Sunday, May 31, 2009






I.
Trusting relationships matter in all arenas of our lives including in our chosen faith communities. There are people in faith communities--and not just from the monotheistic traditions--who don’t trust each other; some of the mistrust is justified, and some of it isn’t. Justified or not, however, loss of trust in a church setting is just as difficult to repair as in any other relational context even though forgiveness is supposed to be a given in the way all people relate to each other in all circumstances. Forgiveness doesn’t mean “forgive and forget,” but rather “remember and forgive.”
It’s so odd that the Roman Catholics adopted Peter as its first pope; of course, Peter knew nothing about it as this honor was bestowed upon him long after he had departed this earth. On the one hand, he was married, which would eventually become a no-no for Catholic clergy; on the other, he was a rather bumbling sort of fellow. Like Vice President Biden, whom I thoroughly respect, Peter was extraordinarily capable, but a fair amount of the time he seemed to have his foot in his mouth.
One day, he came up to Jesus in a sort of what-a-good-boy-am-I frame of mind. He wanted to clarify a couple of matters with Jesus about the practice of forgiveness. He must have been an engineer as well as a fisherman because he had done some calculations and wanted to apply those calculations to his faith experience. Jesus, being a definite right brainer, was put off with Peter’s efforts though we all have to give Peter credit for at least trying to think carefully through the forgiveness process. Many people, even in churches or especially in some churches, have no plans to forgive anybody so they never bother giving the matter much thought. Forgiveness must have become for these folks an old religious relic like fasting or alms giving. It’s something rather quaint to acknowledge, but modern, thinking people don’t bother themselves with such out of date practices. This is very sad since there is absolutely no way to build trust and maintain trust and repair broken trust without practicing forgiveness.
So, Peter, who fully intended to practice forgiveness, came up with a mathematical computation that resulted in a maximum number of times anyone was required to be forgiving if she or he wanted to stay in good with God. Here’s the well-remembered snippet from the teachings of Jesus that has been edited to fit in nicely with the themes of Matthew chapter 18.

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, [seventy times seven or] seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:21-22 NRSV).


As much as I hate to, I’m going to have to chase a little rabbit here. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible is a relatively strong one as far as I know, but there’s a glaring error here. There’s an important Koine Greek word, ekklesia (εκκλησια), which after the church is founded will be properly translated as “church,” but before the church was founded--which includes the whole of Jesus’ lifetime--there was no church. Jesus never saw a church, never heard of a church, never founded a church, never predicted a church. Have I been comprehensive enough? Jesus knew nothing of anything that would later come to be called “Christian.”
This word, ekklesia (εκκλησια), then, should be translated as “congregation” or “assembly.” It literally means “called out ones.” Peter had to have had in mind the only congregation he would have known anything at all about--namely, a synagogue. Thus, in English, “church” just botches up the understanding of a scripture reader who doesn’t know that translators, too, have to be second guessed by their fellow scholars.
Alternatively, the whole episode was entirely concocted by later storytellers or by the editors of the Gospel of Matthew themselves to make a point about how church people should behave. My initial solution is a much more hopeful way of making the conversation between Jesus and Peter rooted, at least to some degree, in something factual. OK. Having nabbed that little rabbit, we will set him free in a safe, verdant wooded area and go along with our investigation.
What Peter asked Jesus here was what the limit should be for maximum acts of forgiveness extended to a sister or brother in one’s synagogue family. The word Peter uses to describe wrongs potentially committed against him is a standout word too. He asks Jesus about what to do when someone in the synagogue SINS against him. Sin is most often seen as an act that is, if it’s against anyone at all, committed against God. Less frequently, the word can be used to describe an offense against one’s fellow human being or against oneself.
The offense alluded to by this word must have been rather serious; it was something more than stealing a bulletin, failing to pay for your Fair Trade kosher coffee, or gossiping about how much of a sister’s ankle you can see because she has hemmed her toga up too high. So, Peter is trying to clarify with Jesus how much he, as a responsible person of faith in a faith community, is expected to forgive someone else within that community who keeps wronging him in a way that is tough to forgive.
Peter wanted Jesus to tell him if seven times would be sufficient, and the way he had counted things up and done his calculation that seemed like way more than enough and far better than most anyone else would be willing to do. Some strands of Hebrew tradition suggested that three times would be plenty generous in terms of how many times one person should forgive another. If Peter knew that tradition, he had doubled it and added one for good measure, or else if he were familiar with some of the codes of numerology of his day, he might have used 7 because some people took it to be the perfect number. You get 7 by adding together the divine number, 3, to the number for human completeness, the number 4. Either way, he was wrong from Jesus’ point of view.
Jesus said to Peter, “No, not seven times; more like 7 times 70!” There are lots of proposals made by interpreters in regard to exactly what Jesus meant by that. Literally, and I don’t buy this suggestion, he told Peter to forgive the one who keeps wronging him 490 times. I think it’s figurative for, “You don’t keep count.”
Contextually, this is not a teaching for anybody and everybody. It’s a guideline for how one is supposed to interact with and get along with one’s sister or brother in a faith community. Someone keeps messing up. What do you do? Well, you try to help your fellow member not to keep messing up, but if the errors continue, it’s not up to you to keep up with or her or his failure record. Now, this doesn’t mean that if someone steals from the church you give her or him the chance to do it again. Nor does this teaching suggest that you need to be all huggy and kissy with someone who, let’s say, has had a history of saying unkind and often untrue things about you. You don’t write off that person as a worthless human being, however. Giving someone who has failed you in some way, giving her or him the benefit of the doubt in a comparable situation, you keep doing that without keeping count.
Jesus also taught that when two people have a rift in their relationship, when one has done the other wrong, the wronged party goes to the one who has wronged her or him and confronts the person, or in one terribly complicated scenario that Jesus describes the one who knows that someone has something against her or him goes to the individual and tries to make things right. Festering wounds, old battle lines never completely erased, grudges held into eternity--these do not lead to the building of trusting relationships.

II.
As far as local congregations risking trust, practicing forgiveness, and seeing lost trust regained, we have to be honest and say that there is no broadly institutional paradigm for it. The larger institution and smaller groups, such as denominations, have forever been breaking up, factionalizing, and warring internally--using energy and resources to stand ground or fight. Even so, we smaller religious organizations are going to have to do better than our larger umbrella groups. If there’s ever going to be any positive changes, we smaller entities will have to set the tone; the larger groups have consistently failed miserably. Mistrust and the absence of forgiveness prevail; this is historically true, and it’s true at this very moment.
The National Council of Churches more or less spearheads a Christian Unity Sunday each year. This particular Sunday is prepared for by a week of prayer for Christian unity. The sentiment is good, and the impulse for such an event is strong; but in terms of large-scale contributions it falls woefully short. A similar kind of thing is supposed to be emphasized by Worldwide Communion Sunday each year, but there is no unity, sad to say. So far as I know, the church has never been in any kind of agreement on who Jesus was or what his teachings meant or how they are to be used.
Various groups have not been content to say to others, “We’re glad you emphasize the importance of Jesus and his teaching with us.” More often than not, they have said, “We have found the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and if you don’t agree with us, there is something wrong with the way you think if not with your faith and your relationship to God. Disagreeing with OUR version of TRUTH may just land you in hell for eternity.” Now, hell threats may be uttered out of compassion, meaning the people who say such things really are convinced that those who differ with their perspectives are so repulsive to God that God is already warming up a spot for them, and they are speaking of hell out of concern; or those hell threats may be pronounced in anger and glee by which I mean that the person or group claiming that others are bound for hell are angry at those who differ with them and utterly delighted to be able to more or less sentence them to unquenchable eternal flames.
I can’t see the building of trusting relationships in a context of anger and threat. A child growing up with a parent who is consistently angry and who threatens the child with horrendous punishments for failing to keep the rules will not be a trusting person, cannot mature into a trusting person, will be scarred in that regard for life without some powerful professional intervention.
Similarly, I find it impossible to believe that someone who attends a church where God is portrayed as irritable and angry, ready to punish at all times, can ever trust that god or the clergyperson who claims to speak for that god. The most you can muster in that kind of environment is appeasement skill, but someone who is willing to send you to hell to burn for eternity if your offense is serious enough is not someone you can trust with lesser infractions either.
In my earliest years, I did hear about such a god, a god to be feared, a god who terrified and terrorized. Thankfully, and for what reason I don’t know, that was not the most influential factor in my finding my way to a connection with God. It was definitely the loving God about whom Jesus taught that got my attention. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am that I found my way into the Jesus Movement through the door of love. I still had some baggage to toss aside along the way, but fear of a threatening God was not one of those bags. Given enough time and space, I gave up my belief in a literal hell. I trusted that the God whom I had come to know through the teachings of Jesus would not, could not, torture at all--much less interminably.
I want to be a part of an entity that proclaims a God who is love, who loved and who loves the world and all its inhabitants, a God whose love so shaped an amazing man from Nazareth that he was able to inspire others to dare to let the love of God come alive within themselves as well. That is a sentiment, that is a reality, on which truly trusting relationships can be built within a faith community.
Have you heard of “Father Oprah” by now? If not, he’s a wildly popular Roman Catholic priest in Miami who has a huge fan base among Catholic couples, and I’d guess some non-Catholic couples as well, built around his charisma and his relationship advice and encouragement. A Cuban American, Father Alberto Cutie must be the most popular Latino priest in the world. Tons of people who didn’t know about him before certainly know about him now. Unquestionably, one of the best ways to grab a headline is through scandal--not that he intentionally went out trying to get in the headlines that way.
It seems the Father Cutie, bound by the rules of celibacy as are all Roman Catholic clergy, has had a girlfriend for quite a while. I don’t know if the celibacy rule was ever violated and don’t want to know, don’t need to know, couldn't care less. But having that lady friend does explain why he was so good at giving other couples such on-target advice about their relationships.
Somebody took some pictures of the good Father without his clerical collar on, in fact without much of anything on. He was on the beach with his--would you call her his PRIESTess?--and they were wearing what people on beaches wear; thankfully, it wasn’t a nude beach. Then other pix began to show up online and here and there. He was kissing her goodnight at her apartment building; I guess he couldn’t sneak her into the rectory.
As I tell you this story, and it has a place in today’s sermon, which will eventually become clear I hope, I don’t want you to think that I’m putting the guy down at all. He was single, and if he found love, good for him. It probably would have been better if he had resigned from the priesthood instead of having pictures of him and his girlfriend showing up all over the place, but when one is in love logic isn’t often the dominant motivator.
Cutie had no intention of giving up his girlfriend as it turned out, so there was no way he could have stayed within the Roman Catholic priesthood. So he shocked the public, and I’m sure the Roman Catholic hierarchy right on up to Pope Benedict, with his decision to become an Episcopalian. His girlfriend is now his fiancee. The Episcopal church has received both of them, and preparations are being made to move him through whatever processes may be required to ordain him an Episcopal priest.
The Catholic Church is angry, and it may be more angry at the Episcopalians for making a place for Padre Alberto than it is at Cutie himself. This heightens what I was talking about a few minutes ago. Instead of sending the man on his way to find his way, there are now angry words being directed at the Episcopalians who received him into their ranks. The competition is incredibly intense. One branch of Christianity is angry at another branch of Christianity for making a place for someone who couldn’t live by the one group’s established rules. Leave him to us to punish! Leave him to us to discipline! Leave him to us to see that he pays for his sins!
Can anybody find any kind of trust in this picture except for the Episcopalians who said that a gifted clergyperson shouldn’t be thrown to the wolves or left out in the cold for his inability to live up to one of the clergy requirements over there? So why not make use of his gifts in a group that has different expectations for a clergyperson’s personal life?
Instead of focusing on the unchurched who seem pretty happy to be unchurched if we judge by how that group is growing in our country, Christian bodies are now having to be in competition for a shrinking pool of people who want to be in any church, and institutionally it’s frightening. So the Catholics get Tony Blair and Newt Gingrich, and the Anglican/Episcopal Communion replaces Blair with Father Cutie. So far, the Baptists haven’t been able to replace Newt, though.


III.
I asked Kasia to focus in all of our Gathering readings today on the fourth chapter of New Testament book of Ephesians, which has traditionally been attributed to Paul though not without scholarly disagreement. There are so many points raised in this one chapter about trust in a church that I couldn’t leave this sermon series without giving it a chunk of our attention.
I kind of lean toward Pauline authorship of the letter written to the Church at Ephesus, and Paul shows some of his true pastoral gifts as he writes. Not everything about Paul or what he wrote were pastoral, but we see it here.
He is writing in this section of his church letter the basis of a manifesto for trusting relationships within a congregation or community of those who are followers of Jesus. Paul begins what we now call chapter 4 by begging, his words, those who will read this letter and the larger group who will hear it read in a worship gathering to lead lives worthy of what they have been called by God to be and become. To what had they been called? What would come to their minds when Paul made reference to their calling? Unity. They were called to nurture a congregation where unity could prevail. There is no unity unless people can trust each other.
Making the effort to maintain the unity to which Paul says the Ephesians were called would require of them humility and gentleness; Paul paired these. It would require patience of the members of the congregation. They would have to bear with one another in love, and there would have to be a bond of peace among them. Oh, is that all?
Is that doable? Well, not many congregations have done it, but it is doable for those who make it a priority and who are willing to expend the effort. Imagining that a church will be unified just because some folks hope it will is even more useless than a couple getting married and hoping that theirs will be a unified relationship without work on both their parts to promote oneness.
If unity around here at Silverside Church means that we all agree on a few points of doctrine, we’re done for. If unity around here means that we all agree on ONE, just one, point of doctrine, it’s all over for us. There is not one point of Christian theology on which all members of this church agree--not one. Paul would have needed much more theological conformity than we’d be able to provide, but thankfully theology isn’t at the core of what he’s calling for so his advice to the Ephesians may help us too.
Let’s see here. After focus on the goal of unity, what does Paul call on the Ephesians to do to preserve unity. They have to do what they do with humility and gentleness. OK, no problem for us! There’s so much humility around here that arrogance and pride haven’t been seen in years! If you believe that, I want to make a bet with you about Father Cutie’s celibacy! There are types of humility here; I wouldn’t say it pervades all we’re about, but there are people of privilege and position who don’t think a whipstitch about rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work.
Paul pairs humility with gentleness. Gentleness is very prevalent in how this church carries out its work. Gentleness is akin to kindness, and our people truly are for the most part gentlefolk.
I will embarrass him when I say this, but I’ll say it anyway. A fine example of gentleness is Dr. Tom McDaniel. My Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board rep was down from New York to see me the other day, and I was telling her, Betty Wright-Riggins, about some of the exciting things going on here. I mentioned that Tom was going to be here the last Sunday in May and the first Sunday in June to teach, and she said, “Oh, I’m an Eastern Baptist/Palmer Seminary alum, and I just love him. He’s such a gentle, gentle man. A brilliant gentle, gentle man.” Amen to that!
Next comes patience. Every member of Silverside is an amazingly patient person! I’m sure that applies to Silverside something, just not to Silverside Church. Actually, it does for the most part. Any organization that’s been around for nearly 175 years has had to exhibit patience at several points along the way.
What about holding it together during the tense Civil War era, when not all Delawarians and not all members of this church were committed to freeing the slaves--and though it meant condemnation by fellow Wilmingtonians and loss of church members yet seeing the core membership stand with Pastor James Stokes Dickerson and President Lincoln who praised him?
What about through the discussions regarding the move from downtown to the suburbs?
What about during the debates pertaining to changing the church’s original name, Second Baptist Church, to its present name, Silverside Church?
“...bearing with one another in love....” I can’t even joke about that one. Members of this church stand lovingly with one another though thick and thin. They celebrate every member’s success; they surround you with care and concern in times of crisis and sorrow.
Paul believed that one of the ways a church stayed unified was by finding a means of focusing on and benefiting from the gifts of the members. That makes really good sense.
Paul was writing in all cases to small churches; none of the churches to which he wrote were large. We’re large by comparison. Therefore, the churches needed to know what all churches except supermarket or mall churches need to know; not one of us churches can be all things to all people. Among other things this means that no one church is everyone’s cup of tea, and there’s no way to grow a church unless everyone in the church faces that reality.
In deciding what a church can and will be and who can most benefit from participation in a given church, the healthy, unified congregation takes advantage, in a good way of course, of the gifts the members bring to the community. They don’t appoint someone who struggles with basic addition to be the treasurer. Those who can’t sing don’t.
Paul told the Ephesians that God doled out the gifts, and it was their job to help the folks discover their gifts and put them to use. For example, and for some reason here Paul lists only gifts of leadership and communication though there are many other gifts, he says that some were gifted as apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors-teachers; not everyone is supposed to try every job, but everyone has the same goal of honoring God, the gift giver, while building up the congregation--not calling attention to self because of a gift.
Those who are gifted as apostles are those with the strongest sense of the church’s mission. Prophets can tell us what’s going to happen in the short term if we do this or neglect that. Evangelists have the edge on getting outsiders to become insiders. Pastoring and teaching surely seem to be tied together and may be inseparable in Paul’s thinking.
Regardless of your gift, and there has never yet been a follower of Jesus who lacked a gift, we all speak the truth in love to each other and to those whom we serve; service is the one job to which we are all called. Whether you are an artist who helps us appreciate beauty or a teacher with special love for children or a handy man or woman who keeps the doors opening and the water flowing or a publicist who can draw people into a community of love, we speak the truth in love, and we keep building each other up in love. My dear friends, I want to tell you that trusting relationships will inevitably grow and flourish in such a loving environment.
Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2009








I.
Lost trust can sometimes be regained under the right circumstances. The hell of the situation is that the person who violated another’s trust has absolutely no control over whether or not the other person or persons will ever feel the same level of trust for the one who betrayed them. The individual who let another or who let others down may be truly sorry and may do everything possible to show not only remorse but also that she or he has really turned over a new leaf. This will not mean that the offended party or parties will be able to trust again or will even care to try. In the very best of circumstances lost trust is very difficult to regain so if you’re going to break someone’s trust in you, you’d better be sure you can live for the rest of your days with that broken relationship hanging over your head.
I think the WORST thing someone who has broken a trust relationship can do is to try to explain with a flimsy excuse. I was doing some marriage counseling once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away from Wilmington, and the reason I was doing the counseling is that a marriage we all thought had been made in heaven was about to end because the husband had been cheating on his wife with another woman. I heard this man say to her, “I didn’t mean to cheat on you.” I’m biting my tongue and keeping my mouth shut for the moment, like a good counselor should. My job is to speak up ONLY if the wife is stupid enough to fall for that. I mean, it makes no sense whatsoever. Of course, he meant to--unless he’s going to use the old aliens-invaded-my-body-and-made-me-break-our-marriage-covenants excuse. This was the opposite of an equally bizarre philosophy in song: “You made me love you. I didn’t wanna do it.” OK, fine.
What the husband should have said was, “I didn’t go out looking to cheat on you. I made a series of very bad, very careless decisions, and finally I made the choice to act physically on the trust I had already broken emotionally.”
In that case, the wife was demanding, but forgiving; and as far as I know the relationship really was healed with trust fully restored. It was a rather amazing process to behold, and the heroine in the story was the wife who had been wronged. This is not to say that the husband was uninvolved in the process or that what he had to do was easy. In fact, had he not humbled himself and come clean, a very difficult task without question, he would have lost his wife and his day-to-day life with his children.
One of the really difficult aspects of rebuilding lost trust is that the person wronged, even though she or he is rationally 100% ready and willing to forgive if enough time and examples of how forgiveness can work are provided, a rational willingness to forgive doesn’t mean that the person wronged is able to do what she or he sets out to do. One therapist warns of “hyper-vigilance.” The person who has been betrayed finds it next to impossible to believe that the errant significant other is really having to work late at the office, really did get caught in traffic, really does have to go out of town on business for three days rather than two.
A person who has been betrayed can only hurt her- or himself by becoming the victim. “Look what he did to me.” “Look what she did to me.” Poor me. That isn’t a helpful or a healthful
perspective to hold. What the person who betrayed you did was to himself or herself, which is the same choice made by the third wheel.
When someone wrongs me, it hurts, and I don’t like it. I want sympathy and support, but I can decide right then and there if I want to give the person the chance to hurt me again. I’m in the driver’s seat, not the person who breached the trust unless I’m in a marriage or partnership where I’m dependent on my partner to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Having said this, the person wronged must recognize efforts on the part of the person who broke the trust to mend the fences. If the person can never be anything in your eyes other than a lowdown dirty dog no matter what she or he does to try to make things right, then by all means do both of you a favor and part ways as soon as possible. The person seeking forgiveness and the chance to start all over again can do a lot to repair what can be repaired, but he or she cannot make you forgive her or him. You have to do that; only you can do that. And, again, if it’s not there, or if it’s not going to get there for you, you should go your separate ways.
If this kind of lost trust can be regained, the breach is going to have to become a thing of the past, ENTIRELY a thing of the past, at some point. Once that transition occurs, it can never become a present tense item again. If the failing can be brought into the present at any moment--just to hurt or to use as leverage for getting something else you want such as new jewelry or a big screen television with subscriptions to every known sports channel--forget it. Let everyone involved be free of the agony.
Intimate and interpersonal relationships aren’t the only ones that can be broken when trust is lost. We all have hosts of other relationships that won’t go well unless we trust the company or the agency with which we are dealing.
Right now, in the United States, it’s not at all surprising to learn that about three/fourths of our citizens distrust mortgage companies as well as brokerage or investment firms. Yet, despite the horrible economic conditions, it’s rather impressive and, I think, encouraging to learn that some 81 percent of all US Americans do trust their company credit union and their community bank.
Ten years ago, Ohio State University did a study about trust and found that in the 20-year period from 1979-1999, US Americans had come to trust other Americans on an individual basis less and less while they were trusting institutions such as governmental and religious entities more and more. Later studies at Ohio State on this subject revealed that if trust has to be broken--and, obviously, it does not--broken trust in longer, more established relationships has a much better chance of getting rebuilt than when trust is broken in a new or younger relationship.
There was a longer period of observation of the level of trust Americans had for each other by the General Social Survey, which showed that between 1976 and 2006, there was something like a ten percent drop in the degree to which US Americans trusted each other. This latter study showed lack of confidence in institutions going right along with the people patterns. In thirty years then, according to this particular study, confidence in the press has declined from 24% to 11%. Americans trust educational institutions less than they did thirty years ago, from 36% down to 28%, and organized religion is down from 35% trust to 25% trust. In 2006, US Americans trusted their government less than they did during the Watergate era.
The interesting thing about these changing statistics is proof that levels of trust can rise and fall, can fall and rise. The majority of people distrusted government at one point; now most people trust government. A wronged lover may sense that she can never trust her lover again, but as time passes she finds out by testing her feelings that she actually can forgive if she wishes too. She sees that she can trust again if that’s what she decides to do. I hate for anyone to go through a breach of trust experience, but it’s very empowering for many of us to know that we have it within ourselves to forgive the person we have loved and that broken trust doesn’t mean by any means that there is no future for the relationship.
There’s some really encouraging news in the 2006 study, I think, which concludes that humans are predisposed to trust. They want to trust unless they’re given a clear indication that they can’t. And another part of the good news about trust reported in the 2006 study is that trust can be resilient. Lost trust can be regained, and it needs to be regained wherever it can be. The Pew Trust has shown that the more we trust each other the fewer the problems we have with crime and corruption so anything and everything we can do to build healthy trust between societal groups who do not currently trust each other has a potentially positive impact on the future we are passing along to our children and grandchildren as their present.

II.
Silverside Church banks on the reality that lost trust can be regained or reclaimed. Losing trust in an institution is quite different from losing trust in an individual as is the process of regaining trust; the main reason for this is obvious, really, but not so obvious to the person who has felt betrayed by an institution. It’s that an institution is made up of many people, not just one; and while the next institution someone may try to trust may be largely different from the one deemed untrustworthy at some point, not everyone in the institution may live up to the standards of trustworthiness.
The other reality is that when some people get hurt the person or the institution that hurt them becomes a generalized, generic type--by which I mean that all other entities sharing similar characteristics look the same. So, it’s not uncommon to hear a woman who has been betrayed by a man say, “All men are dogs.” Someone who has been betrayed by a church may say, “All churches are the same.” My own irrational generalization is this: “All cell phone companies are the same!” The new entity considered--the new boyfriend, the new church, the new cell phone company--catches either the brunt or the antagonism of suspicion and unfinished business with the previous one. But many great relationships have been forged when the second-round person or entity is strong enough to withstand and understand the hurt that is still healing for the person who is trying again.
Most of the people who join Silverside Church these days, not all of them but most of them, are not coming from being active in one congregation and simply joining us to continue the kind of active involvement to which they have already been committed. The churches I’ve served in the past and many of the others I’ve known about get new members when someone simply changes churches because of a geographical move or because of some theological or polity change. (“Polity change” is a euphemism for disliked the pastor in the previous church.) We spent a great deal of time back in those days making sure we notified the congregations from which our new members were moving that they new folks to us had in fact left their former church affiliation.
Silverside newbies tend to have dropped out of active church participation for longer or shorter periods of time if they ever participated actively at all. A conversation with a Silverside membership prospect might go something like this.
I ask, “So are you presently a member of any church?”
The prospective member answers, “Well, er, uh, ah, mmmmm. I think maybe I am, or I was. How would I know? I think I got baptized once; at least I woke up in church, and my hair was wet. I might have been confirmed; I remember wearing a really nice dress to church anyway.”
“But why did you wear a dress to church, Jonathan?”
“I don’t remember that either.”
“So, it doesn’t matter to us if you’ve been a church member at some point or never. I was just trying to understand a little about your background.”
“Is there some way I can get on the internet and find out if I am or ever was a church member?”
“I don’t know of any such data base. Let me go to the other questions I’d like to ask you.”
Actually, I’m exaggerating for a little fun, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that most of our members were not active in churches in the years immediately leading up to their membership in Silverside. They dropped out for one reason or another. Young couples with children often realize that the right church potentially should be able to give their children a strong religious and moral foundation to supplement what is being taught in their home. Retirees may well take a deep breath after years of working too hard and realize that something is missing in their lives, and they want to see if what’s missing is the spiritual aspect of who they are that has been left unnurtured for who knows how many years.
We don’t care why someone wants to be a part of our congregation as long as she or he is a true seeker and respectful of the views of others at very different places on the theological continuum and the spirituality or faith journey. We are looking for people who want to make a positive and lasting difference here, not those who are looking to make trouble as they have done in every church they’ve hopped into and out of all their lives.
Before Silverside, many of our members left church involvement at some point because the church to which they belonged betrayed their trust in some way, and the betrayal stung so much that they didn’t look right away for a new church. They wanted to be completely uninvolved in any church for a while or maybe forever.
My dear friends, I want to tell if you don’t already know that there are many people staying out of any church involvement today not because of apathy or laziness, but because of loss of trust in a church, which, though unjustified, represents all churches. So what are top three reasons someone feels betrayed by the congregation with which she or he is affiliated?
I have no concrete evidence of this, but my guess is that the number one reason people leave a church without seeking another is because they feel that their intelligence is insulted or their freedom to think for themselves is usurped by the theological and/or social positions and/or power positions taken by the church leader or leaders. Number two on my guess list of what drives people to leave a church without seeking another church is the perceived moral failings of the ministers or the organization itself. Three would be utter irrelevance--irrelevance of message, irrelevance of programming, irrelevance of approach. Boredom is a powerful repellent!
The first item on my list of three ways to get rid of church members not just from your church but from any church is one that doesn’t pertain to people who dislike being put in that horrible position of having to think for themselves. If the pastor isn’t doing the thinking for all the congregants, then what in the world is she or he doing to earn the big bucks? People who like to, or need to, think for themselves, though, can only stand it so long in an atmosphere of mandated brain neutrality. These are the core people in the group Bishop John Shelby Spong called so aptly the church alumni association. If you think for yourself, at least when your significant other permits it, then you can only take so much of the pastor or the church or the denomination telling you what you have to believe to be in good with God and what you have to believe for biggest pay off of all: heaven. I’ve known plenty of people who have said, “If I have to believe what my pastor believes or what the Pope believes in order to get into heaven, count me out. If the only people there in heaven are those who believe nonsense, I don’t want to be stuck with them for eternity, no matter what!”
The moral failings of a pastor or other church leader or the ethical shortcomings of the institution itself drive many people away from the church. That’s a shame since the church really should be about much more than what one pastor or one local congregation does. Another way of saying this is, one dishonest pastor doesn’t mean all pastors are dishonest. One pedophile priest doesn’t mean that all priests are pedophiles, and one bishop who overlooks reports of the illegal behavior of priests responsible to him doesn’t mean that all bishops try to hide the truth. One church that is set up to prey on people’s fears to bilk and milk their money from them doesn’t prove that all churches are in the same business. One hypocrite or one gossip in a congregation doesn’t mean that all members behave that way or approve of such destructive ways.
Third on my list are people who leave churches because they are bored with the sermons and/or bored with the music and/or bored with the feeling of same old, same old, same old whenever they participate in any program the church puts on. For every church goer in the world who wants every service to be exactly the same--with a repetitive order of worship and same-sounding hymns and same-sounding sermons and same-sounding prayers--there are at least that many who just can’t stomach the same old thing every time they come to church and find their way to the same pew in which they’ve been sitting for years, even though they don’t know why.
We are not a perfect church, and only two or three of our members are perfect; they will have to identify themselves to you since I’m not at liberty to disclose such personal facts about our members. But our destiny calls us to be the church of the second chance, meaning that we have often though the years been the church where members of the church alumni association and others learn to trust church again. Being there for people who want and need to learn to trust again after having been hurt or disappointed or insulted--that is our calling, as it were. That is our calling.


III.
I’m thinking that the most memorable of all the stories said to have been told by Jesus has to be determined by breaking a tie between the Good Samaritan and the so-called Prodigal Son, which really should be called either the Lost Son or the Waiting Father. The Lost Son is probably the better nickname since the Gospel of Luke groups this story with two other stories, each about lost objects, and the nicknames for those is based on the lost items in the stories: the lost sheep and the lost coin. All are wonderful and powerfully meaningful stories.
The stories are about how God reacts and acts metaphorically in situations where people believe they have been lost to God. The first two stories are brief, and we have little opportunity to enjoy character development although we can draw some interesting conclusions about the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep at risk while he goes out to search for one sheep that is lost and the poor woman who realizes that one of only ten coins she has to her name has disappeared somewhere in her house prompting her to turn the house on end until she finds that one coin. These are appealing images of the God who will go to any length to find those who lose themselves to God.
The story of the Lost Son, though, is different in many ways. It’s much longer than the other two so we get to enjoy the character development of three key characters--the father who lost a rebellious and belligerent son, that son, and that son’s older brother who normally gets left out of sermons because the preacher stopped reading the text too soon or because members of the congregation want to be first in line at the local cafeteria where there’s a 10% discount for those who bring their Sunday bulletins. In this third story of the trilogy, the son didn’t just wander aimlessly away from God as did the one sheep or roll into a dark, dark corner when the cord of a coin necklace broke sending the ten coins rolling unpredictably all over the place. The son intentionally, angrily with some malicious intent stomped away to a place where he couldn’t be found; the father had absolutely no idea where the son was so all he could do was wait rather passively in the hopes that the son would someday come to himself and return to the loving home where he had been reared.
We know from good scholarly authority that if we try to nit pick about all the details in parables, we end up with a mess on our hands--theologically speaking and otherwise. The parable is supposed to make one major point, and that’s its focus; but sometimes, especially in the longer more involved parabolic stories, it’s too tempting not to find some secondary points to ponder. So it is with the story of the Waiting Father or the Lost Son where the issue of regained or rebuilt trust slips into the story from three perspectives; each of the three main characters has to confront the issue of the possibility or the impossibility of regained trust from his perspective.
Many of you already know the general outlay of the story. A father had two sons in Jesus’ creative mind, and the younger of the two came to his father one day, more or less out of the blue, and told his father that he wanted to go ahead and get the part of his inheritance that would come to him when his father died. The first son in that culture received the largest portion of the inheritance, but the second son got something; and the daughters, of course, got nothing. So the younger son wanted an early pay out on what his father would leave him in his will, as it were. Some of you swinging retirees are keeping potential squabbles among your kids over inheritance issues from happening by spending all your savings before some lawyer reads your will to your children telling them how much you loved them, but not leaving any money for them to be worried with. Very nice of you!
I suppose the father had a choice about whether or not to grant the younger son’s request, but as the story is told he gives the younger son the money he asks for. In fact, in fairness he goes ahead and gives the older son his share too--leaving a little for himself to get by on. He trusts his sons to take care of the money he and they with him had worked hard to accumulate so that they could have a good life; indeed, they were a somewhat affluent family and were already appreciating some of the benefits of money and privilege.
The younger son could have been 18 or 28 or 58. We have no idea how old he was. Many interpreters of the story make him out to be a rebellious teen, but there’s no evidence for that. The son could have been a middle aged man who felt that he’d given his best years to his dad and the family business and that if he didn’t get on with it he might not be able to enjoy the money he’d had a part in accumulating. There’s no reason to think of the son as a total jerk; he might have had a few good qualities.
The son goes to Vegas where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. He wasted his money on gambling, hookers, and ultra fancy kosher food; at least, that’s what we presume. All the Gospel of Luke tells us is that he squandered the money away on “dissolute living.” You figure it out. If the son had a few good qualities, common sense wasn’t one of them. He spent every dime and didn’t even have enough left over to buy a hummus burger or lox and bagels. He was hungry; he was broke. The only job he could find was helping a farmer out of town a ways take care of his pigs. Being Jewish hadn’t mattered a great deal to the son, but he’d been bred to stay away from pigs on religious grounds. Jews were utterly repulsed by pigs, but it was the only job so there this prep school grad was tending pigs.
He got so hungry that the pig slop looked pretty good to him. The fact that he was nearly willing to root into the trough to chow down with the hogs stunned him into absolute reality.
He decided that he’d go back home and ask for work on the family farm--not as his father’s son, but--as a hired hand. You can imagine the inner dialogues he was having as he made his way back to the place where he’d once been accustomed to the finer things of life.
He has broken his father’s trust in more ways than one, and he’s fully prepared to receive the full impact of his father’s wrath, but that’s not what happens at all. The part of the story that will make you cry is seeing the old dad, who’d never stopped looking every few minutes of his waking hours down the path where he’d seen his son walk away, wondering if the son might just come back home against the odds. And that dad, the father, couldn’t believe his old eyes. He ran as fast as he could to his son. He grabbed him, and he hugged him; and he kissed him. And while the son was trying to apologize and grovel, the father said, “I don’t care about any of the why’s. All I care about is that you’re healthy and safe. Nothing else matters.” From the father’s point of view, the broken trust was repaired instantly and sealed with serious partying and feasting.
The younger son was lucky in so many ways. He didn’t think he’d be able to win back his father’s trust or approval or love. But in an instant and sealed with a weeping father’s kiss the father restored him to his place of leadership in the family. Friends, this RARELY happens in real life!
The older son, who had received his share of the inheritance too, though he hadn’t asked for it, was irate. He resented his kid brother for asking for the money and hurting their dad in the first place. He despised the party thrown in honor of his errant brother’s return, not a denarius to his name. And he told their father, “You trusted him once, and look where it got you. Look where it got him. Look where it got this family. Surely you’re not going to reward his selfishness and stupidity! You can’t trust him at all, Dad. Not at all! Don’t make the same mistake again!”
The old father, the God figure in the moving story, says, “Oh, son. You’re my first born, and I adore you. You’re a hard worker, and I depend on you in ways I’ll never be able to depend on your brother. But he’s my son too; for all this time, I thought he was dead, and I grieved my heart out. I love him too so I have to trust him again, at least enough to make him know that he didn’t lose out on his place in this family.” Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2009








I.
I saw a news headline a while back, and it was a question we all ask ourselves eventually, which naturally drew me into the article: “Can you trust a robot to work safely with you in the kitchen?” Ever since “The Jetsons,” we all knew that someday we’d have to answer the question. Well, my friends, that time has come. Robots can already vacuum and mop for us; robots being developed in England go beyond that. They are kitchen robots who work in conjunction with humans so your robot stirs the soup while you add a little more cream or some corn starch to thicken it up a bit. This invention could radically change how church nominating committees staff boards of fellowship, among other adjustments as to how life is lived today.
One of the British scientists working actively in the development of human-assistant robots, Professor Chris Melhuish, says that in order to work effectively with humans, these robots will have to understand the meaning of simple commands such as “slower,” “two minutes more” and “stop.” Eventually, the robots will have to be able to respond to frowns or grimaces on their owners’ faces, which might very well indicate that the hot soup has splashed out of the pot onto the owner’s hand. The problem here is that there are so many people for whom a frown is the default facial expression, the poor robots will be persistently perplexed. Obviously, the British robots will have to go long way to catch up with Rosie, the Jetsons’ robotic maid.
Oh well, back to real people.
Ken Buist has developed what he calls a “Trustworthiness Quotient.” This is how it works. Trustworthiness equals dependability, integrity, credibility, and empathy divided by self-interest and inconsistency. Again, the dividend is made up of four positive qualities: DICE--dependability, integrity, credibility, and empathy. The divisor is comprised of two negative qualities: self-interest and inconsistency. The quotient is the result of dividing the negative qualities into the positive qualities.
Today, we are asking the question, “Can I trust?” Part of the process of finding an answer is to isolate negative traits evident in the person we are sizing up as worthy of our trust or not. Buist says that those who are self-absorbed and/or inconsistent in what they say or do are to be regarded as less worthy of our trust than those who demonstrate the positive characteristics.
Why is someone who is self-centered or self-absorbed not to be trusted? Well, because a self-absorbed person can never make you or your need or your problem or your concern enough of a priority to concentrate on offering you any suitable support.
There’s an online Blog (is that redundant? are all blogs online?) called “The Angry Penguin,” the angry penguin really is angry. A casual reader may wonder if the angry penguin might need to attend an anger management workshop. Nonetheless, today we will ponder some of the angry penguin’s thoughts.
The angry penguin lists “10 sure signs that you’re a self-centered jerk,” and she or he says the problem isn’t that people are incapable of caring about others; the problem is that there are those who live as if there are no other people out there. Rate your self-centeredness based on these questions asked by the angry penguin:

When you’re at the grocery store and stop to look at items on the shelf, do you leave your shopping cart sitting right in the middle of the aisle, preventing anyone else from getting by?

When you pull up at a red light, do you stop a car length or more back from the car in front of you instead of pulling up close so cars behind you have room?

When you run into someone you know, do you stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or right in front of a doorway instead of stepping aside out of other people’s way?

When you pull into a center turn lane, do you leave the back end of your car sticking out in the lane of traffic blocking everyone else instead of pulling forward that extra 12 or 18 inches?

Do you rush through a yellow light and end up sitting in the middle of the intersection blocking traffic instead of looking before you enter the intersection to be sure there is room for you to get out the other side?

Do you go to the coffee shop and spread your books and papers out, taking up an entire table that should be able to seat 5 or 6 other people?

Do you sit in the coffee shop or restaurant talking at the top of your voice, instead of keeping your voice down out of consideration for those around you?

Do you wait until you get to the head of the line at McDonald’s or the coffee shop before you bother to look at the menu and think about what you want?

When you’re done at the coffee shop, do you just get up and leave your mess on the table as if you expect your mother to come clean up behind you?

Do you think rules are stupid, just because they prevent you from doing what you want?

There is such a thing as, a real emotional problem, called Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If any five of the following describes you, you might have NPD meaning that you’re not just a self-centered jerk:

1) an exaggerated sense of your own abilities and achievements
2) a constant need for attention, affirmation, and praise
3) persistent fantasies about attaining success and power
4) a willingness to exploit other people for personal gain
a sense of entitlement and expectation of special treatment
a lack of empathy for others

OK, so people who are self-centered--either because they’re jerks or because they have an emotional disorder and can’t help themselves--are not people that you or I should trust.
Other people we can’t trust are those who are inconsistent. I think none of us is absolutely consistent all the time about every single thing in our lives. Sometimes we flip flop. Sometimes we waver. Sometimes we just don’t live up to the standards we have set for ourselves, but if we generally are who we say we are then we count as consistent people.
Those whom we can’t trust in this area are those who are so all over the place that we never know where they are. And this includes the big issues of life. Pro-life four days a week and pro-choice three days a week. Loyal republican today; disloyal democrat tomorrow. You know what I mean. People who behave in this manner are not people whom we can trust, which is not to say that they are bad people or undeserving of our care. It’s simply to say that experience has proven that these traits often identify someone who is not to be trusted.
Sometimes, we have been guilty of deciding whom we can trust on the basis of groups or types of people and not one individual case at a time. It’s a common thing to do, but it almost always takes us down the wrong pathway. One of Hitler’s earliest ploys to discredit the Jews in the minds of Germans and other Europeans was to plant seeds of mistrust about them. Hitler’s lies were just that, but look where they led!
Cynthia Walls has a book, The Courage to Trust, that sadly grows out of her experience of having been sexually abused. She has a unique method of learning to trust, and she says that fear can be a helpful guide. Ms. Walls says that real trust is much more than just acting like you trust someone so if you feel fearful of trusting someone you should honor that fear. The fear will not necessarily mean that the person in question can’t be trusted, but rather that you are simply not ready to trust her or him.
Jesus had some interesting advice regarding when we have to decide whom we can trust. You will hear the context for this later, but for now I want you just to think about the proverb by itself: “Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”


II.
Westerners, most westerners, who know at least the top twenty Bible stories, have to be taken aback, at first blush, by Jesus’ use of a SERPENT as a positive symbol. The serpent symbol is utterly villainous in the first and last books of the Bible, isn’t it? How could Jesus use the serpent as a symbol of sensible behavior? Well, first thing. Jesus never read the book of Revelation or even heard about it. That mind-bending book wasn’t published until about 68-70 years after Jesus’ execution, but certainly Jesus DID know the powerful myth, eventually recorded in what we now call Genesis chapter 3, about the serpent’s role in Eve’s and Adam’s acts of disobedience causing the end of Eden. Even so, he used the symbol freely and thoughtfully.
It’s so easy for us to get caught up in our cultural milieu that we lazily allow ourselves to think that folks in other cultures, past and present, think the way we do. They didn’t, and they don’t.
I’ll tell you when that reality first hit me with reference to the serpent. My older son, Jarrett, went to a high school for the arts. Visual artists-, writers-, and performers-to-be studied there, and it was surprising to see how much black could be worn in one place. One wondered how the stores in Baltimore could keep the kids supplied in enough black for a seven day wardrobe--not that every student changed clothes, or bathed, daily for that matter, but you get what I mean. He followed that with studies at Sarah Lawrence, where the Goth thing continued for a number of students--not as widespread as at Carver Center for the Arts.
Sometime in his early college career, shortly after he realized that he didn’t hate me after all, which had been a probability during his last two years of high school, he trusted me with the announcement that he would be getting tattoos. I said, “Keep them small and out of sight--like George Schultz who, by rumor, had a Princeton Tiger on his derriere.”
“Oh, no,” said Jarrett. “I’m going to get elaborate serpents on both arms, wrapping around my arms all the way down with their heads resting on the top of both hands. Don’t you think that would be way cool, Dad?”
“Well, at the risk of having you hate me again for two more years, I have to say I don’t think that’s a good idea. One day you’ll have to get a job at some place other than your college library or at Hot Topic or as Cyndi Lauper’s personal assistant, and your future employer isn’t going to like snakes on your hands. You can’t wear gloves to work.”
“Oh, Dad,” he responded, in a wise and knowing way, a compassionate tolerance for my ignorance. “Dad, Dad, Dad. You didn’t know that the serpent was a symbol for wisdom in many ancient cultures? They didn’t work that into your Ph.D. studies anywhere along the way?”
“No, son,” I admitted. “A Ph.D. doesn’t cover every known piece of knowledge from the creation of the world to the present.”
Well, the good news is, I learned something from my son, and he didn’t get those snakes on his hands and arms. Don’t ask me or him when he visits what he got instead!
As hard as it was to hear on the lower end of condescension, he was right about the serpent symbol. I had been self-limited by my focus on Genesis 3, and I’m not even someone who is caught up in any remotely literal interpretation of a serpent tempting Eve and Adam to do what God had directed them not to do. I am intrigued, in that story, by the fact that the serpent initially is portrayed as an upright creature, walking on two feet like the humans. Only when the divine sentence is handed down to punish the man, the woman, and the serpent for upsetting the Edenic apple cart, as it were, does the serpent begin to crawl on its belly, losing its status as a two-legged, as some of the Native Americans would say it.
So, that image of the serpent isn’t complimentary, but even there the serpent is no more evil than the woman or the man. The God of Genesis 3 doesn’t punish the threesome and their descendants because they are evil, but because they are disobedient. The serpent tempted Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit, but Eve tempted Adam to do the same thing. What I’m saying is that the notion that the serpent was evil has been read back into Genesis 3; the writer of Genesis 3 had no notion that the serpent was evil at all. In fact, the serpent knew more than either Eve or Adam about God and about broader life in Eden.
In the story of the Exodus, Moses’ leading the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, the staff that Moses carries for at least a part of the 40-year struggle to get the Hebrews to where they needed to be was created, by carving we presume, to look like a serpent. At one point in the story, he is trying to make the Egyptian pharaoh and the pharaoh’s advisors understand that he means business so he throws his staff onto the ground and it becomes a serpent. When he picks it up by its end it becomes a serpent again. That wasn’t supposed to suggest something scary or evil to the pharaoh.
Mythologists often point out that in Near and Middle Eastern cultures, serpents were regarded as female creatures, not as male creatures, and they were symbols for wisdom and prophetic counsel. That’s an interesting twist, isn’t it?
In Hebrew scripture two kinds of beings are said to be closest in attending God, cherubim and seraphs or seraphim. Well, my dear friends, seraphim are fiery serpents. In a culture that conceived of God as a powerful sultan whose every need was tended to and whose every wish was carried out by servants, those beings thought to be physically closest to God were highly regarded indeed. They are key players in Isaiah’s Temple vision.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of the divine robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above God; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the Sultan, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me” (Isa 6:1-8 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).


So here we have fiery serpents serving as God’s most trusted servants; this should offset, a little bit or a lot, depending on your point of view, the bad rap given to the Genesis 3 serpent.
It’s very interesting in Chinese mythology that the first parents of humanity had human upper bodies and serpent-like lower bodies that typically were portrayed in art as intertwined. Maybe some of you have been thinking about the serpent in the symbol used by the American Medical Association, which is the serpent-staff or the serpent-rod of the ancient Greek god of healing, Asclepius, son of Apollo. In numerous ancient cultures, the fact that a snake shed its skin annually and started all over again, as it were, caused it to be a symbol of health and physical renewal--as in a body’s triumph over disease.
All this to say that Jesus’ use of a serpent symbol as a positive and healthful image finally makes perfect sense. Be as wise as serpents, he said, and as innocent as doves. I say again: this is a proverb about trust.


III.
When Jesus sent his closest male followers out on various preaching and ministry missions, he gave them instructions that I find fascinating, revealing that he trusted them completely. Why do you think Jesus trusted his disciples to do exactly what he did, and I stress EXACTLY what he did? There was nothing that he, Jesus, had done left off the list for his followers to do when they were confronted with comparable situations: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt 10:7-8a NRSV).
This verse is very disappointing to those who want to make Jesus a superhuman hero with divine capabilities, making him able to outshine anyone else ministering in his context. But that is incorrect. He trusted his closest male followers who could be sent out on their own to minister, which the women could not unless their husbands went with them. He trusted them to do what he had shown them and taught them about ministering in God’s name, and if they opened themselves to the same divine power to which Jesus opened himself they would be capable not only of preaching good sermons about what life is like in God’s realm, but also they could--oh let’s see--cure sick folks of everyday ills and the more serious stuff too, like leprosy and demon possession. In addition to these tasks, they would be able to restore life to those who had died. This is big. This is astounding. You don’t let hardly anyone do what only you can do, but if you do you absolutely trust the person whom you bless to do what you did. We don’t tap people to pick up where we left off, even for a couple of days, with the notion that it really doesn’t matter one way or the other how they perform. Just the opposite! People whom we trust to do what we have done to make our mark, if you will, we trust with all we have. We don’t want some numb skulls running around out there discrediting us in the eyes of those we most need to trust us.
So think of what President Obama went through when Hillary Rodham Clinton’s name kept coming to the top of the stack for a potential Secretary of State. She was his former arch rival on the campaign trail. Each had said some pretty rough stuff about the other. Could they kiss and make up? Well, yes--in the nation’s capital and in Hollywood, it can happen. Obama had to risk trusting Clinton, and from everything I can tell his trust-risk has paid off well. She, also, had to risk trusting him, and the kinds of trust involved for her were very different. In many ways, she was more vulnerable because she would be going to work for her former nemesis.
The next kiss-and-make-up event I’m looking forward to is the one that could happen between Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich. By the way, I have to tell you that when Newt Gingrich was in New Orleans attending Tulane University, he was a member of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, the church I pastored for nearly five years long after Gingrich had left New Orleans. While he was there, though, he decided to become a follower of Jesus and join the church. My predecessor, Dr. G. Avery Lee, was the pastor at the time, and he was still active in the church when I became the pastor. St. Charles can’t compare with Silverside, but it too is on the progressive side of things; and Avery was very disappointed with the direction Newt’s career took. Avery died a few months ago, and one of his son’s reminded me in our communication at that time about Avery’s now rather-famous quote about Newt Gingrich’s baptism by immersion, “I didn’t hold him under long enough!”
The people Jesus sent out had earned his trust. Not all of them would deserve as much of his trust as he offered, and he would find out very painfully and tragically that some of the ones he had trusted the most--such as Peter and Judas--would show that they hadn’t been deserving of the trust he had placed in them. Even so, Jesus took the risk of trusting them.
This is a pretty good indication or reminder that none of us is going to get it right every time either. None of us is going to get all the way through life without having been burned a time or two or three, and sometimes in hugely disappointing and heartbreaking ways. We are going to trust people whom we shouldn’t trust. We are going to trust people who let us down, who don’t do what they say they will do with information we share with them.
These twelve men whom Jesus is sending out to extend his ministry were challenged, directed, to do ministry the same way Jesus did. Peter and Judas were two of those twelve men, and a couple of years later Peter would become so angry in claiming that he didn’t even know Jesus that he began to curse. Judas would sell Jesus out to Rome to try to get him in a tight enough position that he’d have to play ball Judas’s way and become a military messiah. Ten out of twelve isn’t bad, though, huh? And, by the way, Peter and Judas probably did a great job at what they’d been called on to do.
Jesus teaches them how to trust a bit by trusting them himself, but he also points out to them that tough times change things--often making people you could trust in good times people you can no longer trust. So how to know them? How do you pick out the untrustworthy types in the crowds?
Well, of course, there’s no sure fire way. Jesus’ advice centered on the proverb I’ve already mentioned several times. In figuring out whom you can trust, you have to be as wise as serpents--and that’s very wise in a commonsense kind of way--and as gentle or harmless or innocent as doves. We want something more from Jesus, but this is as far as he can go. It’s as far as we can go too.
What we have to ascertain can’t be determined by the exteriors that are available to us; thus, in our interactions with these people whom we have to trust or not we have to use our insight and our instinct wisely. This is being as wise as serpents, and we do what we do in ways that don’t hurt those whom we have to validate as trustworthy to us or not.
If you’re going to work with children in many organizations these days, you’re going to be asked to submit to a general background check to determine if there has ever been anything in your past that would or could make your working with children in the present a bad or a questionable thing. We ask for that here in anyone whom we hire to work with kids in any capacity; that’s part of being as wise as serpents. We require that of everyone, not just someone who seems suspicious to us; that’s the harmless as doves part. We’re not picking out someone for particular scrutiny. The results of these checks help us make the choice to trust someone to care for our kids or not. The other part of being as wise as serpents is that sometimes even with a passing review on the background check someone doing the hiring for us has reservations, and as a rule we pay attention to gut feelings.
Sometimes, people who join a good cause let themselves believe that because it’s a good cause God or karma or luck will protect them, will keep them from harm. We all wish that were true, but it’s not true at all. People doing good, people trying to serve others for all the right reasons can still be hurt--and sometimes seriously--while in the very process of trying to do good. A Boy Scout may very well help a little older woman cross the street, but the street punk might knock them both down in an effort to steal her purse.
An aid worker may not take sides in a war, but only wants to make sure that the most vulnerable people on both sides have enough of the basics to live. With nothing but goodness in her or his heart, that aid worker might be killed just for passing out food packets.
Just because your mission is good and just and right doesn’t mean, by any means, that everyone you encounter is going to share your values or give a rip that you’re trying to do a good deed. Jesus said to his male disciples before they went out taking very little with them besides Jesus’ trust of them, “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves so be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” Plan to trust, intend to trust, and trust whenever you can, but don’t trust every lamb you come across because wolves have often shown up in lamb’s clothing.
Here’s another thing, if you have determined that a lamb is really a wolf in lamb’s clothing, don’t hang around to second guess yourself or to put the principles of logic that you learned way back in college into play. Get the hades out of there. Wolves have more than lamb for lunch!

Sunday, May 10, 2009











I.
I have no idea how many people wonder about their own trustworthiness. What I hear most folks commenting on is how trustworthy other people are. Next week we will think about those whom we should trust, but today we will take the time to evaluate our own trustworthiness.
It’s a much tougher question, “Can I be trusted?’, than, “Can that person be trusted?’, though both are important questions. I gave our internet users an online assignment this week, an e-test of personal trustworthiness. I hope those of you who got the link took the test since I don’t accept late assignments!
Maybe for some people, being trustworthy comes about as a result of an intentional decision to be a person who can be trusted by others. Others, perhaps, grow up in environments where being trustworthy is so much a part of life, such a nonnegotiable that they aren’t even aware that there are any special decisions made about living by this principle or standard. It’s probably easier to grow up believing that there are no alternatives to trustworthiness than to have to make a specific commitment to be trustworthy as if there’s a choice. Of course, there is a choice or a series of ongoing choices that one must make to be and to continue being trustworthy.
I would say the ability to be a trustworthy person hinges on one’s ability to be honest with herself or himself and honest with others. When I think of being honest with others I don’t think in terms of being rude to others; I think about being honest in a caring and tactful manner. But if we can’t be honest with ourselves, first, and others, second, we are not good candidates for being able to be trustworthy.
Let me throw in here that a person’s not being honest with herself or himself can’t automatically be attributed to a preference for dishonesty or a malevolent desire to pass along falsehoods. There are a number of emotional or psychological states that make someone fear the truth and, in its place, put alternate realities. This can be very sad stuff, and I don’t want to get into those issues in today’s sermon. We will leave that to another time and focus our attention on those who CAN, if they choose, be truthful, be honest. Someone who lacks personal integrity will not trust herself or himself; she or he should not be trusted by others. Naturally, politicians are exceptions. They can’t elected for any big post without telling a few lies, and we Americans not only put them in that position but also expect them not to follow through on at least a small percentage of what was promised.
One of the reasons that liberal religious movements are not as popular as more conservative ones is that silly liberals insist that everything they teach has to make sense, has to hold together in some sort of consistent manner while religious conservatives don’t hold themselves to that. Creating an inconsistent, schizophrenic deity is no problem for them whatsoever.
Speaking of integrity, I have to tell you that I’m seriously disappointed with John Edwards. While I think that very few people would come out looking good to all observers if their lives were viewed under a microscope, giving in to the advances of an aggressive, groupie/campaign worker primarily because she said, “You’re hot,” is pretty sickening so we understand Elizabeth Edwards’s response to the news. A few months ago, I would have said that John Edwards is absolutely a person to be trusted; today, I’d say no way.
This is precisely the dynamic that came up with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Was then-President Clinton’s affair my business? Not in the least. Even so, once the word was out, did he have the right to lie about it? Not in the least. Did President Clinton lose credibility? Without a doubt. I would rather have been lied to about an affair that was none of my business, though, than about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, but that’s just me, I guess.
Being honest with oneself about oneself doesn’t just mean about the shady stuff; it includes the good stuff too! When the Nominating Committee asks you to take a job and you don’t want to, it’s better to say that you prefer not to accept than to deny that you have the skills or gifts if you know have them! Just a little timely word from your sponsor!
Psalm 51 has a very situation-specific heading: “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” If you don’t know what that heading is referring to, it’s the adulterous affair King David had with Bathsheba, the wife of his military commander. And as if David didn’t have enough wives and concubines already at his disposal, he commanded that Commander Uriah go to the front lines in battle where he, David, was certain Uriah would be killed--leaving Bathsheba a widow so that David could legally marry her.
Now when the prophet Nathan came and pointed his finger in David’s face and confronted him with his infidelity that wasn’t in all probability a a very well kept secret, David could have said, “I did NOT have sex with THAT WOMAN,” but he didn’t. He owned his failing. Of course, there was no one way to bring Uriah back to life and nothing illegal about sending a commander to fight anywhere in a war zone. David knew how he had twisted situations and lives to fix things like he wanted them, and this psalm of contrition, Psalm 51, has been attributed to the repentant King.
When we hear this psalm read, it’s usually with the same absence of emotion use to read all or practically all scripture, but David is pouring his heart out here, and we should hear the agony of regret when we hear his words: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psa 51:1-2 NRSV). If we’re going to make God a punitive God, then we have to keep the groveling going. David begs for God’s mercy. I, for one, am very glad that we’ve learned there’s no need for divine mercy because God’s love is a constant; it simply is a fact of God.
David seems to have in his prayer the image of a book in which records of sins and failures have been kept, and he asks God to blot out or erase the bad stuff about him and in place of that to give him a clean slate. He pairs up this image with an image of a bath or baptism; he asks God, through this means, to cleanse him.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psa 51:10-12 NRSV).
Again, David had been a real slimebag, but God didn’t hate him; and God wasn’t even contemplating the possibility of tearing the divine presence away from the King. What David longed for, and there is no promise that God was able to deliver on this, was the sense within himself that he’d never let down God or Uriah or Bathsheba. David’s personal honesty here, as horribly painful as it must have been, was part of what had to happen in order for him to begin regaining integrity in his own eyes and in the eyes of others.
As women were usually held singularly accountable for adultery and suffered the consequences, however severe they were, all alone, there’s something balancing in the story as David--not just any old Hebrew, but the greatest king in Hebrew history--has to accept the consequences in order for him to be able to trust himself and in order for others to be able to trust him.
Bathsheba was the Miss California of her time. She was topless in her tub--right out on the roof for all, especially King David, to see; as bare-breasted as Mother Eve before she found the fig leaves; and utterly shocked, stunned beyond stuttering that everyone doesn’t see that she was God’s girl just trying to get a modeling gig with Salome’s Secret. She endured the second surgery in the Garden of Eden; not only was Adam’s rib removed, but also Edenic implants surgically inserted to compensate for God’s initial mis-projections about just how large her breasts should have been. Her Perez Hilton was a prophet named Nathan who was determined to be truthful no matter what the cost!


II.
People who can be trustworthy know deep down that they can’t spread around hurtful rumors about others. Sometimes we are faced with the responsibility of having to tell the story of how someone has done something wrong in order to protect people from suffering the same wrong. Most of the time, though, gossip is just that, and people who try to hurt others by spreading around lies or true stories that don’t need to be spread around are people who must say, “No,” when asked, “Can I Be Trusted?”
I mentioned last Sunday that I didn’t get any clear, single message from the movie, “Doubt,” since, in the end, I remained uncertain about who the bad gal or guy was, Meryl Streep’s character or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character. I’m no better off on that issue today, but there was more to the movie than that, and parts of it were crystal clear.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest, Father Flynn, is convinced that Streep’s Sister Aloysius is gossiping to the detriment of himself, the church he serves as pastor, and the school of which Sister Aloysius is the principal. In a very fine sermon illustration very soon after he draws his conclusion, Father Flynn tells of an old priest hearing confession one day when a communicant admits to old Father O’Roark, I think his name was, that she has been spreading gossip about someone.
He sends her act to perform an act of penitence. It seemed to the woman like the strangest thing she’d ever heard of a priest asking anyone to do. He told her to take a feather pillow to the top of a building; once in place, she was use a knife to cut open the feather pillow. She did this, and, naturally, feathers went everywhere. It looked like snow for a bit.
She returned to Father O’Roark and told him that she’d done exactly what he asked her to do. “Good,” he said, “now go and collect every one of those feathers that the wind has blown all over the place.”
She responded, “Father! That’s impossible!”
“You’re right,” he said. “Same with your gossip. It can never be cleaned up. Never.”
Today is Mothers’ Day. This gives us an opportunity to say that a child’s first opportunity to learn to trust and to have foundations laid that will allow her or him to be trustworthy as a child, an adolescent, and an adult come from interactions with the primary nurturer or nurturers providing care. Without words, when words are essentially of no use, a baby learns to trust if her or his parent or parents or caregivers provide for and protect her or him.
As the child matures, her or his ability to trust will have something to do with how safe the home environment is for making mistakes. Since we all make mistakes--and if you’re an exception, please DO email me!--a child has to learn how to make those mistakes. It should be safe to be imperfect in a loving home. Home is a place to practice making mistakes and being loved anyway, being affirmed as a person of value anyway.
Back in college one of my physical education electives was “Roller Skating.” In that course, Professor Martha Wilson taught us, first, how to stand up on skates--how not to fall down, in other words. The very next lesson was how to fall down. We’d be skating along to Carson-Newman-approved music, and all of a sudden she’d yell, “Fall!” We were supposed to get in kind of a body ball with knees and elbows in and then force ourselves to fall against the side of a leg following through by falling against the upper arm. Lots of people fell before Mrs. Wilson gave the command, but she didn’t mind as long as they fell well. Sounds kind of crazy after all these years, but none of us got hurt.
Making a mistake doesn’t prove that a child is either incompetent or evil. A parent who condemns a child or who humiliates a child when the child makes a mistake is an unfit parent and is raising a child who will not be able to trust anyone, a child who may not be able to become trustworthy as a result of the scars.
Here’s how eHow puts it:

Realize that your faithfulness or loyalty to a friend, family member, coworker, boss or subordinate earns their trust. Defend or protect others when you have the opportunity to do so. It is the right thing to do. Recognize that others have faults and make mistakes. Give them the opportunity to fix their errors and move past it.


I thought it would be fun to find out who is most truthworthy and who is least trustworthy in our world so I checked several sources. One of the surveys was limited to US Americans and gave respondents eleven professions to rate so this one wasn’t a wide open vote. On the list, physicians came out on top with 50% of respondents saying that they believed they could trust a doctor completely. Obviously, this means that the other half of those surveyed indicating that you couldn’t trust a doctor completely. Dentists were next, with 47% of those surveyed saying that they could trust dentists completely. Forty-six percent of the folks answering said they believed they could trust nurse completely. There was a drop, a rather severe drop for the next profession; some 28% of those taking this survey said they trusted their accountants completely. Another big drop: 18% said lawyers were completely trustworthy. At the bottom of the list of eleven professions were stockbrokers; only 6% of those interviewed said that stockbrokers could be trusted completely. Clergypersons were left off the list, but what percentage of people would you guess trust clergypersons completely?
There was a survey conducted by college and university sociology departments about three years ago asking respondents which group in the United States they trusted least. Evidently, those answering could determine for themselves who comprised a group, and answers revealed a host of groups named. Some thought in terms of ethnic groups; some thought in terms of socioeconomic groups; some grouped people by sexual preference; others thought of their fellow citizens in terms of their religious affiliation or lack of same. And the winning group was, the group this survey said could be trusted least was atheists. Atheists were trusted less than Muslims, recent immigrants, and homosexuals! If someone had asked me that question out of the blue, I think I’d probably have said, religious fundamentalists or people who read the National Enquirer.
Sociology Professor Penny Edgell, who is also director of graduate of studies at the University of Minnesota said this “winning response” suggested to her that many Americans believe that some kind, any kind of religious faith is better than none and, therefore, that people who lack a sense of God are not to be trusted. I say, take an atheist to lunch and rethink that!
Another survey, and this is the last one for today, was conducted in the United Kingdom where it was established that politicians, not atheists, are the least trusted people in the world! This survey was taken before our recent change of oval office occupants, but I find the results disturbing. In the former Soviet bloc, 75% of the residents in those now independent countries believe that their leaders run things without regarding the will of the people. That part didn’t surprise me, but the fact that 64% of Europeans and 60% of North Americans said the same thing, that did surprise me. This was a serious survey commissioned by the BBC and carried about the Gallup organization.
The same survey around the world showed that 33% of the people rate religious leaders as trustworthy--the highest rated group! As I mentioned, politicians around the world were the least trusted with only 16% of the people deeming them trustworthy. Military and police leaders along with journalists followed religious leaders as most trustworthy; each of those groups getting the nod from 26% of the survey’s respondents. Business leaders got only a few points more than the politicians did.


III.
If I am or want to be a trustworthy person, I must demonstrate in my behaviors and in my values three C’s: consistency, competence, and compassion. Consistency, competence, and compassion.
One of the ways that I know if I’m dealing with someone with whom I will one day likely confirm trust is whether or not that person is pretty much the same person every time I see her or him. It’s little things at first. Can I count on someone whom I greet in a hallway on a regular basis to return a comparable greeting? Can I depend on the generally friendly person I’ve begun having lunchtime discussions with to keep on being friendly, or does a point of difference cause that same friendly person to do the Jeckyll and Hyde thing and suddenly try to bite my head off?
I went to a therapist a few times several years ago, and I can tell you that I flat out don’t trust mental health professionals at all until I’ve tested the waters. It’s not that I doubt that most are really interested in helping their clients; it’s just that I’ve run into some seriously incompetent people in that field--both as a client and as someone referring people to them who need more than the pastoral counseling and support I can provide.
Anyway, this guy I thought was pretty good at what he did, and I thought he was really interested in my struggle at the time. He was consistently on target, and I was impressed. I was just beginning to open up to him and trust him when I noticed that he was sleeping. I mean, I know that my life is boring to everyone but me, but when you can’t even pay people to stay awake and listen to you for 50 minutes it’s bad! I realize there are all sorts of other explanations for why he might have been sleeping during my session--he might have gotten his Dayquil mixed up with his NyQuil, might have stayed up too late the night before talking to his mother about what he should wear to work on Thursday, he might have narcolepsy and sleep through conversations with many clients, but that was a deal breaker for me, my dear friends.
I’ve alluded to it twice, and I want to speak directly to it. I don’t think it’s healthy or wise simply to give everyone with whom we come into contact our full, immediate trust. The woman at the grocery store, in line in front of me at the self-service check out, telling me about how rugged menopausal hot flashes can be does not have enough of a relationship of trust established with me to share those kinds of personal details even though she approved of the brand of olive oil in my basket. When it comes to trusting someone, one tests the waters first; complete trust is earned and should grow over time. Giving someone new in your life the benefit of the doubt and being optimistic about higher levels of trust down the road is probably a healthy way to go.
Competence has a lot to do with being a trustworthy person or not. You don’t have to be competent at everything, and those who think they are, are to be observed closely. But in the areas that matter, in our chosen professions, let’s say, competence does matter. It’s hard to trust someone who is incompetent to be anything other than incompetent.
A server who doesn’t understand the menu is someone whose opinion about foods served in that established is not to be trusted. “Ah, yes sir, our merlot this evening is freshly caught and was shipped to us on ice from the Gulf Coast.” Well, how’s about bringing me some tartar sauce with my merlot then? I certainly hope I don’t sound like a snob. I’m not. I was very nearly born and bred a redneck from the hills of Tennessee. My parents forbade drinking any kind of alcohol except for the Southern Comfort that my Dad used in the rare hot tottie. I’m no wine connoisseur and have to phone Carson or Jarrett to remind me of the word, Riesling, now and then. But I do know that merlot doesn’t swim or get filleted.
Carson got some really generous financial gifts from family members and longtime family friends for graduation back in January, and just in time too. The transmission on his old SUV was not doing its job. He had enough from his stash to make a decent down payment on a newer vehicle, and he asked me to go car shopping with him. One of several places we visited brought us into contact with a very friendly, but a very nervous salesman. He may have little experience selling cars; I’m not sure, but he couldn’t to save himself find the key to the car Carson wanted to see on his lot. What he did find, though, was the keyless entry device, and he was able to make it beep the horn of the vehicle, but not open the door. The beeping horn, then, couldn’t be turned off. Other customers were staring at us as if we made the horn beep. Service personnel came out to us and laughed at the salesman who was fumbling around like Barney Fife digging desperately for the one bullet Andy allowed him to carry for emergencies. One of them said, “I wouldn’t buy a car from a clown!” We stayed until the horn stopped and vehicle miraculously opened; we listened to a brief spiel, but walked away as quickly as we could with no intention of making a purchase.
People who are incompetent at what they’re supposed to be able to do reasonably well can’t be trusted. We can’t depend on them. Parents don’t hire a sweet, well-intentioned baby sitter for their kids if the sitter, regardless of how sweet and kind, doesn’t have strong references for taking good care of kids.
Finally to compassion. If we want to be or become trustworthy persons we have to be compassionate. You’d think church people would never need to be reminded of the importance of compassion, and I think this church, by the way, doesn’t. Compassion runs through the veins of this place--no question about it, but not everyone goes to a church where compassion is stressed. I refer you again to eHow, this time for a comment on compassion.

Understand that being compassionate breeds trust. Take an interest in the personal struggles others encounter to foster a genuine sense of caring. This increases your personal character as being a trustworthy person.


By the way, I did a Google search for “compassion and trust,” and the top hit was the Florida Funeral Directors’ Association.
Jesus, one day, got the bad news of the execution of his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist. His heart was heavy, and he did what he often did when he needed to collect himself. As the Gospel of Matthew tells this part of Jesus’ story:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick (Matt 14:13-14 NRSV).


So Jesus is still struggling with his own grief. If there’s ever a time when it’s OK to be completely self-absorbed it’s when we have to grieve. At times, the grieving process requires such utter focus on oneself, in fact. Jesus, remarkable man that he was, still found a part of himself to give to others with needs, and he did what he did because of compassion. His compassion caused the crowds to trust him.
The Budda taught:
Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others. Thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed.

The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” We could adapt that slightly for our purposes today and say, “If you want to be trusted, practice compassion.”
Amen.