That One Singular Gift


I am at Dover UMC this morning.  (Location of church)  The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

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If there are ever a particular combination of Scripture readings for which I have a strong personal connection, it is the Old Testament reading for today with the Gospel reading for today. For they speak of the choices I made in 1963 that lead me to walk the path that brings me here today. But it is not the choices that I alone have made that I wish to speak of today.

That fact of the matter, excuse the cliché, is that each one of us has that moment described in the Old Testament reading and Gospel reading today; it is that one moment in time where we become aware of who we are and our relationship to the world around us. It is that moment in time when we begin to formalize the idea that we are both individuals and a part of the world. It is, if you will, the moment in time when we began to accept responsibility for our actions and our acts. At some age in our life, our youth allows us to escape responsibility and accountability but sooner or later, we are become responsible and accountable for what occurs because of our actions.

Can you recall the sense of awe that occurred when you had this revelation? Can you recall the sense of freedom that you had at this moment in time? Can you recall the panic that you felt when you realized what this all meant?

We are the sole proprietors of what we think, what we say, and what we do!

If there is anything wrong in society today, it is that this sense of responsibility and accountability seems to be terribly lacking in much of what occurs today. It is the student who refuses to accept the notion that learning requires an effort on their part, not just the sole exertion of the teacher or instructor. A new term has developed in the lexicon of education these days; it is the “helicopter parent”. This is a parent who “hovers” over the child and watches their every move. It is parenting to the extreme as it has gone from worrying about when to take the training wheels off a bicycle to sending text messages to high school teachers when their child gets a bad grade and where students arrived at college already “burned out” from the stress of learning. I have seen students in college who don’t know how to study simply because they never have had to do so or learned how, in part because their parents have been there to bully and harass the teacher into giving them a good grade. And when the parents try the same tactics in college, they are in for the shock of their lives when they find out that the laws that they lobbied for to protect their kids do just that and they, the parent, no longer have the say in their child’s education that they once had.

But it is more than simply parenting that has escaped the nature of responsibility, for such over protection has long been a part of society. It is just that it has expanded way beyond any rational thought process.

It is the businessman who says that they are entitled to a multi-million dollar bonus when their company is going bankrupt; it is the company owner whose salary is more than the workers may earn in a lifetime. It is the business who sends jobs overseas to foreign sweat shops with near-slavery conditions in order to reduce costs; such decisions are driven by the stock holders who want an improvement on the bottom line but fail to realize that such moves put workers here at home out of work. It is the healthcare industry whose sole interest is a profit, even if that means denying healthcare to an individual because they have gotten sick.

We have somehow accepted the words of politicians that it is better to have a bureaucracy run by a company than one run by the federal government decide our healthcare even when we know that a substantial portion of our population are covered by that federal government bureaucracy.

We want services but we are unwilling to pay for them. We seek politicians who will cut our taxes and find someone else to pay the bills. We agree with politicians who tell us government is too big and spends too much money and then we let them create a new bureaucracy and run up this nation’s fiscal deficit, leaving our children and grandchildren to pay the bills.

It is the politician who pledges to do the work of the people but only works for the highest bidder and can still find time to end their speeches with “God bless America.” Each action that we take has a result and we must at some time be held accountable for our actions.

It may be an overly romanticized depiction of the Great Depression but I am reminded of the Woody Guthrie Song, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, and what it means for today’s social conditions,

But a many a starving farmer

The same old story told

How the outlaw paid their mortgage

And saved their little homes.

Others tell you ‘bout a stranger

That come to beg a meal,

Underneath his napkin

Left a thousand dollar bill.

Well, you say that I am an outlaw,

You say that I’m a thief.

Here’s a Christmas dinner

For the families of relief.

Yes, as through this land I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six gun,

And others with a pen.

And as through your life you travel,

Yes, as through your life you roam,

You’ll never see an outlaw

Drive a family from their home.

(Lyrics from http://www.woodyguthrie.org/Lyrics/Pretty_Boy_Floyd.htm)

Our inability, reluctance, or refusal to accept responsibility even transcends our idea of religion, and for Christians, what Christmas really means. It is those here in America and overseas, no matter whether they are Christian, Jew, or Muslim, who claim that they have the right to kill someone in the name of God. We have somehow accepted the notion that Christmas is an economic event, not a spiritual one. We have somehow accepted the notion that because Jesus told us that the poor will be with us always that we need not worry about them.

There was an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week talking about a county politician in the St. Louis area wanting to remove some $300,000 in aid to charitable organizations from the St. Charles County budget. His argument was that taxes were nothing more than governmental theft and that the churches should take on the responsibility for the care of the poor.

I have heard this argument before but the kicker in this story is that the councilman is also a pastor of a local church in the area. This councilman didn’t say where the churches and other non-governmental agencies were going to get this money or what his church was doing. And one person who supported the councilman said that the Bible tells us that “God helps those who help themselves.” As you have heard me say before, in relationship to the literacy of the American people with regards to the Bible, it sounds Biblical but it isn’t in the Bible; it has always been attributed to Ben Franklin and his “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” Such responses are indicative of how we have shirked our responsibility.

This is not a put Christ back into Christmas argument; it strikes me that those who have been making this argument these past few years are among the loudest when it comes to pursuing the god of mammon and prosperity; they are the ugliest of the hypocrites when one compares their actions in the name of God to the words of Christ and what He did.

Rather, I would hope that we look at what the birth of a child some two thousand years ago means for us today. You see, we were given a gift last Friday morning. Each year, we receive this gift and, it seems to me, each year we waste it.

It is the gift of opportunity and promise, of a chance for a new beginning and a better tomorrow. But somehow, it gets lost in the pile of ribbon and wrapping paper and somehow it gets bundled up with the tree and thrown out on the street when the tree is taken down. It is a gift that comes with responsibility and perhaps that is why we don’t use it. We don’t want the responsibility that comes with this gift; we want something that doesn’t require anything from us.

Yet somehow we keep getting this gift every year. Perhaps it would mean more if we only had one chance and one chance alone to receive it. Maybe it would mean that we take Christmas more seriously and take time to understand what it really means for us today. But the uniqueness of the gift is that it is given every year without any strings attached. Maybe if we treated Christmas as a spiritual event rather than a social event or an economic event, it would mean something more. Maybe if saw Christmas as a beginning in time rather a moment in time, it would mean more to us.

Surely, Mary and Joseph had spoken to Jesus about His birth and the messages that they had received from the angels. Surely they had told Him about the visitors who came to see Him the day He was born. And like all children He began to look at the world around Him and He began to ask many questions. And as He grew up and saw the world around Him, He began to know and understand not only what His Father’s business was but what His work was to be. It should not be a surprise that Jesus would converse with the priests and the authorities in the temple that day so long ago.

We read of the priest’s amazement and wonder for they certainly had never had a student question them before. Such questioning would have probably not been accepted. It is the type of questions too many churches are unwilling to allow these days as well. For such questioning calls into place the notion of what a church is and what a church does and who the church is for.

It was right for Mary and Joseph to worry about their son, the child into whose care God had placed. And they raised Him with the singular notion of what He was to do, perhaps without true understanding (we know that later Jesus’ brothers would come for Him and He would reject them; but we also know that they would be there after the resurrection to lead the church in its early days).

We know little of what transpired in Jesus’ life for the next twenty years; we presume that He studied and worked for Joseph. But He also prepared for the task of doing His Father’s business.

It was a task that would take Him across the countryside, through the towns and villages of the Galilee, teaching the people, healing the sick and offering them a message of hope at a time when the government oppressed them and their own religious authorities had sold them out for their own personal interests. His ideas were radical ideas and they were not readily accepted by either the political or religious authorities. They were ideas that lead Him to be labeled and executed as a radical and an outlaw.

And the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary was a message to the people, “this is what we do to those who speak out against the establishment, who seek to change the rule of order that we call peace.”

But the people listened to Jesus and ignored the authorities. The people told others and what was supposed to end on a wooden cross on a hill faraway went beyond the boundaries of the Galilee.

And at a time when saying you were a follower of Christ, to proclaim your membership in the Way, was to produce your own death sentence, the people still gathered. They had heard the message of love and brotherhood, of gathering together in fellowship. They had heard the message that it was as important to care for others as it was to look after one’s self. They accepted the responsibility of spreading the message and living the message.

Paul’s words to the Colossians for today aren’t simply words that we have to memorize; they are an admonishment about how we are to live. There are those who say that we, as Christians, are to go out into the world and make disciples of all those we meet. But the word “disciple” doesn’t necessarily mean “a student of a teacher”; it means that one is a “follower of somebody”. From a New Testament viewpoint, to say that you are a disciple, to engage in discipleship, is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey.

So what are we to do? Christianity in the past few years has become extremely passive when it comes to what I believe is the true message of Christ. There is, without a doubt, a very active message out there that passes for the message of Christ but it is a message that is forced upon the listener, it is a message that demands obedience to the speaker, not to Christ. And the one aspect of the Gift that we have been given is that we must each make the choice as individuals; make the decision to follow Christ.

Jesus did not tell the twelve that they had to go with Him; He did not tell them that they would be condemned if they did not. He gave them the opportunity to follow and become fishers of men; they chose to follow. All of that somehow gets lost in the rhetoric and noise of the modern day evangelist and the modern day public church.

To follow Christ today means to be in a community, to be in the company of others who remember and celebrate the presence of Christ in their lives. It means being compassionate. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (“Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37)

It is the message that we must hear again and which we must again tell others. It is not about building war machines that can destroy the world or seeking domination over other countries and calling it peace. It is not about taking away the fundamental rights of humans and calling slavery freedom. It is not a message that says healthcare is only for those who aren’t sick and can afford healthcare or dropping someone from the roles because they get sick.

It is the message that the sick shall be healed, the hungry fed, shelters built for the homeless, and the oppressed set free. Many will hear this message and say that it is not for them; so be it. But one by one, people will hear the message and they will begin to understand.

Some two thousand years ago a child was born. The child would grow in stature and wisdom. And then he would go to the people with a message that offered hope and promise. We were given that gift last Friday. It is one singular gift that we will ever be given and we are to give it away. We have heard the message and now it is our turn to tell the message.

1 thought on “That One Singular Gift

  1. Pingback: Every Now And Then « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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