A Sermon preached November 11, 2001 by Pastor Larry S. Baker
When I was invited to conduct worship for a few weeks as you anticipate calling a new pastor, I was comforted by the fact that I could turn to the Common Lectionary for sermon texts. It is very dangerous to invite a preacher into your pulpit who has written only four sermons in six years.
It has been less than comforting. It has been terrifying. These cycles of scriptures were determined years ago. And yet, as we have discovered, it appears that they were chosen for us, for this time, in response to the events of September 11 and all that has followed that day.
It could be argued that God's Holy Spirit works in that way. I think I
may even have suggested, albeit lightly, that "similarities and parallels
to actual persons and events are purely providential." For several days,
our President used the term "evildoers" only to have the word show up in
our gospel reading the next Sunday morning. Our Old Testament lessons have
come from Jeremiah and Haggai and now, today, cheery old Job.
I got my flu shot on Friday in the somewhat rarified atmosphere of Pierce County Human Services administrators. I was in the company of skilled, experienced clinicians and program directors and managers. There were, as we waited in the very short line, a few nervous comments about the flu shot. But then, there was an amazing conversation about people's ongoing dis-ease following September 11. One person was getting a new puppy that very afternoon. Another was about to fly to Maryland for special FEMA training on public disclosure techniques in the event of a traumatic event. I admitted that I was not ready to fly to Orlando on October 9th but am now eager to test my recovery from lifelong anxiety symptoms. It was open, frank discussion but rather unexpected from that particular gathering.
In an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear it is natural to seek comfort
from whatever source is available. It is reported that people are reviving
Physical intimacy is sought - such that there is a predicted wave of new babies who will arrive in June and July of next year. How many times in recent weeks have you heard people talking about their "comfort foods?"
Here's the problem. Truth is evasive. The amassing of facts does not always
lead to a conclusion. The ocean is so large and our bark so small. We are
trying to move mountains with teaspoons. We cannot nail things down. Uncertainty
If only someone would tell us what to do. If only the problems would go away.
But they are not going away. There are some voices telling us that things will get worse before they get better.
Flying a twelve-foot flag above a six-foot truck bed will not be the total solution. Dividing the human family into good guys and bad guys won't do it either.
As I write this, my attention is drawn to Clippy - Microsoft Word's little
helper down here in the lower right hand corner of my computer screen.
As I write these sentences, Clippy looks to the left and the right, blinks
his eyes and scratches his head.
He, too, is confused. Come to think...perhaps Clippy is female. He or she seems to be perking up here a bit. Surely this guy is going to reach a more positive conclusion before this is over. I find myself laughing...out loud...and Clippy at least notices and awaits whatever is next.
I wish I could point you to more certainty. I wish I could supply answers. I am not unaware of the fact that this is my last chance with this faith community for some time to come . . . if ever again. I'd love to leave you all laughing and smiling and feeling good and walking out of here whistling a happy tune. But it isn't going to happen. The risks are too great.
Yesterday's Tacoma News Tribune had a two-column ad which points to the
dilemma. It read: " 9/11 ! The Beginning? The End? The Answer? The Bible!"
Clippy's scratching his/her head about that. And so do I.
I have a big red book. It is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Number Four of the American Psychiatric Association. It has been referred to as "the mental health professionals' "Bible." It supposedly assists clinicians to look at a person holistically, determine a diagnosis and begin appropriate treatment. But it doesn't help very much most of the time. It is filled with "rule outs" and "unless" and "except" and all manner of special cases. It offers information about incidence of various disorders, ages of onset and other medical conditions that might produce similar symptoms. And...as many times as I have turned to it, not once has it told me how to help someone feel better, how to listen to them intently and respectfully and to see the situation through their eyes.
The Bible does some of that. The Bible does a lot of that. But the Bible doesn't tell me where all the potential terrorists in the world are or what to do with them once we find them. It doesn't guide us in knowing the ratio of food packages to bombs that should be deployed over Afghanistan. It doesn't define which groups of rapists and pillagers are to be our enemies and which groups of people are to be our allies in spite of the fact that some of them are reputedly rapists and pillagers.
The problem comes down to attempting to make what is complex simple. If
only the world worked that way. And some there are who believe and act
as though it were possible. They sincerely believe that absolute truth is
discernible and that it can guide the actions of an individual or a group
or a nation or a human family. It is an understandable yearning. And we
only have to walk a few feet or drive a few miles and we, too, can see what
It's called fundamentalism. Fundamentalism pops up when people experience the distress and uncertainty, which emerge when our myths and stories conflict with our science and rational thinking. The superb writer and scholar, Karen Armstrong, calls it the battle between "mythos" and "logos."
A few centuries ago, people had less difficulty than we reconciling the two. Each had an essential purpose. "Mythos" was healing, inspiring and connected people to their past. "Myth could not be demonstrated by rational proof; its insights were more intuitive, similar to those of art, music, poetry or sculpture." And, handily, it could be embodied in cult, rituals and ceremonies, which worked aesthetically upon worshippers.
"Logos" was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. While myth can be fuzzy, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities. We use logos when we have to make things happen. (I discovered to my sorrow this week that not all my computer software programs will work on my new Windows XP program. Updates must be purchased or downloaded). We use logos to convince people to adopt a particular course of action.
Cheerleaders use mythos. Coaches use logos. Until they are behind in a game. Then they turn to mythos and tell their weary players to "Win one for the Gipper."
Karen Armstrong helps us with the distinction. "Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new; to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel."
Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. They feel alone. They demonstrate paranoia. And . . . they don't have very much fun. While the issues and standpoints may differ, fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews and Islamic fundamentalists bear considerable resemblance to one another.
There are high standards which are applied which determine who is "IN" and who is "Out." Believe me, most of us are "Out." There is codification and rule making and sets of requirements for adherents. By this process, it soon becomes clear what persons and behaviors are on the outside. Frequently, those on the outside are to be ridiculed or shunned or even killed. They are never to be trusted.
We are not geographically or intellectually or emotionally very far from colonial Salem, Massachusetts at some points. "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller is a thoroughly modern play.
This congregation has a history of being solidly in the liberal tradition. It distresses us when "liberal" seems like a dirty word. But face it. We liberals are wishy-washy.
It's hard to nail wishy-washies down. They use words that infuriate fundamentalists. Our ethics, our biblical interpretation and our theology are situational. We answer what seem like straightforward questions with "It depends."
Precisely . . . and for very good reasons. We wishy-washies don't see things in absolutistic ways, but in shades - including shades of gray. We don't see people ONLY as the spiritual beings that they are, but as persons with personal needs and desires, as part of an economic world, an intellectual world. We see a person's needs for self-expression and dignity. We see them with dreams and aspirations for themselves, their families and their communities.
We are attentive to a person or a group in their disappointments and losses and we understand how people can lash out and strike back when they feel beaten down or ignored. Wishy-Washies want to acknowledge and pay attention to such things and we are often prompted to reach out to such people . . . and help!
It is not enough for us to point people to their holy books or the laws posted on the walls. It is not enough to simply give people the criteria for inclusion and exclusion.
Arrogance and certitude make wishy-washies uncomfortable. So do easy solutions. So do symbolic gestures that overlook serious long-term consequences.
Job's cry on our Old Testament lesson is informative. Job feared that his strong beliefs, his deeply held conviction this Redeemer was alive and would soon stand upon the earth would be lost. So . . . Job's solution? Write it down! He wanted his words inscribed on lead with an iron tool or engraved in rock. He wanted it e-mailed to everyone with follow-up snail mail - but on postcards for safety.
There are problems with this getting everything written down and codified. We don't always solve the problems by passing emergency legislation. Vital concerns are sometimes overlooked. We may even compromise the very constitutional provisions and protections for which so many have fought and died.
In our New Testament lesson, the Sadducees (probably law school professors) are asking Jesus a complicated legal question about marriage. A woman is married several times without bearing children. All her husbands die. She dies. Whose wife will she be at the resurrection?
Jesus' answer was basic. "Don't sweat the small stuff. It's all small stuff."
Fundamentalism, of whatever stripe, is concerned about the trivial. It refuses or is unwilling to look at the bigger picture. It dwells upon issues that, in the long run, become irrelevant.
There is an IBM TV ad running currently in which a young man is assessing two very different points of view. An older man smiles wistfully and asks, "You want to know which one's telling you the truth?" "Exactly," says the young man. The older man's smile broadens a bit as he replies, "There's the rub, Stanley. They both are."
Garrison Keillor said in his "Tales from Lake Wobegon" last week, "There is no freedom of speech when people are terrified."
Dissent has all but disappeared in this land the past two months and that frightens some of us. While we are frustrated by party line deadlocks in the recent past, unanimity also has poses difficulty. Where are divergent views? Where is the debate?
In my senior year in seminary, we were about to begin final exams in a
day or so. We were in Dean Roy Pearson's class and his finals were tough.
As we were gathering and the dean had entered the room, one of my classmates
quipped nervously that he would be stopping at the Chapel on his way to
the exams. The dean laughed a bit but it was soon apparent that he was not
amused. Silence fell upon the room. The dean spoke.
"Don't look in the chapel for what is to be found in the library. Don't look in the library for what you will find in the chapel."
Where ought we to stand in such perilous times? Might I suggest that we stand as close as possible to the center? Not too far to the left. Not too far to the right. We need to position ourselves such that we can see and use both myth and reason, story and science. . . solidly in the wishy-washy middle.