Memories

dadonwayoutMy father died one year ago today.  On purpose or not I was too busy to think much about it today, but I do miss him.  I don’t miss the 2 hour drive to go visit him, but I miss knowing he was there even if he often drove me and my sisters crazy.  My dad and I were never very close, but in his later years I learned to accept him and forgive him for the things that bothered me about his attitude toward life.  He was too rigid and authoritarian – maybe things I haven’t accepted in myself?  We didn’t agree on theology or politics or child rearing philosophies, but in the end none of that stuff really mattered.  He was my father, and I literally owed my life to him.

He really did do the best he could to be the best person, father, husband, Christian he knew how to be. And like all of us he fell short of the mark regularly.  Like all of us he had to survive some difficult things in his life.  Unlike me and most of us he survived a near-death experience in a North Atlantic plane crash on his way home from World War II.  He didn’t talk about that experience and I regret that I never cared enough to ask him about what had to be a life-defining moment.  So I can only speculate on how the death of his crew mates in that crash or the 12 hours he spent in the water before being rescued affected him.  I know I have no right to judge him for his shortcomings and regret the distance I helped create between us by doing so.

All such life events have a ripple effect on everyone touched by them.  From that awful experience came my Dad’s conversion to Christianity, which led to my own growing up in the church and my career choices and how my faith and values have been shaped.  In many ways I am who I am now because of the engine that failed on that B-17 seventy-four years ago.

A friend told me after Dad died that someone had told him once we don’t really grow up until we become orphans.  I’m not sure I’ve made much headway in the last year, but I have a new appreciation for how fragile and temporary life is.  Things that once bothered me don’t seem so important anymore.  Maybe that’s a baby step toward maturity?

Thanks Dad.

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CALLED NOW! Luke 5:1-11, Scout Sunday

All of my best friends when I was a kid were my fellow Boy Scouts. Much to my chagrin one of them posted this picture on Facebook a few weeks ago – yes, I’m the short one. This picture is from the day Blaine and I got our Eagle Scout awards. My point is not to brag but to show the Scouts here today that if this 90 pound weakling could make it to Eagle anybody can!

I see a lot of parallels between what I learned in scouting and our Gospel lesson for today, and I want to focus on just two – trust and obedience. A Scout is trustworthy is the first Scout Law. But when I try to remember all 12 points of the scout Law the one I often omit is obedient. There’s probably some deep psychological reason for that, but we aren’t going there today.

When Jesus, a carpenter and itinerant preacher gives Simon the fisherman advice on how to fish Simon’s first response is to say, “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing.” Simon’s tired, smelly and in bad need of his morning coffee and a shower. But the story doesn’t stop there. Simon goes on to say, “Yet if you say so I will put down the nets.” Why would he do that? Jesus doesn’t know anything about fishing, and yet when he says, “Put out into the deep” Simon obeys. Why?

Luke gives us a clue. Simon begins his response to Jesus by calling him “Master.” He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t already know something about Jesus that makes him respect and Trust him. But before they can catch a boat load of fish they have to translate trust into obedient action and actually “put out into the deep.”

What might putting out into the deep mean for you right now today?? What is God calling you to do that is risky, outside your comfort zone? To fish for people means we all need to spread Christ’s love and mercy to a friend, fellow student, family member, neighbor or co-worker – especially those who are very hard to love.

Another important part of Scouting is the Scout oath which begins, “On my honor I will do my duty to God and my country.” When I was a scout I equated those two things. But with more life experience and deeper study of the Scriptures I have learned God and Country are not one and the same. God is listed first in that oath on purpose. Duty to God is bigger than duty to anything else because God is bigger than anything we can imagine or comprehend. So when our personal desires or interests come into conflict with what God would have us do, our duty is to follow the example of Christ.

That’s what it means to be called to follow Jesus, to be his disciple here and now. The call to discipleship is not just something that happened way back then to Simon and the other fishermen. It is the urging of God’s Holy Spirit calling all of us every day to do our duty to God.

The fishermen were not expecting a call from Jesus. They were just doing their jobs to try and make a living – and out of nowhere Jesus calls them instead to make a life and a life changing decision.

What might that kind of call look like today if it happened to you at work or school? Maybe like this skit:

Cast: Andrea, CEO of a seafood company.
John Thunderson, a friend and client of Andrea’s company
Jamie, John’s sister and business partner

[The scene is a contemporary office – Andrea is the only actor who appears on stage. The others are heard from offstage via microphones. Andrea is at a desk with lap top, papers piled up, disheveled, coffee cups on table, looking very frustrated and harried, coat on back of chair.]

Phone rings – Andrea ignores it for a couple of rings, then answers it, cradles it on shoulder while still working at computer

Hello, yes, this is Andrea.
[Pause]
Hi Bro. Yes, as always, but I’m never too busy for a good idea, what’s up?
[Pause]
Wait a second, Simon; is this another one of your hair-brained pyramid schemes? If I had half the money back I’ve lost on your too-good-to-be-true investment tips I could retire today.
[Pause]
Just give me the bottom line – how much do you need?
[Pause]
No money? OK, I’ll bite, what’s the punch line?

[Cell phone rings] Hang on Simon; I’ve got another call coming in.

[Answers cell phone] Hey John. Can I buzz you back in a sec – I’m on my other phone?
[Pause]
OK, yes, I understand it’s urgent. I’ll get right back to you, I promise. My brother’s on the other line–needs some money or something. I’ll just be a minute. Thanks.

[Disconnects cell phone and goes back to desk phone}

Simon, you still there? Sorry about that. What?
[Pause]
Oh, it was John Thunderson. Probably needs a new jingle for his latest Thunderson Tuna TV campaign. Anyway, what’s the deal here?
[Pause]
You don’t need money, so what do you need? [Pause] My time? That’s even worse. How much time and for what?
[Pause]
Whoa, slow down. I’ve not heard you so excited since you won the singles championship at the club. Let me see if I’ve got this anyways close to straight. You heard this motivational speaker who’s recruiting volunteers, and you want me to go with you to a training session for two weeks — in Buffalo???
[Pause]
Simon, I can’t do that. I’m swamped here. We just opened that new processing plant in Savannah. The shrimpers union is holding me up for a huge increase in benefits. [Looks at calendar] And I promised Mike I’d take care of the kids this weekend so he can visit his mother. I just can’t.
[Pause]
Yes, I’m really glad that he’s attracting big crowds. And I know we can use all the networking and publicity we can get for the business. You go and let me know how it looks when you get back. What kind of time commitment are you looking at after the training session?
[Pause]
Well, you better find out. I need to get someone to cover your territory if you’re going to be a groupie for this guy and save the world.

[Looks at phone] Now what? Text just came in. Gotta go, bye.

[Dials desk phone]

Jamie, it’s Andrea. Got your text. What’s going on?
[Pause]
Yeah, John called awhile ago, but I was on the other phone; so I haven’t really talked to him. You sound excited about something. Is everything OK?

[Cell phone rings] [Pauses and looks at phone] – Yeah, it’s John again, hang on Jamie.

[Answers cell phone]

John, sorry, I haven’t had a second to call you back yet. [Pause] Yeah, matter of fact; she’s on the other phone right now. Listen, let me call you back and we can do a conference call, OK?

[Hangs up cell and picks up desk phone] Jamie, you still there? Good. Listen, that’s John on the other phone. Let me put you on hold a minute while I call him back and we can all talk together on a three-way, OK?

[Punches buttons on phone] OK, you both there now?

John and Jamie: [together, from off stage over mic] Yes, I’m here.

Andrea: Good. What’s going on, you both sound frantic about something? Your folks OK I hope?

John: [excitedly] Yes, they’re fine, thanks, but I called because I’ve got this great idea I need to talk to you about!

Jamie: [interrupting] And I called to warn you about this crazy idea that has relieved John of his senses!

Andrea: Whoa, one at a time, please. Jamie, you go first.
Jamie: Andrea, please talk some sense into my brother will you? He’s gone batty over this guy and wants to run off tilting at windmills!

John: Jamie’s just too conservative, Andrea, not willing to take any chances. This is really big and we need to get in on the ground floor. I mean you have to hear this guy in person to understand. He’s just amazing, the way he can motivate people and inspire loyalty and creativity.

Jamie: But what does he know about the fish business? He’s a building contractor, for god’s sake!

John: For God’s sake–that’s it! I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s it! He’s got some kind of extraordinary power. Why take chances with something that awesome? If he’s a phony, he’ll fade away faster than Frosty in the noon day sun. But if he’s the real deal, I don’t want to be on the outside looking in. And I don’t want my friends and family there either.

Andrea: Slow down, you two. Who in the world are you talking about?

John: Didn’t Simon tell you? He said he was going to Buffalo for the training.

Andrea: Oh, that. I didn’t realize you were talking about the same thing. I didn’t listen to him all that carefully I’m afraid, just too much other stuff going on.

Jamie: Good for you, Andrea. I’m glad someone still has at least one foot planted in reality. This guy is a contractor who has had some kind of religious experience and thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity. He’s peddling peace and love and a bunch of feel good stuff that just won’t play in the real world. I hope you didn’t let Simon sell you a bill of goods.

John: I can’t explain it, Andrea. But, trust me, you owe it to yourself to meet this guy and decide for yourself. There’s something about him that I’ve never seen or felt before. He simply exudes this amazing sense of peace. He looks at you, and it’s like he sees right thru to your soul.

Andrea: Sounds like x-ray vision to me. I don’t want anybody getting that close to me, thanks.

John: I know, I didn’t think I did either. But this is different. There’s no sense of threat, no judgment–just affirmation and love. He takes you where you are and draws out the very best in you. I’m going to Buffalo this afternoon, Andrea, and I think you should come along, really.

Jamie: Great and you’re leaving me to take care of Mom and Dad AGAIN?

John: Yes, Jamie. They’ll be OK for a few days. This is more important. I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my life. Please come too, Jamie; give it a chance. The rat race we’re in isn’t making you happy. There has to be more to life than selling fish. This is more important, I just know it is.

[Pause–while Andrea weighs her options, then starts putting her coat on to leave]

Andrea: Sorry Jamie, I’ve known John since high school, I’ve never heard him so psyched before. I’ve got to see what this is about. It’s up to you, but I wish you’d come with us and give it a try.

[Andrea hangs up phone and exits, leaving everything as is on the desk]

I wrote that skit 15 years ago for a clergy gathering that was held here at Northwest over in the ministry center. It was the first time I was ever in this building, and I had no idea that part of my call would bring me here to be part of this great congregation many years later. I want to thank the talented people who made that video possible – you probably recognized Heather Sherrill as Andrea, but off camera were two other wonderful people – Barbara Luke as Jamie and our AV coordinator Eric Gauder who recorded and produced the video. These are very busy people. It took about a week of texts and emails just to find an hour when we were all available. Yet they took time to do this because they know that part of their call is to share their talents with and for God’s church.

God is still calling you and me every day, but like Andrea and John in the skit we stall and procrastinate and rationalize. So why do we resist God’s call upon our lives? When the first disciples haul in that amazing boat load of fish Luke says the crowds were amazed. But notice Simon’s immediate reaction when he suddenly realized who Jesus is. He falls on his knees and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

It’s that feeling you get when going a little over the speed limit and suddenly realize there’s a state trooper with a radar gun aimed right at you. To follow God can be scary because of guilt, sin, insecurity, or the big unknown of just what doing our duty to God might involve. Jesus is calling these fishermen to leave everything they have done, everything they do — their comfort zone, their livelihood. And he offers no detailed job description. He just says, “Follow Me.” That’s scary- like being a federal employee trusting the government won’t be shut down again in five days.

When I first felt my own call to become a pastor I was 15 and at a senior high church camp worship service. We were asked to sign a 3 x 5 card if we felt called to some kind of Christian service. I signed the card, but I didn’t tell a soul – not even my family. In fact it took me 4 years before I was ready to reveal that call publicly. Why? Fear – I was afraid of being ridiculed or shunned by friends who would be afraid to be themselves around me. As you saw in that first picture I was already a little nerd. I didn’t need any other uncool qualities for my peers to judge.

So I said “Sorry God, I’m going to be an aeronautical engineer.” I lived in Neil Armstrong’s hometown so that was a very respectable calling. And it promised a lot more financial security than being a pastor. But God doesn’t play fair. She persisted and even used my first college calculus course to finally convince me to switch majors and plan on going to seminary.

But answering God’s call does not mean you all need to enroll in seminary tomorrow. God’s call is as unique for each one of us as we are all different in many ways. God’s call is very simple- just love each other – and that requires no graduate degree. It can be a ministry of your presence at a funeral, a phone call or a card to lonely friend, taking a meal to a grieving family, donating to charity, praying for someone in need, visiting a nursing home, writing a letter to a legislator about a social justice issue. Opportunities to answer God’s call are all around us, here and now every day. Our call is to pray for wisdom to discern what it is God wants each of us to do right now and then trust that call enough to go into action.

All the church growth experts agree that people are most likely to visit a new church if someone invites them personally. Notice that in the Scripture for today Jesus gives a personal invitation to the fishermen, and for them to respond so quickly he must have done it with urgency. We can’t tell from the written narrative – we don’t have snapchat photos or video so we miss the inflection in Jesus’ voice or how it felt to have Jesus look you in the eye and say “Follow Me.” And he spoke their language. They knew how to catch fish; so he says, “Come with me and I’ll put the talents you’ve already got to work catching people for my Kingdom.”

We have to be smart about discerning when God is calling us and when it’s a wrong number. The best way to be smart is to enlist help. Scouts are organized in troops – there no such thing as a solo scout, and there’s no such thing as a solo disciple.

Obedience to God doesn’t mean taking every problem on personally. Even Jesus needed help and called disciplines to join him. Well, guess what – Jesus needs reinforcements even more today. He’s no longer walking this earth and relies entirely on people like us to Trust and Obey him. If we do God empowers us with the Holy Spirit and will guide us to discern exactly what it is we are each called to do. And when we say yes, God provides the courage for us to do our duty.

God often speaks to us through music, and this week for me the message has been coming through a loveable green frog. Kermit puts it this way: “Have you been fast asleep, and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name. Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors, the voice might be one and the same. I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.”

May today be that day. Amen

Benediction: What is God calling you to do? God is pretty persistent – so you might as well answer the call, nudge, text, email or personal invitation. You won’t regret it. Go in Peace.

A Tribute to Bishop Judy Craig

The world is a little colder today and not just because the weather outside is frightful. With thousands of people around the world I am mourning today the death of Bishop Judy Craig. When my mother and mother-in-law both died within 3 months of each other Bishop Craig went out of her way to inquire how I was doing when I saw her at a meeting. She was the most pastoral and yet genuinely prophetic human being I have ever known. 15 years later when we were colleagues at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio – I was the director of the Doctor of Ministry program and Judy was Bishop in Residence. She was scheduled to teach a course in that program one weekend and got news on Thursday that her brother had died out of state. I was also out of town and very concerned about who would teach that course, but when I reached Judy on the phone there was not one question about it. She was at peace with human mortality and knew there was a time for mourning, but it would be after she taught that course.

The last time I saw Judy was at a special dinner in her honor at the seminary where a scholarship was established in her honor. She had her portable oxygen with her, her physical being was failing; but it was oh so very well with her soul. When I waited my turn in line to greet her after the dinner I bent down to speak to her and in true Judy Craig style she complained about our making all this fuss over her. But then she did something I’ll never forget. She pulled me down close to her and kissed me on the cheek; and now I will always know what the kiss of peace is.

She was a rebel and a trailblazer for any and all who were marginalized, but she also had spent many years in local church ministry where she learned the art and necessity of balancing pastoral and prophetic ministry. When she gave the best commencement address I’ve ever heard at MTSO in May 2008 she told this story that captures the very essence of her spirit which lives on in all of us who were blessed to be touched by her life.

“I’m reminded of the story of a farmer who hired a builder to come and use the finest materials and build a beautiful barn. Then the farmer went out and got on his tractor and bulldozed down the old barn.

And the next day there was a storm threatening, but the farmer went into town anyway. And the storm hit, and the sleet was going sideways, and as he drove home, he was smiling to himself because he thought of his cattle in that nice, warm barn. He’d left the doors open so they could get in.

But when the farmer got home, he found the new barn empty. He went back out in the sleet and the wind, leaned into it as he walked toward where the old barn had been. And there, huddled in the wind and the sleet, were the cattle – inside the foundation of the old barn.

Recognize that? You’ll encounter people like that. Just then, dig out your patience and your modeling and your best invitational self. Pull out those great biblical illustrations about God’s future and the wonderful stories of church history. And then go and stand with those miserable cattle in that wind and love them anyway until they will finally begin to follow you into the new barn.”

Judy, you will always give us compassion to love because you so loved us.

Lighting the Christ Candle

In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.

Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.

During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.

Unison Prayer
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen

Thanksgiving and Confession

As usual, I approach another Thanksgiving with mixed feelings. Of course gratitude is always good for our souls. Every day should be a day of giving thanks for all the many blessings we have that we often take for granted.  But the Thanksgiving holiday is when we celebrate a particular time when the early settlers in this country, a group of starving immigrants, were saved by the radical hospitality of the indigenous Native Americans who had lived here for centuries.  And if we, almost 300 years later, are called to remember the true history of the founding of our country and not get stuck in the sanitized grade school myths most of us were taught then Thanksgiving must also be a day of confession and atonement . The reality is that the hospitality of the Native Americans was repaid with abuse, deceit and genocide. There can be no real grace or forgiveness unless we face the harsh truths about our heritage.

So it is with humility that we must come to the Thanksgiving table, and the ironic truth is that the very freedom we have to gather and overindulge this week is a sign of God‘s grace. For we do not deserve the wealth and abundance that  so many of us enjoy, but through the grace of God our sins of colonialism and aggression have not brought down judgment upon us. But we will never truly be a people at peace until we honestly look in the mirror of history and take a hard uncomfortable look at our flawed human nature.

As long as we try to live up to the falsehood of American exceptionalism or the myth that we are somehow God‘s chosen people to be a city on a hill we will dwell in some sense, even if it is subconscious, in guilt and shame.

I am sorry if this rains on your Thanksgiving parade, but I am again mindful of that Scripture from I John: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But here’s the good news and the real reason we can give thanks this week and every day. John goes on to say, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

Like you I am thankful for my blessings, my family, my health, but the bottom line is that I am most thankful for the gift of God’s undeserved redeeming grace.

FOR ONE DEAR SAINT

It was most fitting that just two days after All Saints Day I had the honor of conducting a memorial service for my dear Aunt Ruth. My mom’s older sister, Ruth lived 97 wonderful years, and she lived them with zest and courage to the end. This was what I said about her at the service:

As the oldest of Aunt Ruth’s nephews and nieces I always thought I had an extra special place in her heart. I dared to believe that because I had seniority my memories of her unconditional love and zest for life were unique. Boy was I wrong. After we got the news of her death there was such an outpouring of love for her that I was surprised at how wide and deep her influence. When I thought about it I realized of course that it shouldn’t have surprised me. Her love of life for 97 wonderful years was so contagious that it affected everyone who came into contact with her – not just in her generation or mine, but in great nephews and nieces, grand and great grandchildren. I wasn’t special to Ruth, everyone was!

Let me share a few things from her fan club, aka her nephews and nieces: “Remember a lady who every reason to feel sorry for herself, but never let her handicap and painful suffering slow her down a bit. (Ruth had polio as an infant and walked with a pronounced limp all her life.) She was sassy, feisty, and tough as nails! But also one of the most caring, compassionate, and inspirational people I will ever know.”

Another said, “A lot of good memories of spending time with her and Uncle Fran in Lima. She taught me to sew and love of gardening.”
And another: “One summer we made curtains and a Roman shade for my room at Bowling Green. Because of Aunt Ruth I have made my own curtains nearly everywhere I have lived. She also knew a whole lot about growing flowers and taught me lots of her tricks.”

My own fondest memories of Ruth go way back to the farm near St. Johns. I’d stay out there in the summer before I had any competition from all you younger cousins. Dave (Ruth’s son) and I would play in the woods that was a little way down the road literally till the cows came home – because it was our job to bring the cows in for the night. In reminiscing about Aunt Ruth this week I had an ah hah moment. I used to get horribly homesick as a kid anytime and anywhere I went. It didn’t matter where – at Grandma and Grandpa Sawmillers, Boy Scout camp. It was awful. But what I realized the other day is that I never got homesick at Aunt Ruth’s – and that’s because I always felt at home there.

Her hospitality is legendary. And that never changed. My son and I visited Aunt Ruth in 2010 when she was “only” 89 years young. We didn’t want to impose on her so we offered to take her out for dinner the one night we were there and surprisingly she agreed – but she was having none of that the next morning. When we got up there was enough bacon and eggs on the stove to feed a multitude. That was the visit when she also told us about the rattle snake she had killed recently in her garden.

I’m not sure where Ruth’s name came from. There don’t seem to be any other women named Ruth in the family genealogy, and that’s cool because she was indeed one of a kind. But I am struck by the similarities in Ruth’s life with those of Ruth in the Old Testament. That biblical Ruth is famous for what she said when her widowed mother-in-law Naomi suggested Ruth should go back home to her own people instead of going to support Naomi back in Bethlehem.

That Ruth was stubborn too, and loyal and compassionate. She said, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me if even death parts me from you!”
Wherever Aunt Ruth needed to go for those she loved she went – to Lima, to Georgia—I’m surprised she didn’t move to Iran when Dave and Sue were there! She was there for Fran for all those years even when he didn’t know she was there. That’s love and devotion that we and the world need to learn from her.

She was an inspiration to us all. When I throw myself a pity party because of my aches and pains and all the things my body won’t let me do anymore, all I have to do is remember this feisty little woman who never let any of her challenges stop her from being the greatest daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, great grandmother any of us have ever known.

She got that love in return from her kids and grandkids – especially from Sue and Dave who cared for her in the last few years and preserved for Ruth and her faithful dog Heidi the independence and freedom that living in her own house provided – way beyond when that was easy or convenient for her caregivers.
I think Ruth’s great niece Laura said best what Ruth meant to all of us. She wrote this tribute right after we learned of Ruth’s passing.

“I don’t even know how to explain how much she has meant to me my entire life. This woman, this amazing woman, was a rock for me. I could talk to her about anything; she was only a phone call away. She loved me the way a person is supposed to love another, without judgement, without criticism, and with her whole heart. I loved her with every ounce of my being, and there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for her.

This resilient woman, who overcame so much in her life, lived so much longer than anyone expected, was so much more to me than a Great Aunt-she was another grandmother to me. She was truly someone who didn’t let anything get her down; she found a way to see the bright side of things no matter what. She was an inspiration to me, of how to live your life, she was always kind to others, never knew a stranger, always offered a helping hand, even if it meant just sharing her vast knowledge. I was unbelievably fortunate to have been able to spend time with her throughout my life, to listen to the little lessons she taught me about life, cooking, gardening, and being a great person. I know that now, she is up in Heaven, with Uncle Fran, tending to the gardens, feeding the birds, and is able to do all the things that age had taken away from her.”

Laura’s words resonate for me in so many ways. Aunt Ruth was like a second mom to me and to so many others. Today we celebrate Ruth’s long and wonderful life, and we thank God for all she was and always will mean to us. We thank God for giving us Ruth, such a wonderful gift to teach us about life, and we give thanks that she is now beyond the pain and suffering of this life in the eternal arms of your loving God.

PRAYER: Loving God, as Ruth welcomed all of us into her home and her heart, we pray now that you will receive Ruth into the arms of your mercy. Raise this dear saint up with all your people. Receive us also, and raise us into a new life. Help us so to love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come. Amen.

When I was driving home after the graveside service I realized I didn’t say what I should have at the cemetery. I’ve done over 150 funerals in my ministry, but I’m still learning. Maybe it’s more personal because I buried my own father and mother-in-law earlier this year, or maybe it’s because Ruth was such an important part of my life. Or maybe it was because Ruth’s two young great grandsons were at the cemetery and I wasn’t sure I said the right words for them to hear.

I said the tried and true words we usually say at a time and place like that; that the body returns to the ground but we commend Ruth’s spirit to God. I said, “Today we have to let go of Ruth’s hand, but we know God has hold of her hand and God will never let go.” Those are good words, but they border on pious platitudes. What I wish I had said is this, “We’ve celebrated a great and wonderful life today but this part is still very hard. I remember a bitter cold January day many years ago when we buried Ruth’s grandmother. I was a teenager then, but I still remember my grandmother Sawmiller standing there by the grave crying. It was the only time I ever remember seeing her cry. And she said, “I don’t want to leave her here.”

It’s taken me almost 60 years to figure out what I should have said then and what I should have said last Saturday at Aunt Ruth’s grave. “She’s not in that box. She’s not in that grave. She’s right here in the heart of everyone she loved and who loved her back. Her spirit is alive and well in every memory we share, and those memories and her feisty spirit will never die as long as we keep them alive.”

Story/Sermon on Mark 10:17-27

I want to try something different this morning. This sermon will be in the form of a story I’ve written based on this text from Mark’s Gospel. In particular the story deals with the rather shocking response that Jesus gives to the man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We expect Jesus’ questions about keeping the commandments, but after the man assures Jesus that he’s done what the law requires all his life we come to verse 21. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So here’s my story:

“I’m afraid I won’t live to tell this tale; so I’m going to write it down.” So begins a journal entry by Marion Browner. I found his journal, a small spiral notebook, sealed in a zip lock bag as I was walking along a Martha’s Vineyard beach. It had apparently been washed ashore by the tide.

The entry dated March 23 continues: “My bed banged into the wall and jolted me awake this morning—seems like a year ago. My first thought was, “Oh, no, an earthquake!” But then as sleep cleared from my head I remembered where I was. I’m still not sure what happened. Our ship must have hit an iceberg or another ship. I don’t know and probably never will.

Obnoxious fog-horn alarms started blaring and mass confusion erupted all over the ship. My stateroom was three levels below the evacuation deck and it was difficult to get up there. Everyone was jamming the passage ways in a state of near panic and the ship was listing rather badly to port. I started out of my room once and heard someone yell that we were taking on water. Fearing we might have to abandon ship I pushed my way back against the flow of the crowd to my room and tried to decide what to take with me. I began throwing some things into a duffle bag—extra clothes, this journal, and a novel I’m writing. Part of the novel was in my laptop, and I hated to lose it. I had just broken through my writer’s block and had done some good writing on this cruise. So I decided to take the computer and put it and my duffle into a carryon suitcase. It was a bit heavy but I couldn’t bear to lose that good work.

I struggled through the crowd of passengers and found pandemonium on deck. It was still dark and cold and the early morning fog made it even harder for crew members to organize the evacuation of the ship. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as everyone jockeyed for position, trying to get to the lifeboats. I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but I finally found myself in a small life raft with several other people and we were quickly lowered over the side into the water.

The cold north Atlantic sloshed over us as we struggled to keep ourselves upright. One man was washed out of the lifeboat, but someone else (I later learned her name was Susan) was able to grab his hand and hold on till the rest of us could pull him back in.
By the time we stabilized ourselves and got our cold wet lifejackets on I realized I could no longer hear other voice. We had drifted away from the ship and the other lifeboats. An hour or two later when the fog lifted there was nothing to see but water—water all around us and ankle deep in our boat.

We are a bedraggled crew: Susan, the lifesaver when John went overboard, is a strong, athletic-looking woman. It turns out she really was a lifeguard in her college days at Duke, and although it wasn’t obvious in the soggy sweat suit she was wearing she is now a professional body builder. Lucky for John—she was probably the only one in the boat strong enough to save him.
John is a CPA for a Madison Ave. conglomerate, an uptight, obsessive-compulsive type. If exposure or thirst doesn’t kill him, having his Brooks Brothers suit ruined probably will.

There are three others in our boat: Brandi, a beautician and wannabe model from New Jersey; Phil, an art museum curator from Montreal, and Carlos, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic priest from Philly—but you would never have guessed it from seeing him in his dripping bathrobe and pjs.

That makes six of us altogether, and the lifeboat could accommodate up to 8 normally, but we are far from a normal crew. In the first few minutes after we realized we had drifted away from the others I knew we had a serious problem. I’m sure most of the others did too, but no one wanted to talk about it.
The lifeboat was still taking on water—in part from the waves washing over the sides, but mostly because we are overloaded—not with people, but with baggage.
I wasn’t the only one who packed before jumping ship. All of my fellow refugees were clutching bags of odd shapes and sizes; and when I pointed out that we really had to lighten our load or we were going to sink, I met with great resistance.
Susan, the body builder, had brought several of her smaller weights with her and was already beginning a limited version of her regular morning workout. The weights are obviously expendable, but after one look at the ease with which she did one-handed curls with a 20-lb. weight, no one was going to tell her so.

John the CPA had a brief case full of important business contracts he was working on, and from the way he was clutching it to his chest like a security blanket, it was obvious he wasn’t going to part with it without a fight.

Brandi had a large suitcase and a matching makeup bag. When I asked her what was in them, she said her make-up, jewelry, clothes, and her portfolio of modelling portraits. She was just beginning to explain why she couldn’t afford to replace any of it because she was only working part-time and none of it was insured when Phil yelled something about what a waste that crap was and lunged across the boat at Brandi. He managed to throw the make-up bag overboard because Brandi couldn’t hold onto both pieces of luggage at once. She would have gone in after it, but Susan grabbed her. So instead Brandi went after Phil and tried to get even by throwing his baggage overboard too.

Phil had a large rectangular package, obviously some kind of painting. He told us later, after the scuffle, that it was a Renoir that had been in his family for generations. But Brandi couldn’t have cared less about art or family heirlooms at that point! She was furious and did her very best to give Phil and his priceless painting a salt-water bath. I thought they were going to capsize us all before order was restored, once again enforced by Susan. We were all relieved when everyone was seated again, but what we failed to notice at the time was that in the struggle the corner of Phil’s picture frame had made a small puncture in the skin of our life raft.

When everyone calmed down a bit I tried again to initiate a rational discussion of which baggage was expendable (hoping no one would notice the suitcase I was sitting on). Everyone of course thought their own prized possessions were more valuable than anyone else’s. Compromise seemed hopeless. Everyone was simply banking on our being rescued before the lifeboat sank of its excessive cargo weight. The best suggestion anyone came up with was to take turns bailing the water out of the boat.

When we started looking for something to bail with we realized that we hadn’t heard a word from one member of our crew. Nobody much cared, except we didn’t know what Carlos had in the small, worn leather bag he had brought with him. We didn’t know yet he was a priest either, but that became very obvious when he showed us the rosary, chalice, Bible and bottle of holy water in his bag.
Phil said sarcastically, “Well, at least he can give us last rites, but this cup will work great for bailing.” Brandi objected and grabbed the chalice from Phil. “You can’t use that, it’s holy!” she said.

Father Carlos smiled and spoke for the first time, “I can’t think of anything holier than saving life. It’s OK Brandi,” he said, making the sign of the cross and handing the chalice to Phil, who started bailing immediately. Carlos continued, “And if we ration this holy water very carefully for drinking it may keep us all alive for a day or two. These other things won’t lighten our load very much, but every little bit will help,” he added as he tossed his rosary and Bible overboard.

“Father! You can’t do that,” screamed Phil as he jumped in after them. Susan did her lifeguard routine once more and fished Phil out, sputtering but empty-handed. While he shivered, John took up the theological debate questioning how Father Carlos could possibly risk doing anything to alienate God at a time like this?
Carlos was still amazingly calm. “At a time like this,” he said, “unless the word of God is in your heart the Bible won’t do you much good anyway. I’m scared too, John, but our situation reminds me of the time someone put a life and death question to Jesus. The six of us are like the man in this story – we want more than anything to be saved. You see, this man asked Jesus, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He was a very good man, but Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told the man he needed to sell what he had and give to the poor.

The man had a lot because he was very rich. But Jesus knew he needed to let go of what was keeping him from really giving his life to God.

There was a deafening silence in the boat, except for the sloshing and scraping of Phil bailing water with the communion chalice. Finally Susan said, “You mean we need to throw this junk overboard, don’t you Father?” But before Carlos could answer John declared, “I’m not giving up contracts until these two broads give up their weights and make up and Marion gives up that suitcase he’s been sitting on! Those things can be replaced, and what good is a stupid painting when your life’s at stake?
Everyone was ready to gang up on John and throw him overboard, but Fr. Carlos intervened again, quietly. He said, “You know, the person in that Bible story goes away full of sorrow. He wasn’t able to let go of his possessions either, and then Jesus says, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The last page of the journal was scribbled, like Marion wrote it very quickly. As best as I can tell it says: “I think Fr. Carlos was beginning to get through to some of us, but Susan screamed just then because she noticed the tear in the lifeboat. It must have just gotten bigger and the air is rushing out pretty fast. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s throwing their stuff overboard now. I just hope it’s not too late…”


Let us pray: O God, what must we do to be saved? Remind us it’s never too late to give ourselves to you. Speak to us the assurance that grace is a free gift, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it. It is difficult to enter your kingdom because it is so hard for us to let go of our security blankets.

In this moment God, help us to honestly confront the idols we worship:
Be they idols of pride in our looks, or in our strength, ability, portfolios, education, status or power.
Help us throw overboard the material possessions – the new cars, X Boxes and fancy toys, our designer clothes and ever-present electronic devices. Unburden us of whatever holds us back or slows us down on our walk with you, O Lord.

Give us strength to win the battle with the demons of coveting, of our pursuit of houses that are bigger and nicer than our neighbor’s, goals that consume us and keep us from seeing the Gospel truth of how we need to live as Jesus followers.
Let us put away the idols of faith in our own achievements or self-righteousness as ways to save ourselves, ideologies and doctrines that divide instead of unite us.

Help us to see clearly Lord how those idols threaten our relationship with you, and our way to eternal life itself. Please give us strength to let go of those idols before it’s too late. We don’t want to be like the person who came to Jesus. We don’t want to go away full of sorrow because of possessions that posses us, but may we go away rejoicing, like camels, who freed of their burdens can slip through the eye of a needle.

We offer these prayers because we know that with you all things are truly possible. Amen

Northwest UMC, October 14, 2018