Sermon at Valley Mills Friends Meeting.
Reading Ecclesiastes 7:15-23
When I last visited with you, I was able to visit the adult Sunday school class. That week, we spoke of the power of words, and how important it is for us to control our speech so that we can protect others. I also learned that this week, the class would look into the importance of not giving words undue power over our own lives. While I was considering what to share with you, I realized that Ecclesiastes offers this very advice.
Ecclesiastes is not exactly your sermon `go-to’ book. When I look up hymns that go with passages, there are none to be found. Perhaps, this is because I can summarize the whole book as follows: If you seek meaning in life through wealth, you will find disappointment. If you seek meaning in life through power, you will find disappointment. If you seek meaning in life through the approval of others, you will find disappointment. No matter what you accomplish, none of it will matter when you are dead.
This is not the message people want to hear in our society: That the things we work so hard for do not really matter in the end. Even our Christian culture too often wants to put a positive spin on everything. We avoid the whole book of Ecclesiastes. We also avoid the 1/3 of the Psalms which are Psalms of utter despair. Thing is disappointment is part of scripture just as it is part of our human life.
I want to focus on the disappointment we get when we try to find meaning through the acceptance and praise of others. Words hurt us because we care what others think. Caring is good, letting someone else determine our personal value is not. This is easy to say, yet I seriously doubt if we follow this advice. I propose that one reason we face disappointment in life is that we are like Charlie Brown listening to Lucy.
When we think of Charlie Brown, the words we might remember are “Wishy-washy” and “Blockhead”. We may remember how he is depicted as losing yet another baseball game or failing to gather enough courage to even speak to the cute red-headed girl. In the musical “You’re a good man Charlie Brown“, Lucy describes Charlie Brown to her brother Linus this way:
Now Linus, I want you to take a good look at Charlie Brown’s face. Would you please hold still a minute, Charlie Brown, I want Linus to study your face. Now, this is what you call a Failure Face, Linus. Notice how it has failure written all over it. Study it carefully, Linus. You rarely see such a good example. Notice the deep lines, the dull, vacant look in the eyes. Yes, I would say this is one of the finest examples of a Failure Face that you’re liable to see for a long while.
These words describe the Charlie Brown we all see. These words are repeated by other members of Charlie Brown’s social circle, and they are repeated by Charlie Brown himself. Perhaps the loudest voice that he hears when he is alone with his thoughts is the words of disapproval from his friend Lucy. Charlie Brown works very hard to win her approval, and is disappointed day after day.
The thing is, I don’t personally think that Charlie Brown had any reason to feel like he was a loser. I feel like the comics, the productions, and the animated features depicted a greatly distorted view of what has happened. Everything is shown through the lens of disappointment. Failures are exaggerated, and the numerous successes required to get to this point occur off screen.
Case and point is the utter failure of the baseball team. There are many occasions where the team is described as being “this one game from the championship”. “You are a good man Charlie Brown” depicts Charlie Brown leading the team to the championship, only to lose by a single run. The baseball team had to be better than any team I had played on to preform so well, yet second place is not enough to make Lucy happy. Losing the championship is by one run is the same, emotionally as losing every single game.
In the 1969 animated movie, “A boy named Charlie Brown“, Charlie Brown manages, with much hard work, to win his school spelling bee, and advance through regional and state, until he travels to Washington D.C. to compete in the national spelling bee. He then manages to get 2nd place, misspelling the word: “Beagle” on national television.
We see, over the 50 years Peanuts has been with us (1950-2000) that Charlie Brown is depicted as a musician, as the person consistently chosen to plan and organize events. He is, for some reason, selected as his team’s manager. His peer group may see him as a loser, yet he’s the only one who seems to compete beyond his peer group. Honestly, his peer group seems to know enough to consistently choose him for positions that require actual leadership as opposed to an empty charisma. He proves he is not the best, just competitive. Like all who are competitive, he just competes until he’s competing with people who are better. (If you never lose, its because you never compete.)
As far as I can tell, the only power Lucy has is to make other people feel inferior. Charlie Brown works hard, and does well, but never well enough to impress Lucy. I fear that she finds her self worth by bringing others down below her. Charlie Brown gets the worst from her, because she is jealous. Unlike Charlie Brown, Lucy has never been in a position to get second place — unless, being the worst player on their baseball team counts. Lucy’s power is that she managed to take joy out of any accomplishment by turning it into another opportunity to fail.
Imagine how much different Peanuts would be if Charlie Brown took the advice in in Ecclesiastes: “Do not pay attention to everything people say, or you might hear your servant cursing you.” Imagine Peanuts where you see a jealous and crabby Lucy, but you see Charlie Brown and his friend Linus celebrating all the won baseball games that lead to the chance to play in the championship game. Imagine if they could get excited, rather than angry about a strong personal showing at the spelling bee. What would it be if Charlie Brown found joy in the effort, and his accomplishments rather than trying so hard to please a person who would never stoop to saying something nice?
Here is the disappointment: When we look for our self worth in the opinions of another person, we are inviting a feeling of worthlessness. Charlie Brown will never know the level of accomplishments he achieves, because the thing that he tries hardest to achieve — Lucy’s approval is never going to be given. The failure face was painted onto Charlie Brown’s face as he listened to Lucy’s words.
Now as we enter our traditional period of silence, I’d like to leave you with two questions to consider:
- How do I keep my Lucy from stealing my joy, and writing my story?
- Am I careful to avoid being Lucy to somebody else?
On Sunday I worshiped with others in a building that has not been a place of worship since 1969. There was only natural lighting, no plumbing. The building was much like it was in the 19th century. The building was inherited by Western Yearly Meeting, and was deliberately restored to show what a meetinghouse looked like in the 19th century.
When we came, there were three recorded ministers and some recognized elders with us. They were asked to take their place in the facing bench. We spend the first half hour reading scripture to one another, as best we could under natural lighting. After this we fell into a period of traditional, unplanned Quaker worship.
I prayed for the nation, for my family and friends, for my neighbors. I listened to the ministry of about a half dozen Friends. I listened to the rain and the sound of the nearby road, and I looked out the window at the old Friend’s cemetery, and remembered the great cloud of witnesses that had come before us.
I believe that God was with us — the community who was there at that moment. We met in an unused 19th century building, but we met believing that wherever 2 or three gather in Christ’s name, Christ is there with us. We were only a temporary community, but in that moment we were a Christian community. There was no planned sermon, no planned music, just a small group of people praying together. It was, (forgive me Quakers,) church.
Currently, I am candidating to become a pastor, trying to sell my ability to plan programs and create events. One hopes that my education goes a long way to qualifying me to run a non-profit organization. One hopes that I’ve learned at least some by virtue of doing when it comes to event planning. I hope that I can write sermons that challenge people to think about how to integrate their faith into their lives. I hope that I can listen and be present with people as they privately struggle with their issues of faith. I hope I can do those things that I was trained to do.
No matter what, I cannot create what happened Sunday. If I preach excellent sermons that people want to hear, and they meet to hear my sermons, I have not grown the church, just my own followers. I don’t know what the future holds — but, I will pray that God continues to gather people together to meet in Christ’s name.
Message delivered at Iglesia Amigos of Indianapolis, Sunday September 8, 2013
Reading: Matthew 6:5-15
The Lord’s prayer is likely the most widely memorized prayer. It is what Jesus taught the disciples, and the crowds to pray, and throughout the world many Christians recite this prayer through their whole lives. I believe that our life, our faith, and our prayers are tightly woven together. When Jesus gave this model prayer, he was saying something about how people understand their world, and how they live their lives. We pray for what we want, hopefully we also learn to want what we pray for.
Today I want to go through the prayer, line by line, and share one thing per line that I’ve learned through praying as Christ taught us to pray. Sometimes it is hard to choose only one thing, because each line is rich with meaning — and I have known this prayer almost as long as I’ve known how to speak. The Lords prayer does more than tell us what to ask for — it encourages us to change. Now I will share some of what I have learned by praying — God willing, this prayer is changing me.
Our Father in heaven
It seems strange, that right after Jesus tells people to go into a little room by themselves, to pray alone before God, the word used is “Our Father,” and not “My Father.” It is very normal in my culture to think of faith as a personal issue. I would, left to my own normal, pray not to “our Father”, but to “my God, or “My Lord and savior.”
This single pronoun reminds me that even when I am alone with God, I still pray to “our Father.” My relationship with God includes my relationship with community. My faith life includes the idea of the church. As long as I am a Christian, my faith cannot be only individual and personal. I am a part of a community, and we pray to our God.
Hallowed be your name
If there is anything that we don’t need to tell God, its that God’s name is sacred. Those of us who know the Ten Commandments know that God tells us — and commands us to respect that. We often seems to forget though. It seems that we refer to God sometimes as a curse, treating God’s name as if it were a common word. “Your name is Holy” is something that we need to remind ourselves.
Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
We pray that God’s kingdom is not only a thing of heaven, but that it is on Earth as well. We pray that all of Earth is obedient to God’s will. We pray because we want to live in God’s kingdom.
So much of the world we live in is very different than God’s kingdom — but, we still pray that the rules of God’s kingdom are observed here as well as in heaven. If we want God’s will to be done on Earth — we need this to start with ourselves. We need to start living like we are in the Kingdom of heaven. This needs to change the way we think, speak and act.
Give us today our daily bread
Again — it is natural to pray that we have wealth — but, Jesus did not mention praying for wealth here — he told the people just to pray for what was necessary to survive the day. Later in the sermon that this prayer if from, Jesus tells the people not to worry about tomorrow, but to let tomorrow worry about itself.
We live in a world that is often about hoarding, scarcity and worry. Our prayer is that we become a world that focuses on meeting daily needs. Through this request we pray to put aside our desire to accumulate wealth.
Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors
For me, at least, this is the most challenging part of the prayer. Listen to thins again: “Father forgive me as I forgive others.” I am asking God to let me set the standard for my own forgiveness. I am asking God to be as harsh with me as I am with others. This is a very difficult thing to pray, because it is very easy to judge others harshly, feeling that we must be better than them. When we pray the Lord’s prayer, we are praying that we change, becoming as merciful with others as we need God to be with us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
Here we pray that God does not do to us what we so often do to ourselves. I don’t know where it came from, but I have heard someone say as a joke: “Lead me not into temptation, for I already know the way.” So many of us think about good and evil in terms of rules. We want to know what the limits are, and then move all the way to the line without crossing it.
Very often, we behave like fighting children. Each one of us fighting to see who can behave the worst. When an adult comes to correct us, each child points out the others misbehavior, and they argue about who was the worst, as if only the worst behaved deserves punishment. Our prayer is exactly the opposite of this childish behavior. When we pray that God does not lead us into temptation, it is important to remember not to seek it out for ourselves. It is not about how far we can go without crossing the line — but which direction we should be going in the first place. (We should be following Christ, not pushing the boundaries) We pray to be delivered from evil — perhaps its best that we not walk right into it.
I believe that Jesus taught the people this prayer not only because God answers prayer, but because prayer has the power to change us. I believe that Jesus wants us to change our thinking and behavior. I believe that by teaching us to pray in this way, Christ is training our minds to move from ours needs to the needs of the community. I believe that God is moving our minds from the standards of this world to the standards of heaven. I believe that God is training our minds to forgive. I believe that God is training us to refocus our mind on what is good, instead of seeking to be as bad as possible without being too bad.
I believe that we pray this prayer so we can learn to live as we must in Heaven — and we pray that this will happen here on Earth, the same as heaven.
Full disclosure, I am a Gurneyite. It is not a huge surprise that I think that calling someone who is part of my spiritual heritage a heretic does little to earn my respect. When I read Gurney, there is much to praise about him, and there are also things that cause me to see him as a product of the 19th century. As controversial as such a person would be, I hope for a Gurney of today — someone who explores how to live out and practice our faith in the changing world that we live in, while in dialogue with others who are facing the same struggle.
Sometimes, I feel like many of my Christian friends want to go back in time to some fabled golden age. Sometimes, I want to join them! Many of the arguments I hear about Orthodoxy really have more to do with culture than with belief — people don’t like that the world is changing around them, and they want to shut the changes off. Gurney brought Quakers to dialogue with the world, and to work with other Christians. Instead of fighting against a world changing around them, they fought to help make as many changes as possible positive. What if we approached the world the same way?
When Wilbur suggested that Gurney was a heretic, this suggests that he had some concept of what it means to be Orthodox — there must be an objective source of orthodoxy. Today, one might point to the late 19th century “Richmond Declaration”, (and many have), but in the time of Wilbur where do you look?
On my bookshelf, there is this impressive volume titled A Exposition of the Faith of the Religious Society of Friends published by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox). Because Friends in leadership of PYM were concerned about the unsoundness of Hick’s doctrines, it became necessary to define Orthodoxy. Followers of George Fox or William Penn can come to very different conclusions of what they taught because Early Quakers changed their views on many things as they aged. The Quakerism of the mid 17th century and the late 17th to early 18th century changed. Does one prefer Penn, the young rebel, or Penn the statesman, or Penn the nice old man who composes pithy sayings? Old and young Penn disagreed on some very important issues.
Thomas Evans, under the authority of the yearly meeting, put together a collection of Quotes from famous Quakers showing what Friends believed about a variety of subjects. This was a contemporary endorsement of voices in the past — showing the Orthodox way of understanding Quakerism and Quaker history.
This book of extracts is a collection of early Quaker quotes concerning the Triune nature of God, the divinity of Christ, the work of Christ and the value and role of scripture. This collection of quotes was produced in order to define Quaker Orthodoxy while the controversy surrounding Elias Hicks was current.
Reading the same source material, along with Wilbur’s arguments, I come to a different conclusion than Wilbur. Reading Wilbur’s arguments, I disagree. In my experience, heretics boast about their differences from Orthodoxy. They are proud that they know better. Gurney proudly changed the standard practice of isolation, the question is whether that custom was a matter of faith, or a matter of habit. When I look for Orthodoxy I understand isolation as a matter of habit, not a matter of faith.
I have always enjoyed period literature, and there is a large part of me that is curious about the past. When everything seems crazy, I guess it is comforting to know that I can look back and see how things turn out. When looking back, I know to a degree how everything will turn out.
This year I have watched a church split. Some of the arguments I understood, others I did not. I clearly was not here when people started drawing lines in the sand and taking sides. I was not here when personalities started to clash, and tried to build up their side. I only saw the endgame, not what lead up to it.
When trying to make sense of this, I read A Narrative and exposition of the late proceedings of New England Yearly Meeting by John Wilbur. The late proceedings he was writing about an indecent back in 1843 — when Wilbur was disowned.
Reading Wilbur’s book, I am less sympathetic than I was before. Most of what I knew about the situation was that Wilbur was a Conservative isolationist. He and Gurney had a disagreement, and he and others like him were disowned. I know that his whole meeting was removed in a way which seemed a little dishonest.
Wilbur’s book talks much about right business practices, and how they were not followed. The debate of business practice is very familiar. I personally like to see things done in good order, yet I notice that one point of controversy is whether or not things are being done in good order. Sometimes it seems like the argument “Its not fair” supersedes the main controversy. One might say I stepped into the argument in the “Its not fair” phase (in my own observation), missing what was really the original cause.
However, Wilbur goes on to get into the main controversy. He moves from the argument of fairness to the argument of rightness. Wilbur explains that he was prophetically calling out the heretic John Joseph Gurney, who he ranks as dangerous as Elias Hicks.
Wilbur claims he was doing the same thing as ministers and elders who spoke against the unsoundness of Elias Hicks, and that the relation is the same. Hicks, like Gurney was a recorded minister, traveling under the authority of his Yearly meeting. Hicks, like Gurney was well respected, and both needed their flaws pointed out.
In the case of Hicks, the senior leadership of Philadelphia Yearly meeting (Meeting for sufferings) were deeply concerned with the soundness of his doctrine. Wilbur was not in any sense as prominent as those who opposed Hicks. He was a minister, but had no authority to act as judge. When I read his pronouncements of the heresy of J.J. Gurney, I understand why he was asked to keep this to himself.
The odd thing is that I have enjoyed reading both Gurney and Wilbur’s take on theology and approaching God. I have never seen their differences as something great enough to cause a split — in my mind the differences would come 50 years after the split. They were culturally and economically different, but it baffles me how one could see the other as a heretic.
Wilbur managed to move my sympathy away from him. Before I saw a few irregularities in business that prevented him from getting a fair hearing, but now I see an angry person spreading slander. I see accusations which assign doctrines which Gurney never claimed, and an attempt to show deviation by reaching for any quote he could find. Personal attacks, and guilt by association are the tools used. I read history, and see how little things have changed. I find comfort in the knowledge that we have learned from history, and that the world has seen worse than anything I have observed.