Sermon by Tom Are, Jr. Delivered at the 1989 Montreat Youth Conference on Tuesday, August 8, 1989.
Conference Theme: "Caution: Under Construction"
Transcribed by Mark Baker-Wright
This morning, during keynote, I enjoyed watching that little film clip. You remember “Hairspray?” As I watched that, I was reminded, of all of the funky hairdos that are in that movie. You know? Have you ever seen that? Have you ever really paid…? I mean, really, it’s a good name for the movie, because it really is a collection of very humorous, at least to me, hairdos. And I’ve been thinking about that today: hair. Now, you may not have thought about hair this afternoon, but I spent a good portion of the afternoon thinking about hair. And all of the energy that it takes. Now, you know that’s true, because you got up early this morning to make sure that it was just right by the time you had breakfast. You know, sometimes we have to get up… and with the showers the way they are, with our big groups, sometimes you get up a couple, three hours early just to make sure we get in there, you know? And you have to wash it, get all the grit out of it from yesterday. If it was a tough day yesterday, sometimes we have to wash it twice, so it’s squeaky clean. But then you don’t want it that way for the rest of the day, so you have to put that conditioner back in there, to get some more of that grease back in there, so it’s “soft,” and “full of body,” and all those things that they tell you.
And then comes the dangerous part. It doesn’t happen for all of you, but for some of you it’s the dangerous part. Because some of you, after you’ve washed it, and then you’ve conditioned it, and you’ve dried it, you know, with all those million-watt things, that blow your brains out…. you’ve dried it. Then you want to curl it. And you take those branding irons. I thought, my sister… I thought, for three years, I thought my sister had a birthmark that just kept moving around. But, about once a week, she would bump up against her face with that curling iron, and you’d hear a squeal from the bathroom, and she’d come out with this big old mark there. It gets dangerous! But it seems to be worth it because you keep doing it!
And it’s expensive! Great day, it’s expensive! How many of you have paid more than $40 for a permanent? (wait for raise of hands) And most of the rest of you are lying, I know! You go in there. You sit down in that chair. They put that stuff in your hair that makes you smell like I don’t know what for about a week! I don’t know why you do it, because nobody wants to get near you! And it’s not permanent, anyway. It just lasts a little while. And then you come home, and go in the bathroom, and look at the mirror, and your whole rest of your day is just blown.
I know! I live with one! She comes home, she’s been at the thing all day long, she comes home. She goes in the bathroom. She comes out. She’s poutin’. She’s throwing things around the kitchen. I said “Darling, what’s wrong?”
She said “My hair’s too poofy!”
I said “Didn’t you just pay that woman $40 to poof up your hair? What did you want?”
“I didn’t want it this poofy.”
See? It takes a lot of our energy. It takes a lot of our lives. And then when you get through all that, even if you get it poofed, you gotta spray all that stuff on there, so it’s like one piece, you know, it just moves around. (Holds hands up about 5 inches from each side of his head as he turns, with hands following suit to indicate large hair unit. Laughter follows.) You don’t wanna bump into anybody with all that stuff, it’s gonna hurt ‘em!
But it’s worth it! It’s worth it! I’ve seen you! You go through all that rigmarole, but then you come out to breakfast. And there they come, right behind you! (Motions indicate several people following.) It works!
But what I want to tell you tonight, is that hair, as beautiful as it is… it doesn’t fit everywhere. It’s just… there are certain places where it’s real nice. And then other places where it’s not so…. Now, I’m not talking about, when you have your blind date, and you show up, and you find out he’s got hairy earlobes, or you find out he braids the hair in his nose, or something. I’m not talking about that. What I’m talking about, is you take one of those nice, cleaned, conditioned, curled hairs…. and you find it on your hamburger! And nobody’s eatin’ lunch, you know what I’m saying? Just spread the word, “there’s a hair on my hamburger!” Everybody pushes back from the table! It just doesn’t belong… Now as long as the other end’s attached, you watch as all through geometry class, she’ll be sucking on that thing. But you detach the other end, it doesn’t fit any more! It just doesn’t belong!
And the one that gets me… What about all that hair that gets in the drain in the bathtub? I can’t touch that stuff, man! If I ever have to clean the bathtub, I have to go in there with a vacuum cleaner first to suck that stuff out of there! I just don’t wanna touch it!
There are certain things in life that fit. And then there are certain things in life that don’t fit. And nobody has to tell you what they are, it’s just sort of obvious. Everybody knows. Now, this morning, we started talking about blueprints. You know what a blueprint is. It’s a picture. It’s a picture of how it’s supposed to be. Well, we’ve got a blueprint. Matter of fact, we’ve got several choices of blueprint. But the blueprint for us is a blueprint that God provides for us, and it’s not a thousand different ones of them. Oh, in some ways we can say that, but in another way, in a real way, we can say we really just have one. And it fits us all. And it’s something like… a blueprint that calls us to love our neighbor. A blueprint that calls us to turn the other cheek. A blueprint that calls us to love our enemies. To never let the sun go down on our anger. A blueprint that calls us to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked. To visit the lonely. That’s our blueprint. You see, you boil it all down… you boil it all down, and it becomes a blueprint of servanthood. A blueprint that calls us to be servants of our God with all that we are. And in so doing to love our neighbor. Perhaps even to serve our neighbor. That’s the blueprint.
But I gotta ask you, “how well does it fit?” In our world, to talk about being a servant? Doesn’t seem to fit too well. You remember Dorothy and Wizard of,…. Dawn, and the wizard of all her friends yesterday? [Reference to Monday morning keynote, parodying “The Wizard of Oz”] The one that got the biggest ovation was “Power, success, and cash.” Didn’t have “servant” written on there. I didn’t see anybody jumping up and down about “servant.” You know, being a servant in our world makes about as much sense as hair on a hamburger. Being a servant in our world seems about as likely as vacationing on the moon. It seems as possible as walking on water.
I always loved that story. That’s a great story. Can you just imagine that? There they were, in the boat. Wind beating against them. They’ve been together a long time, they’re probably tired of each other, been on each other’s nerves, didn’t have but one shower. And then all of a sudden, they look over there, and there’s somebody walking on the water! And that doesn’t happen every time they go fishing! And they realize who it is, and Peter, before he can even think through it… have you ever done that? You said something before you really thought about it? And then you realize what you said when everybody else went *gasp!* (laughter) And you’d think, “I wish I hadn’t said that”? Peter said “Lord, if that’s really you, then bring me out there with you!”
And then there was a long silence.
And Jesus said, “Come on!”
And then there was a real long silence.
Now, see, we don’t know what everybody in the boat was doing. But, I bet they were kind of like us. And I know what we’d have been doing. Somebody’d say, “Come on, Peter! Take a chance, man! Go on! Take a risk! You’re not nervous are you?” Then they’d start teasing him a little bit. “Didn’t your mama teach you to walk?” (singing) “Just put one foot in front of the other” (taunting) “We wanna see Peter walk on water!” Then probably somebody’d start saying, what is it? “Red rover, red rover, send somebody over”?
And they were laughing. And then all of a sudden their laughter got very quiet. Peter grabbed hold of the side of that boat, and he put his foot over, and he stepped on the water. And he stood up! And they got very quiet. And probably a little nervous. And Peter began to walk away from the boat, and they kept waiting for him to drop in there, and he didn’t drop in there. And Peter’s walking on the waves. He’s tiptoeing on the tides. He’s never done it before, but he was doing it now. And Jesus was smiling and everybody in the boat was getting real nervous! He’d never done it before, but by God, he was doing it now!
For a little while. And that’s important to remember, the “for a little while” part. You see, that’s our blueprint: to walk, not necessarily to walk on water, but to walk in a way that the world says we cannot walk. That is our God-given blueprint. To walk in a way that everybody else in the boat says “You can’t do that!” You see, that’s what they were all saying: “Peter, get back in the boat, man! You can’t do that and survive!” If his mother was there, we know what she would have said: “Son, you get back in this boat! What are you trying to do, give your mother a heart attack?”
That’s what the people in the boat say to us. “You can’t walk like that and survive!” Does that sound familiar?
“Love your neighbor. Love your enemy.”
“Get back in the boat! You can’t do that!”
“Turn the other cheek. Never let the sun go down on your anger.”
“Get back in the boat. You can’t survive living like that.”
And Jesus says, “take the next step. Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” And everybody in the boat’s saying “You can’t do that and survive! You can’t walk like that and make it in our world!”
You see, that’s our blueprint: to walk in a way that the world says we cannot walk. Walking on water. That’s what servanthood is like. And when you’re standing on the water, and the world says “you can’t do it,” it becomes very easy for us to sink. We feel the water crawl up our calves, and it’s easy to question the blueprint. It’s easy to feel that the servant blueprint is a lie, and we begin to wonder if it really is the real way of life. You see, it’s important for us to understand that the difficult part for us, and the pertinent part for us, for most of us, is not getting out of the boat. For most of us, we’re out of the boat. It’s not a story so much about conversion. It’s a story about discipleship. About walking. And most of us, we are walking at some level or another. We are walking. And when the world looks at us and says “you can’t walk like that,” then it becomes very easy for us to doubt. It becomes very easy for us to question the blueprint. To fear that maybe it’s all a lie. And we begin to listen to the people in the boat who say “if you’re really gonna make it, then you gotta take care of yourself. Forget about serving anybody!”
I was in the second grade… for a long time, actually. I was in the second grade, and my father told me that to catch a bird, you put salt on its tail. I went to him, I said, “Dad, I wanna catch a bird!”
He said, “What?”
I said, “There’re birds all over the back yard. I wanna catch one and keep one.”
Well, that really thrilled my parents, you know? Dad said, “No problem, the way to catch a bird, is you take the salt, and sprinkle it on the [bird’s] tail, and if you get salt on the bird’s tail, he can’t fly! That’s the rules!”
Well, he got considerable joy watching me most of my second grade spring running around the back yard with a salt shaker. I think I killed half the grass out in the back yard. He was counting on my not catching up with the bird. I was counting on catching the bird. Neither one of us counted on my ingenuity.
I built a trap! I got a box, and I put it in the back yard, and I propped it up with this stick. I put, like, a whole loaf of bread in there. A jar of peanut butter. Probably a Twinkee. Some Kool-Aid; I wanted this bird to have a choice of diet, you know? And then, I propped that dude up with a stick, and I tied a string around the stick, and then I went around the garage, and I tied the other end to me, and I watched. And this blue jay flew down there, and he kind of strutted around a while, looking at it, checking it out. And then he went in for his peanut butter sandwich.
I pulled that string, that box came down. That’s the maddest blue jay you ever seen in your life! I had myself a bird, man! And I was excited about it! I put the whole thing on a screen from the window, so I could flip it over. And there’s the box, with the bird in it, and the screen on top, and I’m standing there with a whole box of “when it rains, it pours.”
I got salt on that bird’s tail. I got salt on his head. I got salt on his back. That’s bird was knee-deep in salt! He kept trying to fly around the box, I’m just chasing him, you know, salt everywhere! When I knew he was good and salted, I opened the screen. I pulled up the screen, about that much (holding fingers close together).
My daddy lied to me!
That bird, he barely had room to get out, he flew out so fast, shaking salt on me with every flap!
You see, in the second grade, if your daddy says it, you believe it’s true! And you believe that, even if it wasn’t true before he said it, somehow his saying it sort of makes it true. But he can say “salt on a bird’s tail and he won’t fly,” but that bird flies. Because that’s his blueprint. You understand, that’s what he was created to do. And the whole world of daddies can say “salt on his tail, and he won’t fly,” but the bird is gonna fly! Because that’s what God put him here to do!
You understand, the same is true for you and for me. We were put here to love God and to love one another. And the world may say “we cannot do it and survive.” But God says “we cannot help but do it, if we want to survive.” That is our blueprint, and we can do it!
The world can say “look out for Number One. Forget about everybody else.” But there’s no life in that. You end up being alone. You may be taking care of yourself, but nobody cares! You end up being alone. The only way that we will know abundant life as God desires it for us is to live in accordance with our blueprint. Which is to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
“But Tom! Remember Peter! Even Peter began to sink, didn’t he, Tom? Don’t you think that we’re gonna sink, too?” Sometimes. Sometimes I think we do. And I think that, at times, we will. But I believe that we can live the blueprint that Jesus Christ calls us to live, and I believe that we can live the life that God created us to live. And I believe that, not because I believe we’re super-special people. I believe it not because I believe that we have more faith than Peter. I believe this because I believe that the text also says that immediately, Jesus reached down his hand, and caught him!
And friends, that’s where we are: right there, caught in his hand. We will sink. We will sin. But we will be caught in his hand. Caught in a hand that serves us. Caught in a hand that loves us. Caught in a hand that rescues us. Caught in a hand that was wounded and died for us. And I believe that empowered by Jesus Christ’s hand, we can walk. We can love.
Oh, there will be times of mistrust and fear. But love is always the way of life. And empowered by the hand of Christ, we can love. There will be times the waters of hatred and pride will rise up to swallow us, but empowered by the hand of Christ, we can love. There will lonely, cold nights of isolation and loneliness, and maybe prejudice, but empowered by the hand of Christ, we can love. There will be times when the waves of selfishness will beat against our souls. There will times when the current of self-hatred will seem too strong to move against, and those in the boat will be calling us to jump back into the boat of security. To jump back into the boat of cultural wisdom that tells us to look out for Number One, and to forget the rest! But empowered by the hand of Jesus Christ, we can love!
And when we do… when we do, the way of community prevails. When we do, we will be walking on the waters of justice. When we do, we will be dancing on the waves of brotherhood and sisterhood. We will strolling on the tide of community and compassion. The world may say that we cannot walk that way, but empowered by the hand of Christ, we can walk. We can love. That is who we are created to be. That is our blueprint.
As sure as the birds fly, we can love. Come hell or high water, we are not alone. We are uplifted by a hand that rescues us. We are served by an arm that loves us. We are loved by a savior who dies for us, and we are called by a God who meets us on the water, and bids us to walk. And who will hold us and empower us to walk until one day, with all of God’s people, we’ll be walking on the water of God’s love, we’ll be dancing a dance of celebration, when God’s kingdom will be real, and for that, my friends, we have reason to gather here, in this place, on this night, and say “Thanks be to God.”
“Thanks be to God.”
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we believe. Help our unbelief. In Christ’s name, Amen.
This transcribed version of the sermon has been mildly edited and formatted for Transforming Seminarian. It is noted that the original sermon was delivered in an extemporaneous style, and that this transcript has attempted to retain that style, not to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Copyright for this message is retained by Rev. Tom Are, Jr.