Sermons

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered

Ancient Testimony ~ Luke 12: 22-34

March 15, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

A friend of mine has written a novel and this is the opening story. A mother prepares her child for summer camp. The van is to arrive at 8 a.m. The two of them get out early for their anxious parting. A van arrives; the mother kisses the child good-bye and loads his backpack into the vehicle. The child tears up, thinks about not going, gears up his courage, and enters the van. They wave a mutual good-bye. Five minutes later the mother is still standing there, experiencing the passage, when another van pulls up. She has put her child on the wrong van. And thus the novel begins.

I’m not going to tell you the ending of the story, just the beginning. In its beginning, this sermon begins. Many of us have been put on the wrong van. We are headed toward the world of captivity and mistakes, a world newly described as populated by phantom banks, toxic assets, bottom feeders, underwater mortgages, bed bugs, sciatica, resentment where intimacy might reign… Our shovels are ready but the ground is hard. Our van is driven by unfriendly drivers, like contagious pessimism and irrational despondency. Our mothers and fathers put us on this van. They didn’t know and we didn’t know what was happening. Blame is tempting but only bewitches, bothers, and bewilders us even more than the original mistake. What is great about mistakes is the way they burp into personal responsibility, self-doubt, and an anxious inability to get on the right van, even when it comes along, as it does from time to time.

I loved the rhythm of the joke made by the head of the Dow Jones this week. He argued that the Dow is clearly responsible for nine of the last five recessions. While our mothers and fathers are not to blame for our current mess, they and we do have responsibility. Responsibility is different than blame. I think that is what this text is trying to tell us. It argues against worry. If you know it in its original version, you will hear its great rhythms. “Therefore I tell you do not worry about what you shall eat or what you shall wear. Think about the ravens. They are all unemployed, and yet God feeds them. Consider the Lilies. They have no resume. Notice how glorious they are. If God so clothes the grass of the field and the birds of the air, will God not take care of you?” The text concludes with that bewitching, bothersome, and bewildering conclusion: “Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” The recommendation is strong: Let beauty be your treasure. Not banks, not clothes, not food. Transcend your biology. Embrace your beauty.

Easier suggested, our bereft mother might say, than done. How are we to know beauty when our shovel is in our hand and the ground is hard? How are we to wait long enough for the right van to come along? Especially in a season of deeply multiplying triple B’s.

I have a few recommendations. Nothing big—and surely nothing in this short time that will take on the notion of such a personal God. One of my bothers with this text is its assumption of a personal God as antidote to worry. I prefer to think of our beauty as less than a personal relationship with God and more as an ode to our personal uniqueness, the blessing and beauty of our own DNA. We are blessed by our fragile uniqueness in the same way a wild flower is so blessed. We are beautiful in our own fragile unrepeatability as a bird in flight. We need our barns and banks much less than we think we need them. Where our treasure is, there also our heart is. Our treasure can be in our God-given beauty and blessedness even more than it is in our barns and banks. When this nugget is realized in our hearts, we are able to worry less.

So this sermon is a how-to. It is a how to get on the right van. It is how to replace beauty and blessing with bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. (B has always been my favorite letter.) I have no interest in the false dualism of beauty versus bewilderment. I actually think bewilderment is the mother of beauty. The two are not enemies but friends, especially as treasure and heart, the interior life, become as rich as barns and banks, the exterior life. You can surely find reasons to worry! There is no shortage. But you need not worry if a deeper treasure caresses you.

A few definitions: bewitched is captivity. Something not you has taken you over. Bothered is the worry that you add to the stew of bewitched. Bothered is what this text is preaching against: why add worry to the soup of genuine trouble? What does it get you? Bewildered is the final stage of the act. You are possessed, you are anxious that you are possessed, and then you are bewildered about why you are so anxious. Are we having fun yet?

Consider with me a few interesting problems. One is that the Isadora Duncan dance troupe didn’t pick up all their stuff last night. So we get to worship with it still in the room. This bothers many of us. What can we do about it now? Not much. Thus we go to our treasure in this worship, our beauty as a congregation, our blessing to be here together this morning. We work from the treasure in our heart rather than the bother in our room.

Or think of the videographer who filmed the baptism of couple of weeks ago without permission. One of you was legitimately bothered about coming to worship and being photographed. We can surely honor your bother and help each other stop people from taking pictures during the service. That is simple enough, to take care of the blessing of our private space by politely asking picture-takers to get permission before shooting. We can also spend a lot of time being bothered by that intrusion. Again, worry is a kind of high interest paid on a credit card. Why pay it? There are alternatives.

Or consider something more serious but equally bothersome. The internecine warfare of Rwanda. I heard this week a powerful story of some North Korean Christians who were told by the Holy Spirit to set up micro-lending corporations in Rwanda. They didn’t just pray for banks and barns for the Rwandans; they did something about it. They ran straight into the World Bank1—which was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by their success and tried unsuccessfully to put them, the Holy Spirit, and their small banks out of business.

In the same conversation I heard about Chinese Christian seminaries, now graduating 1000 Masters of Divinity per year. In the U.S., we graduate 5000 per year. Why is this a blessing talking to a bother? Because it helps us see the bigger picture, like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field. Yes, they are the bigger picture, yes the small is the blessing. That’s the point: small is often large. Large is often small. There is a great blessing in telling that message to the World Bank.

Whenever we worry about the state of our own economy, it is helpful to add the globe to our small pictures. The same missionary who was telling me these stories begged me to beg American Churches to never again send bibles or books to Africa. The congregations there don’t have libraries, they are all on-line, and the Chinese do simultaneous translation of theology books for their students in an advanced Kindle mechanism. Why do I complicate your lives with these global pictures—of Koreans micro-lending in Rwanda, Chinese Seminaries doing multilingual computer translation, American congregations still bundling books for the poor? Because one of the blessings and beauties that mightily confronts the triple B’s of the Broadway song is here: often the more local we see, the less blessing we see. We don’t live in a country, we live on a planet. That is a beautiful idea.

By the way, one of the few American institutions that is not rolling in red ink from their endowments is Tufts University. Why? Because the owners of eBay gave them 100 million dollars on the condition that they would invest all of it in micro-lending projects. They made money on their endowment and multiplied blessings at the same time. Don’t let the World Bank know. Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. Treasure, please, U.S. treasury, what we could do for the world right now, and even our own barns will be full.

A professor told me the story of a new professor coming to the department meeting and complaining about a kid who was sitting in the back row reading a book instead of listening. All of the mature professors immediately countered her bother with the bewildered words, “At least she was reading.” How is that a blessing and a beauty countering a bewilderment? It acknowledges that there are some things about which you can do very little. I call it the “Leave It Alone Committee.” That committee, in my life, has a very, very long agenda. Videographers poaching on services, usually just to take a picture of a kid’s baptism, join students sitting in the back row not listening to the lecture in competition for the bottom of the list: the things we get to after we have gotten to the beauty and blessing of the day. Closer to the top of the Leave It Alone Committee list is Rwanda, the World Bank, and the strong need not to spiritualize poverty and its many anxieties.

Your treasure may be in your heart but it also needs to be in Rwanda. If any of you want to help me with the agenda for this committee—which, by the way, never meets, because it can’t find a date—I am open to suggestions regarding the righteous relationship of Judson to NYU; how to greet visiting Baptists and how much time to give them in the service; what to do about announcements, joys, and concerns; how to get the women’s bathrooms fixed; whether to keep printing the hymns in the bulletin or to go to a large worship screen; etc. I also have my two favorite B’s: Bailouts and Bed Bugs. You get the picture. What I know in my heart is that life and you are wonderful, just the imperfect and unfinished way that we are. That is my treasure, my blessing, our beauty. The rest is just bothersome.

Many of us feel that somebody put us on the wrong van and that we will never get to the right summer camp, have the right childhood, live in the right country, or fly like a bird, much less be dressed as good as a flower. Today, I invite you to place beauty and blessing at the heart of your life. From there you will be less bewitched, less bothered, and still bewildered. Two out of three ain’t bad.

 

1 Full details regarding the World Bank’s involvement in and reaction to North Korean micro-lending in Rwanda are being sought. – Ed.

 
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