This morning I would like to tell you four stories.
The first happened this summer. I went into my office one morning and found a note on my desk. It had been left there by a young man who is tangentially related to our congregation, someone with whom I've talked several times and who was home on vacation after his first year of college. A few months earlier, in a casual conversation, it had come up that he hadn't yet read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I strongly encouraged him to do so.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the book it tells the story of a man who answers an ad in the Personals section of the paper which simply said:
"TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."
What follows is a very intriguing, profound, and inspiring account of the lessons this pupil learns at the feet of this teacher (who turns out to be a talking gorilla named Ishmael). If you haven't read the book yet, you really ought to; it's well worth it.
Anyway, this young man took my advice, which should have told me right off the bat that he was a very special person. He read the book, and then he slipped into my office one afternoon and left the note that I found that morning. All it said was:
Rev. Wikstrom --
I read Ishmael.
I have an earnest desire to save the world.
I read Ishmael.
I have an earnest desire to save the world.
My first reaction, I have to confess, was a bemused and somewhat patronizing chuckle. "Ah, the naive optimism of youth," I thought to myself. "Someday he'll learn that it's not that easy." But even before I could think that whole thought through I stopped short and wondered, "but what if he's the one who can do it, and I miss out on the opportunity to be part of it?" I called him right away and set up a meeting for later in the week.
The second story happened a couple of months ago when Mary and I went to see the movie Pay It Forward. That's the one with Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, and the incredible Kevin Spacey. In it Spacey plays a teacher who gives his students a very open ended assignment: come up with an idea that will change the world. And as you've no doubt heard by now, Osment's character comes up with the idea of doing a favor for three people -- something big, something they couldn't do for themselves -- and then asking them, instead of paying it back, to pay it forward by doing favors for three other people. Those nine people are each then asked to pay their favors forward to three more people, and on it goes from there. If everyone does their favors the day after the favor was done for them, by the end of two weeks 4, 782, 969 people would have had something good done for them and, of course, each of them would the next day do a big favor for three more people.
I know that some people really loved this movie -- saw it over and over again -- and some people thought it was really schmaltzy and saccharine. But the point of my story is that walking out of the theatre I again found myself feeling caught between an immediate response of thinking that things don't work like that in the "real world" and really wanting to believe that it was possible.
The third story. A story of hope. It comes from the magicians Penn and Teller and, so, I can't tell you whether it's true or not. I'd like it to be. They tell of a time when they wanted to try and do something nice for people, along the lines of paying the toll for the car behind you, but wanted it to have an odd, Penn and Teller twist. One day, while they were eating in a truck stop, they had their idea. They called their waitress over and, with a theatrical flourish, ordered "A round of jello for the house!" Each and every person in the place was to get one of those little bowls of jello. After a while a trucker -- a big, beefy, somewhat scary looking guy -- came over to their table carrying one of those little bowls. "Did you send this over?" he growled at them. They confess that they had. "Why?" he wanted to know. More than a little frightened now, they admitted that there'd been no good reason. All of a sudden this guy's face softened and he said, "thanks guys. My mom used to make me jello." And then he told them that every so often he was going to buy "a round of jello for the house" just to keep this thing alive. Maybe he still is.
My fourth, and last, story takes place during the height of Apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandella is still in prison, and it seems as though things will never change. A scheduled political rally is canceled by the security police, and Archbishop Desmund Tutu decides that, if they can't hold their rally, this would be the perfect time to hold a church service. So he invites everyone who had come for the rally back to his church. Of course, the security police come to. They stand in waves outside the church, and they stand, armed, all around the inside of the sanctuary.
That day, in the face of all the evidence of how bad things can be, Archbishop Tutu declares that Apartheid can not last because it is evil. He looks at those armed guards, he points his finger right at them and says, "You are very powerful, but you have already lost. Today I invite you to come and join the winning side." The congregation starts dancing in the aisles.
Several years later a man who'd been in the church that day is on the dais next to Tutu for the swearing in of Nelson Mandella as President of South Africa. The man asks the Archbishop if he remembers that day, and Tutu smiles. "Oh yes," he says. "And you see? Today everyone has joined the winning side."
When I was younger, the age of the children who were just up here on the steps, the age of Haley Joel Osment's character in Pay It Forward, or even back when I was in college, I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things. So did most of you. We'd have agreed with Margaret Meade who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." We believed that there were a great many people who had "an earnest desire to save the world," and that if we could only begin to work together to act on that desire the world would be saved in no time flat. As God tells Neal Donald Walsh in Conversations with God, we have at our disposal right now everything we need to end hunger and poverty and oppression all over the planet if only we had the will to do it. When I was younger I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things. Movies like Pay It Forward and books like Ishmael seemed to me to be blueprints for how to do it. It all seemed so easy.
As I got older I got more cynical. I know that to many of you I still seem young, but in my lifetime I've already seen far too many examples of "man's inhumanity to man. " (A sexist phrase, to be sure, but one which loses something in translation.) Over and over again I've seen that we human beings are capable of really terrible behavior toward one another; that everyone does not have everyone else's best interest at heart; that good hearted, trusting people who think the best of everyone often get taken advantage of and hurt. This world can be a very discouraging place to live. I've seen on your faces and heard in your voices that you get discouraged too. And it's not even as simple as thinking that people do bad things because they don't know any better; some people know better and do bad things anyway.
All of this is true. It is the way life is. But what leads us to think that we were wrong when we believed that it can be different than it is? As a kid I knew that there was a lot wrong with the world -- that wasn't the issue, I wasn't blind to that reality -- I just thought that good hearted, well meaning people could change things. So why do I now think I was wrong?
Desmund Tutu certainly knew how bad the world can be, but he never stopped believing in how good it can be, either. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mohandas Gandhi looked out at the same world we do -- an even more discouraging world than many of us will ever see -- yet they never stopped seeing its possibilities. And maybe that's the key -- recognizing that this life is a paradox and refusing to let either side blind us to the truth of its opposite. Perhaps the key is to be found in the saying at the top of your Order of Service: "You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream of things that never were and I say, 'Why not?'"
Last summer a young man told me that he had an earnest desire to save the world, and I decided to believe him. Or, perhaps more accurately, I decided to believe in him, and in so doing to believe in myself. I made a decision to believe in the human capacity to turn random acts of violence and senseless brutality into random acts of kindness and senseless beauty. I decided to believe that something as simple as doing a good deed for someone else could grow into a movement which could sweep the world. Maybe something as simple as a "round of jello for the house" would be a good place to start.
This is the season of miracles. We all believed in them once. We can decide to believe in them again. For I do believe it is a choice: a choice to remain open to the possibilities rather than close down in self-protection; a choice to keep our eyes peeled for reminders that the best is true even in the face of evidence that the worst is true as well; it is a choice between listening to voices like the ones we heard here on these steps a moment ago telling us that the best is yet to come, or listening to the voices of the fearmongers who tell us that the end is near. Put that way, the choice seems easy to me; I know who I'd rather be listening to.
The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, certainly no stranger to humanity's capacity for cruelty, has written words which seem to sum up all I've been trying to say: "Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. . . . It would be a pity if we are only aware of the suffering." It would be a pity. Let's not make that mistake.