The “S” Word
By Charles Rush
March 12, 2006
(mp3, 3.5Mb) ]
e of my best friends from seminary is a Baptist Minister in Greensboro, North Carolina. The other day, he sent me a piece written by his son Zach on his eleventh birthday. Zach had decided he wanted to be baptized and become a Christian and the church asked him to write a little piece on why he wanted to be baptized and what following God meant to him.
that at a fundamental level, he's always been a Christian and he didn't have a
very dramatic conversion. Let's pick up the narrative. "In fact, when my
brother was baptized, he said that for him, being a Christian meant that he
tried not to cuss, and I had no good sins like that to talk about trying to
give up. I'm not bragging or anything, but I've just never really struggled
with wanting to cuss. He also talked about using a sense of humor to deal with
bullies. I thought, "I have no bad things to talk about and no good
stories either. So I wondered what the heck I would say in my baptismal
statement! Now I know better, and I know we're each different… [What a
difference a year makes] I do plenty of things wrong, mostly like not being as
nice to my sister as I should be. And I tell God I'm sorry about that maybe
every once a week or so. I also tell God that I know I take life for granted,
and get mad about dumb little things like not winning at a game, instead of
just marveling a life and God. I think God understands that we forget and are
not perfect. I just try every so often to remember what's really important and
to thank God…"
And then he
says something about the Church his father serves. "I haven't been to a
ton of churches, but some seem kind of serious and formal. And the other day,
my dad was giving blood and took me along, and this sort of mean old lady was
guarding the snacks and said we kids couldn't have any, only my dad. I imagine
other churches have some stern, mean people like that lady. I can't help but
think ours is filled with the greatest people. Like Miss Agnes, who I used to
sit with. Ever since my mom told me about the bible story about the angels who
visited earth even though people didn't realize it, I've always thought maybe
Miss Agnes is an angel. I guess she's done some bad things, but I can't imagine
it because I've never seen it. She's kind of like and old woman form of
which is a little off point, but indulge me…"I love my dad being a
minister – I always have even though he's not home all the time – and I love the
way he makes it fun and jokes around. If he were stern or strict maybe I
wouldn't like it, but he lets us see some movies and listen to music that other
strict parent's don't and he knows how to be fun and play around, so I've never
thought of him or his job as bad. I thinks it's one of
the coolest, greatest jobs in the world. You get to help people, you get to
talk about God, you get to make people feel better and you get to work in a
comfortable place. Like – compared to my life at school or working in some
factory job – you get to go to the bathroom anytime you want." There you
go, what else could you want… Get to go to the
bathroom whenever you want.
Don't you wish
that had to wrack your mind to come up with something significant an offense to
the Almighty as cussing? There are now days when I wish I could go back to the
world that was so simple, good, even naïve… Don't you wish that you could just
hit the rewind button on a few pieces of tape from the conversation of your
life and take back those hurtful, ugly words?
All of us
gathered here, who are of a certain age, have been involved in compromised
areas of leadership when the only options are shades of gray and we have to
live with an uneasy conscience knowing that our own personal interest figured
too prominently in how we actually behaved in the pinch.
I said a
prayer for Governor Corzine at his inauguration in
January. When I asked the assembly to pray for him, I said, 'you get to these
places in your life when you realize that this is much bigger than you. And it
is in that spirit that I ask you to join me in a prayer for the Governor.' I
was thinking to myself that properly understood, these
occasions are not about blessing power. In a very real sense this is not about You. When you are entrusted with leadership in the public
sphere, it is not about your perq's or your
influence, or how much you are getting paid. It is about service. And really,
this is true for everyone sitting here today. You are business leaders,
community leaders, family leaders. The point of your life is about getting
focused on service to others.
I laid a hand
on the Governor's head and said "Grant him a developed sense of justice
that we might together do the things that make for a positive peace and
harmony. Teach him the limits of power that he might have an honest and humble
sense of himself." If I could, I would say the same prayer for you
tomorrow morning. You need it. I said " Give him
the instincts that make for building consensus. Give him the courage of his
convictions when it is hard to do the right thing. Drive out the cynicism and
despair that can come from the political grind and keep him focused on the
higher reasons for which were created… For strength and
honor." If I could, I would say the same prayer for you tomorrow
Because I want you to be great leaders… And great leaders
have to stand over against the preoccupation of self-concern. They have the
ability to stay focused on the service that they have been called to provide.
They stay on the bigger picture, despite the fact that they are surrounded by
egotists and sychophants that routinely tempt them
with the vain, the petty, the ephemeral.
No, it would
help us all if every year, we were subject to an honest, independent review of
the important decisions we have made in our respective positions of leadership.
What were our actual motivations? Why did we prioritize the way that we did?
How inclusive is our vision of the Common Good? How myopic are our fantasies
and our internal values? How much do they stunt the scope of our vision and
effectiveness? And at this annual, independent review, we could all well stand
to get the same grades that are given on Kindergarten report cards… "Has
trouble sharing toys with others…" "Needs work on sensitivity"… "Needs to find his place in group time rather than drawing
negative attention to himself."
this morning is important for all people, but it takes it's
cast of characters from mature adults. If you read the whole chapter, it deals
with a lot of people that come to Jesus seeking to understand God's call on their
moral life. If you read chapter 10 carefully, you will notice that they are
actually seeking to define the limits of what God wants from them. Like all of us,
we want to be told that we are pretty good people and that pretty good is good
this story so apt for us adults. It begins, "A man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho"… This line actually needs no
translation at all. If you have taken that road, you know that it is steep,
lined with cliffs, and highly vulnerable. 5000 years ago, it was manned with
terrorists and robbers. 2000 years ago it was manned with terrorist and
robbers. It still is today. The guy is left bleeding and hurt.
coming up the road headed toward Jerusalem is a Priest. Seeing the man, the
Priest is faced with a genuine dilemma, and this you wouldn't know unless I
told you. The Priest is headed to Jerusalem to fulfill his duties in the Temple. He is on his way to Church. Now
there are scrupulous rules about maintaining holiness and purity on the way to
the Temple, lots of ways that you could make yourself 'unkosher'
or unclean and if you are 'unkosher' you can't be the Priest for that week, those are
the rules. So he has to choose between sets of rules, the set that is dictated
by his religion and by the ethics of his vocation, and a basic humanitarian
compassion for the person that is right in front of him.
Levite… The set of rules that govern our ordinary ways of
behaving and the person in front of you.
Both of them
follow established policy. They feel, legitimately, quite justified in their
mind about their decision. I'm quite sure that they almost feel like they made
a sacrifice for the integrity of their mission to stay on course with their
This is the
way we feel about these situations too, we want to get involved, but there is
an overriding conflict. You are on your way to work, you see someone in
distress, you stop and help them for a bit until you can find a policeman or
someone else that can help them… because you have a very important meeting that
you have to get to and if you don't get moving ASAP you won't make it on time.
It is a
legitimate conflict of competing values and responsibilities. To be fair, the
situations are always inconvenient. These requests are almost always outside
the boundaries of our established protocols for charity. The requests don't
fall within the guidelines and with routine regularity the people in need come
with issues, with dysfunction, with a need for structure in their life that
they seem unable to develop on their own. Jesus often gave us these simple
examples of compassion towards people in need; he could have helped us a little
bit more by distinguishing between genuine help and enabling dysfunction to
continue. It is routinely, too routinely, difficult to establish.
that is best. Perhaps, we shouldn't worry too much about that. It calls to mind
a Bridges run many years ago. We were handing out lunches and there was a
homeless guy that was inebriated. So one of the volunteer
Dad's was perplexed by that. He says to me, 'You know we are giving out
sandwiches, so this guy can save his money to buy more alcohol.' I was quiet
for a while and then I said "It is a good point". After a minute I
said, 'let me ask you something, this being Friday night, now that you have
paid your bills and you have not just a little money, but a lot of money left
over, what are you going to spend your money on when you get home?' He stops
for a moment and says, "It is a good point."
And that is
indicative of our situation. We have to have limits, procedures, guidelines,
rules – otherwise we would be overwhelmed with the needs of the world and
ineffective. At the same time, we use these to shield us from getting involved.
They conveniently limit what we are willing to do. We are not as moral as what
we would like to believe about ourselves and in many different ways, we are
very sophisticated about putting limits on our sense of responsibility.
Christian tradition, particularly at this time of year, we not only ask God to
forgive us for the overt sins that we commit, but also for the sins of
omission, things we ought to have done but have left undone. We pray about our
lack of involvement.
This is worthy
of sustained reflection on our part as citizens of our great metropolis, the
Capital of the world. Because we live in the world's Capital, we know more
about what is happening in the world at large, not only from the papers and the
Internet but from direct experience in travel and business. And we do have a
responsibility to talk with ourselves, with our spouses, with God as to how we
are going to be involved because we have benefited quite a lot from being born
in the right place at the right time.
And you know
and I know that every year, in a very complicated, sophisticated, subtle way,
it is more tempting to just stay focused on our duty, on getting to Jerusalem,
without engaging the bleeding guy on the side of the road. In our generation,
we are becoming overexposed to the world. We have too much information. And it
is not just that we have too much information, our Press over-covers tragedy
and disaster. They cover these events for the sensational way they grab your
attention. It is all so… Shocking.
You have child
prostitution and human trafficking. Of course, suicide bombers,
are eo ipso shocking. There is the latest raving
lunacy of Hugo Chavez, the President of Nigeria that wants to change the
constitution to make himself President for life, another rain pour that has devasated Haiti, angry mobs reportedly in Lahore, Pakistan,
a story about orphans in the countryside of Uganda where 45% of the adults in
the entire region have been killed by the virus AIDS, another story about the
underreporting of actual cases of Avian or Bird Flu and the likely impact that
is going to have on us in the next 5 years, a story – it seems like the 70th
story that you have read on the continuing genocide in the Darfur
region of the Sudan.
At some point,
you find yourself not actually reading anymore, just scanning the paper… And
you actually read about your college's Basketball prospects in the NCAA's this year. You actually get to the third paragraph
in an article about a company you've purchased stock in that is doing well. You
get to the end of an article on an interesting place to vacation.
It is a
legitimate thing that we have trouble focusing on the news, partly because it
is so imbalanced in the direction of only reporting bad things that are
happening, partly because the woes of certain parts of the world are
intractable and seemingly insoluble. And they probably are.
But what are
you going to do? Where are you going to invest yourself? When God calls on you
in heaven, what good story are you going to report? We may have to limit how we
read the news, but we cannot turn our attention off the concerns of our
neighbors far away.
That is why I
thought it was important for us to put a foot hold down in one place as a
congregation, so I have supported all of our various people that have gone to Nicaragua every year. Finally, this year, I
went down to see for myself what we have been doing. We probably can't solve
child prostitution world wide, but I think it is important that we have been
supporting a mission in Managua that gets kids off the streets one at a time,
gives them an education, helps them with their self-esteem, lets them be kids
for a while, and teaches them how to be family.
I think it was
important for our teenagers to be able to talk to them,
listen to how they were abandoned as children, how they got involved in drugs
through men that gave them a faux sense of family and belonging and used them,
how lonely and sad they were, how unsexy real
prostitution is. The girls knew we were coming, so they prepared this
traditional dance for us, in costumes that they had all sewn together because
they are all learning how to sew so they can do it for a living. And there they
are dancing… you know… like children ought to be able to…
important for all of us to walk through the barrio, through the trash heap. We
certainly cannot heal the world of poverty, drugs, child abuse, or
prostitution, but we are saving a dozen kids right now and it didn't cost all
that much money.
We can't take
it all in but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't decide to be involved in some
way… I don't have a solution for all this. I just want you to think about it in
this season, about how you are investing your life, your leadership, your
money. I want you to open yourself to an independent review and be more intentional
about how you are going to be involved and pray that it will be enough.
this front, every single one of us, when it comes to Good Friday and Easter, we
will all have this to lift up to God for forgiveness… and then for hope… and
then for vision… Amen.
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