Category Archives: Sermons

Ignoring a Commandment

IGNORING A COMMANDMENT

A Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs

Preached On Sunday, January 12, 2014

 

Fear Comes in a Cardboard Tube

I concluded last Sunday’s sermon with a quote from John 1, “Perfect love casts out fear,” and talked about that a bit.  Following the service and throughout the week, a number of you told me some of your stories and experiences with fear, and so I would like to continue that conversation this morning.

My own interesting story about fear was a real gut-wrencher for me when it happened in 2002.  I was about ten miles north of San Francisco in San Anselmo and was working on my doctorate at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  It was a bright and beautiful Saturday in summer.  I had the day off, and I, along with some other students, had gone into town, and we were having lunch at an outdoor cafe.

For context, remember the summer of 2002, when 9/11 was still fresh in our minds.  President Bush had given his War on Terrorism speech, and there was a horrible anthrax scare in Washington D.C.  The Department of Homeland Security had been established, and it had decided on four colors to indicate the level of threat.  It was red at the time, meaning maximum threat.

As I said, I am with friends in the sidewalk section of an outdoor cafe, having lunch, minding our own business.  At mid-lunch, from our table on the sidewalk, I looked at the exterior wall of the restaurant beyond our table.  Nothing much there at all – just a sidewalk, a brick wall, and, leaning against it, a cardboard tube.

Looking at it, I thought, “What’s that, sitting there all by itself?”  Nobody nearby, no backpack or bicycle nearby, nothing except a cardboard tube leaning against the side of a public restaurant.  My mind, conditioned by threats, assumed the worst.  I had a horrible sinking feeling, so I said to the others at our table, “Look at that.  What do you think it is?”  Immediately, my friends quietly asked, “Is it a bomb or not?”

The people at the next table overheard us, looked at the tube, got up, and left suddenly.  They were noticed by the occupants of two other tables, who also got up and left quickly.  My friends and I were not sure what to do, but I still had that horrible sinking feeling.  I knew then why they call it terrorism.

While we were deciding what to do, along came a bicyclist, who swooped in, picked up the tube, and left.  We concluded it was probably only artwork.

A Snowflake Targets You

Fear.  In the pit of your stomach.  Whether it’s an intruder in your house or you’re scared about potentially losing your job or you have an appointment with your doctor and might be told something you don’t want to hear.  Fear.  And there’s actually a lot to be afraid of in our era.

Right now we have Al Qaeda, which certainly thinks ill of us and wants to harm as many of us as possible.  There’s global warming and weird weather.  The economy has been problematic at least since 2008.  The dysfunctional government that preceded 2008 continues to this day.  And we have accidents or disease.  Speaking of which, are you covered?  Are you sure?  And so we worry.

Then comes the Weather Channel, of all things.  We have a phenomenon called a polar vortex, which I’ve never even heard of before.  The Weather Channel’s symbol for a polar vortex is a snowflake in the shape of a target.  So it’s not like we’re going to get cold weather.  No, no, no.  This thing is aiming straight for you!  It’s aiming for the Midwest.  And for upstate New York.

No, this storm has you in its sights.  Really!?  A snowflake has a target?  And it’s you personally?

Leavening the Lump of Fear . . .

So in that context, here are some interesting quotes to leaven this lump a little:

  • “Fears are educated into us and can, if we wish, be educated out.”  – Karl Menninger, founder of the Menninger Clinic.
  • “The enemy is fear.  We think it’s hate, but it’s fear, because when we’re afraid, those feelings of hate and anger and disdain arise within us.”  – Mahatma Gandhi.
  • This one I love.  “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he’s often surprised to find that it comes off in his hand and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • We pay attention to this because of who said it.  “Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  – Helen Keller.
  • From the Hindu scriptures, this one is suffused with theology.  It has the essence of how not to live a fearful life.  “Who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings loses all fear.”    – From the Issa Upanishad.
  • From the Scriptures we have Isaiah 43, which concludes with “Do not fear.”
  • We also have Revelation 1, which concludes with “Do not fear.”
  • There are a bunch of other quotations as well, but to put them in an extended Scriptural context, we look in the Torah, where we have the 613 rules, or commandments.  In Hebrew they’re called the mitzvah.
  • Ten of them are very special.  They’re called the Ten Commandments.
  • And two of the mitzvah are really special, being ones that Jesus quoted to his followers:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
  • Scattered throughout both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, there are lots of other rules.

They’re not merely good advice, and they’re not just commandments either, but injunctions, rules, powerful suggestions.  For example, in Thessalonians Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.  Rejoice always.”

Jesus himself gave us some new injunctions that we generally forego.  They’re so hard to follow that we don’t stand much of a chance, so we forget about them and tuck them aside.  The two most disobeyed commandments, the two most ignored and forgotten commandments in the entire Scriptures are:  “Judge not” and “Fear not.”  Has anybody among you obeyed them?  Ever?  Nobody?

. . . And Irrational Phobias

There are of course phobias, which are generally irrational but not always.  Fear of heights?  Probably a good thing.  Arachnophobia?  Also probably a good thing.  It can be irrational if you have to jump up on the dining-room table to escape, but having a healthy respect for spiders is undoubtedly wise.

Fear of closed or open spaces?  Now it starts to get a little irrational:  Fear of public speaking clocks in at 97 percent of the population.  Fear of death clocks in at 95 percent of the population.  It makes you wonder about that 2 percent difference.  Apparently, they really would rather die.

Now it’s quiz time to see if you know this phobia:  It is the fear of being chased by a wolf around your kitchen table on a newly waxed floor, and you’re in your stocking feet.  Do you remember the Far Side cartoon?  Luposlipophobia.

But the Scriptures are very clear.  They almost never say, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  They do say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but the understanding of it is not so much fear but respect or reverence.

In Deuteronomy, as the children of Israel go through their wanderings into the Promised Land, you can read “Do not fear” six times.  In Isaiah, fifteen times.  In Joshua, as they actually enter the Promised Land, two more times, just for good measure.

In John 4:18, there is no fear in love.  Perfect love casts out fear.

Our Imperfect Perfect Love

The question for us is:  Why are we so afraid?  You know we are.  I think one thing can be concluded about our fears, and that is that they have not been cast out by perfect love that has been attained.  We have not reached a level of perfect love such that we can stop being afraid.

Our fears seem to be rooted in a faulty theology.  Let me give you an explanation.  Consider the following list of Biblical promises that are very hard to achieve and that are often lost in the struggle of living life:

  • The promise of eternal life that has been made over and over again.
  • Add to that the promise of providence that God will provide, will look out for you.
  • Add to that the propensity of grace to trump law over and over again in your dealings with God.
  • Add to that that God knows and cares.  God knows the fears we have, the issues we’re dealing with, and cares.  Remember the sparrows and the lilies of the field.
  • Add to that resurrection.  Not the Resurrection but resurrection-ness.  It’s not that death follows life, not that you live, go on a few diets, then die.  It’s that life follows death, over and over again.
  • Add to that the guidance of the angels and the gift of the holy spirit.
  • And add to that the final words of the Gospel of Matthew:  “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

And yet we act.  We have the blood pressure and the antidepressants and the anxiety to prove it, as if we don’t believe a word of it.  “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he’s often surprised to find that it comes off in his hand and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”

Helen Keller was right:  “Security is mostly a superstition.  It does not exist in nature.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Then consider the theology of that Hindu verse:  “Who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings loses all fear.”  Thus, it follows that whoever considers the interconnectedness of the web of life is a person who loses all fear.

May I suggest that we begin by believing some of the ancient doctrines of resurrection, of providence:  That “Christ is with us, to the close of the age.”  That grace trumps the law.  That God cares for the sparrow and the lily of the field and even more for you.  That we might consider obeying the commandment:  Fear not.

Amen.

 

OF NO OBVIOUS RELEVANCE

OF NO OBVIOUS RELEVANCE

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
On Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sarah Prods Abe into a Poetic Proclamation

As you might suppose, the theme for today is Thanksgiving.  George Washington actually was the first President to declare a day of Thanksgiving.  It was not Abraham Lincoln.  It was Washington on October 3, 1789.  The problem for Washington’s declaration was that he didn’t make it a national day.  He just said to all the states, observe it, and they all did, more or less, in their own way.  And that was not a unified day of Thanksgiving.

But in that same year, 1789, a baby was born.  Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale, and when she was approximately sixty years old, she had the idea that all of the states should observe Thanksgiving together on one special day.  So she began writing letters to the President annually, suggesting and encouraging him to declare one day of Thanksgiving.  Then when she was 74 –she had been doing these letters for fifteen years – when Lincoln received the letter in October 1863, he decided that in the coming November, the fourth Thursday would be the right day.  Thus he is the one who made it a national holiday, not Washington

I’d like to read you the proclamation written by Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.  This took place in 1863.  The Civil War would last through 1863 and into 1864 and 1865.  The country was in the middle of the conflict, but the proclamation was and still is beautiful.  You probably have never read the full proclamation unless you read it in school.  Here it is:

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the s*ource from which they come, others have been added, which are so extraordinary in nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart, which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of almighty God.

“In the midst of the Civil War, of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.  While that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union, needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship.

“The ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines of iron and coal and of precious metals have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield.  And the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to experience continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

“No human council hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the most-high God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.  It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.

“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as the day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father, who dwelleth in the heavens.

“And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverance and blessing, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

A Soldier Declines Disability, Lives with Thankfulness

A portion of this proclamation was read by me last Tuesday, when I was invited to offer the opening prayer and closing benediction for the Greater Broome County Chamber of Commerce annual Thanksgiving dinner.  The keynote speaker was Sergeant Richard Yarosh.  You may have heard of him.  He was in the paper a couple months ago on the front page.

Yarosh was a soldier in Iraq and was riding in an armored vehicle when it drove over an explosive device in the road.  It exploded upward through the bottom of the vehicle, going through the gas tank and into the turret, where he and his best friend were.  Covered in gas and aflame, the sergeant managed to get out and jump off the vehicle, breaking a leg in the process.

He wasn’t able to see because the flames pretty much covered his entire body.  He did the stop, drop, and roll trick, which he said didn’t work, so he kept rolling downhill into a ditch, where water in it  put out the flames.  However, the water contributed to cholera, which he later contracted.  A helicopter arrived about thirty minutes later and flew him away.  Eventually Yarosh wound up in a hospital in Texas.

When you look at the sergeant’s visage it’s striking, reminding me a little of the Phantom of the Opera.  It’s the kind of thing that sets one aback a bit.  His ears were burnt off and so there are only holes in either side of the head.  Same thing with his nose; he doesn’t have a nose at all, just the holes that go in above the mouth, which was relatively unaffected.  But all over his head, you can see where grafts were made of skin from other parts of his body.  This portion has this kind of hair, that portion has no hair, another portion has another kind of hair.  It’s a patchwork of different kinds of skin on his head.

So you look at him, and then you listen to his story.  He made a comment that struck me:  “On the day in which I almost lost my life, my life actually really began.”  He had been asked early in his recovery if he would wish that the incident hadn’t happened.  It’s one of those things that naturally comes up in conversation.  The sergeant  thought about it and realized that no, he wouldn’t wish for that.  He’s glad it happened because the person that he is now would not have occurred without the drastic burn that nearly killed him.

He lost the use of both hands, which are now basically in the form of a fist.  When you shake hands with him, you sort of grab his fist because he can’t open it.  Asked whether he would like to have the use of his hands back, his answer actually was no because of all of the things he’s learned by not being able to use his hands.  That struck me.  Yarosh is thankful.  He’s so thankful for what happened because of who he is now.

A Scientist Is Rejected, Earns Nobel in Physics

Let me change the subject for a moment.  I know you would be disappointed if you didn’t get a science illustration every week.  There’s not an Einstein quote in this mix, but I want to tell you about a rejection letter.  As many of you are aware, the physics you learn in high school and the beginning of college is basically Newtonian, based on the work of Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727).  Then in 1905, the world changed with Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) contributions.

In 1998 the confirmation of a new theory that is actually bigger than Einstein’s began to spread throughout the world.  The person who came up with this new theory was Peter Higgs.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was fascinating in that he wrote an academic paper proposing his idea of the existence of a particle that would become Higgs’ boson and the existence of a field that would eventually be named the Higgs Field.

He sent this paper off to the leading physics journal.  A rejection letter came back announcing that the existence of this particle and this field “had no obvious relevance to physics.”  This letter is now framed and hanging on Higgs’ wall.  He went on to earn the Nobel prize in physics, even though at an early stage the leading physics journal could not see the obvious relevance to physics!

A Balance of Humility Plus Awareness Equals Gratitude

I would like to plant this relatively deep thought in your mind.  Gratitude may have no obvious relevance to your spiritual life.  Maybe the scriptures do.  Maybe God does.  Maybe meditation does.  But gratitude?  The thought I’d like to share with you is this:  That the reason gratitude is important is that it emerges out of a balance between humility and awareness.

Think about humility for a moment.  You don’t want too much or too little.  If you don’t have any humility at all, you’re basically a jerk.  You are arrogant and dictatorial.  People probably don’t like you.  And if you have too much humility, you’re a doormat.  You’re a worthless worm, and you can’t be relied upon for anything.  You’re not much help.  Once again, people probably don’t like you or don’t want you around.

You need a nice balance in humility.  Not too little, not too much.

Now connect a balanced humility to awareness:  Awareness of our place in the community.  Awareness of our place in the family, for we are children of God, of royal nature, but as individuals we’re one of many.  Awareness of our place in society.  Our place in the universe.  Our place in relationship with our creator, our God.  Awareness of our place combined with a balanced sense of humility.  Not too little, not too much.  Out of that emerges gratitude, which is of tremendous value in our spiritual life.

What are we grateful for?  As we approach this Thanksgiving Day, I would ask each of you to answer that question.  Perhaps at prayer before the meal, a turkey sitting on the table if you’re a traditionalist and you have a prayer before the meal.  What are you going to say?  What are you thankful for?  Your answer, your very intimate personal answer, will emerge out of your sense of humility, linked to your awareness of your place in the universe.

Where I Stand – Four Seeds of Thankfulness

I’m going to list four things I’m thankful for – four out of many – just to sow some seeds for your thinking this coming Thanksgiving Day.

1.  I’m thankful for this sanctuary.  I didn’t pay for it.  It was paid for by previous generations.  I have not had to spend one nickel of my money to create this sanctuary that I enjoy every Sunday.  I love walnut.  It is a premium hardwood.  And this pulpit, these pews, the ceiling, the chandeliers, the stained glass, the whole of it.  The organ.  I didn’t pay for it.  It was given to me by a previous generation, and I’d like to say thanks.

2.  Our country.  I’m pretty mad at our country right now.  I’m hopping mad.  I don’t want to talk politics from the pulpit right now.  I won’t do that.  But I’m mad at Congress.  I’m mad at a lot of different folks.  Yet I’m free to say so from the pulpit.  But despite my politics, which are personal, despite my feelings, I still need to say thanks to a lot of people who have created this country and preserved the freedoms that I tend to take for granted.

3.  And I want to say thank you for something that’s much more subtle.  A thousand different pieces of evidence, but combine them, and I feel that there is a blossoming of spiritual awareness in our land.  Once again, I didn’t start it.  I’m trying to help, but I didn’t create it.  And so I want to say thanks.

4.  Finally, family, friends, and church.  They’re really three different names for one thing – relationships.  Put all of us in a circle, and then start threading back and forth across the circle.  You’ve seen artwork done this way.  It’s beautiful.  But all the relationships, all the connections are there.  And then begin to expand the pattern outward because every person here is friends with and related to others.  It creates a tapestry, a work of art.  And it’s beautiful.

So let me seed your thoughts with those four things:  sanctuary, our country, the blossoming in spiritual awareness, and our relationships.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Amen.