"What's Your Theory" by Pastor Robert M. Thompson
Burying the Indian hatchet
President Knott, Chaplain Clapp, Trustees, Faculty and Staff, graduates and their families, thank you for the privilege of being with you today. The significance of this occasion for me is enhanced by the relationship between Catawba College and the congregation I serve, Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory. Three prominent nineteenth century German Reformed pastors gave visionary leadership to both Catawba College and Corinth Church. In fact, this school, like so many institutions of higher learning, was founded to educate ministers.
The relationship between Catawba and Corinth has unfortunately not always been smooth. Almost exactly one hundred years ago, the President of Catawba, J. F. Buchheit, and the Pastor of Corinth, J. L. Murphy, became embroiled in a very public war of words over the fate of a dying sister institution, Claremont Female College in Hickory. Among other subthemes to this conflict, Dr. Murphy was strongly opposed to coeducation. Imagine having men and women together at the same college!
In response to the published criticism of Corinth's pastor, the president of Catawba wrote of Dr. Murphy, "His fiery utterance is very like an over-used electric lamp, — it is full of heat but sheds very little light ... He might have acquitted himself better if…he had exercised a larger measure of self-control ... if he had not forgotten that he is a gentleman, and if he had refrained from the personal abuse and slanderous insults from which all intelligent people are revolting."
I somehow feel compelled to say on this occasion, Dr. Knott, that I come in peace! My theory is that Dr. Murphy was never invited to preach the Baccalaureate service at Catawba College. So I feel honored to be here.
What's going on
But I also feel challenged. All of you have much on your minds related to this transition, including moving out, maybe moving ahead to grad school, but hopefully (according to your parents) moving on to a real job that pays real money. While these thoughts fill your minds, it is my challenge to preach a meaningful, relevant sermon.
So I have been trying to place myself in your shoes. What would make you look back on this evening together and say, "That was worth the time"?
Here's my theory of what is going on here. This weekend, graduates, you win the tug-of-war with your parents. I use that image to describe adolescence to my sixth grade Confirmation classes. All through Junior High and High School, and to a certain extent even into college, you have been tugging on one end of the rope, wanting more freedom to make your own decisions. Most of your parents at least had their hands on the rope until this weekend, even though all they had to show for it was rope burns. Now they completely let go.
From now on, the decisions you make are almost exclusively yours. The consequences are yours as well. Along the line — from your family, your church, your friends, your primary and secondary education, and now your college, you have gathered some ideas about how life works — values, principles, maybe even a few clichés and proverbs. Collectively, I'm going call that your theory about how life works, and how it's going to work for you. What's your theory?
Where should we turn to help shape that theory at this critical moment? In a world where the pace of change only accelerates, we often place the greatest value on the most current literature. By contrast, as a preacher of the Gospel I invest significant time each week studying, reading, and explaining Scripture texts — laws, stories, poems, and letters — that are two or three millennia old. My theory is that these ancient texts unlock the mysteries of life.
I now turn to one of these ancient biblical stories. The story is about a King, a Priest, and a Grandmother. They have names, but you probably won't remember them and they are not all that important. For the record, I will tell you that the King's name is Joash, the Priest's name is Jehoiada, and the Grandmother's name is Athaliah. Now you know why I just want to call them the King, the Priest, and the Grandmother.
The King came to his throne when he was but seven years old. That in itself causes the imagination to run. How does a boy of the age where make-believe is of greater interest than politics actually rule a country? Even when he triples in age and turns twenty-one — well, look to your left and your right — do you want that person in charge of the whole country? I'm thinking no.
The King is perhaps best known for his chest — not his pecs, but a wooden box he placed beside the gate of the temple for required taxes and voluntary contributions. It was what we would call a capital campaign, on the order of those required to replace college dormitories, renovate the library, or expand the student center.
The temple of Jerusalem had fallen into neglect and abuse across several generations of spiritually irresponsible kings, and the King decided to act. His "chest" was both novel and effective. Officials along with commoners filled it up with money so often that it had to be emptied, counted, and replaced regularly.
It was a great day, and the King's greatest positive contribution is a rather difficult task in any place and time. He successfully motivated his people to think of money as more than just a way to take care of their own needs and wants. He inspired them to believe that a common cause — God's cause — was both nobler and more satisfying than both socking it away or spending on themselves.
What's your theory about money? This is a great time of life to ask that question. The Apostle Paul will write many centuries later, "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires ... for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Money also has great potential to honor God and serve others.
You and I might think money is the primary point of the King's life if it were not for the "rest of the story." Like a skillful screenplay writer, the author of Chronicles hints at a sequel when he writes, "(The King) did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of…the Priest" (2 Chronicles 24:2).
The Priest was about a hundred years old when the King was born. It's not particularly difficult to read through the lines and see that it was Priest's initiative and influence that had the temple restored. Boy kings, even young adult kings, do not often prioritize religion or easily change the status quo. Seasoned priests do.
The Priest lived to be 130. But as soon as he died, the King — the same one who had done so much good for worship — quickly lost his interest in both the temple and in his God. The sequel to the story of the King's Chest turned ugly quickly.
When the Priest died, his son, Priest, Jr., had to confront the King about his disobedience to God's laws. So the King had the new Priest killed. Not long after that, an invading army wounded the King. Then, in a shocking end to his story, at age 47 the King's own officials finished him off while he lay in his bed as revenge for killing the priest. It was a pathetic end to a life that began with such promise.
What's your theory about endurance in the race called life? Some who start at the back win the race, like a 2-year-old thoroughbred named Street Sense did last Saturday in the Kentucky Derby. Some begin well and finish well, like the Priest. It is possible. Go for it. Some start strong, but finish poorly. That was the King.
W hat happened? The best of stories demand not only a sequel but a prequel, and this story-teller provides it. This is where we meet the Grandmother.
The Grandmother of the King was a wicked woman, power hungry and evil to the core. She was so bad that she just makes you want to give your own Granny a hug the next time you see her — just for not killing you. This woman was a female Nero Adolf Hussein.
After her wicked husband and rotten son died, the Grandmother seized her chance to take the throne for herself. In order to do so, she had to kill every male member of the royal family. So she did. Imagine a woman who would kill her own grandchildren so she could become Queen. That was the woman we are calling in our story the Grandmother. She was not worthy of the name.
For six years her plan appeared to have succeeded. Unknown to the Grandmother, however, her daughter had hidden a one-year-old prince in the temple under the care of the elderly Priest. Six years later, the Priest pulled off the coup that ended the Grandmother's rule of terror and, and placed the seven-year-old King on the throne.
And so the King grew up with a theory I call "perpetual obligation." Someone told him the story of his wicked Grandmother, and the Priest who saved his life by hiding him in the temple. He grew up thinking, and in all likelihood being told repeatedly, "You owe him. You are only King because of the Priest. You better do what is right, and you better look after the temple, for his sake." And he did.
So what's wrong with that? We would probably say, "Nothing at all," had the chronicler not related the King's pathetic end. The King never really did the right thing for the right reason. He never loved God for God's sake. He never truly loved the temple or the worship that happened there.
Ironically, he probably thought (that) he did. He was probably unaware of the theory of perpetual obligation as the fundamental building block of his life. Maybe my theory about the King is flawed. I admit that I am reading between the lines. Maybe he was overcome with a sense of loss when the Priest died. Both our losses and our obligations have the potential to define us.
What I do know is that when the Priest died, the King self-destructed. The most frightening part of this story is that he became — perhaps to a lesser degree, but still he became — his Grandmother. Though he never even met her, her ego-driven, power-hungry, self-centered theory — "it's all about me" — took over his life. However it happened, what I'm suggesting is that his theory about life failed him — and it was so late in life that he could not recover.
All about you
I find it a rather frightening prospect that many people live most or even all of life — perhaps even with great sincerity and good interim results — based on a theory that in retrospect will prove to be destructive to self and of others.
James Michael Barrie, the novelist who wrote Peter Pan, wrote in a different novel titled The Little Minister, "The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it."
Barrie himself lived out this rather pessimistic theory of life on multiple levels. But I submit to you that his fatalistic perspective on destiny need not be yours. You do not have to get to the end of life and then discover, "Oh, I got it wrong."
What is your theory about what makes life meaningful and worthwhile? In my observation over fifty years of life and thirty years of ministry, every life theory that eventually fails to provide meaning begins and ends on some level with the same theory that ultimately destroyed the King and his Grandmother: "It's all about me."
You and I live in a culture that increasingly reinforces this theory of finding meaning through self-fulfillment. This theory began with our Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago. "That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these (is) the pursuit of happiness." For most of our history, we have assumed that this pursuit of happiness was in some way connected to the good of all — a concept that Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America,) called in 1885 "enlightened self-interest."
I am no longer sure that we as a society believe that self-interest must be enlightened or even tempered. It has become a raw American value, so presumed in our thought patterns and vocabulary that we hardly even recognize it. I will illustrate in two areas — marketing and religion.
As for marketing, we are becoming only more sophisticated at conveying the message that you, the consumer, are all that matters. I perused the advertisements that came in last Sunday's paper looking for the messages they convey. Stein Mart: "Once you go, you get it." Office Max: "That was easy." Target: "Expect more. Pay less." Dillards: "The Style of Your Life." And this Mother's Day ad from Kmart — "Pamper Mom with Cozy Comfort."
I'm not blaming the marketers — I am simply suggesting (and I'm a pastor, not an economist) that our whole economic system is based on blatant self-interest. You feel justified in complaining about or to, or even punishing, any business that intentionally or unintentionally fails to please you. Our capitalist world revolves around your pursuit of happiness. That may make good economic sense, but it makes a lousy theory for life.
Now consider what happens when self-interest is applied to religion. Even those of us who are pastors, if we want our churches to grow (and who doesn't?) find ourselves marketing our churches like they are restaurants or hotels. You like Saturday night service? We've got that. You prefer contemporary worship? Come check us out — we have the best band in town. You prefer liturgy? We've got a service for that too. The best preschool in town, the youth program all the kids think is cool, clean restrooms, comfortable seating.
Don't misunderstand me — our church works as hard as any on? variety and quality. We preach the gospel, but we try to package it well. I know this. I'm just wondering aloud about the real effect of marketing faith like it's a new car.
What's more, we have become accustomed to the very American idea that even choosing your place of worship is all about you. We are so individualized in our ways of thinking about faith and ethics. We start out with the assumption, "I know what I believe is right, and I know that my sense of right and wrong is obviously correct." So we go looking for churches that simply reinforce our preconceived notions and along with them our blind spots.
The result is that even our practice of religion becomes all about me — a consumer-driven gathering in conclaves of the like-minded and like-blinded who gather together to pat each other on the back and say how right they are and how good they are. Is there something wrong with that picture?
More ministers, please
And is there a better way? Yes, and it's amazingly simple. It's not about you. It's about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It's about loving your neighbor as yourself. And yes, it's about submission, sacrifice, and service. It's about self-denial for the sake of God's kingdom purposes. It's about what might make someone else's life better. It's about seeking God's truth, God's way.
The classic expression of this faith from our Reformed perspective is the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism: Question: "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" Answer: "That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death — not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil."
Here's my theory about life. I don't belong to myself. My life is not all about fulfilling me. And if I set out on that course at the beginning of my independence, I will find at the end of life that I spent my whole life on a diet of cotton candy — great big bites of nothingness with zero nutritional value.
Maybe you do and maybe you don't share my basic Christian faith, a faith deeply imbedded in the heritage of Catawba College. What I pray as you leave this place is that you leave it with the founding mission of Catawba intact as your life theory.
This college was founded to prepare ministers. Our understanding of what it means to be a minister has rightly evolved. The word "minister" means "servant," and servants are never in it for themselves. Ministers may look like educators or doctors or researchers or homemakers. But ministers ultimately come to understand that life is not about me.
Every one of us has been called by God to get off the I-land, to recognize and repudiate the theory that self-preoccupation leads to self-fulfillment, to embrace the theory that we are servants of God to serve in the world. If you take one thing away from this message, take this — determine every day of the rest of your life to ask, "How can I love God and serve others today? Only then will you be worthy of what Catawba College has invested in you. Amen.
© 2007 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 1978 by New York International Bible Society.