February 17, 2018
Texts: Proverbs 3. Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. . . Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.
Proverbs 6. Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! 7 Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, 8 they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. 9 But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep? When will you wake up? 10 A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest– 11 then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.
On the evening of May 12, 1862, three Confederate navy officers left their ship in the care of their Black crew and went ashore for the night. It was an entirely reasonable decision. The ship was docked in Charleston harbor. A safe place surrounded by Confederate forts. They had been sailing with this crew for some time. The head of the crew was Robert Smalls, a skilled coastal pilot. They had no doubt about his ability to manage the ship in their absence. Smalls and the rest of the crew was a slave, a loyal servant.
The officers were correct in their evaluation of Robert Smalls’ abilities. They misread his loyalty. His loyalty was not to the supposed masters but to his family. Robert was married. He had two kids. He knew that at any time his family could be ripped apart, because that was the nature of slavery. He had been dreaming of freedom for years—for himself, his wife, and his children. Now, he had a ship in his hands and the skill to use it.
It was bold and dangerous. He would be taking the ship through lines of Confederate warships. He would sail right under the guns of Forts Jackson and Sumpter. If he was caught, the torture and abuse he and the rest of crew would experience is beyond description here in church. But this was his chance. The chance he had been preparing for for years.
At two in the morning, he directed the crew to fire up the boiler, then they pulled away from dock. They stopped at a wharf some distance down the river and picked up Robert’s wife and sons and several other escaping slaves then headed toward the open water beyond Forts Jackson and Sumpter. He knew the local waters like the back of his hand. From his close cooperation with the captain of the ship he knew all the signals and codes used to pass various check points. No one on shore suspected anything until he was beyond the range of the forts’ guns. He hoisted a white flag and steamed straight toward the Union blockade where he surrendered the ship. He and his family and the others with them were given their freedom.
One night. One chance. And Robert and his family were free.
Another story. Apparently completely unrelated:
I was reading in yesterday’s Seattle Times about the men’s Super-G, the super grand slalom. Norwegians have dominated the event, winning the gold for the last four Olympics. No one could touch them. In Pyeongchang, this week, the sixteen year Norwegian streak was broken. An Austrian, Matthias Mayer, won gold. He was followed in second place by Beat Feuz, of Switzerland. Feuz was only 0.13 seconds behind Mayer. The defending Norwegian champion, Kjetil Jansrud, came in third, 0.05 seconds behind Feuz.
I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to spend four years training and dreaming of winning gold and then to miss it by 0.13 seconds or to miss winning the silver 0.05 seconds. Wow. The blink of an eye. A single wobble of a ski. If we imagine life as a series of Olympic events, most of us might as well sit down and not even try. For most of us, no amount of training would ever bring us to the podium to receive a gold medal in the Grand Slalom or figure skating or cross country skiing or speed skating. Even for the most highly trained athletes in the world, winning Olympic gold is a rare and elusive thing.
But fortunately life is not like the Olympics. Life seldom comes down to a single crucial moment. We create our lives through our habits.
If you go skiing regularly, push yourself a bit, hang out with people who are better than you are, over time you will become a good skier, maybe even a great skier. There are no short cuts. On the other hand, if you put in the time and effort, most likely you will become skillful. You will be ready for those days when there is fresh powder on the slopes, the sky is sunny and the temperature is just a little below freezing.
In our Old Testament reading we were reminded of ants.
Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and become wise! Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.
Right now, as I’m preaching, at my house, the ants are busy. For several days now, they’ve been scurrying about on the window sill next to our kitchen table. I’m impressed by their busyness. I hardly ever notice one just sitting there. They’re scurrying about, looking for food I presume. (So I make sure there is nothing to tempt them on the table or counters.)
Watching the ants and reading the words of our Scripture, I’m reminded of this congregation.
The people in this congregation continually amaze me. They are busy. If they have kids, their kids are involved in a dizzying array of activities. If they are older they are taking care of their parents and their neighbors and their friends or strangers.
At work, they are making a difference. We are holy ants.
In the creation story in Genesis 2, Adam is instructed to work the Garden and take care of it. Work—shaping our environment, making the world a more just, verdant, and peaceful place—this is God’s plan for our lives. This is the path to happiness. This is what it means to be holy.
The Sabbath commandment, which forms a key portion of our identity as a denomination, sets Sabbath-keeping in the context of work. Work six days, and rest one. Many of us are workaholics. And we desperately need the stern command of God: Stop working and rest. But it is also true that the Sabbath commandment dignifies our labor. Sabbath is holy leisure surrounded by holy work.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked to people with various disabilities who will never ever be able to work. God has placed these precious people in our congregation and in our society. They are worthy of the care required to sustain their lives. Their well-being depends on our industry, our energy, our work. Our work is dignified and ennobled by the presence among us of these people who depend on us.
Today, I want to honor the energy and skill and diligence of those who work. You make life possible for these dependent ones. You make the world go round.
Recently I was in conversation with a young pastor. He described with warm enthusiasm his practice of beginning every sermon with two questions: What have you done this week to make God love you more? What have you done this week to make God love you less? After asking these questions, he attempts to persuade his listeners that there was nothing they could do to make God love them more or less.
I agreed with this preacher that God’s love is overflowing and that we do not earn it. However, I also pointed out that his questions were misleading. They suggested that behavior should be beneath the notice of Christians. That celebrating good behavior is inappropriate in church. But even the Apostle Paul, with his passionate and complicated theology eventually comes back at the end of his letters to the down-to-earth reality of good behavior. He reminds his readers that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. He even goes so far as to insist that if someone in the church community chooses not to work, they should be barred from the communal meals.
Religion is about God. Yes, of course. It is also very much about human well being, about living well. The commandments, properly understood, describe the way of life most conducive to human thriving. Jesus’ ministry of healing showed his concern for the ordinary, down-to-earth, nitty-gritty realities of being human.
Since that was Jesus’ way, it is also our way as the Kingdom of Jesus. We care about the quality of life experienced by those around us.
Which brings me back to the story of Robert Smalls, the man who sailed the steamer out of Charleston harbor to freedom. We can think of it as wonderful good luck. Those officers left the ship for the evening and left Smalls on board. How lucky! Or what a blessing from heaven! But it is important to note that Smalls had been preparing for this moment for all his life. He had become a skilled pilot. He knew the local waters, the channels, the shoals. He knew the ship. He knew its boiler and all its systems. He had learned all the signals and codes used by the captain of the ship as he moved through the various coastal defenses and check points.
Smalls was not merely lucky. He was ready.
The rest of his story demonstrates his fitness for this wonderful exploit. Like anyone who wins Olympic gold, or silver or bronze, or even qualifies to compete, he has prepared.
The Union Navy immediately began relying on his skill and knowledge. Fairly quickly he was promoted to captain in the US Navy and played an important role in a number of naval battles. After the war he was elected to the state assembly in South Carolina and then was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives. Robert Smalls was an ant—busy and industrious. Self-motivated. He saved his people once. He served his people all his life. He is a model for us.
We do not know what opportunities and crises lie in our future. But we can cultivate habits that lead to holiness and happiness. We are not going go to the Olympics. But all of us are engaged in something far more noble and important than the Olympics. We are building lives. We are partnering with God in service.
So let us encourage one another in doing good. Let us spur one another toward wisdom and diligence. Let’s busy ourselves in the noble work of ending oppression and setting the captives free.
We can do no less as children of the Kingdom of Heaven.