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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Daniel J. Ott

One of the things that I like about living in the South is that there are lots of little churches with big signs.  Sometimes these signs are used as bulletin boards that announce upcoming events.  Sometimes they let us know what the sermon title is for Sunday.  Often, though, they become the bearer of slogans – they are the church’s bumper and folks come up with some interesting stickers to slap on that bumper.  You’ve probably seen some of the funny ones on the internet.  They range from the quite clever,  “Walmart Is Not the Only Saving Place” to the rather unfortunate, “Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let the Church Help,” to the down right outrageous “Staying in Bed / Shouting, Oh God / Does Not Constitute Going to Church.”

But the one that I’ve seen a lot that really haunts me is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  On the one hand, I guess I know what this motto is supposed to mean.  Christian faith is not about reporting to church, going through the motions, and saying empty prayers.  Christian faith entails some sort of encounter with Christ. OK – I get it.  But on the other hand, I wonder what the implications of such a statement really are.  Does this slogan imply that religion is a bad thing?  Is it possible to have the ‘relationship’ that this slogan recommends without ‘religion?’  Should we bother coming here and involving ourselves with this religion – these symbols and rites and songs and this building – or could we just stay at home and foster a relationship with God?  These are the kinds of things that Religious Studies professors waste their time thinking about.

I guess the important thing would be to figure out what Jesus thought about religion.  In fact, the Gospels depict Jesus contending with folks over the matter of religion quite a bit.  Jesus seems to have a clear vision about what religion is and what it is not.

And the first thing that I think we can say is that Jesus concerned himself with religion.  He performed the rituals of the Jewish religion.  He observed the Sabbath, though he may have contended over what proper observance is.  He participated in the great feasts and festivals.  He made pilgrimage to the temple.  He knew the scriptures and the stories of the tradition.  He employed the symbols of the faith.  Jesus was religious.

And I should hurry to add that it seems that it was not necessary for Jesus to do these things.  He could have stayed in the countryside and preached and healed.  He did plenty of that to great effect.  He could have secluded himself in a garden and devoted himself to prayer.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  He could have avoided the matter of religion altogether and devoted himself completely to addressing the economic and political factors that caused the human suffering that he sought to relieve.

But Jesus was concerned with religion.  Jesus knew that if things were really going to change, then God would have to be involved in changing them.  And he knew that the way that we speak of God – the only way we can speak of the holy, the ultimate, the ineffable, the all-loving, most high, God is to engage in rituals, and symbols and traditions – the stuff of religion.  The only way to say anything true about God is to sing and dance, to light candles and whisper poems, to gather here and with stammering tongues and humble hearts try to name toward the un-namable together.  Yes – Christianity is about a relationship.  It is about an encounter with Christ, but the only way to encounter Christ, the only means we have to relate to God is religion.

So religion is what we use to have a relationship with God.  But we should hasten to add that while religion is a tool for our USE, we need to guard that religion does not become a tool for ABUSE.  Now we’re penetrating to the source of Jesus’ intense anger in our passage this morning.

The first half of this passage might seem at first blush to be a rather esoteric debate about keeping the Sabbath.  Those pesky Pharisees seem to be at it again, nitpicking about the ins and outs of Jewish law.  They find Jesus and his disciples making their way through some grain fields and picking some grain to eat as they go.  Now there are probably at least two violations of the prohibition against work on the Sabbath here.  The first problem is the traveling itself.  Jesus and his disciples should have been resting at home.  The second problem is the picking of grain.  While the implication of the passage only seems to be that the disciples are picking and eating a little as they go, the Pharisees could well interpret this as a violation of the injunction against harvesting and preparing food.

Now in order to understand what is really at stake here, we’ll need to shake off the well-worn caricatures that are too often passed on in Bible Studies and sermons.  They go as follows:  In this corner are the Pharisees – shallow hypocrites who prance about with their noses in the air pointing out various minor infractions of the Jewish holiness code.  In the other corner are Jesus and his disciples, heavenly minded, free spirited men who have no need of the trappings of religion because they always and everywhere penetrate beyond worldly concerns to the truly spiritual.  Unfortunately, armed with these caricatures we would be headed for a completely meaningless interpretation of the passage.

Let me recast the contenders:  In this corner are the Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite from Jerusalem.  The Pharisees together with the scribes and the priests have cornered the market on religion and are concerned with pressing their influence on the masses.  They do this not only because this elite status gives them prominence within the Jewish community, but also because the ability to control the masses is a valuable commodity to their Roman overlords.  In fact, this ability can and is sold to the Romans for cash.  The religious elite keep the masses in check and the Roman occupiers pay them for the service.

In the other corner is a band of poor Galileans.  They are fishermen and carpenters.  But they have given up even these humble professions in order to travel about and minister to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  They bring with them a message of hope and renewal.  They encourage the masses that if they renew their faith in God, God will deliver them from the evil powers – both spiritual and political – that bind them.  These itinerant ministers of God’s kingdom have no means.  They are always traveling from village to village, often through grain fields and they grow hungry.  So they are accustomed to employing the Jewish practice of gleaning – plucking a little grain to eat as they pass through the edges of a local farmer’s field.

Now perhaps we see what’s at stake.  Perhaps Jesus’ ire is raised because it is rather easy for these Pharisees to point out the speck in the disciples eyes.  After all, the Pharisees are probably right to say that the disciples have violated the rules about the Sabbath.  But is it just for a rich religious elite on a mission of self-aggrandizement to critique these poor, hungry traveling ministers on a mission to ease human suffering?  Now we can see just how incisive Jesus’ memorable saying is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We might say, “Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.”  All too often in our history religion has ceased to be a liberating tool used by the masses and become an abusive tool used by the elite.  Even in the brief history of our own nation we can give a humiliating litany.  Religion became a tool of the elite to prop up the practice of chattel slavery.  Millions of Africans were stripped of their humanity, while the elite perverted religion to justify the unjustifiable.  Religion was and is used to abuse women.  Elite and not-so-elite men have used religion to say that women are less than fully human, that they are rightly a subservient class, that they should keep their mouths shut and that they are too weak and unpredictable to be trusted with any power – in politics and even more in religion.  Today gay and lesbian men and women are abused by religion.  Even if we grant that monogamously devoted persons of the same sex commit a sin by any sex act they might share – a conviction that I think is wrongheaded and not scripturally justifiable – but even if we grant that gay and lesbian men and women sin, does this justify the use of religion to deny a person benefits and healthcare?  Can we justify the continued use of religion to relegate gay and lesbian men and women to an inferior class?  Can we stand by while religion is used to prop up a culture of intolerance that leads directly to gross and senseless violence against gay and lesbian men and women?   Will we continue to allow religion to be used for abuse?  When will we realize that true religion is for the flourishing of all humankind, not for stripping some of their humanity?

In the second story, Jesus really begins to press his case. Jesus goes to a public meeting that he knows the Pharisees will attend.  The Pharisees are strangely silent, but Jesus does enough talking for everybody.  Obviously planning to heal him, Jesus calls a man with a withered hand forward and he asks a direct and penetrating question of his opponents.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  With these words Jesus has raised the stakes and acknowledged the harsh truth that religion is a matter of life and death.  There is a decision to be made – is religion to be used to do good or harm, to save life or to kill?

This is a pressing question for us today as it was for Jesus in his time and as it has been throughout history.  In Jesus’ time his peaceful stand against abusive religion led to his own cruel torture and execution.  Jesus knew well that religion was a matter of life and death.  In the time that the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish revolutionaries were taking up arms to defend their homeland and their religious freedoms only to be put down viciously by the Roman general Titus – their homeland scorched – their Temple razed.  Soon the Christian religion would need to decide whether to follow in Jesus’ peaceful wake or to marry herself to the power politics of Rome and the violence that Empire necessarily entails.  Unfortunately, she chose power over peace.  This set the course for a Christian history riddled with power brokering, crusading, empire building and all the killing that these require.

Today, we, too, know that religion is a matter of life and death.  We have a choice to use religion to do good or to do harm – to save life or to kill.  All you need to do is to take a look at the news to know that many are choosing to do harm.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are stuck in a cycle of violence as they vie for control of the country.  Of course, Israel continues to struggle with its neighbors and the Palestinian people – a struggle with a long and complex history that is often exacerbated by religion.  In each of these cases and many more around the globe, religion has become a source of and tool for power and violence.  Religion does harm and kills.  I can only imagine how hot Jesus’ anger might burn if he were witness to these perversions of religion.

I believe or text for today speaks to us about what religion is and what it is not.  Religion was made for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is about engaging deep mystery, not holding tight to cold doctrine.  Religion is for our use, not for abuse.  Religion is to do good, not to do harm.  Religion is a soft thing, not hard.  Religion is for peace; it is not for violence.  Religion is about beauty, not malice.  Religion is creativity, not destruction.  Religion is hope, not despair.  Religion mediates God, not evil.  Religion strives to save life, not to kill.

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“Set Free” Luke 13: 10-17

“Set Free”

Luke 13: 10-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 22nd, 2010

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 reached out and touched her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet…in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.[1]

An amazing thing about this story is that this bent over woman wasn’t even looking for a healing.  She just showed up.  She just happened to appear while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue.  Did she even know Jesus was there?  Did she even know where she was?  I imagine her perspective on the world was seriously limited when all she could see for eighteen years was her feet…her old, cracked, calloused feet.  But then, all of a sudden, Jesus was there, in the dirt, touching those feet, and craning his neck to look into her eyes.

Have you ever known such a moment in your life?  Have you ever had someone go out of his or her way to meet you eye to eye?  To know you?  To get you?  To get your pain and your suffering?

I’ve had such a moment.  Back in the day when I was still seriously afraid of speaking in public I was to be examined on the floor of my presbytery to become a candidate for ministry.  I was really scared.  And as the time for my examination grew closer my fear grew and grew until I knew I was going to just lose it.  So I left the sanctuary where the meeting was being held and found my way to a small chapel.  Once I was alone I cried and cried and cried as I tried to release myself from the tight grip my fear and anxiety had on me.  But I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t release myself from my fear.  And that’s when I felt a little tap on my shoulder.  It was a man who introduced himself to me as an elder from my home church.  I’d never met him before, but he knew who I was and what I was there to do.  He sat down next to me, looked into my eyes and we talked.  I told him about my fear and he understood.  Then he said some things that made me laugh…and that laughter was so healing and so freeing.  It was exactly what I needed to free myself from my fear and get on with what I knew I had to do.

When Jesus went out of his way to meet the bent over woman, to notice her, to recognize her suffering, to stoop to meet her eye to eye, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.  “Woman, you are set free!” he said to her.  And she stood up straight and began praising God.  What a moment!  What a story to celebrate!

But not everyone was celebrating Jesus’ actions that day.  Not everyone approved of this healing.  The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus would dare to heal someone, would dare to set someone free on the Sabbath.  “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he said, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

What’s happening here is a disagreement over two Old Testament understandings of the Sabbath.  There are two traditions concerning the Sabbath.  One, recorded in Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor.  As God rested, this tradition says, so should we rest, as well as our households and even all of our animals.  The second tradition of Sabbath observance is connected to Deuteronomy 5.  This tradition links the Sabbath to the Exodus, to God’s people being released from slavery in Egypt. This tradition links the Sabbath to freedom, liberation, and release from captivity.  And this is the tradition that Jesus taps into as he stops on a Sabbath day in order to set a woman free.  Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to be saying here, for the Sabbath is all about freedom.[2]

In this way, Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath is more than a religious obligation.  Coming here on Sunday morning is more than just our religious duty, it is more than us following the rules set for us by our ancestors in the faith, by our families, by our parents who sometimes have to drag us here kicking and screaming.  The Sabbath is more than a rule to follow.  Instead it is a reminder that we too are held captive, that we too need to be set free, and that Christ is here to offer us this freedom.  Christ is here, stooping and straining, his knees in the dirt, his eyes trying to catch your gaze, all so he can send you the message that he knows you, he gets you, and he gets your pain.  Christ is here.  He’s here and he has come to set you free.

We know he is here because we can feel him in the warm, welcoming handshake of our neighbor in the pew.

We know he is here because we can see him in the eyes of our friend sitting over there who really gets us, who really understands our pain.

We know he is here because we can feel his Spirit in the music that is sung.

We know he is here because we can taste him in the communion bread and hear his voice echoing through the wine, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We know he is here because the water in the baptismal font whispers to us of new beginnings, of new life, and the freedom we can know if we dive deeply into Him.

The Sabbath reminds us that we are held captive, and that we need to be set free; set free in the Christ who has come here for us.  He has come here for us.  He has come here for all those dying to be set free.  The Sabbath reminds us of this, and it invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for their release.  The Sabbath invites us to look around our church, look around our community, look around our world for those who might still be bound and waiting for release.

In a sermon on this text, Jana Childers tells the story of “a little girl who lived in a rural community.  It was just a few years ago, but the girl lived in one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties.  She lived in a little house and went to a two-room school.  She had loving parents and, from time to time, a good teacher.  But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up.  She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair hadn’t been there.  By the time she was seven-years-old she knew what the world was.  She had heard the phrase, ‘only a mother could love that’ and she understood it.

One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests.  When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams.  ‘Just stand over there by the door,’ the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room.  ‘I want to test your hearing first.  Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.’

‘Apple,’ the teacher said in a low voice.

‘Apple,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Man,’ the teacher said.

‘Man,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Banana.’

‘Banana.’

‘Okay,’ the teacher said, ‘Now a sentence.’  The child knew that the sentences were usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all.  She’d heard you could expect something like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Are your shoes brown?’  Still, she listened very carefully.

So it was that standing with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’[3]

Woman, you are set free! And she stood up straight and began praising God. When we come here on the Sabbath we are reminded that Christ has come to set us free; in more ways than one, he has come to set us free. And, as we come here on the Sabbath we are invited to look around and see who else might be bound and waiting for their release.  We are invited to heal, and to love, and to transform the lives of those in need of liberation by being Christ in a world so in need of his healing, liberating love.

Now to the God who sets us free, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving, and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


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

[2] David Lose, “Sunday, Sunday” posted on WorkingPreacher.org.

[3] Jana Childers, “The Kyphotic Woman,” http://www.30GoodMinutes.org.

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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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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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What follows is the Sunday from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Thanks, everyone, for reading.

“Raising our Children”

Proverbs 14:18, 14:26

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

June 20th, 2010

The life of a child is a simple life.  It’s a time of life when running through the sprinkler naked on a hot summer day isn’t considered a crime. When no one will call you crazy when you imagine ducks at the end of your bed or when you see skunks in your closet.  When the best toy is a long stick that can be a fishing pole, or a conductor’s baton, or a tool to dig for worms.  When the best game is poking your tiny little finger in your mommy or daddy’s nose, or eyes, or ears as you not-so-gently explore their face.

Being a child is a simple time…it’s a time of life when you don’t have to worry about paying the bills, or buying a home, or taking care of anyone beside yourself.  It’s a time of life when having a little temper tantrum now and then is accepted behavior.  It’s a time of life when good is good and bad is bad and there are no shades of grey. Yes, the life of a child is a simple, beautiful life—and a time to which many of us often long to return.

Proverbs refers to the young as “the simple.”  “The simple inherit folly,” we read in Proverbs 14:18.  Proverbs doesn’t mean simple, though, in a nostalgic, uncomplicated-life kind of way.  Instead, in its use of the word “simple” Proverbs betrays a bit of its condescension for children and the ancient belief that children were a little less than human.  Children are simple little things, according to Proverbs, born sinners, and in need of correction by parents who are not afraid of discipline.  That “spare the rod, spoil the child” saying is actually a bad paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24 that states, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” So for us more modern folks who have come to the healthier realization that it is better and more effective to discipline your child without beating them, we might pause and question what kind of advice these ancient pages might actually hold for us.  But, even though our philosophy on child-rearing and our psychological understanding of children have changed dramatically since the days of Proverbs, there is still wisdom to be found here.

Because in its description of children as “simple” Proverbs reminds us of the fact that our children are extremely impressionable.  They are blank slates waiting to be written upon by their parents, by their peers, by their schools, by the world.  They are simple in the sense that children are easily impressed upon.  This was true in the day of Proverbs.  And this is still true today. Depending on what kind of an impression is made on them, our children can inherit wisdom or they can inherit folly.

One thing I have quickly learned about parenting is that it involves a lot of worrying.  You worry about your child when he or she is not with you.  You wonder what he is learning, how she is being treated, what he is thinking and feeling during the course of the day.  You entrust your children to teachers, to babysitters, and to other family members.  But even though you trust…you don’t stop worrying.  You’d much rather keep your babies tucked neatly and safely under your own protective wing.

I’ve been watching a mother duck with her new babies at the park these past few months.  At first I marveled at the mother.  Her new ducklings were always swimming right behind her in a perfect little line.  Not one of them strayed.  Why can’t I keep my ducklings in a neat little row?  I wondered to myself.  I can hardly get my ducklings out of the car without one of them escaping my grip.  So I watched that mother duck with envy wondering what her secret was.  But as the months passed and those baby ducklings grew they too started to wander, and explore, and leave the safety and the shelter of their mama’s wing.  And I was relieved to witness this natural progression; I was relieved that it wasn’t just my babies who couldn’t be controlled.

Parents really do worry a lot about what kind of impression the world will make upon their children.  Parents worry about the messages their children are receiving from the television, or the internet, or from their friends at school.  But as that mother duck reminded me, we cannot control our children’s environment forever.  They will all eventually leave the safety of the nest and experience the world for good or for ill.  The only thing we can control, then, is what they will inherit.  What will we pass on to our children?  With what will we equip them as they venture out into the world?

Isaac’s birthday is coming up.  Shh…don’t tell, but he’s getting a new bike this year.  Dan and I were so excited to find a really great used bike at the bike shop in Southern Pines that we know Isaac is going to love.  We can’t wait to give it to him because we know he will be so excited and he will have so much fun learning how to ride his new big boy bike.  There are lots of things Dan and I want to give to our kids.  We want to be able to buy them some new toys every once in a while.  We want them to have nice clothes to wear.  We want to provide them with a nice home and a nice neighborhood where they can ride their bikes and play.  We want to provide them with a good education so we have already started saving our money so we can send them to college.  And all of this is really great.  It feels good to be able to provide for your children.  It feels good to be able to give them all these things.  But Proverbs wisely reminds us that the only thing we can pass on to our children that will be of any real eternal significance is good moral character.

Do the right thing.  Just say no.  Go to church.  Read your bible. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew and don’t go with girls that do.  Do any of these sound familiar?   Too often we boil down our moral character training into a neat little set of do’s and don’t’s, a neat little set of rules that don’t really develop a person’s moral character.  Such rules actually trivialize true moral development because they make moral living sound so simple and they do little to help our children think through complex moral issues.

I recently bought a t-shirt with a picture of a family sitting down to dinner together on the front.  Underneath the picture are the words, “Value Meal.”  Family dinners are value meals because they offer us the opportunity to talk and share and listen.  During conversations such as these we adults can model how we think through the complicated moral issues that face us each and every day.  We can invite our children into the process of our thinking and our decision-making and we can teach them, in the midst of these conversations, the foundational moral virtues for which we strive.  Family dinners are not always possible.  But I believe conversations in which we invite our children into our moral decision-making processes are essential if our children are to develop moral character themselves.

And as we adults invite our children into our moral decision-making processes, let us be clear about the morals for which we strive.  As we have been moving through Proverbs we have been reminded that the Godly virtues, the Godly morals for which we should strive are righteousness, justice, equity.  Is this decision righteous?  From God’s perspective, is it right?  Am I being just in my business practices?  What can I do about the injustice I see?  Will my vote on this immigration issue promote equity amongst our friends and neighbors?  Will my support of this politician serve all of God’s children, not just the ones who look, and act, and think like me?  By reminding us of the morals for which we–we people who claim the Judeo-Christian faith–strive, Proverbs paints us a picture of a person with good moral character.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person with her hand on her chin as she thoughtfully considers the decisions and the situations before her.   Proverbs paints us a picture of person with his angry fist raised in the air as he protests and stands up against injustice.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person all alone as she boldly and courageously speaks truth to power.  Proverbs paints us a picture of a person whose hand is open and outstretched as he welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, the other, the different.  Proverbs paints us a picture today of a person who is trembling, whose knees are knocking, whose hair is standing on end, because she is in the presence of the Lord and because she knows fear.   Proverbs paints us a picture today of a person with good moral character; a person of good moral character who strives for righteousness, justice, and equity; a person of good moral character who lives his or her life in fear, not in fear of the world or in fear of what others might think, but in fear of the Lord and what the Lord might think.

In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and one’s children will have a refuge.

No parent is perfect.  All parents make mistakes.  Some days we make lots of mistakes.  And…as we were reminded by mother duck…we cannot control our little ducklings.  They are, each of them, their own little duckling self who will grow up, leave the nest, and decide for themselves what to do with the inheritance we have so painstakingly offered them. But if we live our lives in fear of the Lord, if we live striving for righteousness, and justice, and equity, then we can live with the strong confidence that the God who offers us refuge is there for our children as well.  There to shelter them.  There to nurture them.  There to challenge them and to redirect them.  There to parent them as we only wish we could.  As Proverbs says, our children are simple.  They are so impressionable.  But they are also extravagantly rich in the inheritance offered to them by those who fear the Lord and by the God who loves them as God’s very own.

Now to the God to whom we entrust our children, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Getting What We Deserve

Getting What You Deserve

Daniel J. Ott

Scripture:  I Kings 21:1-19, 23-24, 27-29

Do you deserve a raise?  I know I sure as heck do.  Do you deserve a nice, comfortable, healthy retirement?  Of course you do.  After all, you worked hard all those years, right?  Do you deserve a little more respect and recognition for all you do here at church?   – maybe at least a “thank you?”  Do you deserve a better job, a better house, a better life?

Maybe you do.  Maybe you really do deserve some of these things.  And what’s wrong with getting what you deserve?  What’s wrong with wanting a little more, especially if you deserve it?

Well on the one hand, I’d like to say that there is nothing at all wrong with wanting and getting what you deserve.  I, for one, think that teachers deserve better pay.  I think people who work hard all their lives deserve a little rest at the end.  I think we don’t say “thank you” enough to the folks who give their time and energy to the church, to charitable groups, to service.  They deserve some recognition.  In an ideal world, we all should get what we deserve.

On the other hand, though, the mindset that leads us to think that we should get what we deserve can be dangerous.  Take Ahab for an example.  In the mind of the author of our text, Ahab already had much more than he deserved.  When we first meet Ahab, back in chapter 16, his introduction says, “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him.”[1] Ahab had married the foreigner Jezebel and begun to worship her gods.  He made alters to Baal and built a pole in worship of Asherah.  Yet God allowed him to be king over Israel for twenty-two years. God gave Ahab success in battle and Ahab had many sons.  He reigned from a stronghold in Samaria even while he maintained a palace in Jezreel where he spent his winters.  But all of this was not enough for Ahab.

He noticed a nice spot for a vegetable garden.  Problem was that there was already a vineyard there.  More than that, the vineyard didn’t belong to him.  It was Naboth’s vineyard.  So, Ahab does the right thing.  He approaches Naboth and offers a trade or sale.  But when Naboth refuses Ahab becomes resentful and sullen.  He returns home, lies on his couch and refuses to eat.  After all he was the King of Israel wasn’t he?  Shouldn’t the king be allowed to plant his vegetables where he pleases?  Did he not deserve the vineyard?

Now we have a two-year-old at home, so I’m used to these kinds of displays when someone doesn’t get what he wants.  The arms are crossed, the eyes get squinty, the pitch and volume of the voice go up.  But that’s a two-year-old.  Here we have the King of Israel flopping on the couch and refusing to eat.  We don’t have much sympathy for a character like Ahab.

But this passage has haunted me for the last couple of weeks.  It really has reminded me of all the times that I have acted like a spoiled brat. It’s made me think of all the times when I didn’t get what I thought I deserved:  awards, jobs, recognition, thanks.  It’s also made me think about how acquisitive I really am.  We have a beautiful house, but I watch HGTV and think I need more.  I have the iPhone, but now I need the iPad.  I think that’s the problem with getting what you deserve – once you have it you think you deserve more… and more… and more.  How many accolades are enough?  How much money is enough?  How much recognition is enough?  How many vineyards are enough?  Just how much do we think we deserve?

And what do you do when somebody else has what you deserve?  Ah – the tenth commandment:  “Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.  Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”[2] But what if your neighbor doesn’t deserve it??!!!  What if you’re the King of Israel and you want to plant some blessed vegetables?

What if it’s the Mexicans coming over the boarder and taking our jobs – the jobs that we deserve?  Never mind that the jobs are on rooftops at 150° temps, or in poultry factories that aren’t safe, or handpicking peaches in the blazing sun.  Those are our jobs.  We deserve them.

What if the field in question is an oil field?  We have to have gas for our vehicles.  It’s the American way.  Besides its not just cars we’re driving, it’s the global economy.  We deserve cheap gas.

What if it’s the government trying to take my money?  They don’t deserve it.  They spend it frivolously on outmoded programs and pork-barrel projects… and wars.  The old saying “If you ain’t cheatin you ain’t trying”  applies to taxes too, right?

What if it’s some big cheating corporation that has the money I deserve?  I just watched The Informant! with Matt Damon.  I don’t recommend it actually – kind of a weird tone.  But it’s a very interesting true story about Mark Whitacre who blew the whistle on price fixing at Archer Daniels Midland.  So it starts out being a story about corporate greed and consumer exploitation.  But as the movie progresses you begin to see that Whitacre himself believes he deserves a little extra.  He begins embezzling funds from ADM in $10,000 increments at the same time that he is wearing a wire for the FBI.  Over several years he totaled over $9 million.  On top of all that, he fantasizes that all of his good deeds and great talent will land him the job of CEO of ADM.  After all he deserved it, right?

It’s amazing what people will do when they think that they deserve something that somebody else has.  Enter Jezebel in one of the scenes that makes her name infamous.  When her pouting husband tells her that Naboth won’t give him the vineyard, Jezebel responds:  “Do you now govern Israel?  Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

And so she concocts a scheme.  She sends letters in Ahab’s name to some Jezreelite officials.  She tells them to set up a hearing and hire two low-lifes to accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king.  Of course, the irony is that Jezebel is the notorious curser of God, not Naboth.  Anyway, it all goes as planned.  The officials buy the false witness, and poor old Naboth is taken outside the city walls and stoned to death.  A criminal receiving the death penalty has no rights to bequeathing, so Naboth’s vineyard is free for Ahab’s taking.

Can you count the commandments violated in that little turn of events? – false witness, murder, theft.  Other sins that don’t rank in the Decalogue can also be named:  abuse of power, tyranny, conspiracy.  The message is clear: these are the results of covetousness.  Believing you deserve what somebody else has is dangerous business.

But none of us would ever go that far, right?  We’re not murderers and thieves.  But neither was Ahab.  His part was simple:  “As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.”

So what’s the verdict?  Is Ahab just as much to blame as Jezebel?  He didn’t give false witness.  He didn’t participate in the violence.  He didn’t take part in the conspiracy.  It wasn’t he that abused the great power of the nation.

But of course we all judge him guilty, because it was his desire for what he did not deserve that gave birth to the cheating and the violence and it was he who profited from this terrible abuse of power.  It makes you wonder about what our desires and profits might wreak.  Violence?  Deception?  Domination?  Destruction?

Well, I guess the only question left to answer is whether Ahab gets what he deserves in the end.  God sends Elijah to pronounce his judgment:  “Thus says the LORD:  In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”  And the judgment is extended to Ahab’s house.  “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.  Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”

But then there’s an unexpected turn.  Ahab, Ahab who had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD, old pouting, selfish Ahab, repents.  He tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and fasts – this time a solemn fast, not a sullen and sulking one.   Ahab repents and God notices.  God calls to Elijah:  “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me?  Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.”  These words from God leave some commentators tripping over themselves to show that there is some grace in this story.  Here we see at least a glimmer of something other than judgment punctuated by dogs eating corpses.

So is it grace or is it judgment?  I’ll tell you the end of the story before you decide. God does delay the penalty at least so that Ahab lives for a while. But before long Ahab dies in battle, his son reigns only a little over a year before he dies, and soon thereafter Jezebel and all Ahab’s descendents are brutally massacred.  Grace?  Judgment?  Which did Ahab deserve?  Did Ahab get what he deserved?  Do we?


[1] I Kings 16:30

[2] Deuteronomy 5:21

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