Making a Statement (2/2/03)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
About a month ago we spent the morning with the Prologue to the Gospel of John—that great passage where John says the Word was with God in the beginning, and then claims that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s Word.
That passage has caused theologians and lay people many a headache over the centuries, but it continues to be one of my favorite Bible passages. I like the image of Jesus Christ as the Word of God, because I like to think of each of us as a word of God. The poetic metaphor of God “speaking us into being”—that really resonates with me.
Of course, symbols are the only ways we have of thinking about God. We don’t have the mathematical formulas or well-written paragraphs that explain God. We have nothing but poetry and symbols to point us in the right direction. There are many images and metaphors that are helpful to me when I think about God. I like the image of God as the artist, and each of our lives as brushstrokes upon the canvas. I like the image of God as the sea, and all of us waves that rise up out of the sea, and ultimately return to the sea.
But I especially like the image of God as the speaker, and we the spoken words of God. That means each of us come from the same place, but we are unique. We are each a once-in-the-universe spoken word of God, special beyond description, with all that we are relying entirely on the God who speaks us into being.
Okay, this is much too heavy for 10:30 in the morning. But I was watching a basketball game a few weeks back, and the commentator said something much more theological than he intended. As a fast running guard dashed down the floor, leapt high into the air, and slammed the ball down through the rim, he then did his best to impersonate Arnold Scwartzenager in his most vicious role, got right up in the face of the man who had been guarding him, and roared like a wild animal. And the commentator said, “He really made a statement with that play.”
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Well, this brought a few thoughts to mind. First, many theologians claim that we can be said to have been created in the image of God, not because of the way we look, but because, like God, we can create. Especially with our words, we can give birth to thoughts and emotions. These very real things—thoughts and feelings—aren’t there one minute; we open our mouths; and there they are! That is why it can be said we are created in the image of God. Like God, we too are creators, albeit on a much smaller scale.
The next thought that came to mind is something a great friend of mine in Oklahoma City said to me when I was entering seminary. He said the only reason to enter seminary is when you simply have no choice; when it just doesn’t make sense to do anything else. I’ve thought of that many times over the years, and I often realize—such as those times when I’m watching some basketball game and equating everything that happens to theology—that he was definitely right. When theology is all you think about anyway, you might as well go study theology.
But the most important thing that came to mind as I heard the announcer talking about that player’s great “statement,” was this: We all make statements with our lives. In fact, our lives are themselves statements. The questions is, what kind of statement are we making with the living of our lives?
I think that people in their teen years are most aware of the fact that they are making statements with their lives. When I walk through the mall and see some young man with about six hundred holes pierced through his face and various styles of jewelry, studs, diamonds, chains and other paraphernalia hiding 90% of his flesh, I know that one of two things has happened. He has either been in an unfortunate explosion in a jewelry factory, or he has decided to make a statement. By the way, I have no problem with piercings, and think a well-placed earring can look nice, on both men and women. But I think those who turn their entire body into a pincushion probably overdo it a little bit.
Teens make statements with their clothes. Right now the fad for guys seems to be to have your pants riding so low you could be charged with indecent exposure, were it not for the fact your underwear is pulled up halfway to your armpits. And of course, there is the traditional teen statement: hair. I remember being at LAX—the Los Angeles International Airport—a few years back, and I was amazed at the array of hair colors that I saw. Every color under the rainbow was represented—sometimes on the same head!
But that’s okay, because teens have a special need to make statements. With their clothes and hair they say, “I’m an athlete,” or “I’m one of the cool kids,” or “I’m a rebel.” And for those parents who themselves came of age in the late sixties, they have to have some compassion for those young people. I mean, how do you rebel against a parent who had hair down to his keester, played in a rock band, and burnt—depending on gender—either her bra, or his draft card?
Of course, we adults aren’t above making statements ourselves. We live in the biggest houses we can afford, drive the nicest cars we can squeeze into our budgets, wear clothes from fine stores, eat at the best restaurants. That is the way we make statements with our lives. But what types of statements are we making?
Look at the craze we are going through with cars. For Americans, cars are very important. We make a statement with the car we drive. Right now, the whole idea is to buy something huge. If you drive around town in something less than the modern equivalent of a Sherman Tank, you’re just not making much of a statement. The only reason to drive a vehicle that gets good mileage, after all, is surely because you just can’t afford the gas for a land yacht.
I bought a new car several weeks ago. I could have saved some money if I had written this sermon before I bought the car. Because what kind of statement am I making when I drive a brand new car? Some might think the statement is, “I’m working hard, and enjoying the fruits of my labor.” Others might think the statement is, “I could have bought a decent used car for half what this thing cost, and made this world a better place by giving all that extra money to some truly worthwhile cause.
Okay, we can’t go through life thinking like that, or we would be guilt ridden every time we drank a soda instead of tap water. I have often taken comfort in Jesus’ words, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Still, most of us, myself certainly included, have bought into our consumer culture.
One of the talking heads on those 24-hour news stations recently pointed out that during World War II, people showed their patriotism by doing without—without gas, without rubber, without sugar. After the 9-11 tragedy, all of our politicians stood shoulder to shoulder and said, basically, “Be patriotic—get out there and spend money! Go ahead! Buy that car, take that trip, build that house—be a patriotic American.”
Our mode of transportation may be the strongest statement we make. When I frequently traveled on business, I had competitors who refused to fly coach. It just sent out the wrong message to the other business travelers if you didn’t fly first class. And if you want to give your competitors a good laugh, rent a compact car once you land. You can’t be successful unless you start out looking successful, or so they say.
And if you haven’t had any high-school age children in your home for a while, let me warn you about something. Showing up at the senior dance or the high school prom in anything less than a limousine is a cause for shame. Seriously! Driving to the dance in Dad’s car makes a really poor statement. It’s no longer enough to rent a tuxedo for a couple of hundred dollars, or buy a dress, for one-time use, that costs as much as the annual wardrobe budget for a quarter of our population. Now you have to plop down several hundred bucks to rent a limo.
I remember my high school class’s ten-year reunion. We all met at a park the afternoon of the reunion, and one guy made a point of showing up late so everybody could see him drive up. He had his pretty girlfriend at his side, and he was driving this outrageously expensive convertible sports car. No doubt about it, he was making a statement. Of course, there was a difference of opinion about exactly what statement he was making. Some thought he was saying, “I’m just as successful as all you chumps knew I would be.” Others thought he was saying, “I’m still the same jerk I was back in high school.”
Still on the subject of cars…you all know that I am a serious fan of bumper stickers. Really, I love them! Bumper stickers are for people whose car itself isn’t making a strong enough statement. It’s as if they have found those precious few words that summarize their philosophy of life, and they simply must get their message out to the world.
By the way, don’t be embarrassed if you have a bumper sticker on your car. I often put them on my car too. But I have to wonder about the statements people sometimes make with their bumper stickers. For example, when I see bumper stickers that say, “War is not the answer,” or, on the other hand, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out,” I figure those are some folks with some pretty strong opinions regarding American foreign policy. But I admit that when I see one that says something like, “I love Boston Baked Beans,” I sort of want to drive alongside that person and say, “Buy a newspaper—there are lots of things that rival a gas-inducing side dish for ultimate significance.”
Moving beyond cars, let’s consider sports, which is what started all this in the first place. When I was a young person, I loved sports. I played basketball, football and baseball. There was one overriding issue that was drilled into us: sportsmanship. “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” The first person I ever heard repudiate that statement was the great football coach, Vince Lombardi. He said, “If it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, then why do they keep score?” He added the now famous aphorism, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Now, it seems to me, sports have taken that attitude to the extreme. It’s no longer whether you win or lose; it’s “how badly did you humiliate your opponent.” Attitude is everything, they say. Get in your opponent’s face. Question his parental heritage. Make him look like a fool. And after you beat him, slam the basketball, spike the football, jump up and down with glee…and then point to the sky. After all, God obviously favors you, having given you the ability to embarrass that poor schmuck on national television. That may be the ultimate statement in sports—the pointing to the sky as you laugh at your defeated foe.
Body art is another statement that has gotten quite popular. I mean, when you tattoo something on your arm for the world to see—something that can never be erased—you are really making a statement. Like piercings, I see no problem with the tastefully placed tattoo. But I’ve never understood people who turn every inch of skin surface into some sort of Museum of Modern Art. Sometimes you see botched tattoos. Maybe they got it on sale, from somebody who was just learning the trade. And don’t you love the ones that have been obliterated—tattooed over. You can tell there was a big heart with some woman’s name in it, but that woman’s importance in this guy’s life obviously took a nose-dive somewhere along the way. I always wondered how he explains that one to his next girlfriend.
Okay, I don’t have any tattoos or piercings, but I admit I am not above making statements myself. For example, when you go into my office, you will see a wide variety of books on the shelf. Now, I’m not a person who collects as many unread books as possible so I appear literate. I’ve read all of those books. But I have to confess that I keep the John Grisham and the Michael Crichton well hidden behind the Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard. After all, what type of statement would I be making if people walked into my office and the first thing they saw was my complete collection of Kurt Vonnegut Junior? Vonnegut is an agnostic humanist, completely irreverent, and giving his books a prominent place on the shelf would make the wrong statement. So my twenty-odd Vonnegut books remain carefully stashed behind my “Great Theologians of the Church” series.
I’ve made light of the way we make statements with our lives, but I should mention that most people make very beautiful and important statements with the way they live their lives. The way we care for our families and our friends; the way we work together to touch the lives of the less fortunate; the way we take responsibility for our lives, and seek to leave the world a better place than we found it; those are beautiful and powerful statements.
Nations make statements. Our Declaration of Independence is one of the most powerful statements in human history, as is our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our men and women in uniform make bold statements with their lives by agreeing to defend our nation and our Constitution. And we have reached a point in our nation’s history where it appears that we, as a nation, are about to make a statement. The people of the United States of America are about to say we have reached one of those tragic points in history where the blood of our patriots must be shed.
Dr. Meyers and I have spent a great deal of time discussing this matter, but have been unsure of how we should approach it from the pulpit. We have friends in the ministry who sort of hammer their congregations with their personal opinions on this matter week after week. We have other friends in the ministry who lack the courage to express their convictions, knowing that their congregations are divided, and fearing they might run some people off, or hamper the morning collection.
We decided that neither of those paths is appropriate. Unlike some of our ministerial friends, Bob and I are neither one pacifists. We believe that there are times—World War II comes to mind—when the use of military force is justifiable. We also recognize that Sadam Hussein is a brutal and untrustworthy tyrant, and we support the effort of the international community to contain him, and ultimately disarm him.
I will conclude this morning’s sermon with a message that Bob and I have written together, and which we feel compelled, at this critical juncture in our history, to have on public record.
To: The people of University Congregational Church
From: Gary Cox and Robert Meyers
We recognize that as ministers of a Congregational Church, we do not speak on behalf of the congregation. We have been privileged with the honor of serving this church, and of speaking from its pulpit, but we recognize that we are members of this congregation, and our words carry no more and no less authority than any other person in this congregation. Each member of this church has the God-given right and the moral obligation to arrive at his or her own opinions on all matters, be those matters religious, ethical or political.
The two of us make every effort to steer clear of political matters from the pulpit, because we respect the right of church members to form and espouse their own political views. And we are fully aware that this congregation, like congregations all over the country, is divided over the righteousness of our nation’s actions with regard to the situation in Iraq.
We will not be repeatedly stating our personal opinions on this matter, and we respect the right of each of you to form your own opinion. But as ministers of this church, we have come to the conclusion that we would have shirked our moral responsibility if the day came when any of you would look back and say, “I did not know Gary and Bob thought our nation was on the wrong course. I did not know that the ministers of my church felt our nation had taken a path that ran contrary to their religious beliefs.”
And so we tell you now. We do not believe this country we love has gone to the extreme measures required of Christians to avoid war. We fear that every bomb we drop, every innocent person who dies at the hands of the United States, will result in a hundred new martyrs dedicated to our destruction. We pray fervently that our leaders, working with the international community, will do everything possible to find a peaceful solution. We pray for every American who has committed his or her life to the defense of our great nation, and who may be placed in harm’s way. We pray also, as our faith requires, for the people of Iraq, who are unfortunate enough to live under a brutal tyrant. We cannot justify the death of a single one of them if there is even the slightest chance for a peaceful solution to this crisis.
Gary Cox and Robert Meyers.