Sermon by Tom Are, Jr. Delivered at the 1989 Montreat Youth Conference on Thursday, August 10, 1989.
Conference Theme: "Caution: Under Construction"
Transcribed by Mark Baker-Wright
Just prior to this sermon, Hosea 11:1-11 and Ephesians 1:1-10 are read.
Did you hear? Did you hear the last few words of that New Testament lesson? Sometimes they sort of slip by us, especially when it’s an epistle. The last few words… a plan for the fullness of time that in Christ all things would be united. Things in heaven and things on earth. I love that verse. It’s one of my favorites. I missed it for a long time. Didn’t know it was there… sort of stumbled over it. I love it!
Can you imagine that? All things united? Things in heaven… things on earth… That’s the purpose of Christ. To unite us. To bring us together. The text says we are to become one. One body, one family, one people… one community. Never pulled apart. Held together like… like bricks and mortar.
That's what the text says. But that is not what life says. Life says it very differently. For it seems to me that if there’s anything that we do well, it’s divide ourselves. Have you noticed that? You put us in a room with almost anybody else, and very soon we no longer become just human beings. We’re men and we’re women. We’re young and we’re old. We’re black and we’re white. We’re rich and we’re poor. We divide ourselves into our little groups. And we’re no longer one family.
It happens… it happens everywhere we go. As you walk down hall of your school, there’s the geeks… and the jocks… they’re the cheerleaders… they’re the brains… the musicians. They’re the rednecks, the headbangers, and the surfer dudes. And it goes on and on and on… And hang on, because in the next six months, we’re going to come up with another category for somebody else to fit, ‘cause that’s just part of our job. We seem to believe that it’s somehow in our job description to divide ourselves. To categorize one another. It seems that’s the only way we can know who anybody else is.
And we divide because we’re different. And we are. No need to try to hide that. We’re different. No two people are exactly alike. We’re different and we divide ourselves accordingly. And we divide because we’re afraid. It doesn’t always come out that way. Often it comes out as hatred. Or prejudice. Or anger. But most often, it’s fear. But the division… the division that rises up and seems to be the most difficult division for us to overcome is that division that emerges between us and those who hurt us. Or between ourselves and those that we hurt. It’s hard to know how to overcome that. You heard about some of that this morning in keynote, as they talked about divisions that would arise, and the need for forgiveness there. How do we deal with those people who hurt us? How do you cope with those people who try to do us in? Those people who abuse our friendship? Those people who lie to us? Those people who take advantage… are dishonest? How do we cope with those people who never listen? How do we deal with those people who try to do us in?
That’s the question of the Old Testament lesson. Israel… Israel’s been bad. Israel has rejected God. Israel has heard the word of God, but they have chosen to go their own way. They have seen the light, but they have chosen their own darkness. God has brought them from slavery to a promised land, but they have chosen to forget and reject the saving hand of their God. And in this most unusual passage of Scripture, we get a view not only into the words, but very clearly, into the heart of God. As God looks at these people who’ve rejected… God looks at these people and remembers all of the times that God loved them… remembers all the times that God healed them… all the times that God served them. And God looks back at that history, and God says, “When Israel was a child I loved him. And out of Egypt I called my son.” You see, God remembers this little, broken, frail, feeble, enslaved people… and God remembers coming to them through Moses, and leading them out of their slavery. Leading them out of their oppression. God remembers them… they were like children. And God calls them to a life that they had no concept of what it was about. God calls them to the life that only God can provide. And God teaches… God like a loving mother… teaches this children… these frail, feeble children how to walk. The text says, “It was I who taught you to walk.”
“It was I. I… I bent down to you when you fell. I picked you up in my arms. It was I who taught you to walk.” Or walking… what it really is saying, “It was I who taught you to live. It was I who gave you life…. it was I who taught you to walk….”
Who taught you to walk? I bet you don’t remember. I don’t. This past spring I was with some of my family. And the… the older generation, we’ll say… they were in one of those “let’s talk about when you were babies” moods. It was a lot of fun. And pretty soon the conversation got around to my brother Gene… this is my other brother. The conversation got around to where Gene and I were learning to walk. It turns out that Gene, he had never taken a step, but on this particular day, he pulled himself up on that kinda ugly blue sofa that was in the den. And he pulled himself up on the sofa. And there was Mom on the other side of the room. And she reached out her hands, and she beckoned to him with her eyes, and…. and… she didn’t really confess this, but I’m sure she probably made a goofy face and used those silly voices that we do with children. And she said, “Come to Momma, Gene!” And Gene let go of the sofa. And he took a step. It was only one. It was a shaky, staggering step, but it was a step nevertheless. And after the first step, he just sorta plopped down on his bottom, you know, that’s how you do that. But it was a step!
Now, for me, it wasn’t the couch. It was a princess who taught me to walk.
Princess was the dog that lived at our house.
And they tell me, that I would grab on to the hair of her back. And very slowly, she would walk through the back yard. And I’d follow along with these little fat feet, holding on to the dog. Learning to walk. Now, I don’t remember that. I’m grateful that Princess didn’t see a cat run across the back yard. But I don’t remember that! Those are my first steps! I could… most of the time I can walk pretty well now without a dog…. Most of the time.
You see, those first steps seem largely insignificant now. They seem unimportant now. That’s the way it is with me… that’s the way it was with Gene, those first steps. Evidently that’s the way it was with Israel. They didn’t remember. They didn’t remember, and they didn’t care about lessons of a former day. And as a result, they turned their back on their God. And with a broken heart, God says, “It was I who taught you to walk. I took you up in my arms,” and God like a mother with her child, she coaxes Israel out of slavery. And there’s Israel, with arms stretched out to his mother’s arms… his mother’s hands of cloud, and of fire. And again and again, Israel would plop down in the desert, and again and again God would reach down and scoop up her child in her arms and set Israel back on his feet. Step by step, she would teach them to walk. Day by day, she would teach them to live. Moment by moment, she would teach them to embrace the life that only God can provide. Step by step, she taught them to walk. Or to say what it’s really saying, she taught them to live.
“It was I who taught you live. It was I who gave you life… who has sustained you in life... who has redeemed you in life... who has shown you what abundant life is all about! It was I! Don’t you remember?”
But like Gene... like me… Israel doesn’t remember. Israel doesn’t care. Israel doesn’t give one flying flip about what God did then! And as a result, Israel doesn’t care what God does now. And Israel lets go of God.
When I was in the sixth grade, I went to Bear Elementary School in Montgomery, Alabama. I was a patrol… a safety patrol at Bear Elementary School. Now, how many of you were patrols? (waits for show of hands) Good! I bet every one of you wore those little orange sashes with the little aluminum badges on there. (applause indicates he’s correct) At Bear Elementary School, we didn’t wear those things. We wore uniforms, man! We had these grey uniforms with stripes running all the way down the side of your leg. We had real badges, not those aluminum kind! We had real… they made your pockets sag, you know? They gave us whistles that we could sorta loop on this pocket… we were bad! We knew we were bad! You know… we’d strut down the hall! All the kids would look up and say, “Oooh! He’s a patrol!” And we were weren’t just “safety patrol.” We were “Junior Traffic Police.” Had this patch on our shoulder: “Junior Traffic Police.” We had policewomen that would come out to the school, and they would teach us to march, you know… “Left, right, left, right.…” We could do that by the sixth grade. And we would go out to the street, and we would haul the little flags out there that would say, “Stop.” And all the traffic in Montgomery would stop. And little Billy would walk across the street, you know, with his lunchbox. And then we’d let the traffic… we were in control! We were the baddest kids in the school, and we knew it.
Now every summer, they had what they called “patrol camp.” That meant that every school… every school would send a delegation to “patrol camp,” and there, there would be contests. You know, we’d have the canoe race, we’d have the tug-of-war… we would have “hold your breath underwater”…we would have all those kind of… kind of contests, and at the end, the delegation that attained the most points would take home the trophy. The valued “patrol camp” trophy, you’ve probably read about it.
For the past four years or so, Bear Elementary School had brought home the trophy. We sorta felt like it was ours. But last year, our rivals, Bellingrath… they took the trophy!
So, there we were, our delegation. We were ready to go to patrol camp, and our captain huddled us together, you know, and he said, “All right, men!” Here we are, in the sixth grade, you know, “All right, men! We’re sending you on a mission, here! If you want it bad enough…”
We said, “Yeah, we do! We do!”
“If you want it bad enough, you can bring home the trophy to Bear Elementary School, where it belongs…”
And we said, “We will! We will!”
And he said, “We’ll display it right there in the case next to the Honorable Mention of the Spelling Bee…”
And we said, “We’ll put it there!”
And we were all pumped. And we went to patrol camp. And everybody was there… but Bellingrath! And we weren’t sure where their delegation was. Now, we weren’t nervous. We were too cool to be nervous. We were acting a lot like how uncool people act when they’re nervous, but we weren’t nervous! We were just “curious” about who Bellingrath would be sending.
Well, right after supper, we’re out on the porch, and we’re sort of doing this (acting cool), you know? And then, there was this car that came down the dirt road, that had little red and white stripes of crepe paper tied around the antenna, like people do, you know, to let you know they’re special or something. That was the colors for Bellingrath! They pulled up in front of the main building there. And they had the tinted windows on the car, so we couldn’t tell who was living in there. And then, Mom gets out of the front seat, ‘cause Mom’s still driving in the sixth grade. And she goes to the back door, and she opens it like earth, wind, and fire is going to jump of there or something. And she opens the back door…
… and out of the back seat ROLLS the only guy from Bellingrath! He had to have been 350 pounds, man! He was the only guy there! Now, he had the tug-of-war, but the canoe race was in the bag! (laughter) We knew it was coming home, and we were excited! This guy was a nerd! We looked in the dictionary: “nerd.” Right next to it’s his picture! You know? He was the definition… He had on this little… beanie kinda hat. It didn’t have a propeller on it, but that’s only because somebody had knocked it off earlier! He had on this striped shirt with, like, orange, and purple and green, going up and down, and then these sorta striped pants going the other way. I’ve never seen anybody, well Scott Matheny (MYC ’89 co-director), other than that I’ve never seen anybody dress like that (loud cheers and applause)! You know? Nobody wore that kinda stuff in 1971! You know, you could wear anything you want to in the ‘60s but by ’71 we were civilized, you didn’t wear that kinda… you could go to jail if you wore that kinda stuff! … He got out dressed like… then he had on these white socks, and patent leather shoes that were two-tone!
We were looking at this guy, and we said, “We cannot believe it, but this guy is a geek!”
He walks up to us. He says, “Hi, guys! My name is Byron Ralph Gazortny!”
I was feeling pretty good about “Lorraine,” then, you know? Byron Ralph Gazortny? That’s even a geek name!
We get up the next morning…. Breakfast at patrol camp is an experience. It is a test of your commitment. Let’s see… patrol camp is in July. They start frying the bacon, like, in February. All right? When you get it, it’s about that big (gestures to indicate a tiny piece), you know, and when you pick up a corner of it, that’s all you get, it just sort of shatters right there in front of you. But the eggs, they didn’t start in February! The eggs still had some of that clear stuff on it that did like this (jiggles) when they give it to you!
They give you bacon, and those eggs, and then grits that had these lumps in it. You could suffocate on those lumps, man! They get stuck right in there, you’d be a goner, that was all there was to it! You couldn’t eat the food at patrol camp! But Byron Ralph? He’s sitting at the end of the table, and said, “If you guys would just lift the table down there and slide all that stuff to me,” and he’s sitting there eating it all up! He even took the camp peanut butter. That’s the kind that comes in the can, that you have the key and you sorta twist it. You ever seen that stuff? They’re three layers to it. It’s got like this Georgia red clay on the bottom. And then there’s probably some 10-W-30 or something in there. And then about six peanuts floating in the oil. Byron Ralph dumped all that stuff on there, he didn’t even mix it up, he just dumped it on there, eating it up, “yeah, man, this is good…” We knew this guy was a geek!
Well, we decided that… he needed to be… “included.” We decided he needed to be “officially welcomed.” Byron Ralph… this was ’71… Byron Ralph probably washed his hair in ’66, we figured. So, that first night, we took a little Prell concentrate… doesn’t need much… just a little on the pillow... all he needed was a touch of sweat, and turn his head every now and then… he woke up in the morning and there’s white cloud everywhere. Bubbles coming out of his tent, you know? We were loving it! We looked at him and said, “Oh, Byron Ralph, what happened?” You know? We didn’t have a clue.
The next night, Byron Ralph got a little carried away. Literally. About ten of us got around his bunk. We walked him down to the lake. (laughter) This is not a suggestion…. walked him down to the lake. We put him in the rowboat. We pushed him out into the lake. And then we rang the wake-up bell! Byron Ralph gets up, he stretches, he steps out of his cot, and bloosh! (laughter and applause) It was wonderful! It was wonderful! Water flying out of there, you know? He asked us about it, we didn’t have a clue! Don’t know. I guess it was just “sleep rowing,” you know, that happens….
All week long… all week long, we gave that guy more than he could take. And we could tell it was eating at him, but he never said anything. But we could tell it was just chewing him up, you know? I could also tell that he knew that I was behind it all.
The last night, we were going to camp away from camp. Now, I never did quite figure that out. We were gonna go camp on the mountain. All right? In Alabama, they don’t have mountains, man! They got bumps, but they didn’t have any mountains! So they had, like, this trail to this bump, and we were gonna go camp on the bump. So, everybody gets his backpack on, and we’re hiking through the woods. The last night, we’re hiking through the woods, and I’m there with all of my buddies. We had won the trophy. Everything was good. We were gonna stay up all night and sing songs and have a great time. And we’re hiking down the trail… there was this tree that fell down right next to the trail. So all the guys jumped up on it, and they’re running down the tree. So I’d jump up on it, and I’m running down the tree. And all of a sudden… I think a Mary Lou Retton or something. I don’t know. I go up in the air, and I come back down on the tree… almost.
Sort of on the side of it. And this was a round tree. So I went all the way down to the ground, and my ankle was sideways. And it sorta… popped.
And I said, (as flatly as possible) “Oowwowch!” (laughter)
And all the guys looked back at me and they said, (very concerned) “Are you okay?”
I’m a patrol, man! I said, (very unconvincingly as he hobbles around) “Sure! No problem! Having a great time!”
I couldn’t walk. My ankle’s sitting here, inflating! I said, “You guys go on, I’m gonna sit here and wait for Byron Ralph and do some more stuff to him!”
And they said, “Yeah! Yeah! That’s great!” So they go on. I’m sitting here on this log watching my ankle just… explode.
Byron Ralph starts coming up the trail. I know that I’m a dead boy. You know, I’m sort of playing the video of my life in front of me. Because, when you’re in the sixth grade, you don’t have one that’s long enough even for commercials, you know? It’s just sort of... it’s over.
Byron Ralph is coming up… I know he’s gonna kill me. I’m sitting there on the log, I can’t go anywhere, and he comes up the trail….
(Sound effect akin to an elephant stomp, then another) Have you ever seen those forest fire commercials? You know, where all the birds and stuff go (sound of rustling out trees in large numbers), like? That’s what it was like, man! He’s coming up the trail, and everything’s going (rustle-rustle-rustle).
He comes around the curve, and he sees me on the log. And he just smiles….
That made me really nervous.
He walks up to me, and I’m thinking, “one punch.” You know? One punch and I’m out!
He said, “Stand up!”
I thought, “I can accommodate.” I stand up.
He said, “Give me your pack!”
I said, “Going for distance?” (laughter)
He takes my pack… puts it on his shoulder. He hands me the stick that he’s been using to come up the trail… and he walks off.
By the time I hobbled into camp, he had set up my tent. He had gathered some wood for a fire, and he was over there scrounging through his stuff to begin to set it up.
I crawled in my tent, and I cried.
Because you see, if there was anybody at that camp who had a right to hate me, it was Byron Ralph Gazortny! If there was anybody at that camp who had reason just to let me go, it was Byron Ralph Gazortny! Because all week long, I had given him more stuff than he could put up with. But for some reason, he refused to let that get in the way. For some reason, he was determined to believe that somewhere inside of me, there was something good. Somewhere inside of me… a side that I had never shown him, there was something of value, and he refused to hold on to the rest, and he continued to hold on to that promise that there was something good in Tommy Are.
And in that moment, I began to understand, just a little bit, of how God holds on to us... of how God sees us. You see, even when Israel had just snubbed their nose at God, God, like the loving mother, says, “How can I give you up? You’re mine! I taught you to walk! You are my children! How could I possibly let you go?”
In China… in China, there are government leaders who have decided that students are people that the world can do without, and they’ve let them go. They’ve attacked them, and killed them. In the Middle East, Palestinians have decided that it’s more important to hold on to rocks than to hold on to Israelis. Israelis have decided that it’s more important to hold on to rifles and arms than to hold on to Palestinians. In your own schools… on the practice field, around your lockers, sometime on the telephone, we find that we would rather hold on to our pride and our ego. We would rather hold on to our image, and our class, and status. We hold on tightly to those things that lift us up above others. And we let go of the Byron Ralphs of our lives. We let go of those people that we seem to believe that the world can do without.
And when we do that… when we do that, that vision of all things being united… that vision is lost. It crumbles. It’s no longer bricks and mortar, it’s just a pile of bricks.
But even then… even then, this text is ours. Even then, the promise of this text is ours. For God says, “How could I let you go? How could I possibly let you go? You are mine. I taught you to walk! Sure, you have heard my word and rejected it! Sure, you have ignored the needs of your neighbor!“ Sure, we’ve pumped our bodies full of drugs, and we have children having children. We’ve treated sex as a pastime rather than as a cherished gift. We have ignored our friends, we have let down our neighbors. We have seen God’s light, and we have opted for darkness. But God says, “I am still your God. And you are still my children! How could I possibly let you go?”
See, if there is anybody in that camp who had reason to hate me, it was Byron Ralph Gazortny. But he refused to let go of me. He refused to let go of me! God is like that! He refuses to let go of us. Like a loving mother, she will never let go!
You see, it’s forgiveness that’s gonna hold us together. It’s forgiveness of one another that’s gonna keep us as bricks and mortar, rather than just as bricks. Forgiveness is heavy. It’s a burden, because none of us sit here without some unresolved forgiveness. That’s just part of who we are. There are those that we need to forgive, and I’m standing here in front of you tonight not trying to add to that burden. It is not my desire to stand here as one and point the finger, and say, “You must forgive this person. You must forgive that person.” What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m standing in front of you tonight as a person who realizes that I have been forgiven. And my life cannot be the same when I know that. I want you to know that you have been forgiven. And if you really believe that… if we really grasp hold of that truth, then I don’t believe that our lives can possibly be the same. If we really believe that, then perhaps… just maybe… then we will have the ability… the possibility… to reach out to those who injure us. Perhaps rather than revenge, we can work for peace. Rather than hatred, we can share love. Rather than conceit, we can uplift our neighbor. If we really believe, if we really hold on to the truth that God is holding on to us, then just maybe we will become more skilled at peacemaking than at war. If we really believe it, perhaps we will become more skilled at celebrating diversity, but not division. Perhaps we will become more skilled at embracing each other, rather than shutting one another off. Perhaps… just perhaps, we can trust God’s promise enough to let it live through us. And if we can do that, then that vision of all things united in Christ is as solid as bricks and mortar.
My friends, this text calls us to unite with one another. To unite as solid as bricks and mortar. To let go of those things that divide us, but to never let go of one another. To let go of hatred. To let go of prejudice. But to hold on tightly to one another. And I believe that. I believe that is our calling. And I believe that is our gift. Because I believe that Jesus Christ both calls us to that life, and gives us that life. I believe it, because I believe that we are here in this auditorium with a God who is here, who holds on to us, and will not let go of us, no matter what.
God says, “You are my children. I taught you to walk. How could I possibly let you go?”
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.