I am convinced that I am at last becoming a grumpy old man. It is a fact that my two daughters have known for quite some time now. However, it has only come to my attention in the last few weeks. How do I know this, you ask? Why would I suddenly become conscious of my old man grumpiness? Simply this: Last week I wrote… a letter to the editor. Yes, yes, it’s true. I’m not proud of myself, but I have indeed partaken in the favorite pastime of disgruntled middle-aged white guys. I guess I have to take up golf now. The thing about my letter to the editor is this: I was so right. I know I was right. My logic was flawless, my argument sound, my vocabulary impeccable (which means it was not peccable, for those of you who are wondering), my purpose sincere. But the thing about writing a letter to the editor in the Internet Age is that it gives you the unfortunate opportunity to see in real time just how wrong people think you really are. Here are a few gems: “The writer is woefully misinformed.” Here’s another one: “Your letter bleeds denial.” And then there’s the ever-popular, “If you don’t like it, you can pack up your family and leave!” Friends, I’m here to tell you this evening that zero minds were changed the day I wrote my very sincere letter to the editor, which is too bad because I was, like, sooo right on this one.
My letter was so very sincere. And you know? Our world is full of very sincere people. This room is filled with very sincere people. This is a very sincere assembly. Our theology is sincere. Our business is sincere. The members of our leadership teams are sincere. But I’m kind of glad that our sincerity not all we have going for us. For as genuine and earnest as we may be, it will never be enough to carry out God’s mission in this world. Paul tells us in Romans 12.9 that above all it is our love that must be sincere: our love for God and our love for each other.
The situation going on among the little fledgling churches in Rome was not unlike the situation happening among our churches today. That’s probably because the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was the case that back in the days following the death and resurrection of Jesus when the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire like wildfire, the Roman Emperor Claudius issued a decree expelling all Jews from the city of Rome. This included Jewish Christians as well. So, for a number of years the Christian church in Rome consisted of entirely Gentile Christians. Well, the Gentiles were getting pretty used to having things their own way in their churches in Rome. They got to pick the carpet color without much opposition. They got all the good parking spaces. And maybe most importantly of all, the church potlucks were always to their liking. Yes, the Gentile Christians were able to have things their way: theology, discipline, and worship. But several years later when a new emperor came rose to power after the death of Claudius, the Jews were invited to return to Rome. So, back came the Jewish Christians who had their own views on theology, discipline, and worship that caused no small amount of tension and bickering. It was like throwing together a group of orthodox Star Trek fans and with group of fundamentalist Star Wars fans. Relationships got very strained very quickly. The Jewish and Gentile Christians got grumpy. They got indignant. Both sides were so right in their beliefs. They both were so genuine in their traditions. Both were so sincere about their theology, discipline, and worship.
So in his letter to the church in Rome (for Paul there was always only ONE church, not many) Paul writes to these sincere believers, “Love must be sincere.” In other words, it is not enough just to be genuinely right. It is better to love genuinely. And Paul goes on to write about what this sincere love looks like. It looks like hating the things that are evil and horrible in this world and it also looks like clinging to all those things that are good. The word there translated “cling” is a strong word. It means to be glued to. Glue yourselves to what it good, friends! Hold on for dear life! It brings to mind for me the old Super Glue TV commercials where they show this construction worker in his blue collar shirt hanging from his yellow plastic construction hat that had been glued to the underside of an iron girder. He’s just dangling there, legs flailing, a couple stories off the ground, looking quite ridiculous and just a little panicked. I remember watching that commercial as a kid and thinking, “Why would they do that to that poor construction worker?” And to tell you the truth sometimes holding on to the good in our world does seem to be a bit like the picture of that construction worker holding on to his helmet for dear life. It’s a frightening thing sometimes to be a part of the church. It can be difficult and trying. And some of us, myself included, can feel a little panicky at times. But hold on. Grab the hands of the people next to you. Glue yourself to the good in the world around you. Glue yourself to the good within others. Glue yourself to the good within you. And most importantly of all, cling tightly to the goodness of God in Christ who alone gives you the strength to endure. For it is the love of God in Christ that enables us to do the challenging, gut-wrenching, feet-dangling work of the Spirit that Paul talks about next. “Be devoted to one another in love,” Paul writes. “Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Only love can do those things. Only God’s love can accomplish that—not sincerity of thought, good intentions, or even proper parliamentary procedure! It is only agape love that brings one person close to another in an honest effort to know and be known.
Genuine love requires presence. That is the soil of spiritual growth. Being near and present to one another—to those who are hurting, to those who are lost, to those who are different—is the commodity of Christian living. John 1.14 tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us…” The Word did not remain aloof and distant, preferring to send a check, or mail a nice Get Well Soon card, or write a strongly worded letter to the editor. No, the Son of God became flesh and dwelled among us. He got up close and personal with all that was wrong and broken in the world. The Son of God touched and healed and embraced. The Son of God lived among us, wretched though we are, and he hated what was evil in this world—the things that cause violence and hatred and hypocrisy and greed and sin in the hearts of people. But Jesus also clung to what was good—children full of wonder and trust, hearts opened in faith and mercy, lives turned over the abundant grace of the God of all life. And in the end Jesus gave his life for us all. Now that’s what I call sincere love, genuine agape. Likewise we are called and empowered with the very Spirit of God to share with those who are in need and to open up our lives to the presence of others, even strangers and strange people.
Sisters and brothers, we are the Lord’s people, called and empowered by the Lord’s Spirit, emboldened and motivated by the Lord’s example to carry on the mission on the Lord’s kingdom. May we find within the heart of our God the courage and grace to love each other sincerely, with genuine affection, not hesitating to give up even our very lives for the sake of the other. For that is our high calling. God is faithful. God will do it. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
This morning I noticed a bottle of children’s chewable gummy bear vitamins in the bathroom. This, in and of itself, is not so unusual. With two girls in the house, any manner of things can spontaneously appear and disappear in the bathroom. Shrödinger would approve.
It all started just before bedtime, as most amazingly inventive children’s activities do. It seems that desperation of impending bedtimes elicit the most imaginative of creative talents out of children from time immemorial. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Having consumed their nightly portion of ursine-shaped, gelatin-delivered nutritional supplements, something rather unexpected took place. In glorious fashion rivaled only by the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the bottle magically morphed into a rugby ball.
Here is the picture: parents sitting at their respective desks in the living room, quietly reading. Mom is studiously working on a university paper. Dad is desperately working through the pages of another book, trying to get his Sabbatical reading list complete. The kids, well… the kids are screaming their fool heads off playing an impromptu game of keep away with the bottle of chewable gummy bear vitamins. If this were a toy or a book or an article of clothing, it would have quickly degenerated into an angry, name-calling, screaming match. But this was nothing of the sort. It was play, like two puppies pulling at opposite ends of a rag. The house was filled with loud peals of laughter and squealing, of playful taunts and wrestling (there may have been a suplex involved, but the ref was blocking my view). Up and down the stairs the girls tumbled. Over the couch and on top the cat. The dog, eager to get into the game, sets to barking frantically, waiting to be tagged in. Back through their bedrooms and, apparently, into the bathroom they rolled. It was explosive. It was wild and reckless. It was free. Being the parent with “It’s always fun until someone pokes an eye out” tattooed on my chest, I wait for the inevitable thwump and the resulting shriek of wounded pride. But none came. Spent and satisfied they dropped the vitamin bottle rugby match to pursue their other, more familiar hobbies like not brushing their teeth and not getting into bed.
I need an iPad, and iPhone and laptop computer with expensive software to have fun, and even with those technological marvels I’m rarely more than mildly amused. But here in my house, at 8:45 on a Sunday night, two girls wrestled with a bottle of children’s chewable gummy bear vitamins. And, behold the children called the game fun and God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the next day.
Sitting in a beautiful Catholic church sanctuary this morning, I was reminded once again about the non-negotiable, essential, life-or-death need of human beings to create art. It could have been the beautiful, extravagant cover of the copy of the scriptures sitting on the communion table, or the way in which the sanctuary was laid out by the architects in cruciform shape with the altar as the point of focus. It could also have been the eight brilliantly-colored stained glass panels that hovered above the table depicting the story of Creation. All of these details are extravagant. They aren’t necessary. They are superfluous to the gathering of people to worship. And yet, somehow, they aren’t excessive. They are manifestations of our innate human requirement to encounter the beautiful and, by extension, the divine. Song, glass, chalice, wood, color, shape – these things, too, are the spoken Word of God. And somehow these silent, yet pregnant words, become like umbilical cords that channel and ignite the divine spark of life that rests within us all. They are words that create order out of chaos and light out of darkness.
I spent the day yesterday in my youngest daughter’s room. The state of chaos there had reach epic proportions and threatened to unravel the space-time continuum. The moment had come to utter the sacred and time-hallowed command handed down to me by my father and his father before him from time immemorial. “Clean up your room.” But, that command is always easier said than carried out. The situation was beyond my daughter’s capacity to deal with on her own. So, Saturday was spent clearing out corners, drawers, and the dark places underneath the bed, sorting, donating, discarding, cleaning, and organizing. My older daughter was impressed with the outcome, so much so that she asked, “When are we going to do my room?” “Why don’t you go ahead and do it yourself?” I asked. “Because, you won’t be there to tell me to throw things away!” We forget the power of the spoken word.
That is what I love about the first Creation story. It is the reminder of God’s ongoing creative work of pushing back chaos so that order and light can exist. And you and I live in the midst of that ongoing creative work. We hear God’s life-giving words spoken into the world, commanding that the things that are decaying, broken, and corrupted be discarded so that life may have room to breathe. But we don’t merely have existence. We have life! We have color, and music, and hummingbirds, and the smell of freshly ground coffee, and topiaries shaped like dinosaurs, and Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and Bach, and bedrooms put in order again, and ice cream, and used bookstores. These things are God’s spoken word, and no less are you and I. And as such they—we—point to something beyond ourselves, namely, to the beauty that is in God, the life that is in the resurrected Christ, and the sacredness that is this Creation. Let us not, then, disrespect anyone nor anything on this wonder-filled, though deeply-fractured, place. No one is superfluous. Nothing is excessive or expendable.
For this is God’s spoken world.
Here is a picture of my beloved Peanuts lunchbox. I’ve had it since I was in the 3rd grade. This thing is metal, baby! Part food carrier, part body armor. It’s carried hundreds of peanut butter sandwiches, countless carrot sticks, dozens of those little boxes of raisins (that you had to completely tear apart in order to get the last of the raisins that stubbornly stuck to the bottom), and gallons of 2% white milk (some of which I actually drank). While other kids smugly unpacked their bologna sandwiches from their machismo-inspired Dukes of Hazzard and Knight Rider lunch boxes, I secretly knew that my lunchbox was of far superior quality. So what if I read the 6 comic strips printed on the box about 10,000 times?! My box promoted art and literature which would surely pay me rich dividends of a more cultured lifestyle in the future. Still waiting on that, by the way.
My Peanuts lunchbox (which you are all secretly coveting right now, don’t deny it) came to mind today while listening to a podcast during which Bill Watterson was mentioned. Most of you probably are familiar with that name. He’s the creator of the wildly popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. He’s also very well known for being something of a recluse. For the most part, Watterson has shunned media attention much to the frustration of millions of fans who see him as a kind of rock star for nerds. But, for some, what is even more perplexing about him is that he has refused to license his comic strip characters to merchandisers and movie producers. There are no officially licensed Calvin and Hobbes stuffed toys, no T-shirts, no video games, no lunch boxes being made that legally carry art from his comic strip. Unlike Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and Jim Davis, creator of Garfield—both of whom have received much criticism for “selling out”—Bill Watterson has stubbornly refused to sell merchandise. In an interview with Comics Journal in 1989 Watterson said, “If you stick thirty Hobbes dolls on a drugstore shelf, you’re no longer talking about a character I created. At that point, you’ve transformed him into just another overpriced knickknack. I have no interest in turning my characters into commodities. If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage, I’d have gone to work as a carny.”
Now, I’m not preaching the virtues nor decrying the evils of merchandising. But there’s something powerful about Watterson’s resoluteness in keeping his art the main thing. Because, when it comes to any endeavor, goal, or vocation, it’s easy to lose track of what got you started in the first place. And when you lose that sense of purpose and passion, the momentum and clear sense of calling goes out the door.
So I’m asking myself, Why did I get into this whole pastoring thing in the first place? Because that sense of calling and purpose can get quickly lost and replaced by distractions and worries. For pastors this often comes in the form of attendance worries, financial concerns, professional future, interior and exterior sources of unrealistic expectations. At a recent gathering which included some dear friends from seminary, the question was often put to me, “So, how do you like your sabbatical? How’s it going?” And I have to be honest: there is something really scary for me about not going to the church office every day and the sanctuary every Sunday. If I’m not there, will the things get done?! I must do all the things! And then I remember that it wasn’t about the things that initially drew me to church ministry. It was community, a group of misfits and outliers getting together and trying to make sense of what it means to follow Jesus in a beautiful but flawed world. I got into it to communicate what I believe to be the central message of the Bible: God welcomes broken people into the life of God to make something wonderful in the world. At this halfway point in my sabbatical, I’m far enough away from the day-to-day of ministry to see this a little more clearly, and close enough to it again to anticipate returning. And this, too, is a gift from God. So, this is my primary purpose, my main thing. What’s yours?