Sunday, April 17, 2011

Campaign of Whispers

Campaign of Whispers

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Psalm 31:9-16

Passion/Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011

For I hear the whispering of many. NRSV

I remember in the early 1960s, when Gene Pitney was a heartthrob singer, the chorus of one of his hit songs “It Hurts to Be in Love” repeated the lines

And so I cry a little bit (it hurts to be in love)

Ah, I die a little bit (it hurts to be in love)

Day and night, night and day, it hurts to be in love this way.

One of the irrefutable facts of life in the world – as we have been thinking on it over the last few weeks – is that everyone born into this world will one day leave it through death. Day and night, night and day, we die a little bit. That’s not a stunning revelation for anyone, I’m sure, but it is pretty clear that a lot of us remain in denial about it most of our lives, and all of us are in denial about it at least some of our lives. It is probably not the most popular subject for sermons, but because the fact of death has been addressed by the good news of the resurrection of Christ, there is reason to find hope in the consideration of what is for all of us, inevitable.

Researchers tell us that most people are not so much afraid of the fact of death, but rather fear the process of death. Will there be much pain? Will it be prolonged? Will my loved ones have to suffer right along with me through months of decline as we wait for the inevitable? We are anxious not so much about the fact of death as we are about its means, the sorts of things that might kill us.

As we review the words of Psalm 31, I think we discover a fairly universal list of obvious causes of death, as well as some we might not have considered to be death-related, though the psalmist seems to believe they are.

Gene Pitney sang of unrequited love which “day and night” caused him to “die a little bit.” The psalmist speaks of eyes wasting from grief, failing strength, dissolving bones, and, perhaps as much feared as any by those who wake up one day all alone in care facilities, he writes “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead...”

And then this line, among those lines about things which bring on death, which has intrigued me all week: “For I hear the whispering of many ... as they plot to take my life.”NRSV Not the sharpening of swords or the assembling of gallows, but a whispered destruction of name and reputation, another kind of death.

Have you ever been going through a rough patch in your life, and entered a room in which some of your acquaintances were talking with each other, and as you came in, in ones and twos they saw you and everything went silent? “They have been talking about me,” you realize with a rising sense of uneasiness. Probably all of us have come through life circumstances at some time when we have learned all too directly what it means to hear first, second, or third hand about the whispered gossip of people we had thought were our friends, so that sometimes coming into a room full of chatting people turns into a pretty big challenge. And who among us has not taken our own place among others in our whisperings about someone? What is our first reaction on realizing we have been the subject of gossip? I don’t know about you, but mine is “I wonder, is that an exit over there...?” It takes something out of a person to discover they have been the subject of gossip.

There is a stunning scene depicting this in William Thackeray’s classic novel, Vanity Fair, highlighting the pretensions and cruelties of stratified British Society in the early 19th century. An excellent film adaptation of the book was released a few years ago[1], with Reese Witherspoon playing the part of Becky Sharp, a bright, beautiful, but penniless young woman, who nevertheless aspired to reach the higher levels of British society. (By the way, and I always like to point this out, Ms. Witherspoon is a direct descendent of John Witherspoon, a Scots-born Presbyterian and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence). When at last Becky Sharp is invited to a soirée among the ladies of the upper crust, the camera observes the social scene from an elevated distance. The room goes almost dead silent as she enters, with every appraising eye on this pretender to the class of society which everyone else in the room occupies. As Becky approaches each gathering of ladies, they disperse at her advance, like amoebae under a microscope reacting to the introduction of a foreign and dangerous substance into their liquid world.

Why do people behave in this way? I have always thought that gossip, campaigns of whispers, are retreats into pre-adult behavior, which is not to say adults aren’t plenty involved in it. It is playground behavior, it is, as I once heard a high school senior describe it, “So Junior High!” Exactly, and I mean no offense to junior high kids in our midst by comparing them to adults. Generally those most anxious to create and spread gossip about others are people who feel vulnerable, and to mask that vulnerability they seek to deflect negative attention on others. A group of three or four middle school girls gang up on another girl with malicious gossip, because they themselves feel vulnerable, and if the rest of their world is busy talking about someone else, they are safe, at least for the moment. And it certainly doesn’t stop in middle school, the behavior only gets more subtle and more skilled. It is, as one Bible study friend said to me once, a behavior immortalized in the Christmas song where all of the other reindeer “wouldn’t let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.”

Well, gossip in the world is a given. And whispered campaigns of gossip, and other means of dealing death a little bit day by day, are among other “givens” of life in the world. But the question is not so much whether such things happen as it is whether God walks through these times with us. In just such situations as we may find ourselves – and such situations in the life and ministry of Jesus which we will recall during the services on Thursday and Friday nights this week – the psalmist declares his faith in the utter dependability of God. “I trust in you, O Lord,” the psalmist says, “Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.”

Sometimes, in our living and in our dying, all we can do is resolve, with God’s help, to endure. As some folks say, half of life is just showing up. One shoe in front of the other, round side up, flat side down, and don’t let anyone step on the round side. One pastor said, “Persistence is the marriage of discipline and patience.” It takes something like that.

In this week that kids relate to fetching Easter eggs, I thought I’d share an egg story in the sermon. Dr. Barbara Brown Taylor once taught at Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary near Atlanta, and lived in the country on a farm, from which she sometimes drew lessons of faith. She once reported that they had a guinea hen who was such a wretched mother, after she laid her first clutch of eggs, she wandered from her outdoor nest, leaving it open to critters who were all too willing to steal her eggs. So the next time she laid eggs, they took them and placed them in an incubator. Nine chicks hatched out, but the last chick...

“... had such a hard time leaving the shell that a piece of it dried to her head, trapping her half in and half out. The cardinal rule of being a [human] Bird Mother is that you cannot help, because the fight to escape the shell somehow kick starts all of a keet’s systems. Those that cannot manage by themselves may die anyway, but if you help them then you wreck their odds...

In what had to be one of the most agonizing tests a pastor can undergo, I sat there in my imaginary straitjacket watching the chick struggle while her shell hardened around her. Her labors grew weaker as the time between them increased. Finally she laid her head down on the plastic shelf of the incubator and did not try any more. Figuring she was a goner, Ed lifted the keet, shell and all, and placed her in the straw-lined wooden box with her siblings. Huddled under a 60-watt light bulb, they were in constant motion, all climbing on top of one another as they each tried to crawl closest to the light.

When the trapped keet heard them cheeping, she cheeped too and the heads of the others swiveled in her direction. Then they called to her (“Lazarus, come out!”) and the sound galvanized her. She lifted her head off of the straw, shuddered all over and heaved free. On orange rubber legs, she staggered over to the pile of warm feathers and dove underneath them, leaving her old shell behind her like a shroud.

The other babies welcomed her by treading on her. This looked harsh, but turned out to be just what she needed. With nine pairs of keet feet, they dried and revived her better than any Swedish masseur could have done...

Within an hour, the keets were all eating... One by one, they walked over to the red plastic water trough and sipped from it as if they had studied instructions on its use in the shell. None of them asked for a chaplain. They did not even need a mother. My job, as it turned out, was not to crack shells, extract keets, dry feathers or pour mash into mouths. My job was simply to make a safe place, keep the predators away, and let the community do what it knew how to do. I hope I can remember that the next time I feel the urge to rescue someone from being born.”[2]

Or from being born again. Paul wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[3] But of course, as we contemplate our dying, even our dying by inches, no matter how we may die it is not for this life only, but for life eternal which we hope, through Jesus Christ, who is the very face of God shining on us, saving us in God’s steadfast love.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1. Vanity Fair, 2004, directed by Mira Nair.

2. “Birth Pangs,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, December 13, 2003, p. 43.

3. I Corinthians 15:19 NRSV.