THE PROPER WAY TO EAT SOUP
The biggest complaint against the modern church is that we’re all talk and no action….all piety and no compassion….nice social connections but not enough concern for people who do not enter our doors. To put it in the vernacular of the street, we talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. The New Testament book called James , from which our text was read a few minutes ago, knew all about this problem. It addresses the age-old tendency of human beings to know what they ought to do, but fail to go ahead and do it. It also warns against the danger of anger, and the damage an unbridled tongue can do. It was apparently a piece of Jewish writing and not written with Christians in mind to begin with, but at some point the church decided to borrow it….and with good reason.
The early Christians had been sitting around for a long time waiting for the Second Coming (Christians are still doing that). They were so proud of their membership in the community of the saved that they had forgot-ten what the basic message of the Gospel was. Proud as peacocks of the fact that their names were going to be “called up yonder,” many early followers of the Way had put their lives into neutral, idling at the stoplight of eternity waiting for the Rapture. Meanwhile, the world for which Jesus had actually died — the world of hunger, want, loneliness, alienation, cruelty, neglect and brokenness — was going right on, unhealed, unfed, still broken. It did not take people long to forget that the ministry of Jesus was long on action and short on moralizing. Think about it: he was always on the move, healing, feeding, telling stories that brought the mystery of the kingdom into people’s own backyards.
And hgis ministry was what I call “commissional” — that is, he was always telling people go and do likewise: feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, help restore a sense of dignity to those who have lost it. And don’t do any of it to get your name in the paper. In other words, don’t be a “do-gooder” — just do good! But the message had been lost, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it had been submerged under the much more heady notion that the glory train was coming and only a few were holding tickets. This is always the besetting sin of religion….to move away from compassion and out-reach and concentrate on guarantees of salvation for those inside the church.
If you listen to what is not said from this pulpit, you will have guessed my feelings about careless modern use of words like salvation and sin. The words have come to revolve primarily around the notion of reward and punishment after death, and that emphasis makes many of us forget about the wise mercies we need to dispense in the here and now. So much so that, oddly, greater mercy is often shown by those who make no profession of Christian faith than by those who do. I prefer the language of communion versus separation. Not, “Am I saved or lost,” but “How far am I from God these days? How alienated, how dis-tant?” I saw a bumper sticker last week that gets to the point. It said: YOU ARE A CHILD OF GOD — PHONE HOME.
We easily forget, and when James came up with that metaphor of the person who looks into a mirror and promptly forgets what needs to be fixed, he gave us a lesson that is always relevant. We listen, we see ourselves in a mirror, we make a momentary resolve to improve the image that looks back at us….and before that day passes we have been distracted by other things: out of sight, out of mind. But there are people whom James calls “doers of the word,” who hold the vision and do something about it. And just in case we may be tempted not to remember, the closing words of our Scripture text this morning provides what may be the most compact and genuine definition of true religion ever written: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Orphans and widows, of course, stand for all the helpless….and keeping ourselves unstained means that we practice our religion of love without yielding to cynicism when no one seems to be grateful.
I like the metaphor of the mirror because it reminds me of the tendency we all have to “just look.” When we are browsing in a store, wandering the mall, or scoping out the automobiles in the showroom, we will often respond to the salesperson by saying, “I’m just looking.” Which means, of course, “Leave me alone, I’m not really planning to buy anything.” I’ve said this, so have all of you. It’s a way of disengaging, of protecting ourselves from any pressure to buy; it provides us with space and a nice comfort level. But in terms of involvement, I know people who spend all their lives “just looking.” They never invest their energies or emotions, much less their economic security in anything — because in all investments there are risks. They drift in and out of jobs without ever finding a vocation; they drift in and out of relationships with-out ever daring to love; they drift in and out of communities without ever casting a vote or dropping anchor; they drift in and out of church without ever opening their hearts to the spirit of God or feeling the pulse of Christ’s body.
If we spend all our lives in the shallow end of the pool we probably won’t drown, but we certainly won’t ever feel the buoyancy and mystery of deep water, either. I have thought lately of all the millions and millions of professing Christians in this country, and how complacent we are sometimes about what does not affect us directly. There is no need at all to agree with what I saw next, because wise and good people certainly differ with me, but I can tell you that if I had the power I would lift the economic embargo of Cuba in the name of both Christian love and realism. Realism because it’s a remnant of the cold war and serves no very useful purpose except to make human suffering under Castro’s failed regime even worse. We hoped it would cause a revolution, but it hasn’t and isn’t likely to, and that blighted experiment is no real threat to us any longer. I would think we might be strong enough, generous enough, even that thing we claim to be — Christian enough — to ease the suffering of fellow human beings even if they happen to be living in a socialist country. But we were once in real danger, and we were often insulted by Fidel, and we have long memories….and so people who might be made our friends now are still being pun-ished. Probably not from sheer malice, but more from complacency, that gradual and insidious form of death which George William Rutler described in The Seven Ages of Man as something that “slides into the soul….uninvited and unnoticed, with a warm and quilted aura of coziness.” You wake up one morning and realize that for a long time you haven’t cared, that you haven’t given a damn about anything much, that you’re dead.
That feeling, by the way, is why people do crazy things sometimes to make sure they’re alive. Remember Larry Walters of Los Angeles, that 33-year-old man who decided one day that he wanted to see his neighborhood from a new perspective. He went down to the local army surplus store one morning and bought 45 used weather balloons. That afternoon, he strapped himself into a lawn chair, to which several of his friends tied the now helium-filled balloons. He took along a six-pack of beer, a pea-nut butter and jelly sandwich, and a BB gun, figuring he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.
Mr. Walters assumed the balloons would lift him about 100 feet into the air, and was caught off guard when the chair soared more than 11,000 feet into the sky, smack dab into the middle of the air traffice pattern of Los Angeles International. Too scared to shoot any of the balloons, he stayed airborne for more than two hours, forcing the airport to shut down its runways for much of the afternoon, causing long delays in flights from across the country. Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions. “Were you scared?” “Yes.” “Would you do it again?” “No.” “Why did you do it?” “Because,” he said, “you can’t just sit there.”
This church doesn’t, I think, but you and I both know that just sitting there is an apt description of more than a few churches. Perhaps we make religion more compli-cated than it needs to be in order to protect ourselves from its simple call to love each other. Maybe it is easier, and safer, to calculate the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin than to ask if Cubans, say, are really our enemies….easier to preach about forgiveness than to offer it….easier to quote Blessed are the merciful than show mercy. It’s hard, often, for the very powerful to show mercy; they fear it may be taken as a sign of weakness. Which reminds me of a story I know I have told you, so please be relieved of wondering if Bob is losing it. It‘s good enough, in the first place, to hear again, and it illustrates so perfectly the point of this moment that I‘m willing to bank on your tolerance. It‘s about Fiorello La-Guardia, mayor of New York during the worst days of the Great Depression and through all of World War 2. He was called by adoring New Yorkers “the Little Flower” because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to dfride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the city newspapers were on strike went on radio to read the Sunday comics to the kids. I actually heard him do it.
I suppose modern muckraking, which spares nobody, could find as many flaws in his eccentric soul as there are in yours and mine, but he also did unforgettable things like this: One bitterly cold night in January of l935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. He dismissed the judge for the evening, took over the bench himself, and within a few minutes a tatterered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told La-Guardia that her daughter‘s husband had deserted her, that her daughter was sick, and that her grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “This is a bad neighborhood, your Honor; she‘s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.
LaGuardia sighed, but turned to the woman and said, “I‘ve got to punish you…the law makes no exceptions — $10 or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced the sentence, he was already reaching into his pocket. “Here‘s the $10 fine, which I now remit; and furthermore I‘m going to charge everyone in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant. And so, on the following day New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, 50 cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner himself, while some 70 petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City cops, each of whom had just paid 50 cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
Compassion is not something you have to do, or it ceases to be compassion. It‘s voluntary, not forced. It is called, in that famous speech from the Merchant of Venice , “an attribute of God himself.” It is related to that most difficult and demanding of verses in Christian scripture which says that “we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” So we don’t complain about parking places and access ramps for the physically handicapped, and if we are sensitive we find ways to make people comfortable who are handicapped by ignorance about the niceties of social etiquette. Which brings me, finally, to a true story from which I took the strange title for this sermon: The Proper Way to Eat Soup. It appeared in a column in The Atlanta Journal, and like the parables of Jesus it has more good theology in its simple way than certain dense and weighty books in my library. Listen well, and take it with you.
A young girl from the Appalachian mountains was brought to a hospital in the big city by a Baptist minister. She had been born with her bladder outside her body, and needed surgery that could only be performed in the city. Accompanied by her mother, this mountain girl had never been farther than 10 miles from home. Her family of seven children plus the grandparents lived in a two-room shack. They had no plumbing or electricity. None of them attended school. In fact, in the remote area where she lived, the girl had never seen a car. Somebody brought a pickup truck close by once, and she had seen it, but had been afraid to ride in it because, she said, “It’d jiggle you up!” She had, of course, never seen a train.
It happened that Atlanta had only recently acquired two great commuter trains, the Nancy Hanks to Savannah and the Man-o’-War to Columbus. After reading about this little girl and her plight in the paper, a train official offered her a trip to Colum-bus. It was a short trip and she could go — with a nurse in attendance — and be back at the hospital in two or three hours. Imagine the look on the girl’s face when she saw the enormous steel carriage with its rows and rows of windows. There was even a dining car, with silver dishes and silverware and cloth napkins. She sat i wide-eyed amazement as the waiter brought everyone a bowl of soup for an appetizer. The only problem was, the little girl had never seen soup in a bowl like this, and wasn’t sure how to eat it. She looked at it, puzzled, and then before anyone could show her, she picked up the bowl and drank the soup. The waiter was amused and started to smile, until the train official who had offered the trip stopped him with a stare. Then, with-out a word, he picked up his bowl of soul and drank it. One by one, each of the other adults in the small party picked up their bowls of soup, and with no indication what-soever that there was any other way to eat soup, sipped it down. Other diners nearby saw what was happening, caught on, and joined in, until all who were anywhere close to the girl were drinking their soup as if that were only civilized way to eat it.
It was not the time to teach. The desire to be proper may on occasion be mis-leading. To eat soup correctly is nothing compared with making a poor ignorant girl, facing dangerous surgery, feel comfortable and at home. I would like to have been one of the soup-suppers that day and known myself to be, for a moment at least, a child of God….believing, as I do, that immortal line from Scripture: “Everyone who loves is a child of God.”
Keep us mindful, Almighty God, as we leave this place, that in all those moments when we forget ourselves and care about someone else with sensitivity and wisdom, we belong to you….by His life in whose name we met on this day. Amen.