Pouting Places: Spiritual Spelunking, Don’t Let Your Core Cave!

I.

My neighbor said to me the other day, ”I must be the only one in the neighborhood who cares about keeping things looking good here.”  

I said, “Yeah, you probably are.”

He explained, “I notice you and those Mexicans across the street aren’t too particular about how fast your bring your trash cans in after the trash guys come.”

I responded, “Thank goodness for you.  The `Mexicans’ from the Dominican Republic and and I–we’re so thankful for you, and we’re all the time wondering what in the world Elsmere would do without you.  Keep up the good work.  We’re all depending on you to set the standard for rapid trash can retrieval!”

 

 

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“Pastor,” said my parishioner in Baltimore who was doing everything in her power to keep the church from pulling out of the Southern Baptist Convention, “I think I’m the only one in the church who truly loves this church.”

Responding, having to draw deeply into my well of formal pastoral counselor training in order to say the professional thing, I managed to form these words, “Your love for our church is well attested.”  

“God has told us,” she went on, “that if University Church dissociates with the Southern Baptist Convention, we will have to find another church home.”

“I didn’t realize that God has such vested interest in the Southern Baptist Convention.  How did I miss that in a lifelong association with the Southern Baptists?” I asked her.  [Before anybody gets up and walks out on me, let me clue you in to the fact that I walked out on Southern Baptists shortly after the conversation I’m reporting.  Geez!]

“God has used the Southern Baptist Convention in a mighty way,” she said.

And I said, “Not as much as the Southern Baptists have used God.”  

“Whatever you may think about them, I will never stop supporting them; and if you and the deacons loved the church like I do you’d stop this pullout process right now.  If you don’t, we’re outta here.”

“You’re a core member of this congregation,” I explained, stating the obvious, “and we would all be pained if your family were suddenly not a part of us.  In any case, you will vote at the business meeting like the rest of us, and the count will be taken; and we will live with the results.  Please do keep in mind as you ponder all of this that some of the people who will vote for the withdrawal will be doing so because of their own powerful love for our church.”

As she was departing in a huff, she blurted out, “Like I said, no one loves this church more than I do, even the pastor!”  

I’d been found out. Now everyone would know I was and had been pastoring a bunch of people for whom I felt low levels of love or no love at all.  Maybe one day, I thought to myself, I can learn how to love my church a lot.

 

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Have I ever been guilty of playing the victim?  Let’s keep this professional, and I must confess, yes I have.  I don’t like that I let myself go there, but since I’m pinging others who have I must say in fairness I also have given in to whining–usually not in earshot of too many people.  

In an academic setting or two in which I’ve taught, I’ve sometimes thought, “Am I the only one upholding basic academic standards here?  Yes, I think I must be.”  I didn’t really believe I was the only one; I figured there was one other, probably.  When academia became a branch of big business while students became consumers and deans became division managers, professors–especially part-timers–began to wonder what the price would be of assigning low grades. If you don’t keep the customers happy, what use are you to the business?  

Same thing happened when the age of the mega church dawned.  Mega churches are unashamedly entertainment-based.  There were (and are!) churches who wanted to have mega church memberships and money, but they detested the entertainment model for church.  There is only one place to affix blame in this case–church leadership, the paid folks and the elected lay leadership.  And, yes, I have gone to bed many a night through the years when my church numbers weren’t keeping up with the churches down the street–and that wasn’t always the case–asking myself, “Am I the only one in the crowd who realizes that church growth doesn’t happen because of wishful thinking or because of a dogged determination to avoid thinking about anything other than what made the church grow in the good ole days.”  I think I can safely say that while I’ve been a pastor during the last 28 years of the three best ches any liberal pastor could have served, I’m quite sure that even though the future has always been a concern the vast majority of conversations I’ve had have focussed on the congregation’s long gone hayday.  Poor-pastor me.

The victim mentality is a certain way to prove to oneself and others that we are frozen in the past and generally unable to be free enough of the past to move into an ever-changing, curveball future.  The mega churches grew, thrived, and survived in many places because some folks at the respective helms would not allow the victim mentality related to congregational numeric deline to blind and paralyze them.

II.

Talk about a winner-take-all kind of deal!  A prophetic powers contest was staged in ancient Israel.  On the one side was a group of the most highly regarded prophets of the god, Baal, whom the ancient Hebrews regarded as a figment of his followers’ imaginations though to his devotees he was very much alive.  On the other side, was the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets, Elijah, working (or performing–you might say in this case) solo.  

Elijah won the match, and in his victor’s glory, he ordered that all the prophets of Baal should be slaughtered; and so it was done.  One might well wonder why or how a prophet of God would desire a mass execution of clergy-nemeses, even though such wishes and implementations came to be repeated frequently as history unfolded from Elijah’s point onward.  

A tiny bit of background to set the stage.  The king of Israel at this point in Elijah’s ministry was Ahab.  Many of Ahab’s subjects were displeased with their king for having chosen a wife who not only rejected the God of Israel whom they believed was the one and only deity there was, but also she was the primary benefactress to the Baalite religion.  She–Queen Jezebel–contributed to the upkeep of worship sites; she kept the seminaries afloat financially.  No one knew how they could survive without her.

Jezebel had a particular dislike for Hebrew prophets, and since Elijah was the most famous of them all, she hated him the most.  Elijah didn’t help his cause with the Queen because he loved to stir things up by reminding those in power that he, Elijah, was a servant to the real power in the world–namely his God.  

At one point for reasons unstated, Jezebel had it in for a group of a hundred Hebrew prophets in particular, and they would have died at her demand had not King Ahab’s chief of staff not secretly hidden them in caves and kept survival supplies flowing there for them.  This likely was one of the reasons Elijah called for the slaughter of a huge group of Baalite prophets when he won the “Israeli Idol” episode in which his God acted as per his request while Baal didn’t do a thing his prophets begged him to do.  Instant fame, which not many clergy have handled so well through the years.  

Elijah expected the God who apparently performed on cue in the big prophetic power event to continue to do so.  Thus, when Jezebel announced her plan to have him rubbed out, Elijah expected God to show her who was boss, but when her troops were selected for the singular mission of killing off the greatest Hebrew prophet of all, Elijah thought that was much too close a call, and he began to run.  The more he ran, the angrier with God he became.  

At some point he decided that he’d rather die than be unsupported by his people and, worse, unappreciated by God.  That is certainly the most absolute way of making sure that nobody can benefit from one’s talents.  

By and by, Elijah found a cave in which he decided to take emotional and spiritual refuge.  Eventually, God found the Hebrews’ star prophet, and God asked Elijah, “Don’t I remember a sermon you preached once upon a time, Elijah, in which you explained to your hearers that it’s not possible to run from me?”

 

 

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“Nope,” snapped Eliah.  “You have me confused with some other so-called prophet.”

“That must be the case,” God said.  

“Why don’t you go spend time with your hard-headed children who get by with murder, literally?  Or how about those much less successful prophets–the few you have allowed to live?  They seem to be your favorites.”

“Is that a fact?” asked God.

“Yes,” insisted Elijah.  “The God I know is a God who can send fire down from heaven and who could send a killer ailment down on an evil queen trying to undo God’s greatest prophet to date.”

 

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“And you’re sure, are you, Elijah, that you’re not confusing me with a Jinn or a genie?”

Elijah droned on with his pity party, and finally God interrupted and said, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, Elijah, I want you to take note of something.”

“Fine!” Elijah shouted.

God said:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

 

 

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Do you follow the writer?  God was in the silence.  God had been quietly present throughout Elijah’s escape effort, but not in anything earth-shattering, if you will.

III.

My middler seminarians were preaching the other evening, and there seems to have been the group tendency that particular night to blame any sermonic difficulty on time constraints. Now, there’s always a time limitation on sermons in any of my preaching classes, just as there was when I taught public speaking.  A professional needs to learn to speak within a given time frame each time she or he speaks.

In every course, there’s someone who has an interesting cell phone timer or a clever timing app on her or his laptop, and that person usually ends up being the timekeeper.  On Thursday, one too many students complained about the lack of time as the basis for having made a particular error.  It was humorous after a while.  I have to tell you these students are phenomenal, and so the polish is for sophisticated errors, not beginners’ let’s-get-to-first-base polish, but don’t tell them that yet in case some of them stumble into a Gathering before end of term.  I don’t want them to ease up on themselves until the very last day of the semester.  

 

 

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Anyway after hearing those nonstop complaints about lack of sermon time the timekeeper asked the most recent complainee if he wanted some cheese with his “whine.”  Hilarious.  Of course, I was probably the last person in the United States to have heard that expression, but it was a first for me; and I couldn’t help laughing for a while.  

When it comes to personal challenges, the dynamics are different.  Let me let you know that if you need to whine about a personal difficulty, your pastor is available to listen.  That said, let me also say that the people of Silverside collectively have suffered tremendous tragedy and loss without whining at all–even when whining would have A-OK.  In my almost 14 year tenure here there has been no whining about about overwhelming personal affronts.  None of us would have faulted anyone who cried or cried out while feeling like the weight of the world had been suddenly thrust on her or his shoulders.

There’s a difference, though, between the emotions that result in having lost a loved one to some dreadful disease, for example, and letting oneself come to believe that she or he actually is the only one who cares about an enterprise or an undertaking when results get to the place of being undesirable as in Elijah’s case.  The victim mentality is pointless and contributes nothing to resolution.  Of course, by the time the typical victim menality “victim” gets to that point, she or he is not much interested in resolution.  The whining, by then, is the only reward desired.

Nurturing the victim mentality usurps energy that would be better utilized in coming at the problem one more time OR admitting that if there is a solution someone else may be, probably is, in a better position to bring about the needed result than I.  The future of the Hebrew religion didn’t rest on Elijah’s shoulders though he was quite disappointed to make that discovery.  

 

 

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I’m not convinced that my neighbor would be happy if I and the neighbors across the street brought in our trash cans as quickly as he does.  If we took that away from him by leaving out our trash cans several hours longer than he, we’d be robbing him of one of probably several victim roles he enjoys playing.  And the pseudo-logic that I love my church more than anybody so I’ll leave it if it doesn’t do exactly what I want is its own ridiculous, pointless babble.  

How about if we tried determining to be victor instead of victim…period!?

 

 

Don’t Worry. Re-Label.

Silverside Sermons

September 15, 2013

Sermon Series:  “Don’t Worry.  Be Happy.”

Sermon Title:  “Don’t Worry.  Re-Label.”

Preacher:  Dr. David Albert Farmer

 

 

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I.

          The most important thing I must say as I begin this new sermon series called “Don’t Worry. Be Happy” is that I should not be preaching this sermon series.  This is to say, I should not be preaching this sermon series AS IF I have mastered the art of what I would like to project.  What I SHOULD preach based on my life thus far is a series called something like “Be Happy When You Worry” or “Worry for Fun and Profit” or “Don’t Worry.  Life Will Not Rob You of Opportunities to Fret” or something more like one of those.

          So, why do I persist?  All I can tell you is that the series kept coming into my consciousness as I studied this summer, and so here we are. I can take mild solace from something I read in a preaching textbook back in divinity school, a book called Preaching the Good News by then preaching professor at Princeton Seminary, George Sweazey, who said, and I paraphrase, if you only preach on what you have accomplished your preaching program will be meager indeed.

          For these first four Sundays in the series we will be concentrating on the “don’t worry” part, and then for all the Sundays after that leading right up until the Sunday before Thanksgiving we will be concentrating on the “be happy” parts.  Plan your weekends away accordingly.

          Everything is not as it seems.  What a revelation!  That assessment applies in practically in any context. For our purposes today, that’s a good thing. When I initially perceive negativity in response to a situation about which I have limited information and it causes me worry as an initial knee jerk reaction, I may find out if I gather additional information and ponder the possibilities that it’s not as earth shattering as my worry reflex anticipated.

          Psychology and counseling were interests of mine all along my academic pathway, and at some point I was introduced to a therapeutic model called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.  The simplistic way it was first explained to me was that a therapist using these methods tried to help clients assess the reliability of their emotional reactions to various types of stress.  For example, my professor said, if someone says, “I’m about to lose my job, and that’s the worst thing in the world,” the therapist would help the client think through truly worst case scenarios and consider whether or not a job loss would be up there with a world war or being stuck for hours on a malfunctioning elevator with Mitch McConnell or bumping into members of the Westboro Baptist Church on the way to picket a fallen soldier at her or his funeral or being Paula Deen’s life coach.   

          When I was a youth minister many years ago, before I gave up church lock-ins for Lent and then for good, my pastor occasionally presented a children’s, something at which he was very, very good. And, no wonder.  He was the brother of actor John Cullum and had the same sense of both the comic and the dramatic as does his famous sibling.  I am not gifted in that regard and fortunately for the children here know my limitations.

          So, Brother Cullum’s children’s sermon for the day was on worry.  Long before cell phones were imagined outside an experimental lab somewhere he had a little plastic play telephone in his hand.  He made the phone ring as he paced nervously back and forth across the front of the sanctuary, but he did not answer it. Instead, he allowed the kids to hear him thinking out loud, “Who could that be?  What could they want? Why am I getting a call at this time of day?  Is it a bill collector?  [I don’t think the children knew what that was, but their parents surely did.] Is it someone calling to say I forgot to meet her or him for an appointment that I’d scheduled?  Is somebody in the church sick?”  On and on he went entertaining us all while purportedly speaking just to the kids. Of course the summary message, good for children AND adults, was you can minimize some worry just by being sure you know exactly what’s going on. 

Brother Cullum finally answered the phone.  Wrong number.

 

II.

          As of June, a Gallup Poll showed the top ten issues about which Americans worry the most.  Here they are:  1) our nation’s debt; 2) employment; 3) wars; 4) apathy of elected leaders toward their constituents; 5) availability and cost of healthcare; 6) the sense that our country has regressed in so many areas that we will never be able to recover; 7) the loss of civil liberties; 8) national security; 9) government at all levels abusing power; and 10) the availability and cost of education.  OK.  OK.  I’ll tell you the next five!  11) elder care, Medicare, and Social Security; 12) immigration and border controls; 13) the decline of participation in organized religion and with that the presumed decline of morality; 14) democracy giving way to socialism; and 15) poor leadership in the highest levels of government including the presidency. 

          How about very personally?  What do we worry about?  The Kaiser Family Foundation clocked us as of this past February.  Here are the top six.  It worries me that they didn’t make it an even ten!  1) serious illness hitting self or someone close to us; 2) not being able to afford necessary health care; 3) being the victim of an act of gun violence; 4) losing a job; 5) not being able to pay rent or mortgage; 6) being the victim of a terrorist attack. 

          On the little poster I created for this sermon series, there’s a disclaimer.  It says something like this:  This sermon series will not attempt to advise those going through significant life crisis; any insights offered will be for those living in everydayness.  Of course, there are things we almost have to worry about.  Even if it can be demonstrated that worry doesn’t help one iota in resolving any challenging or threatening situation most of us can’t help giving in to some kind of worry.

          I’m sure you’ve heard some statistics tossed around about how much worry can be construed as potentially worthwhile.  One set of those statistics I remember suggested that 40% of what we dread most never happens, 30% of what we worry about has already happened one way or another before our worry kicks in, 22% of what we worry about we have absolutely zero control over.  That leaves us with 8% of possibly worthwhile worry.

          Karen and Kit and Steve know about a situation that confronted me yesterday afternoon about which I was quite worried, but had little time to engage my worry skills.  I arrived at the Oliver Golf Course to perform a wedding for the office of the Clerk of the Peace.  Bob Faatz, Ron Bergman, and I have all performed off site weddings for that office since it became policy for the Clerk and his deputies not to perform more than a small percentage of weddings away from the Clerk’s office.

          I met with the couple several weeks ago and knew this was to be an outdoor wedding, and a golf course certainly isn’t the most unusual spot I’ve ever been asked to perform a wedding.  That honor would probably go to the wedding I performed with my beloved New Orleans friend, Rabbi Ed Cohn, on the Carousel at City Park.  [Ed, if you’re reading this, love you and miss you!!!]

          So I arrived and got myself robed and such, and the groom found me to let me know he hadn’t changed his mind–usually a good thing–and to ask me if I had any objections to being driven in a golf cart to the green near which the ceremony would be held. I said, “No.  That will be fine,” meaning, “Oh my god! Are you kidding me?  Well, if it’s that far from here, I’d rather ride than walk. So fine.”  I stopped short of thinking about the worst things that could happen under those circumstances because I was distracted by thinking about how entertained my sons would be with another story to add to my repository of wedding ceremony lore.

          Someone in charge told me to wait outside so I did as I was told.  Awaiting my chariot, the best man came up to me and said, “That’s your cart.” 

          I said, “It’s a lovely cart too.  Where’s my driver?” 

          He laughed and said, “You’re your own driver.  You’re not scared are you?  Anybody can drive a golf cart.  Seat, steering wheel, brake, gas.  Get it?”

          For a minute, I was shaken up with worry.  Pressing the gas doesn’t always mean a vehicle will move forward.  Pressing the brake doesn’t always mean a vehicle will stop.  And for my first ever try at this, I have an audience of 100 or so people including a photographer to record the spectacle if my cart didn’t glide as smoothly over the curb as they said it would.

          I’m proud to tell you that I called a halt to all my worry because, truthfully, all the in charge people started speaking to me in elevated volume, “Go.  Hurry.  You have to walk down the aisle first.”  That’s one way to get rid of the pessimism–fear of failure and fear of humiliation!

 

 III.

          The Apostle Paul did some fretting in his day, but as he meditated and prayed about his life’s most pressing challenge or at least his second most pressing challenge, a fascinating insight came to him that gave him finally some personal peace after all those years of worry.  And, by the way, the cause of his worry didn’t go away.

          He called this problem his “thorn in the flesh,” and nobody knows for certain exactly what this was—though that hasn’t kept numerous interpreters including me from speculating. All kinds of possibilities have been tossed about for exactly what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been.  One of our pastors at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church during my growing up years said it was Paul’s mother-in-law, proving that he was not a bachelor after all.  Other more likely options include homosexuality and virtual blindness.  I’d also toss in guilt. 

          There is nothing that I know of in his writings to suggest in any pointed way that he was gay other than many—not all—of the varieties of homosexual expression in his day.  Though never condemning homosexuality wholesale, he was critical of homosexual prostitutes at worship sites, older men becoming too aggressive with boys as was widely practiced and praised in some segments of the Roman Empire, and perhaps with drag.  Don’t let your mind wander, but some read between the lines and wonder if sexual identity was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

          Virtual blindness is a really good guess, and there is more possible evidence for this option.  When Paul, whose name before his dramatic conversion experience was Saul, was knocked off his horse with a thunderous roar and a blinding flash of lightening he initially had no vision at all.  And though his spirituality shifted to a positive place, his eyesight never returned fully.  For someone whose ministry required a tremendous amount of correspondence, this was frustrating and painful; someone had to read letters to him, and someone had to transcribe his responses for him.  He generally couldn’t send out anything written in his own handwriting, which meant a lack of the personal touch.  This troubled the pastoral side of Paul.

          I don’t think it can be contested that Paul was unable ever to get over the fact that prior to his decision to be a follower of Jesus he had been a jealous, zealous Jew who lived for the opportunity to find ways of getting followers of Jesus persecuted—occasionally leading to execution.  The guilt of that never left him; it was with him for the rest of his life’s journey though he renounced his moral flaw.

          As we heard in the reading from 2 Corinthians, he prayed about this thorn in the flesh consistently, pleading with God to take it away from him.  The thorn remained.  Paul worried and fretted and prayed some more, and yet whatever his trouble was it remained.  Finally, in a reflective mode he sensed God saying to him, “…my strength attains its perfection in the midst of weakness” (The New New Testament translation).

          That’s no good, is it?  If God took it away, that would be good, but having to live with it even with some reframing of how he thought about his thorn in the flesh still left the thorn in tact.  The fact that one can survive even when some problem, pain, or distraction persists is evidence of God’s supportive presence.  That relabeling got Paul through.

          Dr. Eda Gorbis is a psychologist who treats extreme worry—pathological anxiety, let us say.  Here is a word from her on relabeling so as not to be crippled by worry:

Whereas simple, everyday awareness is almost automatic and usually quite superficial, mindful awareness is deeper and more precise and is achieved only through focused effort. It requires the conscious recognition and mental registration of the [anxiety]. You should literally make mental notes, such as, “This thought is an obsession….” You must make the effort to manage the intense biologically mediated thoughts and urges that intrude so insistently into consciousness. This means expending the necessary effort to maintain your awareness of what we call the Impartial Spectator, the observing power within us that gives each person the capacity to recognize what’s real and what’s just a symptom and to fend off the pathological urge until it begins to fade and recede. 

          Many of us, too many of us, lose much joy and personal peace because worry overtakes us, and it doesn’t have to be that way much of the time.  Remember that I’m not suggesting you should try to force yourself not to worry about something that really does threaten you or someone you love.  But short of something of such an extreme, re-labeling may help, and not by trying to give us another bumper sticker slogan to live with—rather by helping us discipline ourselves to give the possible good a chance to shine through.

          Amen.

         

 

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.

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.

Magic Is for Entertainment Only (Ninth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

 

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I.
    Many years ago when my kids were kids, we were living in the wild city of New Orleans at a time when it attracted all the big name performers around the country.  It so happens that we lived near the University of New Orleans who hosted magician David Copperfield.  It is true that many university students near ends of terms go out in search of a magician, but I wasn’t able to prove that connection.
    I nabbed three almost-front-row seats for the boys and me; their mom wasn’t interested in seeing Copperfield.  I think she was jealous at how much makeup he could wear and “get by” with it.
    I’d been intrigued with magic from the time I was a kid.  I asked for and received for several Christmases or birthdays beginning magicians’ magic kits.  It was a sad sight seeing me blunder even the simplest tricks as I eventually discovered that this could not be the profession for me–a parallel discovery to the realization that I wasn’t cut out to wear tank tops.  Oh well, that’s for another church social event where something stronger than coffee is served.
    My inability to perform magic tricks didn’t water down my interest in magic, though.  No ma’am; no sir.  Though Houdini was deceased before I ever heard of him, I became intrigued with him and with the amazing illusions he had performed–until the last one went terribly wrong and killed him.  I read every book I could get my hands on about Houdini at the Halls Community Library–both of them.  
    Even with my avid interest in magic, I don’t think I was ever able to see any of the greats in person until the opportunity to see David Copperfield came along, and I enjoyed every millisecond of the performance.  The boys and I waited in a bit of a line to meet him after the show, shake those magic hands–which were gloved for public contact, and get our programs signed.  
    The auditorium in which we watched the master magician do his work wasn’t terribly large so we felt very much a part of what was going on–even the finale when the lights flashed once and instantly came back on to reveal that a huge motorcycle that had been on stage was now on the walkway separating the good seats from the cheap seats.  Jarrett, Carson, and I talked for months about how Copperfield could have done what he did before our very eyes, as it were.
    The Bible generally takes a dim view of magic, mainly because the illusionary part was generally overlooked–both by performer and audience–leaving there to be the strong possibility in the minds of the people written about in both the First and the Second Testaments that evil forces were at work in making wonders happen.   More often than not, anyone who could perform wonders at any level was regarded as a witch and condemned by so-called faith communities as akin to the demonic forces, invisible but nonetheless powerfully and relentlessly at work for evil.
    Not all ancient cultures shared the Hebrews’ distaste for magic, which is how we ended up with tales such as Aladdin and the magic lamp.  Should we be concerned about magic in our time?

II.
    Magic is illusion and is to be distinguished from what we might call “the miraculous.”  Miracles are performed by mediums of God or mediums of evil–at least the way most biblical stories dealing with the subject view it, and there are two basic types of miracles either “side” may perform:  miracles of the mind and miracles of the material world.  There are numerous samples of these in Judeo-Christian scripture.  
    In our high tech age it is no easier to determine what is illusion and what is not than it was in ancient times.  Maybe the stakes between understanding what is real and what is not are higher than ever, though.
    The general pattern for interpreting biblical events that occur, or appear to occur, without human involvement is to call the good ones God’s work and the bad ones the work of evil.  Many scientists, beginning at least by the time of the Enlightenment and certainly running into the very hour and place where we live, have tended to spiritualize miracles.  “There’s no such thing as the miraculous,” many of them, not all of them by any means, reason, “so the account is either fiction, OR there’s a logical explanation for what happened though those closest to the event didn’t know or couldn’t understand the facts.”
    Let’s have a look at three stories from the life of Moses:  the burning bush, his brother’s walking stick or staff that turns into a serpent, and the parting of the Red or Reed Sea.  First, in order of appearance, the burning bush.
    The broad background of the story is that Moses is out tending sheep in the desert, and he sees along the barren, dusty landscape a bush that seems to be burning though not being consumed by the flames.  Out of this burning bush, the voice of God calls out to Moses and gives him his ministry challenge of leading his sister- and brother-Hebrews out of Egyptian enslavement.  God isn’t merely speaking through the bush, but also hearing through the bush so that God hears Moses’ protests at having been given such an assignment for which he feels utterly ill equipped.  
    What happened as a result of all that isn’t part of today’s sermon.  We’re only concerned with the burning bush.  How could a bush of any type be on fire and not burn up?  1) Some would say that when God is involved anything can happen; since God wanted to get Moses’ attention this burning bush was the means through which God chose to communicate with Moses.  2) Others would say that it was a beautifully told fictional tale filled with spiritual truths.  3) Still others, those who seek synthesis, would say there was a bush in the desert areas where Moses would have traveled with gleaming orange and red leaves that with sunlight and wind looked at a distance like it was on fire though it really wasn’t covered with flames at all.  If this were anything more than symbolic, and don’t minimize the importance of symbolism, it would have to be classified as a God-ordained nature miracle.  It wasn’t magic; it was miraculous, and the forces of God and good brought about the miracle.
    Second story from the life of Moses.  I want to read a little scriptural snippet for you at this juncture.  Moses and Aaron are about to get an audience with the mighty Pharaoh and dare to tell him that the God of the Hebrews sent them to let him know that he, the Pharaoh, had to let the Hebrews go free, which was going to be big news, and funny news, to the Pharaoh who hadn’t heard a word about an emancipation program from any of his gods.
    God told Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh would almost certainly ask them to perform an act of wonder to prove that they had connections to some divinity.

 

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’  So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts.  Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.

 

I guess that’s the no-more-arguments way of showing who’s the boss!
    So, it turns out that these were all “tricks,” acts of magic except the final part of the episode when one trick snake ate all the other trick snakes.  Or were they trick snakes at all?  Some snakes, including many cobras, will play dead and completely stiffen up, so I am told, when threatened, and the same effect can be gained by pinching the back of the snake’s neck.  Please be aware that I am not suggesting you try this at home.
    If this is what Aaron was doing, when it was time to show the Pharaoh a trick, he simply threw the frightened, stiffened snake on the ground at which point it awakened and attempted to slither away to an escape.  As to Aaron’s snake eating the others, well some snakes as we know are carnivorous and if hungry enough will eat their own species.  Eating several other snakes all at once seems a bit of a stretch, but even so there was nothing magic or miraculous here in this case at all–simply a knowledge of how things work in nature.    
    The third bit of potential magic from the life of Moses was his parting of the Red Sea or the Reed Sea so that the Hebrews running for their lives from the Pharaoh’s recovery troops could get to the other side as dry as stale pita and with not even a speck of mud on their sandals.  Of course, as the story was remembered and told, the second the last Hebrew was safe on the other side, the waters closed back in and drowned the Egyptians along with the horses they were riding and the horses that were pulling their finest war chariots.  In this case, God was clearly working through Moses who used his staff to strike the waters causing them to open for the Hebrews.  Good magic huh?  Or, good miracle.  
    The suspicion toward magic and miracles was carried into Jesus’ life and culture.  Magic wasn’t so much an issue despite the portrayal of Herod Antipas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” but miracles were big deals; and the source of the miracle that any miracle worker was able to work had to come either from God or from evil so there was frequently much talk about which source was behind the feat.  Those who really wanted to insult and diminish Jesus would accuse him, in terms of the miracles he performed, of being in service to powers of evil and darkness rather than in service to God.
    Generally, those suspected of needing deliverance from the dark side were forced into exorcisms so that they might be freed from the control the evil was exerting over them, even if whatever it was they were doing along the lines of wonders weren’t hurting anyone.  Case in point:  the Apostle Paul and the clairvoyant slave girl whose peerings into the future were making big dennarii for her owners.
    Paul described her as having a “spirit of divination”; today, we’d likely call her a psychic.  In her day, psychics were rare; in our day, they are numerous despite the fact that Patrick Jane on his show “The Mentalist” has a job as a psychic even though he insists that there’s no such thing as a psychic.
    The enslaved fortune teller got on Paul’s nerves, and if the truth is spoken that’s the only reason we know anything at all about her today.  The writer of the book of Acts remembered how much Paul had claimed to be irritated by her.  It’s really odd, and her ability to see into the future undergirds Patrick Jane’s view of the psychic life, that Paul was so put out with her.  
    This was her offense.  When she saw Paul and his entourage, she began following them around saying the most horrible thing:  “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Heavens!  Wash that girl’s mouth out with soap.  I have no idea why this irritated Paul; maybe he wanted to hog all the attention and make his own announcement of who he was and what he was about.  It seems to me that he should have appreciated her insight and affirmed her for being on target rather than condemning her as a lunatic controlled by an evil spirit who allowed her to know facts about other people before they’d made known those traits themselves.  
    I don’t think it would bother me if when I entered Concord Mall, a self-proclaimed psychic would follow me around yelling out, “This guy is a decent preacher over at Silverside Church, and if you hear him he will affirm you on your spiritual quest and confront you with the reality that God loves you no matter what.”  I mean, what’s to be upset about?  And I’d save so much money on teeshirts.  
    Anyway, Paul got so tired of hearing her that he suddenly turned on her and performed an emergency exorcism.  Not everyone agreed that the spirit in the girl was evil, and in any case several people in the crowd where Paul was a visitor thought he had no right to do what he did.  Most upset were her owners who saw their easy cash going up in smoke.  Her owners brought official charges against Paul and Silas in particular, and the magistrates found in favor of the hometown plaintiffs.  
    The punishment far exceeded the crime.  The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas stripped in public and beaten with rods until they could barely stand.  Then they were put in the city’s maximum security prison with their feet in stocks.  Moral of the story: never harm a harmless psychic, even if you don’t agree with Dionne Warwick that they actually exist and deserve a daily phone call from you.

III.
    After Jesus’ execution, his followers were left in a pretty pathetic situation, and as they took stock of what they had to work with regarding the continuing of his ministry, they didn’t have much.  This is why many critics through the years say that they had to recreate Jesus completely to make him and his mission palatable to a next generation.
    The last two memories they had of him, working backwards, were his execution and all that was involved in how Rome got him to a cross and just ahead of that they had the memory of how he, at the end of a Passover meal, he had asked them to remember him when they gathered in community and nibbled a piece of bread and sipped some wine.  My work isn’t done, but the Romans are going to kill me.  Remember me and what I’ve tried to teach.  Let the bread you eat always be a symbol for my body, which will be broken; and let the wine you sip from a common cup always be a symbol for my blood that will be unjustly shed by a godless government who believes its capacity for brutality and terrorism are greater than God’s love.  They are wrong, and if I have to die because I won’t play along with these paranoid Romans, then I shall.
    That sounded rather dramatic and moving the first few times they remembered him that way, but it lost its appeal and inspiration.  Some of the early theologians said, “Geez, you wouldn’t think the Lord’s Supper boring or irrelevant at all if you understood the real magic that’s involved in it.  The bread literally becomes Jesus’ physical body, and the wine becomes his blood–even though they still look like unleavened and a little fruit of the vine.  When you come to the table, you are ingesting the body and blood of the Unique Child of God.  Wow!  What true follower of Jesus or wanna be follower of Jesus could turn down an offer like that.  “Transubstantiation” they called it, and some groups within Christendom still believe in such magic; it’s magic or a miracle that happens when the properly appointed priest prays the proper prayer over the elements.  The last thing Jesus wanted was that kind of veneration of anything physical, especially a set of claims that would have the earliest followers after his death accused of cannibalism as a result of this very belief.  
    There are still plenty of those who consider themselves Christian who just aren’t satisfied with the plain ole every day Jesus who died in agony and defeat and who eschewed religious pomp and circumstance.  What he envisioned as a piece of bread was just that, a piece of bread.  What he envisioned as a sip of wine was just that, a sip of wine, very plain everyday foods.  There were foods on the able around which this first “Last Supper” too place, but Jesus ignored those.  There was a reason for that.  You see, if Jesus’ concerns aren’t a part of the everydayness of our lives–the routines, the less than interesting repetitious acts required of all of us–the chances that Jesus’ concerns will be a part of the momentous aspects of our lives are practically zilch.  If all we want from him are miracles and magic, he knew there would be no loyalty to his teachings when the going got tough; and for all who attempt to live by the teachings of Jesus in a world that loves hatred and hates love, there will be tough times and no magic to either rescue us or entertain us.  Amen.