Not Letting Weakness Win (second sermon in series, “Fresh Air for Fall”)

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I.
I heard so often in my growing up years, and maybe many of you heard the same thing or something similar in different parts of the country, people saying in reference to some ongoing problem or issue that wouldn’t go away or a chronic illness that wouldn’t stop recurring, “Well, that’s the cross I have to bear,” or, “That’s her cross; she’ll have to bear it.”  We all understood what was meant when we heard such a comment, but to be focused we needed to know–and evidently didn’t–that the scriptural reference to bearing a cross had nothing in the world to do with problems that just wouldn’t go away.  Unfortunately, the way we used that image trivialized its original intent, which was this.  These are words attributed to Jesus speaking to his inner circle of male disciples:

If anyone wants to become my follower, let her or him deny self and take up his or her cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save life will lose it, and those who lose life for my sake will save it.  What does it profit people if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

This episode from the life of Jesus is placed early in Jesus’ ministry by the writer of the Gospel of Luke; it’s odd as I read it to notice Jesus referring to a cross as something to carry or bear each day.  So far ahead of his execution on a Roman cross, his use of the image at this point makes me wonder if this episode happened much later in Jesus’ ministry–say, very near his final run-in with Rome, which was a scene he’d pondered in his mind many times expecting that somehow Rome would find a way to snuff him out on a cross.  As it turns out, he and others sentenced to this fate literally had to carry the cross beam from the holding cell to Golgotha where it was inserted into its base.  Jesus and all the criminals Rome executed by this means had had to do the same.  Maybe, therefore, it wasn’t unusual for any of the subservient peoples to Rome to speak of the cross as a burden to bear because Rome staged these cruel events in such a way that many people would notice and therefore be reminded not to mess with Rome lest the same fate befall them.
Whatever else you might make of it, the possibility of dying for a cause is tied to the image of a Roman cross.  So, when we down in Halls Crossroads talked about the crosses we had to bear as frustrations, embarrassments, or inconveniences, we were missing Jesus’ point.  Someone between Jesus and us had minimized the impact of what Jesus meant, which was that anyone who wanted to join him in his countercultural ministry of diversity had to face the fact that Evil’s response to Good is often to kill it.  Evil insists on being sovereign and will not sit idly by as Good tries to eclipse it or weaken it.
That’s shocking, and liberals don’t talk much about that in the context of spirituality and ministry even though plenty of liberals have died trying to serve the same kinds of overlooked people to whom Jesus had tried to minister.  Jesus didn’t write off the poor and troubled as inconsequential and unworthy of his time and attention; just the opposite was the case.  The outcasts, the abject poor were at the top of his list of people deserving priority care, and the fat cats–no offense to real felines–hated the fact that Jesus humanized the hungry by feeding them, empowered the poor by finding enough support for them so that they could be removed from the roles of beggars, supported the sick by healing them whenever he could.  He quickly became the enemy of those of means who didn’t like being reminded that their callousness exacerbated the suffering of those in need just as quickly as he, Jesus, became the enemy of those who hid behind their putrid, self-centered theologizing that allowed them to believe that God was rewarding them for their goodness and causing the suffering of homeless and hungry as punitive act in response to their acts of impurity.
When we referred to bad financial investments that left us with lingering, rippling challenges as crosses we had to bear, we didn’t know we were, but we were missing Jesus’ point.  When married couples referred to their loveless marriages as crosses they had to bear because divorce was unheard of when and where I grew up, they didn’t know they were, but they were missing Jesus’ point entirely.  The truth is that many of them probably didn’t know the image they used so freely could be traced back to Jesus himself.  We hired seminary trained pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads; looks like one of them could gently have corrected us.  They didn’t, though.  I heard one of our seminary trained pastors say, “We all have our crosses to bear.”
As well intentioned as he was, that’s not so.  Not all of us have matured spiritually to the point that we’re willing to serve the needly and hurting blindly enough to be willing to die trying to reach them and provide for them.  So let’s give up the watered down notion of what bearing a cross is and reserve that for those commitments for which, in service to humanity, we are willing to lose our lives.  Hymn writer, Henry Francis Lyte, I think, was in step with what Jesus meant by bearing a cross.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,

All to leave and follow Thee;

Destitute, despised, forsaken,

Thou from hence my All shalt be.

Perish every fond ambition,

All I’ve sought or hoped or known;

Yet how rich is my condition!

God and heaven are still my own.

What we meant in Halls Crossroads when we talked about bearing our crosses was really what the Apostle Paul talked about with his image “thorn in the flesh.”  A “thorn” in the flesh was not deadly, but dastardly and occasionally debilitating though not permanently debilitating.

II.
Not all of my mentors became friends after the mentoring processes were over, but a handful did; they have shaped and enriched my life beyond my ability to describe.  Mary Charlotte Ball, William L. Blevins, David Buttrick, John Killinger, and one about whom I’d like to tell you today, E. Glenn Hinson.  He recently turned 80, overcame some health challenges, and saw the release of his autobiography titled A Miracle of Grace.
The publisher, Mercer University Press, has this bio blurb about Glenn on its web page:

E. Glenn Hinson is emeritus professor of Spirituality and John Loftis Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In retirement he served as visiting professor at Lexington Theological Seminary, Louisville (Presbyterian) Seminary, Candler School of Theology (Emory University) and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. His honors include the Cuthbert Allen Memorial Award for Ecumenism awarded by the Ecumenical Institute of Belmont Abbey/Wake Forest University.

Regarding the book, which I will begin reading on the day after Christmas, Mercer offers these comments:

This is the story of Glenn Hinson’s life—A Miracle of Grace— “for I stand with mouth agape as I look back from where I am at age eighty toward where my story began.” With degrees from some of the world’s most noted schools (Washington University in St Louis, Southern Seminary, Oxford University), Hinson has taught in some of America’s most distinguished educational institutions (Southern Seminary, Wake Forest University, Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, Emory University), and has played a role in some of the most momentous ecumenical developments in Christian history since the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Who could have foreseen, much less predicted, any of those happenings from a glance at his early years growing up in dire poverty in the Missouri Ozarks during the Great Depression?

He earned his first doctorate from Southern Seminary in the field of New Testament studies. He was so brilliant, and fortunately the faculty recognized this, that he was immediately appointed to the faculty as professor of early church history. Not only was he gifted in Greek, but also it turns out that he was gifted in Latin so teaching the early history of the church and the early writings in the history of church were right up his ally.  He would later earn a second doctorate, the second one in the history of the Church, from Oxford.
I heard him tell the story that I’m about to summarize for you many times in great detail, but the chronology isn’t fixed solidly in my mind. Nonetheless here’s the gist.
Early in his teaching career some sort of physical malady struck him and stole his ability to speak well, that is physiologically impaired his speaking.  Today the teacher who has trouble speaking can teach online and do very nicely, no problems, but back in those days when lecturing was the only means of classroom instruction the professor who couldn’t speak well so that the students could hear and understand her or him was in trouble. Naturally Glenn agonized over this, and he fretted and worried about where he would be left as a brilliant academician who could not speak well enough for students to be able to hear and learn. This of course only added to the physical problem itself.
In time there were some treatments that improved the speaking problem to a degree though it was never completely healed.  Determined person that he was he learned to work around it. He learned to speak well enough so that those who tried a bit to listen learned how to hear him, and it there was a great reward for their modest effort.  What I mean, for example, is that the first day of class in a new semester might be a little difficult for students who had never studied with Glenn before, but if one kept trying, which almost all the students did, soon they could learn how to understand him effortlessly.
Wait, though.  That wasn’t his only challenge as a classroom teacher.  Somehow, connected to this ailment that effectively damaged his vocal cords and paralyzed a part of his neck was the loss of a significant amount of his hearing.  Now, how in the world could he possibly teach?  It was one thing to have difficulty speaking, but what if he couldn’t even hear the questions his students were asking?  Well, he made use of a teaching assistant, and he learned to be a superior lip reader so with partial hearing, very limited, and vocal challenge he managed to be one of the most popular, sought after teachers in every institution where he has taught. His classes have filled up like wildfire across the years. A great fan of his long before I was able to become one of his students, I could never get a seat in what was his most popular course at Southern Seminary, “Classics of Christian Devotion.” Some semesters he taught three sections of the course; yet even when I was a senior no matter what I tried–bribery of the Registrar included–I couldn’t get to registration early enough to get into that course.
I finally did get a seat, though, in a related, brand-new course he first offered in the summer of 1980. The course was called “Prayer in Christian Tradition,” and that course along with the textbook, which he happened to have written, Prayer in Christian Tradition, absolutely changed my life.  Prayer finally began to make sense to me and very quickly became a core part of my life.

The prayers about which Dr. Hinson taught were not the kinds of prayers I had heard and prayed myself during my growing up years at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads; nor were they the kinds of prayers I heard prayed around Carson-Newman College and even Southern Seminary. Dr. Hinson’s understanding of prayer, and he practiced it daily, was much more a pervasive act of spirituality and devotion interwoven with the living of life itself.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of lives he has touched through his teaching and preaching and writing, but the number would be astronomical. I can say without reservation that there are very few people with whom he has ever come into contact who were not positively influenced by the encounter or more correctly by the man himself.
Never in a self-pitying way, Glenn has compared his loss of vocal production and hearing to the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” I imagine he may have preached on that subject several times across the years and in the many places where he has served.  The sermon I know about, and the sermon that I actually heard him preach on this painful topic, he called “The Answer to Unanswered Prayer.”

III.
No one in the modern world knows for sure what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  Surely some of those closest to him knew what it was; perhaps he discussed his concerns about his thorn in the flesh with a handful of people, his confidants. He wrote to the Church in Corinth mentioning his thorn in the flesh as if they may have known what it was, but he could have spoken of it as a problem without ever specifying publicly what it was.  Certainly, he never indicated in writing exactly what it was.  Paul did use his struggle to get a message across, though, and this is the message that comes through loudly and clearly:  imperfections, frustrations, and recurring challenges though real and impossible to ignore do not have to keep us from succeeding.  Said another way, we can find ways to be productive and successful, we can find ways to enjoy life even when we can never quite remove the effects of a thorn that once embedded itself in our flesh.  I want to say that again because it is what I want you to carry home with you from this Gathering:  Imperfections, frustrations, and recurring challenges though real and impossible to ignore do not have to keep us from succeeding.  We can find ways to be productive and successful, we can find ways to enjoy life even when we can never quite remove the effects of a thorn that once embedded itself in our flesh.
Scholars and others have had a great time speculating about, some of them trying hard to prove, their theories on just what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  All kinds of possibilities been proposed for what Paul’s thorn was. The one presented to us in the response we read today is a speech impediment, which is not one of the more commonly discussed possibilities, but it is something very interesting to consider.  Even though Paul had an active speaking ministry, nobody can deny that Paul has been much more remembered for what he wrote or dictated.
Probably the most commonly suggested solution to the challenge of trying to identify what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is partial blindness. This is the way the story goes as you might know.  Paul originally was called Saul, a zealous persecutor of those Jews who were not pharisaic like he; they were followers of Jesus. Paul hated that, and he joined in all out persecution of every follower of Jesus he could find any reason whatsoever to persecute and by whatever means:  harassment, finding a way to have someone attached to the Jesus Movement accused of something that would result in a prison sentence, participation in vigilante killings.
All of that changed one day as Paul was riding his horse toward Damascus on a mission of persecution, and suddenly a bolt of lightning shot out of the skies and into his face. Many speculate that he was actually struck by lightning. We know that he fell off the horse; we don’t know for sure if it were the shock of what happened that caused the fall off, or, as many biblical scholars and a few ophthalmologists believe, if lightning struck Paul causing him to fall off the horse. We know that something related to the flash in his face or the blots of lightening themselves caused temporary blindness.
Paul had the sense that there were scales on his eyes; he couldn’t see at all at first.  A few days later, one of the devotees of the Jesus Movement, Ananias, laid healing hands on him, and the scales kind of dropped away.  Paul could see after that, but he could never see well.  This theory of what his thorn may have been explains a comment or two that Paul made in his letters.  For example, at the end of one letter, he stopped dictating and signed his name himself.  Reference is made to evidence of his writing as being much larger than the way his secretary wrote.
There is other speculation about what his thorn in the flesh was.   Some say that Paul had a real struggle with his sense of morality that left no room for any expressions of homosexual activity or behavior.  Could Paul have been gay and have hated himself for it?  The behaviors related to homosexuality that Paul condemns are quite specific–for example, temple prostitution, but he didn’t have anything negative to say about a general gay lifestyle or a gay relationship that he certainly would have observed frequently at least in and around Rome.  This theory is a stretch though intriguing.          Another much less discussed possibility is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was an overactive libido, which would explain one of the reasons that a bachelor, presumably, had so many comments to make about sex. So, perhaps Paul who made it a practice in his writings to greet not just the men in the congregations to whom he wrote as was the typical pattern in his day, but also many women that most correspondents would have routinely ignored.  Could the prudish Apostle have had a crush on one or more of the women pastors of the churches to whom he wrote?
Without knowing exactly what it was, we know how the thorn had an impact on him and what he learned as a result of its constant or recurring presence.  Once it came upon him, it stayed with him for the rest of his life.  No matter he tried, he couldn’t get rid of it, couldn’t make it go away.  When all practical possibilities failed him, he turned to spiritual options; and he prayed, fervently begging God to remove the thorn.  Paul could never quite understand why, faithful servant of God he had become, God didn’t give him a break, why his all powerful God didn’t remove the thron in the flesh so that he might have more peace in his life
The conclusion he ultimately drew as a result of having to live with this problem until the end of his days on earth came to him in prayer.  As he prayed, he sensed that God was saying to him, “You may never be able to see well again; you may never have the great speaking ability for which you long. But what you regard as limitations haven’t disqualified you so far. The only way it can beat you is if you let it.  Despite a very bad beginning with the Jesus Movement, you’ve done amazingly well, and that says something about how the power of divine love can carry you through frustration, limitation, embarrassment.  Divine power,” Paul sensed God saying to him, “is made perfect in human weakness.”  Paul was stunned.  I’m stunned.  His readers were stunned.  There’s something to that, which Glenn Hinson shared as the core message in his sermon, “An Answer to Unanswered Prayer.”

Paul did not get the answer to this prayer that he sought; his thorn in the flesh did not go.  It was not a sentence God had cast on him so that he would suffer.  It just was.  It was a part of his life with which he had to contend.
God has used imperfect or limited people to accomplish all the great things that have happened for the good in human history.  The people who are disqualified from participating in serving God and others as Jesus demonstrated are always self-disqualified. There’s no expectation in a life of spiritual seeking that we will ever reach perfection or that God, whatever God is to you, expects, imagines, dreams of perfection for human beings.
Who is the greatest help to an alcoholic who wants to get on the road to recovery? Another alcoholic, an alcoholic who says at every AA meeting, “I’m an alcoholic.  I personally learned that this substance is so powerfully addictive for me that left to my own devices I could be free from its power over me, but relying on self-determination and a higher power I have stayed sober five years.  I hope for, pray for, another day of sobriety tomorrow.”  That person not somebody who has never had a drinking problem is the most effective advisor, confidant, encourager to somebody who wants to get on the road to recovery.
Imperfect Paul founded the church and based the church on the teachings of Jesus from Nazareth as they reinterpreted the Jewish religion. Jesus did not found the church; he never saw church or attended a church service. He was a Jew just as Paul also was a Jew to the end, but Paul lived long enough to institutionalize the church.  Let me say this again:  the church was founded by an imperfect person, and every church in all times and places regardless of the size, big or small, has been made up 100% of imperfect people. Yet, the church as a whole and local congregations have, nonetheless, dared to attempt great deeds of compassion and caring ministry.  Sometimes, we succeed; that’s because divine power, God’s power, is made perfect in human weakness.
Amen.

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The Good Begun in You Will Be Completed (first sermon in a series of miscellaneous sermons, “Fresh Air for Fall”)

 

 

I.
One of my professors in grad school described his famous father’s life as having ended with an ellipsis. If it has been a while since you piddled around with punctuation, an ellipsis is a set of three periods indicating in running text that something is omitted. At the end of a segment of material an ellipsis indicates to a reader that something is incomplete; the whole story hasn’t been told or couldn’t be told or doesn’t need to be told in the particular context in which the writer writes.  The person referred to by my prof had lived a full life. He had held many positions of great importance, was highly regarded in his professional field, published widely and popularly, and his life had lasted longer than most in his generation.  Yet, his remarkable son said of his remarkable father, “Life ended for him with an ellipsis.”
Dr. Georgia Elma Harkness was the first woman in the United States to be appointed as a full-time professor of a theological discipline in any seminary or divinity school.  She had a long distinguished and illustrious career, and she remained busy in retirement, from the Pacific School of Religion, as a preacher, lecturer, and writer.  When she died, her friends found on Dr. Harkness’s desk the proof pages for the book she had most recently completed.  Full life, amazing life; it ended in an ellipsis.
The twelfth anniversary of my Dad’s death is in a few days.    Mom had just had double knee replacement surgery and finished her stay in a rehab facility following the hospital stay itself.  Dad brought her home from the rehabilitation center, got her settled into the bed, sat down beside the bed for a little breather, and had an event that the autopsy described as part heart attack and part stroke.  He was only 70 years old with no serious illnesses about which we knew. He never regained consciousness.  The paramedics kept him breathing, and the hospital kept him on life support until most members of the family could get down there to say their goodbyes, after which life support was removed and hope against hope changed to requisite business decisions and funeral planning–all in the twinkling of an eye, as it were.  I loved him deeply and still miss him daily.  Dad enjoyed the new chapters in his life–the anticipated years of enjoying day to day life with Mom whose surgeons had freed her from much of the pain with which she’d been living for a good while, more time with his grandchildren whom he adored, more time to be on the lake fishing, more uninterrupted opportunities to listen to and watch the Atlanta Braves, and a retirement job for a man who refused to give up working altogether.  He felt that life had given him more blessings than he could ever have hoped for as a dirt poor kid growing up on Lone Mountain in Claiborne County, Tennessee, and reared by a single Mom rearing six other kids too.  Still, there was much more he would like to have done–and intended to.  Ellipsis.
When my dear friend, much beloved and painfully missed, Klaude Krannebitter ended his own life in his early 40’s, the family–as many of you know–called me back to Baltimore to deliver his eulogy.  Not an easy task but a high privilege nonetheless, I built my reflections on his life around an acrostic I created using his first name, which he spelled with a K, K-L-A-U-D-E.  I had the letter “U” stand for the word “unfinished.”  His life was both unfinished and incomplete.  The ellipsis appeared for him at the end of the fifth or sixth chapter of life, no where near what should have been an ending for a complete novel except, perhaps, for a few closing words.
In 1823, the Graz (Austria) Music Society gave the great composer Franz Schubert an honorary diploma. He felt his expression of gratitude should be dedicate a symphony to the Music Society so that’s what he did.  He sent the score of the dedicatory piece, which he’d written a year earlier, to his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner.  Everything may well have been in perfect order with the score when initially sent, or perhaps a part of it was missing from the beginning.  Musicologists tell us that what exists today are the first two movements, complete in every way, and then a scherzo–well, part of a scherzo,
the first two complete pages of a scherzo–typically the third movement of a symphony so I’ve been told–but with the rest of that movement written only for a piano and with a segment of the piano part missing.  There is no fourth movement at all, which Schubert’s contemporaries would have expected as finale.  Either he never attempted to complete it, or, as some suspect who have studied the physical manuscript itself pages, were torn out after the third movement, such as it was.
If the symphony came into the hands of Hüttenbrenner in complete form, music historians and others are shocked that Schubert’s friend didn’t arrange for a performance of the piece right away, but he didn’t.  Schubert only lived five years after Hüttenbrenner received the score.  Was he waiting for the missing parts, which for unknown reasons the great composer never got around to finishing?  How could he keep quiet about having an original Schubert composition in hand?  No one knows.
Then Hüttenbrenner waited another 37 years until he began to think about his own departure from this world before a breathed a word about the score to anyone.  When he was 76, three years before his death, he finally showed the score to someone, to a conductor to whom he was partial, Johann von Herbeck, and Herbeck conducted for the public the two complete movements, one and two, near Christmas of 1865 in Vienna.  He chose a final movement from another of Schubert’s symphonies to complete the performance.
I’m sure you’ve heard the name of this musical composition by Schubert.  Some call it his Symphony Number 8, others Number 7.  Most call it “The Unfinished Symphony.”

II.
In 1505 Michelangelo, great painter and sculptor, was invited to Rome for an audience with by the newly elected pope, Pope Julius II.  The reason for the conversation was to discuss the need for a tomb for Julius even though he wasn’t ill or of an advanced age.  He did, however, want grandeur to characterize his final resting place so he realized that this could take a considerable amount of time.  I think we can safely call this “being prepared.”  Both men liked what they heard, and the great Michelangelo was officially commissioned to build the Pope’s tomb. He wasn’t asked to do the job for charity, as a freebie, I mean.  The Pope intended to pay.  It’s odd that, with such an honorable challenge and steady pay to boot, Michelangelo constantly interrupted his work on the tomb to take on less important tasks; maybe he needed the extra income.  Who knows?  Anyway, because of these incessant  interruptions, Michelangelo tinkered on the tomb for some 40 years, slowly kinda sorta finishing one sculpture and then another to please Pope Julius.  The most celebrated of Michelangelo’s sculptures beautifying the tomb was the one of Moses.  Pope Julius was buried in an unfinished tomb, even though he’d waited a long time for it to be finished.  The tomb, grand as intended, was never finished to Michelangelo’s satisfaction.  Those who don’t know the background of the work may not recognize it as unfinished, but in its creator’s eyes it was just that, unfinished.  I don’t know what finishing touches he thought he needed, but that’s what he thought.
Watercolorist Elizabeth Shoumatoff was selected to paint the official portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt near the end of his third term of service to the nation.  Her painting was in progress when FDR suddenly collapsed and subsequently died.  Taking a break from sitting for the portrait so that he could have lunch, he mentioned to his aides that he had a terrible headache.  That headache was a sign of the oncoming cerebral hemorrhage that took his life, later that very day–April 12, 1945.  Ms. Shoumatoff never finished that particular portrait; I’m sure there were numerous reasons why, but it’s hanging today in what came to be called “the Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt’s favorite place for R and R.  It’s a fascinating part of her artistic impulse and maybe her sense of history that prompted her to paint another portrait of President Roosevelt in honor of him.  Artists who know about her project say that she painted the second painting from memory–no photographs or sketches of the President or the initial painting.  They say that the gifted Shoumatoff managed to paint the second one in such a way that it was almost identical to the first one.  There was one intentional difference.  Roosevelt wore a red tie when he sat for his portrait, and that is what you see in the unfinished portrait.  In the second one, the artist intentionally changed the color of his tie to blue.  It too is hanging in the Little White House in Georgia, right beside the unfinished one.
No one can deny, surely no one would try, that Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain, was a prolific writer.  The last novel he attempted, however, was never finished.  It had a title, The Mysterious Friend, and he worked on it the last twenty years of his life, but again it was never finished.  The same kind of thing had happened to Charles Dickens whose unfinished novel had the same first two words as did Twain’s effort:  The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  There was enough of Twain’s novel for interested parties to know that he was trying to deal thematically with morality as seen or not in, his words, the “damned human race.”
A British mathematician and inventor by the name of Charles Babbage designed in the 1820’s the first fully automated calculator.  Not for the desk of a bookkeeper or an accountant, this device, which Babbage called “the Difference Engine,” was supposed to be as large as a train’s engine and operate by steam.  He almost finished his design, but he was never able to see it built for hosts of reasons, the major one being the lack of funding.  Sad for Babbage; however, to honor his brilliance and his inventiveness, British engineers and mathematicians built a Difference Engine in 1991, the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth.  They used only materials and methods that would have been available to Babbage, and it worked.  You can see it the next time you’re in London; it’s kept in the city’s Science Museum.
President Lyndon Johnson, almost fifty years ago in his State of the Union address, declared a war on poverty.   It is disappointing that such a noble cause was hampered by political jealousies.  Evidently, there was fierce competition between President Johnson and Robert Kennedy, his late brother’s attorney general who stayed on board for a few months after Johnson moved into the Oval Office.  The tension between them didn’t, however, stop after Kennedy resigned to run for office.  Johnson seemed to be trying to take the credit for thinking of the need for a war on poverty, but Attorney General Kennedy had done that.  One historian described what was going on in this way:
“Johnson and Kennedy cared more about black poverty than did any other major politicians of the twentieth century, but they disliked and mistrusted each other so much that they were incapable of cooperating on the cause that was closest to both their hearts. Because the two men could not reconcile their ideas, the War on Poverty became an untenable combination of Kennedy’s love for the rebellious moral crusade and Johnson’s for the grandiose political gesture.”
So, the War on Poverty remained unfinished under the influence of these two powerful political figures, and it remains unfinished yet today.
I enjoy noticing wordless expressions of love between two people who are deeply in love–the young lovers and those who have been in love so long with another person that the loving is as much a part of their lives as breathing.  I’ve seen it in the eyes of those taking vows to formalize their life commitment to each other–at a wedding or a civil union.  I’ve seen it when a face lights up one’s true love returns, after only a day away.  I’ve seen it in a lingering embrace as one sends her or his beloved off to war with all the uncertainty that boggles the mind at such moments.  I’ve seen it in the kiss of one sending her or his soulmate just down a hallway to a surgical suite.  And though he couldn’t tell me, using the language of love, how much he loved Betty at the receiving of friends that evening, he said it all this way:  “David, fifty-five years just weren’t enough.”
III.
So, it seems that Buttrick was right–not that I ever doubted my mentor.  Few of us tie up all the loose ends of life, even if our years on this earth are long.  Countless tasks remain unfinished.  Who knows how many messages are never delivered?  Even those people with the foresight and courage to make bucket lists and who live to check off every item on the list still have more they would’ve done had they had the time, the knowhow, the grit, the patience.  Living a complete life doesn’t mean that we are able to cram in every thing we might have dreamed of or expected of ourselves.
Paul with the help of his protege Timothy is writing to the whole congregation of the Church at Philippi, the congregation–among several–closest to Paul’s heart.  There was a genuine love, each for the other; and not just everyone was able to love Paul, curmudgeon and self-proclaimed apostle.
“Paul and Timothy, servants of the Anointed One, Jesus, To all the saints of the Anointed One who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:  Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesuss.  I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Nearing the end of his ministry, Paul still had a sense that Jesus, having died a physical death but very much alive in God’s realm, would one day reappear on the earth to close this chapter of human history.  At the beginning of his ministry, several years before he wrote the letter to the Church at Philippi, Paul was one of those who thought Jesus was about to reappear at any second, every second.  He had had to modify his attitudes and his teaching to mesh with the reality that in all the years since he began spreading the good news about Jesus’ ministry and message this pivotal event hadn’t happened.  Even so, Paul believed it would still come to pass at some point, and he just couldn’t make himself believe it could be much longer.  Well, it was!  Nonetheless, he used that event as the marker by which time you’d hoped to have done all you wanted to do, while there was still time.  This is what he meant when he said to the members of the Philippian Church:  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s conviction was that God Godself had brought them together as a church and given them their unique work to do.  Not every church was or is supposed to have absolutely identical ministries–just as not everyone in the church should have the same abilities or responsibilities.  The Philippians who initially received this letter from Paul and Timothy were living in tense times.  It was several years before Rome would destroy the Jews’ most sacred possession, the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, creating thereby the sense that the whole Jesus movement could be wiped out.  The destruction of the Temple took place in the year 70; eight to ten years ahead of that the tension between Rome and the Jews wasn’t at a boiling point, but foundations for such explosive tension were in place.  Though Rome’s frustration lay mostly with followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Antioch, a great distance from Philippi, the Philippians didn’t hold out much hope that if the key leaders were immobilized that they, a struggling baby congregation, could last.
Even so, they held fast to their ministry and mission.  They were a congregation who displayed persistence, commitment enough to die for the causes in which they believed, and joy in the face of adversity.  That is the context in which he encouraged them:  “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
In other words, if Rome closes you down or if Jesus reappears and brings history as we have known it to a close, the good work, which was begun in you by God Godself, will be completed.
Now, “completed” has to have meant something more than getting every single thing done just the way you’d idealized things.  A life or a mission can still be considered complete even if all the loose ends don’t get tied up before your efforts must cease for whatever reason.  If I have done my best to live out my calling using the talents I have found in me, if you have done your best to live out your calling using the talents you have found in you, if a church, our church, has done its best to live out its calling using the talents we have found in our community, then unfinished business or an ellipsis at the end will not mean we have failed and will not mean we have neglected our responsibilities.  Failure or incompletion signify that we gave up when we didn’t have to.  Failure or a job poorly done signify that we let adversity become our master.  Failure or a wasted life signify that we forgot or ignored the love, and God is love, that sent us out to make love real in easy places and unlikely places and impossible places. “I am confident that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.”
We should expect in a life fully lived, even by those most gifted at the art of living, that there will be more to do than can be crammed into one lifetime; thus ellipses at the end for all who are fully invested and fully engaged in accomplishing what their abilities empower them to accomplish is probably to be expected.  Unfinished business isn’t a bad thing, and only a Pharisee, which Paul had been before his conversion, could imagine that he had accomplished all God would expect (if God had expectations the way we humans do) in the first few years of adulthood.  The Pharisee croaked at the notion of unfinished business at the end of earthly life; his life was a life of keeping rules, which he did daily, so if he should not awaken the next morning there would have been nothing left undone.
Those of us who exist in a messier world where elaborate rules can’t establish or anticipate what we might have to do today or this month or this year in order to live out love and where a Pharisee would convulse at the absence of hard or workable parameters, we know we can’t get it all done.  We can’t assure justice for all, but we have to try.  Can we win the War on Poverty?  Evidence suggests that many of us don’t want to try, but those of us who would be happy just to win a few battles in that war can’t throw up our hands and ignore the poor.
Paul was at peace when he looked back over his checkered past and his life of serving others that followed.  There were mistakes he’d made that he couldn’t correct.  There were good people he had alienated whom he could never win back.  There were flaws in almost all the churches he’d had a part in founding and advising, but he rightly, I think, believed that the commendation he gave the Philippians applied to himself as well.  The work that God had begun in him, as unworthy as he felt to serve in God’s name, would still be completed–messes and tasks undone notwithstanding.
If Love has begun a good work in us, then Love will see us through.  Unfinished business, an ellipsis, might just be the only indication that we have done our best.
Amen.

Pontius Pilate and How to Forgive Yourself When You Have Ordered That an Innocent Person Be Executed (7th sermon in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

 

 

I.
What is it like for one human being to hold the life of another human being in her or his hand?  That’s a sobering thought for most young parents transporting their newborn home from the hospital to take care of that precious bundle of life on their own–without the presence of nurses and doctors and aids to help them make sure the baby is OK around the clock, completely in every way.  It’s scary.  You can read all those self help books on parenting you can get your hands on including DUMBING DOWN PARENTING FOR IDIOTS, but nothing can prepare you for the real responsibility of holding your beautiful little baby on your forearm–so fragile in so many ways.  One substantive error could prove dangerous, to say the least.
Medical professionals perhaps more than any of the rest of us know what it’s like to hold the life of a person in hand.  The physician inserts the breathing tube, and the respiratory therapist turns on the respirator; sometimes family members are asked to sign papers so that the respiratory therapist can legally stop artificial breathing support.  What’s coming, everyone knows.  Either the patient breathes on her own his own and makes it or cannot breathe on her or his own soon to depart this life.
Years ago long before I came to Wilmington, I had sinus surgery–rhinoplasty, to be precise; and on the morning of my surgery (and by the way this is the only surgery I’ve ever had) the ENT surgeon came into the pre-surgical holding area bright and early to find me sitting with my kids who were probably 10 and 12 and my parents who’d driven up to Baltimore from Tennessee to take of me post-surgically.  So, there was Dr. Papel, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and he asked sincerely and politely, “How are you this morning?”
I responded by saying, “The answer to that question is nearly immaterial.  The most vital question is:  how are YOU this morning?  Do you feel well?  Are you hands steady?  Did you have a happy beginning to your day and a trouble-free drive to the hospital?  Did you and your spouse part on positive terms?  Children were getting ready for school without causing you grief?  Overall, are your physical and emotional states in the A or A+ categories?  And I’d like to ask the same questions of the anesthesiologist.”
He smiled and said, “Reverend, you’re one of my most unusual patients.  Only the best for you, sir.  I’m going to roto-rooter those nasal passages and sinus cavities, and we’ll have you in the recovery room in no time.”
“What’s the rush?” I asked.
“See you in the OR, Reverend.”  At that point the nurse pops in to get a signature that says if you summarize those several pages, “You agree that if the surgeon or the anesthesiologist or any member of the medical staff makes an error seeming to cause your malfunctioning or your death, they can’t be held responsible because everyone who works here always tries to do her or his best.”  It’s an odd series of papers to sign and hardly comforting as you prepare to put your life in the hand of one or more of these medical professionals.  “Vulnerability” is the operative word!
Outside the hospital, paramedics in much more complicated situations and locations also hold the life of a human being in their hands–immediately after a car accident or in response to a dangerous health incident in the home.  The paramedics are the ones who are there quickly on the scene to administer all the life giving techniques possible, and many lives are saved that otherwise wouldn’t be.
Similarly, firefighters willingly, knowingly, courageously walk or climb into blazing buildings for one reason alone.  They are there under tremendous risk to save lives or only one life.  Finding a victim who has not yet succumbed to the smoke and the flames, a firefighter will often hold the life of a fellow human being in her or his hand.
There are a number of people who regularly take classes in lifesaving just in case, just-in-case there’s ever a need for her or him to use those skills.  This reveals a very high view of human life, worth living beyond an accident or a negative health incident.
In a much longer term way, an excellent therapist has countless times held someone’s physical life in her or his hand, and whether or not that client’s life continues depends to some degree on the work the therapist is able to do with her or him on mental and emotional health improvement.  Who knows how many people are walking around in this realm today because of the profound concern of an insightful counselor who values human life and who talked and listened and suggested until the person finally saw the ray of hope deep down inside somewhere that kept her or him wanting to live.
I knew of a preacher early in my pastoral ministry who got an anonymous note from somebody who’d heard his sermon the previous week, and the note said something to this effect:  “I had planned for this Sunday to be my last trip to church–not just your church but any church. In fact, I had planned for my church visit this week to be my last visit anywhere. I came to church to try to close out some things within myself and with God if I possibly could because I fully intended on Sunday afternoon to take my own life. But I heard your sermon; at first I was only half listening. I heard your sermon, though, and that is why I am here today why. I have no clue exactly what it was you said, but as a result I believed that I could productively press on.”
Astounding American preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, is the Episcopal rector who became famous for writing a book about leaving the church, which she did–at least for a time.  She is now professor of Philosophy and Religion at Piedmont College in south Georgia and a part-time seminary professor at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, where she coordinates a Doctor of Ministry program in spirituality.  She has preaching responsibilities again, this time at a small church, which is as much, I believe I’ve heard her say, as she ever plans to take on again.  The little church is typically full every Sunday of the year–mostly because of her preaching.  She has been named several times, by groups who compile such lists, as one of the ten greatest preachers in this country or one of the ten greatest preachers who preach in the English language.  In talking to students about the importance of preaching she said once sermon time is no time to waste time. The sermon is not for dealing with insignificant matters just to fill time or to impress the congregation.  Taylor said that in the small group to whom she preaches every week–half of which are probably visitors who have driven or been bussed in to try to get a seat in the small church so that they might hear for themselves one of the ten greatest preachers in our time.  She has told her students and her sister and brother preachers that she estimates in a congregation that small, there are ten people facing death.  For some, death is at hand.  For others, there’s no immanence to it, but they’ve received a diagnosis with a minimum and a maximum number of years remaining attached to it.  She believes that part of the preacher’s task is to give these people, especially these, sparks of reasons to love life until the very end.  In a real sense, then, their lives are in the preacher’s hand.

II.
Not all who hold a life in hand treat it with care in the hopes of preserving it.  Alois Brunner was Eichmann’s secretary in Vienna when Jews first began being sent to death camps. It was Brunner’s job to register Austrian Jews and then arrange to deport them to the east where the first death camps had been built.
He was so good at what he did that he was transferred to Berlin to register Jews there and arrange for their deportation, again to the death camps. How many deaths he had a hand in I suppose no one knows, even himself.  He still realized, however, that what he did in the eyes of most people around the world was both criminal and subhuman. That held no sway with him; in his mind he did exactly what he should have done. After the war he changed his name to Alois Schmaldienst, and he lived in Essen.  In 1954 he was sentenced to death in absentia by a French court where he had also done some work during Hitler’s reign of terror.  At this point he fled to Damascus, Syria, where he was granted complete asylum living under the assumed name of Dr. Gregor Fischer.  In Damascus, Brunner lost an eye and a few fingers as a result of a mail bomb sent to him by the Mossad, the Israeli secret police.
The Chicago Sun Times reported in a 1987 article detailing the results of a telephone interview with Alois Brunner, aka Dr. Gregor Fischer, and he was quoted by the reporter as having said this: “The Jews deserved to die. I have no regrets. If I had the chance I would do it again.”
Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remains an ardent proponent of the death penalty despite the increasing numbers of discoveries that innocent people have been put death.  He says that the machinery of death, his phrase, operates in an accurate and effective manner.  He insists, despite what one source calls an inundation of fresh news stories of wrongful capital convictions, that capital cases are given especially close scrutiny at every level. In a 2006 or 2008 opinion written by Justice Scalia, a legal scholar says that Antonin Scalia is so eager to defend America’s currently indefensible capital punishment statutes that he is willing to ridicule his most senior colleague on the Supreme Court.  He insists that evidence of wrongful convictions are exaggerated and that there is ample evidence that the system works and has the backing of a Constitution that permits the death penalty even if it is poorly or unfairly or inaccurately carried out.
A young woman by the name of Melissa Harrington who was 27 years old back in 2008 when she, under the influence, hit a bicyclist with her vehicle and killed him.  By getting behind the wheel under the influence, she made the choice that her alcohol consumption was more important than the lives of those who would be driving and walking and running near her as she sort of drove home.  A month or so after the incident, she was in jail, and she talked to a friend on the telephone; the jail’s policy was to record all telephone conversations in which prisoners were involved.  The male friend with whom she was speaking told her not to feel bad about what had happened, that she should be given a medal instead of a jail term.  With one little swerve, she had killed a Frenchman and a gay guy all in one.  She laughed.  The prison officials carried a tape of the conversation to the judge who upped her sentence from about five years to the near maximum she could be given in Arizona, ten and a half years.  In explaining his actions, the judge called Harrington’s laughter breathtaking in its diminishment of humanity.
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas by lethal injection in 2004. There was concern by defense attorneys and others at the time about the validity of the investigation.  There was a fire at the Willingham home; his wife was away.  He escaped with burns and bruises; their daughters died in the inferno.  Investigators said there was clear evidence of arson, and on the basis of that Willingham was found guilty and sentenced to death.  Governor Rick Perry refused to stay the execution.  Concerns about holes in the prosecution’s case and especially the conclusion of investigators that Willingham had set fire to his own home in order to kill his daughters, left many of those close to the case with significant doubts.  A commission was appointed to reinvestigate, and one of the first issues to be raised was that there was no where near enough evidence to prove that the fire was caused by arson.  If this were true, judge and jury and governor had sent an innocent man to his death.  Perry replaced three members of the commission with three of his plants, but even they had to agree that there was no convincing evidence of arson.  Willingham had been unjustly executed.

bIII.
May 1981. St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. An assassin attempts to kill the Pope, Pope John Paul II. In a Time magazine article reflecting back on that frightening moment for many citizens of the world, a writer says, “Ordinarily the spasm of savagery simply passes and recedes in time, an ugly, vivid memory.”   What we had seen in the spring of ’81 speeding across our television screens time and time again was the attempted murder and its aftermath.  We heard the shot, and then the Pope fell backwards in the Popemobile, blood spattering his white robes.  Security personnel and medical professionals jumped into action, and the Popemobile disappeared.  No one knew whether his eminence would live with full recovery, live with permanent impairment, or die.  About three years later, John Paul II showed up at the jail cell of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ah Agca.  He spent about twenty minutes with the man who had wanted him dead; he held the prisoner’s hand offering physical pastoral comfort.  The Pope forgave him for what he had tried to do, and the two men became reconciled to each other in an unbelievable drama–beyond the comprehension of many of us.  Referring again to the reflective Time magazine article:  “On one level, it was an intensely intimate transaction between two men. But if the Pope spoke in whispers, he also meant to proclaim a message to the world….He wanted the image in that cell to be shown around a world filled with nuclear arsenals and unforgiving hatreds, with hostile superpowers and smaller implacable fanaticisms.”
We can assume with accuracy that the life for the man who dared to try to kill the Pope, if he were permitted to live in the long run, would have been no life at all.  In a real sense, therefore, the Pope held this man’s life in his hand, and in the hand of the Bishop of Rome, a would-be assassin’s life was renewed and restored.  Had the Pope not gone to meet the one who had been willing to kill him, there would have been no criticism of the Pope.  I can’t help hearing the words of Jesus wafting down from his cross, prayer words:  “God, please forgive these Roman executioners; they don’t understand what they are doing.”
Much closer to us and much more recently, a crazed truck driver, a milk delivery driver in Amish areas without their own dairy cows, drove up to an Amish school for girls, said he was still angry and hurting about something that happened twenty years ago, and then Charles Roberts shot several of the girls execution style before killing himself.  Three of these young women, part of one of the most pacifist religious groups in the world, died almost immediately and two others at area hospitals a few hours later.  Five others were critically wounded, but I think all of them have recovered physically.
He wasn’t around, obviously, to have to take responsibility for what he did or to receive forgiveness from a community of grace that amazed the world.  About a year after the terrifying murders of mere children, the Amish community of which the parents and families of the those girls is associated donated money to the killer’s widow and her three young children.  Signs of forgiveness, however, began almost immediately and weren’t held off until the financial gift a year after the fact.  Sociologist Donald Kraybill commented in his book, Amish Grace:  How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, “I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when members of the Amish community went to the killer’s burial service at the cemetery.  Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before, were in attendance and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family.”  Of all things, those who had lost the most were extending a life-giving hand to the violent man’s family whom society at large might have written off as reminders of the carnage.  The Amish couldn’t have done what they did for the family of Charles Roberts had they not first forgiven him and renewed their view of the value of life.
Pontius Pilate was not the big boss. As we look back on the story with which many of us are familiar, we tend to think that he was the big boss, but no.  Pilate worked for the Roman emperor who at the time was Tiberius Caesar, and everything that Pilate did had to meet with the approval of Tiberius.  Keep this in mind as we look at this familiar story with a different angle today, with an angle that will show us how Pilate behaved politically.
Pilate did not like the Jewish people. He considered his assignment from the emperor a kind of punishment or a kind of indication that he wasn’t suitable for more responsible opportunities. So when he had to give his undivided attention to matters Jewish such as at the large festivals when thousands of Jews gathered from all over that part of the world to commemorate their heritage and define who they were to the world as well as to their offspring.  Pilate had to be close at hand to be certain that nothing went wrong. What the Emperor most feared in terms of something that could’ve gone wrong was an uprising that would’ve mandated the involvement of the Roman legions to fight the people back into submission; he did not want that call.  If Pilate didn’t stay on top of things and some such event occurred then once the uprising was calmed Pilate would’ve been called to the headquarters of Tiberius back in Rome and chewed out, maybe demoted, maybe relieved of all duties in service to the Emperor. There was a lot at stake professionally and politically for Pilate in this event, which happened to be revolved around the Jewish Passover Feast, a time when they reminded themselves, annually, what it took to get them released from Egyptian slavery and out into the wilderness on their way to a freedom they eventually weren’t sure they wanted.  Another story.
As has been made clear to us in fairly recent years by diligent Jesus scholars, the story of how Pilate came to give approval to Jesus’ execution has been tweaked beyond recognition by those who offered interpretations without studying anything of what we know of Pilate outside of scripture and what can be known about the culture in which he ruled over the Jews on behalf of the Emperor of the mighty Roman Empire.  Be sure you understand these two facts:  1) There weren’t hoards of Jews screaming in Pilate’s face, demanding that he crucify Jesus.  That would have felt like an uprising to Pilate, and he’d have called armies assigned to serve him while he presided over the Passover celebration ordering them to mow down these unruly Jews.  Another reason we can know it wasn’t a large group is that there weren’t hoards of Jews who wanted Rome to kill any Jew, regardless of what her or his offense might have been.  It is a fact, though, that officially the death penalty could not be pronounced by any Jew; only the Emperor or the Emperor’s representative had that power.  2) The Jews pressing Pilate to crucify Jesus were speaking to him in a spirit of collaboration though their voices might well have gotten louder when they were stressing that Barabbas should go free while Jesus should be crucified.  Interesting tidbit here from New Testament scholar, William Blevins.  Barabbas was a last name, not a first name.  In Hebrew, and I gather also in Aramaic, the three letters “bar” meant son or son of.   Barabbas, thus, meant son of Abbas.  Blevins thinks his first name also was Jesus, actually Yeshua.  Jesus or Yeshua Barabbas.  Which Jesus would be crucified?  Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Barjoseph?  The Jews negotiating with Pilate said that Barabbas was a troublemaker but not quite the insurrectionist Jesus was; they were sad to have to say it of one of their own, they lied, but Barjoseph was the greatest threat to continued happy associations between Romans and Jews.
Pilate disagreed, but he went with the flow.  Some say that his wife sympathized with Jesus and pressed him not to have Jesus executed.  In the end, for Pilate, no one Jew was more worthwhile than another.  Knowing that Jesus did have some seriously devoted followers, he publicly washes his hands in a little ritual to say, according to his interpretation, that he wasn’t responsible for Jesus’ death.  Self-absolution.  He ordered the death of a man he knew in his heart to be innocent, and he said so openly, “I find no fault in him.  Wish I could, but I just can’t.”  After that, he immediately forgave himself and went on with his day.  “Another dead trouble-making Jew.  You’d think those people would learn.”
In Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Pilate has a solo in the midst of all this tension and pressure.  Weber has him seeing much of what has been reported as historic instead in a dream.

 

I dreamed I met a Galilean
A most amazing man
He had that look
You very rarely find
The haunting hunted kind

I asked him
To say what had happened
How it all began
I asked again
He never said a word
As if he hadn’t heard

And next the room was full
Of wild and angry men
They seemed to hate this man
They fell on him and then disappeared

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man
And then I heard them mentioning my name
And leaving me the blame

 

The story could have gone completely differently, easily.  Pilate could have said, “There’s no way I’m voting against my conscience.  I’ve done that too much in my life.  I’d like to get it right at least once so let me have the courage to stand up to whomever may oppose me and say for reason of conscience alone, I allowed the man who deserved to live to keep on living.  There’s nothing more to it than that.  I won’t be guilty of putting one more innocent person to death.”  That would have been amazing as an ending to the story; history might have been changed based on Pilate’s courage.  As you know, that wasn’t the case.  Instead, Pilate said, “Kill him if you like.  Why should I care.  Bring a bowl of water.  See, here!  I’m washing my hands of the whole thing so no one can fault me.”
Is that all it takes to relieve oneself of the burden of having taken an innocent life, Mr. S.S. Secretary, Mr. Governor, Mr. Justice, Ms. Laughing Prisoner, Mr. President and Madame Secretary of Defense?  If so, for many politicians and plenty of their constituents, life surely is cheap, isn’t it?

David and Bathsheba, Bill and Monica: A Seperate Set of Morals for Power People? (part 6 in sermon series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

 

 

I.
Certainly not to the same degree that little Roman Catholic girls and boys think of their priests as virtually divine, we thought of our pastors and visiting preachers at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads as nearly divine. Pastors were almost as close to God as almost any human being could ever hope to be; the only people who were closer to divinity than preachers of the gospel were missionaries.
When I became committed at the age of 14 to a life of preaching and ministry, not really having very much understanding at all about what that might mean and would mean, I assumed that I could not live the typical adolescent life as it was often lived in Halls Crossroads. This meant no cursing. It meant no getting drunk under the bleachers after the football games. It certainly meant no hanky-panky with dates; now my parents had already told me in great detail about the no hanky-panky part of teen life. It was stunning to find the number of mothers who wanted me to date their daughters because they, the mothers, were sure that in my company their daughters, who often preferred to be out with someone else such as one of the school’s star athletes, would be safe and secure from all alarm, as it were.
I was stunned when I arrived at my little church-related liberal arts college and found that some of the preacher boys (we did, surprisingly, have some preacher girls at the time, but they were not guilty of this) some of the preacher boys drank alcohol, maybe not enough to get drunk. I’d been taught in my church that even a drop was evil and, therefore, wrong to drink by anyone–especially clergy and clergy-to-be so I was stunned. I was also surprised that as terms passed, couples kind of formed, and there seems to have been, even with some of the pious religion majors, the possibility of hanky panky before marriage.
Now I can’t say for sure that such encounters took place because, thank goodness, I was never an eyewitness to any such event, but I, as others, had impressions, and I, as others, picked up on hints here and there. Even though it was a church-related college with a high number of students very devoted to the church and majoring in numerous fields other than religion, it was abundantly clear that the highest moral standards on campus were reserved for those who indicated that they probably would be going into the ministry for a profession and, thus, probably were majoring in religion. At the end of those four amazing years, great years in my life, I, as a preacher boy, may not have met the expectations of everyone on campus who watched for such things, but I have to tell you I came out pretty squeaky clean.
In seminary it was more of the same except the intensity surrounding moral standards was greater. Why would I say that? Well, nearly everybody on campus was going into some kind of ministry–either the preaching ministry or the music ministry or the ministry of Christian education or the ministry of Christian social work. Among us all, who had the highest moral standards to uphold? Those students who wanted to be involved regularly with hanky panky could get married; they were old enough, and there was sufficient financial aid back in those days to allow for couples who desired to get married before seminary graduation to do so. After all, didn’t the Apostle Paul himself insist that it was better to get married than to “burn,” meaning to be excessively lustful? Well yes, of course. How could a seminarian not take the advice of Paul?
It got juicier. Someday there will be a reality show titled “Seminary.” Rumors floated around about the possibility of gay students on our campus, and the presumption was that they were finding ample opportunities to become involved in sexual activities on the “sacred” campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Even back in the late 70’s, I thought it wasn’t anybody’s business what gay students were doing if they were doing anything at all, but I did find out by the time I joined the faculty many years after my initial arrival there that one of the staff people who had the title Seminary Chaplain had as his secondary job, his nonpublic job, the task of sniffing out gay students so they could be properly reported, reprimanded, and expelled while being told that they would have to change their sexual orientation if they ever intended to do anything in ministry. If they changed–as if they could, they were asked to complete their seminary studies elsewhere, essentially never to return to the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When students like these were expelled, some gay and some falsely charged, they simply disappeared, quickly without explanation; without warning suddenly one or more of your friends were gone. The assumption was clear, though Southern was one of the most liberal seminaries in the country in those days–certainly not today: gay was synonymous with immorality, and blatantly immoral persons were unfit to serve in ministry.
Back in those days the American Psychiatric Association was just beginning to speak out and say that homosexuality was something other than a curable disease or disorder. I don’t know how many years passed before mental health professionals, those who were free from fundamentalist Christian bias, would say with confidence that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice, that people don’t decide to be gay or straight. In almost all cases, genetics made the determination.
Just a few weeks ago, highly regarded televangelist Joel Osteen–and I don’t mean highly regarded by me–was interviewed on CNN by Soledad O’Brien, and the subject of homosexuality came up. Since Osteen, who puts down very few people, has been known to slam, in his sweet way, lesbians and gays, the line of discussion was not inappropriate. Reiterating his position that homosexuality is sinful, Osteen was asked if he chose to be straight. He said, “No. Being straight is a natural part of who I am.” One respondent wondered how long it would take Osteen to be enlightened by his own words.
Since today’s sermon has much to do with moral standards, I think it’s important to point out that someone’s sexuality is not a matter of morality or immorality. That is not the umbrella under which it is to be considered or discussed. There are immoral straight people, and there are immoral gay/lesbian people; there are highly moral straight people and highly moral gay/lesbian people. Surely, it is self-evident by this point to people who read only news summaries that there’s no choice in the matter.

II.
Two things here. One, everyone who considers herself or himself a follower of Jesus has the same expectations for moral behavior as any other follower of Jesus. The clergy must not be expected to be more pious than lay people, non-clergy types. It is a false dichotomy to try to hold clergy to a different set of moral responsibilities than non-clergypersons. Two, Jesus who could have claimed moral superiority over every one of his contemporaries instead said, “My place is with those people almost everyone else hates. My place is with those people that almost everyone else thinks they’re too good to be with: fishermen who stink because they can never quite get the smell of their profession washed off, tanners who are never quite able to wash all the animal blood off their hands; prostitutes whom so many people believe they can look down on, and tax collectors–turncoat traitors. How could Jesus be so caring and affirming? When he waded out into the Jordan River with his cousin John the Baptist, he said to John, “Baptize me.”
 John said, “Your morality is exemplary. There’s no need to baptize you; nothing about you needs to be fixed. I can’t baptize you because as hard as I try my morality pales in comparison to yours so I am not worthy to guide you through this ritual.”
Jesus said to John in a conversation I imagine, “Morality isn’t a contest. You’re an amazingly moral person, and you’ve inspired me since we were boys. I want you to baptize me so that I can have the privilege of saying to myself and to the world as it were that I am committed to morality but not to what the Pharisees call morality–wearing fancy synagogue clothing and bragging at religious gatherings about how good they are and how frequently as well as how powerfully they pray. Measure my piety in terms of how well I do ministering to those people who need me, people who have no one else to whom they can turn for help of whatever type. Measure my piety based on a morality that drives me day by day to find the people most likely to believe that they are Godforsaken and out of the reach of God’s love.”
There are those who believe that morality for them is keeping an eye on who sips or gulps too much from the wineskins or making sure that they will not come into contact with anyone who has ever been accused any kind of sexual misconduct. We don’t keep moral standards to gain the praise and admiration of other people; neither do we maintain high moral standards to impress God; rather, we keep high moral standards because it is the most respectful way for us to treat others as well as ourselves, and it is the strongest foundation for any community, local or worldwide.
Poor President Carter; he suffered greatly because of condemning arrows shot his way for giving an interview to Playboy magazine and confessing to the interviewer that, yes, he himself–faithful Christian Sunday School teacher, backbone leader then in the Plains [Georgia] Baptist Church, husband of the beautiful Roslyn Carter–had been guilty of thinking lustful thoughts in his heart about other women. From what I heard about the article (of course, I never actually saw the article since it was published in Playboy magazine) Carter was frank without being in any way crass.
OK. OK. The looks of suspicion on your faces force me to be moral enough to tell you the facts. I did go out and purchase my own copy of Playboy magazine at the ripe old age of 23 while in the employment of my college as an admissions counselor. I knew if I went to the only local store in Jefferson City, Tennessee, that sold such merchandise and if I were recognized by a student or a staff member that I could lose my job. Forget the potential tattle tail in the same store; somehow the person who tells gets a lesser punishment if not a reward. I was determined to read that article, though, so I put on my best simple disguise. I had an oversized hat down over most of my head. I wore huge sunglasses, the kind that fit over prescription glasses you’re already wearing, and I topped it all off with a huge overcoat in very warm weather. I probably looked more than flasher than a naive country boy wanting to read up on the highly moral man who’d had the courage to admit he was less than perfect. I managed to make my purchase and get back to my car unrecognized; now my goal was to get home without having a car wreck, giving the Jefferson County police the opportunity to find the magazine in my possession.
One of the many reasons that a large number of clergy have double lives is that they don’t want their congregants to see them living as they really live. This does not mean that such clergy are immoral; most of them are highly moral. They just know they can’t hold up under the weight of the increasing load of expectations put on their backs by congregants and communities. Don’t be critical of them.
I told you some months ago that we have more and more clergy in this country who claim that they are forced, in order to be able to support themselves and their families financially, to climb into a pulpit week after week only to preach what they don’t believe. I would wish for all my sisters and brothers in the ministry a ministry position where they are free to be who they are in every way.
I don’t think Silverside has two sets of moral expectations–one set for clergy and another set for non-clergy. For that I am most grateful. It is a gift for someone in a leadership role to be given by her or his constituents the freedom to be the real person he or she is and, with that, the freedom to make a mistake and to correct it, the freedom to be real and the freedom to be human. Thank you.
Some politicians are also held to a higher moral standard by their constituents than the constituents expect of themselves. As with clergy so with politicians at times–we have the same way of coping: a public life and a private life except that thanks to the press there’s very little private life left for anyone in public service or otherwise in the public eye. That’s atrocious. Having said that, however, I have to say that I do believe certain responsibilities carry with them a standard of minimally acceptable moral behavior along with some consistency between public life and private life. An example would be the school teacher who could rally for the safety and well being of children all day at school while lurking in the darkness after school in search of a child to molest.

III.
We want our ranking political leaders to have a collection of moral commitments and behaviors so that they will live before us and the world as respectable human beings. The President of United States should not be having an affair with a White House intern even though nothing about the relationship itself was illegal; it was distasteful because of the circumstances in which it was lived out. A President and a White House intern shouldn’t be engaged in hanky panky, even though President Clinton said there was hanky but no panky. I think we, his constituents, had the right to say, “Oh, how inappropriate,” but not, “He’s a reprobate who needs to be drop kicked back to Arkansas.” Only Mrs. Clinton, I think, had the right to say, “Intolerable and unacceptable for a husband.” I don’t think his inappropriate choices diminished his ability to be a leader just as the same kinds of activities failed to negate the contributions of other occupants of the Oval Office before President Clinton arrived. We can be grateful that the truly moral Kenneth Starr is now the president of Baylor University; Baylor is in great hands.
Much of what I’m talking about today is reflected in the ancient biblical story of King David and his unsavory affair with Bathsheba, beautiful wife of the a ranking officer in King David’s military forces. King David who already had numerous wives as was typical for monarchs in his era and also typical for the common man who could afford more than one wife. According to my Hebrew Scripture Professor in college, Dr. Ben Philbeck, a man could have as many wives as he could provide for and that included any children who came along. So David had eight or so wives along with ten or so concubines, and why he needed to be looking for others no one could explain in polite language.
One day he was standing at the highest point in his palace surveying his grand kingdom when his eyes happened upon a residence not terribly far from the palace where a lovely naked woman, a woman of some means obviously, was being attended to by her female servants, clearly taking a bath on a raised terrace. Normally, it was regarded as a private place; there were only a couple of spots in the city where someone might have seen her up so high. One of those places would have been a higher terrace or porch at the palace. Well, King David began to make it his practice to go to his highest porch about that same time every day and glance over towards the home where this woman, Kate Middleton–I mean, Bathsheba–lived with her husband, Uriah, who happens to have been, as I’ve said, a higher up in King David’s armed forces.
That sacred marital relationship notwithstanding, in time King David called for Bathsheba to come to the palace. That wasn’t exactly the kind of invitation one could decline. So she arrived, and there was royal hanky panky. An affair began. A child was conceived. Bathsheba participated, but it’s hard to be terribly critical of her since saying, “No,” to the King for much of any reason could lead to negative consequences. She did tell David that she still loved her husband.
David didn’t like to hear the word, “No,” and he didn’t like failing to get whatever it was he wanted. He therefore ordered Uriah to fight on the front lines where he would almost certainly be killed, leaving Bathsheba a widow, and that’s exactly what happened. He was now free to marry the late Uriah’s wife.
Scumbag, you say? David, the greatest king in Israel’s history, really? What were his moral standards or lack of same? What some people not the least of whom is brilliant Hebrew Bible scholar Tom McDaniel, one of our own members, says about King David, and I apologize for using Dr. McDaniel’s advanced scholarly language, is that David was a “nut case and a jerk.”
Even so, many Israelites looked back on their history and called David, without a doubt, their greatest King. By the way, a couple of Gospel writers were at pains to show that Jesus was David’s blood descendent since some of the Jews believed that if a deliverer ever came to rescue them once and for all from their oppressors, he would be “of the house and lineage of David.”
Is there a different set of moral standards for political and other power people over against the rank and file citizens of any nation including ours? No, even though a beaten down President Nixon told David Frost in an interview that if the President of United States does it [whatever it is] it’s not illegal.
Well, he found out differently although he certainly wasn’t the only president ever to have crossed the line between the legal and the illegal. Andrew Jackson blatantly ignored federal law when he ordered the military to enter the reservation of the Cherokee Native Americans in north Georgia in order to force them out of their homes and onto a pathway that would eventually lead them to Oklahoma if they lived to make the whole journey. Many didn’t. And because of the hardship and death that filled their days, the Cherokees called the pitiful pathway on which they were forced to walk, “The Trail of Tears.”
If there is a law supposedly applicable to all citizens of the nation then no one is above the law. President Theodore Roosevelt said: “No one is above the law and no one is below it: nor do we ask anyone’s permission when we ask her or him to obey it.” Should someone try to live above the law because of popularity, power, prestige, position then we have a serious moral failing crippling us. If, however, a leader is relentlessly criticized simply because she or he has a different set of moral standards than the critics, we have a completely different matter before us.
Remember that a moral standard or principle is not a law so spending time harpooning Bill Clinton or John Kennedy or any high ranking person in some other culture around the world who failed to live up to the moral standards we set for them is a waste of time and typically is done to make the critic feel better about himself or herself as well as to try to discredit any positive contribution the leader may have made. Victor Hugo wrote: “When individuals try to lift themselves above others, they are dragged down by the mass, either by ridicule or slander.”
Amen.