The Rev. Dr. Oliver Wagner (Ollie) started his sermon telling us about his vacation earlier this summer in Hilton Head, S.C. When I was growing up in Cocoa/Rockledge, Fla., having a minister lead with “Hilton Head” would have worried me.
It often would have led to long-winded tomes about avarice, vice, material possessions and such. And guilt. I remember how sleepy it used to make me feel and wishing I could just head for the door.
However, I have come to know and expect that it really doesn't matter how Ollie starts his sermon, because the message will usually be practical and quick (as in cut-to-the-chase quick) and that I’ll usually walk away feeling that God really knew what he was doing when he sent such a good “fix-it” guy to my church. He sent him to try to rehabilitate or at least chip away at idiots like me who, despite a lifetime of church attendance, never got “it” – or even a part of “it.”
Now, I am pleased to report that it is unusual that I leave church (OK, shameless plug here – Alpharetta Presbyterian Church) without a chip or two missing or thinking that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for me.
Plus in the 20 years at this church, I don’t think that I have ever even heard the word or concept of “guilt” used or mentioned from the pulpit. “Grace” seems to be much more popular.
Looking back, I should have known Ollie was going to be good (my radar should have started beeping) when one day after having dinner at his house, I mentioned that one of my favorite songs in the world was a tune named “Simple Man” from “Songs for Beginners” by Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young). At once, Ollie stood up, walked over to his mantel and pulled out “Songs for Beginners” – the album. But I digress.
The story that Ollie told about Hilton Head involved a tradition where every third week in June, the family has a reunion at the beach.
At the reunion the first day, they build a gigantic sandcastle. We’re talking, to hear Ollie tell it, something maybe 50 feet high and requiring bulldozers. I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea. Then at the end of the day, the castle made of sand falls back into the sea (with apologies to Jimi Hendrix). And the point he makes of course is that, if we are wise, we should build our houses – and sandcastles too, I suppose – on rock instead of sand. And the rock around which we should anchor our lives is simply making God and “doing his work” our first priority. Then, working through that filter, we make decisions and proceed with our daily lives.
Another analogy that Ollie used was that of a flower – a Black-eyed Susan (also called “Brown-eyed Susan” – Van Morrison?) with the bright yellow petals all united – or anchored – in the middle of the flower.
Anyway, the primary point of his message was that we need to have wisdom, and the way we get it is by making our faith the axis around which everything in our life turns. Then we’re supposed to be good stewards of that wisdom and do something with it – like teach our children (another CSN&Y song) or help our neighbor. “Kindness,” said Ollie, is the highest form of wisdom, according to the Talmud. We need to be actively kind.
In a world as divisive and upside down as ours seems today, it’s definitely not a very good idea to build on sand. We need stronger support and clear vision.
Ollie actually started the sermon with a prayer for those killed or wounded in the shootings in Aurora, Colo., as well as for the suspect – James Eagan Holmes – and his parents.
He also included this prayer a short time later:
“We live in a world of competition, lies and deception too. We daily are forced to decide between what is false and what is true. Forgive us for too often choosing what is easy or popular, rather than what is right and just. Forgive us for seeking to please others and being far too concerned with their assessments of us when we should respect and have the wisdom to honor you above all else.”
Grace, which to me is just another form of wisdom, can move mountains – or grains of sand – and you never know which one might make the difference or how significant that difference could be.
Would one act of kindness – or one difficult, but “just” decision long ago have made a difference for James Eagan Holmes?
His issues surely are of a long seated and grand scale and of a very complex dark nature. However, ultimately the solution to all human suffering surely begins with a singular act – one of wisdom or grace – by a person like you or me who has built their house on rock instead of sand and then acted to help another.
Our thousand-mile journey together begins every day with that simple first step.