The Quality of Mercy

homeless+ministry

 

Back in the early ’90s I was in the market for a new car, and decided, with a family of four, maybe we needed a mini-van. (It was the ’90s!) I saw a used one for sale, a model I was totally unfamiliar with–and Oldsmobile Silhouette. It was very different from all the other minivans, most of which looked like boxes. The Silhouette had a steeply sloped nose, and looked more like a futuristic space pod, something you would see on Star Trek, than a minivan. I test drove it, and told the guy selling it I needed a day or two to make up my mind on buying it.

The next day I had to drive to Charlotte, NC from Durham, a trip of about 150 miles. I probably saw twenty Silhouettes on that trip. They were all over the place! Up to that day, I don’t ever remember seeing one.

That is a common phenomena. Clearly, I had been seeing them before that day, they just did not register on my radar. You have probably had similar experiences. There is actually a name for it–the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Basically what is says is that we have selection attention spans. We pay heed to the things that are important to us, and we filter out the stuff that is not. But when a new thing comes to our attention, like, say, an Oldsmobile Silhouette, then we start to notice it. We bring that into our attention span, and we don’t filter it out.

We all do that. When I was in Germany, I would learn a new vocabulary word, and then suddenly I has hearing that word everywhere. Before I knew the word, I filtered it out. Once it got into my sphere of attention, then I was noticing it.

I had another significant experience like this, but this one happened when I was in college. I was a member of our campus Christian Fellowship, I read the Bible and did frequent Bible studies, I read tons of books about the Bible, but then, in 1978, I did two things that changed my whole outlook on the life of faith. First, I read a book called Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider. The book so changed my life, that after I graduated from college, I went to work with Ron for a short while. In the book, Ron goes through many of the biblical passages that call us to care for the poor and needy. The second thing I did was go to Guatemala for a summer mission trip. There I saw the poor and needy up close.

After reading Rich Christians, I could no longer read the Bible and not see all the references to the poor–the widow, the orphan, the immigrant in the land. Nor could I miss how God felt about people who turned a blind eye to the needs of others. It was everywhere I looked. After going to Guatemala, and later Haiti, I could not see the world without also seeing the people who have been traditionally overlooked by people like me.

The words we heard from the first reading this morning, the words of James, are not an anomaly in the Bible. They don’t stand out because they are so unusual. In fact they blend in with the whole biblical message.

 

All Through the Bible

The message to take care of the poor is a prevalent message that spans throughout the Bible. The word “poor” shows up around 210 times in the Bible, and around 60 percent of those times, it is in the context of taking care of the poor, the widow, and orphan, the traveler in your land. It is about taking care of people who fell through the cracks of the safety net of that day.

For example, in Psalm 72, we find a prayer for the king.

Give the king your justice, O God,

    and your righteousness to a king’s son.

Then it goes on to say what makes a godly king in the eyes of God.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

    and your poor with justice.

3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,

    and the hills, in righteousness.

4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,

    give deliverance to the needy,

    and crush the oppressor.

Then it enumerates blessings for the king.

8 May he have dominion from sea to sea,

    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9 May his foes bow down before him,

    and his enemies lick the dust….

11 May all kings fall down before him,

    all nations give him service.

And why does the King have all these blessings?

12 For [because] he delivers the needy when they call,

    the poor and those who have no helper.

13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,

    and saves the lives of the needy.

14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;

    and precious is their blood in his sight.

That is not exactly how we judge our leaders today. In Israel, the king was first and foremost to the keeper of God’s law. He was to act according to God’s standards. We have a secular government today, so perhaps it is unfair to judge a city councilman, or a Representative or Senator, or even the President by what God demands of the king of Israel. But we can see here what is important to God. And, for our purposes here in the Church, which is the representative of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we see what God is calling us to do, what will make us great in the eyes of God. And what displeases God.

In the book of Genesis, we read the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. What was their sin? Why did God destroy them? The answer may not be what you think. In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet tells why God destroyed those cities:

49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (Gomorrah] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

James has some sharper words in his letter. In Chapter Five we read:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. 2 Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4 Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

By the way, Upton Sinclair read that passage to a convention of pastors and attributed it to Emma Goldman, an infamous anarchist of the time. The pastors voted that whoever wrote this should be expelled from the United States.

“The Poor will always be with you” 

What about Jesus’ word, “… you always have the poor with you?” Let’s look at that. Jesus says this a few days before he is going to be arrested and crucified.  His time with the disciples is coming to an end, and while he is with them, a woman comes up to him and pours a very expensive anointment on his head. (That was considered an honor back then, not a form of harassment!) The disciples talk about how that is a waste of money, and the money it costs for the anointment could be given to the poor. It is at this point that Jesus says,  “… you always have the poor with you.”

Some people take this to mean that Jesus is saying, “It is useless to help the poor. There will always be poor people, and you really cannot do anything about it.” But let’s look at the quote. “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Jesus is not making a fatalistic statement about the poor. He is not saying, “There’s poor people everywhere, there will always be poor people, and there is nothing you can do about it.” He is saying, “There is always an opportunity for you to help poor people. And you are right to do so. But I’m going to be gone in a few days, to take advantage of having me around as long as you can.”

Now it is also possible that Jesus here is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy (15:11): There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.  Both Jesus and the writer of Deuteronomy see poverty as a chance for people to do good. We may always have poor people among us, and that just means we have that many chances to care for them.

 

 

Two Extremes

There are two dangers whenever anyone talks about the biblical mandate to care for the poor. The first is to ignore it. It’s one thing to lay aside something in the Bible that you don’t understand. It is quite another to deliberately ignore something that is very important to God.

But I don’t want to dwell on that, and I will tell why a little later.

The second danger is to overemphasize the biblical mandate to help the poor, and make it the standard by which everything is judged. “How can you have such a nice, big sanctuary when there are hungry people in the world. How can you have such an expensive organ, when there are people sleeping on the streets of Medford?” In other words, “How can you enjoy yourself when there are people who are suffering?”

The answer to that is simple–having a ministry to the poor is not the only thing we are called to do. When the woman poured the ointment on Jesus, he accepted it. When we gather here to worship Jesus, when we sing to the beautiful sounds of this organ, when we meet together in fellowship, we are also doing the work of God. If you look carefully at the passage in James, it is clear there are rich and poor in the church. His problem is not that there are rich people there–it is how the rich people treat the poor. In the passage I read earlier about how the rich will have their wealth rot on them, the reason is not because they have wealth; it is because the use their wealth to oppress the poor.

There are a host of thing the Bible calls us to do: worship, fellowship with one another, prayer, study, evangelism, stewardship, taking care of each other, and taking care of the poor and needy. All of these things are important.

 

A Pat on the Back

I want to end on a very personal note. As I said, these issues have been important to me since my college days. I have struggled with them since the 19070s, and I have worked to help others understand them since I was ordained, almost thirty years ago.

In all that time, I have never been a member of, or been a pastor in a church that took the issue to help the poor and needy as much as this church does. I have never served a church that did as good a job as this church in feeding the hungry, and opening our doors to the needy. When the James passage was read this morning, I hope you thought as I did; THAT IS NOT US! I have seen you welcome all people to this place since I have been here. And you do so with grace and dignity.

In this community we are known for a couple of things; our music program, especially the organ, choir and our Jazz vespers. That is good. But we are also known as a church that helps people.

If I were preaching this sermon in another church, odds are very good that at the end I would say, “And we need to do this here! We need to be more open, and more engaged with the poor in our community.”

But not here. No. Here I am saying, “You are phenomenal! James tells us not to discriminate against the poor, and you take that seriously!

We live here at ground zero when it comes to issues involving the poor, the homeless, people who suffer from food insecurity. It is a challenge, one that you have met “energy, intelligence, imagination and love.” We house the largest food bank in Jackson county. We give away around 300 free bag lunches a week. Our Wednesday Night Live program serves children who may not fit into traditional youth groups. During the week our doors are open to those in need. We walk with people who need someone to walk with them.

We care. Not just about the people who can benefit us. We care for all.

I know this is hard. It is easy to say, “God wants us to care for the poor,” but the poor are individual people, many of whom come with a host of problems. Not everybody appreciates what we do here, and that includes some of the people we help. It is a hard task, but you handle it with grace and love.

In a parable, Jesus says that at the end of all things, people will be sorted out. On one side, he says, are those who fed him when he was hungry, who gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, who visited him when he was lonely.  Jesus welcomed those people into paradise. There was another group in the parable, a group that did not fare so well, but I don’t need to talk about them, because you are not those people.

I want to close with this, words from Jesus that I want to say, on His behalf, to you today.

“Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Amen.

Posted in Compassion, Micah 6:8, ministry, Mission, Musings, Poor, Preaching, Social Justice, Social Ministry, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There’s No Place Like….Where’s Toto?

WizardBallon

 

We are almost at the end of our journey on the Yellow Brick Road. Today we will learn how Toto, the mythic Trickster, helps Dorothy see what life is all about.

 

 Romans 8:28-30

28We know that all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.[b] 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Luke 17:20-21

20Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock was asked in an interview why one of his characters in the movie The Birds, walks upstairs into a dangerous situation, instead of fleeing a house that had clearly been ravaged by the killer birds. The motivation was simple, said Hitchcock. I wanted to make an interesting movie. If she had just fled the house, that would have been boring. By making her walk up the stairs, I was able to build tension, which made The Birds a better movie. Really good movies have to have some kind of creative tension. In a romantic comedy, the couple has to have something that keeps them apart before they can finally get together. A movie about a couple who meet, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after is a pretty boring movie. But a movie about a woman who saves the man of her dreams on a subway platform, and who is mistakenly identified as his fiance while he is in a coma, only fall in love with the man’s brother while he is in the coma–that is an interesting movie.

If the flying Eagles had been able to carry Frodo to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring of Power, without him having to make the arduous journey through enemy infested lands, the Lord of the Rings would have been a short, boring book, and an even more boring movie.

If Luke Skywalker had a tearful, father/son reunion with Darth Vader at their first meeting, Star Wars would have been an unsuccessful, one movie run, instead of a blockbuster multi-movie franchise. If Jennie had realized early on that Forrest Gump was the kindest man she would ever meet, and married him in college, none of us would ever had heard the name Forrest Gump. If Tom Hanks could have helicoptered to where Private Ryan was, Saving Private Ryan would be ultimately forgettable.

Or, if the Good Witch Glinda had told Dorothy when she first met her that all she had to do to get home was to click her heels, the Wizard of Oz would have been much shorter, and I never would have based a sermon series on it!

It is often the tension, the conflict, the setbacks, the obstacles and the challenges that make a movie, a book, or even a piece of music interesting. There is a reason an album of lullabies is not going to sell as well as a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.

While not to the same extent, this is true in our lives as well.

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Last week I talked about the Flying Monkeys–the bad things that happen to us. Natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, illnesses, such as cancer or mental illness, or life events, just as losing your job are examples of flying monkeys. Anything bad that happens to you is a flying monkey. The presence of the flying monkeys were bad for the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, and the presence of things like natural disasters, illnesses or life crises are flying monkeys for us. But I said last week that not all bad things that happen to us are flying monkeys. Some of them are the work of Toto.

Toto, I believe, is the trickster hero of the Wizard of Oz. A Trickster is the character in a story who upends the conventional order. The trickster is the one who makes the story interesting. Whether it is Loki in Norse myths, Anansi in the Caribbean, the Raven in Native Alaska stories, the Coyote in Native American stories, especially of the tribes around the Pacific Northwest and the plains, or Brer Rabbit, in African American stories, the trickster thwarts authority, turns things around, and is often seen as a creative and creator force. Raven is responsible for bringing light into the world in Tlingit stories. Coyote steals water from the Frog people, so the rest of the world can enjoy it.

In the Bible, Jacob is a trickster. His name literally means, “pulls your leg.” He tricks Esau out of his birthright, and Laban out of his sheep. Because of the incident with Laban, he has to get the heck out of dodge, and because of that, ends up wrestling with an angel, or God, and receives the name Israel. It is the children of Jacob who become the twelve tribes of Israel–the twelve children of Jacob, now known as Israel.

There is a sense where even Jesus is a trickster. Time and time again he upends the authority of the Pharisees, and after he is finally killed, he pulls the ultimate trick, rising from the dead. In one story, the Gospel of John, the Pharisees and religious establishment is trying to discredit Jesus, who goes and heals a blind man. The blind man is running around saying “Jesus healed me,” while the Establishment is saying, “This man is up to no good.” At one point they even try to get the man to say he wasn’t blind, or that the man who healed was a very bad man, to which the formerly blind man says, “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that I used to be blind, but he healed me, and now I can see,” leaving the establishment with the proverbial egg on their faces.

Without tricksters a lot of stories would be a lot less interesting. But the problem is, tricksters cause problems for other people in the process of making the story interesting.

And this is where Toto comes in. How does Dorothy end up in Oz? Why isn’t she down in the storm cellar with Auntie Em and Uncle Henry? Because Toto bit Miss Gulch. He then escapes from her (a perfect trickster action), goes back to Dorothy, who runs away to keep Miss Gulch from coming back and getting him. Were it not for Toto, there would be no story.

And how does Dorothy learn that “There’s no place like home?” How does she learn that home is in her heart? She is in the balloon with the Wizard, ready to travel back to Kansas, and Toto sees a cat, jumps out of the balloon, and Dorothy jumps out to get him, just as they are releasing the balloon for its journey. She could have taken the balloon, but then she would have learned the true lesson that Oz was teaching her.

#

Toto does two things that look really bad. It is because of him that Dorothy is blown away from Kansas, and it because of him, that she missed her ride back. That may look like the work of flying monkeys. But it’s not. Its’ the work of Toto, the Trickster.

There are things that look like flying monkeys, but they are really Toto events. Take losing a job. The psychologist Karl Jung used to say, when a client informed him that they had lost their jobs, Jung would say, “That’s great!” Why? Because he knew that if someone was stuck in life, often the only thing that can get them unstuck is a radical shift in the situation. It may look bad at first, and it may actually be bad at first. When Dorothy landed in Oz, one of the first things she learns is that there is now a wicked witch who wants to kill her. That’s bad. The trip down the Yellow Brick Road was not all fun and games. But it changed her life, and changed it for the better.

Losing a job can change your life, and there is perils in that. But the possibility exists that it will change your life for the better.

I had a parishioner who lost his job. He had screwed up at work, and they fired him. This was in October, 2008, and he told that every morning he woke up and heard the latest unemployment statistics on the news, and that scared him to death. He was afraid he would lose everything. He had to make drastic cuts in his lifestyle. His kids had almost no Christmas that year. He had to sell a car to make his mortgage.

But he did find a new job. And it was his dream job. He never would have quit his previous job, which he told me he really hated, especially in that economy. Had he not been fired, he would still be doing that job today. But he was fired, and he had to make a change. And in the end, it was a change for the better. Losing his job looked like a flying monkey at first, but in the end it became a Toto event.

I have heard it said many times that an alcoholic, or and addict has to hit bottom before they change. Hitting bottom can be a flying monkey. Hitting bottom may mean you lost your car, your house, your family, your dignity, your self-esteem, but often hitting bottom is the only thing that can get someone to change destructive behaviors.

Divorce can look like a flying monkey. Someone who used to love you walks out on you. But more than once I have a divorced person eventually bounce back, find someone they really love, someone who really loves them, and now they are happy. Or better yet, they learn to love themselves, and can be happy with who they are. Sure, there are countless nights of loneliness along the way. Toto events can look catastrophic. At first. But sometimes they are the only thing that can change us. They are the only things that can get us unstuck.

This is not to say that all flying monkeys can turn into Toto events. Sometimes it starts and remains a flying monkey. Sometimes the disaster can undo us. But the Biblical witness points us to resurrection. In the Romans passage we heard this morning, it says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Now the “all things” in that passage really means all things. It means good and bad things. This passages does not say that all things are good. It says all things can work together for good.

Paul also says, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Afflicted. Perplexed. Persecuted. Struck down. Those things happen. But in spite of them, we are not crushed, we are not driven to despair, we are not forsaken, we are not destroyed. When someone is grieving I often say, “You may never get over this; but you will get through this.

Part of what can turn a flying monkey into a Toto event is our attitude toward it. Part of it is the support we receive from family, friends, and our church. Those things cannot always turn a flying monkey around, but they are important if we are to turn it around. This is not work we can do on our own. Dorothy needed Toto to get to Oz, but she also needed the friendship of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion–and especially the Good Witch of the North, to see this the situation for what it really was–an opportunity for growth.

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If there is one overall message from the Wizard of Oz, after seven weeks of preaching about it, it is this–we have within and around us what we need to make our way through this life. It is obvious from the get-go that the Scarecrow is the brainiest of the bunch, and the Tin Man has a deep heart for others. It is less obvious with the Lion, but even he had within him the courage to do what needed to be done when the time came.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” It is within you. The Greek word ἐντὸς is often translated as “In your midst,” or “Among you.” The word only appears twice in the New Testament–once in this passage, and once in Matthew where Jesus says that you have to clean the inside of a cup to make it clean. The word he used for inside the cup is the same word he uses for where the kingdom of God is–it is inside of you. It is inside of us. We don’t need to go looking for it, although often we will. But it is here. Now. In us.

The thing is, sometimes we have to go a long way to find what is already in our own back yard. In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul writes (Phil. 2:12-13): …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. We have to work things out while God is at work in us. That is the whole idea behind a spiritual journey, which is what this whole sermon series has been about. On the one hand, we move from one place to another. It’s a journey. That is us working out our salvation. On the other hand, God, whom we seek in this journey, is with us the whole way.

If Dorothy had woken up one morning and said, “You know, I think there is no place like home,” that would not only make for a bad movie, it would also be unrealistic. The fact is, we have to struggle for some things. There are things that should not come easy. When I have done counseling with people, there are times when I can see clearly what their problem is. But if I tell them, “You clearly have some issues regarding intimacy,” or, “You are still working out the problems you had with you older brother,” or whatever, it can short circuit the process. I might say that, the person would say, “Ah, I see what you mean,” but they really don’t. It’s not real to them. It is just an idea.

I first learned about God’s love and God’s grace when I was a young child. It was repeated to me over the years. When I committed my life to Christ, at the age of 17, I knew about God’s love and grace. But to be honest, I did not know God’s love and grace. It was all theoretical to me. But later in life, down the road in my spiritual journey, a few things happened to me that made me see, with fresh eyes, what God’s love and grace was all about. I saw it. I felt it. I experienced it. I knew it as a reality, not as an idea.

That is the aim of our spiritual journeys—to put into our hearts and will the things that live in our heads. To make our thoughts a reality. It can take some time to do that. It can take a journey down the Yellow Brick Road. I promised you, at the beginning of this, it was worth the trip. They only way to prove that, is to make the trip yourself.

Go with God.

Posted in Church, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Witches, Flying Monkeys, and Munchkins

Munchkins+Wizard+of+Oz

 

When I mentioned I was doing a series on the Wizard of Oz, I got a very common reaction from people—that movie scared me to death. Whether it was the Wizard, who really scared me, or the Wicked Witch of the West, or the Flying Monkeys, this movie has apparently scared generations of watchers. It has been, in all likelihood, the first scary movie most people ever see.

What makes it scary? That is a hard question to answer. Today scary movies are full of gore. But not so with the Wizard of Oz. Not a drop of blood is spilled in the movie. Ok, so the Scarecrow has his innards tossed all around by the Flying Monkey, but that is straw. No, I think what makes it scary, especially for young people, is that a likable young girl comes face to face with evil. As children we like to think our lives are safe and secure. In an ideal world our parents can protect us from the hazards of the world—witches and flying monkeys and monsters under the bed. When we are scared we run to our parents beds and snuggle up with them, and we are safe from all the beasties and boogeymen of the world.

Of course we know what is not true for all children. Some encounter abuse, some from their parents. Some end up homeless. Some are torn from the parents arms, by social workers or border agents. Some don’t get enough food. In some countries kids are snatched away by roving paramilitary soldiers, who train them to kill at an early age.

Most of us have this idea of a safe and secure world, and if that is upended, we feel our wholes lives are upended.

There were a few scenes that were deleted from the Wizard of Oz, most notably a scene with Dorothy in the Witch’s castle. She has been threatened with death, and is left alone by the witch to wait for her impending doom. That part was in the movie, but they shoot a scene where Dorothy once again sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but this time is scared, small, quivering voice. I have not seen that particular scene, but I heard the song, and it was heart wrenching. They cut it from the movie because test audiences found it far too disturbing. It was too powerful, too emotional, too sorrowful.

I think it reminded people too much of how cruel and wicked the world can be, nobody wanted to go to movie to see that. The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939. Our country was still in the Great Depression, where hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes or farms. The unemployment rate peaked at 25%. In Europe, Germany was on the march, and in Asia, Japan had invaded China and Korea.

Nobody wanted to go to a movie to be reminded of how dangerous the world could be. And no wonder. Evil is a topic we are quick to avoid.

 

But, you don’t get two pages in the Bible before you run into a snake in the garden—Evil.

Why does the serpent tempt Eve? There is nothing in it for him, except perhaps the perverse joy of seeing someone else fall. Unlike Satan in Job, this slimy creature does not have a side bet with God about the general condition of humanity. He does not profit from his actions; no time off for good behavior. In fact it leads to a curse upon him. As far as the story goes, he does it for fun, for spits and giggles.

And that is evil.

If I were to steal bread to feed my family I am not an evil person. I am just desperate. But if steal for the fun of stealing, that is evil. Evil serves no constructive purpose. We like to think there is always a good reason for something, even something that appears irrational, even for behavior we call evil. “He did that bad thing because…” But a large part of what makes evil evil is that it serves no overarching purpose. We want to find deep psychological reasons for evil behavior, but often there is none.

On Sunday night, October 1, 2017 a man stood at his window on the 32nd floor of his hotel, and opened fire on concert goers who were attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. He killed 58 people and injured 851. To date investigators have yet to determine a motive. He was not mentally ill, this was not a hate crime, and as far as anyone knows, he was not out to seek notoriety.  (I am not writing his name because I don’t want him to have the notoriety.)

This was a truly evil act. It is especially disturbing because he seemed to have no motive. Maybe he just wanted to see people die, or maybe he was bored. A school shooter in San Diego, when asked why she opened fire on elementary school children, killing two and injuring eight, simply said, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Later, when asked again, she said, “There was no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun. It was just like shooting ducks in a pond.”

But sometimes evil occurs when we desire the wrong things in the wrong ways. The Witch desired the ruby slippers and she was willing to kill for them. We never find out exactly what kind of power they had, only that they must have been mighty powerful, otherwise the Wicked Witch would not have wanted them so badly. Power is a great corrupter of peoples. Most of our are familiar with Lord Acton’s statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In the Gospel lesson, Herod, fearing he might lose power, had all the boys two and younger killed in Bethlehem, to make sure a king would not arise there. That is not an unusual historical event.

There is evil in the world, O people. We don’t want to admit it, for if we do, that makes this a scary world, but there is evil in this world. Only the evil here does not have green skin, and does not dress in black and ride a broom. They do not always look like snakes. Evil people do not wear t-shirts advertising their depravity.  Some wear business suits. Some wear uniforms. Some wear Khakis and Docksiders. Some even wear the robes of a minister or priest.

Last week a grand jury document named 300 Catholic priests who had abused more than a thousand children. The Mail Tribune reported on the trial of youth minister who secretly taped young girls taking showers and dressing—while he was leading youth retreats with them!

Evil can reside in bureaucracies, that systemically wear people down, and keep them away from the very services they promise. Evil can reside in good things, like love of country, or love for another person. It is a good thing to love your country, but not if you kill those who do not fit into your definition of a good citizen—not if you want to kill the Jews in your land, or the Hutus, or any other citizen group. Not if you want a false notion of purity. Not if you want to oppress people because of their race, religion or nationality.

Evil is not always apparent. But anytime people are systemically oppressed, anytime the natural way of doing things creates winners and losers, anytime people are ground down and denied the basics of life—that is an evil system. And an evil system can make good people do evil things.

The Nestle company sells many things, including infant formula. Nothing wrong with that—except they market their formula to mothers in third world countries, places where there is no safe drinking water. When I was in Haiti, I saw those advertisements, and the formula in a village that had no safe water to drink. The mothers who feed the formula to their kids, in the hope of giving them something really healthy, are actually giving their babies dysentery. The National Bureau of Economic Research, a pro-business think tank, has determined that in 1981 66,000 babies died from dysentery due to infant formula.

And this year, our country is lobbying to make it easier for these companies to sell infant formula.

That, in a word, is evil.

We can pretend evil does not exist, that there is just good and bad, winners and losers, that good people would not allow these things, but that is evil’s greatest weapon—getting us to believe that evil does not exist.

 

 

 

Not all bad things are evil however.

A serial killer is evil. A hurricane is not. Genocide is evil. Earthquakes are not. Racism is evil. Cancer is not. My daughter used to complain that mosquitoes were evil, but I had to explain to her they were just a part of nature. “They are a bad part,” she said, and she was right, from her perspective.

There is a difference between humans acting badly and nature acting up. A hurricane is a convergence of weather patterns that create a huge storm. An earthquake is the result of tectonic plates sliding against one another. Cancer is abnormal growth of cells in the body. There is no intention behind a hurricane, an earthquake, cancer or any number of medical or natural disasters. From our perspective these are bad things, but only because they mess up our lives. From a moral standpoint they are not evil. A hurricane is not the act of the Wicked Witch of the West. It is just nature doing what nature does.

This is where the flying monkeys come in. They are bad, but not evil. They are monkeys. There are times in our lives when we encounter flying monkeys. They set on the scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and tear the scarecrow into pieces. When the Tin Man finds the Scarecrow, the scarecrow says, “My arm are over there, my chest is over there, and my legs are over there,” to which the Tin Man says, ‘Well, that’s just you all over.” (That’s my favorite line in the movie.)

We encounter flying monkeys on a regular basis. Most are minor—the automated phone system that sends you into an endless loop of “Choose number one if,” and what you need is not listed. (OK, maybe that one is evil!) Your refrigerator breaks down just when you finished paying off the car repair bill. The rain storm that hits just when you were planning a picnic.Your cable goes out, just before the big game. The smoke that has descended on our city the last few months.

Some are major—cancer. Getting laid off at work. Losing your home. Death of a loved one.

These things try us. When we encounter them, we learn more of what kind of people we are. We learn what we are made of. And we learn to rely on God.

I wish I could say that life was no more complicated or scary than a children’s book, or entertaining movie. But reality proves me wrong, again and again.

The flying monkeys of life are a part of the terrain. When we encounter them, we can do several things.

We can fold. We can give in. We can quit. That’s not the option I recommend.

We can draw on our inner resources to get through them. That’s great, if you still have the strength. However sometimes the monkeys gang up on us. It’s not one thing, it is a hundred, and we might be able to deal with one, but what we face is overwhelming.

We can draw on the good gift we have in each other. We value self-reliance. We look up to people who overcame difficulties, by sheer inner strength. But sometimes we need help. There are times when we cannot, and should not, go it alone. That is why we have each other. That is why we need each other.

And we can come before God.(Oh no, is it that bad that we have to drag God into this?) Yes, we do. That is where we should start. Next week we will learn that not all flying monkeys are really flying monkeys. Some of them are different. But they are only different to the extent we give our lives to God, and let ourselves be strengthened, molded and guided by God.

 

Finally that brings us to the Munchkins. I have focused on the bad things that happen to us. I want to end on a different note.

When I was in college, I was in a fraternity—Baseball Kappa. It started as a joke, but got bigger and bigger. We did all sorts of funny things around campus. There was a huge bell tower in the quad, and one year we raffled it off. The winner got a certified deed, and a t-shirt that said, “I own the Belk Tower.” They were doing a lot of building on the campus, and they had to drain the small pond near one of the buildings, so we formed a Dixie Cup brigade to fill the lake. We had fifty people, stretched out from the dorms to the pond, passing water in Dixie Cups.

A friend of mine told me that morning she was walking to class to take a test she had not studied for. She felt really down, but saw the Brigade. “It made my day,” she said. “I still flunked the test, but I felt a lot better about it.”

When I was in high school I took a friend of mine to a formal birthday dinner—at McDonalds. I wore a suit, she wore a prom dress, and a friend of mine play maitre d  and waiter. He went in, set the table with china, silver, and crystal we had borrowed from his mother, and a linen table clothe. He stood by the door waiting until we came in, led us to our table, took our orders, and when it was ready, opened the burgers, placed them on our plates, and poured our drinks into the crystal glasses. He asked if there was anything else we wanted, and I said, “Ahh, Ferguson (his name was not Ferguson, but sounded good), it is the young lady’s birthday. Could you please sing to her?” And he did. The whole restaurant gathered around to watch. Two guys were sure we were all on candid camera, and were pointing to where they thought the cameras were hidden. I am sure they talked about that night for years afterward.

When Dorothy lands in Oz, she meets some interesting and entertaining people—the munchkins. They are adorable! Imagine if you are having a bad day, and suddenly you are surrounded by little people singing about the Lullaby League, der Lollipop Guild,  and declaring the witch was not merely dead, but most sincerely dead. It is the most delightful part of the movie. If only we had munchkins in our life!

But we do.

Sure, there are flying monkeys. There is all manner of ways things can go wrong. But there is also the miracle of random acts of kindness and delight. In story we heard from Ruth, Ruth and her mother in law were essentially refugees—and instead of being met with hostility, Boaz takes pity on them, and offers them kindness. They were vulnerable women, and he protected them, he fed them, and he eventually married Ruth. That little act of kindness changed Israel’s history. For Ruth had a son, Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. From one act of kindness arose a king.

We probably will not be king-makers with our acts of kindness, but who knows. In any case, we can be kind. We can bring delight to people. We can smile at the downtrodden person taking our order at the restaurant. We can be pleasant to the person on the phone who only hears complaints.

In a world full of evil witches, and flying monkeys, it’s still not that hard to be kind.

Amen.

Posted in Evil, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Very Bad Wizard

 

Wizard_of_Oz

One of my favorite movies is Bruce Almighty.  In one scene Bruce encounters God, who encourages Bruce to pray. Bruce prays. “Lord, feed the hungry, and bring peace to all of mankind.:” he turns to God and asks, “How’s that?” to which God says, “Great…if you wanna be Miss America.”

Chastised, Bruce then prays a real prayer. He tells God what is actually on his heart. He is open with God, honest with God. When he’s finished, God says, “Now that’s a prayer.”

The state motto of North Carolina, my home state is, Esse quam videri, which means, “To be rather than to seem.” I think that should be the motto for every Christian who takes their spiritual journey seriously.  What we are is more important than what we look like.

I heard a story of a pastor who when to visit a woman, someone who had not been to church in a long while, and she was saying that while she was not a faithful church attender, she was a faithful person, and turned to her son and said, “Bring Mommy that book that we all love to read from so much,” and the boy returned, not with the Bible, but with a TV Guide.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in the spiritual life is that God loves us for who are, and not for who we pretend to be. To put another way, the way to a successful spiritual life is desiring to be more spiritual than you appear to be. The way to hypocrisy is desiring to appear more spiritual than you actually are.

To be rather than to seem.

If I were to ask, “What is the most important conversion you can have in a day?” you might answer, “The conversation we have with God.”

To which I say, “No. It’s the conversation you have with yourself BEFORE you speak to God, because in that conversation with yourself, you decide whether you are going to be honest and authentic with God, or whether you are going to meet God with a false face, a mask, an act, a pretense.”

Above all things, God desires our honesty. God desires a relationship with us, not with who are pretending to be. And that takes us to the Wizard of Oz.

 

 

 

 

When I watched the Wizard of Oz as a small child, I was not as frightened by the Flying Monkeys, or even the Wicked Witch of the West as I was by the Wizard. The huge head, floating over the throne, with flames and smoke surrounding him scared me to death. If I had been there I would have run and jumped out the window with the Lion.

Of course later in the movie we find out that the Wizard is not all that scary after all. He is just the guy behind the curtain. And when the quartet realizes that he is not THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ, but just a humbug from Kansas, Dorothy says, “You’re a very bad man,” to which the Wizard replies, “Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Maybe he was a very good man, but as far as anyone in Oz knew, he was the Great and Powerful OZ. Except that is not who he really was at all.

In the last few sermons, I have tried to portray who we can and should be as Christians on our spiritual journey. We should all exhibit, to a greater or lesser degree, the brains of the Scarecrow, the heart of the Tin Man, and the courage of the Lion. Now we are moving into different territory. For the next few weeks I am going to be talking about spiritual dysfunctions, about the places we go wrong in our spiritual journey. The first and most common is that we become like the wizard—we appear to be something we are not.

It is one thing to aim at spiritual growth. That is the greatest thing you can ever desire. It is quite another to hope you look more spiritual than you really are. It is bad when we do that with each other; it is even worse when we do that with God.

Over the years I have done a fair amount of counseling and one thing I have noticed is that it can take a long time for people to finally get around to what their real problem is. Now I understand that. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves what our real problems are, much less to anyone else. Much less to God.

Often we feel we have to put our best foot forward for the Almighty. When we feel God is watching us, we want to be on our best behavior. Of course we have be kind of funny about when we feel God is watching us. I was at a parishioner’s house watching the Superbowl one year, and he went to the fridge and got a beer. One of the other people he invited over said, “You’re not going to drink that in front of the pastor, are you?” He said, “I’m going to drink it in front of God; I might as well drink it in front of the pastor too.” We can’t hide anything from God, so why on earth would we think we can fool our Omniscient Creator by trying to be better than we are?

Now there is another way we can be like the Wizard. How many of you remember Leave It to Beaver? Remember Eddy Haskell? He was the kid who was always so polite when he was around parents, and a total brat when he was with his friends. That’s hypocrisy. He wore a mask of politeness when he was talking to the Cleavers, but in private he was a totally different person.

There is a sense where we all do that some extent or another. We have a public persona we wear when we are with other people. Now to a certain extent we have to do that. We don’t have to let everyone know exactly what we are thinking and feeling all the time. And I am not necessarily talking about that.

But I am talking about being ourselves when it counts. And our spiritual life, and our life together here is one of the places where it really does count.

 

 

Jesus tells a story about two sons. Both were asked to work in the vineyard. One was honest before his father. “Heck no, I ain’t working in any vineyard today.” The other puts on a good face. “Of course I will work in the vineyard, dear father of mine.”

In that culture, the second son is praiseworthy. He put on the good face, and in that culture, you never disrespect your elders. You always put on your best face when dealing with your father.

But who actually went to the vineyard, and did the work? The first son, and Jesus says he is the one who did his father’s will.

Now Jesus is not interested in saving face. He does not put honor above actions. He is more interested in saving lives and saving souls than in saving face. God wants us to BE rather than to SEEM, even if being is not quite what we want to look like before God.

Now here is the great irony of Church. On the one hand, this is the place where we should be most able to be ourselves. On the other hand, often this is the last place where we feel like we can really be ourselves.

But when Jesus said, I came that you might have life, and life abundant,” he did not mean that we are supposed to have somebody else’s life! He wants us to have our life, the life he gave to us, he wants us to be who he created us to be.

Now Jesus says something really interesting after he tells the parable; “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Now for the average person in Jesus’ day, those were the LAST two people you would expect to see in the Kingdom of God. Yet Jesus says that they have a better chance than the Pharisees. Why?

Because they were not hiding behind a mask. God was able to see them for who they really are. They were who they were, even if the reality of who they were was not all that pretty.  And because they could admit who they were, they were able to become who God made them to be.

There is a difference between holding things back in public, and being a completely different person in public.  The latter is called hypocrisy. A hypocrite is literally an actor who wears a mask. Who they are and who they pretend to be are two very different people. There is little or no connection between the two.

God accepts us for who we are. We don’t have to pretend to be different.

Now here is the big problem with wearing a mask. No one knows who you really are. I have a friend who builds sets in Hollywood. During one the strikes there, he had a hard time getting work, and I said, “You’re a carpenter. You shouldn’t have any problem finding work. You could do construction or fix things.” And he said, “You don’t get it. I build sets. I don’t build houses. I build things that look like houses. What I build, you cannot live in. You can just pretend to live in it.”

We meet someone, we put up a façade; that is normal. But as we get to know the person, we drop the façade, so they get to know who we REALLY are. If we don’t drop the façade, then they never really get to know us. And if they don’t know us, then deep down, if they like us, we know that all they really like is the façade. I have counseled husbands and wives who both held up facades for years, and eventually they realized they were not loved for who they were, they were loved for who they were pretending to be. And who we pretend to be is NOT who we are.

So here’s one piece of Good News. Before God, you can be who you really are—no matter who you really are. God accepts us for who we are. Before God we can take all the masks off, and be real. God loved the Wizard before he started to pretend he was a Wizard.

We can improve who we are. We call that growth. I am not who I was when I was fifteen. Or twenty-five. Or thirty-five. I am not who I was when I was forty-five. I hope I have gotten better over the years. I hope I have grown. I hope that, in spite of my age, I am still able to mature. Whether you are five, fifty-five, seventy-five, or a hundred and five, there is always room for growth. I know of no perfect people. I have been a Christian minister for more than twenty years, and I still have plenty of room for spiritual growth. As I get older I see parts of myself that I could not see when I was younger.

I said that God accepts us where we are, but God does not leave us there. Yes, God accepts tax collectors and prostitutes, but God does not leave them where God finds them. They do not have to continue to rip off friends, or sell themselves to the highest bidder. They can become saints of God.

 

 

 

 

The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties,

There are times when we all wear the mask that Dunbar describes. And for good reason. Dunbar goes on to write:

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

     We wear the mask.

We can hold on that public persona, we can put on our best faces, even if they are false faces, but ultimately it catches up with us. Dunbar’s poem ends:

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile,

But let the world dream otherwise,

     We wear the mask!

In the end Dunbar realizes that when we come to Christ, we can take off the mask. If we cannot be ourselves before God, then we cannot be ourselves. We cannot be the true self God created us to be.

In the Adam and Eve story we heard this morning, after their sin, Adam and Eve looked at each other and realized they were naked, and they were ashamed. They were not ashamed before, but now they are different. They are self-conscious. Adam wonders if Eve notices the paunch at his belly, and Eve is wondering if the fig leaf make her look fat. They want to look like wizards, but in fact they are just Adam and Eve.

And the worst thing is, they are hiding from God. In their shame, they felt alienated from God.

But we know different. We know that God loves us, just as we are. We know that we don’t have to put on a false face for God.We know that God deserves no less than that we be our true selves.

But that is hard.

And we can help each other do that. Going back to the Dunbar poem, did you know he was an African-American poet? He wrote that to describe his experience as a Black man in our country. He did not feel it was safe for his people to be their true and authentic selves, because that was dangerous. If they were who they really were in public, they could get in a lot of trouble, perhaps even killed.

Society did not, and still does not make it possible for many people to be their true selves, to be the person God created them to be. But we in the church need to create that space. We need to create a space where people can feel the acceptance that God has for us. We need to send the message that you don’t have to be a Wizard to be accepted—you can be yourself. It is better to be yourself, because that is who God loves.

And that is how we should love.We love real people, not cardboard saints. We love people as they really are, not people pretending to be better than they are. And we create a community here where people can be their true selves, where they can pray and curse with honestly, where they share triumphs as well as defeats, where they can be joyful, or sorrowful, where they can celebrate their successes, and overcome their failures. Where people can be honest, can be their true selves.

There was a woman suffering from terminal cancer. She only had days to live. One night, God came to her in a dream, and told her she was not going to die, and had many fruitful years ahead of her. The next morning her doctor came in and told her she was miraculously cured.

She felt so good that as soon as she could, she went out, found a plastic surgeon, and had all the cosmetic surgery she could—tummy tucks, face lifts, you name it, she had it.

Soon after that she was crossing the street and was hit by a bus. When she got to heaven she went to God and said, “You told me I had many, many fruitful years ahead of me, but here I am, dead!” God looked at her carefully, then said, “Oh, is that you? I didn’t recognize you!”

Let us be our true selves, for better or for worse, because that is who God loves. Let us live our lives so that the Almighty recognizes us.

Amen.

Posted in Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Healing, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Beams of New Oxford Hall

New-College-010

New Oxford Hall

I love a good story, and this is one of my favorites. I first read it in Stewart Brand’s The Next Whole Earth Catalog. It was told to him by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be two feet square and forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because they had no idea where they would get beams of that calibre nowadays.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some oak on College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked about oaks. And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks has been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Now that is how to run a culture.

The story, unfortunately, is probably a myth. But the power of myth is not that it actually happened. It is true in other senses. Good myth teaches us powerful life lessons. God myth is suitable, in the word of the Apostle Paul, for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in right living.” i don’t have to believe in a historical Icarus to learn that flying too close to the sun is dangerous.

As a pastor, I know that I have to be thinking about how our church is going to survive five, ten, twenty years after I am gone. Current trends do not offer much hope (although our church is currently bucking current trends).  Part of what I do as a pastor is to assure, as much as I can, a solid future for our congregation. Part of what is do is to plant seeds that may not be harvested until much later, when they are mature, and useful. Part of what I do is to remind us of our past, and the resources we have there, as well as our future, and how we must prepare for it.

I am but a blip in the history of the congregation I serve. (We just celebrated our 133rd anniversary.) If I am remembered 133 years from now, I hope it is because I planted seeds which were able to come to fruition years after I was gone.

Oh, and while we are at it, why not manage our planet this way?

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Intelligence, Mission, Parable, Presbyterian, spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Heart, and “Da Noirve”

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The two boys were a bit different from the other parishioners, even from the other kids in the church. One was 15, the other was 17. They were both in a band. There were both on the cutting edge of culture. Their parents were active in my church, but their two boys were not. One Sunday they call came to church together. It may have been Mother’s Day, I don’t remember. One of the boys had blue hair, the other had dyed his green. Their dress was about as provocative as their hair. But they were there.

As they sat down, a voice behind them said, in a voice loud enough for anyone within two pew lengths to hear, “I think it’s disgraceful the way some people come to worship. If they can’t dress appropriately, they have no business being there.”

The family got up and left, and the two boys never came back. The parents did not leave the church but scaled back their participation to almost nothing.

I was on the evangelism committee of the church I attended before I became a pastor. One person had an idea for outreach. It was not well accepted by the group. They didn’t think it would be very successful. The person who brought the idea stormed out in a huff, saying, “I thought this church cared about lost souls!” He never came back.

The Catholic novelist Walker Percy has a character in his book The Second Coming ask, “A mystery: If the good news is true, why is one not pleased to hear it? And if the good news is true, why are its public proclaimers such [jerks] and the proclamation itself such a weary used up thing?”

He has an interesting point–what is it about religion that can turn good people into self-righteous jerks? From Fred Phelps gay-hating Westwood Baptist Church, to the racist Christian Identity movement, to the local street preacher yelling at people, what is about religion that can bring out both the best and the worst of people?

Billy Joel wrote a song, The Angry Young Man, about, well, an angry young man:

He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl

He’s always at home with his back to the wall

And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost

And he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross

And he likes to be known as the angry young man

Unfortunately, when I was in college that song described me to a tee. I was full of faith, and had traveled to third world countries, had seen the poverty and hunger, and I wanted to change the world. I was positive the Gospel of Jesus Christ called us all to do our best to eradicate poverty and hunger. That should be our number one priority as a church, and I was frustrated because not everyone else shared my values. And I am sure there were times when I was an obnoxious, angry young man. I had conviction–but no heart.

I wanted others to join me, and when they didn’t quite see things my way I was more than capable of letting them feel the full brunt of my self-righteous (and misguided) anger.

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When Dorothy and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man, he is a rusted wreck. Frozen in place because of a rain storm, he can barely mouth the words “oil can.” But that is not his biggest problem. He tells his two saviors that he has no heart.

I’d be tender – I’d be gentle and awful sentimental

Regarding Love and Art.

I’d be friends with the sparrows …

and the boys who shoots the arrows

If I only had a heart.

To have a heart—to care—to show compassion for others, that is what the Tin Man wants. And he is right to want that. When I look at the current climate in our country, I feel like we are a Tin Man, in need of a heart. The political discourse has grown heartless. I am prone to get into discussions on Facebook, and sometimes they are political discussions, and I have noticed that with many people, when they run out of arguments, they just start attacking me as a person. Of course when I watch similar discussions on TV news shows, I know where they get it. We have people marching in the streets, openly, under banners of hate. About once a week there is post where someone has videoed a person being ugly to another person, often an immigrant or a person of color, saying things that are just plain hateful. I read letters in our newspaper from people who are concerned about the homeless in our community, and some of comments show absolutely no compassion for others.

On the face of it we have become a country of self-interested individuals. According to novelist Marilynne Robinson, that makes us a “moral blank slate.” She goes on to say, “Self-interestedness is not a trait well thought of in traditional moral systems…That it is presented to us as uniquely and inevitably our governing motive puts an end to all the old struggles of the soul, and moots old considerations like loyalty or compassion.”

In other words, she says we have become like the Tin Man sees himself–empty of empathy and compassion.

And the shocking things is that we find the same attitude in churches. One thing I noticed when I got back into ministry several years ago was how much had changed. Where once a lot of churches were able to get together to help one another do works of compassion, now that is blunted. I have been meeting with a group of people about getting a permanent, regional shelter in our community. The group includes people from various social service agencies as well as governmental bodies. And at every meeting one question has consistently come up; where are the churches? And of the ones that are involved, why can’t we work together. I don’t have the heart to tell them that our various theologies keep us apart.

Perhaps I am overstating this a bit. I can look around here and see many, many compassionate people. There are some churches involved. You can find civil discourse in some places. But the loudest voices are often the ones that are heard, and the loud voices tend to be the people who have little in the way of compassion for others. Where are the loud voices crying for compassion? Where are the voices that are speaking for you? Like the Tin Man, it seems sometimes that our mouths are rusted shut.

We need more spiritual Tin Men. We need people who care deeply, who have and exhibit compassion for others in need. We have too many angry people. We have too many apathetic people. We have too many self-absorbed people, who just don’t care about others. We need spiritual Tin Men.

 

 

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Before we go any further with this, I need to talk about one more character–The Lion.

He gets a bum rap. He is known as the Cowardly Lion, because he is constantly scared. However anyone who knows anything about courage knows that cowardice and fear are two separate things. Sometimes being afraid just means you are paying attention, and the fact is the Lion finds himself in some really hairy situations. The Lion, as he says, lacks “da noirve,” but he tries.

Aristotle says that courage is the golden mean between two things–fear and stupidity. The person who does not act because of fear is not courageous, but the person who is just too stupid to know any better is not courageous either. People who are never afraid may not be courageous–they may just be to stupid to know how dangerous things can be.

A few years ago I wrote an editorial denouncing racism. Some people complimented me on my courage, but it was not a courageous action. I had no fear about writing it. In fact I was thinking it would be a good thing for our church if people knew we were not racist. So you might say I wrote that editorial out of self-interest.

On the other hand I have been in situations where someone said something that was racist, and I didn’t say anything. I told myself I was just being polite, but in fact I didn’t speak up because I was afraid. Clearly my silence was not courageous.

Courage is when you overcome your fear, but act with intelligence. Yelling at someone who makes a racist remark is not necessarily courageous; it could just mean you are a jerk.

The important thing about the Lion is that for the most part he overcomes his fear. That is the definition of courage. He is scared when he goes to the witch’s castle to rescue Dorothy, but he goes nevertheless.

I will admit that when we first meet the Lion, he is a mess, and the name seems to fit. But as we get to know him we realize that just like the others, he has within himself the very virtue he seeks. When it counts, when the well being of others is on the line, he rises to the occasion. If he just looking out for himself, his fears seem to get the best of him, but when, for instance he has to help storm a witch’s castle to save Dorothy, he is there, flying monkeys or no flying monkeys. The overall arc of his journey is learning what he can do when he has to, and learning that he can overcome his fears.

Spiritual Lions are people who can face their fears, and can charge in where angels fear to tread. Like Martin Luther, who stood up the entire Roman Catholic church, who stood on his convictions and said, “Here I stand! I can do no other,” or Martin Luther King Jr., who stood for peace and the dignity of all people, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood against Hitler and for Jesus, spiritual Lions are able to live out their convictions no matter the cost.

But more than that, you need to know that the

A spiritual journey is not for cowards. A person whose spiritual journey is driven by fear is a dangerous person, for fear can push into some real destructive behavior. It is fear that causes people to distrust people of other races and ethnic groups. The complexity of faith can scare us to death. If our own faith is shaky and we see someone else who does not believe as we do, but is doing just fine, we can feel threatened. And some people, when threatened, lash out and attack. Others hide out, and shut themselves off. Either way we lose our connection with the broader aspects of faith. When we are afraid, it is all about us and our fears. When we overcome our fears is when we show real courage.

 

 

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When I talk about compassion and courage, I am talking about how we practice our faith.

In the Micah passage we heard, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness.” To do justice, to act with courage. (To be a spiritual Lion.) And to love kindness, to act with compassion. (To be a spiritual Tin Man.)

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is confronted with a man who had a withered hand. He has compassion on this man. But it is the Sabbath, and the Powers That Be had said that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden by the law. To heal this man would be to publicly break the sabbath laws, and would mean, at very least, that Jesus would be ostracized by the religious powers of his day. It would mean he was picking a fight with them, and for the most part, they held all the trump cards. They could make or break Jesus.

And what does he do? He acts with courage and compassion. He heals the man. He tells them why: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” And then he does good. He is not afraid. He is compassionate.

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I have been talking about Spiritual Scarecrows, the Tin Men, and the Lions as if they were all different people, as if you can be one, but not the others. That is not really the case. In fact, we should all embody aspects of all three. We are to love the Lord our God with all our minds, all our hearts and all our strength. Anyone who exhibits just one of these is wildly unbalanced.

I talked about compassion. One of the biggest hindrances to compassion is fear. “What if I help that person, and they latch on to me and never let go? What if I try to help and I fail. What if I say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing? I will look stupid.” What if, what if, what if? And before we know it, we are paralyzed.

But courage without compassion can be brutal. Have you ever met one of those people who just tells it like it is, without any thought of how their words may affect others? When I was in college, I wanted to do justice–but I lacked compassion. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees in the Gospel lesson he grieved. He did not confront them with self-righteous anger. He grieved that they were so far from God they could not see how helping a man was an act of God. His courage was backed by compassion.

And finally, we need an intelligent approach to both compassion and courage. You can have the compassion, you can have the courage, but that all needs to be tempered with making sure you are doing the right things in the right ways.

I worked with pastor who drilled this into me. He got it from a friend of his. The friend was driving home from work, and saw smoking rising from a neighbor’s house. He had compassion. He did not want to see the house go up in flames. He did not want his neighbor to lose his home. He had courage. He stopped his car and went into the house. And what happened? When he opened the door, it caused a back draft, and an explosion of fire raged out the door, and he was almost killed. About that time the fire department showed up, having been called by another neighbor. They treated the man, and put the fire out and told him, “If you ever see anything like this again, call us. We know that feed a smoldering fire with oxygen, like when you opened the door, causes the fire to flare up. We know how to fight the fire without making it worse.”

I have seen programs started to serve people that lacked intelligence. I have seen people who were afraid to help others, because the lacked the courage of their convictions. I have seen people work so hard to do good, that they forget to be good.

That is why we need each other. While we should have brains, a heart and the nerve, some of us have more of one of these things than others. People who have great big hearts often need to listen to people who have great big brains. People who have ‘da noirve” need to listen and learn from people who have compassion, and brains. None of us are perfectly balanced in these three areas, but all of us can be.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, tells the story of three brothers, all of whom are dysfunctional at a basic level.   Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha represent the sensuous, the intellectual and the spiritual, respectively. What makes the three brothers dysfunctional is their division. Ivan, for example, has nothing of Aloysha’s spirituality or Dmitry’s love of life. Dmitry throws himself at life with abandon, but also without any thought to his actions, nor with any thought to how his actions affect his own soul. You would think that Alyosha the monk, the spiritual brother, would be the ideal for the novel and the first time I read it, I thought he was. But as I got to know him, I saw his naivete, and his fear of life, and realized that if he had more of Ivan and Dmitry in him, he would be a better person, a better Christian.

We need each other. As Dorothy made her way down the Yellow Brick, she needed a brainy Scarecrow, a compassionate Tin Man, and a courageous Lion. As we make our way down the spiritual yellow brick road of life, we need the same thing; brains, a heart, and “da noirve.”

We need to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, and all our strength.

Amen.

 

Texts

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

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Mark 3:1-6

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

 

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If I Only Had a Brain

Third in a series of sermons on the Wizard of Oz. This week we are looking at the Scarecrow, and the need to be thinking Christians.

 

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I was a young Christian, trying to figure things out, and I was looking for a Bible. A friend told me I had to get a King James Bible, because, he said, it was the only true Word of God. Even at my young age I was familiar with other translations of the Bible, and I asked him why the King Jimmy?

“When they were translating the Bible,” he said, “King James put 40 people in 40 separate rooms, and told them to translate the Bible. All 40 came up with the exact, same, word-for-word translation even though they never spoke to one another. That proves it is the only translation of the Bible we should use.”

Great story. If only it were true. First of all, there were 51 translators of the King James, not 40. Second, they were very Presbyterian about it. They worked in committees. There were six different committee, each working on a specific part of the Bible. The history is clear, and not up for debate. But even so, there are people who still believe the King James is the only real translation approved of by God.  It is, in fact, a translation like any other translation. It is beautiful prose, but it is a translation, no more divinely inspired than the NRSV we use in church.

It was clearly a tragedy. People were at a party in a hotel in Kansas City. While they were dancing, people on a ledge above were watching them. They started to sway and dance to the rhythm of the music, and the beat of their footsteps destabilized the ledge and it fell on the dancers below, killing 144 people. Soon after the event I had people telling me that it was God’s justice because the people were dancing to a song about Satan. But in reality, the accident had nothing to do with Satan. the song they were dancing to was Satin Doll by Duke Ellington, clearly not a paean to Satan.

After every hurricane or earthquake, before the rain stops falling or the earth stops shaking, some preacher goes on TV and says this is God’s judgment on wherever it happens.

A friend in Alaska told me of a great investment opportunity being peddled at a local church. It sounded like a Ponzi scheme to me, and I said so. “No,” my friend said, “The person offering it is a Christian woman, and says this is blessed by God. I am going to double my money!”

He lost half his life savings in that investment, which was a Ponzi scheme.

What is it about our faith that causes some people to turn off their brains as soon as they turn on their faith?

 

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There is a common misconception that if you are going to be a spiritual person, you cannot also be a smart person. Spiritual people base their understanding of the world on faith. Scientists and other right-thinking people base their understanding of the world on knowledge. “Weighing in at 128 kilos of pure brain power, in this corner we have Science! And in the chartreuse trunks, in the far corner, weighing at .03 in the brain department, but 134 kilos of pure faith, is Spirituality! Let the fight begin!”

The motto of Duke University is Eruditio et Religio, knowledge and religion. When Nannerl Keohane became the thirteenth president of Duke University, she gave an address where she addressed her uneasy feelings about the school’s motto. “The emphasis on religion seemed hard to square with the restless yearning for discovery, the staunch and fearless commitment to seek for truth wherever truth may be found that is the hallmark of a great university.” Was she saying that “the restless yearning for discovery cannot be found in religion? Was she saying that there was absolutely no commitment to truth in religion? It seems so.

She solved her dilemma over the motto by talking about science as the pursuit of knowledge and “religio” or religion, or spirituality, as a moral impulse. Spirituality is what tells us to care for the disadvantaged. Science is what tells us how.

To Pilate’s question, “What is Truth?” Keohane would say, “Whatever it is, you won’t find it in spirituality.”

That is a grave mistake. One of the biggest problems facing spiritual communities is the lack of an intelligent approach to faith. The idea that you check your brains at the door when you enter the House of Faith is a wrong-headed notion. When we love God, according the Great Commandment, we are love the Almighty with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Faith is not supposed to make us fuzzy minded. Jesus told his disciples that they should be “as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.” The problem we have is that too often we are wise as doves and as innocent as serpents.

You don’t have to take an IQ test to start your spiritual journey, but at the same time, you don’t have to throw your brain out the door. Too often I have encountered refugees from churches who were told by their pastors, “You are thinking too much. You should just have faith.” Jesus talked a lot about faith, but he never told anyone to commit intellectual suicide.

If you are going to journey on the Yellow Brick Road, you are going to need your wits. This is not an easy journey, and it is not always a safe journey. I hate to say it, but there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there, who are more than willing to take advantage of you.

About three weeks after I was installed in my very first church as pastor, I got a call from a salesman.  “Hey, Murray, I have been trying to get a hold of you. You are one busy guy. I hear your ministry is going gangbusters in your church. I have a welcome gift for you, and I’ll just send it to you along with your standing order of light bulbs. Do you just want one box, or two this time?”

I thought that one would be enough. What did I know? I had only been at the church for a couple of weeks. The light bulbs came, and after that did it occurred to me that we met in a rented building, and the landlord should take care of the light bulbs. They showed up, along with a really cruddy gift. I asked the treasurer about the bulbs, and she didn’t know anything about a standing order of light bulbs.

Fool me once, shame on me. The next time he called, I called the Better Business Bureau. Fool me twice, shame on me.

So let’s rejoin Dorothy on her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, and see what we can learn about Spirit and brains.

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The first companion Dorothy meets on her journey is the Scarecrow. He is not a very good Scarecrow, but he does make a wonderful traveling comrade. He is kind, brave, and funny. On the whole you could do a lot worse in your choice of traveling companions. He just lacks one thing–a brain. He sings:

I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,

In trouble or in pain.

With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’

I could be another Lincoln

If I only had a brain.

 

He wants to experience the intellectual rewards of life. He wants to think deep thoughts, bask in that, and then think some more. He wants to enjoy chasing down the premises of a logical argument and finding the flaws in the reasoning, construct a better one. He wants to consume new information, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world, like a gourmand eating a fine meal. When his brain is working overtime, all of his self sits in delight.

The Scarecrow is a handy guy to have around. When they encounter the Angry Apple Trees, who do not give up their apples, the Scare taunts them, so they start throwing apples at them. He is the one who develops the plan on how to get into the witch’s castle to save Dorothy.

And this is how many people approach their faith. They love Bible study, theology, church history. They love it when ideas connect. They love learning new paradigms to help them further understand their faith. They are voracious readers, and heaven help you if you get into a theological or philosophical discussion with them. You might be there all day.

(Full disclosure: This describes me to a tee. I used to do my daily devotional by reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics–sometimes in the original German.)

Being a Spiritual Scarecrow does not mean you are any smarter than the other people in room. It just means you really appreciate an intelligent approach to faith. Some Spiritual Scarecrows may be smarter, but they may just appreciate smart people more than most others. Some Scarecrows I have known were brilliant. Others just thought they were, and still others were not and knew it, but really appreciated smart people.

Some of the greatest Christians in history were like the Scarecrow, from Augustine of Hippo to Thomas Aquinas, to John Calvin. Where ever you find the advancement of Christianity, you find someone who has spent time thinking about their faith, thinking about God and thinking about how God connects with us humans. You find people who love God with their minds.

Not everyone appreciates a Spiritual Scarecrow. “All head and no heart,” is a common dismissal. I cannot tell you how many times I stumbled on what I thought was a very important thought, only to have someone say, “Yeah what does that have to do with the price of tea of in China?” The assumption is that everything that goes on in our brains has to ave practical value, meaning immediate payoff. The idea that a theological insight may have significance all by itself just does not lodge well in some people’s brains. I learned a long time ago never to tell people I had been reading Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia, or the works of some obscure French philosopher. “Why?” people would ask? “What is the value in that?”

“Because I enjoy it,” did not seem to work as an answer. “It has to have practical value,” I heard time and time again. One pastor told me he gauged all his seminary knowledge by how well his mechanic, a devout Christian man, accepted it. If he shrugged and said, “Yeah, that is deep, but who cares,” he figured it was useless, and consigned it to the dustbin.

And what happens when we do that? What happens when we assign our attempts to understand our faith in deeper, more intellectual ways to the dustbin? We become empty-headed people, “hollow men/leaning together/headpiece filled with straw” in the words of T.S. Eliot.

In fact much of what Christians do may be considered impractical, and people do it because they enjoy it. Take worship. What practical value is a Bach cantata or 25 choruses of a praise song? It makes the hearer or the singer feel good, but not much more. Except that when I say it makes them feel good, what I really mean is that it makes them feel closer to God. In the same way, reading deep insights into the nature of God make me feel closer to my creator.

There is a downside to this. Feeling good about God is only a small part of what it means to love God. I have known people who really never got out of their intellectual ivory tower, but those were rare individuals, most of whom also suffered great social anxiety as well. Their books were a refuge.

In the Old Testament lesson, David outwits Goliath. In a world that valued brawn, David beat the biggest guy on the block using his brains. In the New Testament Lesson, which is a real corker, Jesus is commending a man for using his brains to get out of trouble. In both of these stories, the people who used their brains were good examples of how we should be acting as Christians.

The theologian Anselm, who lived in the 11th century, had two sayings that showed how he connected his faith with his brain. The first is “Fides quaerens intellectum,” Latin for “Faith seeking understanding.” That means that we can augment our faith with the search for knowledge. The more we know about the world, the better we can understand our faith. The second is “Credo ut intelligam,” Latin for,”I believe so that I might understand.” That is the other side of the coin. Our faith helps us understand the world. In other words, far from getting in the way of knowledge, faith augments our knowledge, and knowledge augments our faith.

We need Scarecrows more than ever these days. The ability to think critically about theological issues is more crucial today than any other time I can remember in my life. People are not thinking; they are buying into bad and even false theologies hook, line, and sinker. With the proliferation of false information on the internet (and it often gets passed around in Bible studies and even from the pulpit) we need critical thinkers, who can take the best of the theological traditions we have inherited from our forebears and make it applicable for our world and our spiritual journeys today.

Like the Scarecrow, I wish for a brain–not just for me, but for every preacher who dares to stand before congregation. I wish it for everyone who ever posts anything about God or their faith on the Internet. I wish it for everyone who wants to bring their faith to bear on the current topics of our day. We have too many people who are cocksure that the Truth is plain and simple, and anything that is not plain and simple is not worth knowing. I wonder how many would go under the knife of a surgeon who held that view? “My doctor does not need any book learnin’. I just wants someone who believes in health.” How many would take their cars to a mechanic who insisted that motor vehicles were simple, and he was not going to waste his time on complicated “book learnin'” stuff.

The Spiritual Scarecrows are right to want a brain. I just wish there were more of them.

 

1 Samuel 17:38-40,

38Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

 

48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.

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Luke 16:1-9

 

16Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth[b] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

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