Sunday, July 10, 2011

By Faith: Sermon on Clifford Ross Scholarship Sunday

Hebrews 11:23-28

“By Faith”

The Egyptians became threatened by the growing minority population of Hebrew people. It was a cruel time long ago in Egypt when Pharoah, king of Egypt, ordered that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed. They didn’t have sonograms back then; they didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl until the little one came out of the mother’s womb. So,every birth among the Hebrews of that time was surrounded with more than the usual worries and fears of child birth. There was a death sentence if you were a Hebrew baby boy or if you were someone hiding a Hebrew baby boy – that would get you the death sentence as well.

It was a cruel time. And, one day in that time over 3,000 years ago in Egypt, a Hebrew woman gave birth to a son, and she and the father of the child vowed that they would do everything in their power to save the life of this beautiful baby boy. The scriptures say: “By faith the parents of Moses hid the child for three months; seeing the child was beautiful, they were not afraid of the edict of the king.”

They hid him out as long as they could, but the authorities were always coming around trying to find baby boys among the Hebrews – to kill them. And, one day, they knew they were about to be found out, and so the parents waterproofed a basket the best they could, placed the little baby boy in the basket and hid the basket along the shallows of the Nile River among the plants. They hid him in the bulrushes.

But, they didn’t just leave him there alone. His grown sister sat a distance away to keep watch. And, when she saw Pharoah’s daughter coming to bathe, she saw that Pharoah’s daughter had compassion on her baby brother. And, then she walked forward and Pharoah’s daughter said: “Please find me a nurse among the Hebrew women; I am going to save this boy and raise this boy in my house when he is weaned.”

And, she named the baby boy, Moses, meaning “drawn out of the water.” Moses’ family defied the king’s edict to save the child’s life. By faith, they acted. And, they used their minds to form a plan that would work. They hid him out precisely in the place where Pharoah’s daughter bathed. They must have known she was as kind as her father was cruel.

It was a cruel bondage in those days. It was such a struggle just to preserve your life and the life of your children if you were a Hebrew slave. And, God heard the cries of his people, and God came down to deliver them from their bondage in Egypt bringing them out across the Red Sea to freedom. Our scripture says: “By faith, Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to share the illtreatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Through Moses’ faithfulness, God delivered the Hebrew people.

And, the first thing God did for his people when they were free is that he began to educate them by giving them instructions about how to honor God and show respect for each other. Liberation and education. They go hand in hand. You have to educate to liberate; you have to liberate to educate. God knew that if his people didn’t learn how to live together, their freedom would once again turn into a type of bondage.

For a people to be free they have to be free on the outside and on the inside.
Bob Marley used to sing: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”

God spoke through Moses teaching his people, opening their minds to a clear way of thinking about life. He began to teach them how to understand the culture they lived in, how to understand themselves and each other; God taught the people a holy way to live in the world. You shall have no other gods before me. Don’t bow down to idols. Don’t take the holy name of God in vain. Keep the Sabbath rest. Honor your parents. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t tell lies about each other. Don’t envy your neighbor.

The Hebrew people had been in bondage. Now they were to learn what free people must learn – how to use their own minds to comprehend and shape their own destiny on earth.

At the heart of the faith of Israel were the written and spoken words of the prophets and the words of the law. The people of Israel were to learn these words by heart so that their minds would be awakened and able to understand the challenges of life. God liberated them from their external bondage, and God was educating them to liberate themselves from their internal bondage (from a mind that was asleep and could be fooled, to a mind that was awake and coming to wisdom).

At the heart of every social revolution that brings justice and freedom is education, and the awakening of the mind. Because education brings self-respect and with knowledge also comes power. In the Reformation in Europe, the words of scripture were translated into the language the people could understand so that they could comprehend the Biblical message in their own minds. So that the people would not be kept in the dark but come into the light. Jesus had once said: “they will know the truth and the truth will set them free.”

In the Civil Rights Movement, leaders emerged, and among those leaders none was greater than M.L. King, Jr. He was an intellectual, received his Ph.D in philosophy from Boston University. He studied modern theories of Biblical Interpretation and understood philosophies of social change from Marx to Ghandi’s non-violent revolution in India. And, though many people don’t know as much about Malcolm X’s intellectual training, he also was one who loved to learn and awakened to the power of knowledge. Malcolm X educated himself while serving a prison term as a young man. You don’t have to be in college to learn. Books are everywhere and accessible. Malcolm X said his alma mater was “Books.” But, he didn’t become deeply interested in learning until some religious men in prison taught him that he was a child of God, cared for and valued by God. M.L. King Jr. was raised in a household that reminded him daily that he was a child of Almighty God and that no one could ever take that from him.

It is this first great lesson that is the foundation of life, and the foundation of learning. Once a child experiences in his or her heart that he or she is truly a child of God, cared for and valued by God – once that living faith takes root, then a child can truly discover his abilities, gifts, dreams in life. Then a child can awaken to the desire to learn and engage in life in a positive and creative way.
So long as young people don’t know that they have ultimate worth because God values them, then young people can come to feel worthless in this world. And, when a young person feels worthless then they can be manipulated and fooled, and when you feel worthless, you just don’t appreciate your abilities or respect the importance of learning and education.

When you feel worthless you do worthless things, are interested in worthless pursuits, and hang out with people who share that sense of worthlessness.
So, as a young person comes to have a true belief that they are loved and valued by God, he becomes able or she becomes able to see that they can do many things. But first of all, a person needs to understand that they are able to learn, and we all are. And, to be able to learn as human beings are able is a truly amazing thing. Until this respect and love of learning is awakened a person doesn’t truly come alive.

Moses knew he was a child of God. And, God taught Moses that his fellow Hebrews were children of God. Moses was called to awaken his fellow Hebrews to this knowledge. And, God called Moses to take action in the world on the basis of this knowledge. And, Moses did. He knew who he was, and he learned what he was to do in life. That is what every human being needs. To know who he or she is, and to discover what he or she can do well in life. This is the goal of real learning and using the mind. The human ability to learn is an amazing thing.

It is this appreciation of God’s gift of learning and education that brings us to emphasize the work of the Clifford Ross Scholarship which is given each year to support and encourage learning among college bound male senior basketball players at Austin-East. Mr. Ross had a concern that young people truly become strong and good citizens, and he knew that a commitment to education was one of the most important things in developing into a good and capable person. And, Mr. Ross knew that these young men he taught and coached needed some encouragement and support to get over the internal and external barriers to achievement in our society. He had grown up and faced these barriers that were very heavy at times for black youth, and perhaps continue to be heavy for different reasons in our time especially for young black men.

Howard Thurman said that there are two basic questions that a human being needs to be able to answer deep down in his or her soul:
1) Who am I?
2) What am I?

The first question is about a sense of belonging in the world. And, Thurman says Jesus great answer for all human beings is: “You are a child of God, cared for and valued by God.”

The second question is about a sense of achievement and accomplishment in life. What am I? What am I able to do? And, Thurman says that unless a person finds a way to achieve and accomplish something in life, he or she is likely to begin to doubt whether he or she really belongs in this world, whether she or he really has worth as a person. We have spoken a good word to our youth, saying , “You are loved by God and us; you belong.” But, it seems we are not doing enough to help our youth realize their value as we don’t seem to be helping them get over those barriers to achievement and purpose in society. And, those barriers are a less visible than in former days, but still strong.

Erik Erikson was a famous psychologist that had a theory of human development. He teaches that the first two stages of human development are Trust v. Mistrust (that is when a child learns to either trust his environment or distrust it by virtue of how he is treated by those who care for him); and Autonomy v. Shame and Doubt (that is when a child learns whether his will is valued by others or not). And then the third stage is Industry v. Inferiority (that is when a child begins to learn tasks and skills and achieves a certain sense of competency or comes to a feeling of incompetency/inferiority). There is really some wisdom in this analysis of Erikson. A child learns a sense of belonging and value through those who care for him and how they care for him. A child learns a sense of industry or inferiority based on how he or she is able to perform certain meaningful tasks, how he or she is able to learn or not learn.

These are some basic points about human development. We would do well to get back to basics in the way we care for and teach and support our young people.
What human beings need is a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. A family and friends can certainly give a sense of belonging. But, a sense of accomplishment can’t be given to you by someone else. It can be encouraged and supported by someone else. But, it has to be achieved by you. And, the foundation of a strong sense of accomplishment in life is to develop the mind, to learn and come to understand how to learn and how to live. If you cultivate your ability to learn, your ability to learn will grow and bless your life and the life of others. Because you can learn what others have done; you can learn what others have thought, and then you begin to do and think on your own and teach others as well.

If you go through life without awakening to the powers of learning that you have been given, you are like a plane without a pilot. The pilot of a human life is the mind. If your mind is the captain, the one to direct your movements in life – if that pilot is asleep or not wise, well, you are in trouble. To fail to learn what you are able to learn is to devalue your own life, and to in a sense doom yourself to underachievement. Now, we are all called to learn what we are able to learn, and if we do, that will be enough knowledge to be what we are to be in God’s good will for our lives.

We can do better in our society and in our churches and even in our homes with our children. Our children have these minds that are so capable. But, are they developing these minds? That is a question I send you away with. If our children aren’t reading books or aren’t interested in reading books, then how will they develop their minds? (a short educational video or a short blip on the internet about something are not a substitute for reading books – whole books, but any reading is better than none). It takes a confidence that you can understand, and it takes a desire to understand to read books. And, it takes an imagination. If our children aren’t learning what we feel they should be learning in school, why aren’t they? If our youth don’t think it is a good thing to be a good student, why don’t they? These are questions not just about young people but about us, those who are responsible for encouraging and educating young people.

Malcolm X writes in his autobiography:

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened up to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

pp. 206-207, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s own liberation came on the inside – in his own mind - before he was released from prison. And, he never went back to prison. When he got out, he was a new man. He had a new life. He had a mind awakened. From a man who could barely read and write, he came to be a man who debated with Harvard professors and more than held his own. Education is one of the greatest ways to freedom. For all of us, those words of Bob Marley bear repeating: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” A mind asleep is a mind enslaved. True education, the awakening of the mind, is a glorious freedom.

By faith, we learn who we are. We are children of God. By faith, we learn what we can do in life. One thing we can surely do as human beings is keep learning until the day we die.

Glory be to God who has created humanity in God’s own image and has blessed us with the ability to learn and to think and plan and discuss and create. May we honor this gift of God in the way that we live and learn and teach others, and especially as we encourage our young people.

By faith, Moses’ parents risked everything that he might survive. By their wisdom which came of faith, they figured out a way that he might not just survive but thrive. By faith, let us give of our time and energy to protect the young. And, let us learn so that in our wisdom we can teach them, not only how to survive, but how to thrive.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 73: Wrestling with Envy

Psalm 73: “Wrestling with Envy”

The Psalm writer remembers a time when he was worn out with the unfairness of life. He remembers a time when his mind was riddled with doubt. He says: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart, but as for me, my feet had nearly slipped, I had almost tripped and fallen . . .”

But, what had happened to cause this holy man to fall into a place of doubt and trouble? What happens in our lives to make us fall into a place of spiritual struggle?

For this man who surely spoke for many men and women of Israel, it was a painful struggle with envy and a painful struggle with the unfairness of life.

Have you ever looked around and noticed that there are a good number of people that seem to get many of the good things of life even though they continue to do a lot of bad things towards other people? There was a book written about 20 years ago entitled: “Why bad things happen to good people.” This Psalm is concerned about that, but the title of these complaints would be: “Why Do Such Good Things Happen to Such Bad People?” That’s what really filled the Psalmist soul in his time of trouble. “Why Do The Best Things Seem to Happen to Some of the Worst People?”
And, then he takes us back into that time of trouble. His mind goes back to that time of bitterness and he begins speaking like he did back in that past time of trouble. Here is what he was talking like back then:

“These proud and wicked people suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound; they don’t have to share in the misfortunes that the rest of us bear in life. They wear their pride and arrogance like a necklace for all to see. They wrap their violence around them like a cloak. Their sins arise from corrupt minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts. They make fun of others and enjoy hurting others with the way they talk. They are conceited and they make plans to exclude and deprive others of their rights.”

This holy man gets all worked up again recalling this state of mind and soul when he was so overwhelmed with complaining and so sick of the evil people getting the good things in life while the righteous were struggling to just get by.

Truth was, he was complaining to God, and angry in his soul. The Psalms contain many complaints showing that true prayer often contains complaints as part of the song of faith. Of course, as the Psalm writer shows us, if the complaining spirit continues to turn to the Holy God, something more happens in the heart and in the soul. Something more than just complaining.

And, though we are going to be involved in complaining in our hearts and minds and conversations and even prayers at times, we get tired when we get to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT. Because once that complaining spirit takes over within us, it alienates others from us. Now, we know everybody has got to complain some in life. And, if someone never complains, we may think they are putting on an act in life. But, we do get tired of being around someone who complains all the time about things being unfair to that person. And, we start complaining about our friend complaining so much, who may in turn be complaining about someone else who complains so much. But, surely we all do have some serious complaints in our hearts and minds, whether we speak them or not.

Because we can’t help but wonder at times in life why one person is given so many advantages and another person is not; why it is such a struggle for one child to get a decent education while an education just seems to come as a matter of course for other children. We may wonder why some seem to find a good man or good woman so easily while that is something we can’t ever seem to find. We may wonder why some of our good desires in life don’t ever seem to get fulfilled. We may wonder why someone we love and care about so much just has such a struggle to get by in life while others just breeze by as if living was the easiest thing in the world to do.
And, when those complaints reach a point of deep bitterness, it gets hard for us to do anything positive in life. When we fall to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT, it gets for us like it was for the Psalmist. He says: “I had reached a breaking point. I turned to God and said: ‘In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence. I have been troubled all day long and beat down each morning as if I had done evil.”

I remember conversations over the years with parents who had children, small children, who were suffering from debilitating, irreversable diseases. I remember these parents talking about their struggle to keep their will to live and work and stay strong for their child and families in the face of such a tragic reality.

I think of these parents as I think on this Psalm. Who knows, our Psalm writer might have had a child like that. And, I think of all of us who deal with our own disappointment and worries and struggles in life and are tempted to just give up and give up caring as much because life seems unfair. And, then I remember what happened to the Psalmist one day. He says: “Had I gone on in this complaining spirit, I should have betrayed the generation of your children.” He knew he had to pass on more than a complaining/bitter spirit to his children. He says: “When I tried to understand it all – why things like this continue to happen – it was too much for me to understand

UNTIL . . .


He says: “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart . . . (I was hurt by the disappointment and worry and sorrow of life) . . . it was as if my mind and heart were numb . . ..”

But, when he went into the sanctuary, something happened to his mind and heart. He experienced the reality of God, the presence of God. It is a mystery what happened when he went into worship.

But, he came out saying TO GOD: “Yet, however low I had sunk in my heart, I am always with you; you hold my right hand. You will guide me by your counsel, and afterwards receive me with glory. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

What happened? How was this holy man who had about lost his way transformed from having a complaining, bitter spirit to having a greatful, trusting spirit?

When he was alone, he surely had the chance to pray and read the scripture. Why was it so important to him to go to the sanctuary of God? Certainly, he could have had a transforming experience of God when he was alone or with one or two others. But, for this man, his transformation came in worshipping God with others in the sanctuary.

And, I can only begin to guess what happened. I am thinking today that it has something to do with looking around and seeing and feeling other human beings coming before God and really praising God. Maybe the real antidote to a bitter and envious spirit is to experience the truth that there are a good number of human beings who do want something better for this world, who are sorry for hurting others when they do, and who really yearn for God’s justice on earth. To hear other human voices raised in praise OR to see other human heads bowed in confession is sometimes to experience the presence of God in human flesh. It is a mystery of grace in human community.

Or, it may have been something he observed as he walked into the sanctuary one day. He may have walked in and seen the devotion and commitment of those who kept things going in the temple. . . like I did last week. I came into the sanctuary on Friday evening – day 5 of Vacation Bible School – and I was tired from the work day in court. And, I was frustrated by it, and angry about some of it, in a complaining spirit. And, I look over and noticed two women from our church, both of them in their 80’s who were cheerfully working their fifth evening in a row of Vacation Bible School, caring enough about passing on something to the children to do what it takes. And, that hopeful determination and belief in the next generation lifted my spirit, encouraged me.

It is my guess that something like that happened to the Psalmist that day he went to worship. Maybe some other human being looked him in the eyes and showed him love. He may have experienced reconciliation with someone he was estranged from. He heard some other people singing God’s praises with a pure heart; repenting of sin with a broken spirit; and felt embraced by something greater than them. Yes, we can experience the presence of God powerfully when we are alone, but for those of us who have well nigh slipped and fallen as we so often do, there is something powerful and mysterious about coming together to worship with other human beings – human beings who are struggling just as we are but who continue to find a way to praise the living God. And, then we can say together: “MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.“ It is my hope that whatever struggles you have, that you are able to find these words in the depths of your heart – MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.