To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
Last Wednesday, while I wa
s enjoying a pleasant time meeting with Deacons in the parlor of the United Church of Jaffrey, my darling mother-in-law Allie Hardwick and my step father-in-law John Via, were in the throes of what, I think, can only be described as a deeply traumatic episode.
They were innocently puttering about, doing the little things that they do about the house, when the phone rang.
A strained voice on the other end of the line – the voice of a young man – cried out:
Sensing danger, Allie responded:
“Silas? Is that you darling?”
“Yes,” the voice said.
Have you already figured out what’s happening here?
That voice was not the voice of my son, Silas.
But I must admit, whoever he was, he knew what he was doing. In the first 2 seconds of that phone interaction he achieved two important things: he created fear, and he found out the name of the character he was playing.
In the minutes that followed, a narrative took shape. Apparently, Silas was at the police station. He had been in an automobile accident, and a pedestrian had been killed.
“Don’t tell mom and dad,” he begged.
He said that he needed 25 thousand dollars to pay bail, and to retain a lawyer. His life, he feared, had been destroyed.
As I tell you this story, it is manifestly clear that this is a scam. How could anyone fall for it?
But Allie wasn’t thinking with her mind. She was feeling with her heart.
We can be rational because we are hearing this story third hand. None of us heard the urgent cry of the young voice. None of us know the tender particulars of how Allie’s heart reaches out to embrace her youngest grandchild. She holds all of him in the full generosity of her love – all of his years as an irrepressible spunky kid – and all of the great promise that lies before him. The wail of despair, shook the beautiful heart of a grandmother in the middle of the afternoon – convincing her, beyond a doubt, that all of Silas’ gorgeous life was dangling on a precipice, and the only thing to keep him from falling into the abyss, was 25 thousand dollars.
The narrative was designed to rip Allie’s heart out of her chest.
And that is precisely what it did.
A “lawyer” got on the phone and instructed Allie on how to do the transaction. Cash would have to be wired to the attorney’s office. This, apparently, was Silas’ only hope.
They struck at a vulnerable moment. Allie has not been well recently. A recent run in with the dreaded RSV virus has left her dizzy and disoriented. John is also fragile.
But they got into their car.
It torments me to think about the twenty minute drive to the bank. I know the Port Republic Road well, bordered on either side by long fences that seem to hold back the rolling landscape. Old rural roads come in on the left and right – roads whose names echo the civil war that was fought here: artillery road, Jackson’s way. Allie and John saw none of this. They were driving in darkness. A void of fear.
It was the bank teller that saved them.
She too was well trained.
Seeing the huge number on the withdrawal slip, she playfully quipped: “Well, now, Mrs. Hardwick! I suppose you must be going on a fancy cruise are you?”
“No…” Allie said sheepishly.
“A kitchen renovation then?”
“No…” Allie said again. She was clearly flustered.
“Since this is such a large withdrawal,” the teller said, “let’s make sure we count it out properly. Why don’t you come on back here.”
The teller ushered them back, and before they knew what was happening, Allie and John were inside the bank manager’s office.
Through some artful questioning, the bank manager managed to extricate the story from Allie. The manager listened respectfully, and when they were done she said gently:
“I want you to try giving your grandson a quick call on his cell phone.”
“But I can’t,” Allie objected, “he’s in custody.”
“Just give it a try…”
Every single day of our lives, we encounter strangers…
And every time we encounter a stranger, we do a little instinctual calculation:
Do I trust this person?
Or is this person a threat?
This moment – the moment when our gut is telling us something, and we are listening to what that instinct is whispering to us – this moment reveals a great deal about who we are, how we treat each other, and how we live in society.
It is a moment that God is interested in.
We know this, because Jesus is interested in this moment.
In his most famous teaching: the sermon on the mount, Jesus speaks directly about how we should act when we meet someone who threatens us.
Love your enemies, he says do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
But how can we possibly live by Christ’s injunction in the 21st century? In practice, it would be downright foolish to live this way. Allie and John would have been compelled to give those scam artist’s the 25 thousand dollars, even after the scam was revealed to them. Maybe they could bless them and throw in a few extra grand as well. That’s what Jesus would have them do.
There is a word for this: we call such people naive.
When you and I figure out that we are being scammed – when the scales fall from our eyes and we see with sudden clarity, all the ways that we have been deceived – we are comforted by the knowledge that our new understanding has arrived in time to protect us from a bad outcome. The con-artist no longer has power over us. The spell that he has cast with his narrative, is broken.
It would be awful if this wonderful liberation – this moment of redemption – was taken away from us because we felt compelled to obey Christ’s teaching, and roll over, play dead, and fork over the 25 grand!
The con artists would have a good laugh at our expense – as they head to the bank to deposit our hard earned cash.
Before we decide that it is utterly knock-down-drag-out absurd and practically dangerous to follow the naive principle that Jesus lays out for us in sermon on the mount, we might stop for a second and consider the alternative.
What would it be like if you looked at every stranger you meet, and assume that they are all con artists who are out to separate you from your hard earned money?
Being willingly naive may be foolhardy, but the opposite – being habitually cynical and suspicious, may be an even worse fate.
Naivete is the fault of trusting too much, where suspicion is the fault of never trusting at all.
Trust, when it meets someone true, creates the possibility of love. Habitual suspicion puts a kibosh on relationship before it even begins.
When you hear the story of a scam in progress – like the story I just told about Allie and John – the tendency is to focus on the perpetrators, and swell up with a feeling of indignation about their deeply unethical behavior.
How could they do such a thing?
And indeed, as the days have passed since the scam nearly happened, I’ve found myself amazed at the sheer lack of human compassion that must be required to pull off such an awful trick.
How can these people sleep at night?
But what about the bank teller?
What about the angel that came to the Wise men in the dream
and told them not to go back to Herod?
If Herod and the scam artists were unquestionably horrible – these characters are just as unquestionably beneficent…
And their actions are just as real.
So, in the end, I don’t think Jesus is asking us to be willingly naive.
God is not asking us to roll over and play dead, whenever we are confronted with a person who intends to do us harm.
We can see from today’s gospel reading from Matthew’s gospel, that God didn’t let Herod do as he wished with the child Jesus.
God warned Joseph so that he could take Mary and the newborn child and flee to Egypt. So it is that the powerful scene on the cover of today’s bulletin can take place. In Gustave Doré’s beautiful but unsettling rendition of the “Flight into Egypt” – we witness a flight that could not have taken place had God not revealed Herod’s scam to the Wise men.
So I don’t think Jesus’ teaching asks us to be willfully stupid in the face of evil –
But I do think he asks us to err toward trust… wisely. To lead with our hearts, even though we know, full well, that it might get us into difficulty with our fellow humans.
If you knew Allie, you would know that she leads with her heart. She can’t ride on a bus for ten minutes without becoming best friends with the guy in the next seat.
She can’t ride in an elevator without embarrassing everyone present with the extravagance of her good nature.
That’s why she was temporarily duped by this scam.
But I’ll tell you this – the love that she spreads around in the world cannot be quantified.
25 grand ain’t nothin.
She may be foolish, but she spreads treasure from heaven everywhere she goes! And we’re all richer for it!
When Silas answered the phone, he was happily playing a video game with a friend. He suddenly had a weeping grandmother on the other end of the line.
She was so relieved.
When he finally got the story out of her he said:
“I would never do that to you Growdy. I love you too much!”
Let us pray
Though it makes us vulnerable, O God,
We err toward trust, not suspicion.
Trust is the door that leads to the possibility
of love – The possibility of coming into your presence.
We love you, O God, Even as we love one another,
And in this truth we know
that we may well suffer at the hands
of other people, but ultimately when we give love
we find it miraculously reflected in others.
And this our greatest wealth.
In Christ’s name. Amen