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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

The Maker and Appraiser, part 1
Jeremiah 18:1-11

(This was the Men's Day message for the 8 am service at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 9, 2007.)

Imagine yourself on the grade-school playground. Two or three children are playing together, climbing the jungle gym, and one proclaims, “I’m up higher than you are.” In response, another child says, “So what? I can jump off of here and land farther away than you can.” Soon the whole group has jumped down to the ground where they are comparing who jumped the farthest. Out of their arguing another voice says, “Big deal. I can run to the fence faster than you can.” And so on and so forth, the remainder of the school recess is filled with inventing contests to measure who can claim superiority over others in one way or another.

Our obsession with measuring our rank and status does not end in the competition of the playground. Those games, full of importance for the moment, are a rehearsal for more long-term, more expensive competitions in later life. Who is tallest? Who can sing lowest? Who can eat the most hot dogs? Who can whistle loudest? Who can throw a rock the farthest? Who can make a rock skip the most times across the surface of the lake? Who can catch the biggest fish? Who has the coolest sunglasses? Who has the fanciest car? Who has the most seniority? Who has the highest rank in the office? Who has the most expensive suit? Who is wearing the most outrageous tie? Who went to the most prestigious school? Whose favorite team won the championship? Who got a date with the most popular girl? Who makes the most money? Who has the biggest house? Who has the largest number of Christmas lights on his house? Who has the biggest collection of baseball autographs? Who has the most tools in his workshop?

It seems that we have an infinite capacity to invent ways of measuring our value. We seem driven to find some quantifiable way to be sure that we are worth something, or at least that we are worth more than that other guy over there. I may not be as rich as Oprah, but at least I’m doing better than my lazy cousin. I may not be the president, but at least people look up to me more than they do my stuck-up neighbor. I may not be as smart as Cornel West, but at least I read more books than old motor-mouth down at the coffee shop.

Most of us know, when we stop to think about it, that there is a problem with always making up new ways to compare, to measure, to compete with others in order to try to prove what we are worth. As soon as we start to depend on one of these self-construed ways of measuring our value, another kind of measurement comes along and sets aside our temporary imagined triumph. I may have lost the most weight, but someone else has done better in lowering his blood pressure. I may have accessorized my car with a global positioning system, a DVD player, and new hubcaps that don’t stop spinning when the car stops, but someone else just got a great big Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I may have just been on a long and impressive trip, but the other guy has twice as many frequent-flyer miles. I may have the best statistics for meeting my goals at work, but the other guy has the best relationship with the boss. I may have the most cable channels to watch basketball games, but the other guy has the biggest high-definition tv screen. It’s like a never-ending cycle of escalating standards. Trying to prove ourselves by creating contests is like walking on a treadmill. You keep on taking one step after another, but you never get anywhere. You can speed it up and walk faster, but you still are in the same place. And on top of that, the guy next to you has one of those fancy elliptical walkers that’s better than your treadmill.

I’m not giving you any breaking news. Anyone here who has stopped to think for a few seconds knows that the constant effort to set a standard to get ahead and prove our worth by comparing ourselves with others is a road that leads only to disappointment and frustration. Through the centuries, many people have reflected on our theme for men’s day, “the measure of a man.” When they have been honest and critical in their analysis, they have often arrived at valuable insights to help us know what it is that makes for a good life, a life that leads to fulfillment, a life that can be admired.

Sidney Poitier named his memoir The Measure of a Man. He undertook to write it because he was wanting to reflect on and evaluate his life. He said, “I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.” Those values have to do with his vocation as an actor and his integrity as a human being. His way of stating it was in terms of personal goals and commitments. Of course, he did not make these up out of thin air. They must also be related to those high standards of excellence which were passed on to him by his family, his teachers, and the community. He is right that he would not be able to take stock of how well he had done on his own goals unless at some point he had come to commit himself to those standards and long for their achievement.

In a less individualistic way of speaking, we might turn to the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the Philippians, “I want to take hold of that for which I have been taken hold of.” Paul wants his achievement to be appraised by what God has called him to do. Paul helps us see that we cannot purely on our own claim to invent the standards for measuring the worth of our lives. Paul understood that the maker of the pot is also the appraiser. In fact, he spent some time reflecting on this very image of how to evaluate the worth of a person compared to a clay pot. He said to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” in “clay pots,” in “jars of clay.” The true measure of the value of these clay pots is not in the dirt they are made from, but in the use they serve for the household. And it is God who is the one who appraises our service.

It is fascinating to see how other people through the ages have considered the measure of a man as not merely self-initiated, but socially and externally evaluated. I want to take a few minutes to look at three examples of statements about “the measure of a man” which have come down to us across many centuries. One is over two millennia old. Another is over two centuries old. And the other is about fifty years old.

Looking way back, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato is recorded as saying, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” No doubt he had seen some people who seemed just fine when they were “one more Joe” on the street, doing their job, making their way. But when they got promoted or appointed or elected to a higher position, it seemed like they had lost their minds. Instead of building relationships of mutuality and reciprocation, now they start looking down on people, shouting orders, and taking revenge. Instead of making sure the benefits and privileges are shared, they start hogging all the good stuff for themselves. What does power do to people? It opens up the chance to get by with things you never would have tried when you knew someone could call you on it. That does not mean that if we get power we are forced to become abusers of that power. We have a choice. We can use power to serve the community’s good. When that is what we do, we have passed the test of what Plato has stated. We can be measured as exemplary, because we did not let power corrupt us.

Around the time of the founding of the United States, the English literary scholar of the late 1700s, Samuel Johnson, said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Johnson seems to be drawing on the tradition of Christian teaching which urges us to do good to others regardless of whether they can repay our good deeds. Like Plato, he is pointing out that the power relations that exist between people can turn us into calculating, scheming self-promoters. This is the opposite of what we call good character. A person of good character holds to his convictions steadily, in all sorts of situations.

Who is it that I find myself facing here and now? Maybe that person I have to deal with at this moment appears to be many notches below me on the social register. Maybe the man I meet appears to be wearing and carrying all his worldly possessions on his body. Maybe the least influential person at work is the one who has come my way today. What will I do when I know I probably won’t get anything out of it? When I know it probably won’t help my career? When what I share can’t be restored to me? Here Johnson, like Plato, is helping us to see that the measure of a man is not something we can simply choose for ourselves and say, “I did it my way.” It also has to do with what is good for others, regardless of our own benefits. “Who is my neighbor?”, was the question asked of Jesus. And as the story unfolded, it was full of all sorts of unexpected answers. Clearly, for Jesus, the kinds of social, political, ethnic, economic, religious barriers that we put up around us have little to do with how we should respond to the people we meet along life’s way.

More recent, and better known to us is the iconic figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Maybe you have been there like I have. The newspaper has an article about something that gets under your skin. You hear about something the president, the mayor, the principal, the school teacher, or your boss has done. You start your next sentence, “If that happened to me, I would . . . .” Out of your mouth pour the most powerful oratory, full of catchy turns of phrase and plenty of “gotcha” points. You convince yourself, in the comfort of your armchair or the seclusion of your kitchen, that you will be courageous, heroic, unbending, and untiring in your opposition to all perceived wrongs.

What Dr. King wants us to realize is that those dress rehearsals are not the real test. Now it may be fine to have those dress rehearsals of what I would do or what I would say. But if they never lead to a performance in the face of a real challenge, when people are watching, when somebody might confront us and push back against us, they really don’t amount to much. Character is proven when it faces a real test. The measure that matters comes when we arrive at the big event. No matter how many times I run a sub-44 time in the 400 meters in my yard, Michael Johnson still has the world record. Until I run that time at an official meet up against Jeremy Wariner, Angelo Taylor, Darold Williamson, and LeShawn Merritt (the four members of the 2007 World Champion U. S. 4 x 400-meter relay team), then it doesn’t count. If I can’t do it then, then it does me no good to be bragging about how fast I am when I practice.

From these three estimable persons, we are led to ask the following questions about the measure of a man. What does he do with power? How does he treat those who can’t repay him? How does he act in the face of challenge and controversy? This question of what is the measure of a man has caught many people’s attention, not only the philosophers, literary critics, and theologians.

In part, the conversation is happening now because we live in a time when certain traditional ways of showing manliness have been called into question and challenged. Consequently, there are conflicting ideas of being a man. If I had only heard it one time it would have been enough, but I have far too often heard it said that the way to show you are a man is to put a woman in her place and show her, if necessary through violence, who is in charge. That is the measure of a brute or a tyrant, but not of a man as God has made us to be. Part of the reason we have to talk about the measure of a man is that false gods and false understandings of human nature have led people to false ways of trying to be a man. It’s not who has the biggest gun. It’s not who seduced the most sexual partners. It’s not who has the most explosive temper. There must be something deeper and more socially edifying that is the measure of manhood.

I was surprised to quickly find no less than five pop songs which take up the topic of defining “the measure of a man.” They range across a variety of musical genres, and even local pop star Clay Aiken named an album with the song title, “The Measure of a Man.” Now I’m not one to go first to pop music to find the answers to life, but that does not mean that I don’t sometimes find some insight and wisdom there. These pop songs talk about being willing to sacrifice for love, being steady in difficult times, working hard, being loyal, giving your time and possessions to others, standing up to injustice, standing by commitments made, passion for what is important, and what’s in the heart. This list of character traits and behaviors gives us plenty to chew on as we ask, “What is the measure of a man?” --continued--

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