Twenty years ago, our family traveled with another family to the Greek Island of Alonyssos. That other family owned a house there—not more than a couple of rooms carved into the stone hillside. Leslie, the other family’s mom, had done the difficult work-- lining up another stone dwelling for our own family. Yes, our two homes were small and rustic too, but who wanted to spend time inside anyway? We spent our days on the beach or hiking along the steep and narrow roads of the one town on the island—those roads even too narrow for one-way traffic. No cars allowed. Instead of a garbage truck, a lone man and his garbage donkey ambled over cobblestone paths.
One day, our two families hiked to an archeological dig. It had been the site of a 3rd century BC pottery factory. The ruins were near the Aegean Sea shore because water was used in that ancient pottery manufacturing process. The potters would wash and re-wash their clay at sea side, removing grit that was unfit for pottery making.The finished wares were filled mostly with olive oil. A lot of olive trees on that island.
A lone archeologist stood at the site the day we visited. She told us that she and her fellow archeologists had completed their work. The leftover pottery pieces were rejects—debris. She told us: “Have at it!” and we did. We picked up shards, some of them significant shards—with parts of handles attached. And, on some of the shards, the ones I considered most valuable, you could actually see thumbprints. The archeologist told us these were the potters’ thumbprints—Their signatures.
(Pick up pottery) Here is one of the pieces I collected that day. I put my thumb in here, and I am reaching back to the 3rd century BC, connecting my life to the life of that ancient potter. Isn’t that something? (pass out other pieces) I tell you about that experience and the potters’ pottery making because I think it has a bearing on our text for today. Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”
He writes that to the Christians who are members of the church in Rome. But he is actually quoting Moses in Deuteronomy 30:14. In Deuteronomy Moses says, “The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Hebrews, after they have finished their 40-year trek across the desert. Paul is saying as Moses also said, “God created us. God knelt down, scooped up some clay, molded it, into a man, Adam (Adam in fact means clay). Then God blessed Adam, with God’s holy word, which from 1) that day 2) to Moses day and 3) down to Paul’s day, was still on human lips and hearts. And we can say, in 2019, that God’s word is on OUR lips and in OUR hearts, too. Or, returning to the poetic image of a potter, (and we are all poets here, right?) we could say that during that molding process, God put his own thumbprint on Adam’s lips and on Adam’s heart, and that thumbprint remains with us down to the present day.
Do you believe that? That God has imprinted us with his holy word? I do. That separates me and maybe you, too, from those philosophers and malcontents who say that we arrive in this world as clean slates. In that debate over nurture or nature, a lot or philosophers have planted themselves in the nurture camp. They say we learn from our experiences whether the world is a good or a hostile place; a life-affirming or a life-denying place. But, as a faithful Christian, I believe that each one of us is born into the world as a beloved child of God. God has marked me as God’s own, just as God has marked you as God’s own. That mark, that thumbprint, can be plastered over, that is, obscured by negative life experiences, but it’s still there. God’s word has been imprinted on our lips and in our hearts. We have a natural impulse to move toward that which is beautiful, good, ethical and honest.
Moving on in our scripture reading for today, Paul says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” This quote is taken from Isaiah 28;16: Makes you wonder if Paul ever had an original thought. God says in Isaiah, “The one who trusts in me shall not be put to shame.” Again that word, shame.
Why does God choose the word Shame? Is “shame” so terrible? Worse than anger, or fear or guilt or grief? That’s what I brooded about this week. But then, when I wasn’t even working on this sermon, I happened upon a “consciousness chart.” That is what is called. Again, a consciousness chart. That’s God at work. God is always putting information under my nose. “Here! Look at this! Don’t forget to add this to your sermon, Gay Lee!” Yes, Lord.
Anyway, the consciousness chart lists various spiritual states—how we live and move and have our being at a deep down soul level. At the highest level on the chart is enlightenment. No surprise here. Jesus was an enlightened person—and no doubt Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi were right up there—toward the top. Peace is in second place on the consciousness chart, and Joy is third. Now, let’s move to the bottom of the consciousness chart. Yep, there’s grief—we would expect that to be toward the bottom, but at the very, very bottom? Shame. In a movie I watched eons ago, the main character commits some evil act. He ends up in jail, where he realizes the error of his ways. He spits on himself, over and over again. The scene is meant to be funny, but it really isn’t. The poor man is experiencing self-loathing, again, shame.
Usually when we commit a shameful act, it’s followed by our sincere apology, a personal vow not to do whatever shameful thing we did a second time, and finally, a moving on with our lives. That’s different than the shame listed on the chart. The kind of shame listed on the chart is a perpetual shame. Again, it’s the state of one’s soul. God wants to save us from that—God wants us to be whole, complete, happy, and free from shame. God forgives us as he continues to love us. Again, “The one who trusts in me shall not be put to shame.”
And, now let us look at the last line in our scripture reading, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved from the misery that stems from that perpetual state of shame.
So, to recap, God’s word is on our lips and on our hearts—but sometimes we ignore or forget God’s word. Instead of moving toward love, joy, peace and enlightenment, some people move toward grief, fear, guilt and shame. Despite God’s word, despite the ways that God is right here in our lives, sadly, some people will continue to believe the philosophers; to believe that we are who our environment and our negative life experiences tell us we are.
I wanted to end this sermon with the story of a young boy, now man, named Maurice who, I believe, was saved in a big way. On my week off, I had time to read about him in a book titled the Invisible Thread. It was written by Maurice’s long-time friend, Laurie. Laurie first meets Maurice on the streets of Manhattan. That’s in the 1980’s. Maurice is eleven years old and Laurie is in her late 20’s. Maurice attends school most weekdays and then begs for money in the afternoons. Laurie has a lucrative job selling ads for Ms. Magazine. Maurice lives in a poor, rundown “Welfare Hotel.” Laurie lives in a luxury apartment complex. Maurice lives with his drug addicted mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles, and with his two younger sisters. Laurie is single. All to say they live very different lives even though they only live two blocks apart.
Maurice is on a Manhattan sidewalk one afternoon. He sees Laurie: “Excuse me Lady, can you give me some money. I’m hungry.” Laurie passes by, but then she stops and walks back. “I’ll do better than that.” She says. “I’ll take you to lunch.” The two go to McDonalds. They start meeting regularly. They strike up a friendship. Eventually Laurie becomes a sort of surrogate parent, preparing brown paper bag lunches for Maurice to take to school, inviting him along on visits to her sister’s house at Christmas and Thanksgiving. She gives Maurice some pointers about living, too: “Don’t do drugs; Stay in school.”
Their relationship lasts four years. Then Laurie gets married and moves away. Maurice drops out of school. He fathers one child, then another. He never does drugs, though, and he won’t sell drugs. He becomes a street vendor selling knock-off jeans. But Maurice needs to make some serious money. He has two children, after all! He decides to try and strike a deal with some jean manufacturers in North Carolina. He travels there with some drug dealers. They move into a trailer with the drug dealers’ friends for a few days. One evening, while the others are high on drugs, Maurice visits a Pentecostal Church.
It’s the only time, church, or anything having to do with religion, is mentioned in the book. Why did Maurice go to a church for heaven’s sake? Could it be that Maurice was calling on God? As we read in scripture remember, “Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved.” But we aren’t told why he went. It’s curious.
After the service, the pastor takes Maurice aside. He says, “You have to get out of town tonight. Something bad is going to happen. You are in a lot of danger.” Like the pastor is reading tea leaves. Maurice ignores the warning. He returns to the trailer. During the night, it is attacked by a rival drug gang. There is a shoot out. Maurice has an opportunity to use a gun, but he can’t pick it up. His mind floods with thoughts of God’s many blessings in his life—his grandmother, Laurie’s friendship and her teachings, his girl friend, his two babies, the pastor’s warning.
He runs off into the night. Somehow he makes it back to Manhattan. Safe. He vows to live differently. Today? Maurice has completed his GED; he has a good job at a university and he’s working on a college degree! He lives in a small, but decent apartment, with his then girlfriend, now wife, and their SIX children. He has renewed his relationship with Laurie and he stays in contact with his drug addicted family, those who are still alive, anyway. Many have died from their addictions.
Maurice had far more negative than positive influences in his life. He should’ve could’ve been a drug addict, or at least a drug dealer. We who are believers, though? We will say that Maurice called on God that night at that Pentecostal church. Maurice called and everything changed for him. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” You can believe it. It’s true. Amen