Sermon delivered by Howard Baston, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on July 19 2009.
It sat on the president’s desk in the White House office. It was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred M. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of the president, saw the sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the warden if a sign like it could be made for the president. The sign was made and mailed to the president on October 2, 1945. It’s just 2-1/2 inches tall and 13 inches in length – a simple sign mounted on a walnut base. The little painted glass sign has the words “I’m from Missouri” on the reverse side. Of course, the side that we all know was “The Buck Stops Here.” Truman, of course, is the president.
In his farewell address to the American people, given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, “The president – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
It’s in Truman’s library today, sitting on the desk in the Library’s reproduction of the president’s White House office. The sign has been sitting in the library since 1957.
Passing the buck. We’re all really good at that. John Huffman has discovered five different types of passing the buck in scripture. And I think he is exactly right.
I. Look in Genesis 3:12 – the first one – “Not me!”
“The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
It was Adam who said it. God had placed him, along with his helpmate Eve, in the Garden of Eden. They had it “made in the shade” in the Garden. There was only one big no-no. “You cannot eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”
The serpent sees Eve, that crafty creature that he was. “Did God tell you you cannot eat from any tree in the Garden?” “Well,” said Eve, “from the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the Garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’”
“You’re not going to die,” said the serpent. “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Of course, Satan is full of lies, as he is true to his nature. The fruit looked so beautiful. It was delightful to the eyes. And she really wanted to be wise. So she took from the fruit and she ate. She said, “Hey, Adam, have a bite.” Their eyes were opened. They knew they were naked – and thus began the whole worldwide garment industry as they sewed together the fig leaves to hide their nakedness.
Then they hear the sound of God, walking in the Garden in the cool of the day. It reminds us what a wonderful fellowship they had with God before the sin. They hide from God.
“Where are you Adam?” asks God.
“I heard your sound and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.”
“How do you know you’re naked?” asked God. “Did you eat from the tree which I told you not to eat from?”
Then Adam passes the buck. Do you remember his answer? “The woman you gave to be with me – she gave to me from the tree and I ate.” Then remember what the woman did? She passed the buck. “The serpent deceived me,” she replied.
Adam said it wasn’t his fault – he passed the buck to the woman. And the woman said it wasn’t her fault – she passed the buck to Satan. Flip Wilson was not the first one to say, “The devil made me do it.” Eve had a patent on that phrase long before Flip Wilson came along.
We all have a tendency in this first way to pass the buck, to blame others for what goes wrong in our lives. I think the tendency today is to blame our parents for everything. There seems to be no statute of limitations on this blame. Today we want to hold parents of 30- and 40-, and even 50-year-olds – adult children long gone from home, and yet they want to hold their parents responsible for every malady or maladjustment in their lives. We have a generation of baby boomers dragging their parents to therapists and pointing a finger at them. Even the use of the oxymoronic phrase “adult children” – either you’re an adult or you’re a child, you’re not an adult child – you never hear the phrase used in a positive sense such as “Martin Riley who saved the lives of three drowning men, is the adult child of…” but rather, as was the case, you read about the adult child of a well-known NFL referee who was arrested as a bank robber.
We can’t pass the buck. Adulthood assumes maturity and the ability to take on responsibility for ourselves. By delaying the responsibility of adulthood and subsequent accountability for one’s own behavior, our culture prolongs immaturity. Jim Cymbala, author of Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, an exploding congregation, says “None of us can afford to blame the past indefinitely. My father,” says the famed pastor, “was an alcoholic for twenty-one years, to the point that he lost his career at Westinghouse. His weekend binges became weeks, then months. When he was drinking, he would call me every four-letter word I’d ever heard, and some I hadn’t…He even missed my wedding. So I should accomplish absolutely nothing in my life because my father is an alcoholic? Right? Not at all. I’m still responsible,” said the very successful pastor. “I have no license from God to lie down and vegetate. God can still hold me and put me to work in his service.” (Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, p. 119)
We are all looking for someone else, something else to blame. We, like Adam of old, don’t want to be responsible for our own behavior. Adam started the game of passing the buck, and we’ve kept the ball rolling.
How about this one. In 1980, a Boston court acquitted Michael Tindall of flying illegal drugs into the United States. Tindall’s attorneys argued that he was a victim of “action addict syndrome,” an emotional disorder that makes a person crave dangerous, thrilling situations. Tindall was not a drug dealer, merely a thrill seeker.
An Oregon man who tried to kill his ex-wife was acquitted on the grounds that he suffered from “depression/suicide syndrome,” whose victims deliberately commit poorly planned crimes with the unconscious goal of being caught or killed. He didn’t really want to shoot his wife; he wanted the police to shoot him.
Then, of course, there is the “Twinkie syndrome.” Attorneys for Dan White, who murdered San Francisco mayor George Moscone, blamed the crime on emotional stress linked to White’s junk food binges. White was acquitted of murder and convicted on a lesser charge of manslaughter. (Edward K. Rowell, ed., Fresh Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching)
Ultimately, we blame God, don’t we? That’s implied in Adam’s defense. “The woman you put here, she gave me the fruit. God, it’s really your fault. Don’t blame me.”
God created us in His image. He created us with the ability to think and decide. We’re not mechanical robots, forced into a decision. An automaton has no responsibility for its actions. You weren’t made that way. You were entrusted with responsibility.
II. There is another type of passing the buck. It’s in Exodus 4:10, 13 – “Not able!”
“Lord,” said Moses, “I’m not a very good speaker. Lord, go ahead and get somebody else to do it.”
Moses discovered another way to pass the buck. We’re in good company – Adam, and now Moses. You remember the story. Moses was out tending the flock. There is the bush that won’t burn. “Take off your shoes, Moses. You’re on holy ground. Moses, I am the God of your father – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I’ve heard my people crying down in Egypt. You’re familiar with the situation. I’m going to send you to pharaoh and you’re going to tell him to let my people go.” (Ha! Moses was in the desert because he was running from pharaoh.) “I’ll be with you, Moses.”
“But, Lord,” he begins the excuses, “who am I? How can I go.” Then he says in verse 13 of Exodus 4, “Lord, send a message by whomever you want to” – translated, “Lord, send someone else.”
We all cry that we’re inferior when God calls us to do a job. We have great excuses why we don’t get involved in the life of God’s Kingdom – that is, the church. We’re too busy or we’re a professional or…or…or…or – when, in fact, everybody is just as busy as we are. The greatest church workers are made up of busy professionals, harried mothers trying to care for many children, and retired people who ought, as some would argue, to be able to do whatever they want to do now that they finally have some time for themselves.
God wasn’t too impressed with Moses’ “pass the buck” argument. And I have a feeling He’s not too impressed with ours either.
“Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, I’ll help you speak and will teach you what to say.” God is able. God is sufficient.
Dr. Martin Marty, famed professor at the University of Chicago, outstanding Lutheran leader and world-class scholar, came up with this conclusion. Churches that grow are churches made up of people who invite others to attend their church. Churches that decline are comprised of people who do not invite people to come to their church.
We are growing. Are you a part of that growth? Are you a part of inviting others to come and worship and study God’s word? Are you changing lives through the ministry of your local church? Are you reaching out with us, with GROW, going out intentionally and organized in an accountable way to invite others to church?
We want to pass the buck.
You know, the truth of the matter is every one of us ought to be doing several things using our gifts in this church for God’s Kingdom. None of us ought to be spectators. When we come to this time of the year – looking for preschool, children and youth Sunday School workers, adult Sunday School teachers – we ought to have so many of you asking for the privilege of teaching the little ones the story of Jesus that we’d have to say, “Listen, Miss Smith, I’m sorry. We’ve got a three-year waiting list on getting a preschool teaching position. We’ll let you be a substitute until we can find a permanent place for you.” Yet, in newsletter after newsletter after newsletter that I read from churches our size and larger, churches literally beg for people to do the most important task in the church – teaching preschoolers and children about Jesus.
Well, pass the buck. “You know, I teach kids all week long. I’d really like a break on Sunday.”
Pass the buck. “You know, I really like to fellowship with people my own age.” Who doesn’t?
Pass the buck. “We really like to be free on weekends, don’t really want to be tied down.”
Pass the buck.
III. There is a third way we pass the buck. It’s found in Luke 23:7, our text this morning – “Not my decision!”
“When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod…”
Pilate was going to pass the buck. He knew Jesus was innocent. He knew the Jews were just jealous. His wife had had nightmares, telling him not to have anything to do with harming the man called Jesus. So, he just passes the buck – discovers ol’ Herod is in town and sends Jesus to Herod, hoping the problem will just go away. He’s between a rock and a hard place. Rome wants peace, no matter what. The Jews won’t give him peace unless he kills Jesus. He and his wife both know Jesus is innocent. Yes, even a man as wretched as Pilate, I think, is pressured by his own conscience. Jesus is a Galilean. That’s Herod’s job, his jurisdiction. Just send Jesus on to Herod.
When I was a child, we played a game called “Hot Potato.” You just pass the potato around. You’d wind it up and it would ding and vibrate and explode at some unpredetermined time. And the quicker you’d pass the potato, the more likely you were to not get caught with the hot potato exploding in your face.
Passing the buck.
We can’t pass the buck as a church. We have to deal with real issues. We have to deal with hard issues. I made a covenant with myself and with God when I entered the ministry – I would uncompromisingly preach God’s word. Whether its preaching about same-gender sexuality as we did last Sunday night, or abortion like we did during our series on the Ten Commandments, or separation of church and state like we did when we looked at John 6, or euthanasia as we did during the Ten Commandments series – we’ve got to be willing, as a church, to allow this pulpit to be a place of proclamation of “Thus sayeth the Lord…” even on difficult issues. Yes, especially on difficult issues.
You have to be willing to face difficult issues in your life – face them open-mindedly, and yet face them in such a way that tries to seek the truth of God. And even if others are disappointed, you must uncompromisingly stand where biblical authority has drawn the line. Not doing so in a mean-spirited sort of way, but doing so in a loving way that says “I care, and you need to know this is what God has said.” Unlike Pilate, we just can’t cast aside the difficult issues of the day. We have to face them together. We have to struggle together as a community of faith.
It would be a lot easier to be like Pilate – for us to just pass the buck. Sometimes Sunday School teachers will complain that the Sunday School lesson deals with a topic that everybody is not comfortable discussing. It’s a hard issue. Yet, in a tactful way, if God’s word addresses it then we ought to be able to address it together in Bible study.
IV. There is another way we pass the buck. Ol’ Cain did this one in Genesis 4:9 – “Not my responsibility!”
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“I’ll handle my own responsibility, I have enough problems of my own” is the message Cain tried to give to God, trying to isolate himself from his brother’s situation. Of course, he had murdered his brother. Cain was responsible. He was the one to blame. He couldn’t throw up a smokescreen, distancing himself from his brother. And neither can we.
We have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to tell the world about Christ. We have a social responsibility – thus, our food pantry and clothes closet at Buchanan Street Chapel. There is no way we can meet every need or support every organization. But we must do everything we can because, yes, indeed, we are responsible to do our share of putting back together a very broken and bruised world.
We are responsible, and every member here really is – himself or herself – in the ministry. We are responsible for providing first-class preschool and children programming, and programming for teens and programming for college students and programming for young families and senior adults and single adults. Yes, that’s our responsibility. It is our responsibility to learn of the needs of those in our congregation, to carry them the comfort of a meal. It communicates the love of Christ. To visit them when they’re in the hospital. We are the keepers of our brothers and sisters here in this congregation.
Financial responsibility to support the ministries of the church.
V. There is another way of passing the buck. It comes from Luke 14:18-20 – “Not now!”
Jesus tells the story. A man gave a great banquet and invited many, many people. At the time for the banquet, he sent a servant to those who had been invited, alerting them to the fact that everything was ready. One by one, the guests regretfully declined. One said he had just bought a field and that he had to go out and see it. Another said he had bought five yoke of oxen. He had to go out and examine them. And one fellow gave an excuse that he had just married a wife, and so he couldn’t come.
It’s the passing of the buck when God invites you to come and dine at His table, when God says, “I want you to be my disciple. I want you to accept the Lordship of my Son. I want you to join the church and be a part of a community. I want you to follow through, in obedience to scripture, in public baptism to proclaim, symbolically, your relationship to me.” It’s God’s invitation for you to come to Him. Yes, we pass the buck – picking another day to come and know Christ, to be in right relationship with His bride, the church.
Now is the time. Today is the time. No excuse is sufficient. Give your life to Him today. Dare not pass the buck. Don’t let anyone get in the way between you and your Lord. Jesus is your Savior. He died on the cross for you, and He offers you a new beginning. Don’t be so occupied with anything in life – business-wise or relationship-wise with other people – that you postpone your commitment to Him.
What happens when we pass the buck? Disaster. We think we’re away from our responsibility when we pass the buck like Moses, in saying, “Find somebody else for the job.” We pass the buck when we say, “Lord, I can’t accept your invitation today.” We pass the buck when we blame someone else for our sin. Every time we pass the buck, we invite disaster into our lives and disappoint our Savior.
Well, Truman had it right. The buck does stop at his desk. But it stops at yours and mine, at yours and mine, at yours and mine. Yes, we can all say, “The buck stops here.”