Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Parable Sermon

A House Built on Rock

A House Built on Sand

 ‘Why do you call me `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house” (Luke 6:46-49 NRSV).

“Two Builders,” Words by David Albert Farmer (c) 2008

Hear now again a__ story told
If you have ears to__ hear,
And when the parable of Jesus grasps your thoughts
That you should act is clear.

One builder set out to build a house,
The lovely house built on sand;
But when__ heavy, frightful storms__ blew__ in,
The house it could not stand.

Another builder__ built a house,
The second house built on rock,
And when__ heavy, frightful storms__ blew__ in,
This house withstood the shock.

The rains and floods are__ sure to come
Along with wild, heavy winds.
The well__ being of my spiritual self
On my planned base depends.

The Sermon

Many of you when you have made house-buying decisions across the years have probably bought houses that were already built--houses you bought from a previous owner or from a builder in a new development. Some of you, though, have gone through the process of overseeing the building of a house from the foundation up, and maybe one or two of you have actually built a house.
One of the vivid memories I have from my growing up years in Halls Crossroads was the house my parents had built from scratch. The process was long and involved, sometimes frustrating, but to a middle-school-aged rural boy, it was absolutely fascinating. From the process of selecting a lot, which my Dad called one of the prettiest pieces of land he’d ever seen, to the hiring of builders and plumbers and electricians, I was enthralled.
It was hard for me to believe, after the bulldozers came in to dig out the foundation--ruining much of the beauty of our wooded property, that anything beautiful could ever eventuate. I simply had no idea at the time how vital the foundation was to the well-built house or how nicely nature would clean up the mess.
Now and then, Dad would show me a segment from the blueprints that corresponded to something that was being accomplished by one of the craftspersons. This was always a potential challenge since he was a strongly left-brain person, and I, his first-born son, was--to his confusion--much more of a right-brainer. Even so, I was amazed at the skill of the people involved not the least of whom were Mom and Dad who were able to articulate their dream home into practical realities.
After a series of stops and starts and a host of delays, the house was completed. The house on the scenic lot just off the Freeway headed out from Halls toward the Norris Dam was ready to become a home, and in my mind’s eye, as we walked into the completed project for the first time, the house wasn’t just the finished product, but rather the end result of a series of intricate processes--beginning with the digging of a foundation, a big ole hole in the ground, and ending with floor finishes. It was a proud, proud day for struggling, working-class parents to be able to walk their children into such a fine place to live.
My dear friends and fellow builders, building a spiritual house is a lot like building a physical house in many respects. One of the most significant is that the responsibility for getting it done is our own; no one is just going to build us a habitable house and move us in. If we don’t take responsibility for our living arrangements for the spiritual house in which we intend to dwell, we will be homeless and unprotected.
This makes sense in several ways, but one of the most obvious and realistic is that a place to live, physically and spiritually, is a deeply personal kind of thing. If you’ve ever had to live in the wrong house for any length of time, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This is one reason realtors spend countless hours showing prospective buyers house after house after house; besides seeing for themselves that the dwelling isn’t falling apart, there is that important sense of place that can only be determined by being in house. And a closely related matter for onsite confirmation is functionality; no one can determine for us whether living in this house or that, in fact, “works” for us.
Most of us have only one house, or, at least, only one at a time, and we know right off the bat how many we have if someone asks us. Wealth and opportunity may allow a very small percentage of the world’s population to have more than one physical house, but no one--including the most wealthy and influential--can have more than one spiritual house. And when it comes to a spiritual house, you can’t pay anyone to do it for you though there are clergypersons and religious institutions out there who want that word kept quiet; they are getting rich and enjoying massive amounts of undeserved power because they claim to be able to do the spiritual house-building for those who pay and otherwise do what they say. Incidentally, there are probably more spiritually homeless than physically homeless people in the world today.
There are both the overt as well as the covert processes of building a spiritual home. The overt parts of the process include some sense of God or Supreme Being or Ultimate Reality and I think both a sense of positive connection to that Reality as well as some sense of communication, and I don’t mean hearing voices or getting directives about which burger to order at Wendy’s. So there is a sense of God, and there is communing with God--expanding our knowledge of how to think of God and our ability to commune with God. There is also for many of us the important life choice to be a part of a spiritual community that encourages us to keep building or rebuilding our spiritual houses and seeking to hear the voice of God through the sermons and speeches we hear from other seekers. There are readings in scripture and other sources that cause us to be confronted with the reality of God’s love and motivation to dare to live as God’s people in a world that clearly prefers not to be bothered.
What I mean by “covert processes” of spiritual house-building are those activities that aren’t directly related to the process, those deeds that at first notice we wouldn’t think of as contributing to our spiritual well-being, but they do anyway. On this Labor Day weekend, an obvious example is our vocation, what we do to pay the bills. Our work itself and/or how we do our work either adds to or takes away from our spiritual development, our spiritual house-building.
The Broadway show I have in mind today is “Ragtime,” and the song on which I’m focusing and that you will hear later in our Gathering is called “Henry Ford.” It’s sung by the character playing the great American industrialist. It’s hard for lots of folks to feel fulfilled working for someone who thinks of workers the way the play’s Henry Ford thinks of them:

Mass production
Will sweep the nation.
A simple notion,
The world's reward.

Even people who ain't too clever
Can learn to tighten a nut forever,
Attach one pedal
Or pull one lever

Think of this in the most positive sense for a moment, though, because I know some of you are thinking about all the aspects of your jobs that you hate and insisting to yourself that your job clearly works against your spiritual well-being. I’m sure there are those jobs, but most jobs give us opportunities to add another plank or shingle to our spiritual houses. Any time we use a God-given talent to accomplish something beneficial, that enhances the spiritual self. A college professor may detest the administrative structure in which she or he teaches, but there is the student who shows up occasionally, maybe not every term but occasionally, to whom real knowledge or skill enhancement is imparted; and the teacher knows at some level that that student is going to make the world a better place. Fortunately, too, there are those students professors are sure don’t get it, but who end up making us proud against all our suspicions.
Other examples of work situations that enhance the strength of our spiritual houses in ways about which we may not be immediately aware: returning kindness when kindness isn’t called for, being honest when you know you can get by with being dishonest, letting respectful treatment of coworkers supersede your company’s requisite employe-versus-employee competitiveness.
You fill in the blanks. Just keep in mind that spiritual house-building and physical house-building parallel each other and have to be done as initial and ongoing processes.

Back in the summer of 1983, my doctoral professor sent me to Boston to do firsthand research of primary documents and to conduct interviews related to my dissertation. There were two major places I could go to study the preaching of Theodore Parker Ferris, the Rector of Trinity Church from 1942 to 1972, successor to Phillips Brooks and predecessor of Anne Bonnyman. If you don’t know one or the other of those names, Phillips Brooks has been called one of the greatest American preachers even though he is most widely known today as the person who wrote the words to the Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” You will find a picture of Phillips Brooks on my office wall. Anne Bonnyman until quite recently was Rector of Wilmington’s Trinity Parish; she is now the Rector at Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square.
One place I needed to go was to the church itself to get interviews with as many people as possible who had known Ferris. The other place was where his personal papers had been delivered virtually untouched on the occasion of his death, the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
One of the most fascinating of my discoveries, and one that had absolutely nothing in the world to do with my doctoral dissertation, was a structural issue about the breathtakingly beautiful cathedral called Trinity Church. For many residences as well as numerous important buildings including Trinity Church in the Back Bay and in the downtown area, the foundations are landfill and pilings. This was the only option residents could come up with to deal with the burgeoning population of Boston in the nineteenth century.
The pilings they say are the size of telephone poles driven down through the landfill to more solid ground, and all is well, theoretically, as long as the pilings remain submerged under water. The water keeps them from rotting.
You’d have to say that it has worked well, but as modern ways have challenged the perfectly workable ways of life in the nineteenth century, problems have arisen, especially in the last twenty-five years. Underground garages, sewer lines, and subway tunnels have disrupted the previously undisturbed waters and the underground water supply. While some folks forgot to keep watch on the foundations, the water levels had dropped, in some areas, to dangerously low levels, and the pilings had begun to rot. John Kerry--have you ever heard of him?--lives in one of the hardest hit areas that also happens to be one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Boston. One of his neighbors had to fork over in 2006 a quarter of a million dollars to repair and re-secure his home. The process involved digging up his basement, cutting off the tops of the rotted pilings, and then replacing them with steel beams wrapped in concrete. Before you ask, no, insurance didn’t cover a penny.
Nor surprisingly, there’s a major watchdog group in Boston now with the responsibility of watching the city’s underground water levels. Strong foundations for houses and places of business and places of worship depend on these groups and on elected officials to be certain that water levels remain high. Thomas a Kempis, who wrote one of the great classics in Christian devotional literature entitled, “Imitation of Christ,” once said: “The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.”
By the way, many lawsuits have been filed over the rotted foundation pilings. I don’t know how any of the litigants fared, but, when it comes to building spiritual houses, if something goes wrong with the foundation or the structure we have no one to blame but ourselves. If the foundation of our spiritual house are pilings that have to stay underwater, then checking the water levels isn’t the responsibility of anyone else; we are our own watchdogs.
Oh, I know we’d all rather have someone else to blame if our spiritual foundation turns out to be inadequate--more like sand instead of stone, but there’s no one to blame but us.
Here’s something else to keep in mind. The beauty of the house and the soundness of the visible structure have nothing at all to do with the overall soundness of the house as a whole. We can build the most aesthetically pleasing home anyone can imagine or finance or afford, but if the foundation isn’t solid, it’s a waste of money and time. A house built on sand may give us easy access to and a constantly breathtaking view of the water and the beach, but sands shift and provide no dependable foundation whatsoever.
American essayist, philosopher, and poet, Henry David Thoreau, had this to say, which might encourage some of us who are beginning to wonder if we have built our lives and our spiritual houses on sand:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of [her or] his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which [she or] he has imagined, [that person] will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He [or she] will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within [that person]; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in [her or] his favour in a more liberal sense, and [the person] will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as [she or] he, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

God gives us the sense to know what a good foundation is and what a weak foundation is. Very few people I’ve ever come across were unaware of the clear difference between the two. Of course, rejecting God’s offer of a gift is rather routine, isn’t it? Even so, there is something inherently present within us that lets us know if this commitment or that commitment, if this deed or that deed is making us spiritually strong or not.
The story of the three little pigs isn’t a bad one to keep in mind. I’m not sure parents tell their children that old tale any more; they may be afraid the wolf in the story will scare their children--so they let them play video games instead.
Most of you will remember, in any case, that there were three little pigs threatened by the big bad wolf who had quite a huffer/puffer! The first little pig builds a house of straw, and the wolf easily blows it down. The second little pig tries to make the house he builds a little stronger so he builds a house out of sticks. Again, the wolf can huff and puff and blow that house all to bits, which he does. The third little pig builds a house out of brick, which is very secure except that wolf finds a way to slide down the chimney; unfortunately for him, one of the little pigs has put a pot of boiling water in the fireplace, and when the wolf comes down the chimney he hits the boiling water; what happens to him after that is determined by which version of the old story you tell. The softer endings have the wolf getting burnt a little but running away and never bothering the three little pigs again. The most adult and graphic versions of the folklore piece have the wolf falling into the boiling water and becoming stew for dinner that evening. The brick house didn’t solve all their problems, but except for the open-access chimney it was the best they built. The wolf couldn’t huff and puff and blow in their house.
Let me be clear in emphasizing that building a spiritually strong house will not mean the absence of fear in the face of real threat. It will not mean the ability to keep the pain of grief at bay in the case of the loss of someone whom we love. It will not mean knowing all the answers or all the right things to say. It will not mean being doubt free. It will not mean that we can simply ignore the many temptations that come along--most of them, invitations to build spiritual houses on weak foundations. The house stands in the times of challenge, but even the most securely built houses themselves can be damaged by the storms of life.

I had not been paying much attention this week to the weather news until I got an email from my Rabbi friend in New Orleans, Ed Cohn, telling me that he and his wife were packing in preparation to evacuate if the call came. He said that his major responsibility during these days was to help his congregants deal with their anxiety.
The news this morning confirmed that the City of New Orleans has ordered residents to evacuate because Hurricane Gustav will hit the same areas that Katrina hit, only harder. Last night on the local television in New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin said to his fellow citizens: “Tonight you need to be scared. You need to get you butts out of New Orleans NOW.” I called Rabbi Cohn minutes before our service this morning. He and his wife, Andrea, had made it safely to New Orleans. The situation is emotionally devastating, he said. Potential physical damage aside, he said he isn’t sure enough people can muster enough resolve to try rebuilding again. He did say that the government this time is making certain that everybody gets out by plane, train, and bus. Shelters are being set up in numerous sites a few hours out of New Orleans to make sure the residents are cared for.
Hurricane Katrina, and I say this without in any way diminishing the true losses endured by individuals, families, communities, synagogues and mosques and churches, whole states as a result, Hurricane Katrina was a reminder that storms are a part of living in the world, and just as storms are going to come somewhere sooner or later to parts of the planet, so also life’s storms are going to come. Now, there are plenty of people who will never have to endure a fearful and threatening weather incident, but few people, and I’m thinking a very small number, get to the end of their days on earth without having had to face the high winds and the turbulent floods that can tear emotions and spirit all to pieces.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish I hadn’t had and didn’t have to face them, and I wish I could have brought up my sons in a world where they would never have to face the brutal storms that utterly undo untold numbers among us. That world just doesn’t exist, does it?
One of the bold-faced lies that has been passed from generation to generation of Christians is that if you are “right with God,” and everybody has a different idea of just what that entails, the storms of life, the difficulties and adversities and very threats to life itself, can’t or won’t, won’t or can’t even touch those who are closest to God. If anybody ever told you that, you should demand an apology, and if you ever told anybody that you should make the rounds and make your own apologies!
When the 9/11 tragedies were just barely sinking in for many of us, Jerry Falwell, the now late Jerry Falwell, went public with his explanation of why such terrible things had befallen our country, and among the several rationales he offered, one or part of one said that the attacks had occurred because God had removed God’s protective cover from this, God’s chosen nation. (Help me stay on this singular subject, Lord, and not chase those rabbits that are luring me out into the foreign fields of other juicy sermon subjects!)
Faith or whatever you want to call the basis for your connection to God is no more a fire insurance policy than it is a flood prevention protection for our spiritual houses. The tsunami that preceded Katrina was no more a punishment on certain Asian peoples or their religions than Katrina was on the godly and the godless people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. God does not kill people to prove a divine point.
Evil rulers may kill people. Dangerous weather may kill people. Careless and sociopathic humans may kill other humans, but God doesn’t kill people.
In terms of our spiritual houses, we are thinking not of physical weather and physical death though they may be a part of what shakes us to our very foundations, and if the foundation is sand or rotten pilings rather than stone or solid rock, then what we have presumed to be our spiritual house will not withstand the destructive forces we must face. The storms of life do come. They will come, and very few of us can dodge them for a lifetime.
The importance of a solid foundation may not become evident until the storms of life hit us. So what do you do when you get news so disturbing you wouldn’t wish it on an enemy? Do you curl up give into it? Do you call all of life bad or worthless because yours may go in a way you dreaded in the silence and the secrecy of your own worst fears? Or do you press on as best you can under the circumstances, sometimes winning some battles and reclaiming for bits of time at least life as you want it to be? If you have a strong spiritual house, you can’t keep the storms from blowing out some windows and part of your roof, but if your spiritual house is built on a strong foundation, you will still stand.
What do we do when someone we have loved with all our hearts, with all we have and have ever felt, dies? If our spiritual house isn’t build on the foundation of rock, then functionally we, too, die. We may keep on breathing, and brain waves may register; but we choose to stop living. In contrast, though, if our spiritual house is strong, when we lose someone whom we love, while our pain is not eased in any way by this fact, we are able to live on. As I have said recently, the wounds become scars that never go away, and grief becomes a constant companion after a loss like that; but with a strong spiritual house we will not let loss or grief beat us. If part of the reason we live on is to honor the person who has died and help to further her or his dreams so be it, but we live on.
If our spiritual house has been built on a solid foundation, on rock, then once the storms have come and gone we can go on. I don’t mean unscathed, unaffected, or unimpacted by having had to live through the storm, but if our spiritual house was strong and built on a proper foundation, we can go on. The storms, the adversities of life, simply will not have the last word with us.
I like Winston Churchill’s advice: “If you’re going through hell...KEEP GOING!” In the same spirit, Japanese author and poet, Kenji Miyazawa, wrote: “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for the journey.”
The late Cavett Robert was known as the dean of public speaking. He once said:

If we study the lives of great men and women carefully and unemotionally we find that, invariably, greatness was developed, tested and revealed through the darker periods of their lives. One of the largest tributaries of the RIVER OF GREATNESS is always the STREAM OF ADVERSITY.

Now, this is no reason to go out and suffer--so that you can become great in some kind of way!
I don’t know how many of you--probably a few--were fans of the “Beverly Hillbillies” as I was, because they reminded me of many of my beloved relatives. Anyway, Jethro decided that he wanted to be a great artist, and someone told him that a great artist had to suffer. So Jethro went out and got a huge stone out of which he intended to sculpt an art piece that would become famous. While he was trying to decide how to induce suffering, the huge stone fell on his foot, and he had his answer. If great suffering alone were all it took, he was a shoe-in (no pun intended) for artistic greatness.
Where are you going to build or rebuild your spiritual house? On what kind of foundation, I mean? On rock or on sand? It’s strictly up to you.
I call the foundation of rock “God”--the reality of God and the reality of Love, the presence of God within us, the relentless intellectual seeking for God. A spiritual house built on God by whatever name you call God withstands the storms. I call the foundation of sand “self-centeredness”--careless or intentional, the end result of using sandy self-centeredness, whether careless or intentional, as a foundation for a would-be spiritual house is the same; the storms will win by destroying our houses every time.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


Megan Mullally as Elizabeth in the Original Broadway Cast of "Young Frankenstein"

Thankfully, life can be filled with happy surprises. Mostly we notice them when life goes well, but sometimes in the midst of tough times we also can be happily surprised. Charles Morgan, the playwright and novelist, once said, “There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved; it is God's finger on [a person’s] shoulder.”
Think about a note you received from someone out of the blue that brightened your day in such a way that, months or years later, you still remember that surprise communication. Although I’ve certainly received some cleverly or painstakingly worded such notes, little literary masterpieces they were, I more often remember the pleasant surprise of being thought of than the content of what was sent. Snail mail or email or scribbled on the back of an envelope and left under your windshield wiper, it was such a gift.
A similar surprise is having someone show up at an event of import to you for which you didn’t expect that person or anyone, for that matter, to show up. Maybe it was a play you were in or a court appearance you had to make.
An unexpected hug from one of your kids or grandkids can surprise you and make your day. A little hug touches some of us in ways the kids may never be able to understand until they have children of their own.
What are some other pleasant surprises?

Finding an available cashier at the grocery store when the crowd had prepared you as you shopped for your typical long wait in line;

Walking away from church and realizing that the sermon wasn’t boring;

Driving by the gas station with the lowest gas prices you’ve seen in months and having room in your tank to buy some;

Realizing that a professional person, a medical professional or an educator let’s say, is treating you not just with courtesy and professionalism, but in a way that lets you know in your heart that she or he really cares about you;

Bracing to be splashed by the car speeding past you in the rain but miraculously not getting hit by a smidgeon of extra puddle-moisture at all;

Balancing your checkbook and finding a subtraction error that when corrected leaves you a couple of hundred dollars you didn’t know you had;

Getting your grades for the term and finding out that the class you were certain you’d flunked you passed;

Going on a blind date and not being nauseated for most of the evening;

Hearing your dentist say that the pain can be corrected without having to have a root canal;

Suddenly remembering the name of the person speaking to you at the mall and whose name you know you SHOULD know but couldn’t remember for your life for a few awkward moments;

Bracing for a grading session of a stack of snoozer papers only to have your students surprise you with creativity and excellence;

Watching your favorite loser sports team finally pull out a win;

I texted Arbender last night as he was getting into make up for the evening performance of “The Little Mermaid,” and asked him what were life’s best little surprises for him. He texted back two. He said:

1. Realizing that other people make the same [expletive] mistakes that I make; and

2. Meeting people who think I’m normal instead of the nerd I know I am.

Many of us would say that we’ve had lots of funny surprises along the way too. Admittedly, the “funny” part may apply more to an observer than to a participant, but there’s humor in the incident nonetheless. This was one of the reasons for the great success of the various incarnations of “Candid Camera.” It was somewhat surprising that people would be willing to do some of the tasks they were asked to do, and the responses of the people to whom they did them could also be funny; but usually the best part of any episode was seeing the person, after having lived through an embarrassing situation, told, “Smile! You’re on `Candid Camera!’” Their surprised expressions were a great part of the show’s appeal. The more modern version of the “Candid Camera” theme, “Punk’d,” worked the same way except that the prank victims were typically famous folk.
The Bible is full of passages that surprise me in a funny way.
If we get into the cultural mindset of Jesus, his banter with the Pharisees is a riot. Here’s the Pharisee in the precincts of the great Jerusalem Temple praying in a very loud voice his big, fancy prayer for all to hear, and Jesus says, “Wow! You drew a big crowd with your fancy prayer. All of these people standing around you here are wildly impressed with you.” And the Pharisee is nodding and smiling, all pleased with himself until Jesus adds a little something to his comments, “It’s a good thing you impressed these people with your flowery words since that’s the only possible value to your oration. You can be sure that you didn’t really pray and that God didn’t pay a bit of attention to your performance.” Ouch! You have to laugh at the surprised look on the Pharisee’s face when Jesus exposes him in front of those he most wanted to impress.
Have you given any thought to the element of funny surprise in the story of Mary’s pregnancy news? Probably not, because we’ve all been programmed to think that everything in the Bible is profoundly serious or highly theological. Friends, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
OK, Joseph comes home from a hard day of apprenticing carpentry with his father. He cleans up a bit and goes over to visit Mary who is espoused to him. “Espoused” was beyond engagement but not quite legal marriage. Sex was acceptable because the legal documents had been signed; all that remained were the formalities and festivities of the marriage celebration.
Mary seemed uneasy that afternoon when Joseph stopped by to visit her at the home of her parents. She seems distant. He asks her the age-old question that lovers ask their suddenly silent partners, “What’s wrong?”

Finally, she answers, “I’m pregnant.”

“That’s wonderful, Mary. Thanks be to God. No news could be better than this!”

“You’re right, Joseph, the news couldn’t be better.”

“But you don’t look excited or sound excited,” he said to her.

“Well, there’s this one little thing.”

“So tell me what it is.”

“It’s just that, Joseph, you’re not the father of this child.”

“What the Gehenna are you talking about? Why would you betray me that way? And don’t you know that if word gets out the leaders can stone you to death?”

“But it’s not like that, Joseph. Everything’s fine.”

“You tell me who did this to you? Who’s the father of the child you’re carrying?”

“Well, Joseph,” Mary said warming up a bit, “you’re never going to believe this. The father of my child is...”

“Tell me who he is. He’s a goner. Spit out the name right now.”

“OK, the name of the father of my child is GOD.”

Look at Joseph’s face! It’s hilarious. Surprise!

Sometimes, life being what it is, the surprises are unhappy ones. As much as we think we’ve seen the unpleasant sides of human experience, now and then something comes along to surprise us negatively once again. We have only to ponder 9/11 to think of an event that surprised not only our nation, but also most of the rest of the world.
I didn’t know about the details of the Knoxville church shootings last Sunday until Tuesday, I think. My family there in Knoxville didn’t pass on the word. I heard it from Dan Romenesko early Tuesday morning shortly after Marilyn had been taken to surgery. In any case, I’m still surprised, saddened, and uneasy about the shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. The reasons why a frustrated, unemployed, religious skeptic would plan as carefully as he did to kill Unitarians gathered for worship are still blurry. The only good news is that there are enough liberals in Knoxville to have a Unitarian congregation; they must all have moved in since I moved out. I never knew a single liberal in all my years of living there.
The killer had dared to tell his neighbor years ago--and she remembered this, which is no surprise at all--that the Bible contradicted itself making religion based on the Bible worthless. The fact that he didn’t get run out of his neighborhood after that is a surprise to me! His views on the Bible and religion didn’t make Jim D. Adkisson a religious conservative, but he was from all indications conservative in every other way.
Knoxville Police Chief, Sterling Owen, said that Adkisson’s frustration with being unemployed along with his hatred of liberals were the two major factors that led him to commit these atrocious crimes. Adkisson said that liberals were ruining our country. I’m trying to figure out when he last saw a liberal with any political or other influence in our country! It’s been a long, long time for me.
Adkisson’s ex-wife, whom he had threatened to gun down about eight years ago, once attended the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. He knew that the congregation was gay-affirming, and those who knew the killer said he was openly antigay.
Mark Harmon is a Knox County Commissioner who is a member of the church. Mr. Harmon told the press that the congregation’s commitment to gay affirmation and a prochoice perspective does “clarify just what type of hate crime this was. Regardless of motivations,” he said, “when someone comes into your house of worship and shoots a shotgun indiscriminately it’s an earth-shattering act of hatred.”
I hope you’ve had time to read a copy of the letter I sent to that congregation on behalf of ours. If not, it will appear in the next “Inside Silverside,” our congregation’s newsletter. I also hope you’ve taken the time to see the note I have posted on our church’s website, on the homepage, about that tragic incident.
This is not a time for liberals to ban together in a we against them posture to conservatives, which is certainly my impulse. Instead, it’s a time to promote the oneness of all humanity and seek any common ground that can possibly be found. In the mean time, you join me in holding the families and fellow church members of those murdered and injured folks in your prayers and positive thoughts.
Negative surprises. They’re not all that uncommon, are they?
You open your mailbox and see an envelope sent by the IRS. “GREAT,” you think to yourself. “It’s my refund check.” You open it quickly to verify your newly-gained wealth only to find a notice that the IRS staff has reviewed your return and determined that you owe an additional $3000 in taxes; they didn’t agree with the value you placed on your great-grandmother’s “priceless” mink stole that you donated to Goodwill. One WOULD wonder what value an old mink stole with the fur falling out would be to those to whom Goodwill resells. Message from IRS: Surprise!
I refinanced my mortgage this spring. I’d never seen a county tax bill; my original mortgager, Citibank, handled all of that entirely. In the refinance process, however, the bill was sent to me instead of Wells Fargo. I really hadn’t paid much attention to what taxes were being paid with my mortgage, but I was stunned to see how much I owed and which schools I’m supporting and especially how much I’m paying annually toward the salaries of crossing guards. Don’t get me wrong. I think crossing guards are very important people, and we can’t do enough to provide for the safety of our children. I just didn’t know how much an individual tax payer paid toward that line item alone. Surprise!
By the way, I found out with the help of Stan Watson that the tax bill would be paid by my new mortgage company, that this first billing came to me as well for clarification purposes. I’d just as soon not have known how much tax I was paying, but that much at least was good news.
Most Christian scripture scholars I’ve come across through the years, even the more conservative ones, believe that the Gospel of Mark ends with verse 8--chapter 16, verse 8. Verses 9-20 were added later. If this is true, we can only conclude that the final editor or editors of Mark’s original Gospel intended to close out the Gospel on a note of negative surprise. The empty tomb discovery doesn’t lead to celebration or rejoicing of any kind; instead, it leads to fear. Once we’ve had a look at it, we have no trouble understanding why someone came along later and said, “We can’t leave things here!”
You just heard what scholars refer to as “the shorter ending of Mark” read. If you didn’t realize that it was the closing to one of the Gospels, it might not have struck you as odd at all, but when you try to figure out why in the world someone who wanted to tell the story of Jesus would close out this literary masterpiece on a note of negative surprise you could be left scratching your head.
Mark has only three women coming to the tomb at day break on Sunday. Mary Magdalene, another Mary who was the mother of one of the Jameses, and Salome made the sad trek back to where they had buried their leader’s body in a borrowed tomb. They were returning so they could anoint Jesus’ body with spices, a functional rite they had not been able to do on Friday afternoon because of the hurried burial to be completed ahead of the sabbath’s start.
We assume because of the way story has been told by others and because of the other canonical Gospels that “empty tomb” and “resurrection” are supposed to spark joy and excitement. Well...

As they [the three named women] entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:5-8 NRSV).

It’s that last sentence that catches our attention, or should.
Why aren’t they turning summersaults with happiness and exuberance? We aren’t told.
Were they afraid of the man who was at Jesus’ tomb telling them his whereabouts? Were they sick with fear that his body was missing--even though the man gave an explanation?
The man at the tomb told them to tell others what they had seen and that Jesus would appear to them in Galilee, but they didn’t say a word. “... they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Surprise!

I was watching a movie on Friday evening entitled, “Just Add Water.” Yeah, I know, but the shelves at Blockbuster were pretty empty when I stopped by on the way home; Danny DiVito was in the cast so I thought I’d at least get a laugh or two. It was OK, but not good enough for me to recommend to you. Anyway, in the film, a man comes home early from work and finds his wife in bed with his brother. Surprise! He asks her how long this had been going on. “Since about nine months before this boy you call your son was born,” she said. Surprise!
The Broadway musical, “Young Frankenstein,” is hilarious. Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace” fame has just completed her run in the original Broadway cast as Elizabeth, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein’s fiancee. She and Frederick have been separated for some time, and she decides to surprise him. Elizabeth arrives at a most inopportune time, which I can’t detail from the pulpit. She is singing about how we all love surprises, but two of Dr. Frankenstein’s associates are singing a counter-song, “Not everyone wants to be surprised.” Well, Frederick Frankenstein was surprised alright, but so was Elizabeth!
Let me bring God more intentionally into our thinking about surprises. Because God can’t be controlled by humans, even those who have an unyielding need to categorize, predict, and plan; God in Judeo-Christian scriptures is most always acting in ways that surprise those who know God is involved in whatever going on.
We need to revisit part of the passage from Exodus chapter 33 that you heard read earlier in our gathering. Moses is talking to God, and God tells Moses how pleased God is with Moses. Moses responds by saying, “Well, thank you, God. I’m quite impressed with you too. So, uh, since you’re pleased with me I have a favor to ask.”
“A favor, huh?” God asks.

Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” God said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

I still chuckle when I read or hear about this passage where Moses wants to see God, and God says, “Well, that’s not supposed to happen, but I’ll let you see my hindquarters.” Isn’t that a riot?
Doesn’t that surprise you?
God doesn’t say, “No way, Moses.” God says, “Well, you can’t see my face, but you can look at my rear.” The word that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has translated as God’s “back,” is more properly rendered something like “rear” or “hind parts” or “hindquarters.”
If anybody but God said that to you, how would you feel? “Nope! I’m not gonna show you my face, but if you wanna look at me from the rear, that’ll be OK.” I’d be getting away from that person fast!
It’s alright with Moses, though, because it’s all of God he will ever see. The very anthropomorphized God of the book of Exodus seems to have all the same body parts humans have including hands and a face, which gives you a pretty good idea of what the writer had in mind in referring to God’s rear. Fortunately for all of us, we have since learned that God is spirit and has no parts that correspond to human body parts at all.
Staying with the divine surprise in Exodus 33, however, we see that God has a plan. God will pass by Moses, putting Moses in the cleft of one of the rocks, and as God is passing by God will put God’s hands over Moses’ eyes so that Moses will not see God’s face or front. When God has sufficiently passed Moses so that there is no danger Moses will see God’s face, which would cause Moses to die on the spot, God will remove God’s hand from Moses’ eyes, and Moses will see God. Well, you know, God’s hindquarters.
This is exactly what happens. God passes by, and Moses sees God’s rear. Surprise! It hard for me to think of that as a compliment.
Because God is God and beyond our complete comprehension, we are not always prepared to see God in the people or through the circumstances through which God may work; thus, we are constantly surprised by God.
Third Isaiah heard God Godself speaking these words:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isa 55:8-11 NRSV).

God’s word is active, and while we may not understand how it works, leaving us surprised--sometimes with our breath taken away--God is luring us all toward the good.
Most often, as we learn from the prophet Elijah’s painful emotional experiences, God doesn’t work in the grand, knock-us-off-our-feet kinds of ways. Instead, God’s surprises are much more subtle, so subtle, in fact, that we can miss God’s work and God’s presence altogether unless we learn to keep our eyes and ears open to the unlikely and the improbable. God doesn’t get into grandstanding, for the most part. That word of God, which Third Isaiah mentioned, isn’t loud and boisterous and bombastic.
Elijah was frustrated with God because God didn’t make Godself known more dramatically, especially to Elijah’s enemies, by the way. The prophet’s enemies are hot on his trail; they intend to kill him by order of Queen Jezebel. He is running both from his enemies and from his God. As far as we can tell, there isn’t anybody on Elijah’s love list by this point in his life. He detests his enemies. He’s angry with God, and he thinks all of those closest to him--family members and friends and colleagues--who once joined him in honoring God have long since forsaken the cause.
Elijah is in a cave sulking when God surprises him with a visit. Elijah dares to scold God for not performing according to Elijah’s expectations and demands. God is big enough to deal with the prophet’s fumings and lets him rant.
The bottom line was this. Elijah said to God, “Why in the world are you out here in a cave in the middle of no where. If you want to do some good and prove to people that you really are God, you need to get back into town and squash Jezebel and her minions.” God’s response to Elijah surprised him, and it still surprises us as well--for several reasons not the least is that we simply don’t have a model for power display in this world that corresponds in any manner to God’s demonstration of divine power. And, frankly, many of us are entirely unenamored with the subtle.
God said to Elijah,

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:11-12 NRSV).

Surprise! God was in the silence.
Silence can be a good thing when we need a respite from all the noisy distractions that fill days for many of us, but most moderns don’t embrace too much silence. Silence can also be unwelcome. Instead of running toward silence, we may very well run away from it. The silence may emphasize our loneliness. We may embrace silence only when we are hurting or afraid.
God is not in the fanfare. God is in the silence, all kinds of silence. Surprise!