Finding Your High Point

October 11, 2020


The Rev. Dr. Fred Garry 
“Finding Your High Place”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 7:12 

In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you for this is the law and the prophets.

            Larry could be a real jerk.  I could choose a more sophisticated word like curmudgeon or prickly.  But, by and large, if you were going to work with Larry at some point, he would say something mean, he would bark at you, he would insult you.  Now, I know, in our snowflake debate today you can say, “hey, why don’t you toughen up a bit.”  Yet actually I was fine with Larry’s curmudgeonly ways; didn’t really bother me.  At some point, though, you have to call a spade a spade: Larry was a jerk.

            That Larry was a prickly was surprising given all he had in his life: a nice retirement pension, antique business, children; he was an elder and sang in the choir. Most importantly, he was married to Diana, one of the nicest people. 

            You could read this confusion on people’s faces who received Larry’s caustic treatment.  The look said, “with all the good in your life, why treat people so badly?”  And he did.

            I came to realize Larry’s poor treatment of others came from bitterness.  His first marriage ended poorly, lots of disappointment and heartache.  He lived with this open wound.  If something someone said got close to this wound, he would get angry. Simplistic hope would set him off as did easy optimism.

            Knowing the bitterness didn’t excuse his behavior.  It just had a source. By the time I met him, his bitterness reached a level quite difficult to change— habits imbedded and responses well-worn in his heart.

            Larry was a jerk and he was also cheap.  I don’t mean cheap that he didn’t like to spend a lot of money; I mean he wanted to find a way to not pay any money and even get others to pay for him. 

            His wife, Diana, was in the hospital having brain surgery.  Half her head was shaved and there was a shunt at the base of her skull.  But she was, as Diana always was, in good spirits.  I sat with her and we chatted about the surgery.  At some point Larry, who wasn’t there, became the topic.  It was me who said something to the effect that he was probably down at the bursars’ office arguing about the bill. 

            One thing led to another and each part of Diana’s surgery and treatment was discussed, each with an eye to how Larry might get a better price, get it for free, only utilize a part of the procedure to lower the cost.  The idea of an itemized bill came up which included parts of the brain. 

            Soon we were laughing so hard it hurt; we were laughing so hard, the nurse came in; and the nurse who came in was mad.  “This woman has just had brain surgery she can’t be laughing like this.”  Of course, as soon as she left, we burst out laughing.

            When Larry finally returned, Diana and I looked at each other like children caught stealing candy.  We held on for a few minutes until we burst out laughing. 

            We confessed to Larry what we found so amusing.  We didn’t hide it.  When he suggested this was no laughing matter because it was going to be expensive, I got up and told Diana she was on her own because the nurse would hurt me if I stayed.

            What I find so interesting in Larry, what has stuck with me all these years, is the expectation people have others.  People expect that if they treat others well, then they will get treated kindly. Or if someone doesn’t respond kindly to your kindness, there must be a misunderstanding.  “Let’s try that again.”  Yet, if you treated Larry how you want to be treated and expected him to treat you in the same fashion, you were disappointed. 

            This expectation is the first half of the golden rule.  Jesus says, this is the sum of the law and the prophets.  To treat others as you would have them treat you is a rule, a law.  We should and for the part do follow it.  People tend to treat others with respect and care and kindness. This is not a Christian or religious truth.  Presbyterians don’t have the corner on this market. This is a human habit.  This is what people should offer to people.  No religious or cultural or intellectual requirements here.  Don’t be a jerk.  Follow the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

            Again, for the most part, we do this.  We work hard at being kind.  Where we run afoul, where Larry is very helpful, is this: we expect to be treated the same.  We hope to receive the kindness we extend, not as a transaction, but as a good life.  We give honesty and goodness and beauty; and we want to offer these to others.  Yet sometimes these offerings are wasted, ruined, rejected.  And this is tough. 

            Knowing Larry’s bitterness about his first marriage helped me temper my expectations.  What is most important though is that it didn’t change how I treated him.  It didn’t change how his friends treated him either.  You knew at some point Larry would say something mean.  You didn’t have to take it. On more than one occasion I suggested to Larry that his words were harsh or his cynicism was not the stuff of Jesus.  I didn’t excuse his outburst; I just didn’t expect how I treated him would change him.

            The first half of the golden rule, the law, is what we all know and see.  If you follow the golden rule, it changes you; but it does not necessarily change others.  The second half of the Golden Rule is what we cannot see or know.  This is the prophetic part.  Jesus says this is the law and the prophets.  The law speaks to what everyone can see. Prophets speak to what we cannot see.   

            Hence, it is right to say to Larry, “don’t be a jerk.”  This is right because we all know that is true; everyone can see this rule, this law.  But a prophet is there to reveal what we cannot see.

            The golden rule is very simple as a law, but as a prophet it has a hard question: how can you treat others well if you don’t know what that means?  What if you are blind to what is good? What if the way we treat people is evil but we think it is good?  The prophetic part of the golden rule is to reckon with this blindness.

            Last year I read a book called Educated.  It is still a New York Times bestseller.  Great story; hard story, but great.  Educated is a memoir of a young woman who grew up in rural Idaho with an insane survivalist father who was waiting for the end of times.  She was one of seven children, most of whom were not allowed to go to school or to take part in normal life as that was Satanic or part of the government plot to control them or the work of the Illuminati.  Tara Westover begins her story at the age of five and walks you through one terrible experience after another. 

            There was lots of violence in her upbringing, both intended and accidental.  Lots of fear and paranoia.  Poverty and hardship were made harder by the rules of her house regarding modern medicine, public education, and the church now corrupted by non-believers. 

            Although it is a hard book to read, it is also an inspiring book.  Tara Westover survives; she gets out.  She not only gets out, but she also earned a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge!  But that is not the point of the story.  It is not a survival tale.  The power of her story is in her title.  Educated.  She transcribed the last twenty-five years of her life to describe her education.  And her education was prophetic.

            A prophetic education, or the second half of the golden rule, is not easy.  Tara Westover’s lessons about parental love and families and culture and identity were all a hard fight, a heroic flight into the unknown.  To learn the truth of these she had to fight through a lot of untruth; to find safety she had to risk injury.  She had to leave a house and a home understanding she could never go back; she was/is now other.  She had to question definitions about people and institutions and culture that were her world, the world she was given.

            The first half of the golden rule is easy to see; the second half, the prophetic, is what we cannot see. There are so many definitions we hold, and structures we maintain, which are not golden. 

            Some are small, the fears and struggles we have within each of us.  Some of the definitions are cultural and religious and ideological.  Tara Westover’s education was painful because it was prophetic.  She not only to learn the world, she had to learn how our truths can be utterly false.

            We are all struggling with this right now.  So many definitions, once held dear, are being seen as false.  So many truths are crumbling. This teaching of Jesus would be so easy if he just said, “this is the rule.”  Be nice how you would like others to be nice.  But he said, this is the law and the prophet.

            There is a big sign on the front of the sanctuary to make clear we are seeing what we have not seen.  As people speak to me about the sign, I tend to hear the first part of the golden rule.  We just need to treat everyone the same.  And this is fine and good.  That is the law, the first part.

            But the sign is there because of what we have failed to see and say.  This the second part of the golden rule.  And to be honest, this is the scary part.  No one enjoys the prophet.  If we seek a vision of life beyond our blindness to racial caste, we will begin to see what we could not see.  And this is frightening.

            The Golden Rule seems so easy, so simple.  And it is.  But it is also, as Jesus says, the law and the prophets; it is Moses and Elijah.  This is where life is changed, a whole new vision of life is found. 

            The first part of the golden rule is straightforward.  Larry was ever Larry.  He died a year ago.  I hope the last twenty years of his life, the two decades since I knew him, I hope these healed his bitterness more and more.  But that was Larry’s path not the consequence of my kindness or the kindness of others.  Well, maybe Diana’s.

            The golden rule seems so simple until we recognize the things we call good are so often our destruction.  There is a path of blindness we all walk where the truth is false and the just is oppression.  To see the prophet, tough.  This is hard.

            Yet, what if this is the piece we have been missing?  That feeling of being off.  What if we are trying to follow this teaching, keep this rule, but we could only see half?  What a great day it would be, a vision, a high place, when we can see Moses and Elijah, when we live the law and the prophet.  Amen.

Bible References

  • Matthew 17:1 - 13
  • Matthew 7:12