Do What You Know to Be Right (Sermon #8 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

 

I.
How did you learn the difference between right and wrong?  Believing at some point that you did know the difference–at least in most circumstances–have you always done what you knew to be right?  If you have, good for you.  If you haven’t, join the club with most of the rest of us!  If you knew what was right and didn’t do the right thing, why not?
One of the plays in Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, also known as the “Theban Plays,” is “Antigone.”  He has the characters wrestle with and respond to several major ethical crises.  They, for the most part, know what is right and what is wrong.  The two key questions for his characters are, “Is it always possible and appropriate to do what is right?”, and “If there is a conflict among the authoritative sources that establish right from wrong, which of the authorities does one follow?”
The literary genre of the Theban plays is “tragedy.”  Greek tragedy is a dramatic story intended to be performed on stage and in which the “protagonist,” has knowingly or unwittingly done something wrong, and the punishment for the “crime” is outrageously disproportionate to the wrong committed.  That’s why it’s a tragedy.  One of my students sent me an email a couple of years ago while reading the first assignment in “Antigone” and said, “Dear Dr. Farmer, the only tragic aspect I can find in this play is that you are forcing us to read it.”  Made me angry, but I also thought it was kind of clever.
I wrote back and said, “Well, keep reading, and hopefully your opinion will change.  If not, you with all your classmates still have to complete the assignment.”  What I really wanted to write back to him was this, “Maybe tragedy will become clear to you when you get your final grade for this course.”
I think “Antigone” is masterpiece both literarily and in terms of bringing us face to face with the complexity of ethical standards as well as the authorities that establish what is moral and what is immoral in a given context or culture.  I admit that it takes a little more concentration to get into the story than most comic books require, but the effort is highly worthwhile; this would have to be one of several reasons that this play predating the birth of Jesus by more than 400 years was carefully preserved and passed along, generation to generation.  Not all of Sophocles’ plays were preserved; there’s a practical reason or a set of them that has a piece of literature lasting this long.
At the heart of the play are four siblings, two boys and two girls.  When their father, King Oedipus of Thebes, runs away into a self-imposed exile, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, accept a pattern of sharing the rule of the city-state, Thebes.  Women could not be rulers except as backups if their husbands were kings.
Here’s the great leadership sharing plan.  Each brother will alternate years of kingship.  Eteocles will serve a year; then he will take a break for a year while Polynices serves his designated year.  So it will continue, one year on and one year off.  Right….
Eteocles is the older son so he goes first.  Everybody knows this arrangement isn’t going to work.  You know it, even if you didn’t raise sons.  The gods of the Thebans knew it.  The audiences watching the play knew it.  Some form of sharing might have worked, but not this one.
When Eteocles’ first year of kingship was coming to an end, he received a reminder from his brother, Polynices, saying that he, Polynices, was due to take the throne on the first anniversary of their father’s self-imposed exile.  Eteocles wrote back, on royal stationary of course, and said, “Thanks for the reminder, Bro, but I really like this job; and I’m going to need more than a year to get the hang of it.  You’ll get your turn one of these days, but now isn’t the right time–not for me and not for Thebes.”
“The Hades you say,” popped back Polynices.  “Either you vacate the throne as our notorized, certified, legalized agreement provides, or I will assemble my own army.  There are many people who don’t like you, you know, and we will run you into exile with our father.”
Eteocles got a huge belly laugh out of that and went on with life just as he’d been doing before Polynices’ pathetic plea for temporary abdication had been read to him.  The palace staff laughed along with their king, and life went on as usual…until…until Polynices’ army showed up at the palace one morning threatening to kill everyone loyal to Eteocles and carry Eteocles into exile.
Immediately, Eteocles orders his already standing army to fight back.  They did.  Sibling rivalry at a peak, Eteocles and Polynices join in the fighting, and no one, absolutely no one, is prepared for what will happen.  They strike each other at about the same time, and both wounds are mortal wounds; both brothers die.  The throne can no longer matter to either of them, off now in Hades, the abode of all the dead.
Who will rule now?  The sisters are mere women and are, thus, incapable of ruling, as we all know.  The closest male relative, as there are no more men or boys in Oedipus’ clan, turns out to be his brother-in-law, Creon.  Creon was sibling to Oedipus’ late wife and uncle to the two bereaved sisters, Antigone and Ismene, who’d lost both of their brothers in yet another senseless battle.
Now-King New-King Creon rules that even though Eteocles should have abdicated the throne after a year, he was still the king until the formal shift of power took place; therefore, the late King Eteocles would be given the full, fancy state burial reserved for kings alone.  Polynices, and remember that both of these young men were Creon’s nephews, was a criminal, having broken the law, and he was not entitled to any funeral at all; in fact, his body was to be left outdoors to be picked over by the vultures.
Antigone says to her uncle, the king, “No, sir.  That is not right.  I will give my brother the burial any human being deserves, which–by the way–is the will of the gods and goddesses.”
“You defy my order, niece or no niece, and I’ll have you executed so you can join both of your brothers in Hades!”
Antigone asked her sister, Ismene, to help her with the burial, but Ismene said, “Oh, I wish I could.  I loved Polynices dearly, but I can’t go against the law of the land.”
Antigone asked her, “Which law binds you?  Divine law or human law?”
Antigone followed through on her promise to bury her brother decently, and Creon also followed through on his promise to order her execution.  While in prison awaiting the executioner’s arrival, Antigone said that she would not give her idiotic, power-hungry uncle the pleasure of presiding over the execution of the first person to break one of his laws.  She would take her own life, and she did.
By the way, just so you know how this part of the story ended, Antigone’s finance saw her dead and killed himself in grief.  His mother found him dead, and she killed herself as well.  Oh yeah, the dead fiance was Creon’s son, and his mother was Creon’s wife.  I guess he showed Antigone who was boss, huh?

II.
The issue before us today is not encouragement to do the right thing, the ethically correct thing, in isolation even though a number of thoughtful folks have said something to this effect:  your true moral values are reflected in what you do when no one is watching–or, at least, when you think no one is watching.  The issue before us today, as the play, “Antigone,” frames so perfectly, is, “Will we do the right thing when people are definitely watching, and we know that there could be or will be negative consequences for ourselves, and, perhaps also, for those whom we love?”
On the first two Wednesday evenings in November, we will take up the ambitious project of summarizing the core content of the book of Revelation.  Yes, we’re going to hit the highlights of a twenty-two-chapter biblical book in two one-hour study sessions.  You could call what I’m about to tell you an important part of my sermon today, or you could call it advance publicity for this study I’m going to teach.  The next time Mr. Cushing or one of his counterparts predict the end of time, I want you to have some ammunition for discounting biblically what they say and not just tossing it aside because yet another prediction of the end of time sounds silly to you; you don’t need the Bible to discount such scare tactics, but it’s interesting to be able to refute with the Bible what such people claim to be taught by the Bible.
So, in the book of Revelation, which was written some time between 90 and 96, near the end of the first Christian century.  Domitian is the Roman Emperor, and while many of those first century roman emperors got along nicely with the Jews over whom they ruled, Domitian despised the Christians.  He believed himself to be divine as most of those first century emperors did, but he made much more of his presumed divinity than did many of the others.  He had statues of himself, grand monuments, constructed and erected in several pivotal areas of the Roman Empire.  Periodically, a call to worship the emperor would be issued–via gong or town crier or blast of horns, and when that call was heard every citizen of the Roman Empire, the Romans as well as all the people over whom Rome ruled, had to fall down before the statue of Domitian and, in so doing, worship or appear to worship the Emperor.  As you can well imagine, there were several ways the Christians and other non-Romans had of looking at this challenge.  We’re only concerned with Christian responses at the moment.
Some of the Christians said to themselves, “There is no God but one, and we will go through the motions of this silliness just to keep the peace.  We know, though, that Domitian is not one of several gods or the one and only deity.  Bowing before his statue means nothing more than bowing before Domitian himself when he is paraded around in his luxurious chariot; it’s a sign of respect to a political leader.  You can hate the guy’s guts and still bow before him to keep yourself out of jail.  We choose the expedient alternative; that doesn’t mean we love God less than any one else.”
Other Christians, and Jews with them by the way, said, “If we bow down before that statue of Domitian, we are showing honor that belongs to God alone.  We are violating the commandment that says, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’  We will not bow down to Domitian or any statue of Domitian.  We don’t want there to be any confusion in anybody’s mind about where our allegiance lies.”  These are people who suffered for their faith in God, and there evidently were hoards of them, so many of them in fact that those who refused to bow down and stayed out of jail were fearful the Christian movement itself would die out.   Eventually, the typical Christian believed that Domitian would win out, and Christianity, as with their martyred loved ones, would cease to exist.
Domitian had all sorts of punishments he might choose for the disobedient ranging from beating to imprisonment to execution. What would you have done had you been one of those ordered to bow down before the statue of Domitian?  A part of me agrees with the those who bowed down.  I’ll play the Emperor’s silly, self-aggrandizing game and keep my life.  If I bow before a graven image a hundred times, I still believe in one God and in one God alone.  Another part of me, though, says, “I cannot deny my devotion to God who is living love, God who is life-source, life-force.  I could do more for the Jesus Movement alive than dead, but if I bow down, there’s a level at which Domitian wins anyway.  I can’t have anyone thinking I endorse in any way his claim to be one of the many Roman deities.”
I’m not sure who first asked this question in my hearing.  The person might have been an evangelist preaching a revival at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church or a Friday morning chapel speaker at Carson-Newman College; the question, though, stunned me and stayed with me, “If you were charged with being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
So, here’s the real crux of the matter.  Doing the right thing can bring harm to you and to those whom you love.  That’s exactly what I described with Domitian.  Those who bowed down before the statue and made their grocery lists while they were detained in that manner, in time, went on their way and were left alone by Domitian and his Department of Homeland Security.  Those who refused to bow down before one of several of those statues set up throughout the vast Roman Empire would likely suffer the consequences I’ve already described; to make defying him less likely, Domitian might also take your aging parent or your child and put her or him in line to be executed.  You would live for now, but your dear one would die.
There’s a tragic connection in long-held Christian doctrinal views that doing good brings good to the one who did good.  That’s a perfect formula for doing good for bad reasons; doing good, presumably for someone else but that really brings honor or privilege to you, is a pitiful motivation for doing good.
Whether you consider yourself a Christian or a follower of Jesus or someone intrigued with the teachings of Jesus minus issues of faith and doctrine, at the heart of the religion bearing a title some bestowed upon him–creating a word he never heard and a movement in which he was never involved except to the extent that he hoped to reform Judaism–is this amazing man who did nothing but good, and in exchange for his goodness received government endorsed beatings and whippings, humiliation, and ultimately Rome’s cruelest method of execution.
Does that fit in with your karma theology?  Do good, and good will be done to you.  Really?  How long do you have to wait?  Next realm, maybe?   Do bad, and bad will boomerang back to you.  Really?  How long, the psalmists kept asking God in worship, will the righteous suffer and the wicked win the big prizes such as big bucks and better health and lavish lifestyles?
No one has ever answered that question to the satisfaction of much of anyone.  Rabbi Harold Kushner made a grand effort in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but that very good book just didn’t do it for a lot of folks because it was honest.  “We don’t know why,” said the brilliant rabbi who himself lost a child to untimely death.
If you’re going to do the right thing for the right reasons, for realistic reasons, you’re going to have to forget about rewards beyond the satisfaction of doing the right thing as an end in itself.  You’re also going to have to make a place in your theology for the reality that really bad circumstances can visit those who consistently do what they know to be right.

 

 

III.
With echoes of hatred of immigrants ringing in our ears, we hear again the magnificent story of two Hebrew midwives who dared to do anyway what the mighty pharaoh forbade them to do.  Mentioned in only one place in Hebrew scripture, Shiphrah and Puah, nonetheless, established themselves as great heroines of the faith by defying the murderous pharaoh in power.  Many pharaohs before theirs had loved the Hebrews and allowed them to develop themselves personally and work to have their professions flourish.  These were pharaohs were remembered a Hebrew named Joseph and what he and his fellow Hebrews had done to enhance life for the Egyptians, including Joseph’s service to his pharaoh as CFO of the nation.  Joseph managed the money of the nation into which he was not native born superbly, and Egypt flourished–more, likely, than another nation around them.  The pharaoh and the Egyptians had Joseph to thank for their prosperity.
Years passed, and people on the whole didn’t keep up with their history so they, a large number of the Egyptians, began to see the Hebrews as a threat to their safety and their prosperity.  The pharaoh in power at the time was as guilty of this distorted perspective as his least informed subject so he made a series of major decisions without having enough information on hand, something that has never happened in the United States. Our presidents have never and would never act on inaccurate or inadequate information, but the pharaoh we have in mind today wasn’t as careful or as thorough as our fine line of presidents; and as a result he began to fear and then to dislike the Hebrews who’d worked happily and productively in Egypt for generations.
Rarely will a leader keep such attitudes or anxieties to himself or herself, and the pharaoh certainly did not.  He rather enjoyed building up a movement to promote hatred of the Hebrews.  There weren’t enough old-timers around to remind their pharaoh and their fellow citizens that the Hebrews had been very good for Egyptian economy and Egyptian international relations.
He finally decides with his paranoid personnel agreeing with everything he proposed to turn the tables on the Hebrews.  As for the Hebrews already established there, they could stay, but not as respected members of society; henceforth they’d be slaves.  And most despicably of all, that pharaoh planned what was supposed to have been a low key genocide.
The story teller tries to emphasize how many Hebrews were in Egypt at this time, but if only two midwives were needed to assist with the births of Hebrew babies, the crowd couldn’t have been too grand.  Whatever the facts are about the actual Hebrew population as recorded by the Census Bureau, in reality there were probably many fewer Hebrews in the land than the paranoid pharaoh grasped.
He called for a meeting with the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and this is what he ordered them to do as the all-powerful, not to be questioned ruler of the land in which they lived and had lived for some time.  “Remember that you are now my slaves, and keep in mind what happens to slaves who are disobedient to their masters.  There are two new, but very simple policies about birth practice for Hebrew babies whom you deliver.  When a Hebrew woman is on the birthstool, the second you see that the baby she is birthing is male, kill him.  If the baby is a girl, you must let her live.”
The midwives certainly feared the pharaoh, one of the most powerful persons in the whole world, but they also feared their God when the divine standards were not upheld.  They knew instantly that there was no way they were going to kill any Hebrew children or any Egyptian babies either if they should ever be called on to assist in the big houses and the palace.
As the months passed the pharaoh noticed what he thought were more and more cute little Hebrew boys running around, and he called Shiphrah and Puah to ask, “What’s going on here?  There should be fewer and fewer little Hebrew boys around, not more and more.”
They lied to the Pharaoh because it was the right thing to do.  Do you see that?  They might well have sacrificed their lives, but they weren’t going to have a hand in the pharaoh’s inevitable response–to call for a mass murder of all the little Hebrew boys.  So, they lied, and they told the pharao, that they had tried time and again to grab those slippery Hebrew infants as they exited the birth canal, but just as they got focused on that here would come another Hebrew woman in for help with her delivery.  Add to that, some of the Hebrew women were so strong that they’d just stop in the fields for a few minutes, deliver their own babies, and get right back to work, the way good slaves did.
Disappointed with their explanation, but unable to refute it, the pharaoh made his plan the law of the land.  Every Egyptian and every Hebrew dwelling on Egyptian soil were required to throw any little Hebrew boy or infant into the Nile to drown.  The little girls were not to be harmed in any way.
The lie told to this pharaoh kept the faith of Shiphrah and Puah in tact and protected the lives of innocent children as well.  These midwives, perhaps the only two even named in Hebrew or Christian scripture, go down in the faith hall of fame for doing the right thing even though their lives were on the line no matter what they’d decided to do.
There are any number of pressing issues in our world that need a champion or a team of champions.  Who will speak out and up on behalf of so many struggling and helpless individuals and groups?  I don’t like this quote from Dr. King because it disturbs me so profoundly, but I’ll say it to you in this context; and we can all be disturbed together:  “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  In the same vein, Holocaust survivor and brilliant writer, Elie Wiesel, said:  “Neutrality only helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
I’ll tell you something else I don’t like because it’s too true and requires way too much of me.  Joseph Fletcher was an Episcopal priest and theologian who founded the theory of situational ethics.  As you heard in one of our earlier readings, Fletcher believed there was absolutely no list of ethical rules or norms that applied in all places and times, something Enlightenment thinkers, and many others since them, longed for.  Professor Fletcher said that there was one and only one ethical norm that applied to every situation one would face in life, everywhere and one hundred percent of the time:  the rule of agape love.  The Greek language, both its classical form and its more common or koine form, had a few words for love since not all love is the same kind of love.  Agape love, though, which humans were charged to emulate as did Jesus of Nazareth was God’s kind of love, selfless and unconditional love that would always take whatever action was possible on behalf of anyone in need.  It’s not an emotional word or concept at all; we can and we must act in love, taking risks and making sacrifices for the well-being of others, even those we don’t like.
See why I don’t like the idea?  Yet, you and I are sent into the world with a mandate always to do what we know to be right founded on nothing less than agape love.

Nurture Your Spiritual Self (7th in Sermon Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.

The “spiritual” part of me, as I see it, is that aspect of who I am in my depths that yearns to touch and be touched by what is most glorious and powerful; I’m drawn toward it.  That “it” in the minds of some seekers is God.  For others, the “it” is something internal, a part of us and yet something we cannot manipulate or control.  For still others, that “it” is precisely the true self, at its best.

How do you nurture your spiritual self?  You begin by building a three-part foundation.  First, by realizing that however you do so, seeing to such nurture is YOUR opportunity and your responsibility.  No one can do your spirituality for you.

Second, by coming to grips with the reality of how you are put together as a human being.  Your spiritual self isn’t some separate part of the whole that is you, which you can stroll by, visit now and then, and encourage with stroking and special treats.  The physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of who we are, are interconnected and intertwined; only one of these aspects of who we all are can be adapted by physical manipulation such as physical therapy or surgery.

You’ve never heard anyone sober say, “I’m going to have surgery on my sad side to see if some of it can be removed so I can be happier more often than I have been for the last several years.”  But we can take medications to treat emotional illness, and in drastic situations shock therapy—these days induced by medications rather than electric wands akin to those that often restart hearts that have stopped beating.  Improving the emotional and/or spiritual parts of who we are must be accomplished without physical touching them.

The third part of the foundation, another matter to clear up on your way to establishing a foundation for spiritual nurture is to accept the fact that there are no formulae that work for everyone who desires to be more spiritually spunky.  This is to say that, while understanding what works for others, what works for us individually will have to be discovered along our own pathway of seeking.  A simple example of this would be comparing those who find it highly meaningful to set aside a specific time each day for prayer or meditation and reflection—perhaps influenced by inspirational reading—and those who find no meaning in scheduling spiritual practices at all.  I’m one of those for whom the set time of day practice never worked; I’ve tried it time and again across the years, and I can’t feel much growth by doing it that way.

When I was in seminary, we most of us thought of the spiritual giants-to-be among us were those who arose before dawn and had their time of inspirational reading and prayer before the demands of the day began.  Using that as a measurer, I knew that I would not dwell in the land of those kinds of giants.  I didn’t have any trouble getting up early, but being expected to do something that required thought left me out.  I was sufficiently disappointed with myself, but I felt some sense of comfort and relief when a big time southern preacher said in chapel one day, “I got tried of that getting up really early to pray thing, and all it did for me was to make me throw up.  I needed my sleep!”

However they did it, I’ve known some key people across the years who, without a doubt, drew spiritual health and strength from regular times of prayer and/or meditation sometimes combined with inspirational reading whether that, for them, was from the Bible or the Koran or a poetry anthology bringing them heart to heart with the great poets, from Emily Dickinson to Maya Angelou, from Percy Bysshe Shelly to Robert Frost.  I am so grateful for writers who have inspired me and those who still inspire me, but I have to say that, consistently, the most powerful influences on my spiritual well-being are people whom I know or know about with a special commitment to having a healthy spiritual self, and they have come from all over the place geographically, theologically, and in terms of style or practice.

I have told some of you before that the most influential person in my life in terms of making me want to believe in and work toward a healthy spiritual self is Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, who was a professor of church history and spiritual formation at Southern Seminary.  Ironically, he was one of the first to be called a heretic when the literalists began their witch hunts, which led to many professors being forced out of their jobs; most of the best and brightest scholars who made up our stellar faculty were gone in a very short while.  Two of his several books, were utterly pivotal for me:  A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle and A Reaffirmation of Prayer.

Glenn is brilliant, clever, and witty.  He walked to work most days and did much of his scheduled praying on those daily walks.  He has a serious hearing challenge and wears hearing aids, but on his walk to work each day, he turned off the hearing aids so he could concentrate on his prayers.  Many of us who loved him worried that he’d be so caught up in praying he might step into an intersection and get hurt; he couldn’t have heard vehicles rapidly approaching him.  Thankfully, that never happened.  He was fine, and he still is.  A couple of years ago he celebrated his 50th year in teaching, and he’s still at it.

The walk, Glenn’s walk, was a hike so he invested some serious time in praying in the course of a day.  It made an impact on him; he was in truth a saintly sort whose active connection to the God whom he met in his praying caused him to approach life differently enough that he stood out.  I can’t tell you how indebted I am to him, but I have tried to tell him.  Teacher, mentor, prayer partner, friend.  If I were to be faced with some great life challenge, and I don’t just mean some crisis—it could be an earth shattering opportunity—I’d get in touch with two people to ask them to pray for me.  Dr. E. Glenn Hinson and Dr. Gertrude Burrell.

Here is a word from Dr. Hinson taken from his book, one of the ones I mentioned a few minutes ago, A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle:

…how can we conceive of God as at one and the same time intimately involved in the universe and yet not simply equivalent to it? Shall we conceive of God’s immanence or transcendence spatially, as the primitive world view did? God is normally “up there,” high above all earthly realities.  Occasionally, God becomes immanent “down here” in order to set creation right again. Or, on the opposite extreme, shall we say God is totally immanent, as some secular theologians argue? What we describe in regard to the natural order is God’s action. God is wholly within the secular process. Thus there is no need to think of transcendence at all.


II.

In Dr. Hinson’s book, from which I quoted, he deals with the problem in prayer of knowing where to “place” God.  Most of us, I think this is true, warm up to the idea that God is within us and not way out there somewhere.  This does not mean that we have learned to communicate well with God even after we think we know where God is.  The more basic question in the lives of busy moderns is, “How can I make time to try to commune with God?”  We are too busy; we most of us really are.  Too many people who claim to want some kind of connection with God find it increasingly difficult to give church attendance even an hour out of their busy weeks; anything and everything is more important than church, even though the church should be helping us find some answers to the spiritually-based questions we ask, thus contributing to our spiritual nurture.

So, with Glenn’s question about conceptualization of God for the purposes of prayers, his more basic question in the book and a more fundamental question for us as well is:  Is communing with God a worthwhile practice, and if so is there any time during our busy lives when we can focus exclusively on that for even a few minutes?

Those who wrote down the oral traditions about Jesus had much more to choose from than they wanted to or were able to write down, for whatever reason.  We have to believe from a literary as well as a theological point of view that traditions from Jesus material floating rather freely around were chosen very intentionally by the writers of the Gospels both because of the pictures they were painting of Jesus with their words and because there was something in a given story they thought essential to understanding Jesus, as they—each individual Gospel writer, I mean—conceived of Jesus.

So, in the story before us today, Jesus is pooped.  He had a hard time saying, “No,” and as a result a hard time calling it a day as people with every imaginable problem pressed and pressed upon him to help them find deliverance from their afflictions.  Yet, he did have to rest, and he did have to eat.  He had to tend to his personal care; angels didn’t do his laundry, you know!

Now and then, he had to get away by himself, BY HIMSELF, for rebuilding his energy and his spiritual resources so that he could help others.  Let’s get the context of this partial portrait of Jesus.

Jesus was known for his faith healing activities, and that included the casting out of demons.  In a prescientific world, illnesses were thought to be sent by God as some kind of punishment, and the carriers of illness were often thought to be demons.  It was one of several incongruities about God disliking something that God Godself caused; here is Jesus, after all, trying to undo illness in God’s name even though the widespread theological standard said that God had willed the illness.

At synagogue one day, a man with some unclean spirits controlling his speech and behavior showed up, and the unclear spirits spoke through the man to Jesus, “What would do with us, Jesus?  Here we are, demons right in your face and fully in control of this man’s every word and every move.”  Jesus exorcised the demons, and as they departed the man’s body he began to experience convulsions, but he was free of the demons.

Those who witnessed this encounter were amazed. They didn’t know Jesus so well, and they wondered aloud, “Who is this guy on whom the demons will not try to force themselves?”

The writer of the first of the Gospels to be completed and circulated, Mark, explained that after this exorcism, Jesus became famous.  Everybody with an ailment wanted his attention.

Immediately after the rebuke of the demons, two of Jesus’ disciples asked for some special attention.  Peter’s mother-in-law was seriously ill; she was running a high fever and was bed-ridden.  Peter and his brother, Andrew, asked Jesus to help her.  He agreed to do what he could.  Inside their home, Jesus took her by the hand and helped her out of her sick bed.  She was well on the spot.  Mark tells us that immediately she began serving the guests in her home.

Busy day for Jesus, folks.  Getting close to Jesus’ bedtime, he looked up and saw a whole crowd of people who’d been brought to him in hopes that he could get rid of their demons too so that they might be well.  The curiosity seekers were there as well; in fact, Mark makes a point of noting that the WHOLE CITY was gathered around the door of the house where he was doing his healing work.  That’s likely an exaggeration, don’t you think?  The whole city?  Either an exaggeration or it was a really small city.  In any case, there’s no rest for the weary, Jesus.

There’s no mention of how late it was when Jesus finally did all he could do and had to call it quits for the day so that he could get some rest.  The next morning, sleep deprived no doubt, Jesus still got up at a ridiculously early hour, and he went out in the pre-dawn darkness to a place where he could be all by himself so he could pray for a little while without interruption.

We don’t know how long he had to himself, but we do know that his dense disciples weren’t getting the picture as they were the very ones who came looking for him to interrupt and tell him there were lots more people who wanted to see him for healing.  Duh!  Thanks for the shocking revelation.

The disciples liked the fame that came to Jesus because they were able to share in it, and the more people he healed the more famous all of them were.  Just in case, Jesus had been unwilling to leave his prayers and come with them, the disciples used what every kid has used at some time to try to force parents to grant some permission she or he thought essential in order to be able to hold head high among peers.  “EVERYONE is searching for you,” they said.  Right; just like the whole city was out to watch Jesus work the night before.  EVERYONE!   Jesus knew they were exaggerating, but he went along with them because, of course, he wanted to heal as many people as he could.

Trappist monk, and Glenn Hinson’s friend and mentor in a way, the late Thomas Merton said:

Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier:

Why idly seek from outward things
The answer inward silence brings?
Why climb the far-off hills with pain,
A nearer view of heaven to gain?
In lowliest depths of bosky dells
The hermit Contemplation dwells,
Whence, piercing heaven, with screened sight,
He sees at noon the stars, whose light
Shall glorify the coming night.

III.

I do believe the first person I ever heard use the word, “mindfulness,” was Steve Fifield, and not so long ago.  I immediately began to wonder, as Steve spoke, what the difference was between mindfulness and meditation.  The answer I sort of worked out for myself after some reading and study is that for many people, the words are nearly synonymous; for others, and I guess this is what makes the most sense to me at the moment, meditation is a psychological and/or spiritual practice through which, in as much solitude and separation as I can manage, I try to transcend, if just for a limited amount of time, what troubles me, what hurts me, what scares me, what depletes my will to live well.

Mindfulness, in contrast, is nearly the opposite; by concentrating on my breathing, I am more focused on present reality than I normally would or could be, rushing through life the way I do.  Mindfulness has me letting my consciousness bring to my attention whatever it will; I acknowledge that alert, but I, for now, have to let it go.  I do not judge myself for having thought about something I couldn’t help calling to mind, but dealing with it at the moment is not what mindfulness does for me.  In fact, I try my best to let go of that thought to give more concentration to constancy of my breathing, which is my core present reality.  I’m not trying in mindfulness practice to transcend and take a break from dealing with whatever it is; I acknowledge that it is real and important, but now is not the time for me to focus on it so I let it go for now.  I will be more capable of dealing with the issue that the unplanned thought tried to get me to concentrate on when I am refreshed by my mindfulness.

Along comes the internationally recognized mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, with a book, Mindfulness Meditation, and challenges the definitions I worked so hard to piece together.  Still, we can learn a great deal from him about a health spirituality; speaking, and not from a Christian perspective, Kabat-Zinn says:

If you are routinely out of touch with the present, you may miss more than the morning commute. You might be thinking of other things while playing with your children, lost in thought when you are with friends, missing tender moments with your lover, oblivious to the beauty of a sunny day or the place you are–in short, missing out on life.  Mindfulness Meditation is about learning to experience life fully as it unfolds—moment by moment….[W]ake up, experience the fullness of your life, and transform your relationship with your problems, your fears, and any pain and stress in your life so that they don’t wind up controlling you and eroding the quality of your life and your creativity….Mindfulness Meditation can give you back a high degree of control in your life, beyond the automatic actions and reactions that so often drive our behavior. It can free you from being stuck in fear or uncertainty and help you to take life on as an adventure in growth and learning and feeling. Begin listening today, and discover what it’s like to see the world you actually have, not the one you think you are missing, and to live the life that is yours to live in its fullness, moment by moment and day by day.

Here is another reminder of the interconnectedness of the physical self, the mental self, and the spiritual self.  When one of the three is out of whack, one or both of the other two is likely to join in and become ill or dysfunctional as well.  Conversely, if only one of the three can be whole, a natural pathway is created between it and the other two inviting them to wholeness and wellness.

We “do something westerners” are much more likely to take on enhancing physical health over the other two because there are specific steps we can take to improve physical health, and we really do want a step by step, how-to-manual, complete with check-off boxes.  Eat more healthily.  Exercise more consistently and in a more centered way.  Get more rest.  Drink more water.  Positive, healthy results will almost certainly begin showing through very quickly.

Emotional problems, emotional illness or malfunction, are much more difficult to deal with, and so only seldom will someone start with healing emotions hoping the other two aspects of self will follow suit.  Not only are the means of trying to heal emotional wounds intangible and invisible to the naked eye, but also we almost certainly will need someone to walk with us along part of the journey.  I can go the gym most any hour of the day, but I must make an appointment with a therapist and wait for my 50 minutes of her or his attention every week or every month.  In Tom Ledbetter’s lesson for us this past Wednesday evening, he mentioned a client with whom he worked for four or five years.  The client to whom he referred, though, would probably never have been well emotionally had she stopped short of that years-long commitment to therapy.

Healing the spiritual self may be more demanding still.  John McNeill referred to the overriding function of the pastoral ministry as the “cure of souls.”  I take encouraging someone to work toward a healthy spiritual self and working toward the cure of a soul to be essentially the same efforts.

How does one tend to a spiritual self that needs to be made whole?  We build a foundation as I described earlier, but, as I’ve said, there are no specific sets of steps that will work for all people.  I will list a few; and most of us could lift two or three from the list knowing, if those were utilized, we would be healthier spiritually.

1)   Meditating.  Practicing mindfulness.  Praying to commune with God, not to coach God on how to care for the sick or bring world peace;

2)   Reading spiritually enriching materials including holy writ from the great religions of the world, knowing that some of it from all three monotheistic traditions, is disappointingly counter-productive, and including contemporary works that speak to the soul.  In Alice Walker’s masterpiece, The Color Purple, the character Shug Avery, though a fallen woman, is more spiritually sensitive than is her father who is a pastor.  She tells Celie, “I think God gets p-oed if we walk past the beautiful color purple and don’t notice it.”

3)   Bask in the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies, and care for our magnificent habitat.

4)   Meet someone’s need when she or he is unable to meet it.  Feed someone who is hungry.  Stand with someone angrily rejected by society at large.

5)   Be graciously receptive when someone ministers to you, even if you have enjoyed pretending that you didn’t need anyone’s help or support at all.

6)   Become a part of a community devoted to enhancing the spiritual health of all in the group.

7)   Learn to ponder your relationship with God or Life of the Great Mystery in solitude and in the midst of doing something practical like taking a walk or as the monk, Brother Lawrence, did, while washing pots and pans.

8)   Submerge yourself in whatever is beautiful to you:  art, music, color.

9)   Learn to treat the loving touch of another person as a channel for nurture, even the nurture of the spiritual you.

Amen.

Generosity (sermon #6 in series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.
There’s a tale that comes from Pacific island folklore.  A long time ago, a kangaroo was grooming her joey, a kangaroo toddler, on the bank of a brook.  Both of them liked to listen to the bubbling water as the mama cleaned and straightened her baby’s fur.
An old wombat suddenly stumbled toward them, interrupting this mother-child quality time.  “Oh my,” Mother Kangaroo whispered. “This wombat is really old, and I think he is also sick.”
As the old wombat came closer and closer to the kangaroos, Mother Kangaroo heard him nearly whispering to himself, “Useless and worthless, worthless and useless.”
“What is useless and worthless?” Mother Kangaroo asked him.
In response, he asked, “Who said that?”
“I did,” she replied. “I’m a kangaroo, and I’m here beside the brook with my joey.”
“Well,” explained the wombat, “I can hear you, but I can’t see you.  I’m blind.  And you know what that means.  Nobody wants an old, blind wombat around.  I’m no good to anybody, and all my friends and family members have abandoned me.  They’ve left me for dead, and I might as well be dead!”
“Don’t talk like that,” Mother Kangaroo insisted.  “I will be your friend.  I will happily show you where the most scrumptious grass grows and where the cleanest water is flowing.  We’ll start right now. Take hold of my tail and follow along.”  He complied, and Mother Kangaroo took him to several tufts of juicy grass and then to some clean, cool water.  The old wombat was delighted.
She’d become so involved in doing her good deed that she realized she’d been away from her joey WAY TOO LONG.  Back to where she’d left him, she found what she hoped she wouldn’t; her joey had wandered off, which wasn’t unusual for him, but that never kept her from being frightened.
Thankfully, she found him rather quickly; he was napping under a gum tree.  She didn’t want to awaken him so she thought things would be fine for a few more minutes while she went back, not so far from where the joey slept, to check on the wombat.  She had almost gotten back to where she’d told the wombat to wait for her when she noticed something moving in the bush.  It was an Aboriginal hunter who, obviously, planned to kill the wombat for dinner.  The hunter was already poised to throw his boomerang, which would most assuredly kill the wombat.
Mother Kangaroo froze; she couldn’t even allow herself to breathe.  A few quick thoughts told her that noise was her only hope so with her feet and tail she began to pound the ground and the branches around her.  The hunter was distracted and turned toward her.  She screamed out to the wombat, “Run!  Run!  A hunter wants to kill you.”
Not knowing where he was going, the wombat pitifully began to run as best he could run in all directions, not knowing where he’d gotten to or how safe he was from the hunter’s weapon.    The hunter forgot about the old wombat.  He asked himself, “Why have stringy, tough old wombat meat for dinner when I can bring my family fresh, tender young she-kangaroo meat?”
Mother Kangaroo hopped frantically into the bush, realizing that she was getting farther and farther away from where the little one was sleeping.  All she knew to do, though, was run for her life and hope the joey would be ok for a while longer.  She saw a cave and hopped in there, falling to the ground exhausted.  If the hunter prevailed, at least she had taken cover, and other animals wouldn’t have to see the horror of her execution.
The determined hunter ran past the cave’s opening.  A few minutes later he walked past the cave’s opening, going in the opposite direction.  He didn’t look in or around the cave.  As soon as Mother Kangaroo thought the coast was clear, she hopped as rapidly as she could back to the gum tree. Her best hopes realized, the joey was just waking up from his nap, ready to play.  She would turn the search for the old wombat into an adventure game for the sake of her little one.
As fate would have it, the old wombat wasn’t a wombat at all.  He was the god Byamee in disguise.  He had descended from the realm of the deities above on a mission to find out which creature on the earth had the kindest heart.  The clear answer was the kangaroo.  Byamee wanted to reward her for using her kindness so selflessly; he therefore called upon the sky spirits and gave them these instructions:  “Go down below to where the eucalyptus grow tall. Peel the long strips of bark and make a dilly bag apron. Give it to the kangaroo mother and explain that she must tie it around her waist.”
They did as they were told, and Mother Kangaroo agreed to do what the sky spirits directed her to do.  The instant the apron was tied in place, Byamee transformed the apron into a permanent pouch on Mother Kangaroo’s belly.  Now she had a means of carrying her little one with her and keeping her joey safe.  Wherever she went, she could easily take her toddler.
Kangaroo Mother was happy with her gift; of course, she was, but because she was the kindest creature of all, as the god Byamee had discovered first hand, she couldn’t help thinking about other kangaroo mothers, wallaby mothers, and other marsupials.  Byamee loved her generous heart, and without having to be asked, he instantly made pouches for all the other marsupial mothers. Ever since then, their babies almost never get lost.
A Chicago commuter was rushing toward a downtown train so he could make it to work on time.  As he neared the station with very little time to spare, he saw an older homeless man crying.  The homeless man was so hungry, he couldn’t bear it, and person after person rushed by him, each one ignoring him.
The commuter didn’t want to bothered either so he was taking two dollars out of his billfold to toss to the man when he would hurry by him.  Before he got close enough to the man to toss him the two one-dollar bills, he was stunned to see a young woman, a hippie type, stop and talk to the man.  She patted him on the back and then opened her backpack and took out a sandwich and a bag of chips, certainly her lunch for that day, and she gave both items to the older man who felt that hunger pangs were about to do him in.
The old man, call him a beggar if you will, was thanking the young hippie when the commuter hurried by and pressed the two bucks into the man’s hand.  I mean, two dollars were better than no dollars.  The beggar was trying to thank the commuter, but obviously felt he had to say a great deal more to the generous young lady.
The commuter ran on and made his train, but he realized there was a lesson for him to learn as a result of what he’d witnessed and in his small way participated in.  He realized that he could have and should have done more.  The old man was so hungry and so hurt from being ignored by all the well-fed people passing him by, the commuter could have done much better than two bucks.
In addition to censoring himself, however, he silently praised the young female hippie who must have been a kid–late high school probably, maybe early college.  He realized that he himself hadn’t been generous at all that day, but the young woman had been remarkably generous.
This is what the commuter wrote about the incident in a note he shared with his friends:
“My big takeaway was this: the kid was more generous and willing to help the elderly guy than the ‘adults’ out there. I guess that includes being more giving than me in that situation, too. Thus, maybe the age-old mantra that the younger generations ‘just don’t get it’ is wrong. From what I saw, they ‘got it’ even more than people in my generation.”

II.
The widow’s mite.  I have probably pondered the deeper meaning of this story more than all the stories I know from Jesus except maybe for the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Lost Son.  Lynne just read the little snippet from the brief collection of Jesus materials that made it down to us; let me flesh out the story a little bit.  And I’ll tell you in advance that when Jesus told the story originally, instead of seeing the person whom Jesus was complimenting and affirming in the story as worthy of such praise, many in his audience became angry at him because they wanted their counterparts in the story to get the accolades.  Why there were still regular hearers of Jesus around who expected him to speak long-approved traditional perspectives rather than his own fresh insights, often a new way of looking at a recurring challenge, I can’t grasp, but that’s exactly the way it was.
So, Jesus was at the Temple, and on this visit he had noticed, probably not for the first time, several practices that irked him.  The story is told about Jesus by an anonymous narrator; this is not a story Jesus himself is telling.  The narrator has two issues in mind:  1) the inappropriateness of forced contributions in a place of worship; and 2) the cruelty of forcing a poverty-stricken widow to make any kind of contribution anywhere, including at her spiritual home.
The Romans taxed the Jews for the privilege of using their own, the Jews’ own, Temple; and then the Jewish Temple hierarchy taxed their sister- and brother- Jews for Temple services.  Well, the priests had to be paid, didn’t they?  And someone had to buy the incense; the Romans certainly weren’t going to gift the Jews with incense to be offered to some G/god whom they claimed was the only one.
So, Jesus is sitting close enough to the contribution boxes that he can kinda sorta see who is dropping what in.  He wasn’t watching to make sure everyone paid up, and he wasn’t watching to be nosy.  He was simply taking note of what all Jews, including himself, had to do annually in order to have full Temple access and privileges.  If you wanted a Temple official rather than a rabbi in training or an old rabbi put out to pasture long ago to oversee your burial, you’d better pay up at Temple tax time.  If you wanted to have your copy of the newsletter mailed to your home via snail mail rather than getting a paperless version, you’d best pay your Temple tax.
The rich were making their large offerings; many of them had no intention of calling attention to their contributions, but it was practically impossible not to see the gleaming gold coins of great value being dropped in the plates causing the Priests to grin with gratitude.  Hardly anything in a year’s time made them happier than this.
The Pharisees, legalists all the way when it came to observing the letter of the law, could always be counted on to pay taxes and tithes to a tee.  Jesus could see them counting out their coins–counting out loud and using exaggerated motions to direct coin to slot as someone from the Temple’s Board of Finance confirmed that everything owed had been paid.
After you’d seen one Pharisee calling attention to himself in this manner, you’d seen them all.  It was as if they’d rehearsed their routine, and, having seen a few, the rest were just a blur; you couldn’t tell one from another.  Suddenly the predictable procession to the contribution containers was interrupted by a female, and a poor widow dressed in tattered garments at that.  Usually, men only paid taxes and tithes, and they did so for themselves as well as for their families.  Rarely was a woman in that line, but here was this widow; she couldn’t hide her poverty.  She dropped two copper coins into the treasury, and that was it; that was all.
Pharisees who noticed what she did, thought to themselves as they glanced at each other and shook their heads with disapproval, “Not worth the bother.  Why should anyone have to waste time fishing those leptons out of stash; both together wouldn’t buy as much as a slice of burnt pita at the market.  God has made her poor, which is the only reason anyone is poor; she should beg on the streets with the rest of them and stay away from those of us who can pay a reasonable amount for Temple privileges and who don’t want to have to look at likes of her when we’ve gone to the trouble putting on our sabbath best to come here to honor God and celebrate our many blessings.”  They loved to sing an old Hebrew version of the hymn, “Count Your Blessings.”

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed.
Do not be discouraged, thinking all is lost.
Count your many blessings, name them one by one.
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

The poor would hear them singing their song and wonder until they wept why God had withheld all blessing from them except a little air to breath and a few scraps of food here and there to sustain them until they died, crying because of hunger pangs, or until they died making no sounds and shedding no tears because they were so numb with hunger that they didn’t even feel life ebbing away.
Jesus decides what he has seen the widow do and the context in which she did it constituted a teachable moment for his disciples.  He called them to come and sit with him for a moment, and he described for them what I’ve just described for you.  Jesus wanted to make sure they understood, though; and the moral of this story couldn’t be left to chance.
He said, “The person who has given the most here today is that poor widow standing in the shadows over there.  Everyone else here today who gave, including us, gave out of our abundance; she gave everything she had to give.  She can’t even buy a scrap of burnt pita to soothe her hunger pangs.  She literally has no money whatsoever to buy food to sustain herself.  If there are no relatives to share with her or, perhaps, a beloved friend, her options are to beg or starve.”
The disciples, some of them anyway, were no doubt thinking, “Why is he bothering us with this?  She could have given her two coins or kept them.  For her, the result is the same.  She either goes back to begging or she starves; or, she tries begging and starves anyway.  Plenty do.”
Jesus said again to draw them out of their day-dreaming, “Everyone else here today paid their taxes and tithes out of their abundance; they still have money in the pot, even if it’s not a lot.  But this widow has given all she has as her way of honoring God.  Do you hear me?  She gave her all.”
I must have preached some tough tithing and stewardship sermons before I began preaching to liberals several years ago.  My friend and former pastor, Dr. Steve Shoemaker, presently pastor of the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, told me in utter sincerity and seriousness as I left Louisville and the seminary faculty there to pastor my first liberal church, this one being in New Orleans, “There’s one thing you have to remember day in and day out when you become pastor to liberals:  LIBERALS DON’T TITHE!”  There are some extraordinarily generous liberals who give well more than a tithe to their churches, but, pretty much, I say three liberal churches later, Steve was on target.
Generally, what he described was nearly “gospel truth,” but in that very church in New Orleans, there was a widow who made a pledge to the church, and about half way into the church year she had some kind of financial setback.  Thinking that pastors keep watch over who gives what, which doesn’t describe YOUR pastor AT ALL, she found me in the hallway after church one Sunday and said she had something very important to tell me.  I was concerned.  I invited her into my office to tell me what was troubling her; she said, “No,” it will just take a minute, and here is fine.”  She then said, “I realized a few weeks ago that I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my pledge for this year.  I was mortified to think that I would let my beloved church down in this way so I’ve taken out a loan to pay the pledge in full.  It will take me a few weeks to get things straightened out, but the church will have from me, the very best I can do.”  I was sputtering and interrupting her right and left to make sure she heard me say that she should not put herself under that kind of pressure, that she should take care of herself this time and catch up with the church when she could comfortably do so.  She completely ignored me.

III.
A treasured friend recently made a big mid-career shift and went into “development,” the modern-day word for fund-raising.  He told me at dinner the other evening that while many donors are kind and naturally generous, many are the opposite; they are temperamental snobs who have to coddled into giving with a fair amount of bowing and scraping, and frequently their greatest concern is how and where their names will be put on display for perpetuity.
Echoing that, a college friend has made and is making her mark in the world of development for higher education.  She has been highly successful, and her university benefits; she doesn’t get commissions!  She told me once, though, that I’d never believe all she had to do to get probable and potential donors to sign on the dotted lines.  Once she had to ride through town in a brand new sports convertible; the donor/driver wanted his friends to see him with a pretty young “thing” before he made official his substantial gift to the university.  Small price to pay for a Director of Development huh?  The donor still made his gift.  Other potential donors, she says, make no bones about the fact that unless they are honored in some way no money will be given period, and sometimes the cost of the means of honor they desire eats dramatically into the promised gift itself.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, once prayed:

Lord, teach me to be generous.  Teach me to serve you as you deserve; 
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds; 
to toil and not to seek for rest; 
to labor and not to ask for reward 
save that of knowing that I do your will.

When I hear the prayer of Ignatius, I can’t help thinking of a line in the famous prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:  “For it is in giving that we receive.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who celebrated his eightieth birthday yesterday, has in recent years praised Ireland for its widespread concern for those in need within Ireland and around the world.  Addressing the whole nation in a speech delivered in Dublin, he said:

You have been wonderful in your generosity to us and to people in other parts of the world who have been less well off than yourselves. One of the wonderful things about yourselves has been your capacity to remember how you were when you didn’t have the Celtic Tiger [the nickname for Ireland’s decade long economic rebound]. You supported us at the time of our struggle against apartheid.

Speaking of the Archbishop, he has often used a South African word, “Ubuntu.”  He has on several occasions attempted to explain its meaning to non-South Africans.  I think we are not getting it–not that the defenders of Apartheid were getting it either.  This is what the peace-loving Archbishop said about the word that lacks a simple definition:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu–the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality–Ubuntu–you are known for your generosity.

Here’s another vocabulary builder for today.  Add to “Ubuntu” the word “Dana.”  It looks like and sounds like a fairly frequently used name for females and males in western societies, but the origin of the word can be traced back to India, 500-plus years before Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Most simply, it was a synonym for our English word “generosity.”  It was much more, though, than generosity as a financial contribution or donation, however substantial.  There was more to generosity than that.  According to the Southern Dharma Retreat Center, generosity the word “Dana” described meant:

1) Living in love and trust and connection rather than self-centered fear and separation;

2) Opening our hearts to give as we have received;

3) Creating a world of abundance rather than a world of scarcity; and

4) Honoring our oneness and interconnections.

Ultimately, Dana is “about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of world you want to participate in creating.”

Sir Henry Taylor, the nineteenth century British author, grasped the truth that all of us who have anything at all to share should also grasp:  “Those who give what they would as readily throw away, give without generosity; for the essence of generosity is in self sacrifice.”

Challenge the Status Quo

 

 

I.
Being a sermon planner-aheader, I could have had no idea that this sermon would be preached the day after we buried Martha Brown, the queen of challenging the status quo.  Of course, we shouldn’t think for a second that Martha was the only Silversider who ever dared to challenge a status quo somewhere.  I was amused during the remembrances spoken about Martha yesterday when her great friend, Charlie Butler, tried to summarize Martha’s theological perspective and kinda sorta implied that she ended up at Silverside because we were good enough to take her in, even with her unorthodox approach to religion.  Charlie, who is Chief Deputy Attorney General here in Delaware, emphasized that Silverside lacks a middle name, which must explain how we could accept a Martha Brown.  He said, “It’s not Silverside Methodist or Presbyterian Church.  It’s JUST Silverside…uh…Church.”
Several responses to that snippet from his beautiful statements of remembrance.  One, we didn’t do Martha any favors by “allowing” her to become a part of our church family; she favored us with her presence, her creativity, and her diligence.  Two, we didn’t go out of our way to adapt our ways of thinking and doing to make a place for Martha; she joined a community of like-minded people–not to say that everyone in the church agreed with everything Martha said or did.  What we did do, though, was to embrace another person who believed that theologically and often socially, the status quo MUST BE upset if people try to live, in some sense, according to the teachings of Jesus–whatever their theological thinking about Jesus.  People in the Jesus Movement or followers of Jesus, however you’d describe your connection to the Jesus of history and his teachings, have no real option except to be disturbers of the status quo.
So, Martha found the place here for her spiritual home, but joined a group filled with others who, individually and collectively as a faith community, have been challenging one status quo or another for 176 years.  The forebears of today’s Silverside Church were a small split off of Wilmington’s First Baptist Church, which no longer exists.  The reason for the split was not animosity; thank goodness we don’t have that black mark in our historical reason for being.  The reason for the split was that the First Baptist Church, like many mainstream churches 176 years ago, did not believe in missions or Christian education.  They were Calvinistic in their theology, which is more directly a part of the heritage of Presbyterians and various Reform religious movements such as the Reformed Churches in America, but Baptists got some of it too; and what was picked up from John Calvin, who was the key personality in the Protestant Reformation in the Geneva, Switzerland, area, was a serious doctrine of absolute predestination.
Calvin and his original followers along with his followers today believe in essence that God has foreordained everything that happens, from the glorious birth of every child to Hurricane Katrina.  With such meticulous preplanning, the Calvinistic god also determined from the foundations of creation which humans, until the end of human history, would spend eternity in heaven and, conversely, which ones would spend eternity in hell.  To make all of that predetermination easier to deal with, there was nothing anyone could do to change her or his eternal accommodations.  If you were one of the so-called elect, you were going to heaven no matter how hellishly you might live, and if you were one of the damned, you could live a morally perfect life though you’d still find yourself burning in hell someday.  (A disclaimer here before I continue.  I do not believe an unconditionally loving God could have envisioned, much less created, any kind of place–with excess fireplaces or not–for unceasing, eternal punishment.  I’m good with the notion of heaven as a place where those who choose it may enjoy what I like to call “God’s more intimate embrace.”)
The early Silversiders rejected the Calvinistic attitudes of First Baptist Church of Wilmington, which led them to reject missions and Christian education.  Their reasoning for such rejection was squarely theological; if God had already planned everything for everyone, why bother with missions or education?  People gathered for worship to be obedient to God, not to make any decisions about God or the Jesus whose teachings revealed God.  Our spiritual forebears were not Calvinist and believed that missions were important for spreading the good news of God’s love for all people and that Christian education was important to teach children as well as adult seekers the same truths hoping that they would embrace the powerful reality of God’s unconditional love for them.
The founders of Silverside Church believed in personal choice in matters of theology and spirituality, but they were in the minority.  Going back 176 years in this country, more churches and denominational groups warmed up to Calvinism than to free choice in the matter of responding to the God of unconditional love.  What I’m saying to you this morning, my dear friends, is that from the get go, Silversiders have been upsetting apple carts.  They would not be bound by the status quo whether political or social.
Did you realize how strongly pro-slavery the First State really was?  President Lincoln said that except for our pastor, James Stokes Dickerson, Delaware ultimately would have fought with the South to preserve the institution of slavery.  But for our pastor, Raymond Baker, who knows when the blatant disregard for the poor would have been challenged leading to a movement for Wilmington to provide decent housing options for its poor?
For a pitifully, painfully long time, women were second-class citizens in most mainstream churches in the United States.  Women who felt called to preach were told that God didn’t call women to such ministries and that they should consider becoming directors of Christian education or missionaries; or if neither of those suited to find an effective psychiatrist.  That anti-female attitude filtered down to the work of church members, the non-clergy types, and, for the most part, the anti-women attitude kept women from serving as deacons as well as being appointed to church councils, presbyteries, and vestries.  Women could not teach men in Sunday School classes; they were only permitted to teach children and other women.  Silversiders challenged another status quo; in the 1920’s our church was affiliated with the Northern Baptists.  It just so happens that Northern Baptists were the first mainstream denominational group to elect a woman as its paid, professional executive.  Her name was Helen Barrett Montgomery, and she served with distinction despite the constant criticism thrown her way by the anti-women religious groups, which dominated the religious landscape in our country in those days.
Though Silverside has not yet had a woman as one of its pastors–not for reasons of debasing women as daughters of Eve–women have served as deacons and members of Council for years and years; many Council Chairs have been women, and I don’t know where the Board of Deacons would be without its present women members and the women who came before them.  These kinds of strides are not made, regardless of their theological, social, and moral correctness, without the strength and determination of people willing to challenge the status quo.
I’m so glad and so proud to be pastor of a church not controlled by the antigay and anti-lesbian status quo.  Members and friends who choose to be open about their homosexual orientation may freely do so here, but that would not be the case had members long ago failed to challenge that status quo.

 

 

II.
I want to make sure I’m clear on this point as I continue my sermon series on “Pathways to Personal Fulfillment.”  It’s nice to be beneficiaries of positive changes brought about by someone else’s challenge to a status quo.  We enjoy religious freedom, in part, in our country because some Brits told the powerful Church of England that its way wasn’t the only way.  I don’t know how we’d ever find a way to express the gratitude due those who envisioned freedom of religion and made it real, along with those who fought since its inception to keep it real.
Even so, fulfillment for us individually means that we ourselves or we in groups with whom we affiliate must do our own challenging of an unjust status quo.  It is not simply the responsibility of those who want to be bothered by such things; it is the responsibility of everyone who wants a better world.  Martha marched against racism in the King years.  June tirelessly fights for world peace day by day.  Gordon has given much of his ministry challenging a status quo that says addicts are throwaways.  Walt, other than serving as a distinguished judge himself, became known long ago as someone who challenged the widely held folk belief that lawyers and judges are above the law, and he functionally became the go-to-guy for advice and direction on matters of sticky judicial ethics.
If I want to be a fulfilled person, there will come a day, without a doubt there will come a day, when I have to find the courage to challenge the status quo.  Perhaps I’ll have options, some more comfortable to me than others; perhaps not. Some injustices have to be confronted publicly and head-on.
Baseball Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield, has spoken out against racism in early sports history in the United States.  He said, “Hank Aaron, man, you challenged the status quo and the records of the game. Monumental feats in an era where people didn’t like that.”
The caste system in India was frequently challenged before India’s constitution was amended to forbid the existence in 1950 of the lowest of the castes, the Untouchables.  Since then, some Untouchables have arisen to high political and judicial office.  My Indian students tell me that in places, hints of the aspects of the caste system remain.
While the caste system was still fully in place, its defenders remembered ancient myths used to endorse division of all citizens into a hierarchy of importance.  One of those myths appearing in the Rigveda tells of a giant named Purusha from whose head brahmins, the highest of all castes, were created.  Nobles and warriors were created from Purusha’s arms; their caste was immediately under the brahmins.  Moving on down the giant, farmers and merchants were created from his stomach, and servants from Purusha’s feet, “an example of how mythology preserves the values of a society by rooting present practice in the ancient past, but also it can be seen as a means of maintaining the status quo to the benefit of those in power [today].”
Can I live with myself if during this critical hour I fail to stand up and say that quality health care is not the sole possession of people or employers who can afford to pay its outlandish rates?  Can I sleep at night in a political era where a few false political promises have been replaced by candidates who tell nothing but lies to get themselves elected?  Then, we criticize elected officials for lacking integrity!  We endorsed and applauded their lies because we wanted them in office.  So, we get what we pay for–through taxes and special interest bribes.
Another ploy from politicians is that they understand and are concerned about the plight of their constituents.  Some really are, some few really are.  British journalist, Anthony Holden, writing in mid-twentieth century captured the pattern perfectly:

They tend to be civil servants, often diplomats drawn from the Foreign Office, who may be very pleasant, intelligent people, but once they get inside the Palace they’re riveted to the status quo and they lose track of public opinion in the real world.

Wall Street is currently “occupied” by protesters who have gone there to say that the abuse and misuse of our money has to stop; somehow the White House and Mr. Geithner haven’t been able to communicate that with clarity and force.  Some of the protesters who are doing no worse than yelling to be heard are being roughhoused by some of the New York police.  The near absence of news coverage about this challenge, whether you agree with their methods or not, is eerie.  Everything else gets reported down to how many cigarettes President Obama has smoked since he became President.
The Atlantic Wire ran a story on this past Wednesday with the title, “Media Non-Coverage of Occupy Wall Street Gets Lots of Media Coverage.”  Coverage picked up after the story ran, but not much.  Originally, the only pictures being shared were taken by amateurs.  Pictures, not such flattering ones for the police, were being taken and leaked by amateurs, such as the picture of the two women holding not so much as a protest sign being maced by two burly NYPD officers.
Dr. Laurence J. Peter has said, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
Indeed it does.
Have you heard about the Marines who headed up to New York this weekend to make sure these peaceful protesters are protected from police carrying out orders from whom?  We don’t know.  Well, somebody knows.  Plenty of others have hunches.  The orders are coming from powerful enough sources to get the police to act illegally as they did when they jailed my older son and about 199 other college students for protesting.  An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union represented these kids and filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department; the then-college kids won.
Best I can tell, a Marine named Ward Reilly organized this Marines on Wall Street movement, which was to have begun at 10:00 last night.  This is what Reilly wrote on his Facebook page:

The Marines are coming to Wall St…(to PROTECT the protestors).  I’m heading up there tonight in my dress blues. So far, 15 of my fellow marine buddies are meeting me there, also in uniform. I want to send the following message to Wall Street and Congress:   I didn’t fight for Wall Street; I fought for America. Now it’s Congress’ turn. My true hope, though, is that we Veterans can act as first line of defense between the police and the protester. If they want to get to some protesters so they can mace them, they will have to get through the Marine Corps first. Let’s see a cop mace a bunch of decorated war Vets. We all took an oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of this country. That’s what we will be doing. Hope to see you there!!

III.
It’s a mistake to think that Jesus was despised by hoards of his fellow Jews who began to hate him when what he taught made them uncomfortable and followed through on their hatred of him before Pontius Pilate demanding that Roman Governor Pilate pronounce the death penalty and order Jesus crucified.  I was saying that long before a real New Testament scholar, Dr. John Dominic Crossan, said it; and not too many people have listened to him either on that point.  Hollywood, and most recently the brilliant theologian and filmmaker, Mel Gibson, has won out on this point.
The truth is that some fellow Jews were confused because Jesus’ teachings didn’t match up so well with what they’d always been taught, but they didn’t hate Jesus for presenting an alternative perspective.  Those who did hate Jesus were some of the Jewish religious leaders whose bread and butter were based on staying with the traditional interpretations of the ancient Jewish laws.  Others who hated Jesus were those at whom Jesus poked fun for thinking that keeping religious rules was the same thing as a personal connection to God, but all of those who hated Jesus and wanted Rome to do him were in the vast minority.
Most Jews who knew him, and he was unknown to many, whether they agreed with his teachings, did not want Rome to put to death another of theirs.  As Crossan points out, there’s no way hoards of Jews would have descended on Pilate demanding that he do anything–put Jesus to death, improve the roads, have better security during the high holy days at the Temple.  If any hint of that had happened, Pilate would have called on the Roman legions at his command, and every Jew in sight would have been executed.  The Jews did not boss around the representative of the mighty Roman Emperor.
A handful of those who did hate Jesus, though, did come before Pilate trying to reason with him and have him agree with them that Jews and Romans alike would be better off if Jesus were rubbed out.  The reason this small group of Jews hated Jesus enough to press the Roman enemy to kill him is because he challenged the status quo as determined by centuries of interpreting the letter of the ancient Jewish law rather than the spirit of the ancient Jewish law.  Jesus dared, because of his reform spirit and his desire for Judaism to flourish through fresh air, to pit his understanding of the ancient law against the perspective that had prevailed among Jews for hundreds of years.
Any Jew in power was irked beyond reason, and early on in Jesus’ ministry a number of these Tea Party Jews whispered about their plans to do him in, whatever it took…all because he challenged the status quo, and he really do that blatantly.
Again, he dared to toss the interpretation resting on the letter of the law and replace with his own ideas about what really mattered, the spirit of the law.  Listen to how daring he challenged that status quo:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the gehenna of fire.

Always remember with me, please, that Jesus never used the word “hell.”  Aside from that, here’s a widely known ancient law that says in essence, “If you dare to murder someone, you will be judged for your crime.”  Jesus says to those listening to this part of one of his sermons, “Well, duh.  Of course, if you murder someone, you’re going to face the legal punishment for that deed; namely death.  Now most of you aren’t murderers, and you won’t ever be so let me tell you what’s behind this law.  If you let your temper get out of control to the point that you’re ready to hurt someone physically and with words, you’ve already stepped over the line and thumbed your nose at God.  You can find yourself alienated from God even if you never kill anyone because you let your rage cause you to treat someone inappropriately, knowing that if you do become a murderer rage will be a part of your deed.”  Jesus went on to say that if someone even has such disregard for another human being as to call her or him a fool, meaning someone so intellectually lacking and therefore of such limited benefit to the world that the person might as well be dead, you’re the one who will thereby show yourself unworthy to dwell among the civilized; so you’ll be tossed into gehenna, the big garbage dump.”
See, when the Pharisees bragged that they’d kept all the laws since birth, they meant, in the case of this law, that they’d never murdered anyone.  Jesus irritated them beyond reason, when he said what he said, namely, “Oh, when you start feeling and thinking the kinds of things murderers think and feel, letting these build up to an act of murder; way back at the beginning of that process, you already crossed the line, and you’re guilty of violating the same religious law a murderer violates.”
Jesus wanted to reform Judaism.  Many of us when we realized that we were seekers and could no longer function in a community that attempted to practice what we could call conventional religion, weren’t trying to flush religion away altogether; instead, we were trying to gather with people who might join us in challenging the status quo that makes religion at best ineffective and, at worst, evil.
Marianne Williamson, who is called by her admirers a spiritual activist, says this about religion in our time:

Our religious institutions have far too often become handmaidens of the status quo, while the genuine religious experience is anything but that. True religion is by nature disruptive of what has been, giving birth to the eternally new.

Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, probably the most highly regarded Christian theologian worldwide during the twentieth century wrote,
“Faith in God’s revelation has nothing to do with an ideology that glorifies the status quo.”  In other words, if God is leading God’s people to take certain actions in the world, through the various means by which God is said to make known God’s will according to Christian theology, what could God possibly be revealing to us?  Well, there are amazingly compassionate acts being done in God’s name around the world today, some of them even through churches–though most churches at the end of the day are about self-preservation first and foremost.   Most of the time, this means an ardent defense of the status quo.  Post Vatican II, some Roman Catholic Churches around the globe refused to give up saying the Mass in Latin even though many who hear the Latin Mass never understand with great clarity what is going on.  Similarly, the original Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dated 1522, gets revised a couple of times to update the language so the modern people understand exactly what it means.  What happened, Anglican churches spring up all over whose claim to fame is their exclusive use of the original Book of Common Prayer, none of its adapted later versions.
That would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.  Vice-gripping oneself to the status quo will rarely get us to any positive or fulfilling place in terms of religion or relationship or social justice.  Challenging the status quo is always a risk, to some degree, but if we never attempt it in an area we know needs change, fulfillment will surely escape us.
Amen.