Sunday, July 27, 2008

AIN'T THAT WHAT POWER'S FOR?














Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula










I.
On the whole, in group settings at least, power has more often been abused than used justly and to the benefit of those over whom the power held sway. As Lord Acton wrote in his letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even in a democracy, there are abuses of power. The torturing of political prisoners is one example of brute power being exercised.
I learned a few things, or think I did, while trying to understand the Enron scandals that were, among other things, power abuses of those who had pensions with the company. I’m glad I’m not an accountant and glad that smart, ethical people like Jason Hale are.
I gather that regarding a typical 401K plan, an employee usually makes a contribution to her or his retirement plan that is matched by the employer with stock. Enron supplied their employees with an equal contribution in Enron stock only. Under legit circumstances, the employer is supposed to supply employees with diverse stock options; however, again, Enron stock was the only stock offered to Enron employees. No one was complaining because the stock was doing so well. When Enron’s crooked executives discovered that the financial collapse of the company was inevitable they put a “lock-out” on employee stock, which kept employees from trading Enron. This “lock-out” forced employees to lose half or more of their retirement pensions because of the company’s failure. Such jerks!
Before we look down our noses at the business world and the professional politicians for abusing power, let’s take a little time to recall that some of the most extreme abuses of power in human history have been committed by institutional religion with certain Christian institutions being chief among culprits. This has been particularly in evidence when the church has been in settings where the principles of separation of church and state did NOT prevail; not only in such settings because various expressions of institutional Christianity in the United States, even as we speak, are abusing their power in one way or another.
One of the chief reasons that Martin Luther was compelled to protest the practices of the very powerful Roman Catholic Church of his day was the abuse of power by the church hierarchy over the naive and trusting laity. This became solidified in a trip Brother Martin, the young priest and professor in Wittenberg, made to the Vatican.
The year was 1510, and the opportunity for a monk to visit Rome was thrilling; we can imagine that many monks never got to go to Rome in those days. So, Brother Martin couldn’t have been more excited, and when he first beheld Rome from the pathway on which he traveled, he fell to his knees and said, “I greet thee, thou Holy Rome, thrice holy from the blood of the martyrs.” His excitement would very quickly be turned to disillusionment as a result of what he saw.
The abuses of power on blatant display would forever thereafter be etched in his consciousness, and that rather happenstance visit became, more than any other single factor, the impetus for the Protestant Reformation. Two practices in particular horrified the young German monk who was one of the rising-star scripture scholars in service to the Roman Catholic Church of the day: the sale of Indulgences and Simony.
As I tell you a little more about this story, I want to make sure you understand that this is not a slam against Roman Catholicism; there are plenty of power abuses, past and present, in Protestantism and in religious other than Christianity. No expression of institutional religion SO FAR has escaped corruption and the abuse of power so let’s not look at the situation I’m describing as the basis for diminishing Catholics and building up Protestants. Back to Indulgences and Simony.
Indulgences were prayers that someone could buy--or on rare occasions earn. These prayers could pray the souls of your loved ones, and your own soul to when the time came, out of purgatory. Purgatory was the unpleasant waiting room where souls had to stay until the more permanent assignment of hell or heaven was ascertained. If a person had led an iffy moral or spiritual life, she or he would have time in purgatory extended. The sooner one was out of there the better both because it was unpleasant and because the longer one waited the possibility of hell was ever-present. Once in heaven, though, even if by the skin of one’s teeth, the assignment was eternal.
There was a couple of exceptions to the norm. One, those who had committed mortal sins could not be sprung from purgatory; they were hell-bound no matter what. Two, saints skipped purgatory altogether and were put on the express train to heaven.
When Luther got to Rome, he saw Indulgences for sale everywhere, and he discovered that the big push happens to have been ON at that moment because the Church needed to pay for St. Peter’s in Rome. The trusting, but uninformed, rank and file Christian knew nothing at all about faith except what their priests told them, and when the priests alongside the professional Indulgence hawkers such as Johann Tetzel portrayed for them how close their deceased loved ones’ souls were to the fires of hell and how they too would one day be there, all who possibly could including the extraordinarily poor did what they had to do, including going without food, to buy their Indulgences.
While Luther was in Rome, he saw the “scala sanctum,” the holy stairs. These are marble stairs said to have been the steps originally in or around the palace of Pontius Pilate on which Jesus entered to be sentenced and exited to be crucified. How they got from Jerusalem to Rome is a matter of some great debate as you can well imagine, but the most highly regarded perspective is that angels brought them there. The Pope was giving away indulgences on the day when Luther visited to all who ascended the stairs on their knees seeking forgiveness. That was very generous of the Pope. He must have believed that the people who were there for the free indulgence would buy something else as they entered or waited or departed.
Geoffrey Chaucer has the Pardoner tell one of his “Canterbury Tales.” The Pardoner is an indulgence, and Chaucer paints him in an appropriately negative light. Here is part of what the Pardoner says:

Now, good men, God forgive you each trespass,
And keep you from the sin of avarice.
My holy pardon cures and will suffice,
So that it brings me gold, or silver brings,
Or else, I care not--brooches, spoons or rings.
Bow down your heads before this holy bull!
Come up, you wives, and offer of your wool!
Your names I’ll enter on my roll, anon,
And into Heaven’s bliss you'll go, each one.
For I'll absolve you, by my special power,
You that make offering, as clean this hour
As you were born.
And lo, sirs, thus I preach.
And Jesus Christ, who is our souls’ great leech,
So grant you each his pardon to receive;
For that is best; I will not you deceive.


The other practice that Luther observed and objected to was Simony. Simony is the selling, trading, bartering of something spiritual. Priests, some of them--certainly not all of them, got into the bad habit of getting some personal advantage in exchange for giving a pastoral blessing, for example. Power positions in the church hierarchy were also frequently obtained up through the Reformation Era by payment or favor. The laws against Simony, which came to be regarded as an ecclesiastical crime, expressly prohibit granting a pastoral service or an impressive church position in exchange for money, for public endorsement, or the performance of some favor or service.
I must work in here, amid all the thoughts we are having about how the Church and its practitioners have abused trusting and unsuspecting constituents, that there are almost as many stories about the shoe being on the other foot. Many, many local congregations and religious hierarchies have abused their clergy too. Clergypersons are frequently abused because of the power wielding of both laypersons and institutional functionaries. While clergy-induced power scandals are much more newsworthy, an incalculable number of devoted, hardworking clergypersons have suffered the loss of their jobs, yea their careers, because of abusive congregations flexing their power. “Ain’t that what power’s for?”


II.
Many of you know that my younger son, Carson, and I were the guests of Arbender Robinson the weekend he as Prince Eric’s understudy in Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid” took the lead role for several performances. What wonderful gifts those prime seats! And what a magically magnificent musical! “The Little Mermaid” isn’t just for kids!
When my sons were little boys, I got to watch the film version of “The Little Mermaid” several times, and I loved the evil sea witch Ursula whose voice was that of veteran actor and Emmy Award winner, Pat Caroll. Ursula’s featured song in the film was terrifically sinister, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” that is the song on which I had originally intended to base my sermon response to “The Little Mermaid.” In the end, I was more gripped by a song Ursula sings on Broadway, a song that wasn’t included in the film. The title of the song, and you will hear it later in our gathering, is “I Want the Good Times Back.” Broadway’s Ursula is less classically, but thoroughly, evil too. She is portrayed by an astounding actor and singer, Sherie Rene Scott.
By the way, “The Little Mermaid,” was written by Hans Christian Andersen, and the original story has a considerably different ending that either Disney’s movie or musical. The sea witch whom Disney names Ursula has no name in the original; she is an unnamed sea witch. There’s really no indication in the story of what she looked like. At one point, she is feeding toads out of her mouth, and when she bleeds the blood is black.
Both the Andersen and the Disney versions have the Little Mermaid paying for her chance to become human and marry the Prince by giving over her voice to the sea witch. In the original version, the sea witch also cuts out her tongue to make sure she never sings or speaks again. That is payment enough for the original sea witch, but in the Disney version Ursula is power hungry; and she wants control not only over the Little Mermaid but also over all the world’s seas. In the song from “The Little Mermaid” that you will hear later in our Gathering, I want you to listen especially for Ursula’s rhetorical question, “Ain’t That What Power’s For?”
I am thinking today about biblical power abusers, and they were found inside and outside the groups who identified themselves as God’s people. The God of the ancients could also be a bully as well, so it’s tough to criticize those who thought of themselves as God’s people for following suit.
One stunning example of power abuse was the Egyptian Pharaoh who was in power when Moses was called by God to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. The ironic thing about the background to the Exodus is that originally the Egyptians had warmly welcomed the Hebrews. Whether or not it was the sterling contributions of Joseph who went there as a slave and rose to the ranks of CFO for the nation as a whole or whether the pattern of Hebrew acceptance was already in place before Joseph ever arrived is unclear. What is evident, however, is that for generations the Hebrews were highly respected in Egyptian culture--at least according to biblical accounts; the Egyptians didn’t bother to note any Hebrews in their history annals.
Sticking with biblical records, though, there came a time when the powerful Pharaoh in power didn’t know about the story of Joseph. Maybe that’s because no one wrote about them in any history books! All this Pharaoh, an extraordinarily powerful man, knew was that there surely were a lot of Hebrews in his land, and he with his advisors became convinced that they day could very well come when the Hebrews could become formidable foes; in other words, there could be enough of them to take over the nation.--to turn the tables and take charge of the land. We certainly understand the Pharaoh’s concern since that very argument is made today by those who fear the unmonitored entrance into the United States by immigrants from all over, especially Mexican immigrants.
So the Pharaoh made a proclamation one day that went something like this: “From this day forward every Hebrew in the land becomes a slave to the Egyptian government. They, henceforth, will be stripped of opportunities to serve in official government capacities, and they will from now on tend to our landscaping, be our maids and nannies, do the hard labor of building pyramids, and occasionally work in sushi bars since most Egyptians will not be able to tell them from parts of the world where sushi is actually eaten. We will stop teaching Hebrew as a second language in our schools, and if future generations of Hebrews want to talk to Egyptians they will have to learn Egyptian. In fact, we already have more Hebrews than we know what to do with so I order all midwives who deliver Egyptian babies to drown or otherwise kill those babies at the moment of birth.”
The Hebrews were sorely abused, no question about it, but the midwives--at least a couple of them whose names have survived, Shiphrah and Puah--wouldn’t kill the Hebrew babies, and there’s check to abusive power by them when they keep on letting those babies live, telling Pharaoh that the Hebrew women were so fertile and so strong to boot that they delivered their babies on their own and were back to work expecting new ones before they, the midwives, could even get to a home to try to deliver a baby.
The power abuse of the Pharaoh led to the Exodus, the escape of the Hebrews out of the land of their one-time-friends-turned-overlords. It wasn’t an easy solution, taking about forty years to resolve, but the Hebrews freed themselves from Pharaoh’s abuse as God led them to freedom through a flawed, but gifted, leader named Moses.
There are many portrayals of God in scripture, and they can’t all be reconciled. It’s not just a matter of Hebrew scripture verses Christian scripture though that is one great divide to be sure.
The god of Job is a real oddball. With gods like that, who needs enemies? The god of Job loves Job so much, that god could just about pop. There is this other being, evidently a heavenly being, who is very close to Job’s god and has the ear of Job’s god. This being is never named as far as we know; he is simply called “the adversary,” “the satan.” I suppose that can be taken as a proper noun if you like, but it has nothing with the devil or with a place that would come to be thought about much later and called “hell.”
One morning at heavenly coffee, the god of the book of Job is bragging about Job, and the adversary says, “Give it a rest. Your Job is so spiritual and so honoring of you because you give him everything any human could ever want: a great family, a fabulous bank account, and the best stock broker on earth.”
“Well, he deserves it. No one is more respectful of me or more consistent in expressing sincere gratitude,” Job’s god explains.
“Oh, please!” the adversary retorts. “You take all his advantages and privileges away, and call you evil, or worse, deny that you even exist.”
“No way!” says Job’s god getting a little hot under the halo.
“God, god, god. You’re too busy to take in the truth, and the truth would hurt you so much. But if you’re willing to make a little wager, I’ll prove my point.”
“OK. If you’re right, you can be the god for a day, and I’ll be the adversary.”
“Deal!”
“You can take away what you think Job values more than me; the only thing you can’t do is to hurt Job physically to the degree that he dies. That, I won’t tolerate.”
“You’d better practice being the adversary because you’re going to lose the bet!”
And with that, the adversary killed off most of Job’s relatives including his beloved children. He destroyed everything he had of value and, for icing on the cake, gave Job an agonizing dermatological condition. The adversary did all of this with Job’s god’s full approval.
The book of Job, certainly not alone, has thereby become one of the several reasons why people of faith take the horrible things that happen to them as “tests” and “trials,” buying wholeheartedly into the notion that their all-powerful, power-abusing god is allowing them to be hurt to the point of devastation and even death in their helplessness. By the way, the god of Job won the bet, but the adversary had a hay day anyway. Even so, that is no god for me.



III.
Christian scripture has its kid killer as did Hebrew scripture. The glaringly different thing about him is that he is a Jew, descendent to the Hebrews whom the Pharaoh tried to kill, and the babies he orders killed are his fellow Jews. He was much more successful on average than the Pharaoh. He was able to have killed off all the little Jewish boys living in the region of his palace except one--a toddler named Yeshua, whose parents escaped with him to Egypt of all places, before the massacre began. Crazy old power-mongering Herod, but when you have the power you can do what you wish. He was a puppet king, King of the Jews but with power meted out by Rome. The Jews couldn’t pronounce the death penalty, but babies had no rights; and except for first-born sons they were regarded as little more than objects of property. What I’m saying is, Herod didn’t have the legal authority to have Jewish babies put to death, but why should Rome care about a few less Jews in its mighty Empire? And to whom were the bereaved parents going to make their complaints?
Herod the Great was aging by the time he head that Jesus had been born in his jurisdiction, and some said that this Jesus was born to be King of the Jews. Well, Herod was King of the Jews, and evidently he thought he was going to live forever. When he heard that someone else had be born upon whom that title would be bestowed he took cruel action. The oddest thing was, Rome had allowed him to have that title. He hadn’t earned it. It wasn’t given to him by virtue of the circumstances of his birth. Rome could have given the title to anyone else at any moment it chose, a fact which only added to Herod’s insecurity.
The most rabid power abuser in Christian scripture is very prominent, but never named. He was Roman Emperor Domitian who ruled almost to the end of the first Christian century. He was the beast of the book of Revelation, the entity torturing and often putting to death Christians who wouldn’t worship the statues he had erected of himself throughout the Empire.
Domitian thought himself divine and on par with numerous other deities worshipped by Roman nationals and those peoples whom Rome had conquered. Domitian had absolutely no issue with the Christians or the Jews having their God, but even if they professed monotheism, which was required for those who wanted to identify themselves as either Jews or Christians, he still required them, as with all of his subjects, Roman and otherwise to bow down before his statue in a posture of worship whenever the signal was given. Those who refused were punished, and imprisonment and torture very often led to execution.
What we know of Domitian is told to us in the code language of the book of Revelation, written to encourage the faithful in those dangers days for Christians in the Roman Empire not to give up either faith or hope. Blatantly naming Domitian as the evil beast, who by the way is ultimately defeated by God’s heavenly forces, would have brought even more suffering to the Palestinian and Mediterranean Christians living until Domitian died in the year 96.
Domitian was a madman, and for a while his brutal power was incontestable.
In God’s economy, things won’t ultimately work they way they have often worked in human history. Some stunning reversals will ultimately take place.
Those who were the most powerful and snug in their abusive power positions will one day find themselves without any power at all, having been replaced by those who up to the point of reversal were utterly powerless. No one likes hearing that--well, no one with any kind of power or position or prestige.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sang this telling song of praise to God:

God’s mercy is for those who awe God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.


God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, she sang. Indeed, all the scraping and jockeying for power in God’s realm is utterly useless. The one presumed to be powerful may not have any power at all in God’s system. A nation claiming to be Christian that also insists on being one of the world’s super powers in terms of military might and nuclear advantage is an oxymoron indeed.
It was a struggle, but at the very outset of his public ministry Jesus settled the matter of how to deal with the power that would potentially be his. Think of the profound inner struggle this story conveys.

The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then temptation took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘God will command God’s angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, temptation took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to the tempter, “Away with you, Adversary! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’”


In Jesus’ mind, it was settled at the get-go. God is the powerful one, period. Jesus’ response to God and to God’s people had nothing to do with power bolstering; it was all about service.
The mother of two of the guys in Jesus’ men’s circle, the disciples, came up to Jesus one day and said, “My sons are too shy to ask, but I’m not. I’m not a stage mother for nothing! So, just give us the bottom line, Jesus. What do we have to do to ensure James and John key places in your cabinet when you become president? Evidently, that woman is going to be your vice-president--one of the many Marys in your women’s circle, Magdalene, maybe. So that position is out. Fine. We all know that that loud mouth, Peter, is going to get the Secretary of Defense slot. Matthew’s got the Secretary of the Treasury job sewn up. What spots are open for my boys? I want one on your left and one on your right. How about Secretary of State for one and Secretary of the Interior for the other? They’re both scrappy and are loyal to a fault. No one will mess with you with them around; we don’t call them sons of thunder for nothing!”
The other ten disciples were angry in the face of blatant requests for political favoritism. Jesus himself wasn’t angry, but he said, “Lady, anything I’m involved in, God calls the shots. God will speak to me about what I should do, and God will speak to others about what they should do. It’s not my call.”
She was both skeptical and disappointed. Jesus went on to say:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve....


The only power with which we should be worried as those who want to respond to God the way Jesus did is the power to serve. That’s tough in a Domitian kind of world, isn’t it? That’s tough in an Enron kind of world, isn’t it? Yes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

COFFEE SHOP NIGHTS















I.
Most of us have at least one recurring event that we look forward to, and looking forward to it gives us enjoyment or even delight. Something would be missing without it.
I’m having a hard time thinking of an example...let me see what a good example would be...hmmm...oh yeah...coming to church on Sundays! How could I have overlooked that one?
Anyway, you know what I’m talking about. It might be something that happens for you daily or almost daily. When my sons were in elementary school, I always looked forward to picking them up and finding out what they’d learned that day and what they’d done--provided there wasn’t a note asking me to schedule an appointment with the assistant principal or the guidance counselor! Little did I know at the time that teen-age years would bring what we could call “minimalist sharing.” I suppose that’s a part of independence development, not wanting daddy or mommy to know about every detail in one’s life. Actually, minimalist sharing was better than grunting or saying, “Nothing.”
“Nothing? You mean to tell me that you’ve been here at school for seven hours and you did absolutely nothing.”
“That’s right, Dad, so why do you keep bringing us here and making us stay?”
Well, I looked forward to the elementary school after school chats! I really did.
Gordon Walker, the late Gordon Walker, was a highly respected nephrologist in the Johns Hopkins system and one of my deacons at University Church in Baltimore. Gordon was one of the pioneers in the development of dialysis and prominent in many other areas of his professional life as a physician and as a professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. With all the other activities and opportunities to excite him and command his attention, Gordon once told me that the best part of most every work day for him began with his drive home from work during which time he decided what news he would share with his wife, Betty, and then the time when he first got home when he told Betty about what he’d done and learned and been touched by.
Plenty of people I know look forward to their daily or almost-daily exercise routine--at the gym or elsewhere. Roger Uhler sent me an email this week, catching me up on his and Mimzie’s New Hampshire stay so far. His description of his daily exercise has stayed with me. I have his permission to share this excerpt with you. Roger wrote: “I swim almost every morning before breakfast and most times it is not only good exercise, but also a bit of a spiritual experience where thankfulness (gratitude) is the center.”
On a weekly basis, other than coming to church OF COURSE--and all of my full-time churches have always been with congregations I’d have joined even if I hadn’t been invited to take up professional responsibilities with them--sometimes simple things give us experiences to look forward to. I’ve always had a favorite television show to look forward to during the months other than those when the cast and crew were on summer hiatus. I used to watch several; now I have a couple of favorites and never even turn on the television otherwise. It’s always been fun for me, though, to look forward to “my show.” The top ten for me across the years have been: “Live Wrestling” (yes, every Saturday afternoon with my grandfather, Poppy, when I was an elementary and middle school kid), “The Lone Ranger,” “The Monkees,” “Batman,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Dallas,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cheers,” “Designing Women,” “Fraser.” These days, it’s “Boston Legal,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” Just a little something to look forward to.
Many of you have a winter home or a summer home away from Wilmington. We miss you when you’re away, but we love the renewal your home away from home supplies for you.
Jon Walton, when he was pastor over at Westminster Presbyterian Church before moving to New York, was a part of a clergy study group that met every year for a week, I think it was, of learning and reflection that they called the Moveable Feast. Theirs was a very tight-knit group of great friends and professional colleagues. If I understood correctly, what they did instead of wasting money on the typical canned clergy conference, which I find neither refreshing nor educational, was to hire one of the big names in the world of preaching and/or theology and share among themselves the speaker’s fees and expenses and have sessions tailored specifically to their group. If only I liked clergypeople! I could be involved in such a group, but alas clergy are like small children to me. I enjoy them two or three at a time, but any more than that; and I want to run away--and generally do.
I am in awe of people like Bonnie and Martha and Dorothy and Robin and Charlene who are truly in their element when they have children in groups. I don’t know what to do or say for an extended time with children.
As far as clergypeople go, and the reason why I don’t enjoy them in groups, is that most of them are either braggadocios and condescending or overpoweringly needy. I know better than most what a tough profession it can be, but I find it much better to be supported by those who aren’t carrying exactly the same kinds of burdens. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic; it’s that I’m too sympathetic.
In any case, Jon’s Moveable Feast was an annual event to which he looked forward and that brought him great refreshment and delight. I was envious.
My annual retreat has become as many days and plays as I can afford in New York City around my birthday. I look forward to it as inside a theatre and caught up in a drama or a musical I can truly escape, even if for only two or three hours, the pressures and concerns and worries that, otherwise, stay close to my consciousness.
Some of you have annual events to which you look forward that are much more sustained than a week to the beach or a study week. Some of you can’t wait to get your vegetable gardens planted, which leads to several weeks or months of care and then the fun (and work!) of harvest. Some of you enjoy the annual work and attention to your prize flowers, which may well find their way into this sanctuary for us to enjoy in our Gatherings.
Some of you have favorite sports so you can’t wait for football or basketball or baseball or NASCAR season to roll around so that you can take in every contest you possibly can in person or on television. Some of you have favorite seasons of the year, and your lives are enriched or even transformed by living through that season one more time; my ex-wife, for example, loved--absolutely loved--the fall of the year, and no part of the year was better for her.
Certainly, for some of you an annual holiday is a joyful axis on which the rest of the year turns. For many individuals and families, a holiday such as Christmas, whether celebrated religiously or secularly, defines the rest of the year. You know the type. Christmas shopping for NEXT year begins at the after-Christmas sales THIS year. Time is told by how many months and then days it is until Christmas. Then, this person takes extraordinary pleasure in making sure every minute detail of the holiday is celebrated to perfection--from foods to parties or decor. I am not one of those people, but I admire them.
The point is that life is enhanced when we have something to look forward to. This is positive repetition. This repetition doesn’t bore us or bring us down. Just the opposite is the case! This kind of repetition lifts us up, energizes us--like a good dinner at the end of the day or annual or semiannual sex. We never tire of it.


II.
“Curtains” is a Broadway musical that just closed a few weeks ago after its premiere run. Watch for the tour version in the months ahead.
David Hyde Pierce, whose major fame has come from playing Dr. Niles Crane on the critically acclaimed television show, “Fraser,” was in the lead as a detective by the name of Frank Cioffi who gets the assignment of investigating the questionable means of death of the star in a play running at the Colonial Theatre in Boston.
It turns out that the star was past her prime and was forgetting lines and missing cues right and left. Because of her, there was a threat that the show would close down. Several of the other performers couldn’t have that happen for the sake of their careers so, from that point of view, several people had a motive including not only the past-her-prime star’s understudy, but also those who had serious financial interests in the show such as the producer.
We rather quickly learn that Detective Cioffi is himself stage struck and is active avocationally as an actor. In fact, he takes all three weeks of his annual vacation to perform in the big show put on by his community theatre. With that and the fact that he falls in love with the late star’s understudy, one wonders how objective Cioffi can be.
In any case, as the show progresses we find out that the Detective’s annual stage show is that event to which he looks forward like no other and is that recurring event that gives meaning to his life the rest of the year. Nothing is more exciting to him than that show, and, in a way, he does all else he does as a means to get to act. Later today, you will hear David Hyde Pierce as Detective Frank Cioffi singing the song, “Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights.”
The song is about the rather routine life he leads all year, just waiting for the yearly performances. He is a single man, and almost every day he has his morning meal and his evening meal at predictable, diner-type places. Not bad, you know, but not great. He is not depressed about his plight, and he certainly finds his job meaningful and worthwhile; but it doesn’t grip him like acting. So, except for those three wonderful weeks each year, he tells the young starlet who is also enamored with him that this is how he can sum up his life: “Lunch Counter Mornings and Coffee Shop Nights.”
In his words:

So it’s a good life
A perfectly good life
Not exactly sublime
When I’ve finished my work
And I crawl into bed
I reflect as I turn out the lights
That the day that’s to come
And the week that’s ahead will be
Lunch counter mornings
And coffee shop nights
Lunch counter mornings
And coffee shop nights

.....

Oh, Miss Harris, each year from May 23rd to the 12th of June, when I turn my life over to the Swallow Street
Players, that’s more than a vacation for me.
It’s an overture of hope. It’s the curtain rising on the greatest joy of my life.
But the rest of the year
The life that I lead
That’s a little bit grey
There are plenty of low days
And not many highs
Mostly lunch counter mornings
And coffee shop nights.


Detective Cioffi did his work well, but his work didn’t give core meaning to his life. That’s the point of the song.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians who were members of the Church in Philippi, made clear to them what his values were--what he wanted more than anything else, what he would have given all else to possess; and he believed he had, by the way, done that.
On the side of religion, Paul once thought he had bragging rights; most Pharisees thought that. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he wrote to the Philippians, “I have more” (Phil 3:4b NRSV). By “flesh” Paul means something like a cross between human and ethnic achievement. He was very proud of his Jewishness.
Paul’s pedigree, in his own words, of course, since almost no one was as impressed with Paul as Paul was: “...circumcised on the eighth day [precisely as the law required], a member of the people of Israel [a matter of profound pride since the people of Israel had originally been God’s chosen people], of the tribe of Benjamin [among the twelve tribes, second only to the tribe of Judah--and, not to miss the obvious, the tribe into which Jesus was also born], a Hebrew born of Hebrews [repeating his ethnic heritage for emphasis]; as to the law, a Pharisee [someone who kept the letter of the law and probably the political party to which Jesus had belonged before his public ministry began]; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church [on balance, something to be ashamed of, but he worked it into his list because he knows that his readers had heard what he had done before his conversion to Christianity]; as to righteousness under the law, blameless [kind of a reminder of his devout Phariseeism]” (Phil 3:5-6 NRSV).
In the correspondence, there’s an abrupt shift--from braggadocio to utter humility--something we must gather was not easy for Paul. He is pouring out his heart: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the risen Jesus. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing the risen Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain the risen Jesus...” (Phil 3:7-8 NRSV, adapted). That word “rubbish” there has been cleaned up for polite modern company; it literally means dung and may even have been intended as a more crass version of that word. Oh, we loved learning that word in seminary Greek! We could cuss seminary style after that!
All of those personal traits and achievements that Paul had grown up bragging about, carrying his ostentatious spirit into adulthood, Paul came to consider not as gains, but as losses because they had kept him from knowing God as Jesus knew God. They weren’t evil things or bad things, not by any means. Judaism wasn’t Paul’s problem; it was how he had USED his Judaism. Paul counted all everything in his past dung because how he had used it ruined it, blocked him from God instead of binding him to God.
The teaching of Jesus that Paul had studied after years of trying to have Christians condemned and put to death as enemies of the Roman Empire (Paul, a Jew, somehow managed to gain Roman citizenship as well--a very rare combination) brought him into the presence of the God of grace and love. The way Paul had abused Judaism left him empty and angry and frustrated, but the God of Jesus and the God of the people whom Paul had portrayed as traitors to Rome (in order to have them imprisoned and even killed in some instances), the presence of that God filled the void of the most bitter of the faith’s enemies and made him its most ardent advocate.
The way Paul expressed his new thinking to the Philippians still inspires me: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing the risen Jesus my Lord.” For the privilege of knowing the God Jesus wanted others to know, Paul says that he suffered the loss of all things.
Paul was willing to take what became central to him spiritually speaking and put it at the center of his life, not alongside several other items, each of which got a part of his attention from time to time. That was a huge risk. The assurances and the comforts were gone, but joy and the meaning replaced them.


III.
One of the briefest of all of Jesus’ parables that have been passed down to us as a part of his teaching repertoire has the nick name “the pearl of great price.” You heard it read earlier in our Gathering as our reflective reading. Its brevity doesn’t result in the loss of any punch, power, or pizzaz! The parable ends up leaving us uneasy the first time we hear it and every time thereafter--a very Jesus-ish thing to do to his hearers and readers!
Interestingly, in the canonical Gospels, the parable appears only in the Gospel of Matthew and no where else. Interestingly also, the parable does show up again in written form, but in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. There it has been expanded upon and maybe added to a bit with other teachings of Jesus.
Matthew’s version: “Again, the [realm] of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matt 13:45-46 NRSV, adapted).
The Gospel of Thomas’ version:

Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like a merchant who had a supply of merchandise and found a pearl. That merchant was prudent; he sold the merchandise and bought the single pearl for himself. So also with you, seek God’s treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys.”


In Matthew’s “bare bones” version, the subject is the kingdom or realm of God. When we come across that designation in the teachings of Jesus, we’re supposed to understand that Jesus uses phrases such as “kingdom [or realm] of God” and “kingdom [or realm] of heaven” to refer to the way people who live on earth are supposed to live according to the will and the ways of God. We live by those standards in this world in anticipation of their fuller, their complete use and implementation in the next realm. Another way of saying this, conceiving of it, is to point out that the realm of God is reality in this world wherever people--intentionally or not--live by God’s standards of love, justice, compassion, and so on.
OK, so in this brief parable, which--like most or all--has to do with understanding the realm of God as I’ve just explained it, there is a merchant who is intentionally out in search of fine pearls. This is his mission; this is his goal. He has actually made the search his vocation. We don’t make too much of that fact because every parable from Jesus--short or long--has only a single main point, and if we let ourselves get lost in the details we are almost certain to miss that main point or, at least, to minimize it.
The merchant who knew great pearls when he saw them found a pearl of great price, maybe THE pearl of great price. He must have thought it was a or the most valuable pearl in the world so without worry or caution, he sells all he has, everything he has, and buys that pearl. End of story.
End of story? The story can’t end there! If he used all his funds and the profit on the sale of his possessions to acquire the pearl, how did he live after that? I mean, what if you buy the most beautiful, the most valuable, car in the world and have no money to put gas in it or a garage in which to store it? What’s the purpose in having it?
Well, Jesus doesn’t answer those questions, but we’re supposed to ask them. The parable is achieving its function if we do.
Let’s be clear on the main point, though. The parable isn’t about pearls at all; neither is the parable about merchants who seek and search and sell pearls--or any other merchandise for that matter.
The parable is about values of those who live according to God’s standards in this world; those who dare to live in this world by a set of standards that are only perfectly embraced by those who live in God’s most intimate embrace in the next realm. Who in the world dares to live like that?
By the time Jesus’ first hearers were pondering such questions, Jesus was already gone; all they could have seen of him were his footprints in the dust. Come back, Jesus! Hold on! Where did the guy keep the pearl? Who knew he had it? Did he ever sell it?
Think. Think. The parable isn’t about pearls, and it isn’t about merchants. Well, what was that carpenter-preacher talking about?
Think. Think. Jesus’ first hearers, and we readers, we are the merchant. Each of us is a merchant, and the pearls we seek are our true treasures. So, what’s the pearl of great price? What is that treasure for which we would sell everything else we own to possess? What is such a treasure that the minute we see it we would be willing to let go of everything else we have in order to call ours?
Jesus! Come back! Come back over here and finish the story! How will we know if he doesn’t tell us?
The answer is: he will never tell us. The first hearers realize that he never intended to say a single word more than he said, and we today have no more clues than did those who first heard. Each person must answer the question for herself or himself.
Given a realm of God setting, what are the possible answers? I can think of only one other place where Jesus brought up the matter of selling all one has, and the context was not parabolic. It was in conversation with the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to ask him what he had to do to inherit eternal life, God’s kind of life in the present and throughout eternity. Jesus told him that he could keep on keeping all the religious rules he could uncover and still not experience God’s kind of life in this realm or the next. The man insisted, then, that Jesus tell him point blank what to do, and instead of telling him to pray more or to give more than a tithe to religious causes, Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor.” We assume from the way the story is told that the man chose not to possess eternal life if that were the requirement. He went away sad, we are told.
Not everyone needs to sell all that she or he has because there are people who have never let their money or their possessions come between them and God, between themselves and their mandate to share what they have to make life easier and better for the strugglers. The moral of that story is we have to be willing to part with anything that prevents us from keeping God central and strugglers in the forefront of our concern, just--by the way--as Jesus did.
So what is your pearl of great price? The merchant in Jesus’ story knew what was of value and what wasn’t. He didn’t need second appraisal opinions. He knew. He knew. And we know too. We don’t have to wait to be told. We don’t need to do an internet search or an e-bay investigation to figure it out.
Wouldn’t life be amazing if we were like the merchant out in search of the pearl of great price and having found it we did whatever it took to possess it? Wouldn’t life be amazing if we took that one week annual event and incorporated it more fully into our lives throughout the rest of the year?
Some interpreters have suggested that the pearl of great price in Jesus’ thinking--that is, the point he wanted his hearers to get--was the realm of God itself. I don’t buy that for several reasons, one of which is that I think Jesus was trying to illustrate the way to live as God’s people with the right values instead of teaching that the realm of God is like the realm of God.
You may hear or read the parable differently than I, and there may be several correct answers to the question; but I have the hunch that the pearl of great price is not the realm of God itself or the love of God, which is a strong contender; but rather the ability to let go of formulae and formalities as the bases for religion and instead simply to let ourselves be loved by the love that is God. That would, indeed, lead to several parallel experiences of letting go of what is of lesser value to be able to hang on to what really matters.
Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

AS WE STUMBLE ALONG









Beth Leavel as the Drowsy Chaperone in the Original Broadway Cast









I.
“The Drowsy Chaperone” is one of the most unusual musicals I’ve ever seen. It took me a while to get into it, but I knew something worthwhile was there because the show won more Tony awards than any other show on Broadway in 2006. I waited a bit to be drawn in, but it was worth the wait. Here’s the deal.
To chase his blues away, a modern-day musical theatre addict who is never named and who is known only as “Man in Chair” has a record player. Remember those? Wow. A record player. Man in Chair drops the needle on his favorite LP, which turns out to be a recording of the 1928 musical comedy named, of all things, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As the hi-fi crackled along, the 1928 Broadway musical suddenly bursts to life right in his living room. He watches and occasionally interacts, makes a few comments here and there for the benefit of the audience. It’s strange, but it grows on you. Turns out to be very entertaining and loads of fun.
The story of the 1928 show is of a pampered Broadway starlet who shocks everyone by her desire to give up show business because she wants to get married. Her producer is mortified and sets out to break up the happy couple. Among a strange group of characters emerges the starlet’s chaperone. She’s drowsy at times--thus “The Drowsy Chaperone.” And, by the way, she’s drowsy because she’s drinks practically all the time leaving her about as ineffective in her role a chaperone as can be. Since she’s half lit most of the time, she doesn’t know she’s doing a bad job so she doesn’t feel bad about it. She’s more or less in search of her own man so she rarely worries about her young charge.
I gather from the assumptions of the 1928 play that it was improper for a young woman to travel with or to meet a man unless she was constantly in the company of a chaperone. Maybe there’s some wisdom to that for young women and young men today!
The Drowsy Chaperone’s philosophy of life is rather utilitarian and accommodates well her drinking habits. Her philosophy of life might work well for some of us who don’t keep a drink in our hands around the clock. Later in our Gathering you’ll hear Beth Leavel as the Drowsy Chaperone sing the song, “As We Stumble Along.” I loved her performance and the fun spirit of the song.
It’s a very get-the-most-out-of-the-minute-because-the-fun-can-run-out-any-second view of life. Trying to get the most out of life especially on the enjoyment side is a good goal even if we’re not worried about when the shoe is going to drop. I guess, I find it healthier to go for the gusto regardless of caveats, in spite of the fact that it can’t go on forever. I don’t think a constant reminder that life is transient is either necessary or helpful as a motivation for making the most of the moment.
Let’s enjoy ourselves because enjoying ourselves is, in and of itself, a good thing. Life is a gift, and in so far as possible it should be enjoyed, relished even.
The poet was Robert Herrick and his poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.


One wonders how appreciative all the young maidens have been who have had people like Mr. Herrick worrying for them about the single life and the ticking biological clock. His rosebuds were metaphors for man-finding and marriage-making.
Hear the prophecy of First Isaiah, chapter 22:

On that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that there were many breaches in the city of David, and you collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to the One who did it, or have regard for God who planned it long ago. In that day the Lord God of hosts called to weeping and mourning, to baldness and putting on sackcloth; but instead there was joy and festivity, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating meat and drinking wine. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Lord of hosts has revealed the divine self in my ears: Surely this iniquity will not be forgiven you until you die, says the Lord God of hosts (Isa 22:8-14 NRSV).


The people of Judah, in this passage, are under siege. The king of Assyria, Sennacherib, is preparing to attack. The prophet Isaiah is castigating them. In their fear, they had made right some of the battle preparations, but--from all indications--they had left God out of the picture altogether. Isaiah thought that they were being spiritually ignorant about the whole matter.
Instead of repenting of their disrespectful treatment of God through weeping and mourning by cutting off their hair and donning sackcloth in place of their usual clothing, it was as if they were partying. Making military preparations by day, and living it up by night. The prophet was certain theirs wasn’t a time to be running around joyfully; there was nothing to be joyful about. How could they be partying even at the end of the day? They were leaving time for everything except God, Isaiah thought.
They found time to slaughter animals in preparation for their big war feasts, but they found no time for God. First Isaiah slammed his compatriots for making time to glut out and guzzle the wine while leaving absolutely no time for God. Isaiah is both mocking them and condemning them when he puts words to what he sees them doing: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Isaiah believed they’d die in the battles without ever having sought forgiveness from God for their behavior because they were living as if God wasn’t even a part of the picture. Furthermore, in his theological framework, the military defeat they were sure to suffer was at least in part God’s punishment on them for having lived as if God didn’t exist.
The saying in the book of Isaiah to eat and drink because death comes tomorrow is not a word of recommended wisdom! It’s a way of both laughing at and condemning the shortsightedness of people who have a spiritual foundation, but who are either too self-absorbed or too stupid to make use of it.
The use of that saying as an honest proposal for living comes from the writer of the book of Hebrew scripture called Ecclesiastes. He was less than enamored with how life worked for humans so while the prophet was critical of this notion, the writer of Ecclesiastes really thought it was the way to go. In King James English he said: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 KJV).
In popular thought, the two admonitions have been combined in a way as to honor the perspective of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes but to discount altogether the concern of the prophet. That’s a very interesting heritage for this proverbial thought. In any case, the Drowsy Chaperone, as you will hear later in the Gathering, will take the side of those who proclaim, “Eat, drink--especially drink--and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
I can think of a few biblical antidotes to such fatalism. For one, remember these words from one of the psalmists: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psa 118:24 NRSV). Period. For another example, there is advice attributed to Jesus:

...do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?”, or, “What will we drink?”, or, “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles [the unbelievers] who strive for all these things; and indeed your [God in heaven] knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the [reign] of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt 6:31-34 NRSV).


Amen! And the vast majority of the world’s people will be around tomorrow to deal with those troubles!


II.
I make it a point not to read much of the book of Ecclesiastes if I’m having a bad day. His view, while brutally honest for him, doesn’t help me unless I need support for a day when I’m asking, “What the hades?” But that’s not a place where, most days, I should stay for long!
I especially avoid the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes if I’m frustrated with those rote activities in life--those personal and professional tasks we must tend to repeatedly. The writer is way too eloquent in his critique of repetition and mundanity for me to wrestle with on a day when my time is filled with duties that have to be done again and again.
You already heard some of this passage. In the spirit of repetition, hear it again! I will treat you, however, to the reading from a different translation of the Bible. I’m reading now from the New Jerusalem Bible:

Sheer futility, Qoheleth says. [Qoheleth is the writer’s name or title. If it’s a title, it means Teacher or Preacher.] Sheer futility: everything is futile! [Here we go!] What profit can we show for all our toil, toiling under the sun? A generation goes, a generation comes, yet the earth stands firm for ever. The sun rises, the sun sets; then to its place it speeds and there it rises. Southward goes the wind, then turns to the north; it turns and turns again; then back to its circling goes the wind. Into the sea go all the rivers, and yet the sea is never filled, and still to their goal the rivers go. All things are wearisome. No one can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing. What was, will be again, what has been done, will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun! Take anything which people acclaim as being new: it existed in the centuries preceding us. No memory remains of the past, and so it will be for the centuries to come -- they will not be remembered by their successors. I, Qoheleth, have reigned over Israel in Jerusalem. Wisely I have applied myself to investigation and exploration of everything that happens under heaven. What a wearisome task God has given humanity to keep us busy! I have seen everything that is done under the sun: how futile it all is, mere chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:2-14 NJB).


Every Sunday, come to church, leave, come again next Sunday. Oops! Sorry! Wrong church. Let’s move on.
Except for technology, I have to agree with Qoheleth. I wouldn’t say that nothing changes--double negative intentional, but what I would say is that people don’t change--or seem not to. Individuals and families and nations seem to keep getting themselves into the same kinds of trouble. Despite the amazing and heroic good that comes along in almost every generation, patterns of personal and corporate destruction seem to reassert themselves time and again.
Much of what is core in many of the religions of the world is a repeat--perhaps with different explanations and examples--of accepted practices in use before the religion came on the scene. That is something for us to chew on.
A few weekends ago, the church made it possible for me to attend two lectures by one of the great teachers of preaching in our day, Dr. Tom Long of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Thank you. Dr. Long was in town and speaking over at Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
The lectures were very fresh and worthwhile--something I rarely find in presentations prepared for clergy. We got to talk a little shop, which was thrilling for me. I don’t get enough of that.
Tom’s major doctoral professor at Princeton was Dr. Donald Macleod, the late Dr. Macleod. He was really a big name in the academic study of preaching in my student days, and I was thrilled when I edited Pulpit Digest that he was one of the contributing editors. He retired to Baltimore while I was still a pastor down there, and I arranged to interview him for the journal over lunch.
The gist of the interview, so fresh into retirement, was going to be how preaching had changed in his long years of teaching it. I started the interview by saying something like this, “Dr. Macleod, let’s start with the present and work backward. What are the best modern books on preaching that you’d recommend to those in the trenches?”
The distinguished professor took a sip of water, wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and then answered: “None are any good. They aren’t any good because the preachers of today and their teachers don’t want to take seriously the essential facts about preaching that have long been established.”
“Check please!”
The prophet Isaiah (2:4), way back in his day, envisioned a time in what for him would not have been the distant future, when, in his thoughtful words, humanity would study war no more. Now you can get a Ph.D. in warfare.
Steve Shaw told me a couple of years ago that a time would come when robotic warfare would be the norm. I think that time is nearing. When I’m being critical of war-planners, I want you to know that I know that there are some people in the thick of it who are there precisely because they want to minimize the loss of human life. Surely we all know that many of the most effective peacemakers are or have been in uniform.
I don’t see how I, as a preacher in the Jesus tradition, can preach anything but peace. Even so, this does not mean that I lack respect for those who have chosen to or who have had to fight in wars. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Nonetheless, there are warmongers who seem to want war for the sake of war or else, like Qoheleth, they believe that since war always has been it always will be. These are folks whose views need to change.
Last year in Great Britain the “Study War No More” report was released. This detailed investigation examines military involvement at twenty-six of the United Kingdom’s major universities in an effort to understand the impact military funding has on institutions of higher learning and specific university departments. The report shares findings about funding of UK universities by military organizations, “both governmental and industrial.”
As I understand it, part of the impetus for undertaking the study was to address the concerns of a growing number of students about the impact their institutions were having both on international peace and on international conflict. The study was endorsed by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR).
The “Study War No More” project was released last year, and it showed that

*between 2001 and 2006, more than 1,900 military projects were conducted in the 26 UK universities studied by the report (and be aware that there are many more universities!).

*the total value of these projects was at least £725 million. (Using Friday’s exchange rates, that would have been $1,442,387,080.)

*those institutions conducting the largest number of military projects were, in descending rank order: Cambridge, Loughborough, Oxford, Southampton, and University College, London.

*three powerful multinational companies were involved as the sponsors and/or partners of over two-thirds of the identified military projects: Rolls Royce (the world’s sixteenth largest defense contractor), BAE Systems (the world’s third largest defense contractor),and QinetiQ (a defense technology corporation).

*the government’s military research establishment was involved in at least a fourth of all these projects; and

*over half of all military projects were conducted in university engineering departments, with the rest spread over other science and technology departments.



Same ol’ same ol’ huh?


III.
As we stumble along
‘cross life’s crowded dance floors.
As we push and we shove
we live and we learn.
And when we finally leave the bar,
And we see that morning star,
we pull our boot straps up
and homeward turn.

Then we stumble away
through dawn’s blinding sunbeams.
Barely knowing right from right
nor left from wrong.
But as long as we can hear that little blue bird
There’ll be a song
as we stumble along.


One thing the Drowsy Chaperone gets right is that life is a journey; hopefully, as few as possible of us stumble consistently along the path--especially from an abundance of intoxicating drink, but all of us are going to stumble from time to time. There is movement, though, as long as we understand life correctly. This moment, however good or bad it is for us, will lead to the next moment. This stop on life’s journey will lead to the next stop. Not every step or stage can be wonderful--some will be painful, some will be silly, some will be pointless perhaps.
If the present stop is a bad place, the next one might be a little better, a bit easier to bear maybe. If the present stop is a pinnacle, and this is as good as it gets, well, we know the next stop might be as good, but it can’t get better. I don’t think that’s pessimism. I think it’s optimism; at the very least, it’s realism. Still, for me it’s optimism.
Let me pause to let you know that I know that I’m speaking from a very privileged first world perspective. I have a great deal of opportunity in my part of the world to influence my destiny and to keep myself moving on proper pathways. Not everyone in the world has either the civil freedom to choose purposeful pathways or the opportunities, for example, to find enough food to keep their children from starving. One more reason we should be grateful for our first world opportunities.
About twenty-two years ago, I sank into a depression. I felt it coming on. I had recently completed my graduate degrees with a minor in pastoral care and counseling, and I knew what depression was. I was clearly aware of what was happening to me, but I couldn’t stop the descent.
I was frustrated because I thought I was at one of those pinnacles, and it made absolutely no sense to me that I should be depressed. I was a young seminary professor teaching in my beloved seminary-alma-mater; I was editing the most highly respected of all preaching journals at the time. Career-wise I was in my dream jobs for that point in my life.
I was deeply in love with my wife, and I profoundly loved my sons who were not-quite three and not-quite one. I knew they all loved me too.
Being a newbie at both of my professional responsibilities, I worked a lot. I certainly wanted to make my professional mark, but I also was intent on making a good life and a good home for my loved ones. Most all of us want opportunities for our children that we didn’t have. I was just that kind of parent too.
I had an office at home, and I tried to work there as much as possible. You know, every moment with kids at those ages is a potential celebration with some new move, some mark of progress, some new word learned so I didn’t want to be any further away from that than I absolutely had to.
I began to notice, though, that when I got home from work, none of the three of them seemed to have as much excitement about seeing me as I felt I had for hurrying back to them. My wife was tired most of the time. Carson was still nursing, and I had nothing to offer him regarding what he was most interested in at that point in his young life. Jarrett was already off in his private post-twos independence; he might show me a picture he’d drawn, but he’d quickly get back to a project or his swing set, which he liked to maneuver alone.
I’d often get home from work around 6, and the household was in bed asleep by 8:30. No matter how tired I am, my body just will not shut down before close to midnight so I was lonely a lot. I was working so hard for them, and there wasn’t much evidence that it mattered. I felt very selfish for even entertaining those feelings, but they were there; and I couldn’t be rid of them.
This is exactly what I told the therapist when I finally bit the bullet and sought out some help. There was no magic cure, but certainly one of the most beneficial aspects of my sessions came the second time I saw Dr. Johansson. He told me that it was important for me to learn to think about family dynamics in a way that would be parallel to an individual’s experience of life. In other words, he explained, just as individuals go through various stages so do families. Everything each of my three family members did was perfectly normal and in order for him or her individually at that span of time; the dynamics that created for family weren’t the best for me, but it was a stage. And if you live through one stage appropriately you’ll move on to the next with all the essentials in tact.
The way that important wisdom lodged in my consciousness was influenced by the Greek language in which I’d submerged myself. The Greek verbs want to show us not just action, but types of action. There are seven tenses for New Testament Greek verbs. Present tense indicates that something is happening now and is ongoing. Most often, the best way to capture the Greek present tense in English is by translating the Drowsy Chaperone’s favorite verb as “I am drinking” rather than simply “I drink” even though the latter is technically correct. The former, the “I am drinking,” gets the linear ongoing sense of the verb more clearly set in our understanding.
The aorist tense, and there is no simple past tense in biblical Koine Greek, is action that happened at some point and is completed. It is punctilliar action, point in time action. I’m not sure aorist would work very often for the Drowsy Chaperone, but for the sake of illustration we would say, “I drank some wine with dinner.” It happened, and it’s over with.
That’s how Dr. Johansson’s counsel registered with me given my seminary-tinted view of the world. The stage my family was going through was just that, a stage. It would be over. Eventually, it would be done with. It would be spoken of one day in the aorist tense, as I am doing this very day! Other stages would come when everyone would be more attentive to me and enthusiastic about my presence.
Indeed, he was right, but before I knew experientially that he was correct his perspective still helped me tremendously and had much to do with pulling me out of the depression. Thankfully, mine was a situational depression and not a clinical or chemical depression--a much more ominous kind of depression to treat.
That realization remains a major part of what keeps me mentally healthy. Life is a journey; in the big picture, life is linear, and it’s going some where. Most of us aren’t stuck, and we have the means at our disposal to move, not to stumble, from point A to point B, hopefully to a stage that is at least as meaningful and healthful as the one where we are now. If the present stage is a bad one for us, if the boredom or the monotony are getting to us, then that’s life...for the moment. But that sad or challenging stage will not forever pin us down.
Amen.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

RUN, FREEDOM, RUN



















I.
It’s complicated for a Jesus-oriented person like me to have a single “favorite” saying from the body of teachings that have been attributed to Jesus. That said, one of the most moving and penetrating for me is this simple, six-word excerpt: “The truth will make you free.”

There are several reasons this saying grips me the way it does. One reason is that I value my personal freedom so much. Another reason is that the man who presumably spoke these words, Jesus from Nazareth, never knew a single day of political freedom in his life. He was not someone who had once tasted of freedom and hoped to regain it. As far as we know, he didn’t know of any example of true political freedom to draw him into a pro-freedom perspective in that regard.

Certainly, his people, the Jews, cherished freedom and had that longing intensified by their frequent subjugation to other more powerful nations and empires. Indeed, one of the high hopes that the ancient Hebrews had and fixed onto their vision of a delivering messiah was that she or he would come, anointed by God, to deliver the Jews from their oppressors conclusively. We must be careful to note that democracy wasn’t in their minds. They, instead, longed for a sovereign to rule them; this was the ideal as far as they were concerned. Freedom from oppression, then, was in Jesus’ blood, but he never knew such freedom as a reality. Nonetheless, he must have known a profound inner freedom, the possibility for which he attached to truth and not to politics.

Speaking of Jesus in a political setting, have you heard of the new book, Jesus for President? The subtitle is: “Politics for Ordinary Radicals.” The authors are Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Claiborne is the Jim Wallis of the future, and his ministry operation is right up the road from us in Philly. He has a fairly traditional theological orientation, but a rather radical social justice perspective. Here’s a quote from the book for you to ponder:

The history of the church has been largely a history of “believers” refusing to believe in the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptations he resisted--power, relevancy, spectacle…To say that we must kill our enemies and join the popular project to “rid the world of evil” is to call Jesus unrealistic. And this is possibly desirable for many; surely his ideas do not resonate with any common wisdom (p. 166).


The book has this thought-provoking comment from a former slave, none other than Frederick Douglas:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference - so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked....I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.


I must move us momentarily away from the topic of the day to discuss the complicated title that Jesus most likely never heard attached to his first name, Yeshua. I’m talking about the word, “christ.” This word has created all sorts of complications for the Jesus movement, and it still does.

Tom Ledbetter was leading Forum one Sunday when he touched on part of the problem by saying, “Christ was not Jesus’ last name! When people saw Jesus, they didn’t yell out, `Hey, Jesus Christ!’” The word, “christ,” is the English translation of the Greek, christos (χριςτωσ); it is the biblical Greek word for the Hebrew that we translate “messiah.” The word simply means “anointed one.” There is no divinity attached to it in any way.

According to theologian Dale Moody with whom I studied at Southern Seminary, the title “christ” is properly applied to Jesus only after Jesus’ resurrection. Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe about Jesus’ resurrection, you can at least apply Dr. Moody’s delimitation to the biblical material written about Jesus after his resurrection. Thus, we should never refer to Jesus in any of the Gospels as “Jesus Christ.” Even though all four Gospels were written well after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they intend to portray Jesus as he lived before his death; thus, “Christ” can never apply.

Now, another problem. To apply the term “christ” to Jesus at all is to force upon him a title and role he never claimed for himself. While some people believed that Jesus was, in fact, the messiah hoped for by the ancient Hebrews, Jesus never affirmed that, and he flatly failed to perform in a way that the anticipated messiah was supposed to perform. He did not through his own power and influence or through the rallying together of the Jewish people defeat the oppressors of his people in his time--namely Rome.

That the later followers of Jesus came to believe the messianic hopes of ancient Israel were misguided and that Jesus was God’s anointed sent to build a spiritual kingdom rather than a political kingdom, is absolutely no justification for forcing posthumously upon Jesus a role he clearly did not own or fulfill. The really tough part of this is that much of institutional Christianity has been built on an acceptance of Jesus as messiah, as “christ,” and to throw out that word is tantamount in many minds to rejecting Jesus himself even though nothing could be further from the truth. Trying to make Jesus messiah is to say that his own Jewish contemporaries, who knew much more about messianic hopes that we do or could, didn’t know what they were talking about. It is also to accept later traditions of the institutional church over what we have from Jesus himself.

Only one of Jesus’ closest followers--one in the men’s group--refused to let Jesus be who he was. Certainly, many of the followers of Jesus especially in the men’s group didn’t understand Jesus or what he was trying to do and say, but one of them understood him, perhaps more than all the rest, and wouldn’t let him be who he was. I’m talking about Judas. Judas saw the compassion and love at the heart of all Jesus taught and did, and this scared him. A passive, bleeding heart Mr. Nice Guy could never accomplish what the hoped for messiah or christ needed to bring about--namely, angry and militaristic troop formation in order to try to throw off the shackles of Rome.

Judas was sick at his stomach when he heard Jesus teach, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Turn the other cheek.” He believed he was fighting an uphill battle for sure when he saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a little donkey colt rather than on a conquerer’s steed. Judas betrayed Jesus into the hands of Rome not for a measly thirty pieces of silver, but because he believed if Rome apprehended Jesus, he would finally be forced to fight back. The only way Judas could force Jesus to be who Judas REQUIRED him to be--messiah or christ--was to have him step up to the plate and defeat Rome. Even in the face of certain death, Jesus chose to be the person of love whom God had called him to be--not the militaristic messiah of olden hopes.

The Christian trade off was, “Well, Jesus changed the meaning of messiah and became a different kind.” If so, we have an insurmountable problem. If that is what he was about, why didn’t he just say so? What he did say, though, was, “The truth--not anybody’s false expectations--will make you free.”


II.
A few years ago, I was in New York City and stumbling around wide-eyed as I still do when I’m there, taking in the flashing lights and accompanying sounds that define the visual city at night. In the theatre district, I saw a large sign outside of what looked like a theatre, and at first glance it looked as if the sign touted something about urine. At first I thought, “Not another one of these so-called modern art exhibits!” Then, I decided that I must have misread, that the optical overload was causing me to see something the wrong way. If that were so, though, I began to wonder why in a Rorschach experience I would read “urine” into a sign, which led me to pull out my health insurance card to see what my health plan offered in terms of mental health benefits.

In the mean time, I had to figure out what was on that sign for sure so I walked closer and closer and saw with my very own eyes, “Urinetown.” It was unmistakably the name of some kind of play starring Broadway legend John Cullum, which told me that it probably was a musical. Even more gross, I thought to myself! A musical about you know what? But how did they ever get such a highly respected, highly regarded actor like John Cullum to sing in it? John Cullum and I grew up in the same home town, a generation or so apart. We have lots of connections to each other, even though I’m sure he wouldn’t know me from Adam. In college, I lived next door to the woman who had been his high school drama teacher, Miss Ruby Byrd. Between college and seminary, I worked for a church whose pastor was John Cullum’s brother, and when Pastor Cullum, a widower, remarried, John Cullum came from Broadway to sing in the wedding.

In those days, I knew very little about theatre and had never been to a play on Broadway, much less to New York. I didn’t know Cullum had first sung the popular song, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” in a Broadway show of the same name. I did not know that he followed Richard Kiley as the lead in “Man of La Mancha.” I did not know that he had starred in any number of other Broadway shows not the least of which was “Shenandoah.” I didn’t know much when I first heard of him and met him except that he was famous in theatre circles. Why would he accept a role in a show that had “urine” in its name: “Urinetown the Musical”?

Little did I know that the musical was a huge Broadway hit. Here are some comments from talkingbroadway.com:

There really is a musical called Urinetown; it really is about a drought-stricken future where urination is no longer free, and it really stars Broadway veteran John Cullum....The premise, of course, is preposterous; yet that's what gives “Urinetown” its charm....The show begins with its narrator, Officer Lockstock, explaining the plight, and how anyone refusing to use public toilets ("amenities") sanctioned by Urine Good Company (UGC) will be hauled off to Urinetown, from which no one ever returns. Most of the play's action centers around Public Amenity #9, run by Penelope Pennywise and Bobby Strong. When Bobby meets and falls in love with Hope, the daughter of UGC president Caldwell B. Cladwell, he is inspired to lead a charge against a proposed rate hike that would drive urination farther out of the bounds of the city’s poor.


When that rate hike is announced, Bobby rebels and the city’s poor with him. This leads to Bobby’s singing about freedom, which is their goal but not yet their possession. Freedom is something they have to run toward as they run away from their would-be captors.

Many groups throughout history struggling for freedom have had to run away from the forces that didn’t want them to be free; they ran away from oppression as they ran toward the possibilities for freedom often into some great unknown. Gaining freedom is often risky.

The classic biblical example is the exodus, the escape of the ancient Hebrew people from their Egyptian overlords. Leaving Egypt on the run, they put their lives in danger; the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness in search of the land they believed God had for them kept them in danger. Out in the desert, many of them realized that oppression had its perks, that freedom was often uneasy and uncertain, that freedom didn’t happen instantly, that on the way out of oppression and into freedom lives would be lost.

Bobby sang it in “Urinetown”:

That freedom sun
Will shine someday
`Til then you better run
Run-a, run-a, run
Freedom, run away!


Bobby goes on to say, “Freedom is scary. It's a blast of cool wind that burns your face to wake you up.” Indeed.

In this May’s issue of “The Smithsonian” online, there’s an article that presented me with information about which I’d never heard a thing.

The first Pilgrims to reach America seeking religious freedom were English and settled in Massachusetts. Right? Well, not so fast. Some fifty years before the Mayflower left port, a band of French colonists came to the New World. Like the later English Pilgrims, these Protestants were victims of religious wars, raging across France and much of Europe. And like those later Pilgrims, they too wanted religious freedom and the chance for a new life....Their story is at the heart of [a new book by Kenneth C. Davis, America’s Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation]. It is a story of America's birth and baptism in a religious bloodbath. A few miles south of St. Augustine [Florida] sits Fort Matanzas (the word is Spanish for “slaughters”). Now a national monument, the place reveals the “hidden history” behind America’s true “first pilgrims,” an episode that speaks volumes about the European arrival in the Americas and the most untidy religious struggles that shaped the nation.


Spain’s Admiral Menéndez came off ship to go on foot with a band of infantrymen in search of the freedom-seeking French settlers in the New World, most of them Huguenots, Protestants with a devotion to the teachings of Protestant Reformer, John Calvin.

Far more at home on sea than leading infantry, Admiral Menéndez drove his men with such ferocity because he was gambling—throwing the dice that he could reach the enemy before they struck him. His objective was the French settlement of Fort Caroline, France’s first foothold in the Americas, located near present-day Jacksonville [Florida], on what the French called the River of May. On this pitch-black night, the small, triangular, wood-palisaded fort was occupied by a few hundred men, women and children. They were France’s first colonists in the New World—and the true first “Pilgrims” in America.

Attacking before dawn on September 20, 1565, with the frenzy of holy warriors, the Spanish easily overwhelmed Fort Caroline. With information provided by a French turncoat, the battle-tested Spanish soldiers used ladders to quickly mount the fort’s wooden walls. Inside the settlement, the sleeping Frenchmen—most of them farmers or laborers rather than soldiers—were caught off-guard,...The veteran Spanish harquebusiers swept in on the nightshirted and naked Frenchmen who leapt from their beds and grabbed futilely for weapons. Their attempts to mount any real defense were hopeless. The battle lasted less than an hour.

Although some of the French defenders managed to escape the carnage, 132 [persons] were killed in the fighting in the small fort. The Spanish suffered no losses and only a single man was wounded. The forty or so French survivors fortunate enough to reach the safety of some boats anchored nearby, watched helplessly as Spanish soldiers flicked the eyeballs of the French dead with the points of their daggers. The shaken survivors then scuttled one of their boats and sailed the other two back to France.


Run, freedom, run.


III.
Speaking in reference to the eighth pastor of Silverside Church, President Abraham Lincoln said: “That one, little, loyal, clear-headed Baptist minister of Wilmington, James S. Dickerson, saved Delaware to the Union” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 108). Dickersonʼs antislavery sentiments reflect this congregationʼs longstanding commitments to inclusivity and social justice that prevail to this day. These are modern-day freedoms, my dear friends.

This church has had twenty-three pastors in its 173 year history. I am pastor twenty-three. The congregation’s eighth pastor, the Reverend J. S. (James Stokes) Dickerson, served Second Baptist Church (now Silverside Church) from 1861-1865. Dickerson was admired by many anti-slavery citizens, the most notable of whom was none other than President Lincoln.

In the book, James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, Emma Dickerson, his widow, makes it clear that her husband was no blind patriot. It was not his desire to support the President under any and all circumstances; rather, he believed it his faith duty to condemn the sale and abuse of human beings. She wrote in her book:

The country was in the agony of an opening civil war; the powerful gripe [sic] of a great armed rebellion was fastening itself upon her throat, and under the alleged right of secession the Southern States were rapidly banding themselves against the Union. Mr. Dickerson had scarcely been a month in Wilmington when the cannon fired upon Fort Sumter plunged the nation into the dire reality of civil war” (pp. 102-3).


On Saturday, April 13, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter was attacked, Dickerson decided he could not preach, the next morning, the sermon he had planned to preach. He went to his study at the church that Saturday afternoon and wrote out a full manuscript for a new sermon to be preached in its place. He went with “a heart fired with loyal zeal and fully alive to the character and magnitude of the struggle that had commenced between freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, government and anarchy” (p. 104). The sermon, entitled “The Duties of the Hour,” went down in history. In a long and colorful preaching career, that sermon would be remembered more than all the others Dickerson had or would preach.
On Saturday evening, Pastor Dickerson met with several of his congregants whom he knew to share his perspectives on the slavery issue. Not all members did, and certainly not all of the political leaders of Wilmington supported his antislavery stance. Dickerson asked his supporters to see that the pulpit, the next morning, would be draped with an American flag. Even his most ardent supporters were unsure of the wisdom of taking that step, but before the sermon was preached on Sunday April 14, 1861, some brave parishioner or parishioners saw that it was done.

A few, and but a few, rallied nobly to his support. Some of his members, knowing the excitement that prevailed in the community, asked him if he would like to have an armed guard by him in the church. He declined the proposal, preferring to trust God and the right for his protection. Some of the brethren, however, without his knowledge, arranged that an armed force should be present, both to shield him from attack, and the church from threatened injury (p. 106).


A large crowd gathered the following morning to hear J. S. Dickersonʼs sermon; plenty of those in attendance were enemies to Dickerson and his cause; some, his “violent opposers” (p. 106). Dickerson prayed fervently for his country and sang with high energy the patriotic hymns of the day.

He preached his now-famous sermon eloquently. A few of the listeners walked out on him as he preached against slavery. He paused as each one exited “in recognition of their withdrawal” (p. 107). There was no violence.

Beyond his pulpit, Dickerson labored tirelessly for the cause of freedom in

...Wilmington and its neighborhood, by unceasing patriotic and Christian activity; at Fort Delaware; at the front as an officer of the Christian Commission; everywhere that his bodily or mental activity could make itself felt... (p. 107).


That is quite some heritage, my sisters and brothers, and quite some heritage for us to live up to. I would suggest to you today that this is not a part of our heritage that we can allow to become merely ornamental. Instead, we are still in and must remain in the business of being liberators and of helping people find their way to the liberating love of God not to mention the practical freedoms that in this country are intended to be exercised outside the inner spiritual realm.

I will leave the means of best protecting our broad-based political freedoms in a world context to those who seek to make peace and to keep the peace. Military force, after all, will not ultimately keep a people free. I will today speak with honor of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedoms in this country, and I will also speak with honor today of those who believe there are ways moving forward that lives may not have to be lost in the quest for and in the preservation of freedom.

In the Apostle Paul’s correspondence with the Christians in Galatia, he spoke powerfully of freedom as a a gift of the risen Jesus. “For freedom,” he said, “the risen Jesus has set us free.” Paul lived in a world where slavery was an economic reality, and while Paul affirmed the personhood of slaves he never condemned the institution of slavery. The fact that Paul hobnobbed with slaveholders, as a matter of fact, was grist for the mill of pro-slavery types in the Civil War era of our country’s history.

The freedom, then, that Paul had in mind in his correspondence with the Galatians was not political freedom. He was concerned about spiritual freedom, and the oppressor, the enslaver, in his paradigm was a religion-as-rules mentality. There is no freedom in the spiritual realm if we believe we have to keep a stack of laws in order to please God and, thus, earn the right to be and to do. Paul himself had been there, and he knew it was a dead end.

What occurs to me is that we cannot value broad political freedoms for ourselves or for others unless we experience the profound spiritual freedom about which both Jesus and Paul spoke. Jesus, again, said the truth will make us free; and Paul, again, said that the risen Jesus had freed us for spiritual freedom.

So few people in the world today as I perceive it trust either spiritual or political freedom. Freedom cannot last with only a handful who champion it. There must be some few at least who understand its nature and its origin. Run, freedom, run.

Amen.