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.

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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

Faith Expeditions: Help!, Exodus 17:8-13

We began this sermon series four weeks ago with Pastor Chris showing off how he could still wear his Boy Scout uniform. It would take a faith expedition and a 30 lb. diet for me to get into my old uniform, if it still existed; but the scout motto to “Be Prepared” still fits perfectly.

To go on any expedition requires preparation and that preparation should include a support team. Those who know my wife Diana know that she is the energizer bunny in our house. And she doesn’t worry about anything because she knows I’ve got that covered for both of us. Case in point: about 15 years ago Diana and I drove over to Xenia to watch two of her nephews and a niece go sky diving. The 3 of them went up and as Pastor Chris reminded us two weeks ago, what goes up must come down. And they did. We got to watch the two boys land safely right on target, and they were so excited about the experience. We didn’t see where our niece Sarah landed and were a bit concerned. But a few minutes later she and her partner came walking up the road and she too was all smiles.

But here’s where things got very interesting. One of the instructors said to those of us who had stayed on terra firma, “We still have time for one more trip if anyone wants to go.” I’m thinking no way Jose, but Diana’s sister-in-law who had some sky diving experience looked at Diana and said, “You wanna go?”

Diana was so inspired by the joy she saw on her nephews’ and niece’s faces that she jumped at the chance. They got prepared with instructions and strapped on their parachutes and off they went into the wild blue yonder.
And there she is soaring like an eagle. Notice 2 things about this picture, that guy who was Diana’s tandem partner, that’s not me. I was still safely on the ground. And you can’t tell from the picture but Diana’s buddy had his AARP card. He was a veteran of many jumps and he literally had her back; so she entrusted him with her life.

And here’s the “after” picture just so you know they landed safe and sound.

Moses at Rephidim was not jumping out of an airplane, but he too was in a life and death situation yet again on the long faith expedition known to us as the Exodus. Earlier in chapter 17, which is part of the “complaining” chapters in Exodus, the Israelites were ready to stone Moses for dragging them out into the God-forsaken wilderness. They again, like spoiled kids, want to go back to Egypt – this time because they have no water to drink. You may remember that this is where God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water pours out and quenches the peoples’ thirst.

And then immediately Moses is confronted with another crisis—“Amalek came and fought with Israel.” Amalek was a descendant of Esau, and his people represent the bitter hatred between that branch of Abraham’s family and the Israelites. This battle is a reminder to us that there were already people living in the land the Israelites were claiming as theirs. The Amalekites saw the Israelites as illegal aliens in their land. And as we know there is still conflict over whose land has been promised to whom by which God. But that’s another sermon.

Today I want to focus on Moses’ unusual battle plan. He takes the same staff that he used to part the Red Sea, and the one he just used to get water out of the rock at Massah and Meribah. That staff is the visible symbol of God’s power and presence with the Israelites, and Moses says he’ll go up a hill and hold that staff aloft while Joshua goes into battle with Amalek.

Sure enough it works! As long as Moses holds up the staff Joshua’s men are winning the battle—but then Moses has a problem – his arms grow weary. Moses is human after all and like all of us he gets tired, but whenever he has to put his arms down to rest the tide of battle turns and Amalek’s army prevails.

What to do? Moses’ people are dying before his eyes, but he just can’t hold up the staff any longer. It’s just too heavy! Now we might expect Moses to cry out, “Houston, we have a problem!” But notice he doesn’t even have to do that. Moses isn’t up on that hilltop alone. His brother Aaron and another man named Hur go up there with him. And when they see the trouble Moses is having he doesn’t have to ask for their help. They don’t even have to call a committee meeting to decide what to do. They simply act, and the solution is simple.

They put a rock under Moses so he can sit down, and then Aaron and Hur get on either side of Moses and support his arms—not just for little while, but till the sun goes down. And because of their support and teamwork Joshua’s army wins the battle. Faith expeditions require a network of support. Taking a leap of faith is like trusting the person who packed your parachute and the pilot and your tandem partner—others who have experience, as well as those on the ground who pray.

One of my most memorable experiences in scouting was on a canoe trip on the Whitewater Canal in Indiana. I’m not sure where the name came from because there wasn’t any white water, but there was one narrow lock on the canal where the water was moving much faster. It was just around a bend in the river so we came upon it unexpectedly. Suddenly we saw a cable across the canal with a sign that warned us to stop and portage, i.e. get out and carry our canoes on the bank and put back in on the other side of the fast water.
Some of us were able to do that but because of inadequate warning some of our scouts got sucked into the faster current and made the mistake of grabbing on to the cable strung across the canal. You can imagine what happened; they stopped and their canoes went on without them.

The water wasn’t that deep so they were able to climb out and go retrieve their paddles and canoe downstream. The rest of the trip was uneventful for our group. However, because we had a large troop the canoe livery had to divide us into two groups. So when my group finished they hauled us and our canoes back to the starting point so the second group could have their turn.

Now the lock where some of our group got to remember their baptism wasn’t far from the beginning of the trip. It was easily within walking distance; so instead of warning our fellow scouts about that tricky spot as good scouts should some of us decided it would be fun to run ahead and see if anyone else got dumped in. And of course when they did, including our scoutmaster, we jumped out from where we were hiding and started laughing. But it didn’t take long before we realized the situation wasn’t funny anymore. Our scoutmaster was trapped beneath the canoe and wasn’t coming up. The scout with him was young and inexperienced and didn’t know what to do.

I was with some other boys on top of the lock about 10 feet above the water. I wish I could tell you this is where I sprang into action and saved the day, but I’m ashamed to admit I was flat out paralyzed with fear. My only contribution was to yell like an idiot for somebody to do something.

Fortunately for us all two of the scouts up there with me saw what needed to be done and literally jumped into action. They didn’t stop to worry about how deep the water was or what danger there was to themselves, they simply jumped from 10 feet up and were able to pull our sputtering scoutmaster to safety. Like Aaron and Hur, they saw a problem and acted to save the day.
None of us can get through life’s challenges alone. There are no self-made people.

My sister found this old photo recently that reminded me of my own ancestors who survived the great depression, two world wars, alcoholic husbands and all the challenges of parenthood. This is a 4 generation picture – I’m the cute kid in my grandmother’s arms. We’ve all got those folks who literally gave us life and kept us alive thru infancy; we’ve all got teachers and mentors; we’ve all got people who suffered in silence as we learned to drive or who ran behind us those first few times we rode a bike without training wheels.

It’s probably my age but I had one of those ah hah moments recently when talking to my youngest uncle Gary. He’s only 4 years older than I so was just ahead of me in school. He told me there were only 40 kids in his high school class. I was shocked because my class had a whopping 120, a 300% increase in just 4 years! And then I realized again that I am one of the original baby boomers – born in 1946. And that triggered one of those trips down memory lane when I realized why I was lucky enough to have brand new school buildings to attend throughout my public school career. Those old guys, and they were all men, who we made fun of – the school superintendent and the school board had the foresight to see the wave of us boomers coming in time to build a new elementary school and eight years later a new high school just as my class arrived on the scene; and they had the ability to pass school levies to make those things happen.
Who helped pave the way for your life? Who are the Aarons and Hurs who came along side you and supported you? It’s good to remember and be grateful even if we can’t thank those people. Keeps us humble too.

Think about Moses earlier in the biblical story. From day one of his call to serve God Moses knew he needed help and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Well, he sort of asked. At the burning bush where God tells Moses he’s been chosen to go tell Pharaoh “Let my people go” Moses doesn’t exactly jump at the chance. He does what many of us do – he tries to weasel out of this scary faith expedition by making excuses. He says, “Not me Lord, I’m not a good public speaker. I’m not the one to go and convince Pharaoh to do this!” And God says, “OK, here comes your brother Aaron. He has the gift of gab. I’ll get him to be your helper.”

None of us have everything we need to tackle all the challenges life throws at us. But there are helpers around if we seek and trust God to provide them. We’ve been using different kinds of outdoor adventures to think about faith expeditions this month, but some of the most challenging expeditions in life have nothing to do with tents or canoes or parachutes. The inner journeys where we encounter painful memories, doubts, and fears are the toughest expeditions we ever have to take; but we all need to embark on those inner journeys over and over again to continue to grow in our faith.

We have a ministry here at Northwest that is specifically designed to match helpers up with those who need someone to just come alongside them, to listen to them, to pray for them. For the record these Stephen Ministers are not named for me, but for Stephen, one of the first deacons chosen by the early church to minister to the needs of the growing faith community. Stephen Ministers don’t do windows or home chores; their mission is to provide spiritual support for those going through difficult times on a faith expedition. And in the process, as is often the case, these Stephen Ministers discover that when we journey with someone else we also go deeper and stronger in our own faith. It’s a two-way street.

All it takes is a simple willingness to go the extra mile to help someone in need, even when it’s inconvenient–to take time to listen, really listen with our full attention to kids, seniors, colleagues and friends who are on an inner faith expedition. They may not know that’s what it is and there’s no need to label it as such. When we are on one of those journeys we just know we need someone there with us. We need someone to put a rock under us and hold us steady while we face whatever demons or challenges that lurk in the inner depths of our souls.

One of my favorite stories about a biblical helper is in the book of Ruth. Do you remember that story? Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is on a journey back to her home in Bethlehem after suffering terrible personal loses. Naomi and her family had been refugees in Moab because of a famine in Judah, and while there Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died. Both of Naomi’s sons had married Moabite women before their deaths, one named Ruth. So Ruth is not an Israelite, she is from Moab, one of those neighboring countries with no use for Israelites, and she’s dealing with her own grief.

When Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law come to a fork in the road where a critical life decision must be made, Naomi encourages both of them to go home to their people where they will be accepted and can find husbands there to provide for them. The other daughter-in-law returns to Moab, but Ruth’s response to Naomi is the famous line, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Ruth saw Naomi needed a companion to walk with her through this tough time and she gave up the best path for herself to walk alongside Naomi.

And of course, the Scriptures tell us the rest of the story. In Bethlehem Ruth meets and falls in love with Boaz, and they become the great grandparents of King David. That’s important for Christians because when the Gospel of Matthew lists all those begats leading up to the birth of Jesus Ruth, the Moabitess is one of only five women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. She is the great, great, great …. Grandmother of Jesus 28 generations back.

When we see a need in others and respond to it, we never know what God has instore for us. So when you feel the need to journey into the deep spiritual mysteries – don’t be a worrier like me, say “Yes Lord,” and trust God to provide the support you need from people like Aaron or Hur or Ruth who will hold you steady till the sun goes down. Amen

Preached September 2, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

Reckless Love of Self, Ephesians 2:1-10

Before Lebron James announced his second departure from the Cleveland Cavalier one of the biggest sports stories in Cleveland was all about a basketball shot that was never taken. In game one of the NBA finals last month the Cavs lost a chance to win a critical game against the Golden State Warriors because J.R. Smith held the ball in the closing seconds of the game instead of shooting what could have been the game-winning shot. It appeared that Smith was confused, thinking the Cavs were ahead when in fact the score was tied, and he heard about it from irate sports fans.

Bob Oller, a sports writer for the Columbus Dispatch, took an interesting approach to that story. He went to one of the most admired sports heroes in Buckeye country, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and legendary Ohio State running back Archie Griffin. To quote Oller’s article, “Archie knows what it means to extend grace and receive mercy. Arch fumbled his first carry in his first game at Ohio State. It happens. Woody Hayes gave Griffin another chance and he made history with it. Archie also recalled another more glaring error he made when he fumbled a kick off on football’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl.” Archie’s take on JR Smith’s blunder: “It appears he lost track of the specifics of the situation….It’s a human mistake.”

Most of us don’t make our mistakes on national TV, but we all make them. What is something you regret that you wish you could undo? Words spoken in anger? Being self-absorbed with a problem and failing to notice the pain of a friend or loved one? Being distracted while driving and causing an accident or nearly doing so? As someone said recently, doing bad things doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human.

In this sermon series we’re considering different aspects of love. Last week Pastor Chris talked about the first part of the great commandment – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. And most of us know the second part of that commandment which is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’re going to deal with the neighbor part of that verse in coming weeks, but today I want to focus on those final two words in the great commandment, “as yourself.” We often put so much attention on love of God and neighbor that we lose sight of those final two words that are a critical prerequisite to doing the other two.

To love anyone else as we love ourselves obviously means we have to first love ourselves, and that may be the hardest part of this whole deal. Loving yourself is hard for several reasons: 1) we are often taught directly or indirectly that it’s not cool to boast or brag about ourselves, that we should be humble; and often we get carried away with that because 2) we alone know the whole truth about all of our own dirty laundry. I believe it was Lincoln who said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

That may be true, but even more true is the fact that you can’t fool God or yourself any of the time. No matter how good we are at hiding our faults from others, deep down our less desirable qualities are always with us like a perpetual bad hair day. Yes, we can rationalize or talk ourselves into doing something we know is not right, but deep down we still know it’s wrong and have to live with the guilt.

One of the biggest barriers to loving ourselves is perfectionism. Most of us don’t expect perfection from other people. We’re willing to cut them some slack, especially if we take time to consider that jerk who cuts us off on the freeway may be hurrying to get to a family emergency, or that rude clerk at the store is worried about her daughter who has run away from home. We know other people are just human, but why is it we often hold ourselves to a higher standard? I read a great line in a murder mystery the other day. The heroine of the story was beating herself up because she got taken in by a bad guy, and an old wise neighbor gave her this great advice. He said, “If I cried over every mistake I made I’d have drowned by now.”

Great advice, but part of the reason we have trouble loving ourselves is because we’ve got this accumulation of bad thoughts and behavior that seems to compound like credit card debt the longer we’re alive. And sometimes the church contributes to the guilt. I often joke that without guilt the church would be out of business. I may have borrowed that idea from the comedian, whose name I can’t remember, who joked about a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” But in all seriousness recklessly loving ourselves doesn’t mean excusing or sweeping our mistakes under the rug. Reckless love means embracing the good, bad and ugly, not just in others but first in ourselves, and that’s not easy to do.

The hard cold truth is that there is an evil streak in human nature. If we look honestly at the violence and suffering humans inflict on one another we have to admit it. Listen to what the writer of Ephesians says in the first part of chapter 2 that we read earlier: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… we were by nature children of wrath.” Those are harsh words to swallow and unfortunately they are the only words some people ever hear from the church. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The Gospel is bad news before it’s good news.” And because some Christians who don’t love themselves get their jollies beating other people up with the bad news many folks don’t stick around long enough to hear the good news. And can you blame them?

A few weeks back Pastor Mebane preached a very good sermon on integrity and used the analogy from the game of golf about the honesty it takes to call a penalty on yourself. I was sitting up here that day and if you noticed I was squirming a little it was because she was getting too close to home. Anybody else feel that way, or was it just me that got my toes stepped on? Sometimes the truth hurts like when I look in the mirror expecting to see Brad Pitt and this old geezer keeps looking back at me.

I am old enough to remember a couple of previous versions of the United Methodist hymnal, and one thing I remember was that the old communion ritual had a prayer of confession that said, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty.” How’s that for a marketing strategy to attract folks to come to church? I can see the Facebook invitation now, “Come to Northwest this Sunday and bewail your manifold sins and wickedness!” I much prefer Jesus invitation, “Come to me you who are tired and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Another thing I remember from the days when we used that old communion liturgy is that attendance on communion Sundays in many churches was always lower than average. I have no scientific evidence for why but I have a sneaking suspicion that people stayed away to avoid being saddled with a bigger load of guilt than they already had. Now it’s true that if you made it through the confession there was the Good News of salvation offered in the Sacrament itself, but I fear that once the guilt trip was triggered people didn’t hear the Good News of forgiveness. Out of curiosity I asked the office staff to give me the attendance numbers for the last 18 months here at Northwest. I was pleased to learn that over that period our average attendance on communion Sundays is almost identical to non-communion Sundays. I attribute that to the kinder, gentler language we use in celebrating communion that stresses how all are welcome at the Lord’s Table. And yes, ALL does mean ALL.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying we don’t need confession as part of worship. We all have plenty to repent of as individuals and as a society, but we have to be very careful to be sure the Good News of the Gospel doesn’t get drowned out by the bad news. We get plenty of bad news all week and in order to recklessly and completely love ourselves we need to not only hear about the radical redeeming love of God, we need to feel it and experience it.

I John chapter 1 is a perfect example of the whole Gospel. Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If we stop there loving ourselves is pretty hard to do. But the very next verse says, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Today’s text from Ephesians says the same thing. Once it faces squarely the evil streak in all humans it shows us the way to self-love. Beginning at verse 4 it says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We can recklessly love ourselves, not in a boastful way, only because of the reckless love of God that saves us from our sin through freely given grace. It’s a love so reckless that Christ is willing to die a horrible death to show us the depth of God’s love; a reckless love that is like a sower who throws the seeds of grace everywhere, not just in “good” soil; a reckless love that runs down a dusty road to meet and embrace every prodigal child who repents and returns home.
In these days when the evil viruses of racism and nationalism and tribalism seem to be spreading like a plague it is easy to lose hope and to fear what the future holds. But fear is the lack of love, a lack of trust in God’s grace. If we trust God completely what have we to fear? As the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” says, “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still,” and that truth is deep unconditional love.
Set free from fear by God’s grace we can stand up and speak up for truth and justice. We can worry less about what others think of us and do what’s right and instead of what’s popular. When we speak and live the truth we have nothing to fear because God has our back.

Think of the saints throughout our faith history who loved themselves enough to boldly love others. I love the women in the Moses story who defied Pharaoh’s authority and conspired to save Moses’ life – the midwives who refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, Moses’ mother and sister who put him in the bulrushes where Pharaoh’s own daughter would rescue and raise him. Without their courage Moses would never have grown up to lead his people out of slavery.

Where does love of self come from? Or if we’re born with it, what happens to it? One great answer to both those questions is captured in the words of a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. It’s called “Children Learn What They Live.” Her words should be posted in every nursery and classroom. In part she says:
“If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.
If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty. (That’s the bad news, but the poem goes on…)

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns to be confident.
If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.

Kids are so impressionable that the golden rule is doubly important for them and all of us whenever we interact with them. We can all help instill a healthy love of self by treating the little ones as we want to be treated, with patience, forgiveness and reckless love.

It occurred to me while working on this sermon that reckless love of ourselves boils down to applying the Golden Rule to how we treat ourselves. If I treat myself badly by living with self-criticism, fear and shame, then I’m going to treat others the same way. What if we simply begin by treating ourselves as we want others to treat us?

We can begin to do that by changing the way we do something that all of us do on a daily basis. Who do you see when you look in the mirror, when you really look? Do you see yourself flawed and imperfect physically or morally? Or do you see a child of God saved by grace, flaws and all, set free to serve God and others by the reckless love of God and self? When you look in the mirror from now on don’t compare yourself to people society tells us are beautiful or special, but see yourself through God’s eyes.

Treat yourself with kindness; treat yourself as you want others to treat you. Be like Martin Luther who it is said each day when he bathed rebatptised himself and reminded himself he was a beloved child of God, one who in the words of Ephesians is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Reckless love is really quite simple: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It all starts with loving that child of God we see in the mirror every day. Amen

O Lord, How Long?

I helped conduct a funeral for a woman the other day who had written an interesting inscription in her Bible. She wrote, “Please have someone read Isaiah 40:31 at my funeral.” That verse reads, “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” That’s normally one of my favorite Scriptures, but what I noticed about it this time through the lens of my own personal grief for my father and mother-in-law (both died in the last 5 weeks) was that Isaiah doesn’t address an important question raised by that assurance.

That unanswered question is like a commercial that seems to run non-stop on our local TV stations and annoys me greatly. The ad is for a company that does home insulation and keeps saying that they can make your house warmer in winter and cooler in summer for “only $99 a month.” I keep asking the television what seems like an obvious omission of facts, “for how many months?” but so far I’ve gotten no reply. In a similar vein I find myself wanting to ask Isaiah to be more specific about these comforting words, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” That’s great but how long do we have to wait to renew our strength?

I know grief takes time and it’s different for everyone going through it. I have not felt typical sadness usually associated with grief, but what I have noticed is a lack of energy and motivation. That’s not out of the ordinary for me in recent months because of chronic pain, but this sluggish feeling has been even more persistent than usual.

A few weeks before my saintly mother-in-law died she told my wife that she “was ready for her angels’ wings.” I don’t yet have her faith or patience. But they do say misery loves company; so I guess I should feel better knowing I’m one of many who have asked God just how long we have to wait to get our eagles’ wings? Many of God’s children have chafed under the burden of waiting. When I did a search for “how long O Lord” in the Bible I got dozens of hits, most of which sound a lot like these two examples:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalms 13:1-2)

We sang the marvelous hymn “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart” in church recently and the line that says, “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer” was one of those that seemed like it was directed right for me. I know our time is not God’s time, that “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:4) But I am still impatient and want to know how long I have to wait for this aching in my soul to ease.

The other thing I discovered when I searched for “how long” in my Bible was that even Jesus utters those words of impatience himself, only his frustration is usually with humans not with God. In Mark 9 he comes upon a father with a mute son who tells him that Jesus’ disciples have tried to heal his son but have failed.
Jesus responds first to the disciples , “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Then he turns to the father and says, “Bring him to Me.” 20 Then they brought the son to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

21 So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father’s classic response is also my honest plea to God when I get impatient: 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Yes Lord, forgive my childish whining about how long. I do believe, but please help my unbelief.

Mary Elizabeth Cade Hoover, November 2, 1917-March 5, 2018

Some thoughts on transformation from this life to the next from a grateful son-in-law:

Nearly twenty years ago Mom Hoover accepted me and welcomed me into her family just as she did so many of us. She was an inspiration and joy to know and love and her generous, faithful life has left an indelible and wonderful mark on everyone who knew her. Her passing reminded me so much of two of my favorite descriptions of what human mortality means to a mature Christian like Mary.

When he was 80 years old someone asked John Quincy Adams how he was Adams leaned on his cane and said, “I’m fine, sir, fine! But this old tenement that John Quincy lives in is not so good. The underpinning is about to fall away. The thatch is all gone off the roof, and the windows are so dim John Quincy can hardly see out anymore. As a matter of fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if before the winter’s over he had to move out. But as for John Quincy Adams, he never was better.”

Mary Hoover has moved out and moved on, and she has never been better. Her perishable body has put on the imperishable.

One of my other favorite descriptions of a peaceful passing from this life to the next is this meditation from a class I taught several years ago on “Aging to Sageing.” The meditation compares our life to that of a leaf on a tree. It describes the budding and growth of the leaf in spring and summer and then changes and autumn colors, and then describes the approach of winter this way: “You know some day a wind will come to release you. But this thought does not frighten you, for though you are a leaf that is not all you are. You know you are also part of the tree. The tree gave birth to you—it sent you forth to absorb the sunlight and help it grow. You are not just a leaf, but part of a magnificent oak tree. Soon your work will be fulfilled. It will be time to make room for new leaves that will bud next spring. In letting go, you know you are not abandoned. When the time comes, you will float gently down to the ground. You will become part of the soil that feeds the tree. You will find yourself changed and you will take on a new form, but you will still be part of the tree of life.”

Mary’s leaf may have fallen, but her spirit and compassion and wisdom will live on forever, and because of that we are smiling through our tears. In her life and death Mary taught us what it means to live faithfully even in the very presence of death. Because like St. Paul we know:

“ When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:54-56)