Sunday, June 26, 2016
Text: Philippians 4:4-13
Dr. Seuss has been a good guide for us through this month in which we’ve celebrated our graduates and all those moving ahead in their education. He helped us see the possibilities and challenges of the places we might go. Through the eyes of the Lorax, he helped us see the consequences of greed and the need to love creation and care for the earth. Horton, the elephant, taught us something about the compassion and care of a most improbable daddy. We have encountered the doctor’s wit and wisdom, his art and passion, his challenging expectations and his tender heart.
In his little book, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, Robert Short describes the good doctor this way: “Dr. Seuss is a doctor of the soul, a doctor of wisdom, or a healer of the heart. So I don’t think it would be stretching things too far if we thought of Dr. Seuss as a sort of ‘spiritual cardiologist,’ a doctor who can work on many levels and with many different types of people” (Robert L. Short, The Parables of Dr. Seuss, p. 84).
In many ways Dr. Seuss reminds me of the apostle Paul – able exhorter, wise teacher, passionate evangelist. Like Paul, he falls victim to his culture and time. There is considerable ego in their creative genius. They have strong opinions, which they are not afraid to share. Their care for the well-being of God’s good creation seems formidable. Most of Dr. Seuss’s characters seem to be male. He often operates with a singularity of focus in ethical matters that doesn’t allow for much ambiguity. There is some hard judgment in silly rhyming. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Paul?
And now, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? What a charming reminder that, even when we think things couldn’t get much worse, there are people less lucky than we are. As people of privilege, this truth is worthy of a regular reminder. You may not have won the lottery or gotten everything you wanted in life, but look around to see who is less well off than you. You probably don’t need to look far.
Sure you’ve got your trials here below, but, you could be working on “Bunglebung Bridge.” You could be “caught in that traffic on Zayt Highway Eight.” You could be “poor Herbie Hart who has taken his Throm-dim-bu-lator apart” with no hope of re-assembling it. You could be Ali Sard mowing his uncle’s constantly growing yard for “piffulous pay,” “poor Mr. Potter, T-crosser, I-dotter,” “a “bee-watcher-watcher,” Harry Haddow in search of a shadow. For crying out loud, you could be a “left sock, left behind by mistake in the Kaverns of Krock!” (So that’s where all those lost socks disappear to!) You get the drift.
What a marvelous, fantastical collection of reminders of how lucky you are – or, better yet, how blessed you are. As a child of God and a follower of Christ, it’s difficult for me to think in terms of luck. The gift of my life is an act of grace and a blessing from God. I know it’s not Dr. Seuss’s style to write of blessings and grace. He’s not exactly a theologian and he is supposed to be writing for children. If it didn’t do damage to the versification, it would be interesting, maybe even useful, to go back through this book and substitute blessing for luck.
Did I ever tell you how blessed you are? I surely hope I have. If I’m doing my job, I should be telling you regularly. And, while I’m at, I need to remind myself how blessed I am. An anniversary is an especially good time to remember how blessed one is and how blessed he has been. Like you, I’ve had hard times. We’ve even shared some. But the advantage of hanging around for a while is that you get to see that things were not quite as bad as they seemed at the time. In the end, the blessing of our gracious God heals every wound and wipes away every tear. In the end, we can affirm that we are loved and, therefore, we can love.
It’s a troublesome world. All the people who’re in it
are troubled with troubles almost every minute.
You ought to be thankful, a whole heaping lot
for the places and people you’re lucky you’re not!
Dr. Seuss, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?
I suppose that is true. We certainly “ought to be thankful, a whole heaping lot for the people and places…” But wait a minute. You know, I don’t really want to compare myself to those who are in sorrier shape than I. I guess I need to part ways with the good doctor here. I want to be “thankful, a whole heaping lot for the people and places” I’m lucky I’ve got!” And, friends, that includes you!
There’s a certain arrogance in focusing on how I am better off than another. It is true that there are many who struggle and suffer more than I ever have, but there is something in the struggle and suffering, in the succeeding and celebrating, in the sharing and caring, that binds us together in a common humanity. In the long run, I need to find ways to care for Herbie Hart and Ali Sard, poor Mr. Potter and the bee-watcher-watchers, Harry Haddow and lonely left socks. This is the work of compassion to which our faith calls us – to care for those affected by mass murder as in Orlando, for victims of sexual abuse in our own backyard, for refugees fleeing the bloodshed in Syria, for undocumented neighbors, for black brothers and sisters excessively incarcerated, for hungry children, for parents and caregivers struggling to make ends meet, for everyone who is not like me. You can make your own list or add to mine.
Compassion compels us to see those less fortunate as our sisters and brothers. Comparison runs the risk that we will fall short of our responsibility in bringing about God’s Beloved Community. Yes, there are those less fortunate, but never less worthy of our love and care.
The useful point Dr. Seuss does make concerns learning to appreciate what we have, to recognize how we have been blessed, and to be grateful for God’s gifts. The scripture that kept coming back to me was Paul’s claim that he had learned “to be content with whatever I have.” We know Paul had been through tough times. He’s not hesitant to tell us all about it.
“Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Talk about misfortune! You win, Paul. No one is unluckier than you.
But blessed? In spite of all this, Paul tells the church in Philippi that he is content. However, he is also careful to say that his contentment is a lesson learned. Joseph Campbell puts it this way, “Nietzsche was the one who did the job for me. At a certain moment in his life, the idea came to him of what he called ‘the love of your fate.’ Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, ‘This is what I need.’ It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment—not discouragement—you will find the strength is there” (Joseph Campbell, A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living“). Do you suppose Nietzsche was reading Paul?
“I know what it is to have little,” Paul says “and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It has nothing to do with luck and everything with the blessed presence of the Holy One. Did I ever tell you how blessed you are?
Compared to Paul’s, my struggles were minor. True, it took 23 years for the church to recognize my call to ministry. Yes, I’ve been ridiculed, hated, attacked, called everything but a child of God. But 20 years ago, my friends, sisters and brothers in Christ, including Lynn and Marilyn Hunwick and Don and Mary Granholm, gathered in the sanctuary of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church to affirm my calling to Christian ministry in a service of ordination. Did I ever tell you how blessed I am?
For a while following seminary, I was unemployed. Then I worked nine years for Piedmont Gardens Retirement Community in Oakland doing everything from night receptionist to medical transportation to Medicare/Medi-Cal billing. I was privileged to work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, to teach Marriage and Family Therapy, and Pastoral Care and Counseling. When I was finally called to serve a church in an interim capacity in 2003, some 30 years after I graduated from seminary, I believed, at my age, interim work would be the fulfillment of my call to ministry. But 10 years ago, the good people of this congregation reached out to an interim pastor in Ohio, inviting him to come home and serve this wonderful community. Did I ever tell you how blessed I am?
“Grace and mercy teach us that we are all much larger than the good or bad stories we tell about ourselves or about one another,” writes Richard Rohr. “Please don’t get caught in your small stories,” he urges; “they are usually less than half true, and therefore not really ‘true’ at all. They’re usually based on hurts and unconscious agendas that allow us to see and judge things in a very selective way. They’re not the whole You, not the Great You, not the Great River. Therefore, it is not where your big life can really happen” (Richard Rohr,)
Perhaps our stories are small, especially when compared to the great tragedies of others. But maybe they’re not so small, not in our own experiencing of them. Comparison again. It is not easy to let go of the drama of our lives, to see that there is greater suffering than we have ever known. And it can be a challenge, to trust that the One who holds the future is the One who holds our hands. Did I ever tell you how blessed we are?
Rohr, again, writes, “Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing; we are already in it. This is probably the deepest meaning of ‘divine providence.’ So do not be afraid” (Rohr, op. cit.). Do not be afraid. Remember how blessed you are.
When I thought of Paul’s learned contentment, my mind also went to an old hymn, as it often does. I thought of the hymn by Horatio Spafford who lost all four of his daughters when their ship sank at sea. From the worst luck imaginable, from the depth of his loss, he could still see, somehow, how blessed he was and he penned the words to number 561, ”It Is Well with My Soul.” Let’s sing the first stanza and refrain as our moment to reflect on how blessed we are.