Friday, November 5, 2010

The Wisdom of the Scarecrow

Sermon preached October 31, 2010

Texts: Philippians 4:8-9; Mark 7:31-37

Dorothy and her dog Toto are walking through Oz on the Yellow Brick Road, when they come to a fork in it. Pondering aloud to herself, Dorothy wonders which way to turn. Suddenly a voice – it is a nearby Scarecrow. The Scarecrow isn’t much help to Dorothy. “I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t go a brain, only straw.” “How can you talk if you haven’t got a brain?” “I don’t know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
I could wile away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain. My head I’d be scratching, while my thoughts are a hatching – if I only had a brain.
Talking, thinking, thoughtful conversation, reflective testimony – Christianity for the rest of us.
Yes, some people without brains do an awful lot of talking. Some of that talk is religious talk. I have read in recent letters to the editor some of the silliest things about Islam written by fellow Christians. I know they have brains, but the letters did not indicate that they were in very full use at the time.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue – not ignorance about other religions, not ignorance about science, not ignorance about the years and years of scholarly writing about the Bible, not ignorance about the thousands of years of discussion about the meaning of Christian faith.
Ignorance is not a Christian virtue, nor is obnoxiousness. Walking up to someone you have never met, about whose life you know nothing – not their pains, joys, hopes, dreams, sorrows, disappointments – walking up to someone you’ve never met asking if they are saved, that strikes me as obnoxious. I ought to know. I have done it.
Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, and some of those people are Christians and sometimes some of those people are us. And that kind of talk makes other Christian talk hard. I sometimes hear people compare our cultural situation to the cultural situation in the Book of Acts. They argue that Christianity is no longer in the center of our culture, like it was not during the time of the early church. There is something to be said for that, except that the early church did not have hundreds of years of Christian talk already behind them, and the apostles did not have to say, “Well, that is not the way I understand Christian faith.” When you have someone wanting to burn Qu’rans and calling it Christian, it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have a few people calling themselves Christians and arguing that the heart of the faith has something to do with the “white race,” it makes other Christian talk difficult. When you have Christians who assume that the two most pressing issues of faith in our national life are abortion and homosexuality, it makes other Christian talk difficult. It also makes other Christian talk necessary. Other voices are needed. Other testimony needs to be given.
Mark 7:31-37 is a wonderfully challenging story. It is a healing story and all such stories have their challenging aspects. The word “deaf” itself has fallen out of favor, but it is there in the story. Jesus heals a man who could not speak and could not hear. His ears are opened and his tongue is loosened. Then he makes this impossible request – don’t tell anyone! The man, the crowd witnessing all this – be quiet. Of course they cannot contain themselves.
That’s the kind of Christian word that needs to be spoken, testimony rooted in our own experience of a God who through Jesus touches our lives in deep and profound ways. I can tell a story about a boy who grew up in a family with an unchurched father, a boy for whom public speaking was not anything he aspired to – never on the speech team or the debate team – who gets up every week in front of people to talk about the Bible, Jesus, faith and God and even sometimes sings like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz. I can tell you about how, on my worst days, when discouragement gets the better of me and the inner pain is deep, I take courage from the story of Jesus for whom things did not always turn out well. I can do what I need to do. I can find my way again.
Testimony is not about God fixing people. Rather, it speaks of God making wholeness out of human woundedness, human incompleteness. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For the Rest of Us, 141). I appreciate how, in her chapter on “Testimony” Butler Bass includes a couple.
One story shared in the book is of a man who grew up in an agnostic household. At age thirty-four, he came out as a gay man. He participated regularly in church, but did not readily share this part of his life there, and he felt somewhat disconnected. Anyway, he found himself at a meeting of church leadership, and his story goes from there. By the way, “Lillian” is the church pastor, pastor of a Congregational Church near Yale.
It was hot. I didn’t feel comfortable with the people there…. We started with a simple exercise: Lillian read a passage of Scripture about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Good stuff. Then she asked each of us to write about a transformation in our own lives. I couldn’t think of a “safe” example, so I wrote about the personal transformation I experienced in coming out, in accepting myself as a gay man. No one had to know: I was writing this for myself. But when Lillian asked if anyone wanted to share their story, the Spirit moved me to volunteer. I didn’t know what would happen. There was a lump in my throat, my palms were sweaty. I took a leap of faith. It was a leap back from the wilderness into a new relationship with God, one based on my true nature. It didn’t hurt that no one gasped or avoided me: in fact I felt affirmation. In moving me to speak from my heart, the Spirit had also transformed my relationship with the congregation. I felt radiant, lighter than air. I felt I had found home. (136-137)
Talk rooted in our experiences of the grace of God in Jesus, we need that kind of thoughtful Christian talk in our world.
A group of disciples gathered around their teacher, peppering him with question after question about God. The teacher said that anything we say about God is just words, because God is unknowable completely. One disciple finally asked, “Then why do you speak of God at all?” and the master replied, “Why does the bird sing? She sings not because she has a statement but because she has a song.” (Anthony DeMillo story in Lamott, Operating Instructions, and Long, Testimony, 157) We have a song to sing.
And our song is a thoughtful song. Christian talk in our day and time needs to be testimony and thoughtful, reflective conversation. Thinking, contrary to some, is a Christian virtue. “Think about these things” we read in Philippians 8. If the world needs to hear Christians share genuinely from their heart, the world also needs Christians who can engage their brains and express their thoughts.
Unfortunately, church people often pit the mind against the heart. Some simply ignore the mind in favor of experience; others reduce intellectual endeavor to memorizing approved dogma or Bible verses…. Many churches encourage thinking – as long as you think like everyone else. As a result, much of American religion has a strangely circumscribed intellectual character, a sort of anti-intellectual intellectualism. (187) Having set that context, Butler Bass goes on to write about a different kind of Christian life of the mind. “Mainline pilgrims insisted upon the importance of intellectual openness to vital spirituality…. These mainline pilgrims linked intellectual curiosity with humility” (191).
Maybe that‘s the bottom line for genuine Christian talk, testimony, and conversation. We share our experience as just that, our experience, trusting that the story might be of help to another. And if not, that is o.k. God’s grace works in people’s lives in a variety of ways and we are humble enough to acknowledge that. Still we have a song to sing. In I Peter 3 we are encouraged to tell our story with gentleness (I Peter 3:16).
And we engage our minds in our faith because we are humbly open to the vast, complex and mysterious world. Who really wants to claim that we know all the ways God is engaged in that world? I Peter 3 also encourages us to combine “a tender heart and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8). Intellectual curiosity is a part of spiritual vitality. Questions are as much faith talk as are affirmations.
The Scarecrow really is wise. He helps us acknowledge that sometimes we do speak without engaging our brains. In the end, however, he discovers that he had a brain all along and that it could be used for good – for thinking good thoughts, for speaking wisely and genuinely. Maybe the Scarecrow is some kind of saint in a Christianity for the rest of us. Amen.

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