From the Pastor’s Desk | Rev. Kevan Hitch

I’ve only received two tickets in the course of my driving career, and both of them I can blame on church.  One Sunday morning, I hopped in my sister’s lime green Plymouth Fury III and made a beeline to church.  Driving east on 275, the ring interstate around Cincinnati, I saw that I was going  to be late and put the pedal to the metal.  Too late I saw a state trooper and he pulled me over for doing 71 in a 55 mile an hour zone.  I told him where I was headed, but he showed no mercy. It cost me $50 bucks and I never told my parents.  I was just 16.

But a few years later, I was in college in Indiana.  I had just preached at a little Friends Church outside of Orestes, a tiny farming community northeast of Indianapolis.  Back in the day, I drove a 1972 Dodge Charger with a 318 cubic inch engine, just enough power to get a college boy in trouble.  Church was over, the parishioners had greeted me and were now headed for their dinner table, and I turned to a friend from school and challenged him, “I’ll race you back to college.”  College was about a 20 mile drive north on straight, flat Hoosier farm roads.  He took up the dare and 15 minutes after stepping out of the pulpit, I was driving a cool  110 miles per hour.

Now, do you remember a song called “Hot Rod Lincoln” by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen?

Yes, it is just as obscure a tune as it sounds.  The tagline was “Son, you’re going to drive me to drinkin’ if

you don’t stop drivin’ that hot .. rod .. Lincoln”.  Still doesn’t ring a bell?  But there’s a narrative in the lyrics where he’s racing a Cadillac and Commander Cody describes the action:

Now the fellas was ribbin’ me for bein’ behind,
So I thought I’d make the Lincoln unwind.
Took my foot off the gas and man alive,
I shoved it on down into overdrive.

Wound it up to a hundred-and-ten
My speedometer said that I hit top end.
My foot was blue, like lead to the floor,
That’s all there is and there ain’t no more.

Now the boys all thought I’d lost my sense
And the telephone poles looked like a picket fence
They said, “Slow down!  I see spots!
The lines on the road just look like dots.”

I had the same sensation.  When the telephone poles started looking like picket fences and the lines on the road looked like dots, I came to my senses.  “This is crazy”, I thought to myself and I eased off the accelerator.  When you’re going 110, it takes a few seconds to slow down, not long, but long enough for an Indiana State trooper to cite me for speeding.  It was that magic number once again:  71 miles per hour in a 55.  When I saw the ticket didn’t read 110 miles an hour, I practically got down on my knees and thanked the officer.

But that was 40 years ago.  I don’t drive like that anymore, thank the Lord.  Although, we were on a Midnight Run to distribute food and clothing to the homeless a couple years ago and I was driving the lead car into the city.  Ryan was sitting beside me and my cell phone rang.  It was one of the cars behind us.  “Will you please       tell your dad to slow down?”, they pleaded.

Why in the world, you might wonder, are we talking about my driving history on the first Sunday of 2018?  I can think of several rationales: it’s New Year’s and we are making resolutions.  Slowing down and becoming a more mindful driver is something we should all resolve to do.  But the primary reason I thinking about how we drive comes from a sermon that Pope Francis offered on New Year’s Eve.  He said that the people who have the most influence on society aren’t the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, the politicians or social media stars.  No, they’re the ordinary people of the world, kind, thoughtful, generous, giving persons that Francis named “the artisans of the common good”. They don’t get credit for their good works, they don’t give speeches, they don’t expect recognition;   they just do the right, good, civic-minded things that they do because they are good people.

But Francis particularly singled out drivers. Those people “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence”.  In other words, the opposite of those who drive so fast that telephone poles look like picket fences.  But seriously, how we drive molds the culture of our communities, it has an impact on the greater good of us all.

David Brooks of the Times put it this way:

“If you speed up so I can’t merge into your lane, you’re teaching me that the society around here is basically competitive, not cooperative. If, on the other hand, you give me a friendly wave after I let you in, you’re teaching me that this is a place where a kindness is recognized and gratitude is expressed.

If you feel perfectly fine doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, blocking everybody else going both ways, you teach me that people here are selfish and feel entitled. But if you get over to the right and wait your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, that teaches me that there’s a sense of fairness and equality, and that people feel embedded in the group.”

You see, how we drive shapes our community, our society, our communal identity.  When I moved to New York from the Midwest, I learned fairly quickly that one couldn’t expect other drivers to just move over if you needed to merge.  Sometimes you had to drive more aggressively to create the space you needed.  But perhaps that’s not a positive thing.  We tend to drive like those around us.  Kindness breeds kindness, but aggression breeds aggression.

Having been raised in fundamentalist Christianity, my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders often asked      us young people questions like, “If Jesus were here today, what kind of clothes would he wear?  What kind of job would he have?  What kind of car would he drive?”  That last one always provoked a good debate.  Would Jesus drive a BMW?  Or a Volkswagen Beetle?  A sensible Ford or a sporty Alfa Romeo?  But the question           we never asked was “How would Jesus drive?”  How come we never talk about that in church?

My oldest, Nate (or Sean), was home for the wedding and he reiterated his belief that the worst drivers in the United States reside in Maryland.  And we thought they lived in New York!  But the insurance company, Allstate, has determined that some of the most accident prone drivers do indeed live in Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. area.  The least aggressive drivers live in Honolulu, Seattle, and Portland.

St. Mark’s gospel says at the beginning of Jesus’ good work, he went to his cousin John where he was baptized in the Jordan River.  Now John, says Mark, was preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And all of Jerusalem went out to seek that forgiveness.  There are times, we have to admit, when we could use some forgiveness for the way we drive, the way we interact in public, the occasions when kindness could trump aggression, but we choose the less socially good choice.

Listen to Brooks again:

“Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.

Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are we in a place where there is a system of self-restraint, or are we in a place where it’s dog eat dog?

Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else’s, or are  we all equal? BMW drivers are much less likely to brake for pedestrians at crosswalks. Prius drivers in San Francisco commit more traffic violations. People who think they are richer or better than others are ruder           behind the wheel.”

How would Jesus drive?  What if, instead of being baptized, our driving records determined whether we could become a member of this congregation?  What if, when people cut us off in traffic, our response determined whether we could be called “Christian” or not?  What if, instead of telling us to “turn the other cheek”, Jesus told us, “Don’t be a jerk when you’re behind the wheel of a 4,000 pound vehicle.”

How would Jesus drive?  Not like me, I imagine.  But if we want to be “artisans of the common good” as Pope Francis called kind, giving, civic-conscious people, I’m going to have to do better this year.  I’ll need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And when I screw up, when I’m the idiot (instead of the guy who just cut me off in traffic), I’ll also remember that I am–like Jesus–beloved of God, who in spite of everything, who, in spite of my driving, is well pleased with you and me.

From the Pastor’s Desk | Rev. Kevan Hitch

“A minute is a funny amount of time.”  We say, “Give me a minute.”  “It’ll only take a minute.” “Do you have a minute?”  “He arrived at the last minute.”  “Don’t wait till the last minute!” Unless you are holding your breath, we rarely consider individual minutes.  A minute isn’t enough time to eat, isn’t long enough to read anything of significance, is too short for a catnap, and isn’t long enough for a substantive conversation.  But yet, you and I are given about 500,000 of them every year.

What can happen in a minute?  How many really significant minutes do you remember in your life?

The Atlantic magazine created a video some time back that was called “In the Last Minute”, and it included some compelling statistics. In the last minute 25 Americans will get a passport; 58 airplanes will take off; 116 people will get married; 144 people will move into a new house; 255 babies will be born; 11,319 packages will be delivered by UPS; 83,000 people will make love; 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook; 5.4 million pounds of garbage will be created; 136 million pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere; 7.1 billion human hearts will beat 500 trillion times and create 858 quadrillion new red blood cells. All in the last minute.

Three days before Christmas, 1849, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was led before a firing squad.  A court had sentenced him to death for allegedly taking part in anti-government activities.  The author was the son of a wealthy physician; his father owned land and serfs.  But those connections would not save him.  He stood facing the end of his life.  But for some inexplicable reason, reprieve arrived at the last minute.  His life was spared and Dostoevsky was shipped to a Siberian labor camp, where he would work for the next four years.  When he was released, he married, founded a magazine, and resumed writing such classic works at Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.  But he never forgot that he had been seconds away from death.  He was saved at the last minute.

It is not just any minute that brings us to a story from the Jewish scriptures. Because the old patriarch Abraham trundles his son Isaac all the way up the top of Mount Moriah for a date with a fire, a knife, and a very demanding God. Isaac, bless his heart, seems to be the not-quite-bright son in this story.  He keeps asking his father where the lamb for the sacrifice is, never catching on to the fact that he’s the guest of honor at this horrific ritual. They reach the mountaintop, Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the altar, the knife is raised upright to slit the boy’s throat, and then and only then–at the last minute–does an angel of God intervene. “Do not lay a hand on the boy.  Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham passes God’s “test”.

Now, I have to be completely honest with you.  This is terrible scripture.  I know it is beloved and well known to many believers, both Christian and Jewish, and even St. Paul found it to be formulative for his understanding of the atonement of Christ, but I can’t abide the story of a God who would ask a parent to sacrifice their own child–even if God is only testing the person.  For many people outside the faith, this episode in Genesis is an exemplar of religion’s barbarity.  In a book I read some years ago, The God Delusion, the outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote, “this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremburg defense: I was only obeying orders.  Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.”

I agree, this story is indefensible.  There is not one of us here who would even consider sacrificing our children–or any child–in the face of a demanding deity.  Not a year goes by, however, where some deranged mother or father does that very thing; they take the life of a child and then says that is was God who told them to do so.  We rightly consign them to the ranks of the mentally ill.  We can “get” the purpose of the story as people of faith, that we are to trust God implicitly, that we are not to depend upon anything earthly to secure our place in the world, but when God asks for a child, God is asking too much. Maybe God is asking more than God has a right to.

When Bishop Will Willimon was at Duke University, he and his wife Patsy showed an old film clip of this story to facilitate a discussion with children and adults.  “Who knows what the word sacrifice means?” his wife asked the children.  A few hands went up; a definition was attempted here and there. “But what does it mean to you?” That’s when the trouble started.

“My mommy and daddy at doctors at Duke”, said one third grader.  “They help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.” “And how is that a sacrifice?” asked Patsy.  But the little girl wasn’t finished.  “And I go to the daycare center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too.  Mommy and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people–so lots of times I stay at the center.  Sometimes on Sunday mornings we have pancakes, though.” Everyone, from 6 years to 11 years old, nodded in understanding.

They knew.

“But what does this story mean to us?” asked the chaplain.  Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”  “God still does”, interrupted an older woman, her hands nervously twitching in her lap.  “He still does.” “How?” asked Will.  Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college.  He got an engineering degree, and then he got involved in a fundamentalist church.  He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild.  Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon.  Take our baby, too.”  She began to sob.

The silence was broken again, this time by a middle aged man.  “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me.  I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church?”  “What?”  Will asked in astonishment.  “Why?”

“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of  dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more.  I want to know that God.”

You and I, we know what it means to sacrifice.  We’ve sacrificed to get where we are in life; we’ve sacrificed for our children, and our grandchildren, too.  We have loved ones who sacrificed their lives and health for their country.  My father lost much of his hearing in the Second World War.  As I said last Independence weekend, I am quite certain that no one ever said to him, “Thank you for your service.”  Others sacrificed so that they could experience the American Dream–whatever that meant to them.  But when we Christians read this story, we cannot help but to see another sacrifice–not of an unwilling or an unwitting son–but of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself so that we might have life.

And yet, we are all a lot like Abraham.  We can never know the answers to life and our many questions in advance.  All we can do is to act wholeheartedly, even when we don’t have absolute certainty.  As much as we say that faith defines our lives, the truth of the matter is that there are no guarantees, no absolute clarity. Like Abraham, we make decisions know that we might be right or we might be wrong. Our sacrifices will be celebrated by some people and mocked by others. And once they are offered, we can’t take our sacrifices back.

So I challenge you to follow a God who asks us risk everything, absolutely everything.  That means you should never give up hope, never give up your faith, never follow in your heart what you know to be wrong.  You never know, God may come to you in the last minute, saving Abraham, saving Isaac, but more importantly, saving us from ourselves and the hard world in which we live.

All in the last minute.