One of the characteristics of the wise and knowledgeable leader? “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
Today’s texts – Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Romans 15: 4-13
It was a March day in 2015 when a 56-year old man walked to the midcourt of a basketball floor in the Greensboro, N. C. arena to try to make a half-court basket for a million dollars during the halftime of an Atlantic Coast Conference semi-final tournament game.
Scott Park was a life-long basketball fan. He had won the chance to do this in a contest that provided an all-expense paid trip to the tournament – a dream come true for such an avid fan.
He knew making the basket from half court was a long shot – both figuratively and literally. He had practiced at a local park near his home in Virginia Beach.
And now his moment was here, in the middle of the Duke-Notre Dame playoff game.
A reporter on the sideline turned on the video on his cellphone and caught the moment the ball left Scott Park’s hands…and then came back to earth at the free-throw line, about 15-feet short of the basket.
Ryan Fagan, college basketball writer for the Sporting News, added a quick comment – “This guy had a half-court shot for a million bucks. He, um, missed.” – and then posted it to Vine, a social media video-sharing site. Fagan then turned his attention back to covering the game.
By the end of the afternoon, that six-second video had been viewed 4 million times. The little clip of some doofus of a middle-aged guy spectacularly missing the basket generated lots of laughs and no shortage of smart-alecky comments.
Let’s pause the story for a moment and remember the words from the prophet Isaiah this morning as he was looking ahead to a time when things would be so much better for the beleaguered Jewish people huddled in Jerusalem as the Assyrian war machine destroyed their past and made their future uncertain.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah had been using images of axes destroying the trees that represented the Assyrians and now, growing out of the destruction comes new life. Jesse was the father of David, the greatest of Jewish kings. Isaiah saw an even greater time ahead.
One of the characteristics of the wise and knowledgeable leader?
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
What those 4 million people saw on that afternoon last March was a guy looking stupid and then they had fun mocking him.
But, of course, there was more to the story.
Park himself took it all in stride.
“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty, was it?” he told Ryan McGee from ESPN. “What I heard was the ‘Awww.’ And I heard some boos in the background. That just kind of made me laugh. They don’t know my circumstance.”
McGee described the circumstance on ESPN. It was in 2007 that Scott Park had surgery to replace the mitral valve in his heart. But something went wrong after what seemed to be a routine surgery. His organs began to shut down one by one, choked off from their vital blood supply by mysterious microscopic clotting.
The doctors scrambled to try to figure out what was going on. A dozen of them working together eventually diagnosed Scott with CAPS – catastrophic antiphospholipid syndrome. This is really rare. There have only been about 400 cases ever diagnosed.
The doctors sent Scott to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and put him on a vast array of medicines and treatments. As McGee put it, “They saved his life but destroyed his kidneys.”
Eventually, he found a kidney donor and Scott became the first CAPS patient to undergo a successful kidney transplant. But he still had to make the twice-a-month trip from his home in Virginia Beach to Baltimore for treatment. And he had 39 pills to take every day.
Eight years after the medical drama began, Scott was standing on the gym for in the Greensboro Arena.
McGee put it this way: “That’s the man who missed that half-court shot, a man with a ravaged body, clotted organs, a borrowed kidney and experimental drugs coursing through his veins. Yet he still arrived in Greensboro back from the brink of death with a basketball in his hands and a smile on his face.”
Or as Isaiah wrote of the one who would usher in a new era – and perhaps wrote for us as well, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
In a slightly different translation from the one we heard today, Isaiah in the next verses says of the new leader: “He will judge the needy with righteousness and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.”
This leader apparently did not see or hear the stereotypes applied to those who are needy or who suffer.
The group of folks from Memorial who gather once a month or so to discuss a book met Friday morning to talk about a book called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in an American City.
You may have heard about it in the news over the last month or so. The book was the Go Big Read selection on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus this fall. It was included in the curriculum of some 75 classes, it was used for discussion groups, the author was on campus for lectures and discussions.
Matthew Desmond himself is a graduate of UW, earning his doctorate in sociology here in 2010. He lived in Milwaukee for several months, first in a trailer part starting in May of 2008, then later in a rooming on the North Side of Milwaukee, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas until June of 2009.
In his book, he told the stories of eight families who were evicted from the places they lived. He told the story of one of the landlords and of the man who owned the trailer park. He talked with workers from the moving company who hauled out the possessions of those being evicted and sat in court during the legal proceedings.
What emerges – besides a scathing critique of our current housing policies as a nation – is an understanding of the complexity of each of the people in this book. Just like the rest of us, none of them are all good or all bad.
As Desmond wrote, “I learned to suppress my shock at traumatic things. I learned to tell a real crisis from mere poverty. I learned that behavior that looks lazy or withdrawn to someone perched far above the poverty line can actually be a pacing technique.”
Or, as Isaiah wrote, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”
Do you recall what happens when Isaiah’s ideal leader starts to go deeper with the things he sees and hears?
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
I wonder if to get to that idyllic scene, we need to be able to let go of our first impressions –
our first impressions of the poor being evicted and the landlord doing the evicting,
our first impressions of the immigrant struggling with English and the teen with a hoodie,
our first impressions of the rural mechanic drinking coffee in the gas station or the exhausted mom working her third job in the convenience store,
our first impression of a doofus of a guy trying to make a half-court shot for a million dollars.
If I could design a bumper sticker, it would say, “It’s not that simple.”
I think that had something to do with what Paul was saying to those earliest Christians in Rome in that little selection from the letter we also heard today.
I love his opening line – “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
This is not a pitch for using every verse in the Bible as a rule for life. I hear it as a reminder that what people struggled with in Paul’s time, with what we struggle with in our time, may be new in the particulars, but people have struggled with these issues before. Our scriptures tell us the story of those struggles, of people seeking to understand how God related to their lives and how they might relate to one another. And in that, we can find hope.
The struggle at the moment for Paul was the unwilling of the Jewish Christians in Rome to accept the non-Jewish Christians – the Gentiles – as full partners in the faith.
You know how Christians even now tend to divide ourselves into teams – the liberals and the conservatives, the mainstream Protestants and the Evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholics and the Russian Orthodox and on and on.
Which team are you on? And who is welcome to join your team? And can you work with people on the other teams? These are not new questions.
Here’s what Paul wrote: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
In other words, hear this, you Jewish Christians in Rome – you and the Gentiles are bound together in Christ. God gives you the grace to live in harmony. It’s up to you to let that grace work through you.
So there are a couple of really simple ideas for us to take with us into the second week of Advent, this season of distilling what’s important in our lives as we get ready to celebrate the way God became present among us in Jesus.
From Isaiah, do not judge simply by what eyes see or decide by what ears hear.
From Paul, welcome one another. There are more people on your team than you might want to acknowledge.
Both are easy to say. We will spend a lifetime working on both those ideas. So it’s good that Paul ended this passage with a brief prayer: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”