The M.A.D. House Artists (Mom And Dad)

Grand Lake Artistic Chaos Foundation

    S E R I O U S L Y

                                B U T    N O T

                                            L I T E R A L L Y

                           Dr. Robert R. Ball

                                                            September 19, 1971


            S E R I O U S L Y
                        B U T      N O T

                                    L I T E R A L L Y

                                                            Sermon by
                                            Dr. Robert R. Ball

                            Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
                          Houston, Texas * September 19, 1971

                   " Every one then who hears these words of mine
                   and does them will be like a wise man who built
                   his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, the floods
                   came, and the wind blew and beat upon the house,
                   but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon
                   the rock. And every one who hears these words of
                   mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man
                   who built his house upon the sand; and the rains fell,
                   and the floods came, and the wind blew and beat
                   against that house, and it fell;
                   and great was the fall of it."
                                                            --Matthew 7:24-27 (RSV)


          THE title of this sermon represents what is to me one of the
     most intriguing insights that has recently come my way. If we really
     want to understand what people are saying to us, we need to take
     what they say seriously but not literally. Too often we do just the

          Let me try to explain what I mean by beginning at a very simple
     and obvious level. I doubt that there is a parent anywhere who has
     not at some time or another become absolutely furious with his
     child who was taking him literally but not seriously. The child might
     say, "You just told me to check and see if the dog had been fed.
     I did and he hadn't. How was I supposed to know you wanted me
     to feed him?" Or the child, an hour late for supper, "Yes, I heard
     you say that I should call if I was going to be late, and I did call but
     the line was busy. Is that my fault?"It makes me think of the girl who
     said to her date, "My mother said she would worry if I let you kiss
     me on our first date, so I'll kiss you and let your mother worry."

          These are examples of being taken literally but not seriously. It
     makes me furious when people use our literal words as an excuse
     for misunderstanding our meaning.

          What may not be so obvious but even more destructive is
     when parents do the same thing to their children, and I suspect
     that it happens just as often. When a small child says to his
     mother, "I hate you." He doesn't by that all the horrible things that
     the word "hate" suggests in his mother's mind. But he is serious!
     He means that at that moment he is just about as unhappy as he
     can be that he has to go to bed, or whatever, and she is the one
     who is making him do it. He also means, however, that he trusts
     her very much. He is willing to trust his negative feelings to her
     without fear that she will quit loving him. If the mother reacts by
     telling him that he is such a bad boy for saying such a horrible
     thing to her, the child is likely to pull back into his shell. Something
     important will have gone out of the relationship. He will be less
     willing to trust his real self to her in the future.


          IN most cases, it seems to me, taking a person literally is a
     refusal to take him seriously - a refusal to deal with the real
     meaning he is trying to communicate. Take, for example, the
     young people of our day who are trying to say to us, "Everything
     about democracy and the free enterprise system stinks."

          We have pretty good evidence that they don't mean that
     literally. Most of them are quite willing to make use of such
     portions of the system as are agreeable to their needs - like cars
     and fancy electronic equipment and parents with money to bail
     them out. And yet, even though we know that what they say is not
     precisely what they mean, our tendency is to take them literally - to
     throw their words back in their faces, to become defensive, and to
     condemn them for their ungrateful inconsistency. All this achieves
     is to make them more rigid and more radical.

          If we were to take them seriously but not literally, then I
     suggest we would hear them saying that there are things about the
     present system that make them feel unnecessary and
     unappreciated. We could understand that. There are times when
     we feel that way ourselves. Working WITH our young people, we
     could begin the construction of a better system. We get furious
     when they refuse to listen to us and to take us seriously. How do
     we take them - literally or seriously?

         It happens in all our relationships. Certainly, husbands and
     wives know what it is to throw each other's words back and forth -
     with NO communication.

     * By being literal, we give ourselves the illusion that we are taking
       people seriously. . . "But you said..." Actually, we are only
       dealing with them in a surface sort of way.
          * It is easier to receive people's words than it is their meanings.
            To understand their meanings makes us feel responsible and
            frightened and vulnerable.

               * To take people's meanings seriously might require of us
                 more than we are willing to give - perhaps more than we
                 feel able to give.

                    * That's why very often we turn away from a person in
                      deep sorrow. We feel so helpless; so, to protect
                      ourselves, we go around taking people literally but not

     The result is that most of our relationships get pretty superficial.
     They are so fragile that even routine storms of life threaten to
     destroy them.


          What we do to other people, we do to Jesus Christ - and for
     exactly the same reason: to relieve ourselves of the responsibility
     of dealing with him seriously. It is easier to argue about the literal
     truth of the seven days of creation than it is to live as the sons of
     God in a world which God has made.

          The scriptures give us a perfect example of someone taking
     Jesus literally in an effort to avoid taking him seriously. A man
     once stood up and asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal
     life. Jesus asked him what his reading of the Bible offered as an
     answer to that question. The man knew his Bible and answered
     without hesitation,

                            "You shall love the Lord your God with all
                            your heart, and with all your soul, and with
                            all your strength, and with all your mind;
                            and your neighbor as yourself."                  
          Jesus said, "That's it! Do this and you will live." But the man
     was smart. He recognized that to take the commandments
     seriously placed him under tremendous responsibility. He
     wanted an out. So he went to work on a literal loophole - like we
     look for in the income tax law. So he said to Jesus, "Be more
     specific, Jesus. Just who is my neighbor?"

          As we say today, Jesus saw the man coming. He wasn't about
     to let himself get trapped in an insidious word game. So Jesus
     answered the question, not by some long, rational explanation,
     but by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the close of
     the parable, Jesus asked the man, "Which of these three do you
     think proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?"

          There was no way out. The meaning was crystal clear. The
     literalist could only say, "The one who showed mercy on him."
     Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."

          Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with almost exactly
     those same words. In essence he is saying, "You have heard all
     that I have said about life - about how it becomes real life and not
     just a meaningless existence. I have talked of your relationship
     with God, with other people, and with yourself. I have spelled it out
     with many pictures and illustrations. My meanings are abundantly
     clear. Now, then, are you going to take me seriously and do what I
     have told you? Or are you going to listen politely, nod your head in
     sage agreement with the wisdom of my words, and then go out
     and ignore it all - refusing to take me seriously?"

          That is the question. What Jesus says is not all that hard to
     understand. What IS hard is the willingness to take him seriously.
     Jonathan Swift once wrote,

                             "NONE ARE SO BLIND AS THOSE
                              WHO REFUSE TO SEE."


          Those who hear my words and do them, says Jesus, are like a
     wise man who builds his home on a strong foundation. Such a life
     will NOT be spared the winds of change or the floods of broken
     dreams or the rains of dispair; but that life WILL stand - no matter
     what. It is sound at the center. Nothing can ever destroy it.

          Those who hear his words but refuse to take them seriously are
     like a foolish man who builds his home on the shifting sands of
     superficial slogans. Such a life may have a pretty facade, but there
     is no depth to it. When the storms of life come, that life will be
     devastated. It is anchored in nothing but itself.

          We should be able to understand this. Today many of our
     oldest and most trusted institutions are under heavy attack. We
     fear that they may collapse from under our feet.

          Home and marriage, government and law, schools and
     churches - all are being buffeted so severely that some
     commentators say they have no hope of survival. We see them
     tottering, and we get frantic. Sometimes we would be willing to
     grab hold of anything that seems to offer stability and control. The
     time is ripe for literalists - those who promise us safe hiding
     behind the very empty phrases whose lack of depth have gotten
     us in this weak position.

          Jesus presents himself as the only foundation on which a life
     may be built securely, but Jesus does not become our foundation
     by the literal recitation of a few biblical phrases. Jesus deserves to
     be taken as seriously as we want to be taken ourselves. Jesus
     calls us to deal with him and his meaning seriously and personally.

          Aren't the needs of our day urgent enough for us to quit arguing
     whether or not the world was created in seven 24-hour days;
     whether Mary was really a virgin; whether God will save or damn the
     Jews; whether or not the church should restrict itself to a limited
     area of life labeled "spiritual"? The whole world is collapsing for a
     ACCEPTANCE. Dare we to stand here and ask, "Can you tell me
     more specifically just who my neighbor is?"

          Jesus says that those who take him seriously are those who
     hear his words and do them. The first word Christ speaks to us is
     that we are loved. Have you ever really taken that seriously? Have
     you ever treated it as more than a sing-song rhyme you learned as
     a child? Have you tried living as a person who is loved by God?
     Have you ever tried making the knowledge and the security of
     God's love for you the foundation on which you built everything
     else that is going on in your life? The Son of God gave his life 
     FOR YOU! That is serious business! Have you ever really taken
     Christ and his love seriously and personally?

          The second word Christ speaks to us is that we are to love as
     he has loved us. Have you ever taken that word seriously, ever
     regarded it as a real possibility?

     IT MEANS taking others as Christ takes us - seriously but not
                        literally: listening to their meanings, accepting their
                        longings and fears, sharing their lives with them.

     IT MEANS believing in the triumph of love over hate - believing it
                        enough to continue loving and forgiving even in the
                        midst of the darkest storm.

     IT MEANS believing that God is at work in the world, bringing his
                        purposes to be, and sharing that hope with a world
                        caught in the grips of despair.

     This is what Christ says to us. These are the meanings he begs us
     to take seriously, to take them into ourselves. When we do, we
     allow Christ to live within us.

                                        C O N C L U S I O N

          Christ appears so weak to a world built on a literal ledger of
     profit and loss. He never was able to say in one literal phrase what
     he means by the kingdom of God.

          He said it's like a farmer plowing his field who finds a pearl of
     great worth; and like a father who welcomes his foolish son home
     with great rejoicing; and like a great king preparing a magnificent
     wedding feast for his son and heir.

          Try to make literal sense out of all those images and you get
     nowhere. All of them are efforts to say something that cannot be
     said literally,

                             "THIS IS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU."

          The literalists seem to be the rock. Their rational arguments
     appear to be much stronger than faith - just as the military might of
     Rome appeared to be so much stronger than the man hanging on
     the Roman's cross - Deserted,
                                                        bleeding in anguish,

          But it is THAT man, and not Rome, who has survived the wars
     and epidemics and revolutions of the last 2,000 years! The
     storms have continued to come with ever increasing intensity,
     indestructible life to us.

                              SERIOUSLY and PERSONALLY.

From the archives of
Pamela Mudd Conlan



January 26, 1969


Sermon from January 25, 1970


 from April 5, 1970


Sermon from June 21, 1970


Sermon from September 6, 1970


Sermon from September 13, 1970


Sermon from September 27, 1970


Sermon from December 13, 1970

 T H E    S E R P E N T    D I D    I T

Sermon from February 14, 1971



Sermon from February 28, 1971

                    FROM ANXIETY

                                                TO FAITH

                                               Sermon from March 7, 1971


                          Y E S,

                                      N O,


                                                         W O W!

Sermon by Dr. Robert R. Ball

May 23, 1971                          CLICK HERE


Sermon by Dr. Robert R. Ball

July 11, 1971   

Here Come De Judge

Sermon from August 1, 1971


Sermon by

The VERY young seminary intern minister

Mr. William J. Carl III

(Now president of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)

presented at


Houston, Texas                          August 8, 1971


Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon presented September 12, 1971

Authority Figures I Have Known

Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon, September 26, 1971



Dr. Robert R. Ball, Sermon presented JULY 31, 2011

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