Sermon by Tom Are, Jr. Delivered at the 1989 Montreat Youth Conference on Wednesday, August 9, 1989.
Conference Theme: "Caution: Under Construction"
Transcribed by Mark Baker-Wright
Just prior to this sermon, a dramatized version of the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31) was presented, followed by eight students reciting Ephesians 4:25, each in a different language
We’ve talked some today about talking. We talked about words and their power this morning. And in your small groups you talked some about talking to one another, and the power that that is. And our Scripture passage this evening, that you just heard read, says that we are to speak the truth to one another. That not only are we to speak to one another, but we are to speak the truth… that what we say should be truthful. And then right there, in that same verse, it tells us why. It says we are to speak the truth, for we are members one of another.
We belong together. We are in this excursion we call life together. We are bonded together in one community, in one family, in one body. And if we are going to survive this excursion we call life, then we will need to learn to live, to walk, to talk, like we are in it together. We’d best learn to speak to one another as if we are members one of another.
But sometimes… sometimes we speak as if we’re not connected. Somewhere along the way, we got the idea, that we’re really not connected at all, as if there’s really no relationship between one another.
Sally gets a new bike for her birthday. And she wants to show it off, so she takes it to her friend, Susie. And Sally rides it around, and you know how that goes, pretty soon Susie says, “Well, let me ride it.”
Sally, being a good friend, she says, “OK.”
Susie rides it longer than Sally wants her to, and pretty soon Sally says, “You’d better give it back.”
Susie keeps riding.
“I said, it’s my bicycle. You’d better give it back!”
She keeps riding.
“Susie, if you don’t give me my bicycle back, I’m not gonna be your friend anymore!”
Susie says, “Go on and take your own bicycle, I didn’t want to be your friend to start with!”
See, somewhere along the way, we got the idea that we could speak to one another as if there’s no connection, as if there no real relationship there.
It starts very young… you’ve heard these lines... It’s starts very young when we say things like “My daddy’s bigger than your daddy.”
And it sticks with us, as we grow a little older, and we find ourselves saying things like, “How many Pollocks does it take to…?”
Or it gets uglier than that, when we start saying things like, “Don’t mind them. You know how those people are!”
Or we find ourselves hearing things like, “Here. Take these. They’ll make you feel fine!”
Or you’ve heard this one: “Frankly, I’d rather lick snails than go out with you!” (laughter) You never heard that one? (laughter) You mean I’m the only one who heard that one? (laughter) Man, I heard that all the time!
I bet some of you’ve heard this one: “If you loved me, you would.” (pause) I thought so.
You see, some times we talk to one another as if we have no relationship to one another, as if there is no bond between us, no bond between people like Sally and Susie. No bond between people like cheerleaders and overweight freshmen. No bond between people like ourselves and those we meet in the hallway that we would just as soon not meet.
Think about where you were in March of 1985. Think about what grade you were in. What classes you were taking, maybe what teacher you had. March of 1985, a man was taken hostage in the Middle East, and he’s been a hostage ever since. And there have been others, who have come, and have been taken hostage, and last week, before we came up here, some of that blew up and there was a man who lost his life. As a hostage. And there are others who are threatened, their lives hanging in the balance.
Now, I’m not smart enough to claim to understand all of that. And there are more factions over there than I can keep straight in my own head, but I can tell you this: that that situation in the Middle East, you boil it down enough, it blows up into one big game of “us versus them.” I can’t say who’s right. But I can say that they will never find an answer as long as they’re playing the game “us versus them.” We just can’t win that way. Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that there’s no connection between us... that there’s no bond between people. And when we have that idea, we don’t have to speak the truth. When we really believe that, we don’t have to speak to each other at all.
Sometimes we live as if we are going to make it all by ourselves. Sometimes we live as if we really believe we’re gonna make it all by ourselves.
But he doesn’t get a party. No, it’s the youngest. He comes home, and he gets the big bash, and the elder brother, he ain’t going in the house! He’s not going in the house. He stays out in the field. Now, it doesn’t tell us what he said, but I can imagine what he said, because we say that kind of stuff in our own rooms, when we’re trying to work up a good anger.
“Sure, give him a party. I mean he only went through half of your money!
“Sure! Kill the fatted calf for him. He probably meant to write us at Christmastime!
“Sure, I mean, all I’ve done, Dad, is stay here and work. I’ve hoed every inch of your farm. I’ve chopped more wood than he can shake a stick at… I don’t need a party! No need to say ‘thank you to me,’ that’s all right. I’ll just stay out here in the field where I belong, and y’all go on there and celebrate with that… that… son of yours.”
You see… I know that the elder brother is not the good guy. I know that the elder brother is not the example for us. I know that the elder brother does not wear a white hat in this story… but I gotta tell you, the boy makes some sense to me!
Makes a little bit of sense of me….
‘Cause I’ve got a little brother! If you’ve got a little brother, maybe even a little sister, you probably can understand this guy! You see, my brother, Jim… we didn’t along! It’s not that we were enemies. You know, we didn’t bring bodily harm to one another, we… we… we just were brothers! And Jim, I don’t know what’s wrong with the boy… Jim…(laughter) It’s good Presbyterian belief to believe that every person has a reason for being… that every person has a purpose in this world. Jim was thoroughly convinced that his purpose… that his calling… yeah, one even he had received by divine intervention… his reason for being was to get on my nerves! (laughter) And Jim was very obedient to his calling.
Now it worked okay for a little while. Because Jim was about this many years old (holds arm at about waist length), and I was this many years old (raises arm a bit higher), and that works all right. Because as soon Jim would start getting on my nerves, I’d just sorta look at him with that stern face that says “I’m really talking to you now!” And I’d say, “Jim, if you have an emotional attachment to sunshine, you better get out of my face!” (laughter and applause)
And Jim would say, “I’m sorry,” and he would back out of the room. That worked fine! But then he had to go and blow it. Jim discovered alliances. I don’t know if he got it at school, or where he got it. But the youngest always figures out, the number one ally is Mom.
Jim would start getting on my… and I would say “Jim, if you have an emotional attachment to…” I’d get to about right there, and all of a sudden he’d start going “Mah-ahm! Mah-ahm!”
She’d come flittin’ down the hallway. “What’s the matter, darling?”
Jim’d start in: “Tom did this. Tom did that! Tom did that other thing!”
My mother’d look at me, and she’d say, “Go to your room!”
I’d say, “Mom, aren’t I entitled to a trial by jury of my peers?”
She’d say, “Tom, if you have an emotional attachment to sunshine….” (laughter and applause)
You see, that’s when I learned to talk like an elder brother! I’m in my room “got an emotional attachment, hmph! I tell you what… when’s the last time he cleared the table? I can’t remember! Does he take out the trash? No, [sir,] he plays sick every time, ‘I hurt my foot.’ No, I’m the one doing it, but that’s all right, take care of him. Give him a party, I don’t care!”
That went on too long! I spent most of my sophomore year in my room! Talking like an elder brother. Occasionally looking in the mirror, trying to make an ugly face…. It wasn’t real hard.
(Leans over pulpit) … But I got him back! (cheers and applause)
I got him back, man! We were visiting my grandmother. She lived in South Carolina. She announced that she and my mother were going to go shopping, and they would be right back.
Now one of things you need to understand, my grandmother and my mother went shopping, they’re not gonna be right back.
And the other thing she said is, “Tom, you are supposed to take care of Jim while we’re gone.”
“No problem! I’m gonna take care of him real good, Grandmama!”
Jim was out in the back yard. I went out and I said, “Jim you are filthy. You are sweaty. You smell bad. Go take a bath!”
He said, “But I don’t want to!”
I said, “Jim, I am in charge. Go take a bath!”
So he trudged it upstairs. My grandmother had one of those bathtubs with the feet on it, you know… different kind of experience, that was all right. Jim got in there, kinda sudsin’ up and everything, and then I yelled through the door. “Jim, I’m going next door. I’ll be gone for, oh, an hour.” Then I walked downstairs and I go out the front door. (sound of door shutting)
I wait about ten minutes. And then I open the front door. “Creee-eeak!” It’s quiet upstairs!
Jim goes, “Tom? Tom, is that you?”
(whispers) I didn’t say anything! (cheers and applause)
Jim says, “Tom, you’d better tell me that’s you. I’m gonna tell Momma if you don’t tell me that’s you!”
My grandmother had this lamp that sat by the end of the sofa, it had these little bells hanging on it, when you turn it on and off. I went over there and I turned it off! (cha-ching!)
It got real quiet upstairs! (laughter)
She has this china cabinet in the living room. You have to walk through there…. I think Columbus must brought that thing over, or something, because if you walked through the living room, the whole thing went (rattle-rattle-rattle), like that?
So I walked through the living room. (rattle-rattle-rattle)
Jim says, (sounding even more scared now) “Tom, is that you? Tom, I promise I won’t tell Momma if you just please tell me that’s you!”
(whispers) I didn’t say nothing!
I start going up the steps. The third step from the top creaked. I’m standing on the fourth one. I’m looking there at the bathroom right in front of me. There’s not a sound… I think Jim had his finger in the faucet to keep the drips from coming down. There is no sound coming outta there! I’m standing there, looking at the door… standing on that fourth step, and I step on number three. (Cree-eeak!)
Water started moving, man! I’m telling you, that boy was on the move, now! I go up to the door, I start going… scratching on the door, you know?
And all of a sudden it gets real quiet. Well, the lock on the door hasn’t worked since my daddy was in high school, you know, so I just sort of… push it open, and step in there and I go (leaps out with a boogeyman sound)!
There’s no Jim! (laughter)
Everything in there’s just… there’s not even much water in the bathtub. There’s a lot coming on the walls, down the… way, there. I thought, “Where’d he go?” I thought, first, he soaped up, and went down the drain, you know?
And then… then I saw the curtains flapping.
We’re on the second floor! There’s nothing below that but just this little awning. I thought “Great day! He’s jumped out! He’s killed himself! I’m going be in my room until I finish college, man!” (thunderous applause)
I go running down the steps… I opened the front door… There’s my brother hanging off that awning! (cheers)
He’s not wearing anything but Mr. Bubble! (more laughter)
I start laughing so hard, I can’t hardly stand up, you know? And I’m bending over, like this (doubled over), and I get about right here… and I see my momma coming down the driveway! (laughter)
I don’t even think she stopped the car! She just got out! And she started coming up the sidewalk!
She looked at me, and she said, “Go to your room!”
She walked right by my brother. He’s going, “Mom! A little help here, please! A little help, Mom!”
She comes in my room… she comes in my room…. She says, “Do you…. do you want to tell me… what your brother is doing… NAKED AS A JAYBIRD… hanging off the front of the house where we hang the star at Christmastime?” (Cheers from audience)
You remember the other night when I told you about those questions that aren’t really questions?
I said, “Well, ma…” and she said, “Hush!”
She was too mad to punish me. Instead she was gonna give me “the talking to.” (ominous sounds from audience) You ever had that? Man, I would rather be whipped, tied to a tree, left in the forest for the weekend than get the talking to!
She said, “Why…?” It always started that way, you know? “Why… do you treat your brother like that?”
I thought that was self-evident.
She said, “Tom, you are the eldest.” I thought that was self-evident, too. She said, “You’re supposed to be the light shining in the darkness. The city set on the hill. You know he looks up to you…”
I said, “Of course he does, Momma, he’s down here!” (laughter)
She said, “You’re supposed to live in a way that he can look up to and know how to make it in this world!”
And then it got bad. She said, “Tom, you know you really like Jim.”
I said, “Mother, are you talking about the Jim that lives with us?”
She said, “You know you really love Jim.”
I said, “Mother, have you met the Jim that lives with us?”
I said, “Mother, tell me one reason… it doesn’t have to be a big one! Tell me one reason, why you think I love that boy.”
She said, “Because he’s your brother!”
I said, “Bingo, Momma! That’s what I’ve been trying to…. That’s the reason I don’t like the man! You know, for eight years, he’s been hanging around my business. Ever since he’s old enough not to drool at the table, he’s been getting on my nerves!”
Jim’s standing out in the hall, taking notes…. They do that, too.
Jim comes walking in the room… He walks in the room… He doesn’t look particularly mad… He doesn’t look particularly dry… He looks at me, and he says, “Tom. Jesus loves me. So can you.”
Woah! What could I say? You know if the preacher says something like that, it’s kinda profound. Your second-grade brother tells you that it sounds like prophet Jeremiah!
See, it wasn’t just that I didn’t have a comeback. He was right! And I knew it! Jesus loves him. He’s here because God wants him here. He has a reason for being. Jesus loves him. Jesus died for him. And if Jesus, in all his glory can find something lovable in my little brother, then not only is it possible for me to find something lovable in him, but I will never be fully who I’m supposed to be, until I recognize that truth. I will never be completely who I am until I recognize that he is loved and valued and cherished by God. He, too, is a child of the covenant. God put him here. God wants him here. God loves him. We may have trouble seeing it. Especially sometimes with those with whom we live. But the foundation of this construction is to recognize first and foremost that they, whoever they are, that they belong to God and are precious to God, and are loved by God. We all are valuable. There is no human being who goes beyond God’s love, and therefore there should be no human being that goes beyond the love of God’s people.
You see, today we start the building. This is really the first day of construction for us. Monday we surveyed the site. We looked at what we had to bring. Yesterday, we talked about the way it’s supposed to be. Well, today we begin to build. What are we building? We’re building the people of God. We’re building the community of faith. We’re building God’s kingdom, God’s holy reign, his rule in our midst. That’s what we are building, and the foundation of that building is to recognize that they, whoever they are, are part of us. We are members one of another. We belong together. We are in this life together.
But recognizing just that, and that alone, won’t get the foundation laid. Just simply knowing that they are valuable, that they are loved, that alone will not lay a sure foundation. For we also need to recognize, and remember, that we were created to live it together. Another way of saying that is: we need one another. Do you hear them at keynote this morning? Talked about talking and listening. They talked about helping and being helped. We can’t do it all by ourselves. We need one another.
That’s the message of the foundation. We must work to live with, to love, to embrace one another. The elder brother, he stood out in the field. He stood out in the field as if he had no connection to this one who was lost and now was found. He stood out in the field as if he could speak at all without any relationship with this long lost brother.
But then the father comes out. Do you remember the father? The father comes out and he speaks to the elder brother. He pleads with the elder brother. He says, “Son. You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” That is our reason to celebrate.
Now, I gotta be honest with you, that bothered me for a long time. “‘Everything I have.…’ Whoop-de-do! You gave half of it to the brother, and it’s gone now. No telling how much you spent on this “welcome home” party! He’s probably gonna eat up a little bit of it before he goes on, anyway....” There’s not gonna be a whole lot left over for elder brother, is there?
And then, all of a sudden, I realized. That’s not what he’s talking about. That’s not what he’s talking about at all. He’s not talking about leaving him cars, and stock plans, and inheritance. It doesn’t matter. That’s not what the father has. What the father has is two sons! That’s what he leaves the elder brother. Do you get it? He says, “You are mine, and you are always with me, and he is mine, and he is always with me, and you are in this together! And you will always be in it together.” That’s what the father says to his son. “You are members one of another.” That’s the truth. The father is calling his elder son to speak, and to live, and to act, recognizing that they belong to one another, and that there is no changing that.
That is the foundational issue of this construction that we’re about. Recognizing that the love of Jesus Christ is extended to our brother, our sister, our neighbor. Whoever the “they” is for us. The foundational issue is recognizing that they are precious to God. Have been. Always will be.
What does that mean for us? That means that as long as some are hungry, none of us will ever really be full. It means as long as some of us are in poverty, that none of us will ever really be rich. It means that as long as some of us are lonely, or sick, or working for justice, or struggling with drugs, that none of us will ever really be whole. For we are members one of another. The love of Jesus Christ makes us a community. One body. One people, and that is our reason to celebrate. We are in this experience called life together. The Scripture passage that you heard: “speak the truth to one another, for we are members of one another.’ You heard it in eight different languages. But you heard the same Word. You see, the Word comes to us in different forms. We may speak it in different ways, but these people stood up here in front of you, not as members of separate bodies, not as members of separate communities. They stood up here as part of our family, and us as part of their family. We are all one by the same Word.
We are members one of another. That’s the truth for me and my brother. That’s the truth for you and your brother… you and your sister. That’s the truth for us and our neighbors. And that is the truth for us and our neighbors all around the world. We are members one of another. It’s true for us and the geek that we meet coming down the hallway. It’s true for us as the cheerleader as we meet the overweight freshman. It’s true for us as parents, as children, as sisters, as friends, as neighbors, as strangers, even as enemies. We are connected to one another. It’s true for us, and it’s true for people like Sally and Susie. It’s even true for people like Contras and Sandinistas. It’s even true for people like Palestinians and Israelis. It’s true for Allen Bosack and Peter Boton! It’s true for capitalists and communists. It is true the whole world over. We are members one of another, so we must learn to talk and to walk, and to sing, and to live, and to die with the knowledge that we are in it together. That’s the truth. We are one of another. That is our reason to celebrate.
Our God has come to us, and said, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours.” I invite you to look in the face of the brother, of the sister, of the neighbor, of the stranger, of the enemy, and see all that God has.
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.