Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It, and other thoughts on the meaning of wisdom

A sermon by Jack Cabaness                                                                                    
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah                                                       
January 10, 2016

Texts: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Luke 2:40, 52

Not long after King Solomon’s coronation, the Lord God appeared to him in a dream and asked, “Solomon, what shall I give you?” And Solomon asked not for long life or riches, or for revenge over enemies, but instead he asked for understanding to discern what is right. And then God told Solomon that because you have asked for wisdom and not for a long life or riches, I will grant you the wisdom, but I will also give you what you have not asked, both riches and honor all our life.

Suppose that the Lord God appeared to church leaders in a dream and asked what we would like. And we replied that we ask not for budget surpluses and worship attendance bursting at the seams, but we simply ask for wisdom to discern what is right, and then how great would it be if God were to give us not only the wisdom but also the budget surpluses and the increased worship attendance as a bonus?

What does it mean to ask for wisdom?

As Lyndon Johnson famously said, every President wants to do the right thing. The trouble is knowing what the right thing is. 

And the same dilemma faces church leaders. Nearly all of the literature about churches these days says that we are in the midst of something as revolutionary as the Protest Reformation of 500 years ago. The old way of doing and being church is out, a new way is emerging. But while the literature is nearly unanimous in saying that the old way is out, there is not yet a clear consensus about what the new way is.

In the words of Craig Barnes, who is the current president of Princeton Theological Seminary, and, who, in that capacity, seeks to instruct future leaders in our churches:

Leadership is not easy. The hard part is not the long hours or the lack of affirmation. The hardest part is being forced to make difficult choices and not always knowing the right choice. If leadership is an art, it is a confusing and messy one. Often it is the leader’s soul that is the most confused. The leader inevitably feels compromised by the system, which only allows a certain number of options. At times the leader wonders if she/he will be able to survive the hard decisions, to lead through conflict, or to handle the loneliness that all leaders experience. (from a sermon by Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead,” preached at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA, May 27, 2012, when he was pastor at Shadyside and on faculty at Pittsburgh seminary, prior to his becoming president of Princeton seminary).

When Solomon prays for wisdom, he prays, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

To quote Craig Barnes again,

There it is! That is what we need most from our leaders. We need them to be wise. We do not need our leaders to always have the right plan. Sometimes leadership is best demonstrated by confessing mistakes and failures …The wise leader sifts through the complexity of mixed motives—including the mixed motives of the leader—with the goal of determining the good and then doing it…
The difference between a leader and a manager is that the leader does not attempt to manage competing agendas or minimize unhappiness. The leader just leads people toward the good.

Craig Barnes says that many of his students at the seminary ask how to avoid conflict once they become pastors.

They assume they will be good leaders if there are no conflicts in the churches they serve. But this will only make them good managers, not good leaders. To lead is to invite people to change, which means to experience loss. And whenever there is loss, there is always conflict. Most of the conflicts Jesus had were conflicts he initiated. He could have left well enough alone, but it wasn’t actually well enough. So he kept exposing the conflict we all have with God’s understanding of what is good. And this is the leader’s real dilemma: what is the good choice for my family? For our school? For our church? For our nation? For our world? (Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead”).

So far we’ve said that wisdom consists in doing what is good, even if it generates conflict.

What else should we say about wisdom?

The Gospel writer Luke says that the boy Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. If part of wisdom is aligning ourselves with the good as God sees it, then there is another part of wisdom that focuses on the human favor. And you might think that what I am about to say next contradicts the first part of the sermon, but that only underscores how challenging it can be to do the wise thing.

The New Testament book of James talks about wisdom. In Eugene Peterson’s The Message, James 3:17 reads

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

James was likely speaking to a church in which leaders would sometimes try to tear one another down, sharing something that might sully the other’s reputation. And James is saying that the true leader is one who finds a way of getting along with others peaceably.

Yes, we seek to do what is good, and we do so without a paralyzing fear of conflict, but neither do we ride roughshod over others. Ruling elders, deacons, and all of us by virtue of our baptisms, are called to build up this body, this church. We are called to discern what is good, and we are called to get along peaceably with each other.

There’s a story told by Presbyterian minister Gregory Knox Jones. It goes back to British colonial rule in India. There were British living in Calcutta that found they really missed the game of golf. So, they built a golf course in Calcutta. But playing golf in Calcutta poses a very unique challenge. Monkeys!

Every time they would play golf, the monkeys were fascinated, and they would take the little white balls and just throw them everywhere. This, of course, drove the British colonialists and golf enthusiasts crazy!

So, they decided they had to come up with a plan. They were going to build a fence around the entire golf course. This sounded like a great plan. On paper. But while a fence can be very effective in keeping short-legged corgi dogs out of mischief, it’s not very effective with monkeys because monkeys love to … climb! So, the monkeys would scamper up one side of the fence and scamper down the other and play with the little white balls as they did before.

Next, the British tried to lure the monkeys away from the course. But whatever lure they tried to use, nothing was alluring as watching the human beings go crazy whenever the monkeys messed with the little white balls.

So, finally, the British in Calcutta developed a novel and unique golf course rule. And that was, “You simply play the ball where the monkey drops it.”

As you can imagine, playing golf this way could be maddening. You might have, for the first time in your life, that perfect, center drive down the fairway, and then a monkey comes along and throws your ball in the rough. Or, you could have a hook or slice that produces a miserable lie, and then a monkey tosses it back out onto the fairway for you. You simply play the ball where the monkey drops it. (Gregory Knox Jones, Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 3-4).

Part of what it means to be wise is knowing that wisdom is not usually something that we possess. More often than not, wisdom is something that we receive. It is the spiritual equivalent of playing the ball where the monkey drops it.

Listen again to the Gospel writer Luke: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, Jesus is the embodiment of the good from heaven.

In Craig Barnes’s words,

Jesus is the wisdom of heaven that has come searching for us. The Christian leader does not ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” as if Jesus were just a moral teacher who lived long ago and died on a cross. By faith we proclaim that Jesus was raised from the dead and is now continuing his ministry among us through the Holy Spirit.

So the Christian leader instead asks, “What is Jesus doing?” What is Jesus doing with those around me? What is he asking of my finances? What is the change Jesus is asking us to make? What is the future Jesus is inviting us to inherit? What is the good Jesus is still doing?

The way the leader gets to these questions is by first asking, “What is the good that Jesus is doing within me?” That is because the leader’s own life is always a symbol of the redemption that Jesus is offering to others. (Craig Barnes, “The Wisdom to Lead”).

Likewise, the New Testament writer James insists that wisdom begins with a holy life. For the wise person there is no mismatch between what a person says and what a person does. There is no mismatch between who a person claims to be and who a person actually is.

Not a single one of us lives up to such a standard of perfect, flawless integrity.

But, like Solomon, we can approach God with humility, and pray to know the good thing God is calling us to do and lead others to it.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas as the Eye of the Storm, and other wisdom gleaned from old sermons

A sermon preached by Jack Cabaness                                                                                    
First Presbyterian Church of Katonah, New York                                                       
December 13, 2015

As a preacher, one of the things that I like to do is to read through old sermons. On my bookshelves I have everything from sermons preached by Jonathan Edwards in 1743 in Northampton, Massachusetts to sermons preached by Barbara Brown Taylor in 1995 in Centerville, Georgia.

Many of the sermons, even by the masters, quickly become dated. 

They don’t seem to be very relevant to the church of today, even if they are interesting snapshots of church history. But sometimes old sermons do have staying power, and we do well to listen to them again.

More than sixty years ago the great Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle preached a Christmas Eve sermon entitled, “The Eye of the Storm.” He began his sermon by describing his first-hand experience of Hurricane Hazel, which hit his hometown of Philadelphia.

In Steimle’s words,
Unlike most hurricanes, which lose much of their force when they turn inland, this one hit with all the fury of a hurricane at sea: drenching rains, screaming winds, trees uprooted, 
branches flying through the air, broken power lines crackling on the pavement.

It was frightening.

Then suddenly there was a let-up, a lull. Shortly after, all was still. Not a leaf quivered. The sun even broke through briefly. It was the eye of the storm.

“All was calm, all was bright.”

And then all hell broke loose again: Branches and trees crashing down, the screaming winds, the torrential rain, the power lines throwing spark on the pavement. But that was a breathless moment, Steimle wrote, when we experienced the eye of the storm.” (Edmund Steimle, “The Eye of the Storm,” in A Chorus of Witnesses: Model Sermons for Today’s Preachers, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1994, pp. 237-242).

Steimle went on to say that Christmas itself is like the experience of the eye of the storm. Before Jesus’ birth—long before—there was Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt, followed by the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon. There was the oppression at the hands of the Greeks and later of the Romans. It was a stormy history.

And then, following the calm of Jesus’ birth, there was the massacre of the male children under the age of two by King Herod, there were schemes to end Jesus’ life, and, in the end, there was the crucifixion.

It was a stormy time, and Jesus’ birth was the eye of the storm.

Steimle’s metaphor of the eye of the storm seems especially pertinent for our own time. We know first hand how Christmas is often juxtaposed with tragedy. The 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami that killed nearly a quarter of a million people took place on the day after Christmas. Tomorrow, December 14th, is the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting. And thus it is appropriate and timely, although depressing, for the Gospel writer Matthew to juxtapose the story of the massacre of innocent children with the Christmas story.

And the land in which Jesus was born is no less turbulent today than it was in Jesus’ time. We find ourselves in the midst of the storm. In the Gospel passage I read earlier, did you hear how it said that King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him? We know something about that, don’t we? A poll released by the New York Times indicates that Americans have a greater fear of terrorism now than at any time since the Sept. 11th, 2001 attacks. We are well-acquainted with fear.

And we are well-acquainted with grief. There is the empty chair to contend with, the stocking that stays folded in the box. The first Christmas without a loved one is often the hardest, but any Christmas can become the occasion to see whether the hurt has let up any since this time last year. And when the death of the loved one takes place on or near Thanksgiving or Christmas, this time of year is forever tinged with the experience of grief.

When the Gospel writer Matthew quoted the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children, the prophet said that Rachel refused to be consoled. And we can see why. No parent wants to outlive his or her child, whether the child is 4 or 5 or 45. Children are supposed to outlive their parents, and the grief is especially painful when children beat their parents to the grave.

In the midst of all this fear and grief, what are we to make of the Christmas story?

Is the Christmas story simply a misleading calm in the midst of the storm that falsely lures people out of safety before the rest of the storm strikes, or is it an intimation of the deepest truth we know?----that in the midst of everything and in spite of everything, there is a peace that passes understanding.
The purpose of Christmas is not to get us to forget all the storms that rage about. If we simply try to ignore the storms, we risk reducing Christmas to nothing more than nostalgia and sentimentality or to the deep depression that grips so many this time of year.

When we celebrate Christmas, what we celebrate is not peace apart from pain, conflict, suffering, and confusion. Instead, Christmas is a peace like the peace in the eye of a hurricane, a peace smack dab in the middle of it all, a peace that does indeed pass all understanding.

In the Christian story, the great God who created the Universe and everything in it, gets born into a very ordinary and real human life, and becomes just as vulnerable as any one of us at the moment of our birth and throughout our moment-to-moment lived lives.

While all Jerusalem trembles in fear, a baby is born in Bethlehem. While King Herod stokes the fears of his people and overreacts with violence, God reaches out to us in love and joins us in our vulnerability.

As my friend Ray Roberts, a Presbyterian pastor in Virginia, points out, there is all the difference in the world between healthy fears and anxieties and being possessed by a Spirit of fear, which is destructive. He writes that when we no longer trust God, we seek to secure our own existence.
But the trouble with that is that we can’t.

Only God is a Mighty Fortress.

The impossibility of securing our lives against every possible imaginable threat puts us in fear lock down.

It makes it impossible for us to take even modest risks in the name of love, such as reaching out to refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, and we forget that Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus were themselves refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East. (See raymondrroberts/tumblr dot com, post entitled “The Real Decline,” December 5, 2015)

José y Maria

I wish, more than anything, that I could declare to you that the storm is over, but I cannot.

What I can tell you is that God is with us in the midst of the storm.

What I can do is to remind us that we are in the season of Advent, a time when we remember the word of the angels who said, “Fear not.” They said this because Jesus was coming into the world, and because Jesus embodies the perfect love that casts out fear.

I can tell you that in spite of everything, Christmas is coming. And on Christmas we rejoice in the fact that the storm—the destruction, the violence, the fear, the grief, the hopelessness—does not have the last word.

But God—who gives us this peace in the midst of the storm—has the last word.

And the last word is the Word that became flesh and lived among us.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.