Saturday, May 3, 2014

What a Mess!

Psalm 14
May 4, 2014
William G. Carter

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, 
who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

One night last week, I was feeling pretty restless. So I picked up the television remote and began flipping through the channels. To my delight, there was the end of a movie that I had seen in a theater. It’s a movie that some of you saw, and it’s called “The Help.” It’s the story of African-American house maids in Jackson, Mississippi, sometime in early 1960’s. Through a variety of circumstances, they tell the stories of their lives to an Ole Miss graduate who publishes them anonymously in a book.

Aibileen is one of these truth-telling maids. She has friends who get fired for using the wrong toilet. Her own son is killed in a factory accident and she’s not given time off to grieve. One of her jobs is to raise white children in Jackson, Mississippi -- children who love her, children who are an inconvenience to their socialite mothers, children who will grow up to become as racist as their parents. For this, she is paid a pitiful salary and treated as if she is invisible.

But Aibileen tells her story. The story goes in a book that sells extremely well. The wealthy people of Jackson are shaken at a time when the Civil Rights movement is rolling into town. And one of the angriest is Hilly Holbrook, a privileged socialite who represents all the white people who put down and demean their hired help.

Hilly knows that Aibileen is in on this project. But she can’t say so publicly because it expose and embarrass her in way that if you haven’t seen the movie, you can’t quite imagine. So what does Hilly do? She falsely accuses Aibileen of stealing some family silver. She threatens to call the police, and demands that Aibileen’s pliable boss should fire her immediately.

But Aibileen has had it. She has become accustomed to telling the truth. She says, “Miss Hilly, all you do is scare and lie to try to get what you want.” Hilly bursts into a shrieking rage. And then Aibileen says it: “You are a godless woman. Ain’t you tired, Miss Hilly? Ain’t you tired?”

You know, it is a daring move to call a white Baptist socialite in Jackson, Mississippi, a “godless woman.” But it sure does explain an awful lot.

Psalm 14 declares that people do terrible things when they act as if there is no God, when they behave as if they are not accountable to the One who has given them their lives. They go astray, says the Psalmist. They do corrupt and abominable deeds. They might declare with their lips that they believe in God, but in their hearts, in the center of their souls, they act as if they are an end in themselves. “Miss Hilly, all you do is scare and lie to try to get what you want…you are a godless woman. Ain’t you tired?”

In just a few verses, the psalm diagnoses what is wrong with the whole human family. The people who are made in the image of God behave as if God is of no consequence. Psalm 14 declares that chaos rules when people are godless. They mistreat one another, they enslave one another, they falsely accuse one another, they are predators of the weakest and most vulnerable . . . and human life becomes a big sloppy mess.

If we took the time, we could pull out the daily newspaper and circle every article where somebody acts selfishly, or violently, or uniquely in their own self-interest. Perhaps there would be a couple items on the cartoon page that would remain unmarked, the crossword puzzle perhaps. If we took the time . . . but I’m certain you have stories of your own, stories where family members stop speaking to one another, or people carry grudges long past the expiration date, or employers gobble up and discard the people who work so hard to make them rich, or lazy workers take advantage of the employers who treat them with grace.

Anybody here think the human race is in good shape? Or that it has ever been in good shape? We don’t have to read the Bible to see this; the Bible has already read us. You don’t have to read the old story of Adam and Eve as a scientific document to know that it is spiritually true. God says, “You can eat all the fruit that you want, except from that tree over there.” Gee, Lord, it hadn’t occurred to us until you said that.

Like saying to the kids, “Shelby and Jake, don’t play in the mud.” Mud? Is there mud? Thanks, Mom, I didn’t realize there was mud.”

Adam and Eve ignored God and took matters into their own hands. And as somebody said so delightfully, “they “spent the rest of their days convincing themselves that it all worked out for the best.”[1]

The word is godless. Not that there is no God; there is. But acting as if there is not. Ever get tired of that?

The psalm suggests this impulse infects all of us. “All have gone astray,” says the poet. All alike are perverse. No one does good, not one of us. The Lord looks down from heaven to see if anybody is actually searching for God. Anybody, anybody at all?

Do you think this a harsh indictment? Look around. Look carefully and widely. See if anybody is looking for God. Or if they are merely imprisoned in themselves. Some time ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called Who Needs God? In the concluding pages, he writes:

Atlas was condemned to carry the weight of the entire world on his shoulders.  That was as harsh a punishment as the ancient Greek mind could conjure up.  Today, it seems, we have volunteered to play the role of Atlas . . . We have not offended God, we have dismissed him, told him we were grown up enough not to need his help any more, and offered to carry the weight of the entire world on our shoulders.  The question is, when it gets too heavy for us, when there are questions too hard for human knowledge to answer and problems that take more time to solve than any of us have, will we be too proud to admit that we have made a mistake in wanting to carry this world alone?[2]

Maybe you don’t like the word “godless.” I don’t particularly like it. But something in my soul is drawn to Aibilene’s invitation: “Ain’t you tired? Miss Hilly, ain’t you tired?”

Of course I’m tired. I will bet you’re tired. Tired of carrying it all by myself and not handing it over to God. Tired of keeping up appearances when we are weary and still pretending we are something we are not. Tired of trying to finish the race on our own steam when it is God who carries us every day. Tired of acting like we are in charge of everything when the plain truth is that it has all come to us as a gift. Tired of trying to influence other people of our point of view, rather than study how God teaches us to walk in peace, justice, and self-giving love. Aren’t you tired of flipping through the channels in late-night restlessness, looking for something to ground your soul, or at least bide your time? Aren’t you tired of a life without God?

Then you are in the right place. We celebrate two sacraments today; one’s not enough. We baptize a child and say, “You don’t have to make it on your own, because you are God’s child just like the rest of us.” Then we seal the deal at God’s Table when we taste again that we are welcomed, wanted, and fed with a mercy and wisdom far beyond our own. Here is where life begins again, in the presence of Jesus Christ, our redeemer.

Writing about the Heidelberg Catechism, Craig Barnes writes of the misery, the godless misery that comes to the human race when we try to carry everything and complete it all on our own limited power. He says something provocative about this: “People usually prefer the misery they know to the mystery they do not.”

And then he adds: “I have been a pastor long enough to know that just because people are miserable, that does not mean that they want to change. They may change jobs, move to a new town, buy another car, or find another relationship, but essentially they’re just rearranging the furniture of their lives when what they really need is a new life.”[3]

New life is the currency of God’s kingdom. We don’t have to be tired anymore. God is right here, inviting us to put our weary, sin-sick souls into the mysterious hands of New Creation, lifting us out of the "miseries to which we have grown accustomed." Our lives are defined by Christ crucified and risen. And if you trust him with that, no difficulty, no disease, no loss, no tragedy, no misery will ever win over you. You belong to him, body and soul. Jesus Christ is our true home.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner,
[2] Harold Kushner, Who Needs God? (New York: Touchstone, 2002) p. 210.
[3] M. Craig Barnes, Body & Soul: Reclaiming the Heidelberg Catechism (Louisville, KY, Congregational Ministries Publishing, 2012) p. 47.  Thanks for his wisdom which infuses this sermon.

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