Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing–at Church?!? (fourth sermon in series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
Being able to trust someone or someones completely–knowing you’ll be heard and that your privacy will be preserved–is a treasured connection for most any of us who are willing to risk trust.   In contrast, trusting someone or someones whom you believed with all your heart you could trust, only to find yourself disappointed and hurt will knock the wind out of almost all of us.
Developmental psychologists have been showing us for years that the foundation of our ability to trust rests primarily on how much we were able to count on our parents to see that our needs were met when we had no way of meeting them ourselves.  The number of abusive parents out there is mind-boggling, but most folks still manage to come up in homes where a parent or two show them parental love them and prove in good times and bad that they, the parents, can be trusted to be there for their kids, especially when the kids are facing some kind of dilemma that they simply can’t solve with their own resources.  If you’re one of the lucky ones when it comes to parents, you know that you can never get too old to feel warmth and encouragement from the sound of a parent’s voice or the touch of her or his hand.
I’m not thinking today about the confusion many of us have in regard to precisely who can be trusted.  There was certainly a day when various kinds of confidential information and confessions of need could be communicated to someone wearing the appropriate uniform or name tag.  Parents trusted teachers to care for their children, and because of their parents’ trust of teachers, a fair number of school kids were willing to trust their teachers to take care of them in the absence of their parents.  Most teachers in our country do a highly commendable job both of taking care of their charges by keeping them safe and of teaching them about academics as well as about how life works in the real world.
Several of us count on or have counted on pastoral counselors or secular therapists to be the ones who could hear about our deepest confusion and pain completely, without judgementalism, and help us find our way to or back to a healthy, productive pathway.  The good that is done by counselors and therapists of all stripes is incalculable so how did I end up a few years ago with a counselor who went to sleep while I was trying to tell him what was bugging me and getting in the way of my happiness and contentment.  I tried him three times and was all conflicted about if I were really THAT boring or if he had sleep issues, was working too many night hours, etc.  At the end of the 50-minute hour, shall we say, we have to be able to count on the counselor at least to have heard us.  If we’re not being heard by a listening professional we have reason to be disappointed and, perhaps, hurt.
So, one level of trust that is of vital importance to us is being able to trust the people we believe we ought to be able to trust.  A security guard who’s supposed to be protecting people doesn’t shoot an unarmed teenager who’s just walking in the area where the armed guard is patrolling.  In our typical US pattern of blaming the victim, I read this week that some criminal justice big wig–no wait, a top journalist it was, Geraldo Rivera–has said that the whole problem for Trayvon Martin was that he was wearing a hoodie.  Now I get it!  Don’t you?
The other part of trust is being able to take these people we’ve been taught we can trust to be who they say they are, through and through.  Some people who ought to be trustworthy aren’t because they’re inept–from parents to policeperson-wannabes.  Others are not trustworthy because they use the cover of a respectable position or profession to get them into places where they can abuse, in various ways, those whom they’re supposed to care for or protect.  I hardly have to mention the now most famous pediatrician in Delaware history.
We can start here with actual sexual abuse of children to clarify our point, not a pleasant place to go but a real one.  What are we supposed to teach our children to help them not get added to this trauma list?  Whom should they trust and of whom should they be suspicious?  First thing is, it’s not the people out there too far from home about whom parents should be most worried–pedophile priests and other clergy types, for example.  Children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust.  Approximately three-fourths of all reported cases of child sexual abuse (and remember that tons go unreported because a child or her or his parents won’t tell) are committed by family members or other people with whom the child is comfortable and are considered by the child to be safe because the person is in the child’s circle of trust.  Family members, though, are at the top of the list of child abusers–uncle, aunt, older cousin, grandparent; most tragically, parent.
It’s not just children who get hurt, though; many times, certainly not all the time, adults can fight back in some kind of way.  For adults, the most stinging hurt comes from finding out that someone pretending to have a relationship of care and concern with you hurts you by the pretense that eventually unravels.  Not everyone who says, “I’m your friend,” or, “I want to be your friend,” means it.
Folks who are well-placed financially may have to wonder more than the rest of us who their real friends are, if any.  Who in a wealthy person’s circle of acquaintances isn’t just waiting for the prime moment to bring up a request for some cash, a loan, or money to invest in that person’s latest moneymaking scheme?
I said in a sermon several months ago that the President of the United States might well be the loneliest person in the country.  Research has shown that the president, whoever he or she may be, finds out all too quickly after the oath of office that everybody seems to want a favor, which can only be granted by the president because she or he is the president.  Even a spouse, a first lady or a first gentleman, may press for special attention to her or his favored projects.  In painful emptiness the president finds himself or herself in search of someone who loves him for who he is apart from his powerful elected position, someone who loves her for who she is apart from her powerful elected position.

II.
The “Wolves of Kromer” is a film; it’s storyline is an allegory. The film, which was released in the year 2000, is set in England, and the wolves in the story are in reality werewolves. They are not like the werewolves that you may have seen in any other movies.  Yes, they do appear much more wolflike if there is a full moon, but they do not necessarily become violent. When there is no full moon all the wolflike qualities of the werewolves disappear except for their very prominent wolf tales.
Some people are afraid of them when they see them whether they have just their wolf tails showing or when they appear more like fully formed wolves. Other people are not fearful of them at all even when they are fully formed wolves.
In the modern allegorical wonder story, it is only men who have wolves’s tails. There are no female wolves, and that will be explained in a moment.
In the small town where these werewolves live, there are those who believe that the wolves are wolves because they choose to be. There are others who believe that the werewolves are wolves because that’s how they were born.
The local church and its priest, an Anglican we assume, hate the wolves. They shoot at the wolves hoping to kill them, and they incite others to join in with them in their shoot-to-kill frenzies. Many do.  Some don’t.
Given the antagonism between the community church and the wolves it is remarkable that the wolves decide that they must come face-to-face with the priest and ask why they are hated so much. A couple of representatives from the wolves sneak into the church at a time they think the pastor is there alone, and indeed he is.
They attempt conversation with him; he is not altogether unfriendly or verbally abusive to them even though he spent a great deal of his ministry time shooting at them. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of them. He explains to them rather matter-of-factly that the issue is very simple. The church believes that wolves are dangerous to the town and to the church and therefore the church is left with no choice but to try to rid the community of the wolves–nothing personal you know.
The two young adult wolves challenge him and say, in essence, “If we can sit and have an intelligent conversation like we’re having right now why is it that we can’t get along in other contexts and in other ways?” And the priest says essentially, “Well, that’s just not the way things ever have been done and not the way things ever will be done. Wolves will always be werewolves, and churches will always have to be on lookout for wolves who inevitably bring evil and thus fear into the community and the church.”
The priest has said with his body language that the conversation is over. He turns abruptly to walk away from the two wolves who had tried to reason with him, and as he walks away from them his own wolf tail falls out of his priestly robes. Gasp!  He, the priest, was one of them, but in order to protect himself, he was willing to pretend to be someone whom he was not. He was willing even to try to hurt, to kill those who were what he was.
The apostle Paul said that you’d better be very careful who you trust even within a church community.  We’re all frustrated that this is a potential reality about which we have to be concerned, but it is.  Smaller family oriented churches, meaning we see ourselves as members of this family of spirituality and seeking, have fewer problems with church wolves than do larger congregations.  The kind of problem I’m talking about is much more likely to happen in a larger faith community.
When someone with malevolence in mind gets involved in a church and starts her or his dirty work, the dirty work can take root because what this person is doing can so easily go unnoticed in the crowd. The pastor may be the very one whose efforts move a congregant or the congregants toward evil.  I’m very, very sad to say that clergy are not always trusted friends and confidants. Clergy are not always the people from whom you can get the compassion that you thought was rather automatic when reaching out to women and men of the cloth. Clergy have places to go and people to impress. If you can’t help them move up the ladder of clergy success, you may find that they have no time for you. Let me be quick to say that, of course, there are many exceptions to this rule. There are many clergy who give, give, give all they have to give until nothing is left in their efforts to try to be good, caring, and compassionate ministers to people who struggle with life’s very weighty problems.  Some clergy are rascals, though, no doubt about it.
Anne Hutchinson and her huge family were faithful members of an Anglican church in England where John Cotton was their beloved pastor.  Cotton was one of those clergypersons who believed that there was more freedom for people seeking freedom of worship in what they were calling the New World than where they were in their home country.  So, Cotton set sail for the so called New World and came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and became pastor of a church there.
Now I want to tell you a brief story about powerful pastoral support. Anne Hutchinson and her husband Will and their eleven children, four other children of theirs had died in infancy or early childhood, all followed John Cotton from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and joined his church.  That level of support you’d think would create a special bond or perhaps a stronger than average closeness between the thirteen Hutchinsons and their pastor, John Cotton.
Maybe in some respects that was the case. At the very least, surely he had to be thrilled that suddenly thirteen new people were sitting in his pews every Sunday. The closer they became the more freedom Anne felt in trusting him with some of her private thoughts.
Anne had a personal conversation with her pastor one day in which she happened to mention that she thought she might be somewhat clairvoyant. She told Cotton that she had had a premonition about the exact date that their ship would land in the New World, and it did.  TMI.  Too much information.
Well, the good Rev. Cotton hardly kept Mrs. Hutchinson’s confession under his hat. In fact, not only did he scold her for claiming clairvoyant capabilities, but also he spread the word at least to the all male leadership of his church.  Very soon thereafter Cotton told Hutchinson that if she wished to remain a member of the church she had crossed the seas literally to be a part of she would have to come before the whole congregation to apologize and repent of the demonic flirtations that allowed her to be clairvoyant.
Mrs. Hutchinson did so; however, we need to be sure we understand that she did so in order to stay in good standing so to speak with the church for herself, her husband, and her children. In her heart she felt no need to repent and did not in her heart.  This clearly was one of the major issues that began the emotional breach of Hutchison from organized religion at least as it was organized in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Taking its place was individual spirituality, her own reliance on God to lead and direct her in her ministry, which would become the ministry of preaching much to the resentment of the male preachers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As you probably know, ultimately she and her family were kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony that was supposed to have been a freedom of religion oasis and were put out of the Colony and left to fend for themselves in what was largely wilderness. Her life came to a tragic, tragic ending.  Not all church wolves are pastors–not by a long shot, but all the ones in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Cotton especially, were.
From all we can tell the wolves in Kromer were not violent, as I’ve said.  They may steal to have money to buy food, or they may steal change to have money to go into the local arcade and play a few games. They’re not out to kill or otherwise harm human beings who are free from the curse of the wolf for some reason, and, yes, there are those in the story who refuse to see wolfdom as a curse.

III.
The church exists to serve others, doesn’t it?  The primary function of a church and any of its ministers is to care and nurture, isn’t it?  Therefore when we run into a church or a clergyperson who have no compassion, who have no interest in correcting injustice, who have no longing to alleviate suffering, we know that something is terribly wrong.  A church that it is supposed to exist to help anybody in need if possible but who instead establishes and underscores its identity and reason for being by focusing on the hatred of a group or groups on which it can rally everyone’s collective hatred is a truly immoral institution that has lost its right to exist as a church.
The allegory, “The Wolves of Kromer,” was obviously written to confront the Church’s historic hypocrisy regarding the treatment of homosexuals. That’s so odd in many ways since there’s more than a handful of gays and lesbians closeted in ministry, but their way of keeping the heat off of themselves is often by publicly condemning those who are exactly who and what they are.
The life lesson and the message of the allegory is hardly limited to the way churches have handled and are handling the issue of how gay people are supposed to fit into church and society. Way, way back when the church was in its infancy the apostle Paul who helped to birth a number of churches wrote about wolves in sheep’s clothing lurking in churches with the express purpose of doing harm to the innocent; sometimes the wolves in sheep’s clothing are the clergy, but by no means are all the wolves in sheep’s clothing clergypersons.
Paul spoke of ravenous wolves trying to hurt the innocent; he was thinking of hurting them doctrinally speaking. He was thinking of teaching people cold doctrinal truths that were supposed to get them in good with God and get them to the right place for eternity and that sort of thing. We could brush that off as some confusion in the early church while it was trying to establish its identity, but we’d be seriously mistaken if we believed that that kind of thing stopped after the church supposedly matured. It hasn’t stopped up through this very day.
If people have the right to expect genuine nurture from the church and from its clergy then that clarifies our responsibility to teach theological concepts that’ll allow people to find wholeness and hope every time they gather here with us.  I often say when I stand at the communion table that it is not a place of exclusion, but rather the place of inclusion. Being welcome here doesn’t mean that you hold to a certain set of theological ideas. What we hope here is that there’s enough fresh air so that you feel free to follow your pathway toward finding truth.  As you are on that journey and as I am on the journey we will all join together to support one another as we find out the meaning of unconditional divine love for individuals and communities and churches and a world.
We will not be in the business of condemning others; we will not be in the business of diminishing others who are trying to find their way; we will not be in the business of causing others to think poorly of themselves and making them believe that they are unworthy because they are continually falling short of a standard we have accepted based on a dusty old doctrine or some obscure scripture passage. When I say we at Silverside I mean we in the Christian Church as a whole, which includes us although I’m happy to say we look beyond all religious institutions.  There are things to improve around here and things to critique legitimately around here, but we will not exclude people of good will based on some theological notion or any issue related to ethnicity or sexual identity or economic status.  So when people come here, provided their motives are good and pure and they’re not wearing wool that looks much bulkier than it should, they will receive nurture, encouragement, and uplift from Silverside Church.
We will not pretend to be progressives while being conservatives in disguise.  We will not proclaim one thing only to be caught being someone else or something else.  We will not pretend that this is who we are only to have our church clothes get crumpled in such a way that someone can see that who we have claimed to be is absolutely not who we are.
What would Aesop say?

A wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so the wo put the sheep’s skin on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the wolf was wearing, began to follow the wolf in the sheep’s clothing; so, leading the lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep and enjoying hearty meals.  Appearances are deceptive.

 

The wolf in sheep’s clothing isn’t immediately found out.  He or she can do great damage pretending to be one of the majority while secretly fighting for the polar opposite cause.  Wolves in sheep’s clothing can hurt, maim, and kill, and that’s exactly what they’re going to do as long as they can–unlike the peaceful wolves of Kromer.  There’s a sadness in Aesop’s tale because the wolf begins wearing the skin of one of the sheep that had been slaughtered, and when the wolf shows up wearing that sheep’s skin, one of the now roasted mother’s lambs thinks the wolf is her mother.  She, thus, follows the wolf into isolation where the wolf eats the little lamb whole.
No wolves in sheep’s clothing around here.  No wolves in pastor’s closing around here.  No wolves in faithful members’ clothing around here.  We are a community of compassion, understanding, wholeness, nurture.  Know that if you are hurting or struggling or if you feel ostracized for any reason in this world when you come here you will be embraced.
Amen.

 

Stay on the Path (Third in Sermon Series, From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales: the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths)

Stay on the Path (Third in Sermon Series, From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales: the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths).

Stay on the Path (Third in Sermon Series, From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales: the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths)

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I.
    Stay on the path.  That seems like good advice for a number of reasons, even though if brave souls didn’t ignore the advice and become trailblazers they and their contemporaries could never move ahead or see progress in any way.  
    There’s a brand new television series you just have to watch.  It debuted last Sunday evening.  It’s called “GCB,” which stands for “Good Christian Belles.”  Oh my, Pam Cummings, it’s set in Texas, and much of the storyline involves the church to which most of the main characters belong.  You’ll see things on that show you’ve never seen in real church:  gossip, envy, backbiting.  It’s sort of like “Desperate Housewives Go to Church.”  
    The sure-to-become-one-of-my-favorite shows stars Kristen Chenoweth who’s the most gifted singer in the church choir and who manages, therefore, to steal all the best solo opportunities from the rest of the faithful choristers.  Her prominent costar is Annie Potts who now is of an age that she is playing the mother of younger women in Chenoweth’s age bracket.  My, my.  It seems like last month when she a young divorcee in my favorite show of its decade, “Designing Women.”  In the new show, Potts plays a filthy rich widow who’s at least a little bit better than anyone else she knows or meets.  
    When I saw Annie Potts show up on the screen last Sunday evening, I immediately was taken back in my memory to this time of year in 2005 when her son, then 23 years old, didn’t return home when expected from a hike.  He and a friend told their families that they’d be back home about dinner time on a Sunday, but they weren’t.  Hour after anxious hour passed–no sign of the men, no word from the men.  The good news is that they were found a day later.  The weather at dusk on Sunday had taken a sudden turn for the worse so the hiking pair decided that rather than staying on the icy trail, they’d ease off the trail and find a place to camp for the evening.  No cell phone signals, of course; that’s what they did.  
    The next morning, Ms. Potts’s son and his friend made their way back to the main path and walked to their vehicle.  Even with slippery conditions prevailing on the mountain road, they intended to get back home that day.  They found a note on the Range Rover they had driven from local police saying that they, the police, were at that moment trying to find them as they had done to no avail in the darkness of the previous night.  Well, they got home unharmed.  
    We’ve heard of some sad stories with very different endings, haven’t we?  We’ve heard news stories of hikers lost and never found, and we’ve heard stories of hikers lost whose bodies were later found.  
    Staying on the path applies metaphorically as well.  There are so many self help books out now, they make many people prefer the misery they’re suffering over the misery of reading through one more clever writer’s shallow recipes for career success, for becoming a millionaire, for being a super parent who never makes any bad calls as a mom or dad, and even for how to work it so that God will be obligated to give you whatever a selfish heart desires.  Those overbought books aside, there often are some general principles for reaching important life goals that can appropriately be considered “staying on the path.”  
    For example, Lindon, my ex-wife, and I decided when baby number one was one the way that we’d bypass any book or article that had rules or lists of what to do or what not to do if we wanted to be effective parents.  I’ve told many of you before that we agreed on one book to guide us, and it was a philosophy of part of parenting.  The book offered no steps to take per se, but rather was like a heart-to-heart conversation with a very experienced and caring author, Dorothy Briggs.  Her book was titled, Your Child’s Self-Esteem.  
    I know you’ll be shocked when I tell you that armed with our goal never to do anything to impair our children’s ability to think well of themselves, we still made mistakes.  Considering her record and mine, I won’t tell you who made the most mistakes.  Seriously though folks, we were too busy early on just trying to be good parents.  As far as the kids were concerned, when one of us failed we both lost ground.  When the Apostle Paul was writing his magnificent essay on love he noted that one of the characteristics of love is that love keeps no record of a loved one’s wrongs.  After all, good parenting isn’t a contest; it’s a joyful, albeit challenging, team effort, and what really matters at the end of the day is the wholeness and wellbeing of your child or children.  All this to say, staying on the path for us as parents meant making decisions consistently that were intended to help our sons’ self-esteem flourish.
    Staying on the path for modern American politicians clearly means prodding in every direction until a nerve in the populous is hit and then never leaving it.  There are those who are still harping on the issue of the validity of our President’s birth certificate.  That is such an old hat issue now, but he seems to be able to laugh it off.  When the truly amazing performer, Betty White, celebrated her ninetieth birthday recently, President Obama congratulated her and went on to say that he didn’t really believe she was 90; therefore, he wrote to her: please produce for me a copy of your birth certificate.  Good sport.  
    What does staying on the path mean for you at this stage in your life in any area of your life that you want to contemplate?   

  • Some couples in a marriage or other serious relationship have to walk through some tough patches along their path to be able to hang onto a love connection that they know in their hearts is worth saving whatever the demand.  Someone here or someone in our congregation’s circle of love and concern may have recently gotten a medical diagnosis that, apart from the disease or disorder, is debilitating.  It’s going to take more grit and guts than she or he is confident of having in order to withstand the treatments and wring every last possibility out of life; that’s a tough, tough path with which to have to stay.  

Khalil Gibran challenges us bluntly:  “March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life’s path.”

II.
    The much adapted and watered-down story that many parents still read to their children was, originally, no tale for children at all, and I would say that even in its watered-down form the story is still not for younger children.  When the Brothers Grimm first discovered the tale being told among German peasants, it was a bawdy morality tale for adults only!  This was true of many of the stories the Brothers happened upon as they attempted to complete their intended mission, which was to collect original samples of German folklore and preserve those stories for posterity.  Somehow they discovered, and I have no idea how, that if they made the tales G-rated rather than PG-rated or R-rated these stories, which they’d set out NOT to alter in any way, brought them a tremendous cash flow and tremendous notoriety.
    They are mistakenly remembered as creators of children’s stories.  The Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, were lawyers, librarians, and philologists.  None of the stories included in their collections were written by them.  Most were discovered among the German peasants and adapted for children; the Brothers were responsible for the adaptations of the stories, but not the originals themselves unlike, say, Hans Christian Andersen who wrote from scratch all the stories published in his collections.  
    There are four basic types of folklore:  myth, legend, wonder story (early on, erroneously referred to as “fairy tale” though fairies appear in very few of them), and urban legend–the newest of the four types.  Wonder stories are properly classified by the German word, “Marchen,” which refers to stories like “Little Red Cap,” later, “Little Red Riding Hood,” that are set among fictional peasants, have magical or supernatural elements in the plotlines, and/or have animals functioning with human traits or visa versa.  The wonder stories often begin with the words, “Once upon a time…,” and end with the key character or characters living happily ever after.  Often there is a hero or heroine who saves the day and causes the central figures to come out OK, if only by the skin of their teeth.
    In the earliest versions of “Little Red Cap,” the “girl” wasn’t a little girl at all, but a young woman—a mid-teen or late-teen, perhaps.  Before getting in bed with the wolf who is all dressed up like Grandma, she gets naked.  After losing her virginity, she ends up dying in that very bed.  Moral of the story:  men can be wolves and can hurt you seriously!
    In later versions, a woodsman comes to Red’s and Grandma’s rescue by slicing the wolf open so Granny can escape, and the moral is adapted:  a good man can “save” a woman from her dumb moves.  In some more recent versions, Red escapes from the wolf on her own thus suggesting that women can save themselves from life’s complications.
    Wherever the story wound up, it always began with a warning from Red Cap’s mother, “Stay on the path.”  Now, as Red learned, you can stay on the path and still run into trouble.  No path is permanently safe or protected, but we all have a much better chance of remaining safe and getting where we want to be or where we’re supposed to be if we stay on the path.  
    The moral of the story could have been, “Take your mother’s advice when she is trying to protect you from harm” as long as you’re still under the age of 50.  The moral of any version of the story could also have been a restatement of Mom’s advice, “Stay on the path.”  Veering off the path is a sure fire way to stumble over a rock or a fallen tree; a definite decision to risk getting tangled up in briars, vines, and underbrush; a willingness to get lost; and a way of volunteering to face a much greater chance of happening upon someone in hiding who doesn’t want to be found.
    Under the category of “best practices,” we’d have to say that Little Red Cap’s mother shared some great advice with applications for many levels of living.  Sometimes staying on the path is about make safety choices based on what is tried and true; sometimes staying on the path has to do with using common sense or with living according to the moral standards or theological principles we’ve claimed as our own.  President Obama said, and I don’t know in what context, “If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.”  I completely agree with him on this, but I don’t fail to notice–and I’m sure you see it clearly too–the two huge conditions signaled by the word “if.”  It isn’t one or the other of these that will get us to the point of progress; rather, both of the conditions must be satisfied.  
    IF we’re walking down the RIGHT path.  There are more paths available to those of us who live with true freedom of choice than we can’t even count most of the time, but only one or a few may be RIGHT or, at least, RIGHT for us.  So, our President says that we can make progress if we’re on the RIGHT path AND IF we’re willing to KEEP WALKING.  Getting to the RIGHT path and standing still probably won’t accomplish much of anything.  Once we’re on the RIGHT path and can confirm that, through whatever means on which we rely to make such determinations, we have to begin walking and KEEP WALKING.
    There are three quite troubling statements, Christian scripture scholars often call comments or pronouncements like these “the hard sayings of Jesus,” attributed to Jesus in this little vignette in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9:

As Jesus and his disciples were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Child of Humanity has nowhere to lay his head.”  To another Jesus said, “Follow me.” But that man said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; as for you, go and proclaim the empire of God.”  Another man said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at home.”  Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the empire of God.”
 

To be an authentic follower of Jesus, any one of us must get on the RIGHT path, fix our gaze on our destination as a farmer does when plowing straight rows for the vegetable garden or at least look in the proper direction if we can’t see the destination itself, and then KEEP WALKING.  Jesus says, KEEP WALKING, stay on the path, and don’t look back!

III.
    I’d say that Jesus’ most remembered teachings were his parables, and among the numerous parables the most widely known and retold are the parable of the Lost Son, which is more often called the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Today, we again invite into our imaginations the highly influential, though fictional, character who has no name and is, thus, remembered by an adjective attached to his nationality, “The Good Samaritan.”
    When Jesus’ first hearers heard this story, they were tense and perhaps angry.  The hero of the story is not a Jew, but an unnamed arch enemy of most Jews, a Samaritan.  I don’t know if the Jews who lived when Jesus did hated Romans, their captors, more than they hated Samaritans or the other way around, but relations between Samaritans and Jews weren’t any where close to civil.
    Dr. Barbara Reed who happens to be a nun is a New Testament scholar and a parables specialist.  She believes that to understand a parable paralleling in any way how Jesus’ first hearers heard it; one, two, up to three parts of the parable that threw the hearers off balance intellectually and emotionally have to be isolated.  She refers to these off-putting parts of the story as points of disequilibrium.  I haven’t looked in her books to see how she interprets this parable, but I see three points of disequilibrium in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
    First, a Jewish person is leaving Jerusalem after worshipping at the great Temple, and he leaves Jerusalem by way of a road that everyone knew better than to travel alone.  He clearly didn’t stay on the path that someone traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho would have stayed on, even if it meant a longer journey.  This road was known to be a favorite stretch of ground for thugs and thieves.  If you had to travel that road, you wanted to be in a group large enough to keep a thief or two or three from daring to hold you at knife point and take everything you had and leave you beaten up or dead, being violent for the sake of violence–nothing else.  He or they already had all your money and maybe your outer garment too, if it were appealing to him or them.  From the get-go Jesus’ hearers were saying to themselves, “So this is going to be a story about this clueless guy who is bound to run into trouble.”  The hearers were not at all surprised when the man, a pious Jew no less, is robbed, beaten up, and left by the side of the path for dead.  They didn’t like hearing that part of the story, but it is not one of the points of disequilibrium because they were already braced for something like when Jesus, as he tells his parable, throws in the fact that the Jewish guy must have left his brain back at the Temple because he heads out on this very dangerous road all by himself.
    The second point of disequilibrium is when some clergy types are heading as a troupe up to Jerusalem to go to work.  Staffing the huge Temple required several clergy with various responsibilities to be on hand any time the Temple was open, which must have been most of the time.  They pass by their wounded and dying compatriot, their fellow Jew, and do nothing to help him.  In particular Jesus calls attention to a senior priest and an associate priest seeing clearly what was going on with the man lying beside the path and quite intentionally doing nothing to help.  Jesus’ hearers were thrown off because Temple clergy whom they highly respected were the bad guys in the story.  Either those who offered no help to the man who was already dead as far as they knew didn’t want to touch a dead body because that would have made them ritually impure and therefore unable to serve at the Temple, or they just didn’t give a rip; they only cared about people when they were on the sundial, when they were getting paid.  
    The third point of disequilibrium comes up in the story when Jesus has in his parable a despised Samaritan, as many Jews would have viewed any and all Samaritans, helping the Jewish man who would most certainly have died without his help.  I’m assuming that Jesus pictured the Samaritan as traveling that road with other Samaritans since smart folk didn’t travel that road alone, as I’ve said.  One wonders, even though the story is fictional and created by Jesus to use in his lessons and sermons, why the Samaritan or Samaritans would have been on the road that connected Jericho and Jerusalem; they certainly wouldn’t have been welcome or safe in the Jewish holy capital.  Trying to pick a parable apart as I just did is precisely what you don’t do if you want to get Jesus’ parabolic message so forget I brought that up.
    Anyway, because of the Samaritan’s goodness and kindness and generosity, the Jewish man is tended to.  He gets well and is able to embrace life once again.  That’s a wonderful ending to the story, but one of the nagging parts of the parable that won’t go away no matter how the plot winds up is the fact that there would have been no trouble for the guy in the first place had he stayed on the path he was supposed to have stayed on if he had to travel away from Jerusalem alone.  Suddenly, the pious Jewish guy, who is virtually overlooked by most Christian scripture scholars and preachers, eases into picture as a reminder that staying on the path is part of what may keep us from harm.  
    Sadly, as I’ve said, we all know people who have made wise choices and stayed on the path and still gotten hurt.  Little Red Cap evidently stayed on her path literally, but she certainly got off the path of common sense when she told a stranger all her personal business including where she was going and such.  Remember, in the original version of “Little Red Cap,” things don’t end well; Red is raped, evidently violently, and she dies in the bed of violence.
    The unfortunate Jewish guy who was so graciously attended to by someone whom he otherwise thought of as real enemy was a lucky guy.  He got a second chance at life when probably many others like him died to the side of that road, somewhere between Jericho and Jerusalem.
    We may not die physically if we get off the path of the moral standards we’ve claimed, but we may die emotionally if we do.  We may not die physically if we get off the path of what we truly believe theologically, but we may die spiritually if we do.   
    In 2010, Professors Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola of Tufts University, completed a study and released the results under the title “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.”   Result of the study in summary form:  “They are not alone.  They are not rare.  They are not unusual.”  The professors had all sorts of confirmation that there were plenty of clergy in this situation, but they didn’t realize at the start how difficult it would be to gather their data because most of these clergypersons are, understandably, closeted.  Once a network of contacts was established, the concerned and inquiring professors found a few who were willing to talk at length about their plights; most, however, wouldn’t take the risk.  After all, they were ministers who had died inside because they’ve been climbing into a pulpit every Sunday for years to preach what they don’t believe–just to keep a job, just to appease a congregation.  Some of these clergy hope that one day they will somehow be able to find their way back to the seeker’s path of integrity and have their souls come alive again; others hold out no such hope.  They see themselves as lost souls, beyond the help of anyone.  
    This is a word from the study itself:

 

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks.  As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don’t they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

How tragic.  I know you get the picture, and I know that you’re sympathetic.  What I want to make clear is the realization that what these preachers secretly owned was not an indication that they’d veered off the path; the fact that they have to pretend to be who they’re not IS proof, however.  No path can be right for you if it requires you to be or pretend to be something or someone you’re not.
    This part of the sermon is not a secret, subtle confession on my part to let you in on my change in theological perspective.  I’ve tried not to believe in God a few times in my life, but it didn’t work for me.  That way of thinking made no sense to me though I fully respect those of you, and you know I do, who wrestle with this issue and find yourselves unable to come up with any confidence or assurance that there is a God as described by this person or confessed by that person.  You’ve stayed on the path regardless of the fact that the search keeps coming up empty for you.  
    I’m certainly not bragging when I say that, nor do I see myself as a spirituality giant.  I see myself as a seeker and spiritual struggler.  I can’t tell you who or what God is exactly beyond the fact that God is love. Having said that, though, I must also say love that is God is of such depth it’s beyond human comprehension.  
    I do get a glimmer or a flicker of truth here and there, I think, and I hold onto it as long as I can.  Often, the truth I see is only enough to remind me that I have to stay on the path regardless of how rough it gets.  I cannot be tempted to take a path of known danger even if it does promise to get me more quickly, if I can survive, from where I am, Jerusalem let’s say, to Jericho, to where I believe I need to be for now–until it’s time for the next leg of the journey.  Amen.

 

Sending Evil on Its Way (Second Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celerbrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convey Life-Changing Truths)

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I.
I was a little uneasy this week when I saw how Phil had put the announcement of this week’s sermon title on the Silverside side of the large sign out front.  The sign usually reads:  “Dr. David Albert Farmer Talks about…” sermon title or subject or an abbreviation of one of those.  Lately, I guess my titles have been getting longer, and the “Talks about” has been removed, leaving as in the case of this week’s sermon this:  “Dr. David Albert Farmer,” followed by, “Sending Evil on Its Way.”  That could be read a number of ways, and I’d really prefer that we find a way to get “Talks about” back up there.  A detractor this week could read the sign to say that the church has decided I’m evil and is sending me on my way; there’s even a service or a ceremony to celebrate this discovery and this church action.  I hope my comments on that subject haven’t given anybody any ideas.
Evil is in the eye of the beholder.  The rants of Iran’s president and his willingness to build and use nuclear weapons sound, evidently, safe and sound to him, something he must do to protect and secure his nation. To Israelis, many Americans, and others his rhetoric and blatant willingness to harm his real and imagined enemies are proof aplenty that he is evil or, at least, that his intentions and aspirations are.  The way this works is that it’s ok for us to have and to keep producing nuclear weaponry, us and other countries on our approved list, but unethical and ultimately evil for any countries not on our approved list to have them.
In the triangle I’m about to describe, where does true evil lie? 1) With a young woman, Sandra Fluke, who merely made a statement about her personal views of women’s rights including sexual activity in relationship to health insurance coverages?  Republican Congressperson, Darrell Issa, from California rejects a simple request from some Democrats on his committee to allow Ms. Fluke of Georgetown University in DC to testify regarding her views on the subject or the collection of subjects.  The hearing was scheduled to gather information on citizen responses to government rules requiring employers to offer their employees health insurance policy options that pay for contraception.
Issa got his way, but the Democrats had an unofficial hearing on the same subject at which Ms. Fluke was allowed to speak.  As Issa had expected she speaks, and in her comments she criticizes health insurance policies specifically at Georgetown University, which most of us hadn’t realized was a Roman Catholic institution.  Well, duh, to the anti birth-control attitudes there–the official attitudes I should say.  Ms. Fluke said essentially that students at Georgetown as with most universities in this country have students who are sexually active.  Not all students are, but some are.  For those females who choose to be sexually active, contraception should be not only available but also encouraged.  Georgetown’s blocking of care specifically for that one health issue, or potential series of health issues, Ms. Fluke insisted in her own words “has a harmful impact on the female students.”  Then, she said quietly, succinctly, boldly given where she was speaking, “I’m an American woman who uses contraceptives.”
Well, immediately the conservative media began having a series of hay days.  Outrageously exaggerated versions of what Ms. Fluke had said started appearing in all the places we’d except to read such distorted stories, but not limited to those.
Back to my triangular question.  Is Ms. Fluke who takes contraceptives and is having or at least is ready to have sexual connections outside the bonds of marriage should she meet the right companion, is she evil?
2) Or does the evil lie with Rush Limbaugh who disagreed with the young woman’s views and called her a slut and a prostitute because he didn’t agree?  In a pathetic excuse for an apology, which appeared on Limbaugh’s website, he said he was just trying to be funny.  Really?  No, what he said and how he said it didn’t fit in with any comic genre that anybody else knew anything about.  Summarizing news sources, Limbaugh makes a concerted effort over his radio waves to humiliate Ms. Fluke, claiming that she and others like her are asking the government to subsidize their sex lives. “What does that make Fluke?” he asked.  Answer:   “It makes her a slut.  It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”  Brushing off criticism of him that began immediately, Limbaugh intentionally made matters worse.  Back in front of his radio mic, he babbled on, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, Ms. Fluke, thus paying for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is: We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”  Is Rush the embodiment of evil in this situation?
3) Or, third option, does the evil lie with Clear Channel Communications that produces the Rush Limbaugh radio show and endorses what he says on his talk radio show at least to the extent that his grossness, abuse, and rudeness keep it an exceptionally wealthy company?  Complicit with Clear Channel, if that is where the evil lies, are the sponsors who pour big bucks into keeping Rush paid and the company executives wealthy as well.  Does the evil actually rest with Clear Channel Communications and Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors?  Evil is in the eye of the beholder.
Only recently did I learn that, “Don’t be evil” is the informal corporate slogan of Google.  I’m not sure Google is always on the up and up, but maybe they are; and if so, bravo for Google.  The founders admit they wanted this slogan to be a jab at their competitors whom they perceived were seriously exploiting customers.  In a 2004 document titled, “The Don’t Be Evil Manifesto,” they said to those helping them build their company from the ground up, “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served–as shareholders and in all other ways–by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.”  When the time came for the corporate philosophy to be listed for the sake of shareholders and employees, this is one of ten points that made the list:  “You can make money without doing evil.”

II.
If we can’t agree exactly on what evil is, then we certainly will not be able to agree on who, past and present, is evil.  Yet, there are those who try.  A gent by the name of Cliff Pickover made a list of the ten most evil people in human history along with a companion list of the ten best people in human history.  His initial lists were made, I believe in Y2K, and have been modestly adjusted a couple of times.  I think there have not been changes, though, in ten years.
Here is Dr. Pickover’s list of the ten most evil people of all time as of 2002.  We might have heard about another one or two in the last decade.
Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor (and “Chief Punishment Officer”) of the Inquisition.  He roasted a few feet and suffocated a handful of those who failed his theological tests, but, far and away, his preferred method of causing those whom he declared heretics to suffer and die was burning them at the stake.  Historians say at least 2,000 women and men were burned at the stake by Torquemada for doctrinal failings.
Vlad Tepes, also called Vlad the Impaler, the real world model for the fictional Dracula.
Hitler.  Enough said.
Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of Russia. He enjoyed cutting up his enemies in small pieces and frying them up in a big frying pan.
Adolph Eichmann, chief executioner during Hitler’s Holocaust.  He, from all indications, was fond of saying, “The death of five million Jews on my conscience gives me extraordinary satisfaction.”
Pol Pot, Cambodian despot.  About a million of his own people and others died because of his policies of forced labor, intentional starvation, untreated disease, torture, and execution.
Mao Tse-tung killed between 20 and 67 million of his fellow Chinese, mostly older people who could no longer pull their own weight and intellectuals whom he desperately feared would figure out a way to unseat him.
Idi Amin, a cannibal who murdered somewhere around 300,000 of his own people who opposed his rule when he was president of Uganda.
Soviet Dictator, Joseph Stalin, starved about 20 million of his own people to death for intentionally or not interfering with his plans for the Soviet Union.
Genghis Khan, Mongol warrior and ruler.  Attracted to war, he’s one of the top ten who did more damage to his enemies than to his own people.  He’s credited with saying, “Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, then use his women as a nightshirt.”
Evidently, Dr. Pickover just couldn’t figure out how to order these good folk so he chose the option of listing them alphabetically based on the first letter of their first names.  We do need some uplift after hearing that last list; let’s see if this one does the trick.
Abraham Lincoln, for his contributions to helping our country      move, however slowly, to begin freely slaves.
Baha’u’llah, whose teaching is the basis of the Baha’i religion.  Baha’is officially believe that all the founders of the world’s great religions have been manifestations of God and agents of a divine plan for the religious and moral education of the human race. Despite their apparent differences, the world’s great religions, according to the Baha’is, teach an identical truth. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah was a manifestation of God; his primary calling or function was to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith. Baha’is believe in the oneness of humanity and devote themselves to the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices.
Buddha.  Buddhism, far more than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, has a pacifist leaning that is impossible to overlook.  The nonviolence these leanings promoted positively affected the countries that had a significant number of citizens embracing the religion the Buddha inspired.
Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhists and, until 1959, both spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. In 1989 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, an attempt to honor him for his nonviolent campaign to end harsh Chinese domination of Tibet.
Jesus, for preaching the reality of God’s love for all people.
Martin Luther King Jr., the face and the voice of the American civil rights movement and a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest.
Moses, freedom leader who got the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery.
Mother Teresa who was asked how she could continue day after day after day, visiting the terminally ill: feeding them, cleaning them up, giving them comfort as they lay dying in the streets of Calcutta.  She said, “It’s not hard because in each one, I see the face of Jesus in one of his more distressing disguises.”
Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian leader who established his country’s freedom through a nonviolent revolution.
Dr. Pickover couldn’t settle on a tenth to balance his two lists.  He wondered about the person most responsible for the creation of birth control methods, that have saved the bringing into this would millions of unwanted children, children who had they been born in the contexts where their parents lived at conception would be sure to die from disease, malnutrition, parental abuse, and so on.
Now, if you were listening carefully, as I know you always are, you caught onto the fact that women were severely underrepresented on both lists, the list of evil folks and the list of good folks.  Only Mother Teresa appears on either list, and we have her on the list of the top ten good folk in human history though the late Christopher Hitchens said she was some kind of fraud.  I just don’t buy it.
To our evil persons’ list we could have added Queen Mary, Bloody Mary.  And we could have added Lizzie Borden.  To our exemplary persons’ list we could have added Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt among several.
We will soon get to Jesus’ struggle with evil.  For now, two penetrating quotations.  The first is from Seneca:  “It is extreme evil to depart from the company of the living before you die.”  The second is from Dr. King, shortly before he was martyred:  “We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

III.
Ha satan.  A Hebrew definite article plus a noun–and not a proper one, meaning that it’s not a name. The satan, introduced in the book of Job, means “the adversary.”  He is not God’s enemy, but God’s chum.  The adversary, the satan, does evil to Job and Job’s family, but with God’s consent. Bottom line, the satan successfully tempts God Godself!  You’d think God would have been more understanding of Eve and Adam whose only fault when we boil it all down was succumbing to temptation.
The story of Job is an amazingly crafted fictional tale coming from three or so oral sources.  The moral of its story is that things kinda sorta all work out in the end for those who love God and who remain faithful to God’s standards no matter what.  The adversary who tempted God doesn’t pro-gress or re-gress to become a devil or THE Devil. He is a fictional character who symbolizes temptation–how real temptation can be and how powerful temptation can be.  If we read all the Apostle Paul wrote that made it into the final collection of books regarded as sufficiently sacred to be included in the Bible, we will eventually find him overcome with personal grief and self-loathing.  He’s frustrated with himself and with the way life works from his point of view.  He says something like this:  “I couldn’t be more devoted to God than I am.  Imperfect though I am, serving God with my all matters more to me than anything in the world.  Yet, I find myself doing the very things I set out never to do, and those items on my this-is-the-way-I-must-live list are the very tasks, however essential, that I end up neglecting.”
There’s this very odd, yet stirring and unforgettable, episode in Jesus’ ministry where temptation has been working heavily on him.  In his case, it wasn’t a routine temptation to steal a little something to pad his bank account.  He didn’t want someone else’s wife.  He didn’t long to be prominent and popular.  Temptation was telling him, “Look, Jesus.  With your skills and your well-known spiritual commitments, you can be rich and famous.  People will be falling at your feet, not to get healed for a change, but to praise and honor you; to let you know that they will take your cue about everything from how to treat a personal enemy to how to get along with Rome.  Keep in mind,” temptation went on, “you don’t have to do anything spectacular to get this kind of notoriety.  Heal a few folks.  Turn some desert stones into cakes of bread.  That kind of thing.  You’ll be the most highly loved, supported, and sought after person in the world.  Most people will love you, will adore you.”
At this particular moment, Peter, perhaps, was mouthing the words aloud that temptation had already been whispering in Jesus’ ears.  This was all in conflict with the demanding pathway Jesus knew he had to follow to serve God with complete faithfulness.  It was not taking a pathway to prominence and prestige; it was a pathway of down and dirty service to those who could never further his career in any way.
His plight was not to be well placed with the movers and shakers; his plight, and he understood it more certainly with the passing of each day, was to be with those who brought criticism and condemnation to him.  He knew that his life would end no better than he lived; his Roman enemies would be certain of that because he dared to preach a God greater than any one of their emperors or the best of the bunch melded together.  Jesus believed that it would have been an evil move for him to let selfishness determine the perimeters of his ministry and his life. He knew that the painful path he was going to have to take if he would dare to be true to himself was to go out to the periphery of his comfort zone in order to be able to tell as many people as he could that God’s love reached out to them in their self-hatred and despair, in their illnesses, in their fears, and in their required subordination to an empire that would never give them full freedom.
Peter was saying to him, “Teacher, you’re too good for this.  Surely God has a better plan in mind for you.  Don’t let yourself fall into such self-defeating attitudes; they make you crazy.”
Suddenly, Jesus burst out in response, as the story goes, “Get behind me, satan.  I can’t take you any more.  You do not determine how I must live and serve.  That is God’s task alone.”
In this fictional account, we’re not sure to whom Jesus is speaking.  Some think he was speaking to Peter who, without knowing it, was trying to pull Jesus away from the way Jesus knew in his depths he had to go.  Others think he was speaking to a devil as, many years later, Martin Luther would do routinely.  As familiar as Jesus was with Hebrew scripture of which the book of Job is a part, you can bet he had Job’s “ha satan” in mind when he said, seemingly to his close associate, Peter, “Get thee behind me, satan,” which was the same as saying, “Get behind me, temptation!   I know the pathway I must take.”
That Jesus struggled to understand his role is not fictional.  That he wanted to avoid the cross if there had been any way at all was not fictional.  That he spoke harshly to temptation in his heart is not fictional, but that he decided to engage in audible conversation with an invisible evil force, that is fictional.  Yet, the truth the incident teaches is on target.  Too many of us, and maybe all of us in ways, let temptation talk us into being people we’re not and heading into places people go when they expect praise rather than thanklessness from people in the gutters and gullies who may forget the name of the one who helped them sober up, clean up, and get some food together for themselves and their kids.
Two stanzas of the hymn the crowd sung when my grandparents were commissioned as short-term missionaries for an unspecified time of service in Mali, West Africa.  Much more of what Jesus knew was ahead for him than what temptation described, the hymn writer imagined God saying these words to someone who, like Jesus, was willing to send evil on its way and face instead the reality of what it takes to serve those who have been overlooked if not intentionally neglected:

So send I you to labor unrewarded
To serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing
So send I you to toil for me alone

So send I you to leave your life’s ambition
To die to dear desire, self-will resign
To labor long, and love where they revile you
So send I you to lose you life in mine.

 

The Dead Cannot Direct the Living (First Sermon in Series, “From the Jonah Tale to the Tales of Jesus and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Timeless Truths”

 

 

I.
Actor John Malcovich said, “The ghosts you chase you never catch.”
Patricia Briggs wrote in Dragon Bones:  “It’s easier to dismiss ghosts in the daylight.”
I paid my way through college mostly by working as a youth minister; there was some work in our college library, but I made most of what I had to stay paid up by working as a youth minister.  In one of my churches there was a woman who had two children participating regularly in our youth activities, and when my first Halloween rolled around while I served that congregation, instead of going along with the usual plan of having a Halloween party in the basement of the church, she loudly and repeatedly objected to the tradition, insisting that it was out of line for a church to celebrate Halloween. She proposed in its place an Un-Halloween celebration.  “Don’t let her shake you up,” said the several church gossips to me.  “She’s always looking for a way to stir things up and sound as off the wall as she possibly can.  If you ignore her politely, eventually she’ll leave you alone and go find someone else to stir up.”  I was young and very inexperienced with the ways of churches back then and didn’t know that there really is no way to ignore some politely.
Bottom line:  I was really irritated with her interference. I thought it was silly.  I could find no objection to continuing a much enjoyed tradition there according to what I was told by the youth council.  Besides, as a youth minister it was difficult to find activities that appealed to such a varied group of young people as we had there, ranging in age from middle school to high school and including some few early college students also.
Frankly, most people didn’t pay very much attention to her, as the gossips had described, until the day she dropped the bomb. She began to say to everyone who’d lend her an ear, “If the church goes ahead with this Halloween party my children will not participate, and I cannot guarantee they will be coming to future activities of any kind in this church.”  Now everyone was concerned, and they made that problem the problem of the youth minister so I had to go and sit down with her and try to reason with her, seeking to understand her concerns and how the objection came up to begin with since her children had participated in that church’s Halloween parties for years, as far back as anyone could remember.
She said that the more she’d thought about it the more she objected–until she could keep quiet no longer, not that she was known for keeping quiet at all.  She said that Halloween celebrated as many or more evil characters than good characters judging from what adults as well as children wore to the parties–all over, not just at church.  She also said that Halloween turned anyone who’d died into a potential ghost or goblin or talking skeleton.  Instead of thinking about those who’d died going to heaven to be with God, Halloween had them trapped in this world frightening people and becoming the tools of evil forces.  Out of all the ghosts remembered at that time of year, only one was friendly, and, of course, that, she added in case I’d been living on another planet before coming to her church, was Casper.
Though I remained irritated that the whole party would have to be re-planned because of the objections of only one person, I realized that she was making some valid points.  So, I asked, what would an Un-Halloween Party look like?  Well, she said, we’d still dress up in costumes, but there would be no disrespect of the dead so ghosts, mummies, and skeletons were out.  For other reasons, frankensteins, werewolves, vampires, and study hall teachers would be also be prohibited as costume choices.
Furthermore, so as not to frighten any younger children who might tag along with their teen sisters and brothers, in addition to nixing monster costumes, we would also add to our no-no list characters like a pirate who might not look all that scary but who nonetheless made a ship’s prisoners walk the plank.  “Let’s have the kids dress up like positive people–nurses, doctors, policepersons, and even ministers.  Or, better still,” she suggested, “why don’t we have our kids dress up like biblical characters?”
I said, “Well, that could work, but in the Bible all the characters aren’t good people and thus can’t be regarded as exemplary.  There are ghosts, witches, demons who possess unsuspecting humans, and crazy rulers who threw innocent young people into lions’ dens and fiery furnaces.” She pretended not to hear that at all, saying in her well-performed obliviousness, “Oh, here I have let our coffee get cold.”
I honestly don’t remember how it was all resolved, but I’m thinking the church cancelled the Halloween Party; and this woman, in its place, had an Un-Halloween Party at her home to which she invited all the kids from the church.  I believe that my name was left off the guest list.  I wasn’t offended, and I don’t believe it was intended to offend.  Maybe she thought I’d be angry with her for stealing my thunder. I always wrote it up to the probability that I must have told somebody I’d already bought a $5 Dracula costume from K-Mart, and it was unreturnable.  So, she perhaps was afraid after all her efforts to go Un-Halloween all the way, the youth minister of all people would show up as Dracula.  In the end, I wasn’t upset to have been left off the list, and before you think “cheapskate,” remember that this was 1976ish.  Five dollars meant a whole lot more back then that it does today.
All these years later, I find myself to some degree in agreement with this mother who infuriated me for messing with my youth activity.  Regardless of what you believe about life after death to this world, I don’t believe it is healthy or respectful to allow our children–with plenty of adults–to believe that our dearly departed loved ones become ghosts who haunt as well as monsters of all sorts seeking to do harm to the living.
Halloween parties could be fun costume parties for kids and adults, and instead of celebrating false and frightening superstitions, why not dress up like good characters from literature or good  real folks among today’s celebrities?  Each party host would have to decide whether to welcome guests who want to come as scary figures such as Rush Limbaugh, despite the emphasis on good and wholesome folk.
Henrik Ibsen:  “It’s not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them–Ghosts.”

 

II.
There’s a story from the First Testament, the Hebrew Bible, that many of you who have been in church nearly every Sunday of your lives have never heard. It’s an eerie, spooky story with a somewhat obscure message so most preachers, and Bible study leaders for that matter, leave it alone. Whether you take it literally or fictionally it’s an unsettling tale. Since we’re beginning a sermon series today on the power of fiction–sacred and secular, biblical and nonbiblical–to convey life-changing truths, a smart bunch like you have already figured out that I take the story as non-historical, as fictional, yet completely capable of carrying a message for its original audiences and for individuals and congregations today.
The story reads well; it’s a real attention-getter, and I can only imagine that those who originally told the story really made the hearers shiver in fear of the mere prospects proposed by the story. Since my goal today is not to frighten, I will leave out sound effects and vocal extremes as I retell the story though I’m quite sure the ancient counterpart to Vincent Price did not withhold such enhancements as the story was first told.
You may recall that for a long time the twelve or so tribes comprising the Hebrew nation were a rather loose confederation of groups, each one independently governed and only cooperating with other tribes (or not) when a pressing set of circumstances demanded it. Many of the Hebrews from several of the tribes begged, literally begged, God to give them a monarch like most of the other nations had. The main thought evidently was that if they had one strong leader, he (I doubt many were thinking “she”) could unify the tribes and, thereby, consolidate the power of the whole nation to accomplish greater feats and, very importantly, bolster defense.
The way the story is told, God reluctantly gave in to the pleas and appointed the Hebrews’ first king, King Saul. Saul preceded King David and King Solomon on the throne and, thus, is often left in their dust as far as historians and storytellers are concerned. Not perfect by any means, he wasn’t a bad king at all, and he earnestly wanted to do a great job as the first king of his people.  Once God had given him the power over a kingdom, however, he acted as if there was no God.  If there was a God, God was for the weak, not for ultra powerful people like he was.
Probably the most profound challenges he faced during his tenure were matters of national defense. One morning, King Saul was awakened by his secretary of defense with bad news. Somehow the powerful enemy forces of the Philistines had encircled the relatively weak collection of Hebrew troops on watch for the well-being of their nation, and the Philistines who almost never lost in battle were ready to attack, first, the measly Hebrew troops and then with them out of the way the homes of Hebrews who were minding their own business in their tents or townhouses thinking all was right with the world.
Immediately, Saul remembered how well things had often gone when there was no Hebrew king, and leadership to the nation came through prophets and judges. At the top of the list had been Samuel, whom his people still mourned, so King Saul began to wonder what Samuel would have advised them to do had he still been living and involved in leading the people to make strategic decisions.
He couldn’t get that thought out of his mind, and one thing led to another–as they did when Mrs. Reagan began to consult with an astrologer every morning so that she could advise her husband, the Actor/President of our country, how to act in the face of the challenges that would face him that day.  In no time at all, King Saul was thinking of finding a medium who could consult with the dead Samuel in order to get some advice he thought he, literally, couldn’t live without.
Consulting mediums or sorcerers was against the law, the law the King himself had put on the scrolls. He ignored it and sent several of his top advisors to a little town called Endor where there reportedly was a woman who had been a very successful medium until her profession was declared illegal. Thankfully, the practice of a government’s establishing laws then hiring people, sometimes presidents (think Andrew Jackson), to break those very laws is a practice completely unknown in modern times. That was not the case, however, in Saul’s day.
The advance team got the medium, some called her a witch, to agree in principle to conduct a seance and call the late Samuel back from beyond the grave to offer the desperate king some advice that might well mean life for a huge number of unsuspecting Hebrews. They returned to the palace and had their king dress in disguise as a commoner. This is how he was taken to Endor as night began to fall.
Costumed, as it were, the king is introduced to the medium. Not knowing who he was initially, she  begins the seance.  She had all those present gather in a circle. She said her magic words in prayer-like fashion beside the low-burning fire, and after a short time, in the seance context, Samuel did, in fact, appear, but he was not at all pleased with having been disturbed. At about the moment she could see the figure of Samuel, the medium recognized the King.  She is both angry and frightened because the penalty for performing acts of sorcery and spiritism was death.  She thought she’d been set up.  She confronted the King, and he said what any king would have said, “It is, technically, illegal, but I’m the king; and I can give you a pass since this is for the well-being of the nation.”
“Fine,” she said, and Samuel began to speak through her to Saul.  In life, Samuel had not been known to mince words, and in death he had not changed. After plenty of grumbling about having been disturbed, he said to King Saul through the medium, “When you first came to the throne you took delight in the ways of God, and you let them lead you. As time passed, you loved your power so much that you convinced yourself there was no functional need for God. You began to live and to rule as if there were no God, and, Saul, what’s going to happen tomorrow is your fault; and it is now too late to avert. That’s the good news; you’re smart enough to know what’s going on, at least on the surface.”
“The bad news is that you and your sons will be on the casualty list when the roster of all the newly deceased because of the Philistine attack is reported to the department of defense for record-keeping and family notification. Among the many funerals being held next week will be a state funeral for Israel’s first king.”
After a long long silence, the Witch of Endor said, “I’m so sorry for the news that has come to you. I don’t know why almost everyone thinks that if they go to the trouble of having a seance and paying a medium (hint, hint) that they will automatically get good news.  In any case, I want to fix you a late-night dinner before you head back to the palace.”

III.
In Jesus’ parable of the poor man and Lazarus–not Lazarus the sibling of Mary and Martha but a filthy rich Lazarus–the poor man is a beggar who begs Lazarus and his high and mighty guests going to and coming from his opulent feasts almost every day for crumbs, just enough to stay alive.  He is roundly ignored by one and all.  Ironically, both of these men, the extremely rich man and the extremely poor man, die at about the same time.  In the next world their fortunes, shall we say, are radically reversed.
The poor man is with Father Abraham enjoying heavenly rewards including fabulous feasts at which divinity is served daily; if you’ve never eaten divinity, you should talk to Marie about how to sample some.  The rich man who assumed he was rich because God had willed it had always taken for granted that privileged in this world meant privileged in the next world as well; he expected his mansion over the hilltop with servants tending to his beckon call for eternity.  Wrong assumption.  Seriously wrong assumption.
In contrast the abjectly poor man, who also assumed that he was in the situation he was in economically because God willed it, went through his life believing that God must have been punishing him for some wrong he’d done or maybe some wrong his parents had done–a commonly held belief among Jews of that day.  Now, the poor man is in the best place with all the privileges.  His struggles on earth were not a preparation for an eternity of suffering.  The two men, in very different places compared to the way they lived in this world, found themselves also in very different places in the next world, but opposite to their places in this world and opposite to what each one had expected the next world to be.
Keep in mind that this, too, is a fictitious tale, a parable, in which the characters and their plights are created by Jesus to make a sermonic point.  There was hardly only one wealthy person who ignored the destitute right at her or his gate, right under feet really; instead, most of the wealthy acted exactly like the rich man in the parable.  Similarly, there was hardly only one poor person being intentionally overlooked by those who very easily could have eased her or his plight.  Instead, there were hoards of these.  But Jesus created a fictional tale with one of each for the purposes of his parable.
In the next realm, as the parable goes, I say again that the formerly poor man had his every need supplied while the formerly rich man endured an opposite set of circumstances.  None of his needs were supplied.  If he were hungry, he’d remain hungry.  If he were thirsty, he’d remain thirsty.  If he made a request to the higher powers, it was ignored.  Not knowing this at first, the formerly rich man asked two favors:  one, that the once poor guy zoom over and poor a few drops of water onto his parched tongue to ease his thirst since quenching was too much to ask.  The formerly poor guy though treated worse than dirt and wild dogs by the man who’d been filthy rich during his earthly life was willing to help the guy who’d all but spat on him every day they encountered each other, which was a matter of years.  Father Abraham, though, says, “No.  We don’t operate like that over here.  That huge chasm separating where you are from where we are will not let you come to us; nor will it let us come to you.  So sorry.”
Then, for the first time in the parable, the formerly rich man showed a measure of selflessness and said, “Well, my beloved brothers are as ignorant as I was about all of this.  Can you send a prophet to them who can preach the truth to them so that they will not end up in the horrible place to which I’ve been consigned until  time is no more?”
Father Abraham answered that one too.  “It’s so hard for me to have to say, ‘No,’ twice in a row, but, ‘No.‘  What were those trying to preach the truth to you while you were on earth, chopped liver?  They faithfully preached the truths, and you and your brothers summarily ignored everything they said.  Even if we sent a ghost preacher back to your brothers now, they’d ignore her or him just as they ignored the prophets trying to preach to you.  The dead cannot direct the living.  For the most part, even if they tried, it would be a waste of time.  You can start making plans to have your whole family over there one of these days.”
Samuel returned to Saul in a powerful, fictitious tale of a seance conducted by the Medium of Endor; he didn’t have any helpful news for Saul–something like, “The events that will take place tomorrow have been building up a long time.  There’s no way to undo them.  They will happen.  The best you can do is to tell as many of your people as possible to prepare to die, and as for you, King, you need to rewrite your will because no one named as a beneficiary in the present will and testament will be alive when dinner time comes tomorrow.”
By the era of Jesus, there was no belief at all, or certainly not pervasive, that once someone had reached her or his place in God’s more intimate embrace there could be communication between people on earth and people in the next realm–shockingly for many, this included Jesus.  Once Jesus is taken to the next realm by resurrection or ascension or whatever, his followers didn’t start praying to him for advice, guidance, anything.  If they thought they could have done that, they’d not have been nearly as frightened; nor would they have felt so forlorn and forsaken.  Prayer remains communion with God, not with Jesus or any of our loved ones or those named saints who have gone to the next realm.
The Pew Forum published a report just a little over two years ago in which it showed that about a third of US Americans from all faith traditions including Christians, Protestant and Catholic combined, believe in the possibility of real communication with the dead.  Among those, not surprisingly, many believe that they have been involved in two-way communication with a person or with several people who have died to this world.  With all due respect for those who hold such beliefs and have treasured experiences to prove it to their satisfaction, I have to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe you’re mistaken.”
The dead do not and cannot direct the living.  Except for whatever communion may take place between humans on earth and the God within them, the God within us, there is no communication connection of any kind, of any kind, between the living and the dead.
We have our memories, and some of us look forward to being reunited over there with our loved ones who have preceded us in death, but we can’t communicate with them in the mean time–to get stock tips, relationship advice, to get comfort when we need it.  We shouldn’t discount the power of memories, though, precious memories, “sent from somewhere to my soul.  How they linger, ever near me, as the sacred scenes unfold.”
Amen.