White Begonias and Grape Tomatoes


That day as a sophomore, I was being quite sophomoric. The professor in our American literature class had made the statement that we see only from our own viewpoints. With a silent, smug, “Well, duh, yeah,” I wrote the words in my notebook: “We see only from our own viewpoints,” followed by the professor’s name. From whose viewpoint could I possibly see but mine?

I wonder how many times I have returned to that professor’s statement as I have grown less sophomoric and somewhat wiser sometimes. The trick, of course, is to become aware of the “just my own” in my viewpoint and so discern the limited, often myopic nature of that viewpoint which is just mine. In truth, I was already on my way even then as a college sophomore, in part thanks to a high school history teacher who had opened my eyes to the viewpoint-determined nature of historical facts. Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean (and named it Pacifico), right? Yup, that’s the answer for the elementary school history quiz. But really? What of the thousands of people who had been swimming, boating, and fishing in it for centuries uncounted?

Indeed, that’s the right word: uncounted. From the predominant European viewpoint, those people did not count. As Mark Twain put it, “The very ink with which history is written is fluid prejudice.” The American mythology of our beginnings as a nation, complete with a huge dose of divine will, purpose, guidance, and protection that yielded our “manifest destiny” and our lingering sense of exceptional greatness, was all our story from our own viewpoint. I must note here that one theologian whose work I am rereading observes that before the republic became an empire, much of the American dream lived in us as hope and aspiration for ourselves and sometimes for the other peoples of earth, not as established fact and belief not to be questioned. As we became more and more an empire, our sense of exceptional greatness hardened into proud certainty, then (especially after September 11, 2001) fearfully and angrily defended dogma.

As I walked around our yard this morning taking photos, I noticed pluses and minuses in the effects of our recent deluge. Our rain gauge had showed about 11.5 inches of rain in five days, with more rain to come (and more still coming). Our grape tomatoes have been splitting as they ripen. There’s a minus. The withering white begonias we had transplanted without apparent success in saving them had taken hold in the downpours and are now thriving. There’s a plus.

Minus and plus, I realized as I brought up the photographic images transferred to my computer are only from our viewpoint. Success means white flowers to contrast with the other colors in the front gardens and tomatoes to eat and share with the neighbors. The split tomatoes, however, can still drop their seeds. Some insects are enjoying the tomatoes’ vulnerability. This realization of different views may be a small matter, but it raises a larger question. Is earth our warehouse of resources to be used and even used up, or do we bear responsibility for earth’s other creatures and for the world itself, responsibility that is not gauged only by our needs, desires, and benefits? Does everything exist just for us? Do animals and plants have worth only according to their usefulness or profitability to us or for their beauty or cuteness in our eyes?

The famous and now notorious Genesis command to the human creatures to “fill the earth and subdue it” comes to us from within the context of human vulnerability to nature and Judah’s reduction to powerlessness by the Neo-Babylonians. No biblical writer ever dreamed of a time when humans would hold the power to destroy all life on earth and even the planet itself. None imagined human capability to pollute the air and the seas. For them, the world belonged to God and not to them. They were appointed by God to serve as caretakers of earth and care givers for each other. Since those ancient, pre-scientific times, we have gained exponentially in knowledge about our world and control over it, but how much have we gained in wisdom? Now that we are seeing the limits of our control and the dangers in our greed, we are growing anxious and defensive.

Now that humanity has “come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression), we have lived to see, those of us who will look, technology as a runaway train that might just careen toward our destruction. We have learned to use data and charts to assure ourselves of continued prosperity as more and more people suffer poverty and deprivation. Values-free research combined with our dominant profit motive have left us anxious and increasingly inclined to retreat into entertainments. or narcotics.

I am not suggesting a return to pre-scientific and pre-Enlightenment thinking. We cannot go back to “old-time religion” or a Medieval world of magic and superstition, but are we so fixed in our limited viewpoint that we cannot find in ourselves and our world a sense of wonder? Can we learn a humility that is not self-deprecating or pathetic but is strong enough to stop pretending to be more in control than the human creature can be? Can we stop calling ourselves the greatest long enough to find hope again and take responsibility for our actions in terms of our relatedness to each other, to the other creatures, and to earth itself?

We see only from our own viewpoints. Yes, but how liberating it can be to realize my view comes only from my viewpoint and so is quite limited and sometimes distorted. How much more liberating even it is to learn that I can, like my camera, change lenses and see differently. I cannot see through your eyes, but I can listen to you and defer preparing what I’ll say next to argue my position or one-up you with a funnier story.  Realizing the narrowness of vision from my viewpoint only can open my eyes to the wonders and responsibilities of life that is shared and hopes that can be shared as well.

As Thanksgiving Approaches


I learned from the process of writing sermons, pushing my thinking, questioning prior understandings, and trying to make fresh sense of traditional terms. In the sermon which follows, those traditional terms were thanksgiving and stewardship. The former has become a holiday known now to many as “Turkey Day,” the latter a theological label for church fund-raising. Both terms carry far better and deeper meaning we may still find if we dig through the baggage thrown on top of them.

The sermon was written, then preached, in a particular time and place: the First Presbyterian Church of Bridgeton, New Jersey, on Thanksgiving and Stewardship Dedication Sunday in 2011. When I read it again this morning, I found that for me where I am now in life it became current and challenging. I hope it will become current for someone else, also. I hope too that it might, for someone outside the sphere of faith, make a tiny crack in the hardened perception of Christianity as an outmoded and self-serving sham that plays upon people’s fears to get their money and perpetuate itself beyond its time.

Sermon for Thanksgiving and Stewardship Dedication Sunday
November 20, 2011
Lessons: Ezekiel 34:11-22 and Matthew 25:31-40

True Thanksgiving Makes Changes

Stewardship comes from accepting responsibility with the self-understanding of a servant. Thankfulness comes from receiving life as a gift, with the self-understanding of one who is loved and cared for. Together stewardship and thankfulness work to shape, encourage, and guide our life as a congregation and our personal lives as Jesus’ disciples.

For stewardship, I used the word responsibility rather than duty. I know the two words are listed as synonyms, but they have quite different connotations, and the difference matters. Duty is not a bad word, but insufficient for understanding our stewardship. I can fulfill my duty without understanding why. I need only do as I am told or as the rules say. Questioning the why of the rules may be deemed impertinent. “Just do it! Don’t question, obey!” Responsibility implies thinking and acting in response to Jesus Christ, in harmony with his concerns for people and his manner of representing God’s love, mercy, and justice to them. Slaves must do as they are told. As stewards, we need to ask questions to learn the why of Jesus’ ways and internalize his concerns. For me, spiritual development is the process of internalizing Jesus’ concerns with the goal of becoming, not just his servants, but his friends who know his mind and share it for the sake of the world God loves. True spirituality turns us upward toward God and inward toward ourselves to turn us outward. It does not withdraw from the world, except for times of renewal before going back into the world with all its messiness, confusion, and grief. Jesus sends us into the marketplaces where human life is bought and sold on the cheap, into the constant clashes of competing self-interests, and into the places where people withdraw to cry even when they have no tears left.

Thanksgiving – the joy of those who receive life as a gift – is fulfilled as it moves from inward celebration of God’s goodness to outward expressions of God’s love, mercy, and justice in the service of people for the sake of Jesus Christ who suffered and died for them, whether they know it or not, whether they even care of not.

Ezekiel reminds us that thankfulness enjoyed without concern for justice, especially for the most vulnerable, quickly descends to the low level of joy in self-indulgence. In his imagery, the fat, pushy sheep may rejoice in their ability to bump the weaker sheep aside and take all they want without regard for fairness. In our world where greed is esteemed as a virtue that drives prosperity, such rejoicing in what I myself have taken from life may pass for thanksgiving, but not in God’s eyes. Taking from life without sharing, without providing for the disadvantaged, and without respecting God’s love for all, amounts to stealing from life and, therefore, to stealing from God.

Jesus takes us even further along the same road as the prophets. Because the Word, the truth, of God became flesh and united himself in suffering, humiliation, and death with the lowest of humanity, he is, in love’s way, incarnate to us in the least of our neighbors – the scorned or ignored, the afflicted or addicted, the uneducated and the unemployed, the objects of disgust or its kindlier twin, pity. He stands with the people the world discounts.

What Christian speaks against Jesus?

Thankfulness changes the way we see life. When as a church we take food to people in our communities, we are sharing with them, not giving them a handout. We are thanks-giving to our God who loves all of us and provides for us so that we may share. Jesus reminds us that as we regard and treat the least admired and least powerful person, we are regarding and treating him. So, it does us no good to praise him in worship and pray in his name, if we then go out and scorn him in public and speak against him. What Christian speaks against Jesus? Those who speak as though the poor and disadvantaged, the unemployed and underpaid, were the ones dragging our society down. Those who take more and more from people making less and less. Those who take advantage of people’s desperation. “As you have done it to one of the least of these, my sister, my brother,” Jesus says, “you have done it to me.”

Over the years, I have discovered that happiness is not a thing by itself but, rather, something we derive from thankfulness. I could have mountains of wealth and be miserable, dissatisfied, and mean, but I could have barely enough to share and be joyful if I am first thankful for what God has provided. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. It has become commonplace for the well-off to preach that the poor can be happy if only they will be thankful for what they have and not jealous of their betters who have more. “Don’t tell them they’re poor,” we are admonished, because telling them the truth will arouse discontent in them and they will no longer be willing to work for the prosperity of others and the crumbs that fall to them from the tables of the wealthy. The myth that the poor and powerless are happier than those who must shoulder the responsibilities of being rich is a convenient self-deception of those who preach it. The prophets and Jesus tell us clearly that God judges a society by the treatment of its most vulnerable, not by the average that comes from having grossly inflated wealth for the few at the top.

Thankfulness changes also our view of what the Bible calls the earth’s goodness but we modern people tend to call resources, as though everything were defined by its usefulness or appeal to us. We even want our birdseed to go to the birds that are pretty to our eyes. Because we have been taught or at least tempted to see all things natural as our resources, we live with fear of scarcity rather than with joy at the abundance in God’s world. So, we are trained to live by taking, sharing only when we have more than we need for ourselves and, maybe, much more than enough. We give what we can spare, rather than what we have to share. Thankfulness, planted more and more deeply within us by the quiet workings of the Spirit of God, changes our perceptions of the world around us and of ourselves in relation to it and to each other. Thankfulness is liberating. It works toward freeing us from fear that comes every time we realize that we cannot control our futures and that some power, natural or corporate, may devise ways to take away from us what we thought was securely ours. That’s not to say we should stop fighting the forces of greed and legal larceny, but we need not live in fear, for we trust our God to provide.

Faithful thanksgiving is something we can practice, not only by counting our blessings, but by thanking God through sharing them and learning to delight in that sharing. Thankfulness enables us to enjoy good things without letting them enslave us. Jesus has told us. Without thankfulness and trust, we try to keep life’s good or pretty things, and they get eaten by rust or moths; so they wear out without ever being used or enjoyed. Idolatry comes from giving too much importance to things we can possess and so granting them too much power over us. What would we do without them? The practice of giving thanks to God and then sharing what is good works to overcome our temptation to idolatry.

Today, we give thanks to our God with food to share, and also we dedicate to God our pledges of money to finance and encourage our life, mission, and ministry as a congregation of Christ’s church – a gathering of people who strive to entrust ourselves to him and fulfill our stewardship of his good news of God’s redemptive love. We have to think for ourselves. We need to ask good questions about how faith can be honest and life can be true to Jesus. We need each other. We need not only to receive support in our difficult times of life but also to give it in the hard times through which our sisters and brothers must walk. We need to keep reaching out with respect and grace because God loves the world and not just the church. We need to see Jesus in the person we might tend to overlook or turn away from. And we need to forgive ourselves, maybe our parents, and all against whom we bear resentments. We need to give thanks to God and share life with each other. Amen.

Thoughts after Earth Day 2010


Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
(Genesis 1:26-28 NRSV)

Context matters. Because the Hebrew scriptures present a variety of witnesses to the steadfast love and faithfulness of Israel’s covenant God and a variety, also, of responses and reactions from different times and circumstances to the promises of that God’s love and faithfulness, we need to be very wary of modern interpretations that absolutize biblical declarations as though they had no context within human life and history, no relation to circumstances current at the time, and no elasticity in speaking God’s truth or faith’s response in ever-changing times and conditions.

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