Shoulder Wisdom

Screen Shot 2018-08-20 at 11.29.06 AM
Kronk’s Shoulder Angel from The Emperor’s New Groove.

Proverbs 9:1-6

Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

I wanted to talk about Aretha Franklin and her masterful voice that joined the company of the saints. 

I wanted to talk about the freedom of the press and national security and church sexual abuse, you know, something besides our own personal troubles that’s occupying more than a few of our minds. 

Or, there’s the near-scandalous talk from Jesus in the Gospel reading that’s approaching cannibalistic language that even the kids on the camping trip got stuck on — as they approached communion with their parents, more than one could be heard saying: “IS THAT BLOOD?!

Instead, I got stuck on Proverbs. I got stuck on a literary device that, it turns out, is kinda symbolic of our times.

You’ve seen the scene a lot, especially if you’ve been subjected to a lot of cartoons in your life: stories for children where we break the most human of struggles (like crises of conscience) into simple terms. 

In these scenes, there’s always a character who’s having a moral quandary. They may have just run into temptation, or they may be faced with some other moral choice. 

The same thing always seems to happen: poof! On each shoulder appears, an angel and a devil.

The shoulder-being encounters always seem to follow a common plot, with each of the shoulder-sitting characters keeping to common motifs.

Take for example, The Emperor’s New Groove. The villain’s henchman, Kronk, is given the task of getting rid of the main character, Kuzko. Kronk throws Kuzko unconscious into a stream of water that ends in a giant waterfall. After plopping him into the water, Kronk watches as the bag containing Kuzko floats towards the edge of the waterfall. A conflicted look slowly appears on Kronk’s face as he watches the other character float towards certain doom. There is a pause as Kronk has an internal struggle. 

Just then, a voice dripping with guilt-inducing righteous concern floats into Kronk’s consciousness: “You’re not gonna just let him die like that, are you?” 

Poof! An angel Kronk appears on the real Kronk’s shoulder with his hands folded. The very muscular, very dense real Kronk remarks in surprise: “My shoulder angel!” 

Just then, another voice, laden with humor and mockery: “Doooon’t listen to that guy!” Kronk’s shoulder devil appears with an easy, relaxed posture and says: “He’s tryin’ to lead you down the path of righteousness. I’m gonna lead you down the path that ROCKS.” 

A quick back and forth ensues as Kuzko continues to float towards the edge, but the scene ends with the shoulder devil’s final counterpoint: “Look what I can do.” as he performs one-armed pushups. The shoulder angel concludes solemnly: “He’s got a point. 

Even a little bit of research on shoulder angels and shoulder devil scenes will produce countless icons of pop culture, especially cartoon ones: Donald Duck. Pluto the dog. Tom and Jerry. Family Guy. 

In most of them, it’s about the same situation as Kronk’s supernatural shoulder companions: the angel is stiff and righteous, begging the main character to either do the hard thing, to not have any fun, or both. The shoulder devil, by contrast, is loose in posture and confident in demeanor, seducing the main character into doing the easy, fun thing. 

Of course, we know that in the long run, the character who chooses the shoulder devil’s way will have a much worse time, but still: the shoulder angel is way less fun at parties.

All these scenes are, of course, meant to illustrate a character’s internal struggle between right and wrong, the same one we fight every day. We, too, refer to angels and devils on our shoulders. We depict them in similar ways in our own conversations: the angel tells you not to make that evil but funny Facebook comment, or to eat the healthy thing, or to help that person even though you don’t want to.

We do the same things, in fact, with the internal conflict that the shoulder angels and devils are meant to represent: when after a bit of an internal struggle, we say, “No, no, I’m gonna be good,” we usually do not mean that we’re about to do anything fun. 

Pastors, maybe, are more acutely aware than most of this equivalence of being good with being predictable, stiff, and un-fun. We are seen as the embodiment of your shoulder angels, as evidenced by the dampening of party conversation when we walk up at any wedding. A new pastor must quickly grow accustomed to the assumption that we only want to talk about how much you’ve prayed or been to church in the past year. My friend Steve, a pastor in Alabama, once remarked at how people would respond to him in his clergy collar, utterly fascinated that he was able to operate a self-checkout rather than simply standing prayerfully with his hands folded as if life froze in the first century.

To be good, we think, is to be of the spirit rather than the flesh, to always do the hard, self-disciplined thing rather than the fun thing. Church people, and especially clergy, are expected by the wider culture to be buttoned up saints, while folks at the bar are earthy, easy sinners. Saints are spiritual and other-wordly; sinners are earthy and real. It’s no secret and no surprise that, given the honest choice, most nonreligious folks would rather hang with stereotypical “sinners” than stereotypical “saints.” 

This is a problem, and it isn’t just a PR problem for religions everywhere. It’s a problem because if we associate being good with being buttoned up and perfect, we’re going to miss the point entirely, and both we and the world will be worse off for it.

We’re conditioned to hear morality portrayed this way. Most congregations hearing the readings this morning will have more than a few people turn to look playfully meaningfully at each other when the Ephesians reading is read: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves” (Ephesians 5:18-19). 

Paul probably wasn’t the most fun at parties. “Do not drink beer; sing hymns!” Here at our Savior’s, we just split the difference and do both, just like Martin Luther would have wanted. (See you tomorrow night.)

Luckily, Paul isn’t the only reading. If Paul isn’t fun at parties, you can find Woman Wisdom from Proverbs hanging out by the bar.

You see, Woman Wisdom in this  part of Proverbs is part of a kind of shoulder angel / shoulder devil scene. Except, in Proverbs, the “angel” isn’t stiff or reserved. Woman Wisdom calls out with a familiar prostitute’s call, the same one that her adversary, Woman Folly, calls out with: “Turn in here! 

Woman Wisdom isn’t stiff and spiritual and boring. She uses the same language a prostitute would — she’s quite a scandal. Woman Wisdom, after all, is throwing a party: 

“Wisdom has built her house… she has slaughtered her animals and mixed her wine” (Proverbs 9:2-3). She invites passers by to turn in here, come in, and drink her wine and feast at her table, to lay aside their simple ways and learn about the complex ways of life. 

Sounds like a party.

Unlike Paul, you want to invite Wisdom to your cocktail party. She throws the party. She is real. She’s the kind of friend or lover who takes care of you, tells you the truth, and helps you understand life better.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus takes the whole “being good does not equal being boring and spiritual” thing and takes it about eight strides too far. He’s approaching cannibalism and you have to be sure that the people listening to him are not just confused, they’re alarmed. After all, the teacher just turned to the people with whom he was arguing — remember, the people who wanted to kidnap him and make him king so that he could feed them forever? — he turned to them and said not only “I am the living bread”; he said “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” 

The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

And this — the fact that it’s part of my job to rectify the cannibalistic language to the ritual — this is why I wonder why religion gets associated with boring things and why folks expect me to walk around with folded hands and think about spiritual (that is to say, boring) things all the time.

Because the full force of the Gospel of John is that God became flesh. As much as you might’ve heard that line every Christmas, the reality of it is not starched or buttoned up or boring. It’s so personal that it’s uncomfortable. God’s love and God’s very word became a human with a body just like yours, gave up the instinct to survive to give his body so that the world may live, then gives his body as bread to sustain us every time we gather at the table in a mystery that even the best of us struggle to understand. It’s so personal that even the most serious seminarians who get to this passage, myself included, make sacrelicious jokes to hide their discomfort.

As my own John teacher said: “Christ didn’t come to declare flesh evil; Christ came to make flesh holy.” God became flesh and lived among us and gave itself for us and rose again because the only thing love can’t do is stay dead.

Tell that to your super cool shoulder devil.

Love became flesh. Love sets the table here. Love throws the party.

We have this intensely personal encounter every single week, when God gets into us, quite literally. We talk about communion as inaccessible and holy, and often people worry about doing this thing or that thing “wrong.” They worry about messing with the holy, make jokes about getting struck by lightning. We worry about fouling up the symbolism.

When hearing this, I refer back to Flannery O’Conner, the Southern writer, who wrote of a conversation about the Eucharist with a friend: “…toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [My friend Mary McCarthy] said …she thought of it as a symbol… I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

This faith thing is more than we all bargained for. It’s not about being “good” in the starched and boring sense. It is more than un-fun shoulder angels making us do un-fun things that will ultimately benefit us in the long run. Faith is not about holding your nose and eating your vegetables; it’s about consuming God’s own self.

Love is not starch-collared or white robed and it is not particularly dignified. Love is real, and it’s earthy, and it’s sometimes so personal that it’s uncomfortable and even a little shocking. 

God is Love, and Love sets the table here.

Love does not speak with a guilt-inducing, judgmental voice. Love knows us intimately and loves us anyway. Love, like wisdom, doesn’t judge you for going to the party; love throws the party. And love gives us the courage to share ourselves with others, even when it’s uncomfortable. 

God is Love, and Love sets the table here. Love doesn’t shame you for having fun; love throws the party. 

I wanted to talk about some kinda current events, but I ended up with a literary device in the book of Proverbs that wanted to speak to current events instead. We all have crises of conscience about what to do and what to think.

Instead of imagining the usual starched shoulder angel, try imagining Woman Wisdom instead.

The right thing isn’t always the easy thing, no. But it is the most life-giving thing. It is the one that leads us into a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. It’s a scandal that nourishes us and looks past our walls and brings us back to life and love. 

And today, here, I argue: that’s anything but starched and boring — that’s a party.  Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s