A message given Sunday, December 3, 2006
by Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury United Methodist Church
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
I asked a man this week, one of the elders of the church, “What gives you joy?” He answered with a story, saying:
I tutor children in reading in an elementary school in Yonkers . Most of the kids come from poor families. Recently there was a visiting troop of young acrobats from China who performed at the school. After the performance the acrobats were selling pens to raise money for their trip. Each of the pans lit up at the end with a colored light. They were a dollar apiece. There were 23 children in the class, and it was obvious that few if any of them were going to be getting a pen, even though it was clear how badly each of them wanted one. I gave the teacher $23 to get a pen for each of the kids. She said, “Oh no, don’t do that.” He said, “I’m a volunteer, so you can’t tell me what to do.” She took the $23. “It gave me joy,” he said, “to see their faces when they got their pens.”
That vignette lingered in my mind this week – something about the pens lighting up and the children’s faces lighting up and the heart of an older man lighting up – something about it all captured my imagination. It was such a light and delightful moment.
These days that so many things are so heavy – the fact that we are beginning the Advent season, the fact that we begin to hear the mantra, the repeated words: peace and joy, peace and joy, peace and joy – day after day – when the weight of war is so heavy upon us. These beautiful words can feel empty or even painful to speak.
We hear Jesus today – he bids us to be light hearted – he warns us against being weighed down. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times…”
My daughter is a teacher. We went down to New Orleans for Thanksgiving and saw her school, a junior high school, one of the new charter schools in New Orleans. She’s got her hands full. She went back to New Orleans with great idealism and high hopes, and every day is a struggle to sustain those hopes and ideals.
Sometimes the systems we work in can frustrate our hopes. Sometimes the realities of life can frustrate our hopes: a classroom full of kids, half of whom are living doubled up with relatives because they lost their homes in Katrina – they had problems to begin with, and recent history has made things better, and it’s easy to take it all out on the nearest authority figure, who is often the teacher.
She calls us a lot, sometimes up, sometimes down. She has a basically very positive disposition, but it does get tested. She loves the children, and I believe that is the thing that keeps her from drowning in the problems they have and the problems of the system she has to work in.
We all have to deal with reality. That means we all have to live with systems, institutions, jobs, governments, religions, that are not perfect. Managing our lives in a stressful, dangerous, terrifying world, can indeed weigh a person down …”Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…” Yes indeed, be on guard, because it would be a very natural thing in this world to be dissipated – to space out, to distract the mind – to drug out, to find some way to deaden and dull the senses.
Most of us are looking for ways to turn off our brains. It’s not hard to see why. If you stay clearheaded and sober, facing the world as it is can knock you for a loop.
Our lunch and study group that meets on Wednesdays has been discussing Christian doctrines: revelation, incarnation, the Trinity, the nature of God, absolute versus relative truth, and other light and casual topics. At times it seems that Christianity is the most complicated set of ideas that anyone ever came up with. In a sense that is true, however, Christianity – living one’s life in a faithful way as a Christian person – is not a mental exercise; it is and exercise of the heart.
I will tell you a parable. (I made it up myself. )
There were two people. They discovered that they had many things in common. They found that they enjoyed one another’s company. They enjoyed the same kind of books, the same kind of movies, the same kind of restaurants, the same kinds of vacation spots. They had quite similar values and political views.
They spent long hours together.
They rarely disagreed. They never argued.
After several years one of the two looked deeply into the eyes of the other and declared, “I love you with all my heart; I love you with a fierce passion; I want to share my life with you; will you marry me?”
A thoughtful look came over the face of the other, who answered in this way: “I have truly enjoyed every moment we have spent together. We have so much in common. Yes, I agree to marry you, but I must say in all honesty that while I respect and enjoy everything about you, I cannot say that I love you passionately, but I believe that life with you would be very pleasant.”
That is the parable.
What you think?
Are you with me here?
Okay, I have a hunch some of you would like me to spell it out a bit more. In this parable people are making choices. The choices they are making revolve around the importance of love for the fulfillment of their lives.
One person, the person who loves passionately, has the possibility of spending a lifetime with their beloved but with no promise of love – passionate love – in return.
The other person has the possibility of spending a lifetime with someone whose company they enjoy, but someone to whom they cannot completely give their heart.
We may have ideas about what choices these people are making, but the key question for us is not , should they get married or should they not get married? The question is: where is my own heart? Who and what do I love passionately? Is it better to have a life that is orderly, and pleasant, and as stress free as possible, or is it better to pursue what you truly love and let the rest be what it will be?
Christian theology is complicated, this is true, but the daily life of a Christian is in some ways a very simple exercise of the mind and heart.
The people who have taught me the most have not necessarily been those who teach through lectures or seminars. Most of our learning we do by watching people. Those who have taught me the most have been those whose lives are focused on something they love passionately.
To focus your life on something you love passionately: this is what keeps the world from crushing us, weighing us down, driving us to obliterate our consciousness.
In a very formative period of my life I was influenced by two men, a Catholic brother, John, and a Catholic priest named Ray. One, the brother, was the director of a group home for delinquent boys where I worked after college. Ray was a priest who lived in the house and did community work out of a local parish. The group home, a building that John had fought to get, to fix up, and to keep running, was adjacent to a hospital. One day a letter came to John stating that the hospital going to take the property to expand its parking facilities.
John was one of the most focused people I’ve ever met. He loved those boys that society did not love, and who in many cases were not loved by their own families. This love gave his life a fierce purpose. He saw clearly the options for these kids if they did not make it with him: adult prison, violence, self-destruction and the destruction of the lives of others. That day the letter came John sat gazing glumly at it for a long time, until Ray came home.
Ray was also one of the most focused people I have ever met, but temperamentally very different. He sensed something was wrong and asked, “What’s the matter, John?” John pushed the letter toward him and gave him the news. Ray gave a funny kind of smile and said, “Oh, is that all?”
That made John angry, and he shot back, “I fail to see how you can take it so lightly when human life is at stake!”
Ray smiled again, gently, and said softly, “John, we’ve been dealing with human life for a long time, and we will be dealing with human life for a long time to come.”
And that was true. John went on in fact to established several more group homes for troubled kids.
They were good teachers, those two. One was a serious person given to much worry. The other was light hearted, light spirited. We all have different temperaments. Being a faithful person, trying to live faithfully before God, is not so much a question of whether you are serious or cheerful; it’s about being willing to focus your life on things that passionately matter.
Life is so heavy; it can bear down on you like a sack of lead. Return to what you love; return to it again and again; drive a stake in the ground right there; pitch your tent there.
It’s a hard and vexing world we live in; only God can count it’s tears,
and we are simply human; we are not asked to bear the whole world’s pain.
We are simply asked to be awake and alive, and to love, and to be faithful to what we love.
So be it.
Grace and peace to you.