, because we don’t spend much time with the proverbs gifted to us within our scriptures.

As a source of spiritual inspiration and guidance, the book of Proverbs is almost lost to us. It is not high on our reading list as Christians. We rarely hear it read in church or preached about in sermons.  Not many of us could identify a verse from Proverbs, let alone recite one.[1] And even if we were to try reading this book of thirty chapters, we’d more than likely get bogged down in the tedious nature of a book that has no plot and that quickly becomes forgettable as you read one short little saying after another, and another, and another for thirty chapters.

Yet Proverbs contains a certain beauty, a certain wisdom that is unlike other books of the bible.  This beauty is often lost to us because we can’t read Proverbs like other books of the bible.  We can’t just sit down and read chapter one through chapter thirty and expect Proverbs to hold much meaning for us.  Instead, Proverbs need to be read one at time, slowly and meditatively, like you were reading a really great poem that didn’t open up to you until you have read it two, or three, or four times.  Medieval monks compared reading Proverbs to the methodical and delightful task of chewing on a grain of spice until it yielded its full flavor.[2] We need to take our time with Proverbs.  We need to chew on them, one by one, to experience their full flavor.  We need to sit with them and ponder them as if each was a tiny, foil-wrapped piece of chocolate that will melt in your mouth, and your mind, and your heart, as you consider its teaching.

So I thought we could spend some time with Proverbs this summer, open them up, sit with them for a while, and see what they have to teach us.  The book of Proverbs is known for its practical guidance.  As Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis puts it, “Proverbs are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[3] Now I don’t know about you, but this sounds really appealing to me.  Faith can get so abstract.  But I want (and need) to know how I can apply my faith to my life.  I want and need some practical teachings.  And that’s what the book of Proverbs promises us.

Today’s text serves as an introduction to Proverbs.  It states that the purpose of Proverbs is learning about wisdom and instruction, understanding words of insight, gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity. Knowledge and wisdom and instruction are all to be found within the pages of Proverbs.  We will learn as we read and meditate on these verses.  And we will learn with these goals in mind: the goals of righteousness, justice and equity.

The goal of learning in order to be more righteous, more just, and more equitable, is unique to these biblical proverbs and the rest of our Bible’s wisdom literature.  They are unique because we typically pursue education as a means to power, and success, and better opportunities for ourselves.  We tell ourselves that knowledge is power.  And “the idea that my power depends on what I know and someone else does not is fundamental to our increasingly information-oriented and professionally structured society.”[4]

For example, when Dan goes in to teach a new class of freshman undergrads at St. Andrews he typically asks them, “Why are you here?”  And the answer he gets is that they are there to get a degree, so they can get a good job, and so they can be competitive in this increasingly difficult job market of ours.  The goal of their education, then, is their own power and success.  They must know more than the next guy in order to succeed and get what they want out of life.

But the goal of knowledge in the book of Proverbs is much different than this.  The Israelite sages who composed these proverbs echo the biblical prophets as they encourage their people to gain wisdom so they can live righteously, do justice, and promote equity amongst their friends, their neighbors, and their world.  Knowledge may still be power, in this sense, but here our power lies in our ability to build and maintain strong relationships and create healthy communities…because righteousness, justice, and equity are all relational virtues.

To illustrate this kind of knowledge, I will pick on another of Dan’s students…Joanna Hipp.  Joanna, you may not know, is hoping to take a year or two off after she graduates from college in order to participate in our church’s YAV program (Young Adult Volunteer).  YAV’s are sent all over the world in order to serve and Joanna is really hoping she can go to Africa. On Wednesday night Joanna shared with the Session her love for liberation theology.  She has a passion for working on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.  And Joanna is already wise in knowing that the best way to work on behalf of the poor and the oppressed is to know them by going and living among them.

I know that Joanna is very aware of the fact that if she is able to go and serve in Africa that this experience will not make her rich.  Nor will this experience make her a success, by the world’s definition of success.  Nor will this experience gain Joanna any credits towards a future graduate degree.  But she will gain in wisdom from this experience, wisdom in the proverbs sense of wisdom, wisdom about the relational and Godly virtues of righteousness, justice, and equity.  And so in this sense, Joanna going to Africa will be a very valuable experience.

Wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is not for our own personal gain.  Wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is not going to make us better computer programmers, or better business entrepreneurs, or better salespersons.  Instead, wisdom, in the proverbs sense, is going to make us better people.

So where do we start?  Now that we understand the goal of such wisdom, where does the path begin that will lead us to such an end?  Well, the path begins here, in verse seven. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”  Fear of the Lord…if you’re familiar with the scriptures then you’re familiar with this phrase.  Oftentimes we translate this fear as “reverence” or “awe” or even “respect” to distinguish fear of the Lord from the fear we feel when we stand at the edge of cliff, or when we get up in front of a large group of people to speak, or when we wake up in the middle of the night because we thought we heard something in the house.  We want to distinguish fear of the Lord from all these common, human fears because we don’t feel like we should be afraid of God like we are afraid of heights, or of public speaking, or of a burglar in our home.  And this is true, we shouldn’t fear God like we fear these things, but the line between ordinary fright and fear of the Lord should not be drawn too sharply.[5]

Lately, I’ve been having some very irrational fears about our children.  I will wake up in the middle of the night at the slightest sound in the house and then go prowling around in the dark until I make sure my babies are okay.  From what I’ve heard, this is not a unique experience for mothers.  Apparently, once you have children you never sleep well again for all the worrying you do.

A couple of weeks ago I was startled out of a sound sleep by a noise in the house that literally took my breath away it made me so afraid.  I’d been waking Dan up so often, though, that I decided to go and check it out on my own.  So I tiptoed through the dark, over to our children’s bedrooms and stood outside of Ella’s door.  I know this may sound crazy, but at this point my imagination had created such a horrible scenario in my mind that I was convinced there was something, or someone behind my baby’s door.  I was so afraid I was frozen, paralyzed by fear although dying to protect my baby.  The hairs on my neck and arms were standing on end.  My scalp was tingling from all the adrenalin rushing through my body.  And I just stood there, outside my daughter’s door, unable to move.  Finally, I convinced myself that no matter what I would see, or what might happen, I had to open that door.  So I took a deep breath, threw open the door, and listened to the deep, heavy breathing of a baby peacefully at sleep.

Fear invokes a physical, and emotional response within us.  It makes our knees knock.  It makes us tremble with adrenalin.  It shortens our breath and makes us feel completely out of control…..which we are when we are in the presence of God.  To stand in the presence of our God is like standing before a closed door.  Behind that door is the God whom we love…..the father who welcomes the prodigal home…the mother hen who gathers all her babies under wings….but behind that door is also all the power this universe can hold and then some….behind that door is your redeemer and your judge….behind that door is a God whom we know and a God whom we will never fully know…..behind that door is the abyss of distance that lies between us fallible, limited human beings, and an infallible, unlimited God.  So to stand there before that door and not know fear is to be, as the bible puts it, “hardhearted.”  When the Pharaoh of Egypt doggedly endures ten plagues because he is too “hardhearted” to respond to clear evidence that he is living in opposition to the real Power in the universe, Moses diagnoses his condition by proclaiming, “But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God.”[6]

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it reminds us of who we are and who we are not in our relationship with God.  More simply, fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because it reminds us that we are not God.  So here, in this knee-knocking, adrenalin-inducing place of fear, wisdom begins because in this place of fear we realize that nothing else matters more than pleasing our God, that nothing else matters more than doing right by our God, that nothing else matters more than living in pursuit of God’s ideals of righteousness, justice, and equity.

Such valuable wisdom one could only dream of obtaining.  Yet, Proverbs promises to take us there.  Proverbs promises to teach us such wisdom.  May God bless the hearing and receiving of this Word as we study Proverbs this summer.

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


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2000), pg. 11.

[2] Ibid, pg. 11-12.

[3] Ibid, pg. 12.

[4] Ibid, pg. 26.

[5] Ibid, pg. 28.

[6] Exodus 9:30, Ibid, pg. 28.

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Preaching Proverbs

I admire poets who have the ability to say something beautiful and meaningful with just a handful of words.  When I find a poem that I like I read it over and over again.  It seems the more I read a good poem the more it satisfies and amazes me.

During the summer months I typically like to leave the lectionary behind in order to preach on topics or on books of the bible that I wouldn’t normally get to if I was strictly following our church’s lectionary calendar.  This summer I have found myself drawn to the book of Proverbs.  Like the great poem, Proverbs falls into that genre of scripture that requires slow, reflective reading. You can’t read the whole book of Proverbs in one sitting.  If you try, its short sayings will quickly run together, become tediously boring and ultimately forgettable.  But taken one at a time, proverbs peel open like an onion revealing layer after layer of beauty and wisdom.  Here are just a few examples to whet our appetite:

A word fitly spoken

is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11

Just as water reflects the face,

so one human heart reflects another. Proverbs 27:19

These proverbs are beautiful and perhaps say just as much as any fifteen-minute sermon ever could.  Proverbs can also be funny and inspire us to laughter.  Like this one from Proverbs 17:28:

Even fools who keep silent are considered wise;

when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.

Abraham Lincoln wryly adapted this proverb to say, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Preaching on proverbs, then, is a bit intimidating because I certainly don’t want to be considered a fool!  Nor do I want to misuse ancient wisdom sayings that are often very difficult for us modern day believers to interpret.  Proverbs contain much wisdom, but, like all scripture, they need to be read and interpreted keeping the cultural context in which they were written in mind.  Proverbs can also be difficult because sometimes they will contradict each other as they address specific situations and honor the complexities of life.  So care must be taken to not broadly apply proverbs to situations to which they were never meant to be applied.

But, even though they may be challenging, proverbs are also wonderfully appealing because their teachings are practical and they can help us live righteously in all the ‘common’ moments of life. Commenting on the book of Proverbs, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis writes, “What makes it possible for the proverbs to come alive even today among people of biblical faith is that they shed light on things all of us worry about.  Proverbs are highly concentrated, and sometimes riddling, reflections on common elements of human experience.  Proverbs are instruction on the art of living well.  They are spiritual guides for ordinary people, on an ordinary day, when water does not pour forth from rocks and angels do not come to lunch.”[1] So I am excited about this summer sermon series on Proverbs. I know I will learn a lot and I pray that my sermons, inspired by these great sayings, will speak words of wisdom and truth to a congregation whom I believe are hungry for guidance on an ordinary day when water does not pour forth from a rock and angels do not come to lunch.

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] Ellen F. Davis, “Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs,” Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY, 2000), pgs. 11-12.

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simply yourself

I’m reading the Tao Te Ching.  “When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”  I wish I could get that through my thick skull.

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