Helen and Henry Howard, an elderly couple, ran the little Union 76 station and café attached to it. It was just a wide spot in on the highway through Johannesburg, one of the three former mining towns served by the Randsburg United Methodist Church, my first appointment. Inyokern was the second of this two-point charge. I still remember my friend Alan announcing to the congregation we were attending on a Sunday before we were about to depart that I had received my appointment: “The bishop is sending John to Unicorn and Rancid.”
Anyway, I digress – on to the point of this story. Helen was a faithful member of the Foursquare Church in Johannesburg – the other towns being Randsburg and Red Mountain. If you’ve been up Hwy. 385 you know the place.
For several weeks Helen had been after me to teach the “Released Time” Bible study that churches in California were allowed to make provision for during the regular school day. It would he held at her church because that was just a short walk from the elementary school which served students in the three towns, all about a mile apart. Jai was the teacher for this one-room school house.
The curriculum provided by the Council of Churches for the program was mostly non-doctrinal. The purpose was mainly to teach kids their Bible stories.
I hemmed and hawed. Helen was Foursquare, right? I once want to one of their churches with a high school girlfriend because her friend Glenna had pestered her into going. To say that their worship was exuberant would be an understatement. Certainly nothing for the “Frozen Chosen” from the Presbyterian tribe, which is where my girlfriend attended. I was the drag-along.
So Helen was a nice person, but I wasn’t sure about this. Well, soon Helen had an ally. The Spirit spoke. She said, “C’mon. You don’t need to be so stuck up. They’re Christians, too.” So, I acquiesced and said, “Yes.”
Other than there being no A/C and the room being dimly lit – sleep inducing – I got through the first few weeks or so until…
There we were in Exodus with the Ten Commandments. The first few were no sweat. We could all understand that you should go to church and thank God for everything. We knew that murder is bad. Helps nobody. Nor does stealing all
their stuff. God certainly wouldn’t like that any better than we if it was our stuff that got boosted.
Then we came to adultery. I really hadn’t thought much about how I would approach this with the kids. There was the giggle factor, and I didn’t want to get into a Peyton Place scenario. So, I punted. I asked the group if they knew what “adultery” meant.
At once a very angry boy jumped up and pointed to another kid. Rage in his voice, “That’s like when your grandfather ran away with my mom.”
Silence. After what seemed like an hour I stammered, “Well, I guess we all know that adultery is.” This was the most recent scandal of those three little towns. The story, with embellishments, was everywhere. The town jaws were flapping big time.
The final retort of the young boy of the accused grandfather, “Well, when my grandpa runs off with someone, he doesn’t just take her to California City!” A planned community out in the middle of nowhere that never really got built. Except for a scattering of houses, a couple of dives, a gas station and a motel. The No-
We have from the Mount of Revelation Ten Commandments, not Ten Suggestions as my Unitarian friend calls them.
The purpose of the Law, those Ten Suggestions, are to keep us focused and attentive to what gives life, not what sucks it up. They’re about what is necessary for freedom in community. And our frail community was in shambles for quite a while as everyone chose up sides.
The Law exists not for itself, but enable us to keep the freedom God won for us when we were brought out of bondage in Egypt. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” It’s Gospel THEN Law. Friends, there’s as much Gospel in the Old Testament as in the New.
There is no freedom if all is up for grabs. If one has to be on continually on guard to protect life and limb. And the part about idols – they may seem to work for a while. Like a great set of wheels that would turn the girls’ heads. Because we sure thought that we were so dorky that we, all by ourselves, wouldn’t attract any notice. Talk about lusting after something like a ’57 Chevy. The fins, the chrome, they were to die for. What was that about covet? And idolatry?
They may seem to work for a while, but what then. What about when you’re forty- five and the chick who you lured into the seat next to you, now has nothing in common with you. And he with the fancy car? Now an ignorant blowhard. Maybe, you’re no catch either. A couch potato every night watching WrestleMania or old reruns of Kojak or the Wheel of Fortune? And who knows where the kids got off
to? They never call.
The ethic of “do your own thing – nobody will get hurt” doesn’t really work. The problem is, somebody always gets hurt.
This is the struggle within Paul. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the vey thing I hate.” We, just being human, are “born for trouble as the sparks fly upward.” The Law is to preserve Gospel Freedom. It is the adult guardrail that counsels against such as, “It seemed like a good idea at
That is why a key question in the baptismal pledge asks, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” It doesn’t ask, “if you fall into sin,” but “WHEN you fall into sin.”
I know my weaknesses. As a political pugilist, I’m not so charitable to those on the other side of the aisle. My Lenten discipline this year is to regard those of other persuasion not as enemies but, at best good Americans with other ways of seeing things. Though I admit I still have difficulty with those who have gone over the QAnon edge. I’m not too hot about the Antifa folks either. But I’m making a good attempt to understand what took some of my opponents to such extreme. To regard them as opponents, not enemies. Pray for me.
This discipline is good for my soul. And also good for House of Hope. Addiction knows no party. It’s neither Red nor Blue. All sorts, from bankers to brick layers, from professors to students.
I really have to believe in the possibility of redemption, but that’s no quick fix. You may have taken half of your life to get hooked, and it’s going to take the other half to amend your ways, to find a life of sobriety, of community.
I think it begins with empathy, understanding. That is surely one of the gifts of the Spirit, for most of the time we have compassion not within us. Too often, it’s not my first thought – to think about walking in someone else’s shoes.
“Thou shall not, Thou shall not.” This is the law. It is a guardrail for safety of the soul. The purpose is to preserve the freedom and bountiful life won for us already.
“God spoke all these words to Moses on Mount Sinai: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” That’s it in a nutshell. Do not fritter this gift away. Do not forget who opened the door to the wonder of this life.
A passion for this priceless inheritance is at the root of Jesus’ anger at the folks outside the temple with their money changing tables and animals.
“‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
The entire purpose of Moses, Jesus and the prophets – all of it down to the present day – is to bring humanity into community with each other and the animating Spirit behind it all. It’s not about yard sales.
Yes, there is behavior that destroys the fragile bonds of community. Behavior that is completely off limits. We should abstain from such. There are also sideshow distractions from the core teachings of our Judeo/Christian heritage. Mercy, Justice and forgiveness go much farther than raffles and rummage sales, bingo night and beautiful liturgy.
Instead of just the “do-nots,” lets also consider the “dos” this Lent — while we’re considering an amendment of our ways.
I came across a piece by a writer, Simone Ellin, who in school had been unmercifully bullied by some of the “mean girls.” You know who they were in your high school. Dressed tough. Sullen. Smoked and used foul language. These talked back to teachers, and sooner or later often were expelled.
In high school this woman had been bullied and ridiculed by some of these girls. As a result, her self-esteem had been in the dumps for much of her adult life.
She writes: “For decades, I’ve struggled with low-grade depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and underachievement that have persisted despite years of therapy. I won’t argue that my mental health issues stem only from the bullying I encountered in school, but those experiences ― and my lifelong shyness, hypersensitivity and self-consciousness, made me a perfect target for bullying and exclusion”1
Suddenly, she had an idea. She decided to contact her former classmates, not
1 Simone Ellin, “I Tracked Down The Girls Who Bullied Me As A Kid. Here’s What They Had To Say,” Jmore magazine, 2-19-2021.
only those who had bullied her but the other girls as well. What happened after that was astounding and life-giving.
The response of one girl was typical of comments she received from others who had bullied her. “I’m so sorry,” she said repeatedly during our call. “I swear I’m not a bad person. I think about what I did to you all the time. I don’t know why I chose you. I had a miserable home life.” She revealed some of the trauma she’d been through and, though I might have guessed that my classmate came from a troubled background, hearing it from her own lips made all the difference. I was finally able to forgive her, and (I hope) to help her to forgive herself.”2
Not one girl was nasty or bitter. Many calls ended in tears of relief and reconciliation. Being stuck in that high school nightmare was slavery for both women. Not what God
intended. For how many has the bondage of junior high, high school, been another
Egypt? For me, junior high was an utter social disaster.
Against the sort of heartfelt charity of Simone there is no law. Always, such abundant Grace in season. If I can practice just a half an ounce of such kindness and understanding to my Republican colleagues — that would be some reconciliation which God could put to good work.
In this life, the blessings of Beloved Community are rare indeed. More valuable than much fine gold. They must be nurtured to be sustained. And as Simone Ellin has demonstrated, it is never too late to put into practice their nurture.
“Truth and Reconciliation” do in fact work. Ask Archbishop Tutu. Ask the South Africans. Nothing is fixed forever – ask the people of Northern Ireland. Ask whites and blacks of the New South. Forever and forever, hate is not fixed.
Rebirth is a never-ending journey, beginning with one step. One phone call. It requires charitable leadership and the willingness to risk. As Christians, we are the people of “The Second Chance.” Remember who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Remember the One who still is your Liberation.
Here, at hand. Now. Amen.
“The Ten Suggestions?”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
March 7, 2021, Lent 3
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22