The Shelter of Each Other: Our Ark in Stormy Seas

A sermon by the Rev. Harold E. Masback, III. Focal scripture: Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.

The Shelter of Each Other: Our Ark in Stormy Seas

The Rev. Harold E. Masback, III, October 10, 2004

Deuteronomy 11:13-21

13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—14 then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil;15 and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.16 Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them,17 for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”

1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.

What words come to mind when you think of our fair village? “Beautiful,” “safe,”“traditional,” “prosperous”? We’d each probably come up with a slightly different list of adjectives, but I’m pretty sure, you could scan every single list in this meeting house and never come across the words, “dangerous,” or “experimental.”
In fact, if you wanted to describe our town in positive terms, you might say we live in something of a sanctuary, something of a refuge of beauty and order surrounded by a more ambiguous, chaotic world. Critics who want to put this in more negative terms say we live in an artificial bubble, a virtual gated community cosseted and buffered from the dangers and difficulties of the real world.

And I guess my first response to the critics is this: “If only it were so!” Are we attentive to the health and safety of our loved ones? Of course we are! Follow us through our day and you will see us navigate moment to moment alert to physical hygiene and safety. Not just toothpaste, oh no, Colgate Total with Whitening Paste. Not just any toothbrush, but an Oral B Cross Action Vitalizer with Gum Stimulators. And not just soap, but anti-bacterial, hydrating shower gel. And if the kids are heading outside, don’t forget the Coppertone Kidsport 40 SPF UVA/UVB sunblock.

For breakfast there’s Honey Nut Cheerios, you really wish the kids would eat the plain Cheerios, but there’s always a fight over the sugar, and at least the box says they lower cholesterol, and anyway, they’re way healthier than Fruity Pebbles. Of course the milk is Horizon Organic Low Fat, and certainly never from cows injected with added growth hormones. And finally Centrum Performance vitamins, specially formulated with ginseng, gingko and higher levels of 5 essential B vitamins, which, frankly, sounds kind of trendy, but at least it’s not as trendy as Centrum Carb Assist “for your Low Carb Lifestyle”, which, oh-by-the-way, isn’t so “low carb” anymore now that you’re cheating on your South Beach diet again.

Bobby jumps on his bike to school, his Giro Atmos helmet fit snuggly to his head, his Patagonia 6 Chuter Hard Shell and Polartec Powder Dry R-1 Fleece zipped all the way up. Courtney fastens her seatbelt in the 7,000 pound Suburban 1500 with dual stage front and side airbags, reinforcing steel door panels, and 4 wheel anti-lock disc brakes. Meanwhile, Mom is strapping Julie into the rear- facing, Peg Perego Primo Viaggio baby seat. And so we send them off into the world to well-selected schools and sports camps confident that we have spared no effort or expense to keep them healthy, happy and safe.

And if that’s all it took to cosset and buffer our families from the dangers and difficulties of the real world, we’d be all set. But of course it’s not, is it? There’s a gaping breach in our defensive perimeter, an undefended 12-lane bridge across our little moat. And it’s not about our white teeth, or our vibrant skin, or our well-protected bones. The undefended breach concerns our eyes and ears: eyes and ears that spend the rest of the day absorbing our surrounding culture from television, movies, video games, internet sites, cd’s, organized sports, or just hanging out with peers.

Consider just the following facts: By the time an adolescent graduates from high school they will have spent 15,000 hours watching television compared to just 12,000 hours in the classroom. 3,000 of those television hours will have been commercials.1 Virtually all of our children have access to the internet and spend hours on the net. From first grade on, our children will be spending more time each day with their peers than with their families. And good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, these collective mountains of hours dwarf the time they spend with their fathers: a Cornell University study found fathers average only 38 seconds a day being totally attentive to their children’s needs and twenty minutes a week being partially attentive.2 A Harvard University study found American parents spend less time with their children than parents of any other country except Great Britain.3

Suddenly, our town doesn’t seem like such a refuge, such a sanctuary any more. Suddenly the adjectives dangerous and experimental seem a bit more apt to life in our beautiful town. For you and I are engaged in one of the riskiest experiments ever attempted: no culture has ever left so much of the character formation of its children to strangers and so little to their families and congregation. As Bill Moyers put it, “our children are being raised by appliances.”4

Now there are only three ways this experiment is going to yield results acceptable to us as parents and grandparents: First, the outcome might be acceptable if the wider culture shares and teaches our values. Second, the outcome can be acceptable if the wider culture has no impact – if our children can simply choose to embrace our values and ignore the values of their environment. And finally, the outcome can be acceptable if we change the terms, if we build an ark, if we come together as a community to share our common values and stories and collaboratively filter the input from the surrounding culture.

Now, I’m sure you can guess where a pastor is going to come out on these options, but bear with me while we assess the first two. The first option raises the possibility that the surrounding culture shares and teaches our values. Surely the evidence is already in on this prospect. The average American adolescent views 14,000 sexual references and 12,000 depictions of murder, rape and other violent assaults on television every single year.5 The average American sees 100,000 advertisements for drinking before they reach 21.6 Nine out of 10 children aged eight to 16 have viewed pornography on the internet, often without even looking for it.7

The plain fact of the matter is that we are raising our kids in a culture that is indifferent at best and adverse at its worst to the values you and I want to teach our kids. So we advance to the second way our collective experiment might turn out well for our families. Even if the surrounding culture doesn’t share our values, our families might still turn out all right if we and our children could simply reject the messages that bombard our eyes and ears daily, if the images and story lines and come-ons just rolled off us like water off a duck’s back.

Now, plainly neither ancient Israel nor the early church thought this was a possibility. Both exhorted their followers to keep clear of the seductive allure of their surrounding cultures. As Moses addressed the Israelites before they crossed over into Canaan, before they encountered tribes with very different Gods and value sets: “take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other Gods and worshiping them . . .Teach [these words] to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” [Deuteronomy 11;18-19.] As Paul wrote to the Christian church in Corinth, a tiny gathering of believers in a raucous trading town of the Roman Empire: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers . . .what fellowship is there between light and darkness . . .Therefore come out from them and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean.” [2 Cor. 6:14–17.]
But if you are like me you never much liked scripture passages like these.

They seemed sectarian, intolerant, demeaning to the great human capacities of reason and free will. Binding our freedom with these ancient texts seemed too primitive, too puritanical, too orthodox. And if we felt this way, perhaps it was because we grew up as children of the Enlightenment, products ourselves of modern liberal education. As Duke theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have written, “Most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands” free of cultural bias and exercises his native, unfettered reason. [Resident Aliens at 79.] If this liberal confidence in reason were justified, than we could hope that well-educated, reasonable children would still rise above the toxic culture and claim truth and virtue for themselves.

Where do you stand? Who do you think has it right? The ancient Age of Scripture or the modern Age of Reason? I know that for the first 20 years of my adult life I experienced life as a conflict. Intellectually I was committed to the Age of Reason’s confidence in human freedom and rationality, but I kept running into experiential evidence to the contrary. After walking the seamier gutters of client entertainment with Chicago insurance men, Detroit auto executives and London brokers, I found there was still mud clinging to my own cuffs when I returned home. I didn’t resolve the conflict between my theory and my experience until I got to Yale Divinity School. There I ran into a school of thought that fundamentally changed the way I thought about theology, scripture and life. At Yale they call this school of thought, “Post-Liberal Theology.” Around the rest of the country theologians call it simply the “Yale School Theology.”

This way of looking at scripture and life has influenced everything I have taught and preached as a minister, as it has informed the ministries of other good Yale grads like Allen, Kristen, Ron and Lidabell, and I think it has a telling last word for our topic this morning. Reduced to its essentials, this Yale School contends that everything we take in through our eyes and ears matters. Just as we are what we eat physically, so we are what we consume intellectually. Our reason cannot lift us above our culture, because our reason is always influenced by our culture. We may think we freely govern our actions by independent logic, but mostly our minds and actions are shaped by the stories we hear and tell. Fill a child’s mind with stories of Abraham and Jesus and he’ll ask, what would Abraham do in this situation? What would Jesus do? Fill a child’s mind with stories of Donald Trump and Paris Hilton and she’ll ask what would The Donald do? What would Paris do? To shift the metaphor slightly, none of us see reality directly, we always see it as if looking through prescription lenses, lenses ground by every story and experience we encounter in life. Grind the lenses with the stories of God and Christ and you see life differently than if you grind them with the stories of Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

And suddenly the ancient wisdom of Moses and Paul is looking thoroughly up to date. Indeed, scientific study after study is now confirming a direct correlation between violence, sex, substance abuse, domestic violence and materialism in the media and acting out similar behaviors in our communities.

But what can we do? We have neither the power to radically alter the values, messages and images flooding our community from the broader culture, nor the freedom to withdraw like the Amish into a hermetically sealed refuge. And so we face the five dilemmas of modern Christian community listed in your bulletin.

The answer my friends comes not from within but from above. Not from our vaunted free will, but from God the father. Not from slavishly obeying the story lines of the world that bind us, but from faithfully following the story line of the Christ who died to set us free. Paul says Christ came to establish a New Creation, gathering God’s children into a church he called a “colony of heaven.” As the Christian saying goes, our church, our colony of heaven, is to be in the world but not of the world. As Paul wrote in Romans, we are not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds.

This church, this congregation, this meeting house is our colony in a strange land, our ark in the stormy seas of a unhealthy culture. Like any colony we gather here with two tasks: the first to connect and the second to protect. First, we gather to connect to one another, to our God, to our traditions. We tell the stories, sing the hymns, pray the prayers, and share the rituals that shape our identity, inform our values, and grind our prescription lenses to see the world in a Christian way, as Paul would say, to take on the mind of Christ. But we also gather to protect, to protect our families from the winds and waves of the hostile culture. And I want to close with just a few words on how we might come together in this challenge of protection.

Friday night’s presidential debate was billed as a Town Hall debate. As Congregationalists we know this format traces back to our earliest forms of democracy as colonists in New England. We still call our church a meeting house, recalling that it was here that we met as embattled colonists surrounded by hostile tribes and wilderness. We met here as much out of necessity as out of philosophy, for there was no way any individual family could survive without the support of the rest. And as a father who has raised three children in New Canaan, I want to tell you that’s pretty much the way things stand today. None of us can fight this culture alone. You put a filter on your home’s internet, but your kids see the porn at somebody elses house. You forbid your kids R rated movies, but they watch them with friends. You don’t serve alcohol, but somebody else’s parents do. You don’t want your kids to play soccer on Sunday mornings, but you’re the only one at the coach’s meeting who objects. You don’t think kids need to be tracked in math in third grade, but some other parent is already calculating the college admissions advantage.

But my friends, what we cannot achieve individually we can achieve collectively. Like our colonist forbears, we can gather in this meeting house and puzzle out collective solutions to the challenges of our day just like they puzzled out solutions to the challenges of theirs. Simply put, we need to be just as vigorous attending to the spiritual hygiene of our children as we are attending to their physical hygiene. We need to be as vigilant protecting them from an unhealthy culture as we are protecting them from unhealthy germs. We need to be as watchful about what goes in their eyes and ears as what goes in their mouths or on their backs.

And who knows but that the values we raise up here might not persuade our brothers and sisters at St. Marks, or St. A’s or the Presbyterians to join us, and so a whole town might be transformed and an ancient Puritan challenge fulfilled: we must consider that we are as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people will be upon us, and other colonies of Christians may say, may the Lord make our colony like that of New Canaan. Amen.

1The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education, “Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media,” January 2001 quoted on the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families website, www.nationalcoalition.org. See also Kelemen, Lawrence, “To Kindle a Soul”, p. 169 quoting Akst, Daniel, “The Culture of Money: Caught with Their Pants On.” New York Times, March 7, 1999, and Clarke-Pearson, “Children-Violence-Solutions,” 265-68, North Carolina Medical Journal 58 (1997).

2Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University wrote an article in Scientific American (August, 1974) in which he reported a study on parenting. One of his conclusions came in these words. “The demands of a job that claims mealtimes, evenings and weekends as well as days; the trips and moves necessary to get ahead or simply to hold one’s own; the increasing time spent commuting, entertaining, going out, meeting social and community obligations – all these produce a situation in which a child often spends more time with a babysitter than with a participating parent” He gives one of the outcomes of a study that justifies that conclusion. He wrote, “Compare . . . the results of a study of middle class fathers who told university interviewers that they were spending an average of 15-20 minutes a day playing with their one year old infants with another study in which the father’s voice was actually recorded by means of a microphone attached to the infant’s shirt. The data indicate that fathers spend relatively little time interacting with their infants. The mean number of interactions per day was 2.7, and the average number of seconds per day was 37.7” (ibid)

But see contrasting data in Michael Ventura’s article, “The Psychology of Money,” Psychology Today, March/April 1995 which states, “fathers spend less than 10 minutes a week in conversation with their children; and that 20 percent of their teenagers haven’t talked to either parent for more than 10 minutes in the last month.”; Kelemen, Lawrance, “To Kindle a Soul”, chapter 4, “Love Attention and Affection”, p. 121 quoting Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia,” p. 80 “The average U.S. teenager speaks seven minutes a day with his mother and five minutes a day with his father”; Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey 2003 findings: Adult women in households with children under age 18 spent about 1.7 hours providing childcare as their primary activity. Adult men in such households spent 0.8 hour (about 50 minutes).

3Mann, Judy, “Who Taught These ‘Men’ to Be Men?”, The Washington Post, July 21, 1993, p. E13 quoting Armand Nicholi of Harvard University.

4Bill Moyers, quoted by Mary Pipher in the article, “Surviving Toxic Media: How the Church Can Help”, UUA World Magazine, January/February 1998.

5American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education, “Sexuality, Contraception and the Media”, Pediatrics Vol. 107 No. 1 January 2001, pp. 191-194. See also, Kelemen, Lawrence, “To Kindle a Soul”, p. 158 quoting Centerwall, Brandon, “Exposure to Television as a Risk Factor for Violence,” American Journal of Epidemiology 129, no. 4 (1989) p. 3059.; and p. 163 quoting Elkind, David, “All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis”, p. 102, Reading, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1998.

6Kelemen, Lawrence, “To Kindle a Soul”, p. 156 quoting Akst, Daniel, “The Culture of Money: Caught with Their Pants On.” New York Times, March 7, 1999.

7London School of Economics, January 2002, quoted on Protectkids.com. See also “Report Statistical Highlights” from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Crimes Against Children, Crimes Against Children Research Center and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, June 2000. See also “Pornography Statistics 2003” (statistics compiled from Google, WordTracker, PBS, MSNBC, NRC and Alexa research) on the Family Safe Media website, www.familysafemedia.com.
 

Yale Youth Ministry Institute