On Not Doing what You’re Told, by Rev. Eugene Winkler

On Not Doing what You’re Told, by Rev. Eugene Winkler September 18, 2006

…we must break boundaries, and let God break through the limits we have
put on divine as well as human effectiveness by our pride and power-hungers and
prejudices and meanness. The world is changing so rapidly, and those who would
follow Jesus must not only realize that fact but break through the boundaries
that have kept our religious life from affecting our economic, political and
social life.

ST. MARK 1: 40-45

 

February 12 and 13, 2000

The Chicago
Temple

Eugene H. Winkler, Pastor

 

Duncan Montgomery Gray, Jr., was rector of St. Peter's
Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi on September 30, 1962 when a massive
riot was instigated by the Governor of the sovereign state of Mississippi and
the National Guard to keep James Meredith from registering as a student at the
University of Mississippi, Ole Miss. Duncan Gray, later to become the Anglican
bishop of the state, came from one of the most patrician white families in the
region; he is a man of unusual commitment and 
longstanding roots in the South.

 

Nine days before the riot had been Mr. Gray's birthday,
which was also the Feast Day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, who in our
day would have been an IRS agent before encountering the Man from Nazareth. The Collect
read from the Book of Common Prayer that day seems to have been a
presage of Gray's future:

 

O
Almighty God, who by thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of
custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist; Grant us grace to forsake all covetous
desires, and inordinate love of riches, and to follow….

 

Duncan
Gray had first become an engineer, not a tax collector. But he did become an
evangelist and follower of Jesus; was never a lover of riches. He was a
powerful preacher who spoke directly to his people the morning of September 30,
directly from Scriptures, applying them to the crisis of the university. He had
publicly said Governor Ross Barnett was a living symbol of lawlessness. To
quote from Gray's sermons is to dilute their power but necessary and indicative
of his courage:

 

Our
governor has said that the state's cause on this score is righteous and
just…but…I ask you to consider the fact that no university in the world would
defend this position rationally, and no Christian Church in the world would
defend it morally…

 

Surely
most of us realize by now that there can be only one resolution to this crisis:
the admission of James Meredith to the university. Our leaders have tried to
make us think it could be otherwise, and they have succeeded in convincing many
people that this is possible. This is especially tragic, because it will make
our adjustment to the new situation all the more difficult.

 

And
I do not believe that any of us here today could stand in the presence of Jesus
of Nazareth, look Him squarely in the eye, and say, "We will not admit a Negro
to the University
of Mississippi." For it
was He who said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my
brethren, ye have done it unto me."

 

Later
that evening Duncan Gray would go to the Confederate soldiers' monument at the
entrance of Ole Miss to try to keep the riot from beginning. A number of his
congregation had walked out of the service that morning and would be a long
time returning, but when the little man in the clerical collar stood against
the students, townspeople and National Guard that Sunday night and heard the
repeated cries, "Kill the bastard!" he realized that academic training had
nothing to do with prejudice and hate.

 

As
mild and agreeable as his sermons sound almost forty years later, it is still
obvious that Duncan Gray broke boundaries that Sunday, boundaries of hate and
evil and lawlessness. Boundaries that don't seem all that far away when we
consider that we live in one of North America's most segregated
cities-geographically, in housing, in education and in job opportunities. You
sit this morning in one of a very few churches that is actually somewhat
diverse.

 

Consider
boundaries in our lives. Without boundaries, limits, constraints, we would not
be able to live with each other. To use an obvious analogy from the world of
sports, consider games like basketball, football, soccer, tennis-to name only
four. When a ball goes out of bounds, a penalty of some kind is exacted: loss
of down, loss of the ball, loss of serve. It would be impossible to play most
sports  without boundary lines.

 

When
you ride the CTA bus or subway, you see people who try to respect other
people's space and emotional boundaries. One of the most difficult adjustments
many North Americans have to make in other cultures is around this very issue.
People who are accustomed to living in smaller spaces and having more physical
contact than we tend to get closer than we like. They tend to talk and they
gesture more than we do. Boundaries are important in every culture.

 

The
opening of Genesis tells us about God's creation of boundaries between light
and darkness, water and earth. God sets boundaries in the Ten Commandments
about who is to demand our first allegiance, about honoring parents and spouses
and property. But sin and evil keep trying to destroy the boundaries, the
limits that God has set. And because our sin makes us view others as different
and therefore less than we, we set false boundaries between ourselves and
people whom we think don't measure up to our expectations.

 

St.
Mark's Gospel depicts Jesus as one who breaks boundaries, violates the accepted
norms that have determined who is accepted and who is rejected in first-century
Palestinian society. Nobody suffered worse overt rejection than those infected
with leprosy. Torah, the interpretations of Biblical law, had drawn boundaries
meant to protect the community so that people who were "clean" would not be
infected by those who were "unclean." Nothing was regarded as more unclean than
the disease we call Hanson's, but which is known in the vernacular as leprosy.
And lepers were regarded as the most despised, unclean, feared people of
ancient culture. They were required to carry a bell and ring it while shouting
"Unclean! Unclean!" as they went along the roads and through the streets of
Palestinian villages.

 

The
causes of leprosy were not understood, but its symptoms were apparent to all.
Skin began to flake off, then the infected person would lose a knuckle, a
finger, a limb that just rotted away before your very eyes. Nobody knew what
caused it, but they understood that it was a communicable disease and fearsome
in its effects.

 

Thus,
the diseases called leprosy affected not only one's body but also one's
relationship with other people and with God. Leviticus 13-14 instructs priests
how to diagnose leprosy, when to pronounce a person "clean" or "unclean," and
what kinds of rituals could restore a healed person to purity.

 

So,
when this leper comes begging to Jesus, kneeling before him and challenges him,
"If you choose, you can make me clean," Our Lord is moved with pity. "I do
choose," he declares. "Be made clean." "Immediately," St. Mark (who was, you
understand, a Methodist preacher because he loves that word "immediately" so
much) writes, "the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

 

Not
quite. Not until the man goes to the priest and the priest performs clearly
designated rituals clearly, "as Moses commanded," says Jesus. But first he
makes a caveat, "See that you say nothing to anyone." An admonition that the
man immediately disregards. He goes out and tells everyone about the miracle he
has asked for and been granted, about the power of the Man from Nazareth. 

 

Some
boundaries are bad, evil, to be disregarded, to be removed, broken down. But
other boundaries are necessary, some are God-given. We could not live without
some boundaries. Notice in the story that it is Jesus who does for the man what
he cannot  do for himself. So the healed
leper breaks boundaries also.

 

Andrew
Delbanco has written extensively about religion in American culture; his 1988
book on the loss of evil in our nation's self-understanding, The Death of Satan, was incisive as well
as insightful. Another, more recent book, The
Real American Dream
, adapted from a series of lectures, examines the
stories and symbols by which we try to hold back, he writes, "the melancholy
suspicion that we live in a world without meaning." The earliest settlers in
American had no such doubts. They had no notion of randomness or chance as we
do today. Every event, even the smallest, 
had meaning and was evidence of the power and judgment of God. Calvin,
in those days, didn't refer to a designer surnamed Klein, but to a man who told
us a lot about providence and God's will, who emphasized the majesty of God and
the puniness of human beings.

 

While
working a few years ago on an essay about Alcoholics Anonymous, Mr. Delbanco
attended some AA meetings around the country. "There," he writes, "I met some
desperate, and remarkably eloquent, people who found themselves in the grip of
an addiction (Puritans would have called it a sin) from which they had sworn a
thousand times to free themselves, but which they had never really escaped."
One Saturday morning in a New York
church basement he was listening to a crisply dressed young man whose every
word and gesture gave the impression of grievously wounded pride. He talked at
length about how he was faultless, that his mistakes were caused by others,
that he had been wounded and he was going to avenge himself upon the many
people who had wronged him.

 

While
he was speaking, the man sitting next to Delbanco-a black man of about forty,
in dreadlocks and shades-leaned over and whispered, "I used to feel that way
too, before I achieved low self-esteem."

 

"This
was more than a good line." For Mr. Delbano it was the moment he understood in
a new way the religion he had claimed to know something about. As the speaker
talked about "believing in myself," "toughing it out," "taking control of my
life," the black man understood the doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope.
What he meant by his joke about self-esteem was that no one can save himself by
dint of his own efforts. He thought the speaker was still lost-lost in himself,
but without knowing it.

 

I
am dismayed by my own failing battles with pride and conceit, and, frankly, I
am dismayed and depressed by your battles also. I sit in church meetings and I
watch the struggles for power and prestige that dominate so much of our time
and deliberation. I see unhappy people who have no outlet for their grasp of
control except through their positions in the church. Humility, one of the chief
virtues of Our Lord and of those who would profess to be His followers, is
forsaken time after time.

 

I
was in a meeting the other day with a very astute trainer/consultant of one of
our city's leading charitable organizations. He's active in his own congregation,
and as we were doing some strategic planning for one of my many boards, he made
a remark that ratified one of my own observations: "I do not understand how
very smart, capable people who are successful in the business world can check
their brains at the door when they enter the church." Not only that, but don't
we want to give our best to God? To the One who has given us every blessing and
asks only that we love God with all our heart and strength and mind?

 

To
do that we must break boundaries, and let God break through the limits we have
put on divine as well as human effectiveness by our pride and power-hungers and
prejudices and meanness. The world is changing so rapidly, and those who would
follow Jesus must not only realize that fact but break through the boundaries
that have kept our religious life from affecting our economic, political and
social life.

 

As
Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, "When Bill Clinton was elected
president… there were 50 pages on the World Wide Web. Today there are over 50
million. In 1992 no one had heard of e-commerce. This year retail e-commerce
alone in the U.S. will hit
$50 billion-all of it untaxed, which is starting to drive mayors and governors
crazy…The three biggest foreign relationships the U.S.
has today-with Japan, Russia and China-have all been turned upside
down…"

 

If
old, improper boundaries are to be broken and the appropriate moral and
spiritual boundaries of our lives are to be affirmed, we must learn to do what
God tells us to do, and to ignore those demands that are made in a changing
world that would keep us from doing God's work.

 

A
story from the Eastern church illustrates the point: A monk asked, "Abbot, what
has God's wisdom taught you? Did you become divine?"

 

"Not
at all."

 

"Did
you become a saint?"

 

"No,
as you can clearly see."

 

"What
then, O Abbot?"

 

"I
became awake!"

 

God
is trying to awaken us from the sleep of our sinful past and give us power and
grace to live in the truth, to discern how to do what we are told and how not
to do what we are told.

 

 

 

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