Kim was four years old when I met her. Afflicted with AIDS from her Wall Street lawyer father, who was an IV drug user, Kim was a patient at Nassau County Medical Center on Long Island, where I was a Chaplain. It was a heart breaking case, but I did learn just how deep children’s spiritual life can be.
Kim talked about a lot of things with me. She wanted to know what God looked like, if God had big feet and hands, or just a big head where, she said, all God’s thoughts were kept. And what about God’s heart, Kim wanted to know. I think God has a small heart, she insisted, because a small heart can be fixed faster than a big one. God’s heart gets broken a lot. That’s what my Nana told me, she said.
Why consider the spiritual life of children? Oh yes, their comments are often amusing and delightful, but more than this, their voices are a reminder about what lurks deep within all own souls and psyches, child as well as adult. Paul Tillich, one of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, pointed out that “the real mark of depth is its simplicity. Nothing of real importance is ever too profound for anyone,” he insisted. And so children are indeed grasped by these deep things, which is why Jesus not only welcomed children, but also said that God’s kingdom belongs to them. Children are open to the depths, open to mystery.
Robert Coles, a renown Harvard psychiatrist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for series, Children of Crisis, wrote a book about 25 years ago, The Spiritual Life of Children, in which he related what children have said through words or pictures about their spiritual lives. He discovered that even if children never had any formal religious training, many of them will still think of God.
One little boy, when asked by Coles to draw God, had a great deal of difficulty with the eyes. Coles noted that most children tended to use coloring for God similar to their own. But this little boy of eight said, "I have brown eyes; my sister has blue eyes, but God should have eyes like everyone, because God belongs to everyone. He's all colors, so I guess I won't use these crayons. I'll just use a pencil. And then he said, “God is like a shadow.”
"But if he's a shadow, said 8 year old Betsy, that means he's grey. How can God be all colors if he's a grey shadow?"
"Well," Hal answered, God can be anything he wants."
"You mean, said Betsy, "that God can change the way he looks? You mean God isn't always the same?"
"Oh yea, Hal insisted, “that's the most important thing about God. He changes. God is never the same. That’s how he gets our attention. If God was only ONE way, we would never notice.
Betsy wasn't convinced. "How do you know?" she asked.
"I told the priest about my idea and he said I was right!"
"But how does the priest know?" Betsy demanded. Where did he get his information?"
From God, Hal said. Yea, said Betsy, very skeptically. That’s what the priest wants you to believe.
Another boy named Larry shared Betsy’s skepticism about priestly knowledge. "We can't be sure that the priest is right,” he insisted. He guesses the same way that we all do. Larry then drew a God with large eyes and ears, because God sees and hears everyone and everything. At the bottom of his drawing, he wrote a caption: “Watch Out; God will spot you!"
An Islamic child, confused and worried about the variations of God's messages in different religions, and he told Coles that one night he had a dream in which Allah came to him and said, "Pray to be worried all your life as you are now. Pray that you don't put your worries away in some closet." So what do you think that means? Coles asked. And the boy answered, “I guess it means that God wants me to think about things and not just settle for answers.”
An 11 year old boy from Sweden (with almost no religious traning) told Coles that he worried about hell, but not for the reasons most people do, he insisted. “Hell is not a place that God puts you in. You put yourself there. You’re stuck, stuck with yourself, and with all that's weighing you down from your life. Taking a ruler and a pencil, he drew a line, and said, “Heaven is to the left and hell is to the right. He looked at his picture, and then said, "I think I made a mistake just then. I made the difference between heaven and hell too clear. He erased the pencil line, and let his heaven gradually merge into hell. Heaven and hell are tricky places, he said. You may think you are in one place and then discover that you are really in another!”
Paul Tillich was right; the deep things are accessible to us all, including children. And we learn from them. As Robert Coles wrote in his book, “All of us, at one time or another are “wanderers, explorers, adventurers, stragglers and ramblers, sometimes tramps and vagabonds, even fugitives, but now and then we are pilgrims: as children, as parents, as old ones. And how young we are when we start wondering about it all, the nature of the journey and the final destination."
10/29/2017 0 Comments
Romans 3: 19-26
The black preaching robe: Do you have any idea what the significance of this is, what a long journey it was to arrive at the point where many ministers chose to wear the black preaching robe in place of the white alb? You see the preaching robe was the dress of academics, and to wear it in the pulpit was to acknowledge that the Word required study, disciplined prayerful study. I, Martin Luther, was a teacher, a professor at Wittenberg University, and it was in the preparation of my lectures on scripture that I understood what Paul in his Letter to the Romans meant: we are justified not by our good works but by faith. Faith alone. And because that knowledge came from study, your clergy until recently always wore the academic black robe, never the priestly white alb, which was considered papist rot, the stinking excrement of Rome.
Strong language, yes, very strong language. And I used it, with no regret, I might add. I threw insult at my enemies, because to me civility meant nothing; you could be civil and yet be in gross error. But understand this: my anger and insult were always on behalf of the Gospel, which my study called me to defend. I continuously asked Rome and its representatives to show me where my ideas were wrong. Show me, I said, where Jesus said you can buy your salvation through the purchase of indulgences. Show me where the Bible says that you are saved by your works. But my opponents never did. They talked to me of authority, the authority of the Church, which meant the authority of the Pope. And what of scripture? I asked. The Pope decides such matters, I was told. And so on April 18, 1521 at the Diet of Worms I stood before those gathered and said: “Unless I am shown by the testimony of scriptures that I am wrong, for I do not believe in councils or Popes, I cannot and will not recant. My conscience is captive to the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.”
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin when I determined to become a monk. I was supposed to become a lawyer in deference to my father, who worked hard as a miner and wanted a better life for his children. Even in the 16th century there was what you call today upward mobility. And so I began the study of law. But late one afternoon, walking home, I suddenly found myself caught in a storm, a terrible storm with thunder crashing and pounding, and lightening, flashing, sending shafts of terror through the sky and into my heart. Falling to the ground, I prayed, “St. Anne, save me, and I will become a monk. Well, I was saved and so I had to keep my promise. I did become a monk, much to the anger and disappointment of my father. anger become a monk.” Do not you know the third commandment? he asked. Honor thy father and mother! Yes, of course, I knew it, but sometimes obedience takes a different path. I reminded him that even Jesus Christ disappointed his parents. Jesus came, as it says in Matthew’s Gospel, to place enmity between a mother and her daughter and a father and his son. No, it was not easy between my father and me, and I am not sure he ever really forgave me for becoming a monk---though to his credit he did come to my ordination and he did hear me preach many times.
I was a good monk, striving to be the perfect monk. Fastidious with every little vow, every little rule, every little mistake and sin: If I spilled a glass of milk, I confessed my careless; if I forgot to have a candle ready for Mass, I confessed my sloth. If I omitted to shave because I thought my beard lighter than my Brothers, I confessed my conceit and arrogance. I was trying to be perfect, yet the other monks ridiculed me. Oh, there goes Martin with his overzealous conscience. He thinks he can buy God’s love and approval with his perfectionism. And I tried. I tried to get God’s approval, but all I felt was God’s judgment against me. How can I get a gracious God? How can I find a God who truly loves and forgives me? Those were the questions that tortured and consumed me, that sent me into fits of trembling anxiety---for what I saw before me were the gates of hell with its cruel, devouring flames.
I imagine you have a hard time understanding that fear, because you no longer live in the same religious world I inhabited. Most of you, I suspect, have no fear of hell; you do not fear God. The world you inhabit is one in which God is often viewed with benign indifference, if God is believed in at all. In your world most people are not seeking a gracious God; they seek for any kind of God they can find. As I said then and I will repeat now: God is whatever you find yourself clinging to; God is what you most fervently trust in. And from where I stand, looking forward these 500 years, it looks to me as if your world places its ultimate trust in stocks and bonds and armies and bombs and insurance policies. But in my day there was no insurance; certainly no insurance against hell.
Hell was no metaphor, not a clever way of speaking about one’s separation or alienation from God. No, hell was a real place with real flames and real torture. And because I so fervently believed in hell, I began to hate the God who would put me there. “Martin,” my spiritual adviser. Staupitz, said, “It is not God who is angry with you, but you who are angry with God.” And he was right. I was angry with God who threatened me daily with hell’s unquenchable flames.
In the midst of my spiritual agony, something else was happening. The Pope wanted to build a great cathedral in Rome, a place in honor of St. Peter, a sacred home for all the Pope’s relics---the teeth of this saint or that one, the robe which Mary wore, splattered with the blood of her son, two hairs of Jesus Christ. Oh, the list went on and on, and though Jesus only called 12 disciples my calculations showed that with all the different cathedrals claiming to have this or that part of a disciple’s body, there must have been at least 28 disciples. When I pointed this out to one of the bishops, he told me to keep my opinions to myself. But your Lordship, I insisted, this is not an opinion. Just look at the facts. Surely, this is an error. “The Church,” he sternly reminded me, “does not make errors.”
Well, as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to what that papist vermin, John Tetzel, said and did when he arrived at the marketplace in Jutterborg in 1517. That ecclesiastical worm had the gall to say that he saved more souls than St. Peter himself---all because of the indulgences he was authorized to sell. Carrying sealed envelopes with pieces of paper neatly tucked inside, Tetzel held them up for all to see. This is God’s great gift to you, he said. For every one of these you buy, a sin will be remitted. There is not a sin so big that it cannot be wiped out with one of these precious sheets. And, he continued, do you know what else I have been empowered by the Pope to do? These indulgences are not only for the sins you have already committed, but they will also work for the sins you have not yet committed. “When a coin into the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”
So full of wrath was I that I wanted to beat his face in, but restraining myself I challenged him, “You are not worth more than the rotting excrement in the Pope’s bowels.” Yes, that is what I said, and do you know what that swine Tetzel responded, “And from whose bowels do you think these indulgences come? Shaking with disbelief, I took one in my hand and read the name: The Holy Father, Pope Leo X. Maybe I had no right to expect perfection from the Pope; after all, he was human, but certainly I had a right not to expect such utter and complete corruption. Willingfully misleading people: the Pope as well as Tetzel knew that indulgences were impotent against sin. For them it was not about truth or salvation, but about money and power and fame, for Leo wanted to be remembered as the Pope who built St. Peter’s in Rome. He needed money for that endeavor and the sale of indulgences would bring in the needed income.
That day in the marketplace was my Rubicon; I crossed something then, and the revolution that came to be called the Reformation exploded. In response to Tetzel, I tacked my 95 Theses to the door of the Palace Church in Wittenberg. These were points to be debated. This is what professors commonly did. They posted their ideas to be considered and then debated. And so the debate began. I debated men far more subltle in intellect than Tetzel; Cajetan, for example, the cardinal of San Sisto and the general of the Dominican Order, was the papal legate and Rome’s highest representative in Germany. He was a formidable opponent, and I think it gave him great pleasure as a Dominican to go against me, an Augustinian monk. There was a competitive spirit between the two orders, and he would have liked to have proven me wrong. “All you have to do, Martin,” he said, “is confess your errors, retract your words, and do not return like a dog to its vomit.” And what about your vomit?” I asked. “ Will you always return to it?” “I give you six months, Martin”, he said, “to roast yourself.” It will take more time than that, I said.
Two years later on an evening at the Elster Gate in Wittenberg the bull of excommunication from Pope Leo X came. I stood before a great roaring fire, whose flames devoured the books of canon law. “This bull,” I said, holding it up before the crowds, “comes from the hand of the Pope, the man whom you know to be head of the Church. Well, he may still be the head, like a fish who is the head of a cat’s dinner, eyes without sight, clutched to a stick of sucked bones. God has told me there can be no dealings between this cat’s dinner and me. As for this bull, it will roast.” And I burned it before the cheering crowds.
So long ago it was, a journey hard to make, hard for me and hard for the Church. The map of Europe was forever changed, and the changes were drawn in blood. Things happened that I never could have foreseen, and now I look out upon a religious landscape I cannot even recognize. The churches you now call Protestant, I wonder---what is it they are protesting against? In my day we knew. We knew our enemy. We knew that Rome was the stinking carcass of an age that was decaying. Let people read the Bible, we said, let them hear the Word in their own tongue. And so I translated the Bible from Latin into German in 11 weeks, while hiding in the Wartburg Castle. Let the people read and decide. Decide, your neck is at stake.
You see, for us everything was at stake, our lives, our souls. How quaint that must sound today when so many look to nothing more than this world for their ultimate satisfaction. Perhaps that is why many churches are so empty. People are too busy in the world to want anything beyond the world. They will settle for a small bucket of happiness. It isn’t too much they want; it is too little. I wanted a gracious God who in Jesus Christ would save. Save from what, for what. For me it was salvation from hell for eternal life. History happens, and life moves on, and beliefs do change, and so as I said 500 years ago, I will say today. “You have to do your own believing as you have to do your own dying. So what is it you truly believe? What really matters to you? The questions are before you. Will you bother to struggle toward an answer?
Exodus 32: 1-14/Matthew 22:1-14
Where are you? It’s a question from God that runs throughout the entire Bible, sometimes implicitly stated, but at other times the question is quite explicit. In the book of Genesis, for example, where the story goes that God was walking in the Garden of Eden, and Adam, having eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was hiding, God calls out, Where are you? God wanted to know where Abel was, when Cain, out of jealousy, had murdered him. And then there was the time God called out for Abraham, when he told Abraham to journey to a place, where a sacrifice was to be made. Where are you, Abraham? And Abraham answered, “Here I am!” God, it seems, has this habit of calling on his prophets, people like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah: Where are you, and sometimes, as in the case of Jeremiah and Elijah, people do their best to hide.
More often than not, however, this question of one’s whereabouts is not directly asked by God, but rather it is implied, as it is in today’s story from Exodus. Moses, who has been leading this unruly and whiney people through the wilderness, has gone up the mountain to receive the commandments that would bind God and the people into a covenant: I shall be your God and you shall be my people. We are with you, God. That was supposed to be the people’s answer to the question, Where are you? But where were the people, really? No sooner had Moses been absent for a while, the people grew restive, and demanded that Aaron make them a god whom they could see and worship. And so the golden calf was built, and the story goes that God’s wrath fiercely burned against the people, and Moses had to talk God down, convincing God that if He destroyed the very people he had just liberated, his god image would be tarnished. In a sense we could say that Moses was bold enough to ask the same question of God, Where are you, O God? Are you to be found in wrath or in mercy?
Well, here we are once again in the parables of Matthew, and this parable, the third parable of judgment, raises the same question of both the religious leaders as well as God: Where are you? Matthew has Jesus telling this parable to the Jewish leadership, who has become really quite sick and tired of this Jesus character undermining their religious authority, grounded as it was in the Temple and the entire system of sacrifice. These leaders saw themselves as the righteous ones, the ones who lived by the Law, the ones who knew the Law because they fervently studied it. But in Matthew, Jesus is the new law; he is the one whom God has chosen, and so the choice for or against the Son is the decisive choice. The religious leaders, who at this point in the gospel, were conspiring against Jesus, were certainly not at the wedding feast to which they had been invited. Instead they had chosen to be in darkness, where there was, according to Matthew, much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now in many respects this is another unpleasant parable, following two other parables told to the religious leadership. It begins with the wedding feast as a symbol of salvation, and indeed, the feast is a very common symbol of redemption in the Bible, as for example, in the book of Isaiah, where the day of redemption is described as a great feast, when “the Lord shall make for all people a feast of rich food and well aged wines.” Isaiah also references the people of God “as brides and grooms, decked out in the garment of salvation.” In the New Testament we have in the Book of Revelation the gathering of the redeemed at the end of historical time, compared to a wedding, the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. And remember the story of the Prodigal Son and the forgiving father, where the dinner party the father throws for his wayward son, who had finally returned home, is a sign and symbol of redemption.
So this king sent out an invitation for his son’s wedding, and notice that the invitation had two stages, something quite common in Jesus’ day. The first invitation would go out well in advance, a kind of save the date notice, and then on the day of the event, a reminder was sent. While the first invitation was ignored, the second one elicited a violent response with some of the slaves being mistreated and killed. And this mistreatment is what really angered the king, who responded with his own form of violence, sending his troops to destroy the people as well as their city. Of course on the surface this does not make God, who is symbolized by the king, look very good, because God here is behaving just as most people do, being vengeful when He does not get what he wants.
But the story is symbolic, not literal, and Jesus is using exaggeration to get the point across that the refusal of God’s grace and redemption is serious business. It has real consequences for one’s life, not necessarily because God punishes in a cruel and eternal way, but because the rejection of the redemptive party is itself a cruelty that makes life smaller and meaner. Sadly, the religiously sophisticated do not get it, because their comfort and their privilege blind them to what is really important. In fact, the religious leaders focus on details, which are not essential to the kingdom. Looking in the wrong direction, they also travel in the wrong direction, and so they arrive at a place, which is at a distance from God. And they do not notice where it is they really are. They are lost, but they do not know it.
One of the messages here is, “Do not be careless with the gifts of the kingdom,” and in this case one gift that apparently matters is the wedding garment. Of course, this is not about the necessity of wearing fine clothes to a wedding. We might wonder how it is that people, some of them poor, and invited to the feast at the last minute, would have the means to procure the proper wedding garment. But wedding garments were provided for those who could not afford them. This was the custom, so we can conclude that if a guest was not wearing one, it was because he just did not bother to put it on. He was careless, inattentive to the requirements of the feast. And what are the requirements? Well, this is the redemptive feast, and since Jesus stood in the prophetic line, like the prophets Micah and Isaiah, Jesus asked people to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God; to love God with the fullness of heart, mind and soul and to love neighbor as self. It isn’t that anyone can do this perfectly; it is simply that when the invitation to the party comes, don’t take the invitation lightly. Come on in, clothed in righteousness, because that is where you are called to be. So where are you? Where are we as a church community? Are we clothed in the garment of righteousness, or are we so careless that we do not even take the time to consider what such righteousness means.
I don’t know how many of you know the name, Robert Coles. An Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he became famous for his multiple volume work, Children of Crisis and for teaching one of the most popular courses at Harvard, which examines the lives of people who tried to stand for justice and righteousness. Coles tells this story about the time he was a young medical school student, and he went to New York to meet Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker’s Movement. For years Day helped to run these Catholic Worker houses, which tried to feed, clothe and house the most dejected of the poor. When Coles arrived at the house, he immediately noticed that Dorothy was involved in a conversation, if you could call it that, with a woman, who was clearly mentally troubled. The conversation did not make much sense, because the poor woman could barely articulate her thoughts, but there Dorothy was, giving this woman her time and full attention. And then finally, as the conversation wound its way to an end, Dorothy Day approached Coles and asked, “Were you waiting to speak to one of us?” And Coles said with that one question he suddenly understood that Dorothy Day lived in a very special place. She was humble enough NOT to assume that Coles was there to speak to her. She did not assume that she was the important person.
There was something in Day’s question---Were you waiting to speak to one of us--- that Coles found Christ-like. She was in a place, where power and success and education, while worthy goals, were not the most important goals. They are not the keys to the kingdom, not the material out of which the proper wedding garment is woven.
So where are you? Where are we as a church? Are we in a place like the scribes and elders, who have much knowledge, but not much wisdom, much pride, but not much humility. Are we in a place, where we can see what truly matters to a God whose invitation goes out to all, including the lowly, the poor, the rejected, the different, not because by definition they are more worthy, but because the high and the mighty have ignored the invitation to the feast? The gospel reminds us that the act of ignoring is serious business, because when we ignore he do not even take the time to consider what is actually being placed before us for consideration.
Matthew 21: 23-32
When I was in my first year in seminary, I took a course in biblical wisdom literature. This would include books such as Job, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and some of the Psalms. Harrell Beck, my professor, gave us an assignment of visiting a facility, such as a nursing home, a critical care unit in a hospital or even a mental ward. Our assignment was then to write a response to what we had seen using something from the wisdom literature we had studied. He wanted us to make connections between real life and scripture. Well, I was in Boston, so I decided to go to Children’s Hospital. My idea was to walk around and observe; I really did not want to do much talking, since I was afraid someone, caught in the snare of terrible suffering, would ask me a question I simply could not answer. So I walked around the wards, observing some pretty hard realities, including a four year old girl, dying of leukemia. I was about to leave her room, when suddenly her mother appeared. “Who are you, another medical student,” she demanded to know? “No,” I said, I’m in seminary. Sighing, she responded, “Well, I am not very religious.” And then immediately, without thinking, I said, “Oh, that’s o.k., neither am I.” Her expression was one of shock. Then why are you in seminary? Deeply embarrassed, I stuttered out some words, “Well, I’m interested in the big questions.” Suddenly, she got right up to my face and with anger written all over hers and a voice full of rage, she practically yelled, “You mean like WHY,” pointing to her sick child. I was reduced to complete silence. “Well, when you get your answer, let me know, because there are a lot of us around her, who are dying to know why.”
Big questions, important questions, and yet so often those big and important questions have no real answers, at least none that we as limited human beings can know or grasp, which is perhaps why the
French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, once quipped that it would be far better to judge a person by her questions rather than her answers. And indeed, learning to ask the important and right questions does matter. My husband, who is a professor of molecular biology, has always said, he can judge the quality of his students by the questions they ask.
And if we apply this maxim about questions to Matthew’s gospel, we see a lot of different people asking a lot of different questions of Jesus. For example, both John the Baptist and Pilate ask Jesus who he is. John asked Jesus if he were the one they have been waiting for, and Pilate wanted to know if he is the king of the Jews. And then there are the questions put to Jesus by the religious leaders about why he and his disciples break the law--- why they pick grain and heal on the Sabbath. They also ask him about divorce and taxes and the afterlife---which husband a woman will have in heaven if she has been married multiple times.
And the disciples too asked questions: Who is the greatest among us and what good deed is necessary to gain eternal life, and how often do we have to forgive. Now all these questions (from the disciples as well as from the religious leaders) are very revealing, because with the exception of John the Baptist and ironically, Pilate, the questions are all self serving. That is, they are either designed to impress Jesus, or get something from him or entrap him. And entrapment is exactly what the chief priests and elders were trying to when they asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” But they really did not care about his authority. Like a good DA, they were interested in winning a conviction. They were tired of him undermining their authority. They did not like him throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple, and so they were hoping to trap him, to gain more evidence in order to bring a charge of blasphemy against him, which, according to Jewish religious law, could carry the death penalty.
But what did Jesus do? In true rabbinic fashion he answered their question with another question: “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from human origin?” It was a brilliant response to their question, because no matter how the question was answered, the leaders would be trapped. If they said John’s baptism came from God, Jesus would ask, “Then why did you not believe John,” and if they said, it was of human origin, the people, who loved and honored John, would be furious and their trust for the religious leaders would be compromised. So the leaders pleaded the 5th, answering, “I don’t know.” So Jesus in turn, did not answer their query about his authority, but instead he told them a parable about two sons---one who verbally refused to do what his father asked, but then later, thought better of it and went into the vineyard to do the work, and the other son, who told his father he would be glad to do the work, but never entered the vineyard. Jesus then asked the leaders which son did the will of the father, and they answered correctly, the first son.
Now Jesus could have stopped there; he could have left the leaders with a question to ponder: which of those two sons are they more like? But that is not what he did. Instead, he directly insulted them by saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God before them. Now in saying this Jesus is not so much criticizing particular individuals. Rather he is offering by his actions (having thrown the money changers out of the Temple) and his words a critique of the entire Temple system, which made buying birds and cattle and then offering them as a sacrifice a means of buying God’s forgiveness. And this is why the religious leaders wanted Jesus dead. He was a threat to the established way of being religious, which put the Temple with its sacrificial system at the center of Jewish religious life.
Now that is the historical context of the text, but we are also challenged to consider what the text means now, what it says to us in our day and time? Who are we in the story? Are we like the religious leaders, more interested in defending ourselves than in considering what faithfulness means? Or are we like the disciples, who ask questions of Jesus in order to get something in return. Just a few chapters before this one, Peter had said to Jesus, “You know we left everything for you; now what do we get? Is that the important question: what do we get? And which of the two sons are we more like? The first one who refused his father’s request, but then went into the field and worked, or the second son, who pledged obedience, but then did nothing? And finally what is at the center of our religious life? As Christians we say, Jesus Christ is the center. But then how do we show our fidelity to Christ?
Recently, when I was in St. Petersburg, visiting the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Isaac’s, with its stunning frescoes and opulent malachite columns, the guide told us that beauty is central to the Russian Orthodox tradition. She then quoted the great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, who said, “Beauty will save the world.” Is that what fidelity to Christ is all about---beauty? Certainly our Puritan foreparents did not think so, because they went out of their way to keep the conventional marks of religious beauty (including stained glass and choirs) out of their churches. Some will say that fidelity to Christ is primarily about tending to the least of these, because these are the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time, and he reminded us, “Whatever you do the least of these, you do to me.” Others might insist that fidelity to Christ is about daring to ask big questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life, about the nature of God and Christ and the centrality of forgiveness and generosity. And still others might say it is not so complicated. Fidelity is about being here, together, worshipping God, helping each other, doing what we can in small and sometimes even big ways.
On this Sunday, when we are asked to make our pledge to the church, we are also asked to consider what fidelity to Christ for us means. Perhaps there are times we are not so sure, but then (like that first son) we show up---worshipping at church, helping at the Harvest Fair, cleaning the social hall, making a pledge. Is that what fidelity to Christ really looks like? Not knowing for sure may not be a comfortable place to be, but unlike the religious leaders who questioned Jesus without any hint of humility, being together as humble believers, just might lead us to discover that there are times the questions can be more important to the growth of deep faith than the answers. One of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Noble Peace Prize winner, once said, “God loves a good question as much as God loves a good story.”
Matthew 6: 19-34
On January 23, 1982 World Airways Flight #30 on route from California landed at Boston's Logan Airport. But immediately upon touching the icy runway, the pilots realized the plane was not going to stop, and in a matter of seconds, the crew prepared the passengers for a crash into the sea wall. Two passengers, sitting in the first class seats, ignoring the instructions of the crew, undid their safety belts too soon, and were apparently swept away in the frosty currents. The rest of the passengers were rescued, including the 19 year old nephew of one of my friends.
As is the case with 19 year olds, his bravado was exhilarated by the experience. He was impressed by everything---the calmness of the crew, the concern and care the passengers showed each other when evacuating the plane, but what impressed him the most was the offer of $10,000 from the airline two weeks after the accident. He wasn't hurt at all; he lost a suitcase filled with old t-shirts and jeans, and he would have been happy with a couple of hundred dollars. So when the airline representative showed up in his Tufts dormitory and offered him $10,000, he was ecstatic. Immediately, he called his parents, and then his aunt to tell them of his good fortune and to describe the new car he was planning to buy.
Now, remember this was 35 years ago, when you could buy a new car for $10,000, and the craze of lawsuits was not yet full blown. Neither he nor his parents had expected any compensation from the airlines, and so when his father answered the phone, he told his son, "I do not approve of an arrangement that leaves you better off from an accident that cost two people their lives. It is enough for me that you are safe.” And then he handed the phone to his wife, who told her son in no uncertain terms that a Tufts education was a very expensive enterprise, and since they were hardly wealthy, he would need to redirect his thinking. This money, she insisted, will go for tuition, not for a car.
“But Mom”, he protested, “yesterday I didn't have the money, and you and Dad were planning to pay my tuition. Now because I get some compensation for my near death experience, you turn greedy on me, and want to take it all.” Now you don't have to be a parent to take a guess how the conversation went after this. My friend told me about it later, because as the favorite aunt and sister to his mother, she found herself right in the middle of the fight. “It was so ugly,” she said, “the ugliest fight I have ever witnessed between parents and children.” Hardly surprising, is it? Money does have a way of turning things ugly.
Now in 1982 I was a first year student in divinity school, and I had no idea how central a role money and possessions assume in Jesus’ preaching. Jesus addressed financial concerns more than he did any other single topic: one in every ten lines in the Gospels is about money and possessions. There are a total of 43 parables in the New Testament and 27 of them concern money and what it can or cannot buy. The entire Bible, by the way, includes 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 on faith, and more than 2000 on money. Why? Because how we relate to money and things says a great deal about our spiritual lives. A famous Buddhist monk once said, “Show me how you deal with money, sex and death, and I will read your soul.”
Now one of the major reasons Jesus spoke so much about money was because indebtedness was a big problem for the people who came to hear him preach and teach. The middle class was almost non-existent, though the Pharisees might be called middle class. The rich elite was a tiny group with most people falling into the category of the poor. Borrowing was the only way many could survive, and sometimes people would actually pledge their clothes as collateral. The crowds who heard Jesus preach were commonly in desperate shape financially. Not only did he recognize their desperation, Jesus also supported a social and economic revolution called the Jubilee---an event every 50 years, which although legislated by Jewish law was rarely followed. In the year of the Jubilee all debts were to be forgiven and land returned to the original owner or family--a very radical redistribution of income and resources! Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, Jesus did have a political agenda—though that agenda was certainly not his end goal. In speaking so much about money and possessions he wanted people to recognize what money really is and what it is for. And that is not a very easy thing to teach. Then and now, people are easily fooled.
In the Tate Gallery in London there is an oil painting by a man named George Frederic Watts, a 19th century painter, whom some call England’s Michelangelo. Like many social commentators of the day, Watts had begun to question the benefits and purposes of modern industry, and he noted the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the wealth it created for a small elite. “Material prosperity, he said in 1880, “has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this deity does not make us happy.” And so he painted this picture of Mammon, seated on a throne decorated with skulls and wearing a crown of gold coins and an ass’s ear, symbolizing Mammon’s ignorance and stupidity. Watts visualized Mammon as an ugly, brutish despot, nursing his money bags on his lap while brushing aside a beautiful girl with one hand and crushing a young man under foot. But the problem with his painting is that in real life money never looks that way. Money is not the great beast. Rather it is the great masquerader. It presents itself as good without really being good.”
And that is why Jesus spent so much time talking about it. That is why he also counseled giving money away. Not because it is always morally corrupting to have wealth; Jesus never said that, and we know in fact that both he and his followers accepted financial support from the wealthy. Of course, later in history, particularly during the Middle Ages, when Religious Orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans were founded, poverty became viewed as a positive good, and even today there are Orders in the Roman Catholic Church which demand a vow of poverty. But with the coming of the Protestant Reformation and the vast expansion of trade and the growth of a successful mercantile class, the reformers were not so averse to wealth. It is not only how money is used, they said, but also what is desired. If wealth becomes the primary desire, driving one’s life, that is sin, a turning away from the good and gracious God. But if wealth serves life on this earth in a manner that honors God, that is good. And it is also good to give money away. Both Luther and Calvin rightly pointed out that Jesus did not demand that people give all their wealth away---except in the case of the rich young man for whom money was a major stumbling block.
Jesus realized that money plays an important and necessary part in human life, because we are indeed anxious about many things. And just as Jesus constantly reminded people to let go of anxiety, he also told them to do the same with their money. Money and financial security are important, but they are not ultimately important; they are not the final good. We are all a bit like that 19 year old, who thought his money was his to do with as he pleased. It's our money; it's our life, but in the end nothing is really ours. We cannot hang on to anyone or anything, and giving money away is one way we Christians loosen our tight grip on the world and its things, and acknowledge that we are not at the center of it all. As much as we try to hold on, in the end, we cannot.
There is this wonderful scene in Victor Hugo's novel, Les Miserables in which the convict Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison, is befriended by a bishop, who feeds him. In return Jean steals candlesticks from the church, and when he is arrested and about to be returned to prison, the bishop tells the police,” But I gave him those candlesticks.” Later, Jean asked the bishop, "Why did you do that?” You know I am guilty of the theft." “ Because,” the bishop answered, “life is for giving.” And so it is. Give. Give people your love. Give God your devotion. Give your service to a hurting world. Give money to the needy and the causes that help them. And give to the church, because the church is the only institution whose existence is for the worship of God. The church is the only institution, whose job it is to raise troubling questions about how we should live our lives. What other place challenges us to struggle to practice forgiveness? In a world, consumed with power and success and the financial rewards of success, we need a place that asks us to consider what success and reward truly mean, a place that points us toward the God who transcends our meager ideas of success and failure. God is our treasure, and where our treasure is, our heart is also.
Life is for giving. That is what God does, and in the life, death and destiny of the Christ we Christians believe we see what giving looks like. So give, not everything you have, but give something so that you may truly understand that life is for giving.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!