Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
March 9, 2000
I Do What I Do?
I read a long time ago that the shortest poem in the English language is made up of only two words and four letters - I, why.That is a profoundly probing insight. This morning I want to direct that at this whole area of our behavior. Look at the way you're making up your life today and ask, "Why do I act as I do?"
As a means to that end, I would like to set before you several stories that I hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will become parables. A parable is that special kind of story that starts out being about somebody else, and then suddenly you realize it's about you.
It would be like looking at a portrait, and all of a sudden that portrait changes into a mirror, and you see a reflection back of your own reality. The way our eyes are situated in our heads, we cannot see all of ourselves all by ourselves. I would never know what my face looks like or the back of my head or the back of my shoulders, if it were not for something outside of me to mirror it back. Therefore, I would like to tell you a few stories, and I'll leave it to you to look at those. Hopefully they will be mirrors that enable you to see more deeply the reality of your own behavior.
In the first story, a fight broke out on an elementary school playground. After the teacher got everything settled down, she asked, "How did all this get started?" A cocky little boy said, "It all started when he hit me back." Does that evoke any image of recognition in you, this great tendency we have to explain our actions in terms of what other people have done to us, and therefore to pass responsibility over to them?
This whole process of blaming others for our behavior goes all the way back in our human saga to the myths in the book of Genesis; those wonderful beginning stories. When God went for his evening walk one night, he couldn't find anybody because his creatures were hiding. They were fearful.When he finally found them, he said, "Why is it that you have done the one thing I asked you not to do?" Adam immediately said, "It was the woman that you gave me that caused me to do what I did." And then she said, "It was the serpent that you created that caused me to do it." The blame game has been going on since the very beginning of our saga. Whenever we account for our behavior in terms of simply being echoes of something else, we are vastly diminishing who we are and what we were meant to be.
In creation, God ceased to be everything, so that we humans could become something. God gave us the power to make things happen, the freedom and the potency.When I put all the responsibility for my behavior on something outside myself, I am literally, as Saint Paul said, falling short of the glory that I truly am. But then, there is another motivation, another story.
I read this next story in the writings of Albert Camus.The leader of the French liberal political party - a man recognized nationally for being the champion of the underdog, always challenging big government, big business, always taking up for the little person - happened to be walking one evening after work by a river, close to his house. A young girl came paddling by in a canoe. She hit something, and the canoe capsized. The girl was not a good swimmer, and she began to sink and cried out for help. She came up twice, and then the third time, she disappeared. The water became very, very smooth, and she was drowned.
He called the authorities in due time. They pulled her bloated corpse out of the water .He went home and couldn't sleep that night because, great liberal champion that he was, he found himself asking, "Why did I do nothing to help that girl in trouble? Was it fear of the water?" No, he had learned to swim years before. Did he feel incompetent to rescue her? It's one thing to swim; it's another thing to be a lifesaver .No, he realized that he had even done lifesaving as a young man. Why had he done nothing? he asked himself. The answer he discovered was a deeply disturbing one. He realized he had done nothing in that moment because there wasn't a crowd to witness his actions. There wasn't a television camera to take what he was doing out to all of the country.
He had allowed himself to get to the place where it was only humanity that he cared about, not individual human beings. He no longer saw the trees, he only saw the forest. This is a temptation that those of us who live in the city are very vulnerable to. There's so many of us, and we're so crowded together, that it can get to the place where a single person is simply not worth our disturbing ourselves to do something.
I was once on a panel with the minister of a huge mega church in a great southern city. I was astonished when he admitted to the group, "I love people by the acre, but I cannot stand them one by one." I found myself thinking that this is the plight of so many people in the city. Everybody wants to wholesale, everybody wants to deal en masse. Is it possible that we do what we do only because the camera is on, only because there are lots of other people who will see it?
The truth is, true character is defined by what you do when nobody else is looking. What you do simply out of your own insides. Here was this vaunted champion of human rights, who didn't disturb himself to help just a single human being.
A third motivation is illustrated by a story that has expressions in many different cultures. This one came out of the Welch lore. For generations the men of a certain family had gone to work in the coal mines that were famous in that region. The youngest son of one of the generations - having seen what the mines had done to his grandfather, his father and his brothers - decided he would break tradition, and joined the British Navy.
The family looked forward to his visits home; his world now seemed so much richer and more exciting than theirs. On one visit, a monkey's paw fell out of the duffel bag he was unpacking. The family was gathered around and his old father said, "What is that?" "It's an enchanted talisman," his son replied. "I bought it in Cairo. It's magic. Grip it, close your eyes and make three wishes, and they're bound to come true. But I was warned, this monkey's paw has been tainted by black magic, I'm really afraid of it. I think I'll throw it in the fire and destroy it."
But the old father, who had had so few chances at any kind of options, was seized by curiosity. He said, "You mean to tell me if I grip this and make any wishes, they'll come true?" His son replied, "That's what they said." So the old man took it, shut his eyes and said, "If I could only have a 200-pound note, I'd be the happiest person in the world. I've never had that much money at one time in all my life.'
No sooner had he said that, than there was a knock on the door. It was a representative of the mining company who said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but there's been an explosion down in one of the shafts. Several of the miners have been killed, and one of them was your son. It's the policy of the company to give a 200-pound note to the next of kin. I come with great consolation. Here is the money." The old father said, "Oh, no, oh, no, I didn't want a 200-pound note at that kind of price. Bring me my son, bring me my son." With that, he looked over the shoulder of the company official and coming up the path were the other brothers, carrying the battered corpse of their brother who had just been killed.
"I didn't mean to bring him that way. Take him away, take him away," just then they turned to go and bury him. The old man staggered back inside, sat down and looked, and there was that monkey's paw in his hand. He suddenly realized that all three of his wishes had come true, and none of them in a way that was pleasing to him.
The reason that story is so powerful is that it reminds us that we don't always know what is best for us. If your only motivation is fishing out your own desires, doing what you think may be best, your finitude or your sinfulness may well lead you to something you neither expected or anticipated.
The 37th Psalm says, "Delight thyself in the Lord, and he will give thee the desires of thy heart". I had an old mentor that said a good translation of that would be, "Delight thyself in the Lord, and he'll fix your water." Would that not be the finest of all gifts, if God could help shape our desires according to the designs of creation? My deepest faith is that God's Will and our human joy are synonymous. That in doing what God had in mind when he created us, we would know the ecstasy beyond all ecstasy. But the truth is, many times we are not consulting what God had in mind when he created us. We're looking only to the desires of our own heart. I'm reminded of Jesus looking down from the cross with great sadness at the chaos around him and saying, "Father, forgive them for they don't know what they're doing."
Is your main motivation simply fishing out your own desires, or is there a profound sense that God's Will is our perfect freedom and our highest joy?
Let me share one more motivation. This is my favorite because I feel it sums up what it means for a Christian to be asking, "Why do I do what I do?" It's a story about a little boy who was born very crippled. The only thing he could do to earn a living was to sit on a high stool in a busy train station and sell trinkets to the passengers who were coming back and forth. He did this day after day.
One day a hurried traveler with two big suitcases came whirling around the corner. He didn't realize the little boy was sitting there in his high stool. He crashed into him, and the stool went one way, the little boy went the other, and all the trinkets scattered over the marble floor. Instead of apologizing to him, the gruff traveler cursed him for being there in the first place, and stalked on to catch his train.
There was another traveler coming along right behind. He too, was in a hurry, but he saw what had happened, and he had a different set of values. He put down his suitcase, set the stool upright,and and helped the lad back on it. Then he found the tray and put it back in the boy's lap. He gathered up all the trinkets that he possibly could retrieve, reached in his pocket and gave the lad a 20-dollar bill. He said, " This will pay you for all the trinkets that are lost and broken." With that, he picked up his bags and started for his train. He was stopped dead in his tracks when the little boy cried out, "Wait a minute, Mister, wait a minute. Are you Jesus?" The man turned around and said, "Oh no son, I'm not Jesus. I am just one of his followers who's trying to do what he would do if he were here."
I think this is the finest of all motivations, this is what God had in mind when he created us. God became what we are, a flesh and blood human being, so we could see through Jesus who we are and what God meant for us to be. Of all the motivations that I think are the profoundest, the highest motivation is to pattern our lives out of that great design, and when facing a situation ask, "What would Jesus do?" Jesus as the name of our species is the finest and the greatest of motivations.
There's an old Franciscan fable from the Middle Ages about a mother tiger who died giving birth to a little tiger cub. It meant the little creature was born into the world without maternal support and guidance. A pack of goats came along and, sensing the plight of the newborn infant, invited the little tiger to join them. Even though he was a tiger by nature, he began to live as a goat. He nibbled grass, he bleated the way a goat bleats.
Months went by, and wonderful things happened to his body, but of course he did not realize it. One day a king tiger came through the jungle, and there he saw this magnificent young tiger acting for all the world like a goat. He said, "What is the meaning of this unseemly masquerade? Why are you behaving this way?" The little tiger didn't know anything to do but to bleat nervously and begin to nibble some grass.
Then the king tiger realized the problem, this creature had no earthly idea who he was. He took him down to the river - wonderful symbol of Baptism. In the reflective powers of the water, the little tiger saw an image of himself alongside a full-grown version of what he had it in him to be. The king tiger said, "You were not meant to bleat," and he laid back his great head and let out a true tiger roar. "You were not meant to nibble grass," and he gave him his first taste of tiger food. "Come follow me, little one. I'll help you to become the grand thing you have it in you to be."
I'm told this fable inspired T.S. Eliot to forge the metaphor, "Christ the Tiger," because that's exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to help us see who we really are, that Christlikeness is the deepest truth of all of our identities. We're all the beloved sons and daughters of that kind of reality. To realize in my deepest reaches that I am a Christlike being, called to grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that is the high call of the Christian life.
I find myself disturbed as I think about my own existence when I ask the question, "Has anybody ever confused me for Jesus?" If that ever happened, I think that would be the finest and highest compliment I could ever receive. I invite you to look into why you do what you do. Let Jesus Christ be the name of your species, let your true nature come to the surface. Try as best you can in your places to do what Jesus would do if he were there. This is the highest of all motivations.
Dear Christ, call us, make us, transform us, into your image. Go now, dear ones, go with God, be not afraid. Let God go before you to guide you. Let God go behind you to protect you. Let God go beneath you to secure you, and best of all, let God go beside you to befriend you. Go now, go with God, be not afraid. Amen.
Copyright 2000 The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool
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