Keeping Your Suitcase Light – Rev. Henry Brinton
Keeping Your Suitcase Light
November 12, 2017
I like to travel light. When the Midlife Men and I take our mission trips to Honduras, we pack two bags: One is a checked bag that contains medications or electrical supplies or soccer shoes. The other is carry-on. After we make our deliveries, we are able to come back with very little in our bags, which always feels good. We returned late last night from another successful trip.
But the true champion of traveling light was a gifted mathematician named Paul Erdos. He died about 20 years ago, at age 83. He was a genius who had two great loves — people and numbers — and he continued doing math until his last day on earth.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in calculus to appreciate Erdos. That’s good news for me. You don’t even have to be good at adding and subtracting. His qualities can be embraced by anyone who wants to be a better servant.
According to columnist Charles Krauthammer, Erdos had “no home, no family, no possessions, no address.” That makes him sound a little like Jesus, doesn’t it? But Erdos was not a religious leader. He traveled from one math conference to another, from university to university, and would knock on the doors of mathematicians around the world. When they answered the door, he would say, “My brain is open,” and then he would move in.
Erdos always traveled light. He had two suitcases, each half-full. One had a few clothes, while the other contained mathematical papers. He owned nothing else, and rarely carried more than about $30.
His math colleagues were always happy to take him in, because they enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with him. His friends took care of his checkbook, his taxes, his food, and the other everyday matters, so that he could focus on math. Numbers were his passion, his joy, and his true calling. This focus helped him to keep his suitcase light.
Teachers who serve
Although he taught at a number of American universities, Erdos preferred not to stay in any one place for very long. He was the opposite of the scribes and the Pharisees criticized by Jesus — teachers who “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (Matthew 23:6-7). Erdos didn’t seek attention, although he died with at least 15 honorary doctorates. Rather than wanting to be “greeted with respect,” he loved to help his younger colleagues and collaborate with his fellow mathematicians.
Erdos was a teacher who served. He believed in making math a social activity, and he was gentle and generous with the people around him. Many colleagues who worked with him or who were advised by him can trace a key insight to an evening they spent with him. Although he never married or had children, he left behind hundreds of collaborators and 1500 math papers that he produced along with them.
Jesus blasted the teachers of his day — the scribes and the Pharisees — because they chose to “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (v. 4). Jesus would have been happier with Erdos, who loved to work with others and would give monetary awards to people who could solve difficult math problems. When he won prize money himself, he often donated it to people in need, or to worthy causes.
In his two suitcases, Erdos had only clothes and math papers. He didn’t want to get bogged down by anything — including money. At one point, he heard about a promising young mathematician who wanted to go to Harvard but didn’t have enough cash. Erdos met with the man and agreed to lend him $1000, saying that he could pay him back when he was able to do so. The young man made it through Harvard, got a teaching job at Michigan, and was finally able to repay the loan. He asked Erdos, “What should I do?” Erdos said, “Do with the $1000 what I did.” Give it to someone in need. Pay it forward.
In our 2020 VISION Capital Campaign here at FPC, we are asking each of your to pay it forward. This means making a contribution that will help the next generation of church members who gather in this “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). The time has come for each of us to invest in a new heating and air conditioning system, so that our building remains warm in the winter and cool in the summer. To repave our parking lot so that it is safer and more attractive. To update our kitchen, so that we can continue to cook hot meals for the homeless and dinners for our youths. To upgrade our technology, so that our message of hope and hospitality reaches the broadest possible audience.
We have each received the gift of our church’s building and grounds. Previous generations gave generously for our benefit. Now the time has come for us to give generously for the next generation.
Remove the hypocrisy
We lighten our suitcases when we give to good causes, but also when we remove negative qualities. Nancy and I did a great deal of downsizing when we moved from a single-family home to a townhouse, and I can tell you that it feels great! We should all get rid of things that weigh us down.
One of the things that we need to cut out of our lives is hypocrisy. The problem that Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees was that they were hypocrites — people who said one thing and then did another. Jesus urged his followers to “do whatever they teach you and follow it,” because he knew that they were teachers of the law of God. “But do not do as they do,” he warned, “for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3).
Hypocrisy is one of the biggest reasons that people are leaving the church today. This is especially true in the Millennial Generation, young adults born between 1980 and 2000. According to the Barna Group, many Millennials find religious people to be “hypocritical, judgmental or insincere,” and this is driving young people away from both the church and Christianity as a whole. If we want to hang on to Millennials, we need to get rid of hypocrisy and practice what we teach.
Pull the pride
As we lighten our spiritual suitcases, we should also remember to pull out the pride. Each of us is a weak and fallible human being, saved by the grace of God — not by our human accomplishments. Jesus criticized the scribes and the Pharisees because “they do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (v. 5). Phylacteries and fringes are not the way we strut our stuff today, but we can easily fall into the trap of puffing ourselves, especially on social media. Bragging on Facebook is the 21st-century version of doing our deeds “to be seen by others.”
In Facebook posts and in everyday life, try to pull the pride and be modest in the messages you send. There is nothing inherently wrong about sharing good news about a job offer or sports victory, just as there was nothing wrong with phylacteries and fringes in the time of Jesus. But be careful. Positive posts about yourself can come across as bragging, and this can drive people away. Erdos had 1500 publications, but he didn’t carry them in his suitcase so that he could pull them out and brag about them.
Filled with greatness
If we travel without the burden of hypocrisy and pride, we will be able to stay close to Jesus, the greatest of teachers and the most humble of servants. He is the one who teaches us the greatest commandment in the law: “You shall love the Lord your God [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (22:37, 39). Jesus is the one who warns us about the hypocrisy of people who meet their religious obligations but neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).
Like Paul Erdos, our brains should be open — open to the teachings of Jesus. He said to his followers, “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students” (23:8). Our challenge is to pack our bags in such a way that we can be good students of our rabbi Jesus, always learning what it means to be his people in the world.
The surprising result of being a humble student of Jesus is that we end up being exalted. Our willingness to empty ourselves puts us on the same path as Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” The result was that God lifted him up and “highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:8-9). Humility does not lead to humiliation, according to Jesus. It leads to exaltation.
Paul Erdos had the same experience. Although he gave sacrificially to others, he did not end up as a nobody. Instead, he became one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took a similar path, losing his life to an assassin’s bullet but ending up as one of the greatest champions of the Civil Rights movement. “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” said King. “You don’t have to know Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ to serve. You don’t have to know the Second Theory of Thermal Dynamics in Physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve. By keeping our suitcase light — free of hypocrisy and pride — we discover that it ends up being filled. Filled with greatness. Amen.
Charles Krauthammer, “A life that added up to something,” The Washington Post, September 27, 1996, https://people.math.osu.edu/nevai.1/AT/ERDOS/erdos_washington_post.html
Billy Hallowell, “5 Possible Reasons Young Americans Are Leaving Church and Christianity Behind,” theblaze, October 30, 2013, http://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/10/30/5-possible-reasons-young-americans-are-leaving-church-and-christianity-behind/
Gwendolyn Seidman Ph.D., “Bragging on Social Media Can Backfire,” Psychology Today, March 29, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/close-encounters/201703/bragging-social-media-can-backfire
Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct (1968),” The King Center, http://www.thekingcenter.org/get-involved