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Breathing Lesson #2: Inhaling the Truth about Ourselves

May 15, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 15, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
Psalm 23           Acts 2: 42-47

I am often asked to recommend books to people: books for edification, to increase biblical knowledge, and for summer reading. It is the kind of request I particularly enjoy because I am, I must say, something of a book-a-holic. As Noelle and I were packing our house for the move to White Plains, we figured we have more books than anything else. We have five books about people who collect books and two about famous bookshelves in the world. I have enjoyed reading since the second grade when I discovered that if I finished my work quickly, Ms. DeBruin would let me sit in the children’s library and read. I finished all the Hardy Boys mysteries that year. The year I was confirmed, I read the entire bible from cover to cover. (I had to read it again).

But recommending books is harder than reading for your own enjoyment. In a congregation this size and this diverse, and with such wide educational interests, the simple request for a book on spirituality opens a field of questions about reader interest. C.S. Lewis, another great reader, was once asked it there would be books in heaven – to which he relied, after some reflection – “Of course there will, but they will only be the book you had given away.” So when someone I know recommends or gives me a book to read, I am particularly interested.

A few years ago my mother recommended a book for me to read, and I pass it on to you. The book is called The Prostitute in the Family Tree: Discovering Humor and Irony in the Bible, by Douglas Adams, who is not the same Doug Adams of science fiction fame. Adams contention is that the Bible is a funny book, a very funny book, but that our way of reading selected verses and even selected passages in Sunday worship causes us to miss most of the humor. Instead, he write, “When looking at the bible as a whole, readers see not just selected moralistic passages, but stories with all their rough edges – the unethical and ambiguous characters, the unsolved problems, and the surprising endings.” If we think of the early church as an ideal place, we will lose faith in our current churches full of “scandal and infighting.” [his words]. But by reading the bible fully and faithfully, we can see the truth about ourselves as sometimes faithful, sometimes faithless, always ambiguous characters who live by God’s grace.

So take a deep breath, as we ready ourselves for this second lesson – inhaling the truth about ourselves.

To read scripture faithfully, writes Adams, we must read the bible as a book of what he calls grandparent stories. He writes:

Remember the stories your parents told you about what it was like when they were growing up and how hard they worked. Now remember the stories your grandparents told you about what your parents really did when they were growing up. Both parents and grandparents tells stories, but the content varies: Parents tend to clean up their stories; grandparents tell stories that are more truthful and have many rough edges. Parental stories are solemn and can kill by prescribing an ideal we cannot fulfill, but grandparent stories are humorous and give hope and life by sharing a reality similar to our own.

Adams shares a story to illustrate the difference between parent and grandparent stories.

In the second grade, a little boy played baseball with the Pee Wee League. His next-door neighbor was the coach. This little boy was fascinated by a stopwatch the coach carried to time plays; and he saw a lot of that stopwatch, because during weekend games he was usually next to the coach on the bench. After practice sessions during the week, the coach and his wife often invited the team into their home to eat ice cream and watch the first television in the neighborhood.

On one of these occasions, the coach and his wife were called away and asked the little boy to lock up the house when the others had gone. After finishing off the ice cream and turning off the television, he noticed the stopwatch on the dining room table, so he went over, picked it up, and began pushing the buttons. The dials went around and around. Then it was time to leave, so he put the stopwatch in his pocket and went home.

As noted in The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Augustine had the wisdom to steal pears he could enjoy in private. The trouble with stealing a stopwatch is that it is a social instrument: One needs to time someone else. The little boy kept the watch in his pocket all week long until the baseball game on Saturday; then, in the midst of a big play, he pulled it out of his pocket to time the action. Sitting right next to the coach, he was exposed as a thief.

That night, the father called the boy in for a talk with him and his own father. He began by saying, “Son, you have ruined your life!” (The boy was only in the second grade, but parents give you the impression that once you fail your life is at an end.) He went on to say, “You might be forgiven once; but if you ever steal again, you will be branded a thief for life. Then you will never be the doc- tor or lawyer I hoped you would be.” (The father didn’t realize the boy could still be a minister or a teacher.) He turned to the grandfather and said, “You tell him how serious this is.”

The grandfather leaned back and said, “It is pretty serious. Of course, it could have been worse, like the time your father stole the Johnson’ boat up at the lake. It took me two days to get him out of jail. Or there was the time your father and his friends were graduating from high school and rented a cottage on the edge of town; they all got drunk, wrecked the place, and landed in jail again. And the third time your father was in jail – “

[At which point] The father interrupted, saying, “I think we have talked enough about this.”

Grandparents, Adams writes, “give you the impression that you can do it wrong once, you can do it wrong twice, and you can do it wrong three times – and there is still hope,” unlike baseball or even our jurisprudence system. “There are no “three strikes and your out,” either in grandparent stories or in biblical stories. How may times does Peter betray Jesus? After he denies Jesus three times is Peter out? No; he become the head of the church.”

The title of the book, The Prostitute in the Family Tree, refers to the genealogy of Jesus and is a demonstration that heredity is not the “absolute arbiter of what will be.” In Matthew’s gospel, Rahab the Prostitute (from Joshua) appears in the family tree of Jesus Christ. “That,” says Adams, “is really something to wrap your mind around.”

On the other hand, our scripture today from the Acts of the Apostles, is an example of a parent story.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 42-47)

Uh – Huh!? This is a story told by second generation Christians to third generation Christians in hopes that they will act their best in light of their freedom in Christ. It’s not a bad ideal, and it has always been the hope for redeemed community. But if you want the truth, speak to grandpa Paul, who wrote at least five letters to the church in Corinth. Within the early church, it appears, the fellowship of Jesus’ table became a feast for the wealthy; the rich exploited the poor and were blind to their own need for position and honor.; women freed from possession by their husbands, entered a struggle for power with the men, from which Paul himself was not immune; people with particular gifts thought that their gift gave them the right to run the whole church; impatience, jealousy, rudeness – and grace, and love, and a little bit of light in the darkness. This was the early church. If we were to take Acts as our instruction for community, worship and church growth, we would end up blaming each other when we fail, chastising ourselves, and lynching our leaders. This is what Doug Adams means when he says that parent stories can kill.

This is not to say that church community isn’t a high calling of God. But who we are together is not all the church is. The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order, our constitution as a church, says that the church is called to be “a provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth.” We, the church, exist to serve Christ in the world, but we exist truthfully because we are not an ideal community. And that frees us to point not to ourselves but to the grace by which we live.

Our church includes not only people of different ages, but different spiritual generations. And we need each other. For these generations allow us to tell the truth about ourselves. Those of you who are older in this congregation are our spiritual grandparents. Our children need to hear your stories of faith, how you have persevered through difficult times, what it is like to live without parents in the world, and perspective on our parents. But you grandparents also need children. If we ever lost the children, we would be only two generations, older parents and their children, eternally moralizing and disappointing each other, rather than witnessing to how imperfect people live by grace in the world. You know what I’m talking about?

I recognize this again every year when I meet with young people preparing to confirm their personal faith as Christian faith. I have been reading the statements of faith prepared by Awa and Sedinam, and we are receiving their confirmation projects today. Far more influential, I believe, than what is shared in class by their teachers and mentor’s, is what our children hear from us at home and what they hear and experience with us in worship. The truth about who we are is reflected in they have produced. They see both our limitations, failures, and mixed messages; but also our grandest visions our dearest hopes. They have heard from us both grandparent stories and parent stories. The reason I cherish learning from confirmation students is that I always find we are both worse and better than we think we are. And that, my friends, is biblical.

I commend to you the growing faith of these two young people. Their questions and visions are a fresh witness to this congregation. Their words allow us to say again what we believe, to admit our own doubts and struggles. They invite us to remember where we began, how long our journey has been, and that our hope continues. In the coming weeks we will make their statements available to you. I hope you can find the time to read them.

But what I would like each of you to do this week is this: if you are a grandparent, call your grandchildren and tell them a story about yourself and your faith. If you have living grandparents, call them this week and let them know how you are continuing to grow, where your faith is taking you, and what questions you have. And if you are parents, and have children but no grandchildren, you can call my mom! But find someone to share your stories with. For our stories are our blessings for each other. Amen.

Next Week: Breathing Lesson #3: Exhaling Our Story

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