Sunday, December 17, 2006

A "Sermon" I gave on June 1, 2002 at the 1st Seventh Day Baptist Church of Alfred, NY

I want to tell you a story:
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less [than it does now], a 10 year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him. "How much is an ice cream sundae?" "Fifty cents," replied the waitress. The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it. "How much is a dish of plain ice cream?" he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient. "Thirty-five cents," she said brusquely. The little boy again counted the coins. "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said. The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table, and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier, and departed. When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies - her tip.
This story touched me -- perhaps it touches you, too. I don’t know if this really happened, and I don’t have to believe that it did, in order to extract useful truths from this story -- in order to understand that impatience can be an embarrassment in the face of kindness, that children have large generosity hidden behind more child-like attributes, that I have a need to remember such stories in order to improve my own behaviour, and so on. The story is not explicitly about Jesus, but it expresses values he embraced, and I believe he wishes us to live out.
Jesus used stories -- especially parables that embraced some sort of paradox -- to challenge people’s thinking, to convey truths that were right in front of people but they had not recognized.
I have come to appreciate stories in ways I did not when I was younger. For instance, stories can encapsulate principles in all kinds of ways: Here’s one that . . .“puts things in perspective”:
“If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely
100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following.
There would be:
57 Asians
21 Europeans
14 from the Western Hemisphere, both north and south
8 Africans

52 would be female
48 would be male

70 would be non-white
30 would be white

70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian

89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual

6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's
wealth and all 6 would be from the United States

80 would live in substandard housing
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
1 would be near death; 1 would be near birth
1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education
1 would own a computer
When one considers our world from such a compressed
perspective, the need for both acceptance, understanding
and education becomes glaringly apparent."

This was attributed to Phillip M Harter, MD, FACEP at Stanford University, School of Medicine.

A few moments ago, I read from Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and you heard portions of two different versions of “creation”: one which says God created light, then the sky, separated the waters into earth and sea and made plants, made the sun and moon and stars, made water creatures, then domestic (which is not possible, since domestic means they have been consciously bred from wild stock, to suit human expectations) and wild creatures, then humans, all in six days. This story tells us that God then rested and blessed the seventh day. The writer then begins what seems to be another story, of how God created man and placed him in the garden in Eden where there were plants. Next, God created animals out of the dirt, before making a woman from the man’s rib. This is not the same order of creation as was recounted only a few verses before, thus a conflict if one feels they must believe every word of scripture literally. If you understand that truth can be found in each account without their being reconciled as historical accounts, this is no trouble. Since no man or woman was present at the creation of the universe, it is easy to understand that these accounts of those events are valuable for understanding, but that scientific explanations are also valid. In science, it is understood that older theories are sometimes abandoned for newer ones which employ what is known, more effectively, and this is no trouble, until people attach themselves inflexibly to any given theory.
I don’t have to believe that story as a literal telling of “creation” in order to extract useful truths from it. I don’t have to believe that the universe was created in seven, 24-hour days in order to understand that regular rest and re-evaluation, prayer and fellowship is an important practice that brings positive results for my family and for our church members. I understand that it is important enough to take that understanding to others.
In an article published December 21, 1978, Virginia Bortin told how a story in the Gospel of John (to which you will find reference on the back of the bulletin) helped to illuminate scientific research, and was confirmed by that research. Ms. Bortin said:
“When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, . . . she pointed to Mt. Gerizim rising above them. Then she remarked sadly, ‘Our fathers worshipped on this mountain.’ At the mountain’s summit, they were able to see ruins of a Samaritan temple destroyed 150 years before by Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus I. However, a century after Jesus’ death, these sacred ruins were completely hidden from view by a Roman sanctuary built over them. . .
The ancient Samaritans regarded themselves as the legitimate heirs to the religion of Moses and Abraham. They considered their temple the only true sanctuary of the faith. The Samaritans were powerful rivals of the Jews, who believed their own temple at Jerusalem to be supreme. . .
For a long time after the destruction by Hyrcanus, Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies, neither welcome in the other’s land. Some 150 years had passed when Jesus, traveling through Samaria, encountered this hostility as he, a Jew, asked the Samaritan woman for water. . .
Ironically, the mystical Hyrcanus is said to have become convinced in his last days that the Samaritan religious claims were true. Seeking penance, the Jewish leader sent gifts and sacrifices to the ruined nation. . . .
. . . Jesus and the Samaritan woman could still view the results of Hyrcanus’ brutal destruction. Now, these ruins have again come to light, proven by 20th century technology [anthropological, archaeological, and other methods] to be the very ones Jesus knew. They are a poignant reminder of a long-ago struggle over faith [BELIEF]” (Olean Times Herald, date noted above)

The Bible is full of stories, and by saying so, I do not intend to diminish the importance of scripture, but to improve our understanding of scripture, and of its importance.

Mark Twain told lots of stories -- like the one read earlier -- based roughly on his life, in his classic books, and it does not matter which portions are true, in order for me to find myself laughing or crying at the message he conveys. He was good at telling stories that made fun of himself, and we are all richer for it. Likewise, his “war prayer” is one of the most eloquent at reminding us that losers in war are not always just “the bad guys”, among other things. This is especially poignant, since we just celebrated Memorial Day, and I mean no offense to veterans, by reading Twain’s words regarding “the Philippine-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper's Bazaar rejected it as "not quite suited to a woman's magazine”
“The story relates a patriotic church service held to usher the young men of a town off to war. The minister begins with the invocation:
God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder, Thy clarion, and lightning, Thy sword!
The service continues with a "long prayer" for the victory of the country's military. As the prayer closes, an "aged stranger" enters the church and walks up the aisle to the front of the church where the minister is standing. Motioning the startled minister aside, he begins to relate the "unmentioned results" that "follow victory -- must follow it, cannot help but follow it."
I come from the Throne -- bearing a message from Almighty God!... He has heard the prayer of His servant, your shepherd, & will grant it if such shall be your desire after I His messenger shall have explained to you its import -- that is to say its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of -- except he pause & think.
"God's servant & yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused & taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken & the unspoken....
"You have heard your servant's prayer -- the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it -- that part which the pastor -- and also you in your hearts -- fervently prayed, silently. And ignorantly & unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is completed into those pregnant words.
"Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe.
"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land in rags & hunger & thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer & the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave & denied it -- for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask of one who is the Spirit of love & who is the ever-faithful refuge & friend of all that are sore beset, & seek His aid with humble & contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord & Thine shall be the praise & honor & glory now & ever, Amen."
(After a pause.) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! -- the messenger of the Most High waits."

So it is with stories, and even historians are learning that historical objectivity is not possible. No one historian can tell a story which contains all the truth, to satisfy those who lived through an event or were affected by it.
But stories can convey truth in all sorts of ways, and of many natures, be they symbolic, or emotional, or empathic, or simply intended to convey a principle for living.
But, when someone is telling a story about someone else, it matters a great deal, how much truth is contained in the story. It is a wise admonition that states “Thou shalt not bear false witness........” It mattered a great deal when people in this Association BELIEVED stories they heard about what we were doing, and why!!!!!
I have heard it said: “If someone says something unkind about you, live in such a way that no one will believe it.” and early Quakers said “What thee does speaks so loud that we cannot hear what thee says."

For some, it is extremely important that they believe exactly the “right” things, and in some cases their behaviour is inconsequential to their beliefs. It is more important that anyone with whom they affiliate, believe exactly as they do. They think that improper belief is sinful, and heretical, and abominable.
Others have discovered that their beliefs are central to how they live their lives, and much of their behaviour and practice, whether religious or not, arises from those beliefs and the resultant values they place on material things, the use of their time, and the ways in which they relate to other humans, plants, animals, and objects.
Many wise people have found themselves in situations in which time is not available to rationalize what is the best course of action, but make decisions which, when the results are seen, greatly affect their future behaviours. Think of someone who has made a great mistake that harmed others, who spent the remainder of their life in thoroughly altruistic endeavours, or the ordinary person who happened to be in a place and circumstance to preserve another’s life in some heroic fashion, and spent their later days in ordinary fashion, but being admired by many for their extraordinary willingness to be of assistance.
Here’s a story of such a person. It was sent to me by e-mail and I don’t know from where it originated, so I don’t know if it is urban folklore or a true account. What matters is that people DO do such things, every day:

“Many years ago, when I worked as a volunteer at Stanford Hospital, I got to know a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease, and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. I saw him hesitate for only a
moment before taking a deep breath and saying, "Yes, I'll do it if it will save Liz." As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as we all did, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, "Will I start to die right away?" Being young, the boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his
sister ALL of his blood. Attitude, after all, is everything.”
Rev. Darwin Maxson, a prominent member of this church and of the Alfred University faculty, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, said he “won’t obey it.” (Fiat Lux, p. 46), because he believed so strongly in the need to put an end to slavery.
Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on the bus on that fateful day not so many years ago, not because she suddenly decided it wasn’t right. She had probably never believed it was right for whites to take seats from black people, but it had taken her time to come to the point of taking action to try to make the outside world match what she believed in her own heart. She, along with many others, had evidently been in the PROCESS of coming to believe that BELIEVING something was not enough. So she started something. The action arising from her belief prompted many others to action.

Psychologists now say that the largest portion of human behaviours are done without prior rationale, but are explained by rational means, after the fact. I’ve been pretty certain this was so, for many years. Maybe you have, too. How many times have you said, “why the heck did he/she do that?” Sometimes that’s because we don’t know what the other is dealing with, and sometimes we just don’t think. Not that our behaviour is entirely IRrational, but we apparently act mostly on some level that is not fully rational, but might be described as intuitive.

Nevertheless, what we believe is very important, because although we may rationalize ex post facto, our beliefs are at work in our psyche, in ways yet to be understood. But our beliefs are organic, and should grow with our understandings and wisdom that is granted to us. Our beliefs are affected by events in our lives and by processes in the world around us, and when these are profound, they produce uncommon courage, honesty, perseverance, and all sorts of gifts in our lives and in those with whom we live. Galatians 5:22 says “the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. There is no law against such things as these.” If we are open to the Spirit’s leading, we do not become perfect, but our lives have an abundance of these things, without our having to believe a complete and proper set of precepts, and this is the marvelous part of following Christ.

Jonathan Allen (prominent in this church and in Alfred University’s history) espoused “spontaneity, freshness, freedom, originality, and independent thought and investigation. . . comprehensive views, a respect for ideas, a scholarly enthusiasm, an ethical worthiness, spiritual dignity, and a reverent theistic tendency” for students at the University. It was said of Allen, “While loyal to his denomination, he was too ‘catholic [ecumenical, cosmopolitan] to be bound by any mere creed of any particular church. . . ‘” (Fiat Lux, p. 92)
He said “the universe is a living temple of God, everywhere and perpetually filled . . . {religion is] “a vital relationship and communion of the soul with the Divine. Religious certainty is not the inferences of logic, or the credence of historic testimony but immediate and living, an experiential assurance by a personal relation.”
Allen, who attended Oberlin College which claims to be the earliest co-ed institution........was “ahead of his time” in embracing women’s suffrage and abolition of slavery. He allowed himself to be influenced by his wife’s views (Dan Rase said he was a “wise man”)
I am astonished that, almost 200 years after “The origin of species” was published, and A.U. students discussed its merits with Allen and Maxson, who integrated such “new thinking” into their faith, there are people who persist in rejecting such things without any thought or investigation. I won’t deny them the right to believe as they wish, but I submit that beliefs are worthless and can be evil, unless they result in moral behaviour.
I do not deny to such people the right to believe that the human species was created in a 24-hour period, and that woman was made from man’s rib, but when such a belief denies God’s continuing creative power, denies to their children the understanding of the nascent potential of all creation, and denies others the opportunity to learn, then their belief is inadequate, perhaps immoral.
I remember my parents being more concerned about my association with youth groups which had less liberal approaches to religious belief, even though they were interdenominational, than they seemed to be about my experimenting with adult behaviours. I have always admired that about them -- that my parents continued to learn from others, to allow freedom to others while still expecting the best of and for them, throughout their lives. They were more worried about the closing of my mind, than about it opening to -- perhaps -- even dangerous things.
In 1963, this church had over 100 members, but with the Theological School closed, fewer SDBs came to A.U., and more and more members’ children moved away. In that vacuum, the denomination’s leaders like Allen, Maxson, Boothe C. Davis, A.J.C. Bond, Melvin Nida, Clifford Hansen, Wayne Rood, Herb Saunders, and J. Paul Green, are not replaced. There is not a group of young, energetic persons assembled here or anywhere else, to whom they can impart their wisdom, as was once true. Not that there have not been leaders here, but there was a lacking of strength in numbers of such people, and in that partial vacuum, our churches have suffered from the lack of progressive leadership, leading to the narrowing of our traditional ecumenism.
In that vacuum, this church was victimized by persons who presumed authority to dictate what was right belief, over others in the church -- a practice uncharacteristic of this congregation. This, and other events, resulted in the loss of members to other churches, even if just the next SDB church down the road. Now, here we sit wondering what we can do.
If this church is to be revived, we must either revisit what has made us successful in the past, or find new ways to successfully engage people in fulfilling activities. We must be more than just busy.
If this Association of Seventh Day Baptist churches is to have a promising future, it must make a place for those who do not hold that belief is the end of religion, but the beginning. There must be space made for those who differ on points of belief, but not on learning from the stories in the Bible. There must be space for those who can remain centered upon the Biblical foundation, but also learn from other sources that have integral rather than arbitrary authority, and integrate those learnings into their faith.
If this denomination is to have a future, Seventh Day Baptists must find ways to make such strong familial alliances work for the benefit of humanity, or we will be decimated by such struggles as this church has so far survived.
If we are to have a future as Seventh Day Baptists, we must find the means to engage creative persons who can integrate new knowledge and new conceptual understandings into the faith we have inherited -- the faith that gives meaning to our living, and to our common efforts. If we do not, our children and grandchildren will fall prey to “formula faiths” that offer simple answers and demand conformity with other person’s understandings, instead of building and using beliefs that are their own, with the guidance of God’s spirit and those with whom they covenant. Let us continue to believe that the future holds many good things, and that we can be a part of bringing them to pass.
Amen.

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I've been a number of things over the years: husband, father, environmental technical specialist, college instructor, carpenter, volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver, student of Lakota and Japanese languages, technical writer, process engineer, research technician, IT technician, emergency dispatcher, etc.