July 6, 2014: Sunday Worship @Wellington

Liturgist of the Day: Brenda Van Halsema Friedman
Preaching: Rev. Dan Dale

Call to Worship

One:  God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

All:     God is good to all and has compassion over all the creation.

One:  All your works shall give thanks to you, O God, and all your faithful shall bless you.

All:     Your handiwork speaks of your glory and tells of your power.

One:  We praise you, O God, and we want to tell of your glorious kin-dom.

All:     God’s kin-dom is everlasting, and will endure throughout all generations.
God upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.

Confession

Dear Friends,

I have been thinking for years about the notion of creativity, what is involved in the creative process, and how it is found in artists. Years ago, as a graduate student in art history, I researched concepts of artistic genius, how the practice of art was written about in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. There were theories of artistic genius from antiquity on that described the creative spark as something special, otherworldly, produced by a touch of the divine.

As an art teacher and an artist, I have played around with ideas about the creative process, and where does inspiration come from. The word, “inspiration,” literally means “to breathe upon.”   A monk and manuscript illustrator from the Middle Ages once wrote after transcribing a page “my three hands are tired.”

Poetry especially was most often associated with a divine source — it is only later that painting, sculpture, and other art forms fall out of the category of manual labor and into the same league as poetry.

I don’t know if the psalmist David thought this way, but in writing Psalm 145, David probably felt that creativity came down to him from the heavens. In that sense a poem is not that far apart from a prayer – something that our dear, departed Polly Ullrich, who died three years ago this month, would most likely agree with this. Poems and prayers were always very much in her heart.

We often think creativity – if it is a spark from the divine – is out of reach to us. That it somehow belongs to only a few — that we ordinary people can’t tap into that. You have to be born with some innate talent, we think, to be creative. But ordinary people, with ordinary materials, on any ordinary day, are creative. Anyone can be creative. Creativity is a lot about the process. The question to ask is not “How creative are you?” but “How are you creative?” Creativity is about connecting things. It involves being open to new concepts, and a willingness to take risks into uncharted territory.

I think it is time for Wellington to get creative.

Neuroscientists have been exploring the whole idea of creativity and its location in the brain. The newest research on the brain claims to have pinpointed creativity in the right hemisphere, in the anterior temporal lobe. Neuroscientists are convinced “that’s where inspiration comes from!” It sounds kind of funny to me, like someone trying to locate the soul. I am kind of skeptical about this, to be honest, because I think that ideas like beauty, imagination, truth can’t be located in the physical brain — that the mind is different from the brain — and that emotions, like love, anger, frustration, pride, or jealousy – are not biological. But, they certainly are real.

Despite my skepticism, I attended a conference this spring for my school called “Learning and the Brain.” I am getting more familiar with a whole slew of research and writings on this topic of creativity. In recent scientific experiments using memory, word associations, and other exercises, scientists have been able to chart the cognitive processes and the neuron activity in the brain, and they are able to see how the right side of the brain just lights up in different situations where there is problem-solving going on.

This part of the brain is where past information is stored, where memory lives, where a range of knowledge and facts are kept, and where creativity gets jarred by outside thoughts and the brain’s tapping into seemingly unrelated topics.

There is a new book called “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” where the author Jonah Lehrer discusses a variety of processes on the right side of the brain. Insight, says Lehrer, comes from unexpected sources. The more diverse your background, the more different areas you are exposed to, and the more there is a potential for creative sparks to fly. I like this vocabulary, I realize. I like this language, the words associated with creativity: a diversity of ideas; making new connections; openness; a willingness to take risks.

Moreover, periods or bursts of creative activity often follow hours of hard work already put into a problem. You want to be creative? Artistic people are hard workers. Inventors are hard workers. Be a hard worker. You will unexpectedly and undoubtedly achieve some insight.

In other words, that big epiphany isn’t going to come to us automatically. It comes after putting in the work — after draft after draft, meeting after meeting, discussion after discussion, strategic plan after a strategic plan.

I want to challenge Wellington this morning to think creatively about our strategic plan. We have spent many hours and days, over the past several months, trying to define ourselves better as a community of faith. We have compiled lists of our characteristics and our core values. We have tried to outline what we need to do.

This is our journey. How are we welcoming in this community? How do we care for one another in this community? How do we reach out to our neighbors in this community? Even if you don’t live here in the Lakeview neighborhood, we can think of new ways to connect with the families and residents of this street.

Let’s think outside the box. And let’s read our prayer of Confession together.

IMG_7111 Prayer of Confession

O God, we confess that we have a hard time caring for our neighbors. We claim to be so busy, and we often feel unable to meet the needs of the many who suffer from injustice and oppression. The violence in the world and the city of Chicago overwhelms us. Help us to find a right relationship with your creation. Guide us and strengthen us here at Wellington United Church of Christ. May we live your love as we try to be a more visible and welcoming community of faith.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Words of Assurance

July 6 worship.001Almost four years ago, during our centennial celebration, Wellington declared itself to be the church of the open door, walking out on the open road. Where do we find the comfort and strength for this journey? Our words of assurance come today from our passage in Matthew 11, where Jesus spoke these words to his followers:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light>”

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:16-1-, 25-30
Sermon Title: Lay Your Burden Down

I would like to suggest that for us to understand the popular and often recited verse of this text, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”, we need to see it in relation to the key verse in this text, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”.

To understand this text we need to understand that the author of Matthew has Jesus speak of himself as the Wisdom of God.

As Jews, the early followers of the Way of Jesus combed their sacred stories for images and concepts to help them express their experience and understanding of Jesus. We are familiar with concepts such as Son of God. Son of Man. Suffering Servant. Messiah. Son of David. New Moses.   One label we are not so familiar with but that shapes the depiction of Jesus, especially in the gospel of Matthew, is that of Jesus as the Wisdom of God.

In Proverbs, the guiding presence of God in daily life is personified as a Wise Woman, who invites followers onto the path of wisdom that leads to life. She is depicted as having been present with God at creation, helping in creation and delighting in God’s handiwork. She is depicted as a source of guidance, who offers the “way” of wisdom, nourishment, a fountain of life, light and a secure dwelling place.

Wisdom was present at Creation, in which she served as an agent or instrument. She came to earth, sent to call both Israel and all humankind onto the way of obedience to God. Some listened to her, but most did not. She sent and spoke through prophets and sages, most of whom were rejected by those to whom she sent them. In some places, she is identified with Torah, the guiding book for the nation. She was so often rejected by humanity that eventually, finding no place of rest and welcome on earth, she returned to dwell with God.

In Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as a wisdom teacher who taught in parables and proverbs. Matthew portrays Jesus as Wisdom in person, heavenly Wisdom herself. In Matthew 23:34 Jesus identifies himself with Wisdom when he says “I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify . . .”

Matthew 11:16-19 describes two messengers of Wisdom, John and Jesus. “This generation” (11:16) refers to contemporaries of Jesus who refused to repent and follow The Way. Some people will not respond to any appeal. John was a preacher of repentance and an ascetic. He threatened the practices of those in power. He wailed and the people would not repent and mourn. And he was put to death.

Jesus was a preacher of grace as well as repentance. He healed on the Sabbath and ate with sinners. He brought the opportunity for wholeness and joy and inclusion. He played the flute for them and they would not dance. And he was put to death.

In the presence of John we should repent. Instead we condemn his stern asceticism and reject his appeal. In the presence of Jesus we should repent and rejoice. Instead we reject Jesus and slander his celebration of life.

We will not enter the game. We will not play. Neither the ascetic behavior of John nor the exuberance of the Human One, The Child of Humanity, can break through our conscious will to resist Jesus’ message and identity. Nothing pleases us. We refuse the kind of honest self reflection and critical thinking that leads to repentance. And we thereby miss the abundant life that lies on the other side.

 “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”(11:19). Just because we ignore Wisdom’s invitation to a life of repentance and joy doesn’t negate the validity of that invitation, the integrity and power of the life to which it leads. Jesus’ identity is vindicated in the acts and signs that demonstrate that the inbreaking presence of the kin-dom of God. When the disciples of John the Baptist in 11:4-6 come asking about who he is, Jesus tells them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Jesus pronounces woes on the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because they have failed to respond to the deeds of power that have been done there (11:20-24).

You Have to Lay Your Burden Down 
“Come to me you who labor and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:28-30).

The background to this text is found in the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a book written by a Jewish scribe in around 125 B.C.E. The author invites people to study the law with these words:

Put your necks under her yoke, and let your soul accept her burden. See, I have worked but little and found much rest.

“The yoke of the law” is a common phrase in rabbinic writings. Jesus was not so much criticizing the law itself, but the scribes and Temple Authorities who load people down with burdens hard to bear.

“You who labor and are carrying heavy burdens” refers to those suffer and are oppressed by the scribes and temple authorities who have lost the spirit of the law, which is justice and mercy, in the letter of the law. The scribes and the temple authorities use a strict literal interpretation of the law to oppress the people, demanding the adherence to a multitude of precepts and commandments, that enriches the temple authorities and impoverishes the people. As the keepers of the traditions and sacred stories the scribes and Temple Authorities claim that their way is the only path to salvation.

“I will give you rest.”  The rest is both future and immediate. In the kin-dom of God, the followers of the Way of Jesus, the Way of Wisdom, find rest. Their debts are forgiven. Their land is restored. The fruits of the community’s labor is shared and enjoyed by all. This is present now within the community of the followers of the Way and in the future for all humanity.

“Take my yoke upon you . . .” The yoke of Jesus is humility and concern for the impoverish and the despised.

 “And you will find rest for your souls.” This rest is not inactivity. It is rest that comes from returning to God, faithfulness to God’s will, following the Way of Jesus, following the Way of Wisdom. The disciple takes on the yoke of Jesus and learns to become gentle and humble in the process.

To be told we can lay down our burdens sounds so sweet, until we realize that, in Jesus’ eyes, many things we view as blessings are actually burdens. Yes, we have mistaken many of our burdens as blessings.

As we have discovered in our work dismantling oppressions, our cultural and societal narratives keep telling us that our privileges are both God’s blessing and our birth right rather than the result of social systems of oppression.

What Sofia, The Wise Woman, the Feminine Wisdom of God , tells us is that these privileges are burdens that are separating us from God and keeping us from living into God’s kin-dom. What the Feminist Jesus shows us is a Way of laying down our burdens and being forgiven, being refreshed, and being empowered to live with the humility, discernment, courage, and compassion that is the essence of Wisdom.

The Holy Spirit has blessed us as a community with partners and relationships that can help us to radically deepen our understanding and experience of laying down our burdens and finding rest, healing, wholeness, peace as we live into God’s Kin-dom.

If we, all of us, consciously celebrate the hospitality we have given to BYC and commit ourselves to developing relationships of mutuality with the BYC staff and participants, then this place will become, not only a place of welcome and healing for BYC but for us, the members of WAUCC.

If we, all of us, consciously celebrate our participation in the founding of ONE Northside and commit ourselves to developing relationships of mutuality with the other members of ONE Northside, then not only will our neighborhood will become more really a place of welcome and healing, but we, WAUCC will become or really a place of welcome and healing.

The question is, will we sacrifice the burdens to make way for the blessings?