Listening to Paul
In my other life, as a professor of literature, I had occasion to learn, over and over, how fickle success can be for people who write: today’s best-selling novelist forgotten tomorrow, yesterday’s famous name in poetry only a footnote in today’s textbook. Like a poet named Edgar Lee Masters, for example, whose Spoon River Anthology was such an astonishing success 75 years ago that it went through one edition after another and was admired and discussed all over the country. Masters published some 50 other books, but the handful of people who still recognize his name remember him for that one collection of poems in which people speak soliloquies from their graves about the world they have left. One is a bitter confession from a woman named Constance Haitley (sp?), who was praised by everybody in her lifetime for her self-sacrifice in rearing two orphan girls named Irene and Mary. People in the town criticized the two girls because they did not seem grateful to their mother, held her — in fact — in contempt. Well, says Constance, speaking from her grave, don’t praise my name anymore, and don’t censure the girls. The truth is I poisoned everything I did for them by constant reminders of their dependence on me. At table, the invariable lecture: “As long as you girls eat under my roof, you’ll do as I say.” When I ironed a dress: “Where do you think you girls would be today if it weren’t for me?” The milk of human kindness — curdled. A false compassion that never let recipients forget for a moment how great their debt was.
So what does all this have to do with our series of Sunday morning sermons based on themes from the book of Romans? Well, Paul says in Chapter 12, that section packed with so much practical advice, that benevolence is not just a matter of dumping a gift in somebody’s lap. “If you are helping others in distress,” he says, “do it cheerfully.” We need that advice, because we don’t spend much time examining our motives; we simply expect the objects of our benevolence to be grateful. They aren’t always. I heard last week about an elderly deacon in a Baptist church in Kentucky who wore the same suit each Sunday, week in and week out, year after year. When it finally got so threadbare that it was more than the wealthier members could bear to look at any longer, they took up a collection to buy him a new suit.
He took their money quietly and humbly, and since all of them lived in a small town his benefactors soon learned that he had gone to their best men’s store and bought a fine suit, as well as new shoes, a new shirt, and a new tie. The Baptists were waiting with considerable excitement on the following Sunday, but the deacon never showed up. Afraid they might have offended him, some of his fellow deacons went to his home to see if he were all right. When they asked him about his new suit, he admitted that he had bought one. He also admitted it looked good on him. In fact, he confessed that as he was dressing for church he checked out his new clothes in the mirror. “I looked at myself and that new suit,” he said, “and it was so fashionable and goodlooking…..that I just decided to go to the Episcopal church instead.”
One gets the feeling that gift may not have been bestowed with much genuine affection behind it, and while people may accept such charity out of desperate need, and speak the conventional “Thank you,” they hate the humiliation it makes them feel. And when church people do it, if there is even a hint that they are “doing their duty” to avoid guilt feelings over their own good luck, or to store up merit with God, the recipient is as likely as not to be resentful when they leave. One man didn’t wait that long years ago when I was out with a young people’s class near Christmas-time, delivering charity baskets to the houses of people on our list. We were all genunely glad to be doing it, but we were also naively proud of ourselves — and I’m sure this father, embarrassed at his inability to take care of his own family, saw that touch of pride in our faces and hated it. He growled, “Don’t try to save your souls on me!” — and slammed the door in our faces. Giving is an art form we had not mastered.
What Paul says in the next line of his letter sounds so predictable I almost skip over it. Only four words: “Hate what is evil.” And for a moment I think, Well, who doesn’t? — until I remember that we live in The Age of Tolerance, bombarded so constantly by stories of atrocities that our capacity to feel shock and outrage is numbed. We shake our heads wearily and turn to another story. In search of entertainment, we put up with trash that makes a mockery of what we claim to stand for. Once in a great while a movie as wonderful as Sense and Sensibility comes along, but in between we tolerate in the cinema an assault of brutal violence, debasing language, casual and loveless sex, that 20 years ago would have shocked most us into leaving our seats. Tolerance is often a virtue, but we may have carried it too far. Some things are so wrong they need to be hated. A man says he was talking to some inner-city kids the other day when they laughed about something that had happened. It was not a thing joke about, and he told them how he felt about their laughter, using an old familiar word which turned out to have no meaning for them. When they heard it, they looked at one another and whispered, and one of them asked, “It’s what , did you say?” He repeated the one-syllable word loudly. They whispered among themselves again, and their spokesman came up closer. “Do you mind telling us how you spell it?” “I spell it with a W!” the man shouted. “W-R-O-N-G. Wrong!” He said they only looked confused. The concept was completely alien.
Growing up in dysfunctional homes, or on the streets, wrong had never really been defined for them. If it feels good at the moment, you do it. Beat up a homeless derelict for thrills. Shoot a rival gang member for his Nike shoes or Chicago Bulls’ jacket. Even after he or she has given you the money, you fire bullets gratuitously into the body of some convenience store clerk trying to make enough to stay in school. And you say if you’re caught, “Don’t blame me. Society owes me something. I take what I can get.” Last November, when Gen. Colin Powell withdrew from presidential consideration, he said that if had been a candidate his primary goal would have been to “try to restore…..a sense of shame to our society.” The problem is that if nobody hates what is wrong, what reason is there to feel ashamed when you do wrong?
I have all sorts of imaginary conversations when I drive back and forth between my house and this church. I practice a better response to someone’s question than the one I made on the spur of the moment. I rehearse a sermon illustration. I teach a class in 1 Corinthians to an empty car. Imust have been subconsciously under the influence of making this sermon a few days ago when I got to thinking about what is often considered one of the greatest compliments we can pay to someone: “Howard was such a great guy. I never heard him say a bad thing about another single person.” I’ve always accepted that without much reflection…..until the thought occurred to me that it may not be the ultimate praise, after all — not when there are people in the world like Jeffrey Daumer and Ted Bundy and other assorted rapists, murderers and child abusers — and then I thought, What a dull and passionless life one must have lived, never to have been angry at someone — never to have seen some sullen father slap his toddler so hard in a grocery store that you don’t really care who hears you say out loud: “What a miserable jerk!”?
And if you really do believe that it is a mark of high culture and sweet piety never to have said anything bad about someone, no matter how evil, how do you deal as Christians with the fact that Jesus called certain religious leaders blind fools, hypocrites, and poisonous snakes? And these were not thugs or rapists or serial killers. These were respected members of society, prominent in the church. If you believe that Matthew reports Jesus accurately, that means he might call some of us by those names. It wouldn’t be very nice, but despite widespread reports to the contrary, Jesus of Nazareth was not always a “nice person.” He hated evil — all kinds, whether it was the brutally physical kind that no one can miss, or whether it was the cleverly disguised meanness of spirit that without lifting a hand can wreck a home or a school or a church.
We kid ourselves with those songs about a sweet and gentle Jesus whose company we would inevitably cherish — not a critic of our vanity and our selfishness, but the tolerant pal who favors us above anyone else. Remember this old gospel hymn? “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses…… And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own; And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.” Now I know how risky it is to raise questions about a sentimental old favorite song, but is this the Jesus of history, or is it a romantic yearning for someone who makes us feel special? Where in all this self-congratulatory song is the man whose passion for goodness and mercy and justice frightened people in his own church so much that they killed him?
“He speaks,” that song goes on, “and the sound of his voice, Is so sweet the birds hush their singing” — Ask the Apostle Peter about the sound of that voice when Jesus whirled round on him and said, “Out of my way, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.” Peter was in a garden once with Jesus, but it was not Botanica with fountains and flowers; it was a place of pain and terror to which Jesus, in his passionate love of good and hatred of evil, had brought those who dared walk with him as friends. Ask James and John about how the birds hushed their singing to hear the sweet voice of Jesus on that day when he rebuked them for wanting to retaliate against an inhospitable Samaritan village. Ask Peter again how comforting the presence of Jesus was that time on the lake when Peter cried out, “Keep away from me, Lord, for I am only a sinful man.” I can’t help thinking that if Peter heard us sing about an intimate Jesus- walk among the roses in a dewy garden, he might very well say, “Are we talking about the same man?”
We’re in that 12th chapter of Romans, remember, where Paul sent us off on this tangent by saying, “Hate what is evil.” I used those four words to suggest that if we are apathetic and indifferent about cruelty and injustice, we might not want to book a stroll in the garden with Jesus, or even — for that matter — with Paul, who says all sorts of other things in this chapter which are not likely to make us feel comfortable. Listen to this one: “Let us have no imitation love.” That means there are phonies. Some of the minor ones, trying to earn money, are easily recognized. One of them called me just last night, about 6 guessing I might be having dinner — which I was. He made sure he had the right party from his list of prospects: “ “Hello, Robert…..Is this Robert?” and when I said suspiciously, “Yes-s-s-s,” he did his rehearsed and saccharine spiel which pretended to care about me: “And how are you this evening, Robert?” This is phony — he doesn’t care, he can’t care, he doesn’t know me. How sad to have to make a living by that kind of pretense.
There are also social phonies. You know the one who, when he is with you, you think you are the sun, moon and stars all wrapped up together, but when you hear what he says about you to others, you wonder how he can bear the sight of you? Phony. Or you meet someone who thinks everything is “wonderful.” This is wonderful, that is wonderful, here is wonderful, there is wonderful, he is wonderful, she is wonderful. You start thinking, “Her mom should have named her ‘Bubbles,’ and after a while you can’t take that person seriously. Her emotions are not real.
I remember a television drama from years ago, an excellent show on which a brilliant scientist was dying because of radiation burns. He desperately needed a bone marrow transplant, but the only available person was his mentally retarded brother. The dying man had totally ignored this brother because he was ashamed of him, and now he didn’t feel it was right for that brother to be the one to help him. There was a scene of tender reunion, during which the scientist asked his brother why he was doing this, and the brother very quietly replied, “Because I love you.” No histrionics, no artificial words. It was so simple and so honest you knew it was overwhelmingly real.
So, says Paul, “Let love be genuine, don’t be a phony,” but in his burst of ethical bullets aimed at us from Romans 12, he says a lot more. Like, “When trials come, endure them patiently.” Do we manage that? And how well do we do with this one: “Don’t become snobbish, but take a real interest in ordinary people”? How wide is the circle of our affection? And how about this advice: “Don’t become set in your own opinion.” Ever have that problem? How hard is it to confess a mistake? We have no confessional booth in our Congregational tradition, but when that serves to keep people humble it’s not a bad thing — so long as it stays real and is not just a mechanical matter of habit…..as it had become, apparently, for a parishioner I heard about the other day.
A Catholic priest, who became very deaf in his advancing years, had formed the habit of asking those erring members of his flock who came to his enclosed stall to write their misdeeds on a slip of paper instead of speaking them. The practice worked fairly well until one day when a man entered the confessional booth, breathing hard as if he had been running. It seemed to the waiting priest that his visitor was impatient to get this particular duty over with. The man stirred and muttered and seemed to fumble in his pockets for a few moments before passing a small, crumpled piece of paper into the old priest’s hand. The confession read: Two cans of beans. Quarter pound of ham. Carton of Coke. Four fish filets. Bread rolls. Toilet paper. Large coffee. Soap. Butter. The old priest studied the note for a long puzzled minute and then silently passed it back. Suddenly, there came an agonized voice from the other side: “Mother of God, I’ve left my sins at the supermarket!”
I have never pretended in this pulpit that everything in scripture touches how we manage our lives in the 20th century, but when the Apostle Paul speaks in his ancient letter about the art of giving without making the recipient feel diminished, about being real instead of phony, about how vital it is to be patient in tough times, and about how healthy it is to admit mistakes, I hope he has unsettled us a little, startled us out of complacency for a moment. And just in case we need a brief break from such unsparing scrutiny, we are going to get it — a hiatus next week from Paul’s advice and my voice while our young people hold their annual Youth Sunday. They do it all: music, prayers, scripture reading, short sermons. You’ll feel younger yourself when you leave! Come and support them, and enjoy the a chance to see fresh faces, hear different voices, and find new hope for the future. I’ll see you again from this pulpit — eagerly — two weeks from today.
May a renewed passion for goodness have touched each one of us in
this hour of worship, and may it abide with us through the duties and pleasures
of this week, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.