On Whose Shoulders Do Governments Rest? (Third Sermon in Series: Preaching from a Humanist Bible)

 

 

I.
Dr. Michael Roizen is the chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic and also the founder of RealAge.com.  He has studied presidents going back to 1901, and Dr. Roizen’s research has led him to conclude that US presidents age two times faster while in office than do their constituents.  The primary reason for the doubled aging process is high stress, but Roizen says it’s not just the stress; instead, it’s exacerbated by the loss of friends.
Those who were formerly their friends sometimes become their critics; few so called “friends” are above asking for favors.  There is almost no one on whom the president can rely just to be a good friend with a nonjudgmental listening ear.   ABC News, in August near President Obama’s 50th birthday, ran side by side pictures of Senator Obama next to President-for-two-years Obama.  The result is striking, shocking.  Two years in office have grayed his hair and left him with a more gaunt-looking face; he’s a trim guy, not in need of losing weight at all.
Dr. Roizen says a good number of presidents deal with the weight of the world on their shoulders by gaining weight.  He pointed to Bill Clinton as one example of a weight-gaining president, and another weight-gaining president was Teddy Roosevelt whose weight increased from something like 240 to 310 during his term.  In the our time, this aging at twice the rate of the typical American citizen is a part of what it means for the president to have the world upon his shoulders.
The Season of Expectation has come to Silverside.  Many other churches, most really, call the same season Advent.  During the season of Expectation, we honor Jesus of Nazareth who was born just like every other baby is born, but who grew up to live a life of total devotion to God.  Also in this season, we pause for a few weeks to ponder the possibility of God’s will for the world becoming more of a reality than, thus far, it has.  Could, for example, peace really come among all people on the face of the earth?  Of course it could, but will we let it?  That is one of the key questions of the season.
During Expectation or Advent, it is commonplace to hear portions of Handel’s Messiah performed all over, and if you hear a version of it, you will hear Handel setting parts of the prophecy of Isaiah to magnificent music.  There is stand out piece after stand out piece; one especially memorable for me is the way Handel set Isaiah, chapter 9, verse 6, to music:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
Christians and never Jews, oddly enough it being their scripture and all, have taken this child who was born to have been the Messiah, the one for whom Jews had hoped from ancient times would come to deliver them from their latest and all future oppressors.  Many Christians have taken references in Isaiah to be looking ahead to the birth of Jesus, but they weren’t.  First Isaiah spoke to and for people in his own time, just as we discovered with the Seer John and the book of Revelation.
“Messiah” means anointed one, and there is no reason to attach divinity to whomever the Messiah would be.  For Jews, whose ancestors spoke these words of promise, the Messiah never came, and for some modern Reform Jews the thought is that he wasn’t intended to and never will.  Rather, the Messiah is for them more of a symbol of who the nation of Israel at its best could become; how odd that early Christians superimposed on Jesus of Nazareth all the attributes of the ancient anticipated Messiah or whoever else was being referred to by Isaiah–most likely King Hezekiah.
Many of these attributes do not fit Jesus well at all, and a number of them contradict each other.  I mean how could the Messiah have been both a man a war who would call Israel to arms in order to overthrow Israel’s oppressors and, at the very same time, be the Prince of Peace?  How could the government rest on his shoulders if he were a spiritual leader?  Well, if you have a culture in which there is no separation of church and state, there is no problem with a Messiah who has one foot in politics and another foot in organized religion, but in our culture here today, that should be an impossibility.
In Isaiah’s time, there would have been no conflict because there was no separation of religion and state.  They were clearly intermingled.
“The government will be upon his shoulders,” would make perfect sense in Isaiah’s day whether the Messiah referred to an individual or Messiah was a symbol for the ideal Israel.  He will be involved in politics, and if he is an individual he will age two years for every one year he rules.  Someone has suggested that the government being on his shoulders was a literal imagine, that there was something he carried across his shoulder or shoulders to indicate his position–a sash, a should strap for a sword’s sheath, a scepter in a protective covering he hung on a shoulder.
Jesus was never a king, never ruled an earthly kingdom.  Some thought he was to become king of the Jews, but he didn’t think that; and that never came about–not even almost!  There are symbolic images only in the book of symbols, Revelation, of a risen Jesus ruling with God in heaven, but God is clearly the King of Heaven.  Occasionally, in the Revelation visions Jesus sits on a throne alongside the central throne in heaven, which is reserved for God alone.
If you’ve ever sung Handel’s Messiah you’ll know that he makes “Wonderful” and “Counselor” two separate titles for whomever is being described in this verse, but from all indications, contextually and literarily, they go together, the adjective describing the noun.  The son born will come to be the Wonderful Counselor.  There’s a scholar who says that we can’t read that the way it most readily reads to modern Americans–“wonderful” meaning something like terrific and “Counselor” meaning something like a member of some leader’s cabinet.  The scholar I have in mind says the accolade being laid on this unnamed person, “Wonderful Counselor,” refers to an advisor in a political and/or a military context who is so gifted that his insights cause us to stand in awe and wonder at his wisdom.
Jews would not have called anyone God except God, and even then they’d never have attempted to pronounce what they took to be the name of God so there’s no way “Mighty God” could refer to anyone but God Godself.  Thank goodness for another scholar who says the intent of the language demands a translation something like this:  godly hero.
The son who would be born in Isaiah’s time would display his wisdom and cause people to stand in awe and wonder at his counsel.  Beyond that he’d be a godly hero–a big time winner and never a loser.
“Everlasting Father.”  Great leaders in many cultures have been called “Father” by those whom they led, but as far as Isaiah knew, only God was eternal, everlasting.  God would be the loving, parental leader of an age, unlike all other eras in history, that would have no end.
“The Prince of Peace.”  This is the capstone of Isaiah’s list of titles and attributes.  Prince, not king, of Peace.  The kingdom of which he would have a part in leading would be a kingdom of peace, and he would be so closely identified with peace that he’d be called its prince.  We’re talking about Hezekiah, not Jesus.

 
II.
Let’s pick up with the image of the Prince of Peace.  Tadatoshi Akiba was the recipient of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2011 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award.  Dr. Akiba, began his academic career as a professor of math at Tufts.  With a little shifting of gears, he eased over into the discipline of humanities and was Professor of Humanities at Hiroshima Shudo University.  He served in the Japanese House of Representatives, from 1990 to 1999 after which he became Mayor of Hiroshima, a position he held until earlier this year.  During 12 years as a mayor, he served a term as the president of Mayors for Peace; under his leadership, the organization grew from 400 to 5000 active members.  Mayors for Peace established what they called the 2020 Vision Campaign, pressing for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide by the year 2020.  Until that dream is realized, the Mayors for Peace put another initiative in place directed to nations at war:  “You may not target cities.  You may not target children.”  As far as I know, Dr. Akiba has no religious commitments that drive him to push for peace, and yet he sounds very much like a Prince of Peace would sound, don’t you think?
Three dynamic women won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel organization gave the reasons for their selection: “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”  These remarkable women are Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Leymah Gbowee brought Liberian women together from often competing ethnic and religious groups to put unified pressure on then President Charles Taylor to end the seemingly endless, atrocious civil war.  As opportunities arose, Gbowee played pivotal roles in ousting Taylor who is currently on trial at The Hague for his role in the civil war. Gbowee championed the processes that enhanced possibilities for women to participate in elections. As if that weren’t enough, Gbowee got the needed training so that she could be a counselor to women and girls who were raped during the Liberian civil war.  Gbowee remains committed to world peace, which alone would be the solution to nearly all the problems she has given her life to correct.
Tawakkol Karman is another courageous woman.  She is a journalist whom the Nobel Committee praised for taking stands for women’s rights, democracy, and peace during the Yemen Revolutions.  She founded Women Journalists Without Chains in 2005, which began by advocating human rights for all and, eventually, along with that mission it began to demand freedom of expression for all.  She is at times a one-woman crusade calling for the minimum age for marriage in Yemen to be raised.  Parents may give a daughter to a man who marries her as a child, promising to wait for sexual intercourse until the girl is of a suitable age, often officially thought of as at the onset of puberty.  Everyone knows many of the men do not wait at all, and religious leaders insist such men are perfectly within their rights.  Karman has been arrested numerous times.  She has been attacked on a public platform where she was to speak, but no opposition has deterred her.
Another Liberian, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has a nickname there, “Iron Lady,” which apparently has stuck because of her iron will.  She once served a prison term for her criticism of the military regime of Samuel Doe, but now she is the President of Liberia, the first and so far the only elected female African president. President Sirleaf is successfully maintaining peace in Liberia.  Part of her strategy to upgrade the view of women’s worth in Liberian societies has been to appoint women to strategic positions in her cabinet.   She unapologetically thought that the ripped apart country needed a little “motherly” support to get back on its feet emotionally and otherwise.
These people are living for peace.  They are peacemakers.      The Season of Expectation inevitably brings us face to face year by year with beautiful words from Isaiah that were superimposed upon Jesus hundreds of years after Isaiah wrote them about a King he knew in his own time, Hezekiah, so “Price of Peace” was originally intended for King Hezekiah; ironically, those who tried to turn Jesus into the militaristic messiah hoped for by many of the ancient Hebrews for thousands of years, I’d guess, wanted also to turn him into the Prince of Peace.
While Jesus was too smart to create a situation in which the Romans would trounce upon the Jews and stomp them hands down, he did not approve of Roman rule over his people.  He, therefore, looked for ways to subtly challenge Roman rule.  While Jesus was absolutely not in favor of war, failing on the spot thereby to fulfill the role of the promised Messiah, he was in favor of reaching as far as one could for freedom.
One of the sayings of Jesus that few people want to deal with is this one:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:34-38, NRSV).

What happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  Even if we strike this sword image up to symbolism as I do and the family member against family member thing up to hyperbole, there is still something intentionally unsettling about what Jesus has said here; and it lacks any qualities I can see that make for peace.  Certainly Jesus wasn’t a thug or a warmonger, but he did realize how unsettling his message would be for many people; that remains true today.  I think it’s fair to say, too, that he longed for peace though he never knew a single taste of freedom or a life free from threat by occupation forces.
He knew that his message couldn’t go down easily with a spoon full of sugar.  It was disruptive and disturbing to almost everyone who’d gotten all nice and comfortable in the plush status quo.  How ironic that preaching a God of love and his, Jesus’, own love for others would get him killed by people unconcerned about peace except militarily mandated peace.
Jesus’ core ethics come out more clearly, perhaps, in his Sermon on the Mount than anywhere else.  That collection of sermons begins with what scholars call the Beatitudes.  Here’s one of those:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9 NRSV).  If we want to find the peace at Jesus’ center, this is where we have to look–not back to Isaiah and Hezekiah, as lovely and poetic as Isaiah’s language was.  If you want to adopt one of Hezekiah’s nicknames and use it for Jesus, there’s no reason you are unentitled to do so, but you have to keep in mind that that is exactly what you’re doing.  In God’s empire, peacemakers are blessed because they are immediately recognized as God’s children.  In secular empires, peacemakers may not be recognized at all; they may be disdained or done away with.  Even so, the goal for any government should be to make peace among its own people and then with other governments.  There is no greater goal for a government and no greater need in our world.

III.
Hear with me again, an excerpt of the reading from the Humanist Bible for today:

“If people’s minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease.”

People’s tongues may be easier to control than their minds, but this is not to say that it’s very difficult at all to control minds through hypnosis, hysteria, or consistently well-told lies.  I teach two courses at Wilmington that have to do with human world views, mostly in the western world.  The way we come at discerning what the critical world views were at a given time is to look at the ideas by which people of any given period lived–from ancient times to the Protestant Reformation in the first course and from the Reformation to the present in the second course.
Here’s the bottom line and how I begin each of those courses every time I teach them.  Ideas determine how we humans live.  The ideas that we decide to claim as ours do not have to be true at all in order to be powerful and stirring; they only have to SEEM to be true, and for all too many people in the past and in the present that’s enough.
Most of what Hitler told Germany and much of the rest of Europe about the Jews was absolutely untrue, but he lied so zealously and so consistently about the Jews that in a relatively short amount of time he had the masses on his side and ready to do whatever heinous deed he suggested to be rid of them.  He nearly wiped out Jewish populations in Europe because of the power of his lies.  Plenty of those who believed him were smart enough to know that he was lying, but, in context, it was easier to believe him than to resist believing him.  He ended up in control of the minds of most of his fellow Germans and many of his fellow Europeans.
Look at us free Americans when we go the polls to vote.  We have lived through political lie after political lie, empty campaign promise after empty campaign promise, and still many of us go to mark our ballots each time with an almost childlike hope that, finally, we have someone for whom we can vote who will do all that she or he has promised.  Then the system seems to manipulate the minds of those whom we’ve elected convincing them that they couldn’t or shouldn’t try to make the changes they promised they’d make.  After a few rounds of this, it’s hard to be critical of the politicians who don’t deliver because in those moments when we face reality we have to admit that we allowed ourselves to be swayed into believing whole political packages hook, line, and sinker.  We gave a politician who appealed to us control of our minds.  We have to believe somebody if we’re going to bother voting at all, but we should know that many, maybe not all, of the promises that are too good to be true probably are.  By the way, the answer to the question, “On whose shoulders do governments rest?”, if asked in a democracy, is:  your shoulders.
We’ve had some noticeable, memorable instances lately of people dominated and abused by their governments getting to the last straw and rising up to reclaim their personhood and their dignity.  End result:  dead dictator.  Plenty of the good people lose their lives too because they dared to stand up for basic human rights, but eventually the political leader who beat them down is dead or exiled or on trial.
I believe that the “Occupy” protests are tips of icebergs that our elected leaders had better sit up and note.  Our people are not protesting against blatant despotism; but they are saying, “We’ve had it with a political process that gives elected leaders enough power to hurt the very ones who elected them and to shut down the government altogether.”  How can you love your country the way a patriot wants to love her or his country when those who are in power can’t or won’t help anyone and instead spend all we have, including our so called surpluses, to fund wars and occupation forces until no money is left for those who are truly in need–an older person, for example, who has outlived even her children and has absolutely nothing coming in month by month except her social security check, which politicians frequently talk of cashing out.
I am a staunch, staunch advocate of separation of temple/church/mosque and state, but I think religious groups have the right to call the government to moral accountability–not that the institutional church is without its own moral lapses.  When I say “moral accountability” I’m not talking about trying to make a politician buy into your religious group’s most narrow, idiosyncratic views.  I’m talking about broad, widely accepted moral standards–telling the truth, for example.
It is not up to religious groups to try to dictate the candidate for whom those in their group should vote; that is a blatant violation of separation of temple/church/mosque and state.  A call, though, to be involved in the political process with its warts and blatant failures clearly in view is an appropriate word from an imam, a rabbi, a pastor, priest, or bishop.
Conversely, the government must not favor any religious group though Christianity is, for all practical purposes, favored at least informally in this country.  This is not to say that courts would favor one religious group over another, but lawmakers do; in fact, many of them could not have gotten elected unless they identified with Christian conservatism.  Wanting to be elected again, most of them will remember not to bite the hands that fed them or feed them.
Here’s an anonymous quote worth chewing on:

“A Great law protects me from the government. The Bill of Rights has 10 GREAT laws. A good law protects me from you. Laws against murder, theft, assault and the like are good laws. A poor law attempts to protect me from myself.”

The Ten Commandments or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount do not belong on a courthouse lawn or in the courtroom where a judge is trying a case.  Quotes from some of the great legal minds in history?  Sure thing.  If I’m in a courtroom, and of course I hope I’m never there unless I have to serve on a jury or appear as a character witness for one of you, I as a follower of Jesus should absolutely take what I learned from Jesus with me into the halls of justice.  Without saying a word about Jesus or wearing my Jesus tee shits or my What Would Jesus Do Wristband, I can honor the founder of my faith by showing compassion to all, by remembering the inherent dignity in all human beings, and by living out love to the best of my ability.
If I were to be elected to public office, and by the way one of my parishioners in Baltimore suggested that I should run for office–another suggested that I move out of ministry into stand up comedy. You figure out which is best.  But if I were to be elected to public office, the same “rules” would apply.  I would not be there to use my position to promote my doctrinal perspectives, and I certainly wouldn’t be there to try to convert anyone to the Christian faith.  I couldn’t help, though, being influenced quietly by the ethical norms I find in the teachings attributed to Jesus and other great religious leaders.  I should be compassionate, yes.  I should live out my respect for all people who have inherent worth and, thus, deserve to be treated as persons of dignity.  I would be a peacemaker because I believe that Jesus justifiably inherited Hezekiah’s nickname “Prince of Peace.”  I should also–were I a politico–live out love, showing it to all persons to the best of my ability.
Amen.

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The Death of Gratitude (Second Sermon in Series)

 

 

I.

My Mother used to say of her Grandmother, my Great-grandmother, “I never knew anyone with so few of the world’s goods who lived with such a great sense of being thankful for what she saw as her many blessings.”  Granny Ingle would often say, “The Lord blesses me so richly.”
She lived to a ripe old age and didn’t die until I was about 20 so I got to know her fairly well.  I never knew her to have a place of her own to live; she was shuffled between the homes of her three children and her first-born grandchild, my Mom.  Two homes in Ohio, and two homes in Tennessee.  She was treated well by almost everyone, including her bevy of great-grandchildren.  Mom absolutely adored her both because she was a lovely, positive person and because, when Mom was a little girl and her 17 year old, unmarried mother was often away from home for chunks of time trying to figure out life, Granny took care of Mom.  Living with her son, Mom’s uncle, Granny cooked for her, did her laundry, got her to school and back, lovingly tucked her in at night, and got her to Sunday School and church almost every Sunday.
When Mom was about 7 years old, her appendix ruptured.  By the time Granny and Uncle Leon could get her to a hospital, the doctor told them that it was too late, that too much poison would have spread through her system by this point.  Granny Ingle, who was entirely unassertive in most cases, spoke up and said, “No, doctor.  You find a surgeon who can get inside and repair the damage.  God will guide him.”  The doctor did as he was asked, and Mom, near death according to the surgeon’s assessment, was taken into surgery.
This was some 71 years ago.  You can imagine how primitive the operating room was in a small town in the mountains of north Georgia.  The surgeon nonetheless operated, and Granny prayed, believing in the best possible outcome.  It took Mother a long time to get well, as Granny waited on her hand and foot, but she did, indeed, get well with only one sign of that terrible trauma:  a horrendous scar across the length of her abdomen and running up to the base of her rib cage.
Mom never forgot who was at her bedside day and night while she was getting well, and when Granny was at our house she was treated like a queen.  Though Mom worked outside our home, she insisted on cooking for Granny.  Granny had no chores at our house.  She could use her time to read her Bible, watch a little television, pray, and rock.  Granny was half Cherokee and, in keeping with that part of her cultural experience, took pride, the good and appropriate kind of pride, in her long hair, which Mom delighted in combing and braiding.
Granny prayed beautiful prayers when Dad called on her to say the blessing before a meal.  As Mom said, Granny believed that she was rich in what really mattered to her in this world, and her profound gratitude influenced everything about how she thought and talked and lived.
My world does not push me to live with a thankful heart; it would have me focussing on what I don’t have rather than what I do have, and I’m not speaking exclusively about materialism though that is the first love of modern First World societies across the globe.  Sometimes, the world gets the upper hand, and I’m caught up in a preoccupation with what I don’t have, leaving no energy for pondering what I do have–again, not speaking from an exclusively materialistic point of view.  I understand why many people, all over the world, can’t find a reason when they awaken day after day to give thanks for the danger or the hunger or the emotional pain through which they will have to live until the next round of sleep gives them a slight reprieve.
More often, however, I can hear Granny Ingle whispering in my ear some kind of way, “Ain’t God good, honey?  The Bible says that all the good gifts and all perfect gifts comes from God.  Don’t ever forget that.”  (If she used correct grammar, I’d know it was someone else whispering in my ear since Granny only had a third or fourth grade education.)  She had that Bible verse from the King James Version of the book of James in mind a lot; this is how the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translate James chapter1, verse 17 today:  “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the God of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  I’m sure you’re almost as impressed with my theological sophistication as I am, and I want you to know that what I’m about to tell you does not take away from my progressive theological outlook.  I believe that God is in or behind all good in some kind of way.  Whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it, I believe it is nonetheless true.
By no means am I diminishing the place of humanity in bringing good to fruition, but I am persuaded that God lures us toward what is good–whether that is going on in a scientific research lab or in a seriously broken relationship that, against all the odds, gets mended.  Keep in mind that I believe God is the Life-force and the Life-source, not your fairy godmother.
In any case, I knew what Granny meant when she said it out loud as she lived in this realm, and I know what she means when my memories of her cause me to recall her words, as if whispered in my ear right now.  With that understanding of the source of all goodness, it is also sensible and meaningful for me to be influenced by what Meister Eckhart, the German philosopher and mystic, said in the early 1300’s:  “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.”
November 4 was the eleventh anniversary of Dad’s death, and on that day I was thinking back to our last moments with him after the life support equipment was turned off.  After he took what appeared to be his last breath, the nurse came in and said, “I’m so sorry, but he’s gone.  The doctor will be here in a second to confirm it, but I wouldn’t have said it if there was any doubt about it.”  Shocking, debilitating words even when you expect to hear them and think you’re mentally prepared to do so.  My sister, Kim, was the first of us gathered around his critical care bed to be able to speak.  After near silence and many tears for what seemed like a long time, she pointed to Dad and said, “Just think how we’ve been blessed.”  No truer words.
I think it was in 1946 that Ethel Merman debuted Irving Berlin’s lyrics in the Broadway show, “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Got no diamond, got no pearl
Still I think I’m a lucky girl

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

Got no mansion, got no yacht

Still I’m happy with what I’ve got

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

Sunshine gives me a lovely day

Moonlight gives me the Milky Way

Got no checkbooks, got no banks

Still I’d like to express my thanks

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

And with the sun in the morning

And the moon in the evening
I’m all right

Got no butler, got no maid

Still I think I’ve been overpaid

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

Got no silver, got no gold

What I got can’t be bought or sold

I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night

Got no heirlooms for my kin

Made no will but when I cash in

I leave the sun in the morning and the moon at night

And with the sun in the morning
And the moon in the evening they’re all right

II.
Here is a biblical reference that I think is unintelligible to most people around the world today–not all, but most.  The words come from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church at Philippi, and they are not unintelligible because Paul is off on some obtuse theological rabbit chase, but because we cannot practically comprehend what he is describing, much like our response to Jesus telling his followers to pray for their enemies.  Nonetheless, I’m going to read this brief testimony from Paul to the Philippians:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.

See what I mean?
How many people do you know, yourself included, who could say with Paul, and mean it sincerely, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have”?  This is not intended to be a confession of concession, meaning that if I’m homeless I will give in to my plight and remain homeless for the rest of my life.  What Paul meant was that, until the rough stuff takes a vacation and what is unpleasant to me can be turned around, I’m still going to try to find ways to affirm that life is worth holding on to.  When I’m sitting in the lap of luxury I’m not going to act like there’s little fun or enjoyment in it, but I won’t, however, let myself be duped into believing that materialistic abundance is required to make life worth living.

The wife of my major professor in seminary and I ended up in his office at the same time, waiting for him to return one day.  He was busy hosting one of the great preachers of the day who was the guest of the seminary for several days–preaching in chapel, lecturing in preaching classes, and so on.  To be such a prominent person in those days, he was exceptionally warm and approachable, and not all the big time preachers we hosted through the years were either friendly or tolerant of students.
This preacher, after an illustrious career that included preaching and other speaking opportunities around the world, ample writing opportunities, and wide affirmation as a pulpit master, was recently retired from his very affluent congregation.  Given the congregation he served along with the abundance of opportunities that came his way, he had grown wealthy without a mega congregation or a television show.  Imagine that!  Anyway, he had told Mrs. Cox the previous evening at dinner that he’d gotten to an odd and unexpected and unwanted place in life.  He’d earned more money than he ever thought possible.  He’d invested well.  He told her that he’d bought everything he ever wanted or could dream of wanting.  He’d been all over the world a number of times and couldn’t think of any place he wanted to see that he hadn’t already seen.  Rich and famous as a preacher for his time, he retired near the age of 65, which people in that time in most careers were pretty much expected to do, and he was bored with his present and his prospects for his future.  Mrs. Cox thought that was very sad, and I agreed.  Tragically, there was no internet in those days, or his problems would have been solved!
Counting our many blessings, as one of the hymn writers urged us to do, does not or should not mean loving that fat bank account or relishing vast real estate holdings, multiple residences, and a fleet of automobiles.  We should be able to count blessings and give thanks without any thought of material advantage.  Shame on the growing number of prosperity gospel preachers around the world who try to convince their hearers that divine rewards are tangible rewards, and shame on those hearers who have the sense to know better than to believe what their prosperity pastor is preaching to them but who let themselves believe it anyway.  The prosperity gospel preachers wouldn’t still be around if they any difficulty building followings.
Just ahead of the passage from Paul about contentment at all places along the continuum of materialism along with whatever plight in which one found oneself, he had said this to the Philippians:
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus, the Anointed One.”
With thanksgiving.  At the heart of communing with God is thanksgiving, at the heart of affirming life is thanksgiving, and at the heart of contentment is thanksgiving.  Without some sense of gratitude embedded in our depths, there is no possibility for enjoying and embracing life.  Here’s one example:  “If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice for your soul is alive.”  Insights from Eleonora Duse.
I’m a great fan of a modern martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant theologian, ethicist, and pastor who openly opposed Hitler and eventually was sent to a concentration camp for his lack of patriotism and his companion opposition to the movement to create Hitler’s “super race.”  Just a handful of days before the Allies won the war and began freeing captives as quickly as they could, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging in the camp where he’d been imprisoned.  He died, still a young man, but nonetheless left us many powerful lessons about values and how to live.  In relationship to our subject today, he said, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”  One compound sentence, two powerful life-changers.
We most of us hurry through life, and if we are givers at all, we casually assume that we are giving more than others; the truth, most often, however, is that we are gifted more often than we gift.  That fact should alter our attitudes and our appointment books.  His second eye-opener, already alluded to in ways today, reminds us to take in the reality that no one is really wealthy in this world who lives without gratitude, and there are surprisingly large numbers of people who, for all sorts of reasons, lack the capacity to be grateful about anything or anyone.
My all-time favorite person from the Enlightenment era is Voltaire who detested religious intolerance more than anything in the world and who believed that anyone, however highly or widely regarded, attributing tragedy to God was an idiot if not a spokesperson for evil.  This brilliant playwright, historian, poet, essayist, and activist said of gratitude:  “Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

 

III.
As you heard, Proverbs 79 in The Humanist Bible reads as follows:

Do not cut down the tree that gives you shade.  Praise the bridge that carried you over.  Mere words are empty thanks.  Most people’s gratitude is but the hope of receiving more.  Gratitude soon grows old and dies.

Five sentences, thoughtful, telling, and subtly challenging.  Three of them stand out most to me.
Let’s think a little more about the one that that seems the most self-evident and easy to demonstrate.  “Mere words are empty thanks.”  Words are certainly not worthless.  No, no, no, no, no!  Words well-chosen and correctly used are astounding tools for communication.  They can certainly zing us and sting us, but they can also teach us and help us feel love and concern from others.  So, the teaching from this Humanist proverb is not that words lack significance.  Hardly!  Words unaccompanied by actions consistent with the words, though, make the words worthless.
To commit to faithfulness and monogamy in a marriage or in a civil union ceremony can be a very powerful promise and a sign of the depth and power of love.  If, however, the person who made that promise has a cyber affair or an in-person sexual affair, all of those beautiful words of promise dating back to the ceremony of union mean nothing.  They mean nothing now, and their presumed meaning all the way back to when they were first spoken crumbles as well.
I’m not saying a marriage or partnership is or should be over if one or both parties “cheat,” that’s the subject for another sermon or a series of therapy sessions with a crackerjack marriage counselor.  What I am saying, though, is that the act of unfaithfulness made the words originally spoken empty words; yes, new promises can be made, but actions spoke more loudly than the first promises of faithfulness.  Words charged with meaning and inspiration became empty, useless, pointless.
Well, you know very well that the same is true of saying words of gratitude, but not living in such a way as to demonstrate gratitude.  Your friend tells you, “I so appreciate your taking me to the stop smoking seminar.  Thank you,” she says as she lights one up.  “Oh.  Don’t worry!  This is my once a day drag; eventually it will go away too.”  Sure it will–any moment now.  President Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
The second of those standout sentences from the Humanist proverb for me:  “Most people’s gratitude is but the hope of receiving more.”  Is that true?  If so, it’s awful.  Do I express my thanks to you when you have given me a gift only because I’m laying the groundwork for more such gifts from you?  If so, I didn’t deserve the first gift.  This kind of insincerity is not gratitude; it’s manipulation.
I don’t watch “The Simpsons” as much as I’d like to; the show really is a phenomenon.  I do watch sometimes, though.  Homer isn’t really a religious person, but like a lot of people we all know, he turns to religion when he’s in a jam or when he wants something badly enough that he will give prayer a try.  I remember one of Homer’s prayers of gratitude to God.  It went something like this:

“Dear Lord: The gods have been good to me. [That was an utterly stupid statement in a prayer addressed to the one God; I hope you caught just how rude and ignorant it was!] For the first time in my life, everything is absolutely perfect just the way it is. So here’s the deal: You freeze everything the way it is, and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign. OK, deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, give me no sign. Thy will be done.”

In a “Miss Manners” type of article, Anna North wrote a word about thank you notes:

People are so used to being thanked as an afterthought–or as a precursor to another request–that they’re shocked when you just want to say thank you. In college, I once had the job of calling up donors simply to thank them–not to ask for more money–and they were totally confused.

I’ve received two notes from car salespersons in the past thanking me for buying a car from them and in the same note telling me about a special sale coming up the next week or the next month.  Talk about killing three birds with one stone:  saying thank you, announcing the upcoming auto sale in which the car I just bought is less expensive, and losing me as a customer forever for using the pretense of gratitude to get something else out of me.
The third of those words from the Humanist proverb that grabbed me:  “Gratitude soon grows old and dies.”  To me this means gratitude that was real gratitude when it was new and fresh goes unexpressed long enough, gets stale, then old, and finally dies.  Not only did the person who did something kind for me never know that I, at first, felt tremendous gratitude for the kindness, but also if I don’t express it in a timely manner the gratitude dies within me.  The effect is the same as if I never felt any gratitude at all.
Most of us who care about giving gifts when we can and doing things that help others don’t do either because we expect any expression of gratitude in return.  We do what we do out of love and/or concern.  Nothing more, but if there is to be an expression of gratitude in response, let it come when I can still remember whatever it was that I gave you or did for you.  For most of us, as we age, that means a month after the fact is much better than two years after the fact.
I’ve received a few notes through the years from former parishioners or former students or former contributors to one of the magazines I edited.  Parishioners I have rarely forgotten, but a student who studied with me in one course or a contributor who contributed two pieces to Pulpit Digest in my 18-year run as editor, I have often forgotten.  The notes will be too general for me to be able to piece the details together or, as I said, even the persons who wrote the very thoughtful notes.  “Dear Dr. Farmer, I was looking back through some of my old school work the other day, and I was reminded of what you did for me that term that changed the whole course of my life.  I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not stumbled into your speech course at one of those schools I attended–not sure which one.  Gratefully, Sarah Palin.”
I must be, or at least have been at some point, a really wonderful guy!  What in the world did I do?  Of course, I’d never write back and ask so I put the note in my rainy day box where I put communications from folks who thought I did something that helped them along the way.  I like to be reminded privately now and then that, probably without going out of my way in the least, I made a little difference in someone’s life, and someday I want my children and grandchildren to read those notes too so that they might understand why I spend my time the way I do.
The gratitude that others express to me–though never required or expected if I am where I should be emotionally and spiritually–pleases me, surprises me, lifts me up, but the gratitude I feel toward other people, toward God who is love, toward the Universe is what truly enriches my life.  Why, then, would I be careless enough to let such gratitude die?