The Messy Truth About the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

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There are coffee drinkers and there are coffee snobs.  Coffee drinkers are people who drink coffee and don’t make a big deal out of it.  Coffee snobs are people who must to tell you about their daily coffee drinking experience.  They feel the need to make memes and tell you how their days aren’t complete without some kind of coffee.  Other coffee snobs are those who go to Starbucks and specialty shop to purchase fancy coffee drinks.  Some coffee snobs own expensive insulated high-tech mugs for taking their coffee from place to place.  While other coffee snobs will make you feel stupid if you don’t know the difference between Kenyan, Indonesian, Hawaiian, or Colombian coffee.  Despite these variations within the coffee world, there is one question separating the average drinker and the coffee snob.  Do you put anything into your coffee?

Sitting in the gas station, I watch person after person go for the flavored creamers.  Hunters, fishermen, women, the young and old all go for cream, milk, and sugar.  Our daughter Jordan, who works at the coffee shop, tells me it’s similar there.  People like cream and sugar in their coffee.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve followed online debates (here on Ocracoke) among people looking for the healthiest cream and sugar substitutes to add to their coffee.  Creamer is serious business.  From my observation, I see little love for black coffee.

The Sermon on the Mount, specifically, the first 12 verses (called the Beatitudes) are much like a cup of coffee.  Everybody loves the Beatitudes.  A few people might know some or all of them by heart.    When taken together, they are strong statements, whose aroma cannot be ignored.  Their flavor can bittersweet.  So what do we do?  We go for the cream and sugar.  We make the dark, strong words of Jesus easier to swallow.  This usually means taking Jesus’ statements which readily fit on bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and t-shirts (the ones we don’t usually have a problem with) and turning them into moral pick me ups.  That’s usually when we reach for our mug of Jesus coffee with one hand; wrap our other hand firmly around the other side, and drink from the milky, sugary version of the Gospel to exclaim:  that’s one good cup of Jesus.

Our original cup of black coffee, the scripture we started with before we diluted it with cream and artificial sweetener was an earth shattering, declaration which defined the Kingdom of God.  When you read the Beatitudes, one by one, you’ll notice God’s priorities run contrary to much of what the Roman Empire and even Americans believe about themselves today.   Americans are not into being meek, persecuted, or being hungry.  Just listen to the country balladeer Toby Keith; Americans pride themselves on putting boots up people’s rear ends.  It’s hard to sing about violence on Saturday night, cuss and cheer at a game on Saturday afternoon, and then read these words on a Sunday morning.  You see why it’s easier to add milk to Jesus’ teachings.  If you take these words seriously, you have to take your life in a seriously different direction.

It is a sad cultural reality that many of us are conditioned to believe the hungry, meek, and poor in spirit have done something to deserve their meekness, hunger, and poverty.  You may not realize it but it is there, buried deep among other sins to deep to name.  This is why, in a moment of perfect irony, Jesus blesses the most uncomfortable qualities of our lives.  He drags up what we are unwilling to acknowledge and unable to ignore.  Jesus blesses what we are normally ashamed of, the things we want to hide, the grief we rush through, and the peace we claim is impossible to make.  If these are the qualities which Jesus blesses, why do we run in the opposite direction?  Why do we, in moments of self-righteous impiety, find ways to say Jesus never meant any of these things he said in Matthew 5?  Why would we rather disprove Jesus than live in a world where the meek inherit the earth?

Like black coffee, it takes time to develop a taste for pure, creamer-free Jesus.  For the longest time, scholars, experts, and people who pretend to be in the know give the answer that people like this always give:  that’s not what Jesus meant.  They treat the Beatitudes like a cup of Sanka.  I’m sick of that answer.  There are people who believe Jesus never meant anything he said and the Apostle Paul spoke the infallible word of God.  For many, these verses are a litany of metaphors not meant to be taken at face value.  I don’t buy that logic.  If you want great moral teacher who uses metaphors, I’ll loan you my copy of Socrates.

Jesus is showing us the kingdom of God.  How will it be different from life now?  What will matter most in God’s vision for humanity?  These aren’t theoretical questions.   Our world is obsessed with condemnation and judgment.  There are no grey areas.  You are either for or against what those in power deem to be right or wrong.  The half who believe themselves right are blessed.  The other half are wrong and cursed.  Ironically, when your perspective changes, so does your understanding of blessings and curses.  Jesus changes all of this.  Instead of playing into our divided loyalties, sounding like either a Democrat or a Republican, Jesus sounds like Jesus.  He creates a grey area.  His presence establishes something beyond the either/or zone of competing loyalties we think we need to define ourselves.

He does this by blessing the things we revile.  Jesus blesses a series of beliefs, attitudes, and conditions which most human beings revile, reject, and find contrary to being Christian.  No one wants to be hopeless, grieving, humble, or hungry.  Peacemakers get taken advantage of and killed by those with superior firepower.  Yet, these are the qualities Jesus blesses, characteristics, so easily and readily condemned.  And you know what we revile most of all, the thing we can’t stand to see blessed, is the person looking back at us in the mirror.  How could God bless me?  We don’t feel worthy to be blessed or loved by anyone, especially God.  We don’t believe that God wants to bless us.

We read the Beatitudes like Terms and Conditions for a new computer. Jesus sends us the conditions for which we might be blessed, for which our lives might be changed.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in spirit,” and I think, “Am I pure in spirit enough?”  Do I need to be more pure in spirit? What’s the standard for being pure in spirit?  If I’m not pure in spirit enough, I won’t be blessed.

Here’s the messy truth about the Beatitudes:  there are no terms and conditions.  You’re already blessed.  Jesus is blessing everybody; left, right, and center.  By being alive, you’re blessed.  Those to whom he’s preaching; the poor, downtrodden, the homeless, the broke, the family who can’t find enough to eat, the couple whose lights were just turned off, our neighbors worried about being deported, the grieving, they are blessed right now.  By naming them, bringing attention to them, so that they’re not under the radar, becoming more than the occasional prayer concern, Jesus is making it possible for our blessings to be shared.  They are blessed because you are blessed.  And we share our blessings.  There are no blessing hoops to jump through.  Blessings are not a onetime thing.  They are shared moments of divine action.  Blessings are never content with present; they are always ready for tomorrow.  So remember:  you are blessed of God.  God loves you.

So How Many People Attended the Feeding of the 5000?

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Somebody was counting.  I don’t know who counted or what motivated them to start.  However, somewhere along the way, it was important to the gospel writers to remember how many people were following Jesus.  Numbers of people weren’t important to Jesus.  We do not have accounts of Christ-led staff meetings in which PowerPoint presentations were given on numbers of people healed, fed, and converted.  Nor do we see Jesus make any attempt to create statistical projections for the growth of his movement.  Crowd size appears irrelevant to Jesus.  Yet, at some point, the crowd size begins to appear in the text.  Someone wanted to make numbers of people an issue.  After all, who wouldn’t be impressed by a man who could easily draw 5,000 people in 1st century Galilee?

It’s the only miracle, apart from the resurrection, found in all four gospels.  To a literalist, that’s proof, the event occurred:  five thousand people were fed with five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish.  You don’t get that kind of scriptural conformity without something having along those lines having happened.  Who can deny the testimony of five thousand witnesses that were fed by Jesus?   Do large numbers not add credibility to Jesus’ movement and message?

Five thousand is an awfully large number.  Why not ten, twenty thousand or a million?   If Jesus’ message and ministry is judged on the number of people he miraculously feeds on any single occasion, pick the largest possible number.  This is what the gospel writers have done.  By placing undue emphasis on the size of the crowds the gospel writers have missed the point of the miracle and turned Jesus into a circus act.  Jesus, the charismatic caterer who works miracles with bread crumbs and fish to feed thousands:  this is how we normally talk about a passage built on a “numbers are beautiful” premise.

What is the point of this widely attested miracle?  I believe it’s a testimony to Jesus’ ability to take the smallest resources, what others consider scraps, and use those to feed individuals who’ve come up short on compassion and love.  In Mark’s retelling of the feeding, he writes, “As he (Jesus) went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  People are not fed in groups of 5000; they are served one at a time.  To Jesus, each person matters.  Individual lives are precious and cannot be lumped together in manmade categories: saved or unsaved, those to feed and those who remain hungry, or lost and found.

The disciples seemed to care about the headcount.  Jesus, he wanted to make sure the last person got fed.  There is a huge difference.

The Messy Truth About Calling Disciples: These Are Not The Fishermen You’re Looking For

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How many of you remember what you wanted to be when you were eleven or twelve?  That’s a fundamentally different question than, “What did you want to be when you grow up?”  Some of the very practical among you will say, “I always knew I was going to follow in Daddy’s footsteps and take over the blacksmithing business, the farm, or the shrimp boat.”  That’s if you lived in that world where the oldest male child was assumed to take on the duties and responsibilities of the family business once the father passed away.  For most of human civilization, this is how kids figured out who they were and what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.  You did what your parents did.  If you were a woman, you had as many male children as possible so they could keep doing what your father did and your husband does.  Usually stories like this are followed by, “and we were happy with our meager hand to mouth living and no chance of doing anything else!”

This is not what I’m talking about.  What did you want to be when you were eleven or twelve? No matter how rich or poor you were, there were probably a few things we all wanted to be:  a superhero, a racecar driver, an astronaut, a fire fighter, an EMT, a police officer, maybe a Disney princess, a steamboat captain, or if you were me, you wanted to be a Jedi knight.  I wanted to be a Jedi knight from Star Wars.  It didn’t matter which one.  Luke Skywalker would have been great but now that I’m older and have a beard, I’ll gladly settle for Obi wan Kenobi.  When I was eleven, I thought the coolest thing possible I could wasn’t the ability to fly, leap tall buildings, or drive fast cars.  I wanted to be a robe wearing spiritual master who talked in oddly constructed sentences and battled the forces of darkness.  Funny enough, there is a part of me that believes I got there. I have the robe and everything.  I can even wear it public.

One of the most important abilities of a Jedi master is the ability to influence those with weak minds.  Those not attuned to the Force often refer to this as the “Jedi Mind Trick”.  In the world of Star Wars, as our own, weak minds are easily susceptible to the slightest suggestion.  I first saw Obi Wan Kenobi use this ability in Episode IV (A New Hope).  He and Luke Skywalker took C-3PO and R-2D2 to the Mos Eisely spaceport to find a ship and pilot to take them to Princess Leia.  The Imperial Storm Troopers were looking for R2 and 3PO.  They knew these two droids had the Death Star plans.  When two troopers stopped Luke’s sand speeder, Luke was sure the game was up; they were caught.  That’s when Ben Kenobi simply waves his hand in front of the storm troopers and says, “These are not the droids you are looking for”.  The storm trooper repeats back, “These are not the droids WE are looking for, move along now.”  Luke’s mind is blown.  He’s never seen anything like it.  It’s the coolest thing that a Jedi does.  However, is it what Jesus does?

If you read the story of Jesus calling his first disciples on the beach in Galilee, you’d be forgiven for thinking, this looks like a Jedi master using his persuasive powers to call new disciples.  After all, look how effortless it appears, like something out of a movie.  With the wave of his hand, Peter follows Jesus like a misguided storm trooper.

Jesus comes to the beach, alongside the Sea of Galilee, near his new home in Capernaum.  There he finds a group of commercial fishermen.   The first two he meets are brothers, Peter and Andrew.  They are working, throwing their nets in the sea.  Matthew throws in the captain obvious level remark, “because they were fishermen”.  We guessed that one, Matt.  Here’s where it becomes a Jedi moment.  Jesus says, “Come, follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  And just like the compliant storm troopers, Matthew says, “Right away, they left their nets and followed Jesus.”

The scene repeats itself a little further down the beach with another pair of brothers.  James and John (who were in business with their dad Zebedee) were repairing their nets.  There are people on this island who know a thing or two about repairing nets.  Matthew doesn’t tell us Jesus’ Jedi line to James and John.  We only know that it work as well as it did on Simon and Andrew.  Because, “the immediately left their boat and followed him.”

Whether we realize it or not, we normally preach, talk, pray, and share this passage as one grand Jedi mind trick.  We don’t consider the implications for these disciples and their families in that day and time let alone our own.  Jesus speaks to someone and then those “soon to be” disciples in drop what they’re doing, and like mind controlled robots, leave everything, to follow Jesus.   James and John walk out on their father, the family business (according to the text) to follow this unknown rabbi.  What would we say of someone who did similar today?   This is why what we’re reading isn’t a Jedi mind trick, it is not a movie, and everything that happened that day is not on the page.

At the beginning, I talked about kids who grew up knowing they had to be who their fathers and mothers were.  Poverty made it so.  Generations of living by the sea or on a certain parcel provided their livelihood and an income.  The disciples were those kids.  James and John were going to take over from Zebedee.  Fishing was all they had ever known.  They were going to be fishermen.  No one had ever given them a choice to be anything else.

Today, as it is often presented, is not simply a feel good story of how Jesus chooses the unprepared rough and tumble fishermen to be the disciples who start the church.  The preacher stands up and says “You too can be a Peter, Andrew, James or John.  Jesus is choosing you, just like he choose them. Now metaphorically drop everything and follow him.”  I’m not going to say that.  I’m sick of saying that.   Why?  Jesus isn’t talking about following him as a penciled in, when it’s good for us thing that doesn’t conflict with the rest of our lives.

I think this story is about the other half of the choice equation.  The Jedi mind trick implies coercion. The weak minded are manipulated into doing something they would not otherwise do. The disciples were not forced into accompanying Jesus.  Jesus gives us the opportunity to choose who we want to be.

Some preachers also talk about the speed in which the disciples followed Jesus.  “Immediately” and “right away” jump off the page.  Phrases like this add drama to the story.  We’ve got to follow Jesus “now!” But, when we focus on the speed, we lose the significance of the choice itself.  It is the choice to go with Jesus that matters; not how quick you got there or the road you took.  The decision, the free will to say, “Yes, this sounds right to me” is the most important part of this story.  Jesus gives us the freedom of choice itself.  The freedom to choose creates space and time, affording us the ability to focus on what’s really important in our lives.  Jesus gives us the space and time we need to decide who want to be.  If we use that time properly, questions about going to heaven or hell becomes irrelevant.

We have so many things in life by default.  I am bald by default. We accept (rightly or wrongly) large portions of our life by default.  Some of us have received Jesus by default.  He’s always been there and we’ve just accepted this Christian reality as a presence in our lives, like a cell phone and a car.  From time to time, Jesus performs a useful function.  But here’s the messy truth, the good news:  Jesus isn’t something we decide by default.  Going with Jesus is an honest to God choice, one we need to make each day.  We need to put down the things which appear so important then make a choice a unlike any other in our lives, and see where it takes us.  And tomorrow, make that choice again.

Would Jesus Go To the Inauguration?

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To ask the question presumes much.  What would a 2000 year old Galilean rabbi, make of a presidential inauguration in a part of the world no one believed existed until a thousand years after his death?  Would the rabbi understand the idea of democracy?  Had the Athenian ideal made it to the mean streets of Nazareth and through the lower Galilee?

I’m not even sure the founders of our republic would know what to do with our current inaugural spectacle.  The Constitution was written before the advent of electricity, indoor plumbing, and in a time when slavery was accepted.  I doubt whether they could have ever imagined much of what’s going to transpire over the next few days when they laid the foundations of the United States of America.

I do believe that Jesus can shed some light on the events of recent days.  Over forty democratic members of Congress have announced their intention not to attend the inauguration of President-elect Trump.  More may follow suit.  Some like Congressman John Lewis have called his nascent presidency “Illegitimate”.   Where is Jesus in the midst of the never ending partisan rancor?  Is he on the sidelines, like the angry middle school basketball coach, yelling to his kids, “Suck it up, you lost this one, now go over there and shake their hands like real men. Humiliation after painful losses builds character.”    In other words, it’s just how it’s done.  The “peaceful transition of power” is how grown-ups talk about being a good sport.

Or. is Jesus telling us some other simplistic answer?  Jesus said unto those unhappy millions, “Take your ball and go home.”  “No,” Jesus continued, “thou doth not have to play with those who thou deemest to be meaneth, lying, and overly amicable to the Slavic King.”  No, I’m not sure that’s Jesus’ light on the moment.

When Jesus speaks to power, it is stark, complex, and subtle.  Here’s what I do know, if you’re ready to take Jesus’ side in a political and social argument don’t bring a tuxedo or ball gown.  Prepare to be crucified.  If you stand with Jesus, before political power, you should be prepared to face death.  Jesus’ inauguration moment comes at the end of his natural life.  As he’s ending his “work”, from our perspective, he’s “inaugurating” the kingdom of God with his death and resurrection.

The high point of the inauguration comes when Jesus is brought into palace of the Roman Governor.  He tells Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world”.   Jesus comes to his own inauguration inside the palace of the man representing the Roman Emperor.  The Kingdom of God is inaugurated in a Roman Palace and the only guest is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  In his inaugural address, Jesus explains the contrast between a violent and nonviolent kingdom.

The governor sees it the other way round.  He is the solider, hero of the legions, veteran of the German wars, governor of a province of Rome, and this man is his prisoner.  This is not the case.  Pontius Pilate has a front row seat for the inauguration of the kingdom of God.

From the first moment, as Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s questions, the governor realizes the tables are turned.  When the most powerful man in the country feels the need to remind Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the power to release you, and to crucify you?” he’s lost control.  Jesus tells him, “You wouldn’t have any power unless it too had come from above.”  Power doesn’t frighten life.  Truth listens to my voice.  Who placed who here?  What fate, something the Roman would have trusted, led him to this moment?  Standing before Jesus, the moral certainties of the maddening crowd were nothing like questions in Pilate’s mind.  Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”

Jesus turned the tables at his inauguration.  In what appeared to be defeat, the kingdom of God took hold in the least likely place before the most unlikely person.  The Good News is that we have crosses to bare, scripts to flip, tables to turn, and truth to reflect.  How best do we do this?  Pray, stand with Jesus, stop following the crowd, and if Pilate asks you a question, you don’t have to take the bait.

The Messy Truth about Leo Tolstoy and Saint Paul: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

 

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ЧАСТЬ ПЕРВАЯ

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— Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des поместья, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) — je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus мой верный раб, comme vous dites 1. Ну, здравствуйте, здравствуйте. Je vois que je vous fais peur 2, садитесь и рассказывайте.Так говорила в июле 1805 года известная Анна Павловна Шерер, фрейлина и приближенная императрицы Марии Феодоровны, встречая важного и чиновного князя Василия, первого приехавшего на ее вечер. Анна Павловна кашляла несколько дней, у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими). В записочках, разосланных утром с красным лакеем, было написано без различия во всех:«Si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, Monsieur le comte (или mon prince), et si la perspective de passer la soirée chez une pauvre malade ne vous effraye pas trop, je serai charmée de vous voir chez moi entre 7 et 10 heures. Annette Scherer» 3.— Dieu, quelle virulente sortie! 4 — отвечал, нисколько не смутясь такою встречей, вошедший князь, в придворном, шитом мундире, в чулках, башмаках и звездах, с светлым выражением плоского лица.

-the opening paragraphs to War and Peace

I remember sitting in a third year Russian language class and the professor handing out photocopied selections of War and Peace in the original Russian. I was told that we, (about six or seven other people in the room) were going to “read” this together.  I still remember, verbatim, the words that went through my head.  “She expects me to read this, War and Peace, in Russian.”  It didn’t matter this was a Russian class and I’d sat there for two years.  The idea itself seemed intimidating enough.  We opened our packets and there it was, staring right back at us, a huge paragraph in French.  French was taught in the Romance languages department down the hall.  We were in the Department of German, Russian, and Japanese.  We were affectionately called the department of enemy languages.   Thankfully, our professor walked us through it.

It is an amazing way to begin one of the greatest works of Russian literature.  The first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (a novel centered on Russia’s early 19th century war with Napoleon) is written in French.  If you, as the reader, wish to fully appreciate the conflicted hearts and minds of Russian nobles who will lead the Czar’s armies into war, we begin in the mind of a French speaking Russian.  At first, it doesn’t make sense.  If these people hate the French, why do they idolize their culture and regard the French language as epitome of knowledge.  To answer these questions, to go beyond these surface levels tensions, we must read on.

Though not nearly as long, 1st Corinthians is the War and Peace of the early church.  Paul’s words paint a picture of the definitive struggle between warring factions, love, hate, peace, and identity that define the church to this day.  Written by a multi-lingual, religiously conflicted genius at war with the culture around him; Saint Paul is a 1st century Tolstoy trying to tell a story of struggle, in letter form, to a divided church in Corinth.

In many ways, I think the two works can inform and shed light on one another.  The opening, the scripture we read this morning, sets the tone for the rest of the letter.  Despite the extreme experiences which are to follow (and there will be many), these words provide the boundaries for every subsequent ballroom dance, battlefield, dinner, worship service, and meeting.  In 1st Corinthians, God’s grace shapes everything.  In the formless void we inhabit, grace creates the divine edges and meaning to otherwise shapeless and meaningless lives.  Paul acknowledges how good we have it; how well off we are.  Like the Russian nobles on the edge of Napoleon’s invasion, we’re blind to our blessings, privilege, wealth, and well-being.  It is only when God’s grace moves in from the edges, providing some correction to our spiritual nearsightedness, do we gain any perspective as to how good things really are.  Paul wants us to realize our blessings now.  It takes Natasha Rostova a journey of 500,000 words to make the same journey.

Paul reminds us that “you were made rich in everything; in all you communication and every kind of knowledge.”  In the same way, “you aren’t missing any kind of spiritual gift while we wait for the Lord to be revealed.”  We are blessed in innumerable ways, are we aware of enough of God’s grace in our lives to appreciate these blessings?  Paul doesn’t think so.  Why do we lack such awareness?  We’ve changed.  The church is Corinth has changed.

Both War and Peace and 1st Corinthians are about people coping with change.  One doesn’t go through these life altering experiences and remain the same.  None of the characters (who survive) are the same people as they were at the beginning of War and Peace.  Paul says will go on to say in chapter 13 being a believer alters your perspective on everything.

Everybody is in the same boat.  We’re all part of the body of Christ with unique gifts to offer.  That’s a central message 1st Corinthians 1 lays the groundwork for.  Tolstoy says it this way:  there is no hero or heroine.  Andrei Bolkonsky is not Tolstoy’s hero nor is Natasha Rostova the heroine, they’re just people caught up in trying to live the best way they know how in strange times.  This is what Paul calls his Corinthian congregation to do.  Live the best way you know how, with God’s grace as the defining feature, in these strange times we call the present.  Paul and Tolstoy both grasp on to this idea I call the “wildness of possibility”.  The possibilities of the present are wild and untamed.   The possibilities of how wild God will be in our lives also hinges on our willingness to engage with God’s doings, happenings, and goings on.  Tolstoy writes his novel from the perspective of one particular observer.  In this way, the story passes from mind to mind.  How would God’s story look if it were only told from one perspective?  Paul says to the Corinthians, “You were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord”.  You were called to take up the baton; your turn is coming in a page or two, to tell the story.

Once you get past the uplifting opening, where Paul talked about partnership, it’s going to get ugly.  You’ll read about people doing decidedly unchristian things.  There will be people with unchristian attitudes.  In War and Peace, there are characters I love and characters I hate.  Some people pull on my heartstrings and every ounce of sympathy I can muster.  Natasha is at times likeable at other times she is an insufferable bore.  The Corinthians fighting about who can eat with them and be served communion come across as the pettiest, most juvenile people in the ancient world.  They get on my last nerve.  At other times, I’m bored to tears as Paul writes to them about true love.  I’ve heard it thousands of times.  I roll my eyes.  But like any good work of literature, there are times when I come back, re-read favorite passages, and Natasha isn’t a bore and 1st Corinthians 13 makes me cry.  Paul doesn’t give up on them; God doesn’t give up on us.  We keep reading through the hard parts.

Love comes into the picture.  Love is the circus hoop through which history is made to leap again and again.  To paraphrase Paul, If there are not love stories in Tolstoy and if I write sermons and have no love, I have nothing.  Love binds each word together from the first verse forward.  Without love, there is no story to tell.  The spiritual gifts, the grace, the knowledge; it all originates in love.

You may disagree with Paul at some point.  You’ll certainly disagree with Tolstoy.  At some point, you may start to believe, as I do, that War and Peace contradicts the author himself.  Both Paul and Tolstoy want you to ask good, hard questions about what they’ve written and how it might change your life.  Does history determine our fate or can we live otherwise?  These books want you to argue with yourself before your tie your hands and jump into a box handed to you by the Greco-Roman tradition, Russian aristocracy, or 21st century digital culture.

Back to the opening:  I hated that opening sentence.  It was awful.  I think it is the worst opening of any major novel, ever.  For the record, I think Look Homeward, Angel may the best.   The closing sentence of is also the worst by a country mile.  It’s nonsense.  In the middle, that’s where the greatness lies.  Paul’s great opening, doesn’t clue you into the nasty awesomeness to follow.  The reading stops short of taking us to the meat of Chapter One.  Openings and closings mean nothing, no matter how well written, unless you read the book in between.  That’s where history gets made and lives are changed.

 

Mayberry Isn’t A Healthy Place To Live

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Sara Pulliam Bailey’s trip to Mount Airy spurred some of my own reflections about growing up in small town North Carolina, watching the Andy Griffith Show, and why nostalgia is dangerous.

Mayberry wasn’t all it was cracked up it to be.  To those of us who grew up in North Carolina, in communities which mirrored Mayberry’s ethos and identified with the show, we know the program’s depiction of life in the rural south reflects a version of life in North Carolina which has never existed.

I am fan. I’ve seen every episode.  I think the Andy Griffith show is one of the defining television programs in post-war television.  However, I don’t believe The Andy Griffith Show paints an accurate picture of what life was like in mid-century America, my home state of North Carolina, or holds up ideals to which America needs to return.

I don’t want to return to a segregated America or North Carolina.  Mayberry is a segregationist paradise; white South Africans, Klansmen, and George Wallace would feel right at home.  There are no minorities in Mayberry.  To hold Mayberry up as a model is to implicit hold segregation as the ideal American way of life.  If we argue Mayberry represents a simpler way of life, when things are better; we are arguing that things were better when black and whites lived legally divided lives.  I would have loved to have seen an episode where Andy enforced the desegregation of the local school.

To be a paradise, did you ever notice the number of thieves and con artists who make their way through Mayberry?  What was it about this sleepy village which made them prey to criminal activity?  Studies show that older, lonely, desperate, indebted people are more likely to fall victim to scams than others.  Mayberry was a community of older people.  This we know.  However, viewers were often presented with the image of a healthy community where everyone knew and looked out for each other.  This wasn’t the case.  Gossip was rampant, isolation was common, and many families were often on the brink of economic collapse.  The few wealthy individuals in the town were willing to manipulate the city’s debt to increase their own share of political power in the community.  These were the reasons Mayberry’s way of life was always at risk.  No one really looked out for each other.  Businessmen were willing to gamble with the lives of their employees.  Only Andy’s use of shame and guilt created any sense of morality larger than the community’s own self-interests.  This was not a healthy place to live.

I currently serve a small community much like Mayberry.  I live in rural North Carolina.  The local school has no cafeteria.   Our children come home for lunch each day.  No one locks their doors at night.  I’m the pastor of the cute white church.  People sit on their porches at night, play their guitars, and sing folk songs.  We have an extremely limited presence of law enforcement.  Our town drunks are both beloved and belligerent.  Paradise is word frequently used to describe where I live.  “How it used to be,” is why people come here.  Even in our modern day Mayberry, we’ve had heroin dealing, suicides, and an alleged sexual assault all this past year.  Mayberry has real problems, problems that would be easy to ignore and a lifestyle even easier to idealize.  Except, on the journey from ignorance to idealization, real people get hurt and some even die.  Andy doesn’t show up in the end to make it all better.

While we’re wistfully longing for the past, the world is going to hell.  It’s not going to get any better by hoping the status quo returns to flawed versions of the nonexistent past.  The Kingdom of God, the one Jesus said was coming, doesn’t look like Mayberry.  If you want a TV show analogy, I’d say it’s going to look like the Beverly Hillbillies.