Sunday, July 31, 2016

Gordon Gekko and the Gospel


TEXT:            COLOSSIANS 3:1-11; LUKE 12:13-21


ONE SENTENCE:   Greed, as Paul notes, is a form of idolatry, and that is a reason that wealth can serve as an impediment to the Kingdom.

            One of the more memorable movies of the 1980s was the 1987 classic, Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone.  It starred Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen in the lead roles – a master and an ambitious understudy.
            The original name of the screenplay was simply, Greed.  It was produced in a decade during which the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by 250%.  It was a decade flush with prosperity. Morning in America.
            Ironically, the movie debuted some six weeks after the Black Monday crash of October 19, 1987.  That crash only highlighted the dark, ominous themes on which that movie focused.
            In perhaps the most memorable scene of that movie, Michael Douglas’ character, the market genius Gordon Gekko, is speaking to a group of brokers and investors.  They are hanging on his every word, hoping for some juicy insight or market tip.
            “Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko says.  And the gathered crowd does not flinch.
            The pathos of the movie comes when the Charlie Sheen character compromises all he believes in to acquire the material wealth he seeks.  He even betrays his relationship with his father.
            Greed is good, Gordon Gekko tells us.
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            Paul and Jesus would respectfully disagree.  Paul does so in the lesson from Colossians today.  Jesus does so in the Gospel lesson today, and in many ways in other teachings.
            Paul places the sin of covetousness within the context of a larger, more problematic sin, idolatry. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
            That theology is very much in sync with the parable that Jesus shares with us today.  He tells the story of a profitable farmer who, because of his bountiful crops, decides to tear down his barns and build larger storage facilities.  Then, he thinks, he will be able to rely on his ample stores of grain. He will have all he needs; he will be self-sufficient.
            Keep in mind that this is not an evil man.  There is no indication that he treads on the poor, that he mistreats his fellow farmers, or that he benefits from unjust gain.
            No, the issue is where he places his trust.  What gives him his sense of worth – literally, what he worships.   A few verses after this passage, Jesus makes this point very clear: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)
            And in Matthew’s gospel, the point is even clearer:  “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
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            The issue is not wealth, per se.  Nor is it a desire to see your retirement investments do better than the market average.  It has to do with worth – where do you find your value?  Where do you find your meaning? On what is your foundation built?
            The example I am about to share with you is lighthearted.  But it has a strong element of truth to it.
            Years ago, I was a rabid football fan – make that a rabid Ole Miss fan.  I have described the darkest day of my life as that fall afternoon in 1970 when Southern Mississippi beat the undefeated and second-ranked Rebels.  I recall clear as a bell that the running back then known as “little”Willie Heidelburg scored on two double-reverses, and the Rebels lost 30 to 14.  It was awful.
            In fact, fall Saturdays used to be awful for me.  If the Rebels lost – which they did a good bit during my college years and afterwards – I would be in a funk for days.  Nora will tell you.  I was unpleasant to be around during those times.  My palms would sweat during the games.  My heart would pound. My fight-or-flight instinct would be on hair-trigger.  I was a piece of work.
            It had to do with where I placed my value – how I measured my worth.  How I saw the world.  What I considered the ultimate value.
            I know that all sounds immature and irrational, but it was where I was.
            I have jokingly – but also truthfully – said that part of my spiritual maturity was being healed of football.  And I was.  I still enjoy a game, but it does not make or ruin my day.  And if I have something else to do that day, I do it.
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            Please understand:  I am not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue.  What I shared is merely an illustration.  If I wanted to name a paragon of virtue, it would be Duncan Gray, Jr. But that is another sermon.
            The essence of what Jesus is sharing with us is that we have worth beyond our belongings.  We do not need to find our foundations in wealth, belongings, status, position, influence, power, accomplishments, or anything else of – as Paul notes – an earthly nature.
            The fundamental issue with greed is that it confuses what one has with what one is.  Our essential value is not in our possessions or any other qualifier, our true value is elsewhere.
            Our value comes in our relationship to God.  It is in that transcendent connection – one that permeates every fiber of our being – that we are truly grounded.
            The old bumper sticker used to say, “The one with the most toys at the end wins.”  That may be true from a material, worldly perspective, but it is not true from a scriptural perspective.
            If you watch Jesus closely, as he meanders from Galilee through Samaria, the Decapolis and finally to Jerusalem, you can see very clearly that it is not ones possessions, station in life or in society that he values, with which he connects. 
            Instead, he points toward the value which is found in the transformed world of his reign – a world in which the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and those who hunger for righteousness are the blessed ones.
            We cannot add one ounce of value to who we are.  But we can subtract from our value – by racing after those larger barns of our idolatry – whatever form they may take.
            I am reminded of a sermon my curacy supervisor, the Reverend Bronson Bryant, preached years ago.  He told of someone who had died – someone who had great riches.  A friend asked the preacher if the person who had died had left a large estate.  The preacher responded: “Oh, yes!  He left it all.”
            Ultimately we leave it all. It is all dross to be consumed – possessions, status, prestige, power or wealth.  Anything we idolize; whatever we put on a throne.  It is our relationship to God and the legacy of good we do in his name which survive our transition.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Celebrating Bishop Duncan M. Gray, Jr.

TEXT:            ROMANS 8:14-19,34-35,37-39       
ONE SENTENCE:   The life of Duncan Gray, as admirable as it was, is not an object of emulation; He pointed us toward the North Star, the true object of faith.
            Some years ago, just before I left Starkville to join the diocesan staff, our home phone rang.  Daughter Leigh answered it. 
            “Daddy,” she said, “It’s Bishop Gray.”
            That was not enough information.  There was more than one.  “Which Bishop Gray?” I asked.
            Her response was immediate and emphatic: “Bishop  Bishop Gray,” she said.
            That was all I needed to know. Bishop Bishop Gray answered the question.
            You know what I mean.
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            Some years earlier, Scott Lenoir and I were traveling from Starkville, to attend a golf gathering in North Carolina.
            It was just past dusk when we were driving east on Highway 82, between Starkville and Columbus.  A bright light appeared in the darkening eastern sky.
            “What is that?” I asked Scott.
            Scott is an experienced astronomer.  He said, “Oh, that’s Venus.”
            We drove along quietly for a few minutes as I watched the light.  It grew brighter and closer.
            “Don’t look now,” I said, “but Venus is about to land at Golden Triangle Airport.”
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            Naval officers are going through some old-fashioned training these days.  Knowing that they rely too much on technology to determine their location on the seas, they are once again learning the skill of dead-reckoning – relying on celestial bodies to give their positions.
            As the experience Scott Lenoir and I shared indicated, there are a lot of false indicators in the world.  There are planets, there are airplanes, there are brief-but-dazzling shooting stars, and there is the constant:  The North Star.
            Likewise, in this world, there are a lot of bright, glittering, superficially persuasive ideas, philosophies, and approaches to life. They are attractive and distracting.
            For thousands of years, navigators have looked toward the North Star to gain their bearings, and to know where they are.
            Likewise, many people seek to find their bearings in a very complex world.  We seek the spiritual North Star.
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            Duncan Montgomery Gray, Jr., was not the North Star, but he pointed us toward it.  His life was a persistent pointing toward that which would ground us – faith in Jesus Christ.
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           It would be easy to reduce the span of nearly 90 years to one event – significant and important, though it was.  His life was so much more; so rich; so profound; so impactful.
           Thousands of people – over a period of more than 60 years – found their bearings because of the way he pointed.
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            He was a man of courage – that we all know.
            The story of his attempt to quell the rioting crowd at Ole Miss on September 30, 1962 is well known.  Less well known is the stance he took as president of the School of Theology student body in 1953 – even in opposition to the university’s administration.
            And there was the courageous leadership he provided in the tense days in Meridian – when synagogues, churches, and homes were being bombed, and deadly threats were a part of life.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was faithful – especially to his wife and family.  Of course, his marriage to his beloved Ruthie for more than 63 years is well known.  They were inseparable.  They were utterly devoted to each other.
            I recall that he had a sign on his credenza in the old diocesan office at the Cathedral.  It said, simply, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.” And he did.
            He and Ruthie reared four children – Duncan, Anne, Lloyd, and Catherine.  They have carried their father and mother’s character forward.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was steadfast.  This is a man – who, as priest and as bishop – faced many difficult times.  Yet he maintained his course – difficult though the times may have been.
            I had a brief glimpse of his steadfastness in a dark restaurant in Hattiesburg many years ago.  I had to be the bearer of some very difficult news.  As we sat there and I told him what I needed to tell him, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed, and his hand closed tightly as he processed the news.  I glimpsed a bit of the awesomeness of the responsibility which was his.
            But he did not flinch.  He did what was right. No one else knew what he carried with him.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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           He was a mentor. Lowell Grisham wrote of the fact that Bishop Gray was his childhood priest – and a model for him of what a priest should be.  And, he noted, that there are probably several hundred of us who feel that way.
            During his 19-year Episcopate, he ordained 58 deacons and 56 priests.  Many of us here were formed by his steady guidance, his wise mentorship, and, perhaps, most of all, his resilient patience.
            But he was not the North Star. 
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            He was an evangelist.  He preached the Word.  He led by example.  He brought people into the faith and showed them the pathway towards the light.
            During his Episcopate, he baptized 852 new Christians.  He confirmed or received 11,446 Episcopalians.  He preached 2,034 sermons.  And, Lord knows how many miles he traveled.
            But he was not the North Star.
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            He was humble.  Even though most of us knew what a remarkable man it was we were walking with, he never seemed to realize that himself.  He was modest, self-effacing, and he always pointed toward others when credit or praise was appropriate.
            He was admired among his peers – both of his order and of his generation.  His wisdom was valued; his perspective sought. Yet, he never seemed to bask in that praise.
            Ruthie summed it up so well.  “You know what’s so wonderful is that he doesn’t even know it.”
           But he was not the North Star.
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           Suffice it to say, that he knew he was not the North Star. And I think he would want us to be mindful of that reality at this moment… even as we focus on a life well and faithfully lived.
           His death… his body present here with us… points us instead toward the seamlessness of God’s realm – just as his life pointed us toward the Ground of Our Being.  Though we look through a glass darkly, we are able to glimpse, through eyes of hope, the eternal reality to which he pointed so relentlessly.
           And that reality is summed up so powerfully in the words of Paul we read today:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
           He showed us the way.  He pointed us to the North Star.  He wants us to follow.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Times That Try Souls


TEXT:            LUKE 10:25-37


ONE SENTENCE:   The essence of the Gospel – allowing love to overcome categories and tribalism – is still the best medicine in a world of suspicion and mistrust.

            “These are times that try men’s souls.”
            Those were the memorable first words of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The Crisis, published on December 23, 1776.
            Paine had barely been in the American colonies two years, yet he had already come to know the dynamics of his day.  He had already rung the firebell of revolution with his earlier pamphlet, Common Sense.
            Indeed, those were days that tried men’s souls.  As are these days.
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            A few years ago, I read contemporary historian Rick Perlstein’s book, Nixonland.  It was a detailed, day-by-day account of the United States in election year 1968.
            It was breathtaking in its sweep.  It brought to mind details of that dramatic year which had long-since passed from my memory.
            There were the big events: Johnson’s renunciation of a presidential bid; Martin Luther King’s assassination; Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; riots in the streets of the cities; the Vietnam War; and the dramatic and tightly fought election that year.
            I recall that year as clearly as any in my life.  I guess you could say I came of age.  The movie Wild in the Streets made the song Born to be Wild an anthem for a generation.  If you can imagine this, I embraced it as my theme song.
            All that is to say that 1968 was a tumultuous year.  It was the pivot-point of an entire nation.  And things did not get better.
            1968 was followed a tide of cynicism.  The war continued.  People became more estranged from one another. Watergate ensued.  A president resigned office.
            As Queen Elizabeth termed one year, our annus horribilis of 1968 was not the end, but a continuation of an era of bad feelings.
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            I needn’t dwell on the difficulties of the past week.  There has been too much pain, much grief, copious amounts of horror, and a rising tide of estrangement.
            And I have been reminded of 1968 – and not for good reasons.  It is an uncomfortable feeling.  It seems portentous.  I am wondering what will be the next shoe to drop.
            And I am wondering what we, as people of faith can do.
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            Into this week comes the gospel lesson – the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
            Jesus is asked a simple question:  “Who is my neighbor?” The question raised a pertinent point –for then and for today.
Keep in mind that the world in which Jesus lived was a tribal world.  There were Jews. There were Samaritans.  There were the people of other nations and faiths.  The account of Pentecost Day from the Book of Acts describes them: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene… Cretan and Arabs…
            The tribalism of that culture ruled the day.  In fact, tribalism still animates the conflict of the Middle East.  Lawrence of Arabia encountered in the early 20th century.  In many ways, it is the dividing force – even today – in Jesus’ part of the world.  Suspicion of the other.  The stranger.  The person who, for whatever reason, is different.
            Jesus tries to lance that cultural boil.  He tells a parable that describes a priest passing an injured man on the roadside – and walking on the other side.  Likewise, he tells of Levite – a member of a sacred caste of Jews – passing the injured man as well.  Neither man gave aid or comfort to the injured man.
            But there came a Samaritan – an other; an unclean person; one to be shunned by people of faith – who tended the wounded man, who took him to a place of rest, healing and refuge, and saw that he was cared for.
            Jesus ends the story with a question:  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  When the lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy,” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
            Go and do likewise.  Wise words for our time.
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            Years ago, when I was just a boy, my family would gather around a piano in my great-grandfather’s house, just down Hardy Street from here.  When my aunt was there, we would join together as she played some of my great-grandfather’s favorite hymns.
            It was a cringe-worthy moment for a teenage boy, but I now cherish those memories.
            My great-grandfather was a staunch Methodist and I suspect we sang hymns from a long-past hymnal.  One of his favorites, which we would sing, would be Give Me that Old Time Religion.
            The hymn likely emerged from the Black Gospel and Southern Gospel traditions in the late 19th Century.  My great-grandfather loved it and its very simple message:

Give me that old time religion,

Give me that old time religion,

Give me that old time religion,

It’s good enough for me. 

            Call me na├»ve – which I may well be – but I think we need today the old time religion expressed in Jesus’ parable today.  If we could stop seeing one another as the other we could structure our world, our culture, and our society on what our founders described as a more perfect union.
            We have heard this message preached.  We have heard the story again and again.  And the fact is that G. K. Chesterton was right: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
             Christianity is hard,  It is demanding.  It is so much more than a feel-good, personal experience.  It requires us to intentionally alter our normal, cultural methods of relating to one another.  We cannot simply embrace what we could call cultural Christianity -- without having have lives transformed -- and expect a different world.
            It is time to truly try Christianity – to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest the teachings of Jesus, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
           We need to rise above and move beyond the tribal culturalism which infects our society.  We need to be transformed – to be counter-cultural.  We need to show people that we see them not as a class, as a uniform, or as some projection of our own fears and biases, and that we see them instead as brothers and sisters of the same God.
            Perhaps if you and I can do it, our transformation of perspective and behavior will affect others.  And bit-by-bit, we will begin to change the world.