Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wisdom and Beauty

 

Wisdom and Beauty

Proverbs 31:10-31

            As I write this, it is the day after we celebrated my oldest friend’s eightieth birthday.  We partied on Zoom, both because of the current health situation and because we are scattered from coast to coast and from Canada to Mississippi.  Ken’s daughter organized the party.  I’m sure we all learned things about him we didn’t know as we played trivia games with Ken at the center. 

            Interspersed with the game questions were pictures Ken’s daughter had gotten hold of, pictures of Ken and his family going back to when he was practically a babe in arms.  In some of those pictures I recognized my friend as the child I had known when we were both in late elementary and junior high school. 

            I’m not going to share any of the stupid things we did together at my house on Friday nights when my parents went to a church meeting.  He was—still is—two years older than me, and I’m sure my folks thought his age would somehow imbue the situation with a bit of maturity.              It didn’t.

            Suffice to say we didn’t do any irreparable harm to the house and its contents, and we both obviously survived.  Here we are today, an octogenarian and one so near that age I can almost see it from here.  When I had a chance to extend my good wishes yesterday I told him what I’ve said so many times before.  He is the closest thing I have to a brother.  I’m an only child, so having someone I can say that about means a lot to me.

            Ken has a lot going for him.  He was—is—an excellent musician.  He is the most natural athlete I’ve ever known.  If an activity involved physical coordination it came easily to him.  He is bright enough to have had a wide choice of career fields.  He chose sociology, and the field is richer because he is part of it.

            What struck me most yesterday were pictures of Ken’s mother.  She was beautiful!  I didn’t pay any attention at the time; she was my best friend’s mother, and I hadn’t yet reached the age where I found females attractive.  But looking at those pictures I could see how beautiful Mom Davis was.

            I call her Mom because one summer she became a second mother to me.  I was fourteen, had just finished my freshman year of high school, and was finally old enough to work at our denomination’s summer camp.  Mom Davis was the cook.  I was her kitchen slave.  I washed the pots she dirtied cooking three meals a day for a couple hundred campers and staff members.  She was an exacting taskmaster, and in my first real work experience, the best boss I could have had.  Most of what I know about work ethic I learned that summer.  Many lessons weren’t fun, but I learned.

            For many years Ken and I moved in different circles in different cities.  Our lives touched peripherally; even more so my life with that of Mom Davis.  I was able to keep track of her through my parents, who had continued their friendship long after Ken and I were grown and gone.  Several years ago, Ken and I reconnected.  One outgrowth of that renewed connection was that I was able to spend time with Mom Davis.  She’s gone now, but what she taught me that summer has stayed with me.

            What didn’t come through in those pictures was her inner beauty and inner strength.  Left a widow, she raised three sons to manhood, sons of whom any mother would be proud.  As is often true of Scripture, not every word of these verses from the last chapter of Proverbs is true about this woman who meant so much to my life, but enough is true that they stand as a lasting tribute to a woman of beauty—inside and out.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Whose Slave Are You?

 

Whose Slave Are You?

Romans 6:15-18

            “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves:  the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”

            So said Ivan Illich.  Sounds like a name out of a Dostoyevsky novel, especially when you learn he was a philosopher and a priest.  He was Russian, definitely, but not one of Dostoyevsky’s characters. 

            You might wonder what a Russian who lived from 1926-2002 would know about a consumer society, but he obviously had an understanding of consumerism and its effect on people.

            Two kinds of slaves:  prisoners of addiction and prisoners of envy.  We understand prisoners of addiction, and we are aware that they exist in a consumer society.  We are familiar with addiction.  Anyone who reads newspapers, magazines, novels, will soon come face to face with addiction.  The addict may be hooked on drugs, or alcohol, or something else, but we’ve read enough to understand that people become so addicted to one thing or another that it’s not far-fetched to say they are enslaved. 

            I’ve just finished reading a Harlan Coben novel.  For those of you not familiar with Coben’s writing, he is a master of the plot twist, even planting one final turn in the last few pages of many of his books.  I say frequently that writers of fiction begin with a “what if…?” turn of mind.  Coben’s what ifs happen to be more intriguing than most.

            In this novel, Play Dead, one character is addicted to gambling and also to scams, which is where he gets the money to gamble with.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t come close to shaking his addiction until it’s too late.  Just as he is on the edge of breaking his bonds of slavery he is murdered.  We might say he was sacrificed to the novel’s plot twists, but we know this also happens in real life.

            Slavery to envy might not be as evident as slavery to addiction, but we know it exists, and far too frequently.  You have something I want.  If I want it too much, I become a slave to that desire.  Isn’t that how advertising works?  Ads create a desire to have what we don’t possess.  If that desire becomes overwhelming, I will do almost anything to obtain what I don’t have but wish I did.

            I believe Paul understood these kinds of slavery.  He must have seen examples of both addiction and envy as he moved through the Mediterranean world.  Paul drew no distinction between the two.  He lumped them together under the category of slavery to sin.  For him, whether you were addicted to alcohol, or sex, or anger, or judgmentalism made no difference.  Slavery to one was no better, no worse than slavery to another.  He also knew the Torah, and  the commandment, “You shall not covet…” (Exodus 20:17).  For Paul, sin was sin, and those who pursued a life of sin were slaves to sin. 

            Paul knew another kind of slavery:  slavery to righteousness.  His training taught him both the evils of sin and the virtues of righteousness.  His conversion changed his understanding of righteousness, but not its importance.  He understood, as Jesus taught, that we are never completely free.  We have a choice:  we can be slaves of sin or slaves of God. 

            It is interesting as well as paradoxical that being God’s slave is really the path to freedom.  If I am God’s slave I am free from both addiction and envy, free to be righteous in God’s sight, and free to pursue a life without slavery.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Which Side Are You On?

 

Which Side Are You On?

Luke 21:1-4

            Richard Hofstadter said, “One of the primary tests of a society at any given time is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.”

            This is an apt saying for our time, since, as at least one candidate for president says, we are in a battle for the soul of America.  It’s also a good question for us to ask ourselves:  Which side are you on?

            The question has been asked many times in our past:

            Which side are you on in the battle between the royalists and those fighting for freedom from the British?

            Which side are you on in the battle between the union and the seceding states?

            Which side are you on in the fight over women’s right to vote?

            Which side are you on in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s?

In each case people were forced to decide which group they identified with:  those who held all the marbles or those who wanted to join the game.

            Now we fight that battle again, and once more we must decide between the group on the inside and those who want not just to get into the room, but also to take a seat at the table.

            This passage has been used by many preachers on stewardship Sunday, the day set aside to encourage the congregation to give more to the church in the upcoming year.  I have steadfastly refused to use these verses in this context for two reasons.  First, because the ones most likely to take this story to heart are often those who can afford to give the least.  They are the ones who are apt to feel shame at what they give.  Using this story to extort more money from a congregation is blackmail by guilt.

            The other reason I won’t use this passage in a stewardship sermon is based on something I learned in seminary.  Dr. Mitzi Minor used this story one day in class.  Her interpretation was different from any I’d heard before, and I’ve listened to a lot of preachers in a lot of churches over a lot of years.

            Dr. Minor said this widow should not have been contributing to the temple treasury at all.  Funds given to the temple were to be used for the relief of widows and orphans.  Instead of giving, she should have been receiving.  Jesus was calling attention to the role reversal that made a giver out of someone who should have been a receiver.  Clearly, the comfortable people of Jesus’ time identified with the very successful rather than with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.

            This is the question we must each ask ourselves over the next two months:  Will we, who are comfortable with our circumstances the way they are, who find the idea of significant change unsettling—will we identify with the successful ones in our society, or will we stand with the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden?  Jesus made it clear which side he was on. 

            The novelist Louis de Bernieres said it well.  “The real index of civilization is when people are kinder than they need to be.”

            We know which side Jesus was on.  Will we follow his example, or will we shirk our responsibility to those he has called us to help?           

Sunday, August 30, 2020

To Set the Captives Free

 

To Set the Captives Free

Luke 4:16-30

            For many reasons racial equality has been on my mind recently.  The unwarranted killing of black men and women by police is part of it, certainly, but not all.  My oldest friend, who is black, has taken a stand within his denomination, a stand not likely to win him many friends.  I’m reading a book I’ve inherited from a recently retired pastor friend titled The Black Christ, by Kelly Brown Douglas. Over my fifty-plus years of teaching I witnessed firsthand how many students of color suffered from systemic racism.  All these have influenced my thinking.

            I’ve decided it’s time for me to take a stand.    It’s time we end this scourge on our country’s—and on Christianity’s—history.  Jesus didn’t support racism.  Paul didn’t support racism.  Neither should we.

            Recently I preached about racism. .After worship, one of the elders in my church sent me an excerpt from the PBS program Fresh Air, the August 4 broadcast.  It’s an exchange between Terry Gross, the host, and author Isabel Wilkerson. 

            GROSS: I know a lot of people say, I'm not responsible for racism in America. My family was immigrants, or I always lived in the North. I've never owned slaves. I'm not a racist myself. What do you say to that?

WILKERSON: I say that when you buy a house, you are not responsible for how it was built unless you had it built yourself. But if you buy an old house, you are not responsible for how it was built. You did not build the beams and the posts and the pillars and the joints that may be now askew. But it's your responsibility once it's in your possession to know what it is that you now occupy. And it's your responsibility to fix it.

No one had anything to do with the creation of the caste system that we've inherited. But now that we are in it and we recognize it and we are here however we got here, whether we were brought over and - where we came over in ships either of our own choice or not, whether we have recently arrived, we are now in the structure in the old house that now belongs to us. And it's our responsibility now to deal with whatever is within it. Whatever's wrong with it is now our responsibility, those of us alive here today.

            Wilkerson’s book, as this excerpt indicates, is about the caste system in America.  We might not believe we have a caste system.  We proclaim loudly that in our country everyone is equal—and we may believe it’s true; but it isn’t. 

            Equal before the law?  The richer you are the better lawyers you can afford.  My wife and I recently observed firsthand how little success poor and nonwhite citizens have in navigating our legal system.

            Equal access to quality health care?  Our black, brown—yes, and Asian—brothers and sisters are suffering and dying in disproportionate numbers from Covid-19.

            Equal access to a good education?  Inner-city schools plod along with inadequate resources, dated textbooks, and in too many cases, second-rate teachers.  Even the good teachers find the pressures make it almost impossible for them to do their job effectively.

            Our most serious inadequacies are the results of systemic racism.  More than a century after slavery was abolished our black citizens still have not achieved equality.  As much as I feel the pain caused by the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters of color, I fear it’s not the root of the problem.  As Kris Kristofferson says in his song Jesus Was a Capricorn, “Everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on.”

            The late George Aiken put it this way: “If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed, and color, we would find some other cause for prejudice by noon.”

            In the Nazareth synagogue Jesus said he had come to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the captives free.  This was not some “pie in the sky bye and bye” freedom, but freedom here and now; not just spiritual freedom, but physical, psychological, emotional and social freedom.

            Two thousand years later it’s time for us to fulfill Jesus’ promise.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Gift of the Spirit

 

The Gift of the Spirit

Numbers 11:16-30

            Christians celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church.  Some denominations make a bigger celebration than others, but all recognize this as the day the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples.  From this point on the New Testament refers to them as apostles—messengers—rather than disciples. 

            This is not the only place in the Bible where God’s Spirit is given to God’s people.  One of the most interesting occurrences happens during the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites.  They have left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea.  The Egyptian army has been destroyed.  God has given Israel a set of laws to live by, and instructions for building a place to worship (the tabernacle).  Construction is complete, Aaron has been consecrated high priest, and the Levites have been set aside as the priestly class.  Their calling is to serve in the tabernacle and assist Aaron in his duties.

            Early in the wilderness story Moses’ father-in-law comes to visit.  He sees that Moses is overburdened with caring for the people, and suggests a solution.  Men of outstanding ability should be appointed to help solve the easy problems, so that only the thorniest issues will be brought to Moses.  The system is put in place, it works beautifully, and Moses is no longer overwhelmed.

            In the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, God tells Moses to choose seventy worthy elders to further help him bear the burden of the people.  Moses does so, and takes them to the tabernacle, where God takes some of the Spirit that has been given to Moses and gives it to the seventy.  Immediately they begin to prophesy. 

            Back in the camp, two men who were supposed to be with the elders but somehow got left behind also begin to prophesy.  You can imagine what a stir that caused.  Place yourself in the camp and imagine what your reaction might have been.  If you see yourself alarmed and puzzled, you are probably reacting just as the Israelites must have done.

            One young man had the presence of mind to run to the tabernacle and tell Moses what was happening.  Joshua, Moses’ chief assistant, wanted to stop them, but Moses refused.  Instead, he said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!.”

            Amen!

            This is what Joel prophesies.  God will pour out God’s Spirit on all of God’s people, and they will prophesy.  Peter quotes Joel in his Pentecost sermon.

            One problem we might have with this story is a misinterpretation of prophecy.  We tend to think of prophecy as telling the future, and that is a part of it; but prophetic utterances may also be ecstatic praises to God.  I believe this is what happened that day at the tabernacle and in the Israelite camp, and what Joel meant.

            Moses understood what a difference the gift of prophecy would make if given to all God’s people.  It is a gift we should desire for ourselves.  To be so attuned to God that words of ecstatic praise come from our mouths would, I believe, have a profound effect on the world.  True, it would take some getting used to, and people might doubt our sanity or our truthfulness, but what a way to proclaim the power of God!

            May God grant each of us—all of us—the gift of the Spirit, that we might praise God with all our being and with all our words.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Give Me the Simple Life

 

Give Me the Simple Life

Luke 2:1-5

            From September 15, 1965 to April 27, 1971 you could turn on your TV and watch Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert combine the typical sitcom husband-wife battle with a city/country disagreement.  The show was called Green Acres, and pitted Albert (a New York City lawyer fed up with the big city rat race) against Gabor (his socialite-loving wife).  The majority of the humor in the show came from Gabor who could not—would not—adapt to life on a farm.

            Six seasons is a pretty good run for a sitcom, although I have to admit it never caught on with me.  Part of the problem I have with most sitcoms is that the jokes never change; the characters never develop.  I can laugh at the same situation just so long before I want to move on to something else.

            A 1945 song, Give Me the Simple Life expressed the same sentiments.  The problem with these—and other songs, TV shows, movies based on this concept—is that the people we see/hear performing them are all pretty rich and living in (for the most part) big cities or their suburbs.  They may talk about living simply, but few if any of them would actually do it.

            My wife and I are both only children.  She grew up on a farm in East Texas; I grew up in New York City.  Today we live in a house we could never afford if it was in an urban setting. Instead we live well outside the suburbs.  We jokingly tell people that being brought up as the only child in our family conditioned us to need plenty of personal space.  The truth is, we like our privacy.  Still, it would be difficult for us to claim that we’re living simply.

            We know Jesus was born into a simple way of life.  His father was a carpenter, a blue-collar worker.  His mother was a housewife.  They lived in a small village.  His friends were the children of fishermen, farmers, and other working-class families.  He never lived in splendor and wealth, never earned or inherited a fortune, never lived the high life.  As an adult he became an itinerant preacher, supported by friends, traveling from place to place on foot, often—we can imagine—sleeping rough and eating what he could find.

            In Philippians Paul describes Jesus as the King of glory, surrounded by the splendor of heaven, which he gave up to become human and assume the role of a servant.  In the early years of the Christian religion many of Jesus’ followers chose to live the simple life, moving to the desert and becoming hermits, or giving up the world for life in monasteries or convents.  Many still make that choice today.

            What are we to do?  Should we give up everything to live simply as did Jesus and these desert fathers and mothers?  Should we renounce all we have to lead a monastic life?

            God does not call all of us to sell our possessions to follow Jesus, as the rich young ruler was asked to do.  Instead, I believe God calls most of us to live in the world and to dedicate all that we are and all that we have to God’s service.  We are called to adopt an inner simplicity.

            Ernest Hemingway said, “The man who has begun to live more seriously within begins to live more simply without.”  This sounds to me like a good life-plan.  The more fervently we seek to know God and commit our lives to Christ the more we will learn what’s important.  We’ll find ourselves letting go of what we no longer need—and that may not always be things.  It could be thoughts, ideas, habits, states of mind that we lay aside in order to develop a simpler lifestyle within.

            Dag Hammarskjold once wrote, “If only I may grow:  firmer, simpler—quieter, warmer.”

            May that be our prayer today.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Good Advice

Good Advice

Proverbs 3:1-6

            It’s no secret that I love the newspaper comics.  I have a collection of some of my favorites on a corkboard in my office.  Trouble is, I’ve run out of space on the board and I keep finding new ones. 

            One of my favorites over the years has been Family Circus, drawn by Bill Keane.  Actually, the first Bill Keane is no longer with us.  I understand his son Bill (the Billy of the cartoon) is now responsible for the drawing.  What a blessing it must be to inherit something so successful and carry on your father’s work!

            A recent Sunday installment of Family Circus is about success.  Young Billy asks his father, “Do you think I’ll ever be a success, Daddy?”  The father answers, “Sure!” then gives him some wonderful advice.  Success isn’t a destination, he says, but a journey.  “If you only find success at the end of the road it’s too late—the journey’s over.”

            Too many people strive for some final success.  “If I only get there,” they say, “I’ll be fulfilled.  I’ll have all I want, be all I’ve ever dreamed of being.  I’ll have reached the top.”

            As someone has said, too many people spend their lives climbing the ladder of success only to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.  What a condemnation!

            Bill Keane’s advice to his son?  “Enjoy all your successes—right now, today, tomorrow…” 

            Young Billy sees himself wandering the road of life along the dotted line that is always used in this cartoon to represent someone walking, this time with little starbursts along the way. 

            “Yeah,” Billy says, “I like it.”

            We would do well to listen to Bill Keane.  God gave us this life, this world to enjoy.  God expects us to stop and smell the roses, and to grow a few roses of our own along the way.

            Many years ago I took a class in grad school.  The professor often divided us into groups to discuss the topics he (very briefly) expounded upon.  One night, at the end of class, he told us to go home and look at the change points in our lives—times we had been moving in one direction only to find ourselves suddenly pointed in an entirely different direction—and be prepared to share them with a partner.

            It was an interesting assignment, and one that proved valuable, then and often since.  It’s easy to see successes when we look at our lives that way.  We also see what we thought of as failures at the time recognized as successes when seen through life’s rear-view mirror.  It’s a good way to check up on blessings you might have missed the first time through.

            The writer of Proverbs had some good advice for his son.  We find it throughout the early chapters.  No matter what age we are, or what gender, we would do well to thoughtfully read the words the author addressed to “my son.”  Some of these words will be familiar: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” for example.  Others will not be so well-known, but are worth reading and remembering.

            Our lives are journeys, with many stopping places and side roads, and with no firm ending point.  Along the road we need to enjoy all our successes.  We also need to heed all the good advice we hear, to store it in our memories for future occasions.  We never know when it will come in handy, when we will need to call to mind the words of people like our parents, Bill Keane, the author of Proverbs, and many other sources. 

            Happy trails, fair winds, and safe harbors.