READING FROM THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES (James 1: 17-27)
17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS (MARK 7: 14-23)
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So, this next week is the first week of school. I love fall, and I love the whole “new year” feel to fall. Still. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get anxious as September nears. I opened up my calendar for the month of September and said to Helen, “it will be a miracle if we make it to the end of this month.” Amen? It just feels like running.
In his article entitled “the Busy Trap” in the New York Times (read entire article here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/?_r=0), Tim Krieder says that “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.’”
Show of hands:
How many of you have asked someone how they are, and you have been met with this response (busy, so busy, crazy busy) in the past month?
How many of you have answered someone with that response in the past month?
How many of you have asked someone to be on a committee at this church, and that was their response?
We certainly contribute to this culture of busy, don’t we? Even at church.
I listened to a sermon this summer on Star Island by my brilliant colleague Mara Dowdall who opined that we have made an idol of “busy.” We worship at the feet of busy. We wear our “busy” like a badge of honor. “Busy” means we are important. Worth something. If our calendar isn’t filled with things to do, and places to go and tasks to complete, then we are somehow idle and worthless. Or worse, lazy.
Krieder says that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”
This culture of crazy busy is becoming a little bit, well, crazy. It seems we have taken being “busy” to new extremes. Parents of young children are busy with working and juggling child care and activities and exercise and grocery shopping and trying to make time for friends and aging parents and family outings. Our children are even busier than we are—with school and sports and after school enrichment activities and dance and Scouts and art and music classes and tutors and college prep starting at 5th grade scheduled into almost every moment of their days. Even Saturday is filled with games and classes and lessons.
Do you know which generation is most apt to tell you that they are “sooooo busy” around here, though? Can you guess? Baby boomers—our retired church-goers are often the “busiest” of all of us—serving on boards, running this church, caring for parents and adult children, going back and forth to different coasts to see far flung family.
We barely have time to sit down and eat food together. 20% of all American meals are eaten in cars. We barely have time to call a friend “just to talk,” or to ride our bikes on the bike path with the kids. We don’t even have time to shop anymore, a favorite American pastime. Reverend Dowdall cited this statistic in her sermon: a new survey by Cashstar and Harris International came out recently saying that 38 million Americans admit to online shopping on their smart phones while sitting on the toilet.
Friends, we’re even multitasking on the toilet.
We have become more like human DOINGS than human BEINGS.
So what are we actually busy DOING? Galen Guengerich says that this is the ultimate religious question. (http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2015/08/27/what-are-you-doing-the-ultimate-religious-question/37737).
Because what we do, like it or not, ends up being who we are.
It matters what we do.
Jesus has a lot to say about this, as it turns out.
Our scriptures from today are about what you believe and what is in your heart, and what you DO as a result. These scriptures are great examples of why Christianity has been fighting over what matters more—what you believe or what you do--since the dawning of Christianity. Don’t think you’re gonna find an easy answer to that question in the Bible. What matters more—faith or works—has been one of the things that Christians have about 17 different answers for.
I think the conclusion that I draw from our Bible passages today is both--what you believe and what you do--are important. This is how I sum up both texts from James and Mark:
It matters what is etched upon your heart, and what you do is a reflection of who you are.
Jesus is pretty harsh about it. He tells us that evil comes from within the human heart, and defiles a person. He says that "there is nothing going in that can defile, but only what is going out can defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Alternatively, good is also etched upon the human heart, so what we do can also be a reflection of the fruits of the spirit James talks about.
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.
We need to look no further than our online banking statements and our iphone calendars to know if we are “busy” being “doers of the word”. We need to look no further than what is open on our computer’s browser to know what we spend our time doing. We need to look no further than our excuses we use to blow off a friend who wants time with us, or our spouse who is asking for some affection, or our kids who want our attention.
I want to ask: what is it that we are we sooo busy with? What are we doing?
Writing work emails? Playing Candy Crush? Stalking old boyfriends on Facebook? Working ourselves into the ground? So busy filming our child’s concert on our phones, that we fail to actually enjoy the concert?
It matters what we do.
Andre Dubus, in his book "Essays from a Movable Chair," writes:
On Tuesdays when I make lunch for my girls, I focus on this: the sandwiches are sacraments. And each motion is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, knife, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments, as putting the lunches into a zippered book bag is, and going down my six ramps to my car is. I drive on the highway, to the girls’ town, to their school, and this is not simply a transition; it is my love moving by car from a place where my girls are not to a place where they are; even if I do not feel or acknowledge it, this is a sacrament. If I remember it, then I feel it too. Feeling it does not always mean that I am a happy man driving in traffic; it simply means that I know what I am doing in the presence of God.
If I were much wiser, and much more patient, and had much greater concentration, I could sit in silence in my chair, look out my windows at a green tree and the blue sky, and know that breathing is a gift; that a breath is sufficient for the moment; and that breathing air is breathing God.
Perhaps being “doers of the word” simply means being noticers of what is sacred. Perhaps being “doers of the word” simply means that we know what we are doing in the presence of God. Knowing our breathing is a gift; that breathing air is breathing God.
It matters what we do and it matters that we notice.
Because perhaps noticing what is sacred will help us to have fewer regrets about how we spend our time. On our death beds, we are probably not going to say, “I wish I spent more time in needless work meetings”, or “I wish I had a cleaner house.” Kreider says: “I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd.”
It matters what we do.
This is the beginning of a new school year. The end to the lazy days of summer are coming rapidly to a close, and our tendency to turn into human doings is going to reach its peak in just a few weeks from now. It seems to me that the cult of busy—that what we do--is distracting us from who we are. And if who we are is human beings who love mercy, do justice and desire a closer relationship to God, then what we need is to take stock of what is keeping us busy from doing the things that reflect our deepest held values.
It matters what we do.
So let’s put the following tasks on our to do lists this fall, that we might be “doers of the word”:
1. Pay attention more.
2. Notice whom my heart breaks for, and let my broken heart lead me to action.
3. Call a friend just to talk.
4. Be silly with my kids.
5. Give my people my undivided attention.
6. Make good food, and eat it with loved ones (preferably not in the car.)
7. Stand up for the voiceless.
8. Sit and read a book that has the power to change my perspective.
9. Be soft hearted.
10. Kiss more.
11. Worry less.
12. Be Love by doing love.
For First Church in Sterling
Preached on August 16, 2015
RESPONSIVE READING FROM THE PSALMS (Psalm 111)
1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
READING FROM THE EPISTLES (Ephesians 5: 15-20)
15Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
SERMON "Know Nothing"
Be careful how you live, St. Paul implores us. Live not as unwise people but as wise, he says. And Jesus tells us to be wise as serpents, and gentle as doves, which always sounds hard to do, and always reminds me of that old saying that George W. Bush famously messed up. What was it? “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
So I want to talk with you this morning about what it means to be wise, or to be wisely foolish, anyway.
When I was 23, I made what I thought was the wise decision not to be a minister. You can see how well that worked out for me.
I worked in the UUA’s department of ministry at the time, ironically for a committee that decides who can be ministers and who can’t. The same committee that credentialed me 13 years later. I was interested in ministry even at that young age, which is why I went to work at the Department of Ministry at the UUA, I think, though it was mostly because I was right out of college, had no skills, and the UUA would take me anyway.
And I decided soon after my position began that I was not wise enough to be a member of the clergy because I was too young and too foolish and too single and hadn’t read enough books. I also decided that I probably never would be wise enough to be a minister. I knew ministers who seem to know a lot about life. They had had experiences, and significant deaths, and illnesses they had overcome---tragedies, and triumphs. And they were just smart. They read books I had never heard of by authors whose 50 cent words I was pretty sure I would never understand. I knew nothing about any of that. All I knew was how to turn on a computer, file some papers, make a sandwich, flirt with waiters to get free coffee, and maybe a bunch of totally useful stuff about Marxism and social constructionism from my undergraduate college.
I wasn’t sure at the time exactly how old one had to be to acquire wisdom, but I was pretty sure that wisdom was something that came with age. In doing important google research for this sermon, I looked up the wisdom of children, and found out I was wrong. Wisdom does not come with age, because the following words of wisdom from kids turn out to be very wise indeed:
Never trust a dog to watch your food. - Patrick, age 10
When your dad is mad and asks you, “Do I look stupid?” don't answer him. - Michael, 14
Stay away from prunes. - Randy, 9
Puppies still have bad breath, even after eating a tic tac. - Andrew, 9
Never hold a dust buster and a cat at the same time. - Kyoyo, 9
You can't hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. - Armir, 9
If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse. - Naomi, 15
Felt markers are not good to use as lipstick. - Lauren, 9
Don't pick on your sister when she's holding a baseball bat. - Joel, 10
And my favorite…
Never try to baptize a cat. - Eileen, 8 '
Anyway, you know the end to this story. I finally did become a minister, but I don’t think it was because I had finally become wise. I just gave up fighting against it, and decided to enroll for divinity school despite my inadequacy. So much of our lives is giving up and doing things despite our inadequacy.
And incidentally, I often get the comment now--after I preach or lead a funeral or some such thing--that I am “so wise for a young person.” And I’m 39, which is certainly not old, but it’s old enough that I take that as a compliment. And I’ve learned that apparently, by the time you are finally old enough to be a minister, it’s time to retire. Which is kind of too bad.
The dictionary definition says that wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment. And so as a young adult, I thought if I waited long enough, I would have more experience, knowledge and good judgment, and then I could become a person worth my salt, and worthy of this pulpit. I was wrong, though. The older I got, the less I was sure I knew. I bet that’s true of some of you, too. And maybe that’s what wisdom is. Maybe wisdom is being smart enough and humble enough to know that you know nothing.
I went to a church leadership conference this week with Shana and Judy and Susan. It was at Andover Newton Theological School, and it was put on by the Center for Progressive Renewal—an organization that makes the audacious claim that churches like ours’ best days are ahead of us. We were there learning how to renew the church. It was mostly ministers at this conference. I was proud that First Church sent three lay leaders. During one of the workshops, Judy turned to me and said, “I have been surprised listening to all of these ministers talk about their leadership. I’m learning that there is so much they don’t know that I thought they did.”
I love that, because it is so true. That’s what I had finally discovered, too. Ministers certainly don’t know anything important that you don’t know. We don’t have some magical wisdom that you don’t have just because we have a funny title in front of our name.
The psalmist reminds us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” If you’re like me, you’re wondering what that means. I’m going to go ahead and translate the term “fear of the Lord” from our psalm to “fear that you and I are not in control.” Our scriptures tell us over and over again that what we should know is that we are not God. Whether or not you believe in God doesn’t even matter. Knowing we are not God is what matters. Wisdom begins with knowing you are not God. Because if God contains perfect wisdom, then we don’t have to. We can go ahead and be human. It is God’s job to know, it is our job to not know.
Our creation story from the Judeo Christian tradition is one you know well—its this crazy story about a woman named Eve who craves knowing what God knows, and so she eats forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. God gets pissed, and he kicks her and Adam out of the garden, and punishes the rest of humankind supposedly forever. Truthfully, this story has always bugged me. Oh, so we punish Eve AND THE REST OF THE HUMANS FOREVER AND EVER simply because she wants to know things, God? How can any of us really blame Eve for wanting more than just sitting around in paradise, eating bon bons with Adam and having all of her needs taken care of. That sounds so BORING. Punishing Eve for craving knowledge is such a jerky God thing to do.
But perhaps this story is about a God who wants us to remain humble enough to be curious.
Perhaps this creation story means that God wants us to know that our job is to not know, because not knowing makes us better at being human. More humble. Less sure. Less obnoxious in our pride. More loving. Maybe human wisdom means knowing we don’t know, and celebrating that.
Imagine a world in which everyone was committed to not knowing. We’d ask more questions and listen to the answers. And we wouldn’t ask questions we already knew the answer to for the sake of showing other people how smart we are. We’d want to know the stories of everyone we encountered. We wouldn’t have political parties saying ridiculous things on TV. We wouldn’t talk past each other, or at each other. Maybe this humility is how we build the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
This is hard work; this kind of humble, not knowing, kingdom-building. A commitment to not knowing is sometimes a painful and vulnerable place to be.
When I was a hospital chaplain intern, I was called to the ICU in the middle of the night one night to where a 31 year old man was imminently dying of cancer. The family had gone to Mass General as one last hope, as a lot of people do…it’s literally the best hospital in the world, so it’s a last hope hospital. So they got their hopes up upon being transferred to MGH, and then had their hopes crashed again when the doctors came in to tell them there was nothing more they could do. That’s the worst kind of pain…when all hope is lost pain.
So upon hearing there was nothing more the doctors could do to save his life, the mother asked the nurse to call the chaplain on duty. That was me. And it was my first on-call, middle of the night in the hospital experience ever. Though I had training as a therapist, I had no idea what I was doing.
When I arrived, this young man’s mother and his fiancé and his entire family were all there in the waiting room, wailing with grief. It was one of the most frighteningly helpless scenes I have ever encountered, a place I had no business being as an outsider or a not-yet minister or someone who had definitely not read enough books yet or experienced enough pain yet, a place where I had no answers.
I walked in and the mother wanted answers. She said to me angrily, with fire in her eyes, “Are you the CHAPLAIN?” I’m not even sure if I answered her. “Well, tell me, CHAPLAIN, WHY?” She held up a Bible and she waved it in my face and she said, “WHY WOULD YOUR LOVING GOD take my son from me when he is 31? When he is my world and he did nothing wrong and nothing to deserve THIS? EXPLAIN THAT WITH YOUR BIBLE.”
I just looked at her for a long minute trying to come up with something to say. Some words of comfort. Something I knew. Anything. And finally I said “I don’t know.”
And she said, “Really? You came all the way here and that’s all you got? YOU DON’T KNOW?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, trembling. “But I can bring you some water.”
And I proceeded to the nurse’s station for water, and then sat awkwardly in that room, holding back my own tears of inadequacy, in a place I had no business being, with a wailing family I did not know, with absolutely no answers at all. I knew the least of anyone in the hospital room. I knew the least about the medical concerns, I knew the least about the relationships and the feelings involved. I listened to doctors and nurses explain what they knew, and they know so much. My job was to know the least in the room, and to listen carefully. That’s it. And for someone who is far more comfortable knowing everything, this was hard.
And so I asked questions. I asked this mama about her son and what she loved about him. I asked about his birth. And I asked his fiance about when they met. And I asked about their favorite place to vacation and his favorite foods. And I listened to the answers. I listened to the story of them, and I tried to become wise. And things eventually quieted down. And in the quiet I realized again that I would never have any answers to the questions. And I realized maybe what it takes to really care for other people, and to minister to them is not knowing so much. And I realized that sometimes our presence and no answers at all is enough. It’s, in fact, all there is.
And here’s what’s important: you have this wisdom, too. You can be present to our community, and your family, and strangers and friends in crisis in the same way I can. There is nothing special I do that you can’t do. I try to just show up. I feel inadequate because I am. I commit to being the person in the room who knows the least. I try and listen for the stories that need to get told. I pray. You can do that, too. There is nothing special that I do or say, certainly no wisdom that I have that you don’t. Wisdom isn’t found in a book or in a fancy degree program, or even in experience alone. It is found in your desire to know what you don’t know.
And imagine what our care for others would look like if we made a commitment to the wisdom of not knowing. We wouldn’t show up at the bedside of cancer patients with declarations like, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” as if we know that’s true. We don't know. We wouldn’t try to explain the unexplainable so that we could manage our own anxiety about ambiguity. We don't know. We wouldn’t say things when children die like “God just needed one more angel.” As if we know that’s true. We don't know.
We might just sit there instead, with people who need us, and say nothing but “I’m here. I won’t leave you.” We may just sit there and cry with one another. We may just sit there and be present; and be witness. Don’t just do something, sit there. Hold a hand. Listen. We may feel like fools while we sit there, which probably means we’re doing it right.
Sometimes wisdom looks a whole lot like foolishness.
Beloved, be fools for the sake of wisdom.
James 3: 3-18 says: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Beloved: Commit to not knowing. Wisdom is meek; it is not boastful and know-it-all. It is curious; it is gentle as a dove. Sow the fruit of righteousness by being faithful fools for Christ—lay down your power; walk softly. Foolish things will confound the “wise” of the world. Wisdom that comes from above is peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Surprise people with it. Be wise as serpents, and do not be afraid. Walk into rooms that you fear to walk into because you have no answers at all, not because you do. Be willing to change the world with your curiosity and your care, rather than your knowledge. Wisdom so often is showing up when you’re not ready to.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.