Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wisdom and Power

Today I preached at the Meredith College Alumnae Worship Service. The sermon is based on Ephesians 1:15-23.

I was the child who wasted birthday wishes. Every year, when I blew out my candles, I wished for the same thing. And it was not something that could easily come true by extinguishing ten candles, or eleven, or twelve. Have you ever wished for something abstract? Something that cannot be measured? I used to wish for wisdom. Doesn’t that sound silly?

I never wished for a new bike, a puppy, or for my brother to stop pestering me. When the birthday cake was place in front of me with all the candles lit, I would close my eyes and silently say to myself, “I wish for wisdom.” To know why I did this, you have to know that I was one of those kids who went to church three times a week. I was the one that participated every day of Vacation Bible School. I was the church nerd who raised her hand every time the Sunday School teacher asked a question—and I knew the correct answer 99% of the time. When I wished for wisdom, I was remembering that it was the gift that Solomon asked for when God came to him in a dream as recorded in First Kings chapter 3. God blessed Solomon with so much more than wisdom, maybe I wanted to please God. Maybe I’ve been trying to do that my whole life—because I am a church nerd. Or maybe I just realized that Solomon got a package deal with wealth, honor, and long life thrown in with the wisdom.

So my birthday wishes were perhaps wasted. I did not become wiser simply by wishing for wisdom and blowing out a few candles. But I am not the only one to wish for wisdom. The writer of Ephesians had that same wish in the passage that was read a few moments ago. Verse 17 says, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” This writer is praying for the community of believers at Ephesus to be granted wisdom.

In the late summer of 1994, my parents brought me to Meredith College. It was a place where I would earn my college degree. I remember that heavy, leaden feeling that I felt in my gut later that night as the first wave of homesickness rolled over me. Whenever I went away from home for an extended period of time, I had always gotten homesick in the first week that I was away from home. I asked myself many questions: How would I make it four hours away from home for weeks at a time? Would I make new friends? Will my roommate like me? Are the classes going to be too difficult? How will I ever learn all the things necessary to earn my degree? My parents did not graduate from college—they did not even go to college. All their hopes and dreams were for me to succeed and earn my degree. So, without worrying too much about the questions that were in my mind, I set out on a journey to learn. I hoped to gain wisdom.

Along my journey, I found that it is not wisdom that one learns from attending a class, a lecture, or seminar. It is merely knowledge that fills our heads—at least until we take a final. Yet somewhere in my education here at Meredith, I found out that college did not teach me facts to recite. Instead, I learned that my college courses, so well taught by the faculty here, had showed me how to think and use the knowledge I had been given. I learned that my experiences were a part of learning. And that realization was the beginning of wisdom.

In the Ephesians passage, the writer has sent the letter to the churches around Ephesus. These are faithful Christians who know about Christ and have love for other Christians. The writer wants these churches to go beyond knowledge. The prayer he or she raises is for their wisdom. The faith of the people in these churches was not just learned, it was to be experienced

Ephesus was a place of imperial influence in the Roman world. The Temple of Artemis was in Ephesus. So was the Library of Celsus which contained over 12,000 scrolls. There was also a 25,000 seat Roman theater. Ephesus was the largest Roman city in Asia. The Roman rulers built up Ephesus as a place where their power was celebrated and enhanced. It was also a center of religious power for various cults and beliefs. And right there in the middle of it all was a small, faithful Christian community. A small community called to grow in wisdom and revelation so that its members would know God better.

Biblical scholars think that some of the themes in the letter to the Ephesians indicate that it was written after 70 AD—after the Diaspora scattered the Jews from the area around Jerusalem to the far reaches of the Roman Empire. If that is the case, the churches in Ephesus also had lost a Jewish-Christian community, located in Jerusalem, which had influenced early Christian beliefs. The mother church was no longer there. They were on their own. The churches would have to overcome their homesickness and begin to learn how to discern the direction to which God was leading them. The writer of Ephesians was praying for these churches to gain wisdom.

If wisdom comes from experience, then the churches at Ephesus had a common experience from which to gain knowledge. Much like those churches, we align ourselves with communities. Obviously, as I stand here at an alumnae reunion worship service, I can see that we are part of a community of Meredith Angels. We have achieved our degrees. Some of us lived in the dorms together. Many of us participated in the rituals of our college years—Cornhuskin’, Dances, Class Day. We have our rings so that we can start conversations with other Angels long after we have left the campus of Meredith. But we did achieve something more than our degrees. Through our experience with the Meredith community, we have gained wisdom. Our wisdom is about how to be a part of something larger than ourselves, how to bring honor to our alma mater, and how to honor both the memory of our time here and the future that we see for this now sacred place in our lives.

Maybe you have been apart of other communities. I am a part of many communities: my family, both my immediate family and my extended family; my church, where I am a minister of youth and children; my moms’ group, formed from a group of women in my geographical location. I am a part of online communities, too: a group of women who are bloggers and preachers called the RevGalBlogPals, I am a part of a group who love a certain author’s works (Diana Gabaldon’s novels—in case you are wondering). I am a part of a group of people who play in a virtual world of Neopets—yes, even adults can become addicted to a site that was designed for tweens. And I am a part of a group of people who discuss the ins and outs of Baptist life and frequently argue their positions rather vehemently. I think that many of us are a part of many communities. Whether those communities are in the professional world, somewhere on the corporate ladder, in the home raising children, in a second career, or a third, the communities help remind us that there is a greater role for us in what we have learned and experienced. The writer of Ephesians is remembering these congregations. He or she knows that the churches are connected by one very important event—Jesus’ resurrection.

It is that time of year after all; the Church is in the Easter season. Today is Ascension Sunday, a time when some churches have special confirmations and baptism services. Ascension Sunday celebrates the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The power of God raised Christ from the dead and seated Christ at the right hand in the heavenly realms—it says that in verse 20. The wisdom that we gain through the resurrection results in a power that enables us. The result of the prayers of the writer of Ephesians is that we may have power.

My favorite class here at Meredith was not any of the many religion classes that I took—I was a religion major after all. My favorite class was an honors astronomy class. I loved studying about the planets of our solar system, the galaxies both near and far to our own, and the many theories about the universe. I remember how my class would gather late at night on the roof of the library and look through the telescope that Dr. Novak set up for us. Even with the light pollution in Raleigh, the power of the telescope would let us see another world. The moon looks different through a telescope. Some of the planets and comets that our eyes see unaided look different through a telescope. Far away from this earth, galaxies spin. For Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is our telescope. It allows us to see new things about this life.

Jesus came to this earth. He taught many things and had a community of followers. He also made enemies and was put to death. In Jesus’ resurrection, the teachings of his life were suddenly much clearer. Like a telescope empowers us to see the secrets of the universe, the resurrection also empowers us to see the kingdom of God here on earth. Maybe we have a little glimpse of that kingdom from time to time, in the random acts of kindness that we read about, in the struggle for equality, in our striving to do the right thing and to teach our children how to do the right thing. A few years ago, everyone was asking WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? And if you really answer that question and really try to do those things that Jesus would do. You have glimpsed the kingdom of God. You have been empowered like the writer of Ephesians prayed.

It has been three years since Spiderman II came out. I know that the sequel is out now. I haven’t seen it yet—such is life with small children. My only option to watch movies in theaters these days is to sneak out of the house late at night, and I value my sleep too much. Anyway, I did get to see Spiderman II after it came out on DVD and after I got it from Netflix. Movies about superheroes often contain images and themes of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Spiderman II, there is a powerful scene where Spiderman is trying desperately to stop a runaway train that the villain, Doc Ock, has set in motion. Lives are on the line. Spiderman spins his webs on the buildings on each side of the track. As Spiderman is at the front of the train, his arms are stretched out on both sides as he strains to control the speed of the train. It takes a couple of attempts before his webs begin to slow the train; but finally, in one of those fingernail biting scenes, as the web strands snap and you aren’t quite sure Spidey is going to get the train to stop, you sigh with relief because it did stop.

Spiderman passes out from the exhaustion of his effort to stop the train, and the crowd on the train catches him as he falls, lifts him, and passes him with their hands above their heads into the interior of the car. It makes one think of Jesus being lifted down from the cross—after all, Spiderman’s arms had been out to the side just a moment before he had passed out. Spiderman’s eyes are closed, and the people wonder if he is alive or not. When his eyes open, we have a resurrection scene. The people rejoice, but the story does not end there. Spiderman had taken off his mask before he had stopped that train, and the people there can see behind the myth of Spiderman. They see the person—just like we finally see Jesus as God’s Son through the resurrection.

When Doc Ock comes on board the train to take the weakened Spiderman, we also see the power of resurrection. Every person in the train car takes a stand and tells Doc Ock that he will have to go through them first. It is amazing to see them take such a stand because they have witnessed the strength of the villain. Yet the crowd overcomes any fear and wants to stop the evil force at hand. It is that same power through Christ’s resurrection that allows us to take a stand against evil. We are called to have power.

Power is a tricky subject to talk about when you are discussing God, for in this world there is power that corrupts. Just look at some of the corporate scandals like Enron, and is it easy to see that power can be used for bad things. Domestic violence, corporate greed, mud-slinging political campaigns, a brute military force that doesn’t discriminate between hostiles and innocent civilians—we do live in a world where evil power exists. Rueben Job, a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church, says:

We do live in a world obsessed with power that is often destructive to all that is good, right, and true. Is power the culprit here, or is it the use of power? Power is not evil in and of itself. Power used wisely for good, noble, and holy purposes is a magnificent gift to the individual and to the church. Patient and prayerful seeking of God’s direction on the use of power is an important factor for individuals and for the church. Most individuals and most congregations rarely assess the power that they have, much less prayerfully seek how to invest that power.[1]

Have you ever prayerfully considered the power that you have? I know that I often see myself as one with little power in this world, yet I am empowered and I need to learn how to use that power to do good.

Rueben Job goes on to write that there is the power of a moral life which is without equal. It is a power that sets the standard for our lives. It is an inspiration for our lives and for the lives of those around us. And it is a power that stands against all that would come against what is good, right, and true in this world.[2]

Christians are empowered. We have power in our lives. Stemming from Jesus’ resurrection, the power enables us to seek the right thing to do for others. I see a lot of that when I read some of the publications that come from Meredith. The 2007 President’s Report was full of the students, alumnae, and faculty who are changing our world through their power. Meredith Angels are promoting women’s equality and a better quality of life for women around the world. Meredith Angels are shaping public policy to make communities better. Meredith Angels are empowering other women to see the value of their lives. Meredith Angels are working toward lofty goals in their careers—not just to gain another rung on a corporate ladder—but to fight disease and seek cures, to create good communities for others, and to help educate men and women, boys and girls. So many doors and avenues for opportunity are open. So many more doors will open. We have power to do good. Do you see why I like reading through the President’s Report? It fills me with hope and power. Those are familiar themes that I also find in our Ephesians passage.

Maybe you are at home raising your children to be good and gracious to those in which they come in contact. You are empowered.

Maybe you are a student, furthering your education so that you may better serve your community. You are empowered.

Maybe you are leading workers to be more efficient and productive through your own personal example of such traits. You are empowered.

Maybe you are retired and volunteer your time to organizations. You are empowered.

Whatever your situation may be, you are truly empowered. We came through Meredith and used our knowledge and experience to gain wisdom. Are you using your life to be all that God has called you to be? When we trust in God and the power of God that was displayed in Jesus’ resurrection, we are empowered. Do not forget that you can do great good in this world.

Let us pray.

God, thank you for this life that you have given us. It is more than we ever can deserve or comprehend. Let us use this time on this earth to do what we can to make this earth a better place, to share the love of Jesus with others, and to empower the people that we come in contact with every day. Guide our hearts. Guide our thoughts. Guide our actions. Let us be the ones to enable our generation to achieve great things for your name both in this present age and in the age to come. Amen.

1.Job, Rueben P. “Claiming Our Inheritance” in Weavings, vol. 18, No. 4, July/Aug 2003, p. 17.

2. Ibid, p. 18.


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