Take or Give

Passage: Deut. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Date: July 26, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Laurie: Know the love of Christ and be filled--

People: With all the fullness of God!    I remember when I was younger and I stayed for the first time, (without my parents ) in a hotel room.  I was thrilled with everything from the new-room smell, to the TV with remote control, to the miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner. I’d brought my own shampoo, and felt sure that I could use the mini-ones another time.  So the first night, I tucked them into my suitcase, pleased that I had a little souvenir to take with me.  The next day, when I came back to my room, the maid had cleaned up, and to my delight she had left more mini-bottles of shampoo and conditioner.  I tucked those away, too.   (You probably know where this is going.)  I stayed 5 nights.  And had 10 little bottles stashed away before I left.  I did have a twinge of conscience.  It is one thing to have a souvenir.  It is another to take all the unopened bottles: more than my fair share.  My mind-set was this: I’m paying for the room.  So I can take what they give. . . That’s my privilege.

    This kind of behavior was taken to an embarrassing extreme when I had lunch with a school roommate and her mother.  At the diner, her mother decided to take all the packets of jelly and jam, the sugar and creamers,  from our table.  Then she took the napkins, the leftover rolls, and all the butter pats.  I could feel humiliation radiating from my roommate. Her mother seemed unable to help herself.  Underneath the taking was a need to  hoard,  a sort of hungering.  Sometimes, we take what  we can,  for some possible future famine.  There is an emptiness that wants  filling.

    This  way of thinking: “It’s my privilege to take”-- is part of what has led our nation and world into environmental crisis and conflicts.  And it is manifest in so many  ways.   

    Novelist Iris Murdoch’s book, A Severed Head , tells of  Martin, an urbane, self-possessed intellectual.  He narrated his life with a series of wives and lovers.  He considered himself intellectually superior to them all, and he used them for his pleasure and for the inflation of his ego.  He said, “in my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took, rather than gave.”  Taking, just because he could.

    It’s this kind of thinking behind the story we heard today of King David.  David did what kings could do: He took what he wanted, based on the privilege he’d attained.  Though he was exalted and close to God, he demonstrated the human drive for greed, lust and power.  He took Bathsheba, though she was another man’s wife, and then he arranged for her husband to be killed.   The story of  David, Bathsheba, Uriah and Joab invites us as a community of faith, to face hard questions about human greed, desire, power and violence.  There’s a sermon to be preached on the parallel of the military action and David’s action in taking Bathsheba.  And another sermon, one from Bathsheba’s perspective, whose only words are “I’m pregnant.”  But today, the sermon is on taking and giving. 

    David’s exploitation and manipulation of power is a paradigm for the ages, our own included.  As we read this, we can hardly escape thoughts of former President Bill Clinton, or Senator John Edwards.  Recently, Governor Mark Sanford even referred to this story of David and Bathsheba, drawing allusion to himself, as he confessed to having a mistress  while in Governor.    Certainly now, and in the ancient world, we see some-- who are in the heights of power--seduced into believing that they are so special, the rules don’t apply to them.   But the lesson for today is not limited to the devouring behavior of corrupt kings or politicians.

Psalm 14, also appointed for today says, “Fools say in their hearts, “there is no God. . .Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord. . .The Lord looks . . .on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. . .They have all gone astray.. . .”  This psalm,  reminds us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

David’s conduct can be a mirror in which we examine our own conduct, individually, and as a culture.  For example, we might ask to what extent the exercise of our national power reenacts David’s.  Considering ourselves a “God-blessed” nation doesn’t exempt us from sin, just as being chosen by God didn’t exempt David from sinning against others.  We had a forum this morning discussing our faith and our nation’s part in condoned torture.  Is there a connection between a willingness to allow forms of torture and a view of our-selves as “God-blessed?”  This story should make us ponder that question.

        The story of King David’s greed and murder shows us that even the best of us can go down a path where we play for the self, not for God.   This behavior is in sharp contrast to self-pouring out love expressed in Ephesians that Larry read for us:

    “I pray that according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. . ..”

    Laurie: Know the love of Christ and be filled--
    People: With all the fullness of God!

    King David’s decision to “act as Kings act,” also raises the issue of what happens to institutions as they manifest power over others.  Some of you know that for many years I’ve advocated full inclusion and the ordination of gay and lesbian Christian leaders in the church.  I don’t speak for all Westminster.   I understand that my view isn’t shared by all Presbyterians.  And frankly, at times I’ve been tempted to lay the issue aside because I don’t enjoy to stirring up conflict.  But one of the reasons that I continue to push the envelope for our denomination to allow those ordination standards to be more inclusive, is that I’m aware that not too long ago, women were barred from ordination. 
    I’m keenly aware of position of privilege I have, of being on the “inside.”  I feel as though it would be an abuse for me to “take” the privilege of ordination and to be insensitive to Christians of good character and deep faith and commitment who want to  serve as elders, deacons or ministers, but are barred because of whom they love.  I don’t want to live as a “taker” but want to strive for the good of the whole body of Christ.
    (By the way, on this issue, Westminster seeks to be a more welcoming place for all people.  This fall, we are gathering what we hope will be a very wide and diverse group that represents ALL of us: theologically moderate, conservative and liberal, gay and straight, older and younger.  We hope to learn from one another how to make our welcome in Christ broader.)
We trust that in our diversity, Christ is at work, grounding us in love, making us ever more welcoming.

    This week, former President Jimmy Carter, took the unusual step of issuing a formal statement completely severing all ties to the church where he worshiped for over 60 years.  He decided that he could no longer stomach the pervasive discrimination against women that is ingrained in the religious beliefs of the Southern Baptist Church.  He is involved in the group “The New Baptist Covenant”, which seeks to join all branches of the greater Baptist Church to bring black and white worshipers together under one tent.

    In his statement, Carter directed an assault on the sexism of the Southern Baptist Church by stating, “Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the Word of God. . .”  He declared that discrimination against women violates basic human rights and  “. . .goes against the teachings of Jesus Christ” and he stated that he and others are “. . .deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.”
This former President and Nobel Prize winner, from his rank and privilege, continues to be a “giver” not a “taker.”

    The gospel reading today, from John 6, tells of Jesus’ feeding the crowd of five thousand, from just five barley loaves and two fish.  And we’re told all the people had “as much as they wanted,” and when they were satisfied the leftovers of bread still filled twelve baskets!  The good news is that in God’s love there is abundance.  Not the sort of limited, grasping that we do out of insecurity, selfish need, power or greed.   But an abundance we can’t imagine.

        Laurie: Know the love of Christ and be filled--
        People: With all the fullness of God!   

      How do we keep from grasping what we want?  How do we move    from take to give?   

     Meister Eckhart, the great medieval Christian mystic, once used the term “Gelassenheit” to describe the mystic’s posture toward God. This term basically means “releasement,” the unbinding of all preconceptions and expectations, letting go of the guard-rails.

Our celebration and worship of God through jazz today is fitting.   Jazz improvisation is dynamic, open  and requires “letting go of the guard rails.  Such letting-go involves risk, and requires courage. For things could become undone; mistakes could be made. But the improviser moves forward,  perhaps even transforming mistakes into new possibilities.
    It’s hard for those of us with  type “A” personalities to remember, but you need space for error if you’re ever going to do anything creative.  Living in “ in “releasement,” requires courage; it also requires a heightened level of attentiveness.   For the musician, it means being attuned to the music as it happens, flowing with it and being carried by it, losing oneself along the way.    
    Jazz musician, John Coltrane,  who emerged from drug addiction onto a path of spiritual awakening, found joy and empowerment in God’s grace in his life. He came to believe that
 “ No matter what, it is all with God. God is gracious and merciful. God’s  way is in love, through which we all are. . . ”
                     Laurie: Know the love of Christ and be filled–
            People: With all the fullness of God!

In a conversation, John Coltrane explained what he was up to:
     “It’s more than beauty that I feel in music—that I think musicians feel in music. . . . I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through music.”

I had the joy this month to spend another week at Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat center in New Mexico.  They have a wonderful summer educational and arts program.  I spent the week singing.  The night of orientation, we were all told that Ghost Ranch is a place to try something new.  So, I had that thought in mind when I decided to audition for a solo in a Gospel piece we sang.  I got the solo, but during our first rehearsal, I realized how unsuited my voice was for the style of music.  I asked the director if it was too late to back out.  Very encouraging, he assured me that it sounded fine.  But I wanted to do justice to the music, and not make a fool of myself, so the accompanist kindly spent time with me to rehearse the solo, again and again.  Finally, the director, who had heard it, came to me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, with great sincerity: 
“You’ve got to stop worrying about this solo!”  It’s one thing to let go of the rails.  It’s another thing to trust. . .

Thomas Merton wrote an open letter to all people engaged in work on behalf of the Kin-dom of God.  He wrote:
“Do not depend upon the hope of results. . . In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything. . .The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen and we can share in them. . . All the good that you will do will not come from you, but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in obedience to faith, to be used by God’s love. More and more gradually, you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it. . . “

God’s  power is at work in us and able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. . When we let that power be rooted and growing in our community, we won’t need to worry about the give and take of things. We may not understand it all, but we will recognize an aliveness and a joyful open-ness. . .
    It’s a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us. . .How are we  with the give and take of it?    What would our lives be like if we  let go of the guard rails? What if in the big things, and the small things, we were mindful, and thankful for what we have been given?  What if we trusted in God for what we need?  What would our lives be like, then?