Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's a Mystery

Sermon preached October 21, 2012

Have you ever had an embarrassing moment? Have you ever felt uncomfortable in a group of people, out of place? I probably should just ask if you have experience as a human being, because occasional embarrassment or out-of-placeness just go with the territory.
The seminary I attended, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, held an annual fall retreat for students and faculty. The retreat included recreation, but also worship, lectures and small breakout groups. One year I thought it might be interesting to attend a breakout session on mystery stories. I cannot recall the specific title of the session, but I remember pondering – “theological thinking about mystery stories, that could be interesting.”
I arrived at the session and we were seated in a circle. One of the seminary faculty was the convener of the group. She said that rather than make any kind of presentation, she was assuming everyone in the group was there because they were mystery story readers and we would just be going around to share some of our favorite mystery writers. Oh no. While I was interested in mystery stories, I had come to find out more about them and something about their theological significance. I did not have any favorite mystery writers to share. I felt embarrassed, uncomfortable and out of place, though things ended up o.k.
Since then, I have acquired a few mystery writers whose works I like to tell others about: Julia Spenser-Fleming, Nevada Barr, Peter Robinson, John D. MacDonald. I enjoy a good mystery story now and again.
The Biblical book of Job is a mystery story of sorts. It is a book filled with questions. Where is God when humans suffer? Why do we sometimes assume that when people suffer, God is somehow behind it? Unlike many mystery stories, unless there is a planned sequel, Job ends up providing more questions than answers. We read this morning from some of the final chapters in the book. Job and some of his friends have had conversation about Job’s suffering. In the end of the story God responds, but with more questions. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Job is a mystery story, but of a unique kind, and the kind of mystery story Job is has something to say about our Christian faith.
When we think about mystery stories we tend to think about mystery stories that are puzzles of sorts. There is a crime – a murder, a theft, and the plot of the mystery story revolves around trying to figure out who committed the crime. Really good mystery stories, though, make their characters three-dimensional, especially the detectives. Really good mystery stories can give us insight into the human condition. But Job is not the kind of mystery story that is a puzzle to be solved.
I am also cautious when we, in religious circles, appeal too easily to mystery. Sometimes it is as if some churches want to tell people – “Quit thinking so much. It is a mystery.” If mystery stories as puzzles invite our thinking, these religious appeals to mystery want to short-circuit our thinking. Earlier this month it was reported that a Georgia congressman (Rep. Paul Broun) who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said at a church banquet: God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell…. I believe that [the Earth] was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. If asked how this could be given all the scientific knowledge we have, some religionists might say simply, “It’s a mystery.” Really? Does being a Christian mean that we leave our critical thinking behind, that questions are forbidden? Does being a Christian mean that if science seems to suggest something different than on understanding of the Bible, we simply say, “the Bible tells me so” and appeal to the mystery of our faith?
That’s not the kind of mystery story Job is, nor is it the kind of mystery to which we are invited as Christians.
Mystery is important in Christian faith, but mystery as understood like this – Frederick Buechner: There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for example. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential, living part will always elude you, i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. (Wishful Thinking, 76)
I think Buechner is right about the character of mystery that is at the heart of job and Christian faith. There is something about being human that takes us beyond what our critical thinking can tell us. We don’t abandon such thinking, we push beyond it to ponder and live mystery. Even when we learn all that we can about the human brain and human body and biochemistry, it still will not explain what being a person feels like. There will always be something mysterious about being human, and particularly about being human in relation to God.
In First Corinthians 4, Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” The Message renders that last part like this: “We are guides into God’s most sublime secrets.” To be Christian is to follow Jesus into the mysteries of God and of human life. It is to follow Jesus into God’s most sublime secrets. We are stewards of God’s mysteries, mysteries like those identified by the poet Denise Levertov: the quiet mystery… the mystery/that there is anything, anything at all,/let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,/rather than void: and that, O Lord,/Creator, Hallowed One, You still/hour by hour sustain it. (“Primary Wonder”)
To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to have some answers, yes, but maybe what we have even more are signposts pointing in a direction. You want to know something about God? You want to know something about the meaning of being human? Look in this direction – toward Jesus Christ. What we find in Jesus is not a series of bullet points, but a guide into God’s most sublime secrets. The way of Jesus is the way of the open heart, the open mind – open to the mystery of our lives, open to the mystery of the world. It is not a way that tells us to forget our brains, it is a way that says beyond what we can know through our best thinking, there may be even more to be known and experienced in a different way.
I bring with me today some testimony to the importance of mystery in Christian faith.
Kathleen Norris, poet, Christian spiritual writer, asserts that at the heart of prayer is mystery. Prayer is not doing, but being. It is not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…. [Prayer] is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder, a wonder that makes us know the smallness of oneself in an enormous and various universe. (Amazing Grace, 350, 351) Prayer can be doing. Prayer can be asking. When prayer seems to get to its deepest place in my life, there is that beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of One greater than myself, One who has depths of mystery beyond me.
God is central to Christian faith, and the God of Jesus Christ will always be sublime and mysterious. James Jones, In the Middle of This Road We Call Our Life: Language is limited by space and time, culture, and individual experience. To speak directly about God is to limit God by treating God like an object in the world of tables and chairs. That is precisely what God is not. (174) Have you ever been a little confused about some parts of the Ten Commandments, particularly the parts about idols and graven images (KJV)? Perhaps this is an invitation to take seriously the limitations of human communication when it comes to God, to remember the depths of God’s mystery, to recall just how sublime are God’s secrets.
The voice of God that calls to us as followers of Jesus will always have a certain mysterious quality to it. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke often of the ineffable when he wrote about God. The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide…. We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. (I Asked for Wonder, 19)
We followers of Jesus are stewards of the mysteries of God. We seek to be attentive to deeper realities and invite others to join us in paying attention. We believe we are responsible in our lives to a mysterious One who we know, but cannot fully name. We may not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure, but an adventure it is. Following Jesus in tracking the mystery of God is an adventure. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, p. 8-9)
This month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its latest survey on religious affiliation in the United States. One in five adults now considers themselves religiously unaffiliated. Most do not consider themselves atheist, but there is something about organized religion that they are not finding helpful. Perhaps we have tried to offer pat answers rather than invite them to the adventure of following Jesus in tracing the ways of a God of love who yet remains sublime and mysterious. Perhaps the church has been a poor steward of the mysteries of God – appealing to mystery as a substitute for thinking rather than inviting to mystery that considers thinking as a companion on the way.
In a preface he wrote to a book of his poems, Abraham Joshua Heschel penned these words, words addressed to God: “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” (I Asked For Wonder, 7) Pray for wonder. Embrace mystery. You will find the God of wonder and mystery embracing you. Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Money Trap

Sermon preached October 14, 2012

Text: Mark 10:17-27

I borrow shamelessly from popular culture in coming up with sermon titles. This morning’s sermon title is the title of a movie, but it was not the movie I was thinking of. I had in mind a movie with Tom Hanks. The Tom Hanks film, co-starring Shelley Long was really called “The Money Pit.” “The Money Pit” (1986) is about a young couple trying to fix up an old, dilapidated house, and their work becomes a money pit. The film is a romantic comedy about the way home improvement projects can get carried away, and about problems with money.
“The Money Trap” (1965) is a very different movie. The movie starred Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth and Elke Summer and is about a cop with financial troubles because of his wife's constant spending. In the course of his work, he himself turns toward theft in order to make money. It doesn’t end well. There is romance here, but, even more there is tragedy.
Our relationship to money can be comic. Often it is more tragic.
Mark, in today’s gospel reading, relates a tragic story about Jesus’ encounter with a man. It is a story about money/possessions. We don’t have much description of the man here. In Matthew he is young. In Luke he is a ruler. In all the gospels the man is a person of means. Here it is said that “he had many possessions.” This man comes to Jesus, while Jesus is on a journey. He kneels before Jesus. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments – and the ones that have to do with human relationships: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
We seem to have here, in contrast to so many others in the gospels, an honest seeker. This is someone asking Jesus questions not in order to trap him, but to move his life forward. Jesus recognizes this – “Jesus looking at him, loved him.” Yet the love with which Jesus loves can be a challenging love. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It is too much for the man. He is shocked and leaves grieving.
The shock of the story is not over. Jesus offers some teaching. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” It is the disciples turn to be shocked. They are perplexed and greatly astounded. A camel through the eye of a needle? By the way, there is no gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” that camels could get through with great difficulty. Jesus is offering an astonishing image, and impossible image – except with God, anything is possible.
What Jesus is describing is the weird economics of the kingdom of God. In the weird economics of the kingdom of God, the rich are going to have a hard time of it. That is pretty astonishing.
What’s Jesus problem with wealth? Does he simply have a bad case of wealth envy? Why might I describe our relationship with money as often tragic? I want to explore how money, things, possessions can be problematic for us in our lives, our relationships to others, and our relationship to God, but first I want to acknowledge that not enough is also a problem. We cannot take this passage from Mark out of the context of the entire Bible, and the Bible indicates that God is deeply concerned with the hungry, the poor, the ill-clad or ill-housed. God is concerned with those who lack enough. In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley encouraged Christians to “gain all you can” – that is, to work hard, though one ought not to work at things that are unhealthy. Wesley had a strong sense that we should not be Pollyannaish about money. It has its uses and not having enough is a problem.
Beyond enough, though, there are other problems – the money trap. The man who comes to Jesus is caught in a money trap, possessed by his possessions rather than possessing them. I want to describe this money trap using some quotes and stories.
After he wrote his best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. There he quotes the psychologist Carl Jung: We overlook the essential fact that the accomplishments which society rewards are won at the cost of the diminution of personality (23)
A few weeks ago, I heard the story of a young woman in her twenties who is currently in investment banking. She is doing well, but the company she works for is doing some strange things, making her feel undervalued and underappreciated. She told a friend, “I would look for another job, but I like my lifestyle too much.” In the pursuit of enough to finance a certain lifestyle, is some part of this woman’s personality being diminished?
In 2008, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money. I found this in a book entitled Enough written by John Bogle, founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group.
Bogle also shares the story about the two writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. Vonnegut and Heller were attending a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island. The host was a hedge fund manager. Vonnegut told Heller that their host had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel, Catch-22. Heller responded, “Yes, but I have something he will never have… enough.” (Bogle, 1) We lose our way with money and things, and we become trapped when we cannot say “enough.”
In another one of his books, Living a Life That Matters, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes about something deep inside of each of us. Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. (15) Kushner argues that our chasing fame or fortune has something to do with a deep need to feel important and valued for our accomplishments. It is a desire that can be warped.
Father and son writing team of Robert and Edward Skidelsky, in their book How Much is Enough? name that warping of our desire for importance, when it becomes a warped relationship with money and things, “insatiability.” They identify a number of inner and outer forces that contribute to that sense of insatiability, that sense that even for those who already have everything, there is more to be had. Insatiability arises from an inner restlessness, a sense of joy in novelty. We like to achieve things that others do not have – positional goods, like trophies for first place. Beyond that, we seek to feel special by demonstrating our status. Having things, and consuming conspicuously, feeds status needs. (33ff)
I offer all these thoughts and resources to suggest that the money trap is out there, is real, and is something from which none of us is immune. We all want to feel as if we matter, are important. We all want our accomplishments to be valued, and the currency that seems highly valued in our society is cash. Is your work valued? Show me the money! I know I have asked myself “what if?” What if I had devoted myself to a career that had more to do with making money? I know I have daydreamed about “wouldn’t it be nice to win the lottery?” I don’t daydream enough to actually buy a ticket, though.
We all struggle with those inner and social forces that make cash the value of who we are, that make things the measure of our worth. We can get caught up in money and things in such a way that we are trapped, that we close off life-enhancing possibilities. Jesus looks into our eyes, too, with love, and invites us into a different relationship with money and things.
The money trap is there and none of us is immune. Sometimes we fall in. Jesus offers ways out. Generosity is something that lessens the grip of money and things. When we can give freely and generously to enhance the lives of others, we put money and things in their place. We will discuss that more as we approach our stewardship Sundays, but it is a good lesson to hear whenever.
But being generous is not all there is. Jesus invites us to a searching self-examination as he invited the man in this story to self-examination. In a society where having everything is still not enough, how do we keep balance – rightly prizing hard work, and hard-won income, without getting too caught up in status? How do we possess things without them possessing us? The reality is that sometimes we will get it wrong. Sometimes we will fall into the money trap, and will once again need grace. The Harvard Professor and Minister Peter Gomes argues that the primary moral of the gospel story is of our need for grace. Anything is possible for God, even helping us again and again to climb from the money trap, and maybe helping us fall into it less often. (Sermons, 60-61)
The Reverend Fred Craddock was visiting in the home of his niece. There he encountered an old greyhound, just like the ones who raced around tracks chasing mechanical rabbits. Apparently Craddock’s niece had taken the dog in to prevent it from being destroyed after its racing days were over. Anyway, Craddock strikes up a conversation with the dog – at least that’s how he tells it.
“Are you still racing?”
“No,” the greyhound replied.
“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Were you not winning?”
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
“Well, did he treat you badly, then?”
“Oh, no,” the dog said. “We were treated quite well while we were racing.”
“Were you injured?”
“Then why? Why aren’t you racing?”
“I quit.”
“You quit? Why would you quit?”
“I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.” (Bogle, Enough, 211-212)

Jesus looking at him, loved him. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded.
At its best the church, and the Jesus of the church, reminds us both of the need for enough and the trap that awaits those who continue to stretch what is enough. Jesus looks at us lovingly and offers grace, a grace that makes anything possible. The church points us in the direction of deeper values and more profound mysteries. More on that next week. Amen.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Like Ish

Sermon preached October 7, 2012

Text: Mark 10:13-16

You all know, those of you who know me, that I like music. This summer, maybe because I had a class reunion, I started listening again to music from the 1970s and found myself rediscovering some songs from that time that I had forgotten. So here is a song I stumbled across on a CD called “AM Gold 1970.”

[Play the first part of Ray Stevens, “Everything is Beautiful”: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.]

Everything is Beautiful

Not a bad song for World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our connections with Christians from around the world.
Children. Last week I mentioned that one of my college majors was philosophy. The other was psychology, and psychology often finds children fascinating for a host of reasons. Psychologists want to know something about how we get from childhood to adulthood and what positive growth and development might be like. Freud postulated in his work that there was a lot more going on in children than most had previously considered.
One of the reasons I became a psychology major was the work of Abraham Maslow, work I first encountered in high school. Maslow’s focus was not on children per se, but on self-actualizing people. Yet Maslow had some interesting things to say about children. “The facts… seem to be that normal children are in fact often hostile, destructive, and selfish in a primitive sort of way” (Motivation and Personality, 121). Freud has postulated such things. Maslow goes on to write: “But they are also at other times, and perhaps as often, generous, cooperative, and unselfish in the same primitive style” (121). Which parts of a child predominate depends to a large degree, Maslow argued, on how well the child’s needs for safety, love belongingness and self-esteem were met. Maslow also argued that what we sometimes perceive as destructiveness in children is better considered curiosity. When a child dismantles something, she may just want to know how it works. Maslow notes, “children do not have to be taught to be curious” (50). Children have a lot going on, much good, some not so good.
Children. Jesus was not the first child psychologist, but he did pay attention to children, and, like Maslow, seemed to find something admirable about them. In a culture that did not really focus on children, Jesus embraced them warmly and held them up as examples. Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
While the Bible points us to children as examples, it does not do so uncritically. In I Corinthians 13, Paul writes: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
Jesus encourages us to emulate children, and Paul notes that there is a time to put an end to childish ways. One way we might helpfully think about the appropriate child qualities of faith is to distinguish between like and ish – childlike and childish. When Jesus encourages us to receive the kingdom of God like a child, I think he is encouraging child-like attitudes, and not childish attitudes. There are probably times in our lives when we are more childish than child-like.
So what characteristics might we think of as childish, those attitudes to be given up as we mature? Children can be impatient. Are we there yet? While there may be a place for a certain kind of righteous impatience at times, we would do well to understand that so many good things in life take time. The world is not the way I would like it to be – too much hunger, poverty, prejudice, war, cruelty. Change is needed, but positive change can take time. Long-time enmities between people do not end overnight. A lack of patience can lead to cynicism and burnout, and cynicism is the opposite of faith.
Children can be self-absorbed. The world of infants is small. When they are hungry or wet, they cry out. It takes time to develop a wider view, and acknowledgement of the other, and frankly it is a life-long task.
Children can be masters at blaming someone else. If something is broken, it must have been a brother or sister, or the next door neighbor. Sometimes children are really creative and the problem is caused by an imaginative friend. Failing to take responsibility for our lives is a common childish quality.
Children also have a tendency to wish it would be easy. This is Scott Peck in reverse. Peck, begins his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled with a simple statement: “life is difficult.” It is, but as children we don’t necessarily see that, and maybe that’s o.k. for children. Thinking everything will be easy is childish when we cling to that idea into adulthood.
When Jesus encourages childlike qualities in us, he is not inviting us to childish impatience, self-absorption, irresponsibility, or immature wishful thinking.
Instead I think Jesus is inviting us to wonder, welcoming, delight and a kind of mature wishful thinking - child-like qualities that we should nurture in our lives throughout our lives.
Wonder. Abraham Maslow in his work on self-actualizing people argued that one characteristic of such people is “continued freshness of appreciation” (163). “Self-actualizing people have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy” (163). Children have a marvelous capacity for wonder that we lose too easily as we grow older. God’s work in the world of nurturing love, encouraging justice, creating beauty, continues, but we are not always ready to see where it is happening. Everything is beautiful, in its own way, if only we will see with childlike wonder and appreciation. One final Maslow quote. “Getting used to our blessings is one of the most important nonevil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering” (163). Wonder at the beauty in God’s world, gratitude for the goodness of God and God’s creativity, is at the heart of God’s kingdom work. Wonder is a child-like kingdom characteristic.
Openness and welcoming. Children have a lot to teach us about welcoming others. We have to teach our children to fear others, sometimes for their own safety, but we often take the lessons too far. Children don’t seem bothered by differences in color or abilities or orientations. They see friends first of all. The New Jerusalem Bible translates Jesus’ words in Mark 10 this way – “anyone who welcomes the kingdom of God as a child.” Welcoming and openness to others is a child-like kingdom characteristic. Jesus loves all the children of the world. On World Communion Sunday we are invited to love as openly, as freely, as widely.
Joy, delight and playfulness. The psychologist D. W. Winnicott once wrote: It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self (quoted in Cherishment, Young-Bruehl and Bethelard, 207). Being able to give ourselves to joy, to delight in experiences, to be able to play are important child-like kingdom characteristics. They display a deep faith that God continues to be at work in the world. They help us discover who we are as God’s people. One of my concerns as I look at our society is that we are diminishing the role of play in the lives of our children. We are substituting instead competition. We don’t play as much as compete, and we need to ask what we are losing if all our playing is now competition. If we lose joy, delight and playfulness in children, we will be more hard-pressed to nurture these as adults. Joy, delight and playfulness are child-like kingdom characteristics.
Mature wishful thinking. Is there such a thing? Author, minister and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote a book on theology: Wishful Thinking: a seeker’s abc. Wishful thinking and theology? Christianity is mainly wishful thinking…. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking…. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth come true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it. Curiosity, creativity and imagination are child-like kingdom characteristics. Doesn’t it take some audacious imagining to celebrate World Communion Sunday in such a divided world? We imagine that sharing bread and juice together here can help bridge differences world-wide. We imagine that sharing bread and juice bring Jesus closer.
Nurturing child-like kingdom characteristics, leaving behind childishness – this is not easy, but then life is difficult sometimes. Yet this is the Jesus way. It asks of us patience. It requires giving of ourselves to something bigger – God’s dream for the world. There will be failures along the way for which we need grace. The Jesus way is the way of childlike wonder, openness, joy and delight. The Jesus way is a way in which truth comes to us on wishful wings. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's All About Not About You

Sermon preached September 30, 2012

Text: Mark 9:38-50

Obesity is an issue in the United States. People just need to eat more healthy foods. I mean look at all those other people and their poor eating habits. They really need to make some changes. They need to watch what they eat. They need to exercise more. Of course I can handle burgers and fries sometimes. And there are lots of days when I just have to miss exercising.
And doesn’t it bug you when those people are on their cell phones while in a check out line. I mean couldn’t they just wait a bit. I am sure what they are talking about is no great emergency. They are probably reporting on the cover of The National Enquirer. Now sometimes I’ve had to be on my phone while checking out, but it is always vitally important.
And do you ever get in line at a sandwich shop behind a person who has like never been in a sandwich shop before. I mean, please – look at the menu before you get in line. Figure it out a little bit first. How hard is it to choose cheese or bread or vegetables? Of course, sometimes I just want to try something new and am not sure what that should be. Give me a little time.
As human beings we are pretty good at finding fault with others and letting ourselves off the hook for the same thing. Someone has called this a “ubiquitous human failing” (Martha Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance, 100).
Many have recognized this tendency among we humans. How many of you ever took a philosophy class? I won’t ask how many of you ever slept through a philosophy class. One of my college majors was philosophy and every few years there comes a time when I can say – “it was good that you were a philosophy major.” Today is such a day.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is a well-known name in philosophy, both for his thinking about human knowing and for this thinking about ethics. Kant tried to figure out the nature of morally right actions, and he came up with a few ways of talking about that. One of them goes like this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Kant was trying to get at the ubiquitous human problem of people exempting themselves from the rules. If you don’t think people should talk on their cell phones while in a check-out line, then the same applies to you.
Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary philosopher, and this will be the last philosopher mentioned this morning, in her recent book The New Religious Intolerance, says that Kant’s ideas have deeper roots. She finds the same message in Jesus. She cites the saying of Jesus about the beam and the speck that we used for our invitation to worship. She writes: The Gospel is saying that people have a strong tendency to self-blindness and to insulating their own faults from critique. She believes it is a “failure to acknowledge the equal reality of others” (Nussbaum, 100, 102).
We easily see the faults of others. We are willing to scrutinize others. We want to exempt ourselves. Nussbaum thinks that this is a form of considering ourselves more important than others, the center of the universe. It is a way of saying, “it’s all about me.” Nussbaum says that the testimony from Jesus to Kant is that instead we should be working toward – “it’s all about not about me.” It’s all about not about you.
I would even go a bit further. I think Jesus wants to flip the equation. Rather than being harder on others, more willing to scrutinize others, I think Jesus encourages gentleness toward others and more scrutiny of ourselves.
Mark 9. In the first part of this reading, the disciples are put out because someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he was not with the group. It’s all about us, isn’t it? Jesus tells them otherwise. His words suggest that we should celebrate good wherever we find it, and if someone else is up to it that is o.k. There is something bigger going on, God’s work in the world. It’s all about that. It’s all about not about you.
There is another wonderful illustration of this attitude in the New Testament. I was reading Philippians this week as part of my own spiritual discipline. In the first chapter we find Paul writing: Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. Not exactly complimentary. But then Paul writes, “What does it matter?”
What does it matter if good is being done by someone else, even if we may suspect some things about them? Good is being done. It’s not all about you. It’s not all about us.
The second part of Mark 9 drives home the point even more starkly, using uncomfortable imagery. Pay attention to others. Be gentle and nurturing toward others. It’s not all about you. The startling images of burning and cutting are a dramatic way of making that point. Jesus isn’t inviting self-abuse. He is pushing a point – it’s not all about you. We are good at scrutinizing others, and being gentle toward ourselves. We would do better to scrutinize ourselves and be gentle toward others. It’s all about not about you.
Yet it is all about you. I enjoy word play and this sermon title is meant to be word play. The Christian life is both all about and not about you. It is about contributing to something bigger than we are – God’s on-going work in the world. It is about celebrating the good wherever it is to be found, and encouraging and nurturing it. It is about being gentler toward others and having the courage to scrutinize ourselves.
There is a lot of “me” there. There is a lot of “you” there. The gospel reading poses the question to us of what kind of salt we will be. What kind of life will we lead?
Let me address one image in particular in this reading – the image of hell. “Hell” – where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched, a quote from Isaiah 66:24 which is not speaking of individual afterlife. Hell translates the Greek word “Gehenna,” which refers to the Valley of Hinonom. “This valley south of Jerusalem, once the site of pagan sacrifices, was later made the city garbage dump, where stench, maggots, and fire were always present” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).
What kind of life will we lead? If we don’t care, if our lives are not about service and love and helping the little ones, and contributing to something bigger than ourselves, they are like garbage. The choice is ours – fine salt, goodness, or garbage. The reality is we have some of both, but we are always better at spotting the trashy parts of other people’s lives than seeing the garbage in our own. We need to turn that around. Yet, finally, we should find that place where we can be gentle with others and with ourselves. I have long appreciated that line from Desiderata: Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. Living the Jesus way requires some self-discipline and self-scrutiny. The only way we know if we are getting that all about/not about thing right is if we are willing to look gently and firmly at our own lives – celebrating the goodness and trying to let the garbage go.
Here’s the thing. God wants to love the world through you in a way that is only through you. So you matter a great deal. It is all about you and your response to this ever present invitation from God. It is not about you in that the work to which we give ourselves is always bigger than any of us and the work needs all of us.
There is a story that comes from the Hasidic Jewish tradition . Every person, the tradition states, should carry two pieces of paper, one in the right pocket and one in the left. One of the pieces of paper should read, ‘I am but dust and ashes.” The other should read “For my sake the world was created.”
Exercise wholesome discipline. Be gentle with others. Celebrate goodness wherever it is found. Offer the cup of cold water. Nurture the little ones. Let God love the world through you. It’s all about you. It’s all about not about you. Live with it. Amen.