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Grant Us Wisdom

Grant Us Wisdom

“’Give your servant therefore an understanding mind . . . .’” 1 Kings 3:9

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 30, 2017 – 8A Pentecost

An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean of the college that in return for his exemplary leadership, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean of course selects infinite wisdom. “Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. The dean feels the expectations in the room mounting, all these brilliant minds waiting for a pearl of wisdom to spill forth from the mouth of their freshly anointed leader. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.” The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”

It is worth pausing for a second to reflect on why we find a joke like this funny. It is not, I suspect, because we really disagree with the dean’s answer to the angel. In our hearts, we know the immense value of wisdom, and that choosing wisdom over money is a sound choice. The reason we laugh is because we also know, as the dean feels intensely before the expectant stares of his colleagues, that living into a life of wisdom is daunting work; that it by no means is a guarantee of happiness; and that it carries with it responsibility to others. By contrast, money is everybody’s fantasy of instant happiness, and has the promise of providing an escape from hard work, expectations, and the demands of other people. We all realize that wisdom is what we should be seeking, but it is so much more fun to dream of having money.

The story of King Solomon, a portion of which we heard this morning in our first lesson, reflects this same human dynamic. At least at the beginning of his reign, Solomon appreciated that it isn’t enough for a king to be merely powerful. Effective leadership requires more; it requires wisdom. So, when asked by God in a dream what one thing Solomon might want if he could have anything he wished, Solomon replies: wisdom.

Or, more specifically, Solomon says that he wants an “understanding mind” coupled with “the ability to discern between good and evil.” The underlying Hebrew word is even more nuanced; as scholar Eugene Peterson points out, the word could just as easily be translated as a “God-listening heart.” The Scriptural understanding of wisdom includes both the head and the heart, and is centered in God.

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The Wheat and the Tares

The Wheat and the Tares

“‘Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ The Master answered, ‘an enemy has done this.’” Matthew 13:28

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 23, 2017 – 7A Pentecost

A few years ago when I was preparing some parents for the baptism of their infant daughter, the mom stopped me in the middle of our conversation and said: “You know, I really don’t know why we have to spoil a perfectly joyful occasion with all this talk about ‘Satan’ and ‘evil’ and ‘sinful desires’?” She was, of course, referring to the questions we always ask candidates for baptism – “do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?…do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” Often called the ‘three renunciations,’ these questions have been a part of the baptismal rite since the Church’s founding. But to this mom, and to many modern-day Christians, this language of renunciation seems hopelessly anachronistic. What are we to make of it?

Our gospel lesson today – the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares – is a good place to start in framing an answer to this question.[1] The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, is like a field where the Master has spread plenty of good seed. There are acres and acres of flourishing wheat; but there are also weeds trying to take root among the stalks of wheat. ‘Where have these weeds come from?,’ the field workers want to know. Surely, they say to the Master, you would only scatter good seed. Yes, he assures them. So why are there weeds, they want to know? And then in one short, mysterious, but profoundly important sentence, the Master says: ‘An enemy has done this.’

When Jesus later takes his disciples aside to explain to them the meaning of the parable, he tells them that this enemy is the Devil. God is the Master who has created a wonderfully thriving wheat field; but then there are weeds, placed there not by God, but by the Devil.

For most of us, talk of devils is weirdly alien, an image drawn from a bygone mythology. But ‘the devil’ of this Parable is best understood not literally, but rather as a symbol of a deep theological truth – namely, that evil is real, and has a reality beyond the sum of its parts.

We moderns describe the array of destructive forces that surround us in different terms. Rather than devils, we talk about the scourge of addictions, obsessions and compulsions; the plague of depression and melancholy; the ravages of cancer; human preoccupations with violence and domination; and the like. We like to think we have a more sophisticated understanding of these dehumanizing forces, but at the end of the day, these realities are the same as they were in Jesus’ time, and they remain as intractable and destructive as ever, notwithstanding our fancier ways of describing them. To say that the enemy is the Devil, then, is not to revert to pre-scientific fairytale images but rather to acknowledge, through the ancient language of Scripture, that evil has a cosmic, trans-human reality.

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Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

Captive to Sin, Freed by Grace

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15.

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

5A Pentecost – July 9, 2017

If you’ve noticed these past few weeks, our epistle lessons this summer have been drawn from St. Paul’s magisterial, yet difficult, Epistle to the Romans. Well, I’ve dodged him long enough, so today I take up St. Paul and one of his favorite topics: sin. And not only do I hope to talk about ‘sin,’ but even more foolishly perhaps, I shall try to persuade you that ‘sin’ is still a theologically important category, a helpful and true way of talking about the human condition, even if the concept is, at the same time, in need of some modest rehabilitation.

Let me frame our conversation with a story: In the early 1970s, about a decade before I arrived on the Stanford University campus for my graduate work, a young psychologist there had made quite a name for himself because of a controversial experiment he had conducted in human behavior. His name was Phillip Zimbardo, and his study has come to be known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.

What Zimbardo did was this: He ran an ad in newspapers around the country seeking volunteers to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. He sought healthy, intelligent, college-age men, and he screened them to eliminate candidates with psychological problems, medical disabilities, or a history of crime or drug abuse.

The young men were then arbitrarily divided into two groups by a flip of the coin: half were randomly assigned to be guards, the other half were to be the prisoners. They were essentially invited to role-play, so as to recreate the atmosphere of prison life. Zimbardo outfitted the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building to serve as the prison.

The guards were given no specific training on how to be guards. Instead they were free, within limits, to do whatever they thought was necessary to maintain law and order and to command the respect of the prisoners. To give the experiment a feeling of authenticity, the prisoner volunteers were actually arrested by the Palo Alto Police Department from their homes, strip-searched, fingerprinted, given prison uniforms, and then confined in the makeshift prison. They, too, were given no specific instructions as to how to behave, but were left free to react to their captivity in whatever ways seemed real to them.

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