"A No-Risk Guarantee Sounds less than Appealing to Me"

Deuteronomy 26 and Luke 4

The Rev. Fred G. Garry



I have sat in a lot of hospitals and my fair share of homes offering pastoral care. It is something of a joy even in the worst of situations. When I have had the privilege of training seminarians in what is sometimes referred to as the "pastoral call" or visit, I am always mindful of their trepidation. For many of them the weight of stepping into someone’s life when it is breaking or not working or suffering is a daunting task. My only real advice to them is to be honest. Speak the truth. If it’s bad, say it’s bad; if death is near, be truthful about that; if the challenge of recovery is overwhelming, don’t gloss it over with clichés about insured success. Be honest and be hopeful.

Recently I sat with a woman who has faced a series of debilitating strokes, falls, and surgeries. As I sat with her and noted her resilience and courage- she continues to fight to get through all of this- I could not help but wonder that one of these would have done me- let along a series. Yet, I thought I would stretch a bit and talk about goals, what do the doctors hope to see as recovery? I asked knowing the challenge of relearning fine motor skills and walking, "is the goal to walk with a walker" and here I hesitated not wanting to go too far, "or is it to walk with a cane?" She was quick to respond with a single word, but I couldn’t make it out. And then I heard it, "golf." "I don’t know what their goal is, but mine is to be out there golfing."

Needless to say, I was convicted by how little I was willing to dream, to hope great things. Pragmatism is more my speed. Determine what you can do and then get to it: that is pragmatism. Walker Percy wrote in one of his novels, blessed is the man who knows not everything is a possibility. This is where I tend to live, to dwell, to work from. Be honest and hopeful, but perhaps not always hoping for the best, for the greatest.

I recently saw this with Joan and Carl here. Discussing the Good Friday service we began the process of entertaining, pondering what it would look like. I retrieved an old bulletin for them where selections were taken from the daunting work, Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, easily one of the greatest in the Western Canon. The bulletin the service described was safe, accessible, not much of a stretch. Carl and Joan said they would look this over and get back to me.

As I thumbed through the service they put together, two things quickly emerged: the first was that they had not played it safe, but had put together a challenging and brave representation of this most difficult work; the second, was that it was inspiring. This I have seen again and again as people have gotten the word. The challenge is getting around and people want to join in because it could be something great. For the people who are familiar with choral music know how many safe and easy Good Friday/Lenten works there are and how rare it is that someone wants to stretch for something great.

The best example of this, this stretch, though, came from a rock star. Bono, I am not sure of his real name, but Bono is a rock star and good one. A few years ago he was invited to give the commencement speech at Harvard University. Even though his fame with the graduates would have been enough to earn him the podium, he confessed in is speech that there is nothing more obnoxious than a celebrity with a cause, but here he is. His cause was forgiving the debt of African nations and finding support for easing the suffering of the continent.

He confessed to the graduating class that he shared their disgust in his being offered the opportunity to speak, being a singer he said is less than noble, it is not feeling good about yourself until 20,000 people shout your name. Such ego centrism and narcissism has no place at such an austere event. Yet here he was and on he went. He went on to confess not only his embarrassment, but also his indifference. Indifference he said is a great temptation, it is tempting when everyone works for you and you can fly all over the world and you are not hungry or in need of your neighbor, it is tempting to become terribly indifferent. This, Bono suggested, was certainly something a Harvard graduate will be tempted with: the indifference that comes with success.

Of course what he wanted them to consider was not only their apathy, but Africa: African indebtedness where countries pay nine dollars in debt service for ever dollar of aid they receive; the 25 million people who are HIV positive who will die of AIDs because there are no expensive cocktails for them; the 40 million orphans we will see in six short years. He went on to recount, that in spite of this, how easy, really easy, it was to make a difference, how just a bit of his time and a bit of leverage really changed the world for people, saved lives, lives were saved from hunger, disease, illiteracy, and suffering that just need not be.

Yet, in the same breath, he confessed his shared experience of how unlikely it would be that such a thought, such a risk would ever hit the radar of a successful doctor or lawyer, broker or politician, a business man, teacher, and here I should add preacher for good measure. African’s don’t get to vote in our elections and people get nervous when you talk about Africa or AIDs too much. So the chances are that the apathy of success would never see the easy possibilities to make a difference, to do something.

Then at the end of his speech, after people were most likely starting to feel a twinge of guilt invading their indifference, he went in a different tack by asking a question. "Is America still a great idea or is it just a great nation?" The question came from advice he received in Oklahoma. Touring the U.S. and speaking at Rotary meetings and pastoral gatherings, Bono was trying to get the word out. After one such speech a businessman came to him and said, "Son, this is all fine and well, and you are right. But you made a terrible mistake. You made these people feel guilty. If you want Americans to help, to follow you, you have to appeal to their sense of greatness not their guilt. Inspire them with greatness and they will go anywhere for you." So at the very end after he had made his case to the Harvard grads he made his appeal: Is America still a great idea or is it just a great nation?

In the desert Jesus was tempted, tempted with rocks and nations, temples and angels. Satan offered him food when he was hungry, power when he was nothing, and a way of knowing for sure if God was on his side. Most of us don’t look to rocks when we are hungry and wonder how they would taste, neither does world domination often tempt us as we linger in line at the grocery store. We would like to know many things for sure, but taking a nose dive off the Dulles State Office Building would be a less than palatable option. Although different, all of these temptations have a common denominator, a common denominator that is very common in our lives: all of them are about playing it safe.

How often in our lives do we play it safe? Here I was sitting in a hospital room playing it safe for someone who had no interest in such a low goal. Here I was playing it safe with Joan and Carl and they rightly moved past such mediocrity. How often we play it safe, being careful, being cautious, speaking of nice things, beautiful things, only.

I don’t always play it safe. Indeed sometimes I feel like I take too many risks. Why wade into gay marriage? Why speak when it is so much easier to be silent? Why not leave it alone? Some might rightly argue there is nothing to gain only lose by speaking out. The thought did cross my mind as did the temptation to play it safe, stay silent. Yet, in the end, do you really believe God is going to smile upon our safe moves, the times we decided to play it safe and not risk? The temptation is to be indifferent, comfortable, complacent as we rush into yet another cultural war, to stay silent and wait for the fight to settle and then be the healer. And the irony is no one will ever fault you for playing it safe.

Playing it safe is the great temptation. Jesus could have ended the risk of hunger with a meal, tested God’s love to make sure when push came to shove he wouldn’t fail, or most important, he could have had a back up plan: he could be an emperor of the people if the whole messiah gig didn’t pan out. Each temptation was about playing it safe, eliminating risk. Simone Weil called risk a basic need of the soul. Did you know in our Book of Order there is actually a command to us to risk the very life of the church? What if being Presbyterian, being Protestant, is all about risk, bucking the system, not being silent, fighting the temptation to play it safe? It is easy to forget all the Reformers were also outlaws.

"I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way it is, and there is [nothing] I can do about it." This was another confession Bono made at Harvard. How many of us, when push comes to shove, when temptations are all about, would not have to confess a kind of resignation: things are what they are, the problems are too big. Africa is a hole to pour money; cultural wars are never worth the cost and end only in bitterness and division. Day after day, and it’s not Africa, its things at work, in our home, in our heart, and we say, it is what it is, there is nothing I can do about it?" Awful safe, but nowhere near great.

I know, I know. Lots of responsibilities, image to maintain, children to raise: there are reasons to be safe. Temptations are not easily resisted if they are tempting. Yet, do we really want our legacy, our message to the next generation to be "we played it safe?" Is that the best foreign policy we can devise? Is a safe place for us at the cost of being indifferent to the suffering of others ever great? Yet, no one is ever criticized for playing it safe. It’s a good plan, good move, safety. But is it great?

Deep inside all of us is a spirit yearning to see the Kingdom of God, to see the justice of God roll down like water, for there to be peace where there once was bitterness. We all want to help our community, our neighbor, our children. Will such intention ever come to fruition by playing it safe, by being silent? What if helping our community is inspiring our community unto greatness? What would a community look like that was marked by churches risking their very lives to become a living image of the Kingdom of God? Remember no one will ever fault you for playing it safe, which is very tempting. In the desert Jesus was given the chance to play it safe, and this was the temptation he laid aside. Amen.