Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, tells the story about a man who considered himself a moth. The man walked into a doctor’s office and said he needed help. The doctor responded, “Well, I’m a general practitioner. You need to see a psychiatrist.” Whereupon the man replied, “Well, actually I was on my way to see him, but I noticed your light was on”
Those who were attracted to Jesus were not moths, but they fluttered around him just as much. It’s easy to figure out why. The opening lines of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the true light that has come into the darkness of this world. In Jesus time, as in ours, there is much darkness.
For those in the darkness of sickness of body and mind Jesus brings the light of healing. For those who live in the darkness of neglect because they are poor or the elderly, Jesus calls them by name. Those who are hated because they are foreigners excitedly buzz around Jesus because he accepts them as they are. For the hungry Jesus feeds them. For women who are denied their God-given human worth Jesus is the affirming light of hope in their darkness in an otherwise male dominated world.
But Jesus WAS not and IS not the welcomed light for everyone. Jesus’ light, then and now, reveals too much of some people’s carefully protected darkness. Where many fluttered around Him, just as many hated him and secretly plotted against Him. And such intense hated only resulted in Christ’s crucifixion and death. But hatred not against Christ alone.
Today we get a warning from Jesus. As He is hated and demonized, Christ warns that many of His followers can expect the same. Says Jesus: “A disciple is not above the teacher nor the slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household?”
It’s transparent, isn’t it, what Jesus means about being enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, to be like the master, with Jesus being both master and teacher? But it’s the reference to Beelzebul that may seem puzzling.
The word rolls easily off your lips–Beelzebul. It also has an ominous sound to it. Coming from the Hebrew, translated literally it means “Lord of the Flies,” or “moths” if you like. Author William Golding was not original when he titled his dark book, The Lord of the Flies. But more than that: “Beelzebul” is first century hate speech accusing Jesus and his followers of being in league with the devil. And such hate speech is not anchored in the past alone. Moslems and immigrants are demonized today by hate speech and such demonization’s intent is to dehumanize.
So Jesus announces to His followers: “If they call me the Master of irritating flies, in league with the devil, as my disciples, what does that make you?”
We need this message of Jesus especially today when Christians in some circles have become cozy bedfellows with politics, and even cozier bedfellows with our culture. For many, being a Christian, especially the Conservative Evangelical Right, has become politically and culturally comfortable. The danger always facing the church is that it can become nothing more than a rubber stamp to how we live. It’s not just unhealthy but spiritually dangerous so much so that we are destroyed in body and soul as Christ warns will happen. Do you think that this isn’t so?
Author Kathleen Turner tells of the time when she attended the church of a friend. At the time of prayers she was stunned when she heard the pastor pray, “O Lord, be with our president, our country, our military. We pray for peace in the world. We really do. But, Oh Lord, not at the expense of our way of life.”
“At first Turner felt physically ill, but upon further reflection she had to grant the pastor that he was at least being honest. Don’t we all want peace so long as it is not at the expense of our way of life?” Don’t we?
Be warned, however, if you accept that pastoral prayer, then the whole of Jesus Christ’s life is meaningless—His life, His death, His resurrection from dead—meaningless.
Contrary to the pastor’s prayer, Christ does not live among us to baptize the status quo, as if to support our way of life. The whole of Christ’s life is aimed at altering the status quo, upsetting it, turning upside down our way of life when need be. None other that Martin Luther King understood that.
It was King, who in the name of Jesus Christ, marshaled the forces of justice and peace to challenge the acceptable ways of segregation, racism, and bigotry. It’s called the civil rights movement, and it’s not over. While Martin Luther King is gone, alive and thriving still are segregation, racism, and bigotry—the status quo of our way of living.
As King was hated and demonized by some, so was Christ. Today’s gospel lesson makes that patently clear. But remarkably, to such demonizing name-calling Jesus shows no fear. But Christ knows that one of our greatest weaknesses is giving into our fears.
Immediately after Jesus warns His followers that they too will be demonized as nothing more than irritating flies because they are his followers, Jesus adds this: “So have no fear of them.” Then says this: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Jesus is out to save more than our skin. He is hotly campaigning to save our souls knowing that our greatest enemy is fear.
So when it comes to fear, what of us? Look at it this way: did you ever wonder how historians will label this period of time in which we live? For example, earlier there was the Gilded Age. Then the Roaring Twenties. Then the Fabulous ‘50’s. The Turbulent ‘60’s. As for us, will we be remembered as the Age of Fear and Hate?
Speaking of which, can any of you identify these song lyrics:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
In your little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late.
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Sound familiar? The lyrics are from the musical South Pacific, 1949. 1949, on the eve of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s hate and fear mongering campaign of communists infiltrating our country to do us harm. Was that when America was great? Then how about these words? See if you can identify who said this.
“Make no mistake, we are a nation under attack…. We are under attack from terrorism both within and outside our borders. These man and women are without conscience, and they operate without rules. They despise the United States, because we are nation of rights, of laws and freedom. They have a single mission, and that is our destruction.” No, not Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Those are the recent words of John Kelly, the Secretary of Homeland Security—an oxymoron if there ever was one making him sound like the Secretary of Homeland Insecurity. In Mr. Kelly’s recent speech to lawmakers he admonished them to get tough on Moslems and immigrants because they pose a threat to our security. In response to Mr. Kelly’s words an editorial titled, “Fear Mongering at Homeland Security,” offers its own warning:
“That apocalyptic talk (of Mr. Kelly) turns the Islamophobia and immigrant scapegoating that turbocharged (the recent presidential campaign) into marching orders for federal law enforcement agents and bureaucrats. . .. The bashing of Muslims, meanwhile, is music to the ears of extremists, violent organizations that have used the notion that America is at war with Islam as a recruiting tool. . .. But even more alarming is (Mr. Kelly’s) unrestrained fear mongering. If Americans take his discourse at face value, they will be living in a paranoid society willing to trade fundamental freedoms and principles for a sense of security.”
As the song lyrics say: “You’ve got to be taught/to hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught from year to year….” Month to month? Week to week? Day to day?
As for hate and fear, we are good that that. But to that same hate and fear Christ says, “So have no fear. . .What I tell you in the dark tell it in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear. . . ”
Christ knows, what many have yet to learn is that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. As scripture says: “Perfect love casts out fear.” Those words we don’t heed or hear often enough. Perfect love casts out fear. That explains why today’s lesson begins and ends as it does.
Today’s gospel begins with its own brand of hate and fearmongering generated by those accusing Jesus and his followers of being in league with Beelzebul. The same lessons ends with the lyrics of transforming love. Says Christ:
“Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
If we leave here today with Jesus’ words ringing in our ears we may think that Christ wants to destroy our most cherished relationships of father, mother, son, daughter. Jesus does not say stop loving your parents, imperfect as they are. Christ does not say stop loving your son or daughter because they disappoint you or betray you. But Christ makes it clear that one can only love another person, truly love one another person, despite of what or who they are, by loving Christ first.
To love Christ first then equips us to see others with the same love that Christ loves us—despite who we are. And love not just narrowly restricted to one’s family. Christ only starts there to then expand such love to include people with whom we are not even related–the stranger, the foreigner, an immigrant, even a perceived enemy—such love being an act of defiance against the status quo of fear and hate. To love Christ first means to lose your old life and then by following Christ finding your life perhaps for the first time, and discovering what love really means.
It’s Christ love for us, Christ’s perfect love, which casts out our fears. Even the fear of death. Christ’s perfect love given us and shown to us in his life, death and resurrection from the dead never to die again. Jesus Christ the life and love that is perfect. Christ’s light in the darkness of this world.
So, welcome to Christ’s Church. Did you notice that the light is on? Christ is among us. It’s time to love. Christ first. Then in the name of Christ love each other. In the name of the resurrected Christ, the light of the world, do you see?
A few weeks ago, a man riding on a train in Portland, Oregon began shouting anti-Muslim insults at a black 16-year old girl, and her 17 year-old friend who was wearing a hijab- the traditional head garb of Muslim women. It’s easy to imagine people around them pretending not to hear or see – looking busy in some way or another – averting their eyes. But, instead, three brave passengers stepped forward to protect the girls.
The three men might have looked, at first glance, to be very different one from another. One was a 23-year- old recent college graduate who had flowing long hair. I might have imagined him to be an artist. He was, actually, a consultant of some kind. Another was a 53-year- old Army veteran with the trimmest of haircuts and a record of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other was a 21-year-old poet and Portland State student, heading off to his job at a Pizzeria, where he earned the money to support his college education.
What those three men had in common – as different as they might have seemed to the eye of the onlooker- was decency, and courage.
When they stepped forward to intervene, the man harassing the girls pulled a knife and slashed the three men before fleeing. The 53-year-old Army veteran, Rick Best, died at the scene. Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the long-haired young man, was conscious as he waited for an ambulance. A good Samaritan took off her shirt to cover him. She later recounted that some of his last words as he lay dying were: “I want everyone on the train to know I love them.”
Another person standing by stanched the bleeding of the young poet, and called the young man’s mother to tell her to go to the local hospital. That young man, Micah Fletcher, lived. And he surely did embody the words of the prophet Micah – for whom perhaps he was named:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Almost immediately following surgery, weak but indomitable, Fletcher wrote a poem that stands to redeem the horrific incident, and may well be his gift to all of us. It read, in part;
“I, am alive
I spat in the eye of hate, and lived.
This is what we must do for one another
We must live for one another.”
Nicholas Kristof, a thoughtful New York Times editorialist, said recently,
“I have been dispirited by recent events (in our nation, in our government, in our body politic.) But in tragedy, we can sometimes find inspiration. In that train car, we saw that courage and leadership are alive – if not always in Washington, then among ordinary Americans converging from varied backgrounds on a commuter train, standing together against a threat to our shared humanity.” (NYT: June 5, 2017)
I spat in the eye of hatred, and I lived…
We must live for one another
Courage. Decency. Shared Humanity. Love for one another. Live for one another. Those words, and those phrases, shine as beacons of light and hope in what might have seemed like one more hopelessly dark and gruesome story in this recent chapter of our nation’s long history.
I spat in the eye of hatred, and lived. This is what we must do for one another, we must live for one another.
A few weeks ago, I stood in the state’s legislative capitol building with a large group of clergy persons, community college professors, and members of a group called Moral Mondays Ct. that seeks to reach out and speak out for justice and compassion in our political framework. I have a suspicion that there is no one in this congregation that was really surprised to have heard that I was there.
I volunteered to be one of those arrested and the experience was entirely peaceful, respectful and not unpleasant. The capitol police were polite and gracious and good humored toward us. And were all that to them. They were doing their job. And so were we. We were standing up for what we believe in – and believe in passionately. We were standing up for these two things;
The central commandment of our gospel; words spoken by Jesus not long before he was crucified:”Love one another as I have loved you.”
One simply cannot dispute the clarity of that commandment.
The founding vision of this country: “That we shall be as a city set upon a hill…for this end we must be knit together as one. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection…we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities…we must make other’s conditions our own…we must labor and suffer together… the eyes of all people are upon us.” (John Robinson: “A Model of Christian Charity: a sermon aboard the Arabella)
Now there is absolutely no measure of equity between what those three men in Portland, Oregon did and what the six clergy persons did in Hartford, Connecticut. Absolutely none. But the words of that young poet, Micah Fletcher, were very much on my mind as that event unfolded – and have been very much on my mind in the subsequent days. We must live for one another.
Rick Best and Taliesin Nankai-Meche and Micah Fletcher stepped forward to face a hatred-spewing, knife-wielding madman, whose very aim was to wrench from the hands of all Americans the nobility, and honor that define our nation and her historical narrative. They are heroes.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, is entitled “Choose Something Like a Star.” I’ll weave together some excerpts,
“O Star (the Fairest one in sight)…
…(the) dark is what brings out your light…
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat…
Say something! And it says, “I burn.”…
(The star) asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may take something like a star
To stay our minds on and be stayed.”
The demonstration in the capitol building in Hartford was organized by a group called Moral Mondays. You might have seen the lead article in a recent Sunday’s New York Times about that movement and its founder, the eloquent and passionate black preacher named William Barber. Barber has spoken recently at Yale Divinity School, and at Riverside Church in New York City. He follows close on the theological and political heals of men like William Sloan Coffin, and Martin Luther King. He is committed to peaceful action and dialogue. He is charismatic. He is energetic and engaging. Preachers in sleepy little hamlets like Old Lyme, Connecticut, listen closely to William Barber because he is a voice for the voiceless, and his is a voice we need to hear.
The six of us who happened to be arrested have had our appearance in superior court, and we have been sentenced to three full days of community service which must be served in Hartford, Connecticut – the location of our initial “crime.” Our crime, by the way, was singing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine.” As Don and I frequently say to one another as we watch the evening news, “You just can’t make this stuff up!” Singing inside the capitol building is a violation of Connecticut State statute 2-71H, which prohibits singing or chanting inside the legislative building.
I’d like to tell you about “doing community service” in the city of Hartford, and what that experience has meant to me. An organization in Hartford called “Community Partners” oversees whatever service the court mandates. Community Partners has lost significant state funding in the past few years. And that, I think, is tragic. It is an organization I find very, very impressive.
A group of 25-30 of us – we so-called criminals – wait in line at the community court building promptly at 8 am on our day of appointed service. We are allowed to carry with us no cell phone, no money, no belongings. We must have on our person a simple ID- like a driver’s license – and we must wear a bright yellow vest for the entire 8 hours of our service time. The vest identifies us as serving under the auspices of Community Partners- doing community service on the streets and in the non-profit enterprises of the city.
I worked one day in the Bloomfield warehouse of FOOD SHARE – the organization that distributes annually about 3 million pounds of surplus and donated food to all the food banks in Hartford County.
When a group of young executives from one of Hartford’s big insurance companies stood alongside me at FOOD SHARE that day, I wondered what they might have imagined my crime to be.
I would call community service a great leveling ground. It doesn’t matter how much education you have (or don’t have). It doesn’t matter how nice a house (or NOT nice a dwelling) you might live in. It doesn’t extend mercy if you happen to be homeless. And it doesn’t matter what your crime was. On this one day, we are all treated the same. The woman who gave me my first assignment on my first day of service, said to me, “So I understand you are a minister. I hope you’ll go out on the streets and remind everyone alongside you that God loves them – and God forgives them – no matter what they have done, or failed to do. That could be your most important work out on the streets.” That woman was one of Robert Frost’s “stars” – a person to “stay our minds on and be stayed.”
What I could see on the streets of Hartford- and see with great clarity – is the enormous, enormous disparity that exists in our state- and in our nation – between those who live with advantages of all kinds, and those who live with almost no advantages in life at all. And so help me, God, I swear to you that if I had been “dealt the hand” in life that some of my community service friends have been dealt, I, like many of them, would be tossed to and fro on a turbulent sea of disaffection. I, like many of them, would be unable to get any purchase or traction on success.
I serve again tomorrow on the streets of Hartford. And I just know it will become yet ever more clear to me that “we must live for one another.”
One could liken this nation to a great ship. We are all on that ship together. The ship is taking on water. And when the ship goes down, we all go down.
I have hope. I have hope for the nation, and the state – and this ship we are all on together. Because I am more and more convinced that we will survive, and maybe even thrive, when we begin to do endless, countless, small acts of mercy that connect us one to another across all the lines that divide us. Tip your waitress more. Say “thank-you” to the beleaguered, grouchy clerk in the store who earns minimum wage, and might just have to live every day as a struggle for survival. Smile at strangers on the street- even if they look like they have absolutely nothing in common with you. Call your legislator and thank him for the grueling hours he or she works. And say thank-you for whatever legislation you ARE grateful for.
Sow gratitude and humility all around you – because those elements are the fertile ground for justice. And without justice, our ship continues to take on water and flounder.
William Blake gave us these wonderful words: “We must do good for one another in minute particulars.” Those are good words to live by now.
I have placed on the communion table this morning a “crazy quilt” that was made in the 1890’s by a group of Baptist women, some of whom were in my family. The quilt serves as a visual of the minute particulars that bind people to one another. Those women sat close by one another. They undoubtedly shared their life stories with one another as they stitched. They each had an artistic gift to give, and they added what they could. But it was only in its “binding together” its “holding together” that the individual pieces become what those women intended and imagined and hoped for. Together, the tiny scraps of cloth become a thing of beauty.
What does the Lord require of us? To do justice. To love kindness. And to walk humbly with our God. There is no time to waste, we must hasten to live for one another.
Have you heard about the new Survivor Show they are creating? It just for fathers. It looks like this: Six fathers will be dropped on an island with one SUV and four kids each. Each child plays two sports and either takes music or dance classes. There is no access to fast food. Each man must take care of his four kids, keep his assigned house clean, correct all homework, complete science projects, cook all the food, do the laundry . . . The men only have access to a computer when the kids are asleep and all the chores are done. And there is only one TV between them and no remote. The men must shave their legs and wear makeup daily, which they must apply themselves either while driving or while making four lunches. They must attend weekly school meetings; clean up after sick children at 3:00 a.m.; make an Indian hut model with six toothpicks, a tortilla and one marker; and get a four-year-old to eat an entire serving of peas. The kids vote the fathers off based on performance and the winner, the winner, gets to go back to his job.
Laughter. It feels good, doesn’t it? Even in the church. When I was a child no one ever laughed in church. It wasn’t that it was depressing or sad, it was just serious. I remember going to my grandfather’s church as a child, with my family, to hear him preach. He was a Presbyterian Minister for over 50 years. And when he put on his collar and robe, walked up those steps into the pulpit and spoke with a voice that would bellow throughout the room, it was almost frightening. Funny? Never. I couldn’t wait for him to come down, take off his robe, pull me onto his lap, tell me a funny story, and be grandpa again.
So, when I looked at the scripture passages for today, yes, I actually look at that thing called the lectionary because I don’t preach here often enough to just pick anything from the bible. It’s a big book. Anyway, this passage from Genesis was suggested for today. I picked this passage, because I love the idea of Sarah laughing – at God – with God! And then I remembered, it’s Father’s Day and this is perfect because it’s a story about parenthood. And any parent knows, the key to your success or may I say, survival as a parent, is to sometimes just stop and laugh.
When I was almost eight months pregnant with our daughter Amanda – that was over 25 years ago! – I went to my regular prenatal check-up. This time I met with a doctor who was an older member of the group practice. He told me “everything’s going along fine. Your son’s head is down in position, and won’t be arriving for at least another five weeks.” Since this was way back in the olden days when an ultrasound wasn’t given unless necessary, I said quite surprised, “My son? Five weeks more? How do you know this?” “Well,” he said, “when you’ve been delivering babies as long as I have, you just know these things.”
Now at that time I was working full-time as a Minister of Youth and Families in a church and had youth events planned up until two weeks before our child was due. Well, THREE days after that visit to the doctor, SHE flipped into the breech position, and my water broke. At first my husband and I sat there shaking because once your water breaks, no matter what you’re having that baby within 24 hours! I can’t be having this baby, I thought, the doctor said . . . and besides, I have too much to do. The Senior High car wash is on Sunday, the Junior High junk sale is next Saturday. My husband said, you can’t be having this baby, I haven’t finished painting the nursery, the crib hasn’t arrived, and I’ve got a meeting tomorrow!
Suddenly, we both burst out laughing. What could we do but laugh? There was nothing we could do about it now! We were having this baby! Folks, God has a funny way of working out miracles in our lives and sometimes we just have to laugh. Of course, then the labor pains began and it wasn’t so funny anymore, but the next day after the baby was born, I got another laugh when that older doctor came through the door of my hospital room and saw me with my daughter! The look on his face! Who’s laughing now?
And my laughter had completely changed from that of disbelief in having our child so early, to one of utter joy when I held her. Sarah and Abraham laughed. And their laugh changed too, as God worked a miracle in their lives.
Here in the book of Genesis, God’s power and will is revealed to create a new community, a new future. As Theologian Walter Brueggeman states, “The one who calls the world into being now makes a second call. This call is specific. Its object is identifiable in history. The call is addressed to aged Abraham and to barren Sarah. The purpose of the call is to fashion an alternative community in creation gone awry, to embody in human history the power of the blessing. It is the hope of God that in this new family all human history can be brought to the unity and harmony intended by the one who calls.” (1)
Believe it or not, this passage begins with a typical scene of eastern hospitality. In the heat of the day, reclining under a tree near his tent, Abraham suddenly sees men approaching and he runs to meet them. He then runs to tell Sarah to make the bread, runs to the herd to fetch a calf, and his servant hurries to prepare milk and curds. His haste continues until the men are under that tree eating the food he prepared. You see, back then, a guest was considered sacred and the reception of that guest was to be as lavish as you could make it. Abraham probably didn’t even know that they were more than just usual guests, until they asked about Sarah, knowing her name and relation, presumably without ever meeting her. Something was up with that. So picture them reclining under the tree, eating, drinking, and Sarah is nearby listening from the tent. And they speak of Sarah having a child.
The news was that Abraham and Sarah’s world, which they thought was almost at an end, was about to be shattered by a new possibility, that lied outside all reasonable expectation. But was this all new to Abraham? Not quite, you see, God already appeared to Abraham once before. In Genesis, Chapter 17, God appeared to Abraham and made a covenant with him and the people, and gave him the land of Canaan to be their home. And God said, “As for Sarah, I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her.” Now, can you guess what Abraham did? He fell on his face and laughed and said, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:15-17) He laughed in total disbelief.
So, in this passage Abraham receives this wonderful news one more time! And it’s hard to believe that Abraham hadn’t already told Sarah of this initial visit from God. Probably from her own disbelief, she too had to hear it one more time. And Sarah laughs but it is a cynical laugh. A disbelieving laugh. Cynical laughter is that “Yeah, right – have a baby now? Switch career’s now? Move now? Are you crazy?!” But you know it’s the right thing to do, you know it’s going to happen, it’s just so surprising, so scary, so crazy. And you can’t help but laugh.
Think about Sarah and all she had been through. Years of trying to become pregnant in a society where motherhood determined your entire worth. Then she finally sends her maidservant Hagar to conceive a child for her and she thinks of their son, Ishmael as the chosen heir. And now, at what age? God promises they would be parents of a great family, through which all the families of the earth would be blessed. Are you crazy?!
And we all know that cynical disbelieving laughter, if you are a teenager, there are times when you laugh because you think your parents will never understand you. If you are a parent, there are times when you laugh because you wonder if your kids will ever grow up. We laugh because we think we will never get out of debt, never get free from our past, never find someone to love, never find a place to call home.
“We laugh Sarah’s laugh, not because we have faith, but because we find it impossible to have it. That is the disturbing truth being held up before us in this week’s story: that faith is not a reasonable act and that the promise of God is not just a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Abraham and Sarah laughed because they had reached a dead end in their lives and because they had adjusted to it. They had accepted their hopelessness just the way, if we are honest, we too accommodate ourselves to all those barren places in our lives where the call to believe in ‘a new thing that God will do’ seems, quite frankly, nonsensical.
And yet . . . there is another kind of laughter of which the promise made in this story also points. A very different kind of laughter. The laughter, not of Sarah and Abraham, but of the One who keeps his own counsel and works his own will – whether or not we have the faith to see it. Sometimes we have to wait to share in that kind of laughter, just as Abraham and Sarah had to wait too.” (2)
This story is about laughter and faith. Incredible, jubilant faith. You see, faith isn’t a reasonable act that fits into our normal scheme of life and perception. It is radical and shatters everything we know. So often we try to fit our religion, our faith, into a neat little box we only open on Sunday mornings. But faith isn’t like that and God doesn’t act like that. And sometimes we get hit with something very big, very big, sheer joy or immense pain, laughing until we weep, crying until we collapse, utter delight, utter remorse. We can respond with cynical laughter to ourselves and not believe that we are in the presence of God. Or we can join God in rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. A power which can bring miracles; can bring joy; which can at least bring peace.
And I love how God then becomes the source of laughter when the messenger asks Sarah, “Did I hear you laugh?” And Sarah suddenly realizes that she is in the presence of God and becomes frightened, “No I didn’t laugh.” And the messenger replies, “O yes, you did. And just for that I’m going to name your baby Isaac, which means `laughter’ just to remind you that the jokes on you. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And then Sarah’s laughter changes.
As one writes, “Sarah and her husband had had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they’d better start dipping into their old age pension for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough.” (3)
And in Chapter 21 we read that Sarah’s cynical laughter turns into evangelical laughter, laughter as a gift. Laughter with eyes filled with tears, laughter of a miracle, laughter from wonderment, new birth. For, “the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.” And nine months later she laughed all the way from the geriatric ward to the maternity ward! And she held the child she only dreamed of having in her arms. And she laughed, for “God has brought laughter for me: everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21:6).
Speaking of the geriatric ward, there is a brand-new HBO documentary I think many of you would enjoy, with comic legend Carl Reiner called “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast”. One day Carl opens the newspaper to the Obituary page as he does each morning and there he discovers his own face smiling back at him. After a minute of panic, he begins to understand that the obituary was for the star Polly Bergen, who had just died. Obviously unable to discover an excellent headshot, the paper ran a photo of her together with a young Reiner. Reiner utilizes this story which provides the documentary by its name as a launching off point, to find out why so many are living such active and fulfilling lives these days well into their 90s. And so he interviews the best: Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks, Kirk Douglas, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, all in their 90s and all still active, singing, playing, dancing, writing, acting!
He also uses Dan Buettner, an international recognized researcher, and expert on longevity. Buettner reveals what he believes are the secrets of living longer – ready? First, I would say good genes. But here are his reasons, some are basic to us all: The key to living longer – Move a lot – move! maybe not necessarily run marathons, but they did show one 100-year-old woman who still runs – what?!; second – Kick back, find ways to lessen your stress. And – Eat less, eat less meat, drink in moderation, put family first, and stay social, build a network of support. And the two I think are most important – have faith – whatever that means to you, organized or simple spiritual practices, which reveal there is a higher power to hold us up when all brings us down, and most important – know your purpose – have a reason to wake up in the morning, learn how to make a contribution, continue to achieve – help out at that white elephant sale! And Reiner adds a 10th, what he and his friends all believe is the true secret to living longer – laugh, find a way to laugh every single day.
And I would add, laugh, the laughter of knowing that God is good. The laughter of the wonder of all that God does. There is a lot of humor in the Bible. Biblical humor is the humor of those who know love. It is not nasty or cruel. It focuses on our failings – our pride – our silly habits – our way of thinking and speaking, and by playing with these things – transforms our laughter into faith.
“Most of the time, we are prepared for everything except the possibility that behind the great darkness in which we often live our lives there is a great light, prepared, says Jesus, to break our backs ploughing the same old field ‘til the cows come home without seeing, until we stub our toes on it, a treasure beneath our feet big enough to buy Texas, prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains, but for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s, prepared for everything to happen except that which will never happen by our own power and grace, but only by God’s . . . until the day does come . . . and ‘the something too wonderful’ does happen . . . and the laughter of our despair is transformed into the laughter of sheer joy and a newness comes alive within us we never did believe possible.” (4) That’s the laughter of knowing God, that’s the laughter of having faith.
Someone once wrote, “Faith is a scandal.” And it is. It is beyond all evidence, all expectation, all boxes. It causes outrage and utter delight. It causes babies to be born weeks early, opportunities which cause us to move to crazy places like Old Lyme, relationships that cause us to think in brand new ways. I often wonder what my grandfather would have said if he were alive when I went into the ministry. At first, he probably would have had that cynical laugh because women just weren’t in the ministry back then. I laughed too that cynical laughter and definitely went into the ministry kicking all the way. But now I think we would laugh together because the powerful spirit of God permeates everyone and moves us in the craziest of directions if we are simply open to it. Where is that crazy spirit moving you? Are you ready for that “something too wonderful” to happen to you? Be ready, be open; realize all of life, all of life is on the edge of a miracle; for God, just might be smiling on you right now, ready to make you laugh, ready to move your cynical laughter of disbelief into an implausible, unbelievable, ridiculous, miracle! Who’s laughing now? Amen.
(1) Brueggemann, Walter. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, p. 105.
(2) Robinson, Barry J. Keeping the Faith in Babylon: “Something Too Wonderful”.
(3) Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, p. 153.
You’ll think I’m seeing things. You’ll think my vision is off. But I swear it’s not. I swear that I’m seeing duplicates and doubles everywhere in the pages of the Bible. I’ll double up on that statement: there’s a strange pattern of duplication that we find throughout Scripture. To live in the world of the Bible is sometimes to live within a world of duplicates, copies, twins, and mirror images. Sometimes those images are distortions of one another, as if gazing into a shattered mirror. Sometimes those duplicates are opposites, negations one of the other. Sometimes they’re a reflection of the same, but with a slight difference. I’ve been seeing double lately, but I swear my vision is clear.
Let me list a few notable examples, lest you think I’m making it up. Think first of the story of Adam and Eve, of how a duplicate with a difference is formed within the garden. Or think of the symbolic differentiation that occurs in the prophets between the cities of Babylon and Jerusalem, inverse images of the other. Think of the ark built by Noah, and how duplicates of each animal are collected. Think of Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. Even the language of the Bible unfolds in duplicate sometimes. In the Psalms, for example, one line is frequently an echo of the previous line: “have mercy upon me O God, according to your steadfast love/according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions,” as Psalm 51 puts it. Or think of the doubling that occurs throughout the entire book of Genesis, as Cain and Abel square off against one another, as Ishmael and Isaac take divergent paths, and as the twins Jacob and Esau prepare to go to war with each other. Think again of Jesus and the story he told about the prodigal and his brother, an explicit reference to this tradition of doubling, and the antipathy that can so often be stirred by one’s mirror image. I’m telling you, to read the Bible is often to begin seeing in duplicate.
For me, the most poignant example of doubling that occurs in the Hebrew Bible is found in II Samuel, when the prophet Nathan pays King David a visit. We heard the story earlier. David has stirred up a good deal of trouble, though he’s not fully conscious of the gravity of his situation. He’s a king, but he’s also a voyeur, and the story goes that he once spied a beautiful woman bathing on her roof. It filled him with an insatiable desire. Here’s what he does. First, he maneuvers to bring the woman, named Bathsheba, to visit him in his palace. The two of them, as we say, “relate” to one another. The king then maneuvers to have her husband killed in combat. After that, the king proceeds to acquire Bathsheba as one of his own wives. It’s a rather sordid affair, proof positive that sometimes it really does suck when ignorant men stumble into power. The king is willfully oblivious to the consequences of his actions, as powerful men often are, prompting a visit to the palace by the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells the king a story about a rich man who steals a sheep from a poor man, because the rich man was loathe to offer one of his own sheep in the preparation of a meal. It’s a rather egregious tale that the prophet tells, and David’s anger is kindled by the story. And just like that, in that moment, he’s doubled, he’s twinned, separated within himself. The king can’t perceive who or what he actually is. A significant portion of his own character and story remain hidden from his perception. “This man deserves to die,” David exclaims.
A pause. A beat. And then comes the prophet Nathan’s visceral punch, when the double, the other, is recognized. “You are the man,” Nathan says, and the world comes undone for the poor wretched king. Those words return the king to himself, forcing him to confront the double, the shadow, that lived within him. The remainder of the book represents the poor lost king trying to work out the consequences of that recognition for himself. If there’s any redemption for King David, it can be found in that long, burdensome process of coming to terms with his shadow, his double, the one who unleashed such havoc on poor Bathsheba and her husband.
It’s worth pausing briefly to say that this isn’t a theme confined to the pages of the Bible. The double is a deep human theme that transcends traditions and cultures. It can be found in Plato’s Symposium, for example, the greatest of Plato’s dialogues, but it can also be found much later in history, as in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or in films like Vertigo, or Adaptation, or, from a few years back, the Natalie Portman film Black Swan. If you think I’m seeing double, I’m telling you that I am, because the double is everywhere. These are all stories and symbols that work through the splits that sometimes fracture individual lives and psyches, and human communities as well. And they’re all stories that allow us to work through the doubling that sometimes takes place within our own lives. Because you have a double, every bit as much as I do.
I had an experience of doubling recently, but before telling you about it, I need to offer a brief caveat: not every double, not every duplicate, is negative, or evil, or bad, as in some of the examples I’ve offered you. Sometimes the double is just “the other,” poorly understood, dimly perceived, but actually quite helpful, in its way, if only the double could be well understood.
That’s how it worked for me recently, when I read J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a book now familiar to many of you. It’s gotten a good deal of press since its publication last year, and the presidential election has led to an even greater spike in readers as the coasts have struggled to understand the middle of the country. It’s a powerful read, and I recommend it for your summer reading list. Here’s the basic premise: Vance describes his childhood in a Midwestern Rust Belt city, a place called Middletown, Ohio. It’s located just north of Cincinnati, and in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, the town attracted domestic migrants from the impoverished hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, all of whom were looking for work in the massive steel plant located in Middletown. It was once called Armco Steel, but it was sold to a Japanese conglomerate in the late 80’s, thereafter becoming AK Steel. That process led Middletown, and places like it, into a precipitous decline, and Vance narrates what was like to live in such a place, still attached to the hills of Kentucky through lineage, but living within an eviscerated and bleak industrial landscape. As the economy atrophied, Middletown and its residents had slowly been stripped of many of the things that traditionally lend life worth and meaning – a sense of history, functional kinship structures, creative production, and a horizon of possibility offered through the promise of education and jobs. In J.D. Vance’s Middletown, human beings suffocate from despair, idleness, addiction, and the conviction, reinforced everywhere, that lives are cheap and disposable. He chronicles the rage that emerges from such a place. He chronicles the suspicion toward outsiders that crops up among his neighbors and friends. He chronicles the turn toward forms of conservative evangelicalism that he himself took as an adolescent, in an effort to counteract the social misery around him. And he chronicles the turn toward a reactionary politics made by many, born from desperation and the very real conviction that conventional politicians were ignoring the plight of communities like Middletown. In time, J.D. gets out. He joins the army, then goes to college, and then winds up at Yale Law School. He was one of the lucky ones.
Here’s what shook me about reading J.D. Vance’s book: from 1987 until 1992, from 8th grade until I graduated from high school, I too lived in Middletown, Ohio. J.D. Vance’s story is, in some ways, my story, though it’s a story I haven’t wished to claim. We went to the same high school, though I’m ten years older than he is. We shared the same math teacher. We ranged across the same neighborhoods. Reading J.D. Vance’s narrative was, for me, something like encountering a half remembered double. We’re opposites in many ways, Hillbilly Elegy helped me remember what it was to live in a place like Middletown. It helped me to understand that there’s a little bit of J.D. Vance’s conservative Midwestern hillbilly residing within me, even if it’s not who I’ve become, or, ultimately, who I wish to be. But I understand that part of my story as belonging somehow to my own being, a double that I need to claim.
When I narrate my origins, I talk about being born in California, and calling central Pennsylvania home. But I usually skip over Middletown, Ohio. It’s hard to claim Middletown. But it’s there. My family moved to Middletown just as the steel plant was sold and management jobs were slowly being siphoned away. We arrived in the midst of a near total collapse. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that when I arrived in 8th grade, I was unprepared for what I experienced at school. It was a hard, mean place. Fights broke out in the hallways and in the cafeteria with shocking regularity. Whenever that happened at lunchtime, it was entirely normal for kids to stand on tables and chairs to cheer on the brawlers. An anger and disaffection pervaded the place, and it often emerged in the form of meanness and bullying. I felt dread when the school bus would pull up to the hulking junior high building every morning, located in a nearly abandoned downtown, with boarded up shops and businesses. I felt relief when the same bus deposited me back home in the afternoon. In time, I saw those kids less and less, as many of them were funneled into vo-tech classes, while others of us learned trigonometry and chemistry, read Walden and The Scarlet Letter, and later still, applied to colleges. I sometimes wondered where all those angry and mean spirited kids went. The truth is, I didn’t really see them again – until the election of 2016.
What J.D. Vance helped me to see with greater clarity was the macroeconomic class issues that structured my adolescence all the way down. All those hard and angry kids were the children of the working industrialized poor, carrying the anger and disaffection of their parents, if they had parents. They were, by and large, children of domestic economic refugees, who had fled rural communities in search of work, and had wound up in Middletown, where life delivered yet another beating as factory work became unreliable, and then, little by little, unavailable. Of course they were mad. And of course, much of that anger was directed at those like me.
You see, my world was constituted by contact with the managerial class of the town, dwindling, but still present. For a long time, my social world revolved around the Presbyterian church my dad was serving, which catered mostly to the management class of the factory, as well as other white collar professionals. We lived in a modest but attractive suburban enclave on the side of town farthest from the enormous steel plant. And even though we were directly connected to the fortunes of the steel plant, on my side of town we didn’t think about who worked there, or why, or what it did to them. As the economy of my town bottomed out, I was busy falling in love and chasing summer memories. As a world was steadily collapsing around me, I immersed myself in conservative evangelicalism and listened to Christian music. As huge tectonic macroeconomic shifts were playing out before my very eyes, I joined the track and cross country teams, acted in school plays and musicals, gathered with friends every Saturday night and drove into Cincinnati every now and again for ball games and dates. The other side of town, where J.D. Vance grew up, barely registered in my consciousness, except as something I wished to avoid. When it came time to leave for college, I left Middletown and never went back, save for short visits on holidays. Middletown, and those like J.D. Vance who were in danger of getting stuck there, became the shadows, or doubles, that I wished to flee. But reading Hillbilly Elegy felt akin to hearing a story about someone else, only to discover that it was my story too. It felt akin to being told by the prophet Nathan, “You are the man.”
Why am I going on at such length about this? Why am I telling you all these things? Because I believe there are several lessons that all of us can learn from encountering our doubles, and from this encounter in particular. The first lesson is that we all tend to create bubbles around us that make us feel comfortable and safe, that prevent us from encountering pain or scorn. We do it here just as surely as I did it in Middletown. I won’t say that those bubbles are bad all the way down – they may even offer us a kind of protective shelter when we need it. But we need to get out of our bubbles. And that might be especially true right now, as those of us who lean left struggle to figure out what might make our President attractive to so many people, and as those of us who lean right struggle to figure out what sorts of values and principles are actually held by those who think differently. We live in bubbles, but we’re going to have to emerge from those bubbles if we’re going to figure out a future together. It could be painful, but it might wind up helping us.
Second, that realization, offered by the prophet Nathan – “You are the man” – is one we’ll have to embrace for ourselves, as we realize that there are pieces of ourselves that actually resemble those we think we oppose. It means that we’re doubles of one another. There exists within me a half remembered conservative evangelical Christian, just as there exists within many conservative evangelicals a half remembered idealistic liberal activist left over from their college years. I hope that’s true. It’s what offers us the capacity for empathy, for understanding, for fellowship, for communion itself. For the sake of preserving our common humanity, we need experiences such as those provoked by a reading of J.D. Vance was for me, where we realize – I am the man. We need moments that remind us that, for all our very real differences, we share parts of our lives in common.
But here’s what it doesn’t mean. Encountering our doubles, either within ourselves or within the world at large, does not mean that we cease to hold onto the convictions that make us who we are. It does not mean that we repudiate the developments and stories that have made us who we are today. And it does not mean, it must not mean, that we quit arguing about what we take to be important. The stakes are too high. There’s room to be who we are amidst our differences, without surrendering our convictions. But I also think there’s room to find commonalities with one another, precisely because something of the other, the double, resides within each of us, if only we could acknowledge it.
I’ll end with a poem. It’s by Stanley Kunitz, and it’s called “The Layers.” It describes something of what it is to encounter one’s double, which is often simply a past version of oneself, now forgotten or disavowed. I offer it in a spirit of generosity toward all within myself and within the world that I have too easily discarded. I offer it in a spirit of hope, trusting that there’s wisdom within Kunitz’s lines that we all need to hear right now. I offer it in a spirit of gentleness, wondering what it would mean for each of us to recognize and engage our doubles, dwelling within some layer of our past. What healing might be available to us if we did so? I offer “The Layers.”
“I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was, though some principle of being abides, from which I struggle not to stray.
When I look behind, as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey, I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered! How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.
In my darkest night, when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage, a nimbus-clouded voice directed me: “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
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