(Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Ps. 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16::1-13)
Some of you will remember Jack Palmer, a wonderful man and a parishioner here for many years. At his funeral here, years ago, there was a eulogy from one of his grandsons, who said that Jack had given him the following advice about speaking in public: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; tell ‘em; tell’em what you told ‘em.” So: here’s what I’m going to tell you: I’m going to tell you something about what it is that we do here, and something about why it’s important. Now I’m going to tell you.
You all remember Mr. Rogers - Fred Rogers, who had the children’s television show for so many years (and who was himself a Presbyterian pastor.) He once told a story on the show that has been since repeated many times: he said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ “ This little story has become something of what nowadays is called a “meme”: a belief, or a phrase, or a story, that gets passed around contemporary culture as established truth.
About a year ago – right after what was then the latest mass shooting (the one at the synagogue in Pittsburgh that left eleven dead) – that story of Mr. Rogers’ was back in the air again; and there was an article in the Atlantic Monthlyabout it, saying that it had become a kneejerk source of comfort at news of disaster, for grownups as well as children; and that it was wrong for grownups to see it and to use it that way. The author put it like this: “As an adult, it feels good to remember how Mr. Rogers made you feel good as a child. But celebrating that feeling as adults takes away the wrong lesson. We were entrusted with these insights to make children’s lives better, not to comfort ourselves for having failed to fashion the adult world in which they must live.”
Well, there’s a valid point in there (about our responsibility to make a better world for our children to grow up in.) But I think the author otherwise completely misunderstands the story. And how he misunderstands it, and why, both have to do with what we do here, in church.
Here’s how he misunderstands it. When bad things happen that are big enough to make the news, they’re scary to a child because the child knows instinctively that things aren’t supposed to be that way: people aren’t supposed to get shot up in a place of worship, the World Trade Center isn’t supposed to get destroyed by terrorists, hurricanes aren’t supposed to destroy villages and leave thousands homeless. We grownups know that too (mostly); but however else we react, it’s not scary to us in the way it is to a child because we’ve seen it too many times before, we know these things happen in life.
But – and this is what the author of the Atlanticpiece gets wrong - what’s at the root of the child’s fear is the sense that God’s not there, God’s gone away, maybe God doesn’t exist at all. And it doesn’t matter whether the child has ever thought of God, or heard a single word about God: that’s what it is: God being the wholeness, and the goodness, that a child naturally expects the world to be. And when Mr. Rogers’ mother tells him to look for the helpers, she is pointing him to the presence of God that is that is there, that is alive in the world, for children and grownups alike. She’s showing him that God has not left, at all. (We Christians can even see the helpers in this story in Trinitarian terms: God the Creator is there, the one who created us in God’s own image; God the Redeemer is there, the one who both calls us and shows us how to be who God created us to be; and God the Sanctifier is there, the Spirit of God at work in us.) “Look for the helpers. There are always people helping.” That’s to say: God always has been there, and always will be. The author of the Atlanticarticle didn’t make that connection. That’s how he got it wrong.
That’s a connection that we make here. It’s in one of our Eucharistic prayers: “Open our eyes to your hand at work in the world today.” This is the something about what we do here that I’m telling you. Here’s the part about why it’s important. It may be one explanation of why that writer got it wrong. A few years ago, as part of a sermon, I read to you something by the psychologist Carl Jung, which I’m going to read again today (back then one of you told me I could read it every week.) It’s from a letter, written in 1959, to a woman who had asked him to explain a comment he made in a newspaper: “Among all my patients in the second half of life...every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” In her letter, the woman wondered what Jung meant the phrase “religious outlook.” And this is what he wrote back:
When you study the mental history of the world, you see that people since times immemorial had a general teaching or doctrine about the wholeness of the world. Originally and down to our days, they were considered to be holy traditions taught to the young people as a preparation for their future life. This has been the case in primitive tribes as well as in highly differentiated civilizations. The teaching had always a “philosophical” and “ethical” aspect.
In our civilization this spiritual background has gone astray. Our Christian doctrine has lost its grip to an appalling extent, chiefly because people don’t understand it any more. Thus one of the most important instinctual activities of our mind has lost its object.
As these views deal with the world as a whole, they create also a wholeness of the individual, so much so, that for instance a primitive tribe loses its vitality, when it is deprived of its specific religious outlook. People are no more rooted in their world and lose their orientation. They just drift. That is very much our condition, too. The need for a meaning of their lives remains unanswered, because the rational, biological goals are unable to express the irrational wholeness of human life. Thus life loses its meaning. That is the problem of the “religious outlook” in a nutshell.
The problem itself cannot be settled by a few slogans. It demands concentrated attention, much mental work and, above all, patience, the rarest thing in our restless and crazy time.
“The irrational wholeness of human life.” I think that’s a very concise – and truthful – way of saying that we know a lot of the time life isn’t the way it’s supposed to be; sometimes in ways that make children scared (and make grownups grieve, and despair.) But we know nonetheless that there is a way it’s supposed to be; and that that happens: God is present in our lives. Finding the helpers is one of the infinite number of ways we can see that. This is why that story deservedly became so popular.
And it is here – in church – that we learn this, that we learn this is the truth. Here is where (in Jung’s language) we do the mental work, where we give the concentrated attention, where we learn the patience for this restless and crazy time. Because it is God who is our wholeness: God who is the source of all truth; and in whom, therefore we put our whole trust. That’s what we learn here. That’s what we do here in church: we learn to live, as the children of God that we are.
So: I told you what I was going to tell you; I told you; and I just you what I told you. But there’s something more about what I told you than Jack Palmer had in mind. What I just told you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, was this year’s stewardship sermon. Four weeks from today is Stewardship Sunday, when we make our commitment to the financial support of our church for the coming year. We’ll be doing the usual things between now and then, sending out pledge cards, and a letter from me, and you’ll be hearing various other things over the next few weeks about stewardship. But I wanted to start by talking about why we’re here, because that’s the foundation of everything else that we say and do.
So let us begin this season- as we should always begin everything - by thanking God. Let us thank God for God’s church; thank God for this church, for each other, for all the company of faithful people; thank God for the spark of God’s spirit that leads us here, each in our own way; thank God for always inviting us to new, larger life; thanks be to God. Amen.