Transcribed from the sermon preached February 16, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Proverbs 12:10-20, John 14:1-12, Timothy 6:6-19
Proverbs gives us a little wisdom for the long run. Work hard, be honest, choose your words wisely; don’t let the unwise or hurtful words of another’s change your path to success.
The other day on Facebook someone posted a statement that read: “from now on I am going to treat people as they treat me. Some should be glad, some should be scared.” I wrote, “Boy, that gives them a lot of power over your behavior.” Proverbs says, “The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent man ignores an insult … here is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
The Proverbs are intended as teaching tools for long term success. Here at St. Johns, we spend a decent amount of time talking about inequality, and how the rich often get away with injustice. We warn against materialism: the love of money is the root of all evils.
We don’t all start the race of life from the same spot. We all know hard working poor. Yet I am afraid that sometimes, the fact of an unequal starting line becomes an excuse to not try. We believe that given all the obstacles, we can’t make it. It is possible that hard work and honesty will not pay off with material wellbeing. But it is also true that for the vast majority of us, without hard work we are guaranteed not to succeed.
While there is plenty of injustice and misuse of power, most of the people I know who have done well materially, are honest, hardworking people. The other quality of successful people is that they don’t let other’s distract them or dare them into small battles that side track them from their main purpose. There are dishonest people with money and power, smart narcissists who succeed because they are gifted mentally and not because they are caring or honest. There are greedy people who live for nothing but material wealth. And of course, there are idiots who have inherited wealth. And no doubt, the disparity of wages in our society is wildly unbalanced and unjust, and often has very little to do with the value of one’s work for the peace and prosperity of society. I figure mothers and farmers perform the most important roles in society, perhaps followed by fathers, and material reward certainly doesn’t show this. And there is privilege and prejudice which helps or hinders each of us, all along our way. Life is not fair.
Still I believe that in general, most of the time, people will tend to permit and respect the power of someone they trust to be honest and just. I give my money to the car mechanic I trust. I frequent the donut shop that throws in a couple extra donut holes with my order. I married a lady I felt I could trust. We like people in leadership roles who can be calm, cool and collected under pressure. Nobody is born an expert; so the proverb says, “the work of a man’s hand comes back to him. The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
We are all born into a particular context. We don’t choose our nose or legs. We don’t choose our sex, our race, our nationality or the point in history within which we are born. The child prodigy who can rip off Mozart or do a triple back flip with three twists while flying 150ft through the air to land backwards on icy steep hill, the autistic or physically or mentally challenged baby, none chooses these gifts or challenges. We don’t choose our parents, though to some extent, parents do work and arrange the context within which they have children. Most of the gifts and challenges we face in life are not of our own making or choosing.
Some people are born with the physical attributes to be super smart or talented; most of us are average Joes or Bettys, and some have more challenges than most. For a while biologists sold the notion that only the fittest survived. It was, they thought, a dog eat dog world. No doubt there is some truth to that, but it is by no means the whole story. Species that learned to cooperate with their surrounding environment, and with members of their own species thrive: if we meet a need that isn’t being met, or isn’t being met well enough, or if we learn how to survive off of a resource that others haven’t yet found a use for, then we find a niche within which to fit in and thrive. From this point of view it isn’t about who is best, or who has the most, but can we fit in and work with each other and our surroundings. There is a moment when we have to accept who we are, warts, gifts, privilege and all, get over it, and make our way the best we can with the best that we have been given.
Most of us are our own worst critics. We have internalized voices from our parents, siblings, the school yard and society, and they become our baggage, a big weight we drag around wherever we go. You can’t do it! You don’t look the part. You will never amount to anything. If people ever discover who you really are, they will abandon you. If you weren’t given all these gifts, you would be nothing, therefore you deserve nothing. You don’t deserve the gifts. We may not really deserve the blessings and curses we have, but we have them so the question is what will we do? Sometimes we need to hear criticism; sometimes we may be lazy, wimpy, or sloppy, or mean, or selfish or greedy or prejudiced, and we need to hear advice and criticism, take it to heart and grow.
 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice.
 The vexation of a fool is known at once,
but the prudent man ignores an insult.
Most of us come into a Church because we have reached a point in our lives when we feel it might be a good idea to see if God can help us out. Maybe we have experienced loss or grief. Maybe we have made a mistake, or a series of mistakes, or maybe we feel blind or weak in certain areas of our lives. Or maybe we have just had a baby and we think, “Oh my God, who am I to be a mother or father to this beautiful child and to think I have what it takes to bring them up in this dangerous and complicated world. Maybe God and a church community can help.”
This is a good idea. It is good that you come. God placed that idea in your heart. But it is funny how many of us come in, look around, and think, oh, I am the messed up or confused one; all these other church people have it altogether. They have such faith, such talent, such education, such morals, such whatever. I know because I had this idea, and I have talked with many, others who think this way. We have our personal challenges, whatever they may be. And we look out and think everybody else has it together. Look, they even know how to talk church, when to stand up and sit down. I can’t even figure out how to find the hymn in the hymnbook, let alone figure out whether to say “forgive us our sins…or forgive us our debts. And everyone seems to be dedicating their lives to saving the world and working for peace and justice. I don’t even have time to read my daughter’s school newsletter to know that along with it being Valentine’s day, it was also pajama day…So my daughter cried and I’m a bad mom. How can I call myself a Christian and be in this church, let alone save the world?”
From a pastor’s perspective, a pastor who knows a good deal about most of the people in this room, this is hilarious! No offense, everyone. But you are a mess. If you only knew! That sharp dressed proper looking lady in front of you has a son who is, to put it mildly, having a hard time growing up, and a husband who has a hard time with emotion and it’s driving her crazy. The one next to her has a young nephew, who had a massive stroke, and the wife wants a divorce, and the son can’t take the shock and loss and is smoking tons of dope and getting arrested. The person next to her had a horrible mother and despite massive talent and compassion, has a hard time liking herself. The man to your left spent most of his life thinning his blood with alcohol yet somehow decided God had called him to raise another child, not his own, a child who, to put it mildly, had a rough start to her life. So he is going along, sober now, making it day by day. The couple to your right has a mother-in-law who has been mean and critical since the wedding, but now she has Alzheimer’s and needs support. Another couple found each other, have committed their lives to one another, but the family has cut off, thinking God is about judgment and division. Another woman has very little education, but has a way with people. A man is great with books, but struggles socially. Everyone has a story, everyone is human. You may think everyone has faith and church figured out.
There are a whole host of people in the pews around you who were raised in churches that seemed to fear reason and science. These churches took the saying
“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the father but by me”,
and slung it around like club. That old church for many clung tight to doctrine that seemed to have nothing to do with anything real, and were so busy telling you about the “Gospel truth” that they never bothered to acknowledge or listen or observe the beauty, diversity, truth and humanity around them. They seem experts on sexual sin but totally neglected institutional and social sin of materialism, patriarchy, racism and jingoism. A bunch of these St. Johns folks tossed faith altogether for a while, joined the counter culture which had an allergic reaction to words like sinner, Gospel, the Bible, Jesus, God, Calvin, discipline, sacrifice, Born Again. But eventually, a world where only the fittest individuals survive and empirically verifiable material was real began to appear thin and didn’t speak to the truth of meaning, value, beauty and love that we seem to feel and hunger for deep within our soul. Then we find ourselves hungering for something more, perhaps grieving, or broken, or wounded, or ashamed of what we have done or not done, or all of the above, and we come back to church thinking maybe we don’t want to throw the baby Jesus out with the ecclesiastical bath water.
In recent years, in post modern culture, there has been a trend toward division, toward going toward people or groups who have your exact interest, your exact problem. Here at St. John’s we have groups to nurture those who like drama, music or literature. We have Boy Scouts and girls dance. We have A Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Codependents anonymous, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and we have a senior center. The group support and knowledge of someone who knows what you have been through, what you are going through is very valuable. We are proud to have these groups here. It is a part of God’s ministry here at St. John’s.
But I am skeptical that more specialization and more information and more division will in the end save us. Every time we have a problem, we need a particular solution, a particular expert, more knowledge, more technology. And in order to be saved we have to do this or that specific thing, we need this specific medicine, or specialist, or that specific insurance, or this specific paper towel or that specific car or phone. Salvation by information, salvation by expertise. Salvation by buying this and doing that. If I could just get a little smarter, a little stronger, a little more wealthy, just try a little more. Just one more thing. Just a little bit more. It is exhausting.
“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.”
Not more this, not more that, the amazing grace of Christ, the highest power. That is enough. Church is a little different. Church is a place where people come in from all different places with different talents and struggles, different gifts and challenges. But we all suffer from the common problem of being human. We are all sinners; I’m not using the word as a club, I am not trying to shame you. I am stating a fact that you already know. We fall short of the glory of God. And yet we all come to celebrate the joy of knowing, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how low we feel, lower still, deeper still, we are created and loved by God. I’m not making this up out of thin air; I am acknowledging something we feel, we sense, we experience before we have words to label it. This divine Spirit resides within us.
Now we see this way, this truth, this light in a most beautiful picture, the picture of Jesus in the Gospels. Now the historical scholars who attempt to save Jesus from the Gospels, to make him a political zealot who neither spoke nor cared for the mystical divine connection of the soul, reveal more about themselves and modernity than Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t need to believe Jesus spoke these words about himself, which were written in the Gospel of John 60 or 70 years after his death, to feel they reveal something true and important.
Nor do we need to fear that a close proximity and identity of Jesus to the mystical Creative Spirit we call God must negate the political and economic implications of who he was and what he said. Those who think Gandhi’s prayer wheel was just about prayer don’t understand the historical and political and economic context of cotton production in England and India. But those who think the wheel was just about politics and not about prayer don’t know Gandhi. We are gonna be about peace and justice and equality at St. John’s because that is what God calls us to do; that is who God is; that is who Jesus is. But that is not all .We see and hear him and we see and hear God. Weigh it for yourself. Meet Jesus for yourself.
Just because some have wedded being “born again” in God’s grace with uncritical patriotism and fear of the other doesn’t mean we can’t experience the new life giving, unconditional, eternal love of God so visible and available through Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not gonna let them take Jesus away. I’m not leaving the language, not giving it away. It is too valuable. Jesus is too valuable. With him we drop the need for more. Leave the baggage of self-criticism and drop the shame, the feeling you aren’t enough, don’t have enough. You could have been born at a different time, a different gender or race or nationality. You could have had different parents, other talents and strengths. What you have had and do have may pose some trouble for you, but everybody is human, everybody has their story. But you are you, right here, right now, and God has created and called you to this point.
You are you, and today is your day. And by God’s grace we are going to march forward together hand in hand, working hard, sharing our talents, finding our niche, supporting one another, calling on the power of God as we are not enough, and by the power of the Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ, move forward into the future doing even greater works. We may stumble and fall, but we are going to get back up, and we are not going to let anyone turn us around. And as we face danger and challenge, and soon enough our death, we do it by the grace of God, with strength and hope that surpasses understanding, trusting that there are enough rooms for all of us, already prepared by the one who has come before.
Stop, drink it in: the way, the truth, the light, the grace of Christ.