Greed: The Deadliest Sin?

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)

I have long wrestled with the realization that our U.S. economic system is based on greed, one of the seven deadly sins. Nowhere is that tension between Jesus’ values and our culture’s more obvious than this time of year where we devote one day to celebrating gratitude in the midst of the biggest season of consumerism that begins earlier every year. The struggle is symbolically portrayed in the scene above re-created by our niece from a picture she saw somewhere.

Jesus’ words above from the Sermon on the Mount can’t say it any more clearly. “You can’t serve God and money.” It’s an either/or, and yet we are still trying our best to prove him wrong. We are far more likely to follow the polar opposite maxim of Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” Gekko actually said, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right.” That line has been shortened in popular memory to it’s very essence, “Greed is Good.”

Choices about our basic human and cultural values are hard because they are so important, and in this case Jesus is a prohibitive underdog. He is up against a multibillion dollar advertising industry telling us 24/7 that we are what we wear, drive, live in, and how we look. Our consumer goods are made to be obsolete sooner rather than later so we will fill the landfills with last year’s gadgets. No one repairs things anymore; we just toss them in pursuit of the latest device, clothes, or vehicle.

Choice between God’s way and humanity’s foolish pursuits is what Joshua addresses the Hebrew people about on their long journey to the promised land: “ if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).

Please know I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else. I love my Apple gadgets and the new car I bought a year ago. I know my iPhone and Apple Watch were made by abused Chinese workers. And yes, I also know I am the keeper of those very sisters and brothers who made these toys I take for granted every day. It pains me to be reminded of that injustice, but so far not enough to do anything about it.

I don’t know if greed is the deadliest sin, but I do know it has been the root cause of most of the injustices in human history. Slavery, colonialism, genocide, nationalism, wars of conquest, systemic racism, sexism, and every economic, government or religion system that perpetuates the power of the haves over the have nots have greed for wealth, power, or control at their core. I don’t have a solution to this basic human flaw that goes clear back to Adam and Eve and their sons, but I do know the first step to addressing any injustice is to admit we are part of the problem.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Marianne Williamson says, but I thought she hit a home run with this quote that popped up on my Facebook page today: “Hate has talked so loudly for so long. Greed has talked so loudly for so long. Love has got to stop whispering.”

Jesus said the same thing this way: “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3).

This year may the gratitude of Thanksgiving inform the way we approach the Advent season. And as we light the Advent candles may we remember to not let the true light of the world to be hidden under a bushel. It’s time for love to stop whispering!

Fall Classics

[Note: So far the month of November has been a blur. I spent all of last week, including two days in the hospital, dealing with a bad UTI. So this post I wrote earlier in the month is a little dated, but like the non-linear game of baseball itself, still relevant to the human endeavor to orient ourselves in time and space.]

In the days of the Big Red Machine back in the 1970’s there was no bigger baseball fan than yours truly. The Cincinnati Reds’ games that weren’t on TV I followed closely as Marty Brenneman and Joe Nuxhall broadcast all 162 regular season games and many post season ones on the radio. In my car, doing dishes, or “working” on a sermon the radio was always on. I can still name most of the players from that team that won back to back World Series in ‘75 and ‘76. I can even remember most of the players from the 1961 Cincinnati Reds who were the first Cincinnati team in my lifetime to make it to the Fall Classic. In those days the games were played in the daytime, and our school always had the game on TV somewhere. We could sign out of study hall to go watch. One of my favorite memories of my freshman fall was Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer to beat the Yankees in game 7 of the 1960 series.

As baseball has become more driven by money and free agency has players moving from team to team more often than the UK changes Prime Ministers I have lost interest in the game. The 162 game season now seems much too long with all of the post season games pushing the World Series into November. But, I still am drawn to watching the World Series every year, no matter which teams are in it. Maybe it’s because I have an October birthday and consider myself a Fall Classic too.

Tonight I watched the first game of this year’s Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. When I heard the announcer say that this is the 118th World Series my ears perked up, and I started wondering how many of those Series I had watched or listened to? The very first World Series I remember paying attention to was the 1954 Giants-Indians Series. It wasn’t my Reds, but it was an Ohio team; so I listened faithfully on the radio because I don’t think my family yet owned a television. I was of course disappointed as the Giants, led by a young Willie Mays, swept the Indians in 4 straight games.

But for historical purposes with that being my first World Series it means I have watched or listened to 68 Fall Classics, which also means that there were only 50 Series before I became a baseball fan. Therefore, I have witnessed 57.6% of every World Series ever played, and that makes me feel very old and I hope wiser.

Hallows Eve Prayer

O divine Creator, in our topsy-turvy world it is so important to spend time with you as the one true North Star that is our unwavering guide through all the joys and sorrows of this mortal life.  Your eternal and constant presence is so vitally important to us In a world where Prime Ministers rise and fall faster than the stock market; where prices keep rising, where election ads bombard our airwaves and inboxes, and political violence reigns from San Francisco to Ukraine.  The change of seasons is bittersweet as we relinquish the warmth of summer for the beauty of fall, but we draw comfort from the assurance than the seasons come and go on your dependable schedule no matter what craziness we humans inflict on your creation.  

We count on the steadfastness of your grace even as we are ashamed of how far we humans drift from your plan for us and your creation.  In this season of ghosts and goblins we are often so embarrassed that we want to hide from you in costumes that disguise us from our own sin and selfishness.  It is so easy to get swallowed up by our own privilege and comfort where the false idols of materialism and the prosperity gospel wait to ambush us on every billboard and in every commercial.  We know better, Lord.  We know we can’t serve you and money at the same time. But like St. Paul we often do the very things we know we should not do and vice versa.  

We admire the heroines and heroes of the faith who bravely stand up for your truth at great risk to themselves.  They trust that you have power over death itself, but so often our faith is weak in the face of the sacrifices it will take for us to truly follow you.  And so we come to worship putting on a smile even when we are dying inside.  We pretend we are fine when we feel lost and broken-hearted.  Or we are afraid to share our joys and successes because we know others are grieving and lonely.  

Open our ears this Sabbath day, O Holy One, to hear again the wonderful news of your amazing grace.  Pull away our masks and costumes and liberate us from the fear and doubt that keeps us hiding out light under a bushel.  Remind us again that Jesus didn’t just invite a select few to his table.  With open arms Jesus says, “Come to me ALL who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  He broke bread with sinners and tax collectors because he knew they are your beloved children also.  

And so are we, not because we are better than anyone else, but simply because we are a part of your heavenly family.  We all matter just as all the parts of our anatomy matter to our bodies.  We are not made to be self-sufficient or alone, but to be members of the church, the body of Christ.  We give thanks for this community of believers called to put our faith into action and to transform our broken world into your beloved community.  Thank you, O God, for sending Jesus into the world to show us that we need not hide from you no matter what but can humbly come to you anytime and anywhere just as we are.  In that assurance we boldly offer our prayers and our lives to you in the name of Jesus our liberator, saying as one the prayer he taught us to say…

Pastoral Prayer, Sunday, October 30, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

All Nighter Prayer

Hey God, do you ever have trouble sleeping? Oh, if you are omnipresent, I guess you can’t ever sleep can you? Or do you let the angels take over sometimes to give you a break? Yes, I know that anthropomorphic stuff isn’t real, but it’s 1:20 am; and I can’t sleep. I don’t know anyone else who’s awake at this hour that I can talk to; so you’re it. My sleeping pills have let me down. Reading and doing Wordle haven’t worked; and my blasted neuropathy has my feet feeling like they are on fire.

The more I think about my feet the more they hurt. The harder I try to shut my mind off, the louder the racket in my brain seems. At this hour all my aches and pains seem worse, and my list of things I need to get done in the next few days looms like some Sisyphusian boulder daring me to push it up that damn hill again.

I’m actually scared, God. The pain in my feet has never been this bad before. I’ve always been able to manage it with cream, drugs, and/or ice; but tonight/this morning nothing is working, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t handle sleepless nights like I used to when my youth groups did all night lock-ins at the church, or when I pulled all nighters to study for an exam or finish a term paper.

When you wrestled with Jacob all night long I guess he must have had a lot of adrenaline flowing to keep him going that long. That night near the Jabbock river Jacob had even more things on his mind. He was about to face the music of meeting his brother Esau years after he had swindled him out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Jacob has sent huge amounts of cattle and other gifts across the river to assuage Esau’s anger, but restless Jacob is afraid it is not enough to buy his brother’s forgiveness. This one who has stolen his brother’s blessing is not satisfied with all his ill-gotten gain. What he asks of God to end their marathon wrestling match is a blessing. Will that salve his guilty conscience? Does a divine blessing imply grace and forgiveness?

In a way yes because the blessing God grants to Jacob is a whole new beginning – a new identity in the form of a new name. He is “born again” long before that New Testament term is coined. Jacob no longer is stuck with his birth name which means “heal grabber” because he tried to yank Esau back into their mother’s womb so Jacob could be the first born. His new name/identity is “Israel” which means “one who contends with God.”

I could use a new identity too, holy parent. My physical aches and pains try mightily to label me as a victim of old age, but when I am caught up in that identity I have little to offer you. I am like a fly trying to escape from a spider’s web, turned in on my chronic ailments instead of focusing my energy on all that is right for me and how blessed I already am.

I could do a lot worse for a new name than “one who contends with God,” even if that means walking with a limp. Please help me, eternal Being, to appreciate my gray beard and arthritis as reminders that I have been blessed with decades of life to wrestle with you and your call upon my life. Like Jacob let me know again that you are not far off at the top of some stairway to heaven, but right here in the sweaty ring of life with me even in the wee hours of the night.

Thanks and Amen

Namesakes

The sermon last Sunday at our church was about the first Christian Martyr, Stephen. (Acts 6-7). I have always been intrigued by this story because I share a name, but not the courage, with Stephen. True, I am “Steven” with a “v,” but that was not always the case. My birth certificate says I was originally named “Stephen” with a “ph.” I have often wondered why and when my name was changed to Steven, but I was never curious enough to inquire, and now that my parents and any other relatives who might know are dead it’s too late to find out.

I do know that there were several “Steven Allen’s” in my grade when I was in elementary school; so one hypothesis is that we were all named after Steve Allen, who was a popular entertainer and comedian back in 1940’s when I was born. There are no other Stephens or Stevens anywhere in our family tree that I know of; so that theory is as good as any.

I don’t remember when I first learned about Stephen, the Christian martyr. I do remember as a young boy thinking it would be really cool to die for Jesus. One of my early favorite hymns was “Onward Christian Soldiers.” I have long since abandoned a belief in a militaristic Christianity and have for many years known that it is much harder to live for Christ than to die for him. That is not to cast any aspersions on those who have the courage and faith to accept death rather than renounce their faith. In fact in today’s sermon I heard something in the Stephen story I don’t remember ever hearing before.

Acts 7:59-60 says, “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.” Having that kind of compassion and grace literally under fire and in the final throes of death really blows m mind. In fact, one of my biggest regrets about my ministerial career is not having the courage to speak truth more clearly and emphatically than I did. It may just be an excuse, but one of the challenges professional clergypersons face is the conflict of interest between honest sharing of his or her interpretation of Scripture and theology while keeping those who pay her salary and often provide his housing satisfied enough to keep those salary payments coming. I have often felt like I sold my soul for a pension and a parsonage.

The job description for clergy itself contains the conundrum of how to be both prophetic and pastoral to a congregation at the same time. I have often likened it to patting someone on the back and kicking him in the butt at the same time. That requires a more mature faith and a skill set I am still trying to develop in retirement. I feel even worse when I see examples of colleagues who seem to do both of those ministerial functions far better than I ever have.

Part of my personal issue is being uncomfortable with conflict in any form. A case in point is that when I was in grad school in my mid 40’s studying rhetoric/persuasive discourse I wrote a paper entitled “They Shoot Prophets, Don’t They?“ As a child of the 1960’s I was all too familiar with assassinations in real time, in addition to such historical examples like Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Gandhi. That paper was an intellectual attempt that helped me articulate my theory of preaching, but it didn’t address my emotional fear of incurring the wrath of those who disagreed with me. Only twice in my 50 plus years of ministry did I have parishioners complain to my superiors about my social justice views. I’m embarrassed it wasn’t much more often.

The other thing about biblical names is that characters often get new names when they experience a life-changing encounter with God. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul, witness to Stephen’s death, later becomes Paul. Maybe my parents did the opposite. Maybe they knew the story of Stephen the Martyr and wanted to save me from that fate by changing my name to make it a little less like his. Maybe if I had remained Stephen I would have had more faith and courage like the Stephen of Acts, We will never know, but what I do know is that the stories of brave witnesses to their faith and values and trust in the power we name Yahweh, Elohim, Abba or God is a call to all of us to emulate as much as we can that kind of courage and grace. And this too I know, when we come up short of that mark God, like Jesus and Stephen, offers us unconditional grace and forgiveness that empowers us to be a little braver and faithful the next time. Thanks be to God.

Creation Prayer

O divine spirit of creation and re-creation, I am grateful that here in my little spot of your creation we got a beautiful blanket of white fluffy snow covering the naked brownness of winter.  Thank you for the birds that flutter about the feeders because they cannot find food under the snow.  But not far from this peaceful place others are shivering in the cold without electricity because of the same weather system.  My sisters and brothers in Tonga are living with entire villages buried in ash and the threat of another eruption from the underwater volcano that shot ash 63000 feet into the air last week.  I’ve flown 30000 feet above Mother Earth, but can’t imagine the power to send debris twice that high. 

We are reaping the whirlwind of what we have sown pillaging the earth you have given us.  That makes me sad and angry.  I need and want a way to channel that energy into something that will help save this tiny little planet from extinction.  I want a way to jar the fools in Congress who are slaves to party loyalty above all things.  I want to put earthly mud in their eyes like Jesus did for the blind man so they will be able to see the evidence all around us that is a cry for help from the earth.

We have seen deadly tornados in December, tsunamis in January, extreme winter storms over half of country, and ghastly wild fires springing from nowhere to destroy homes in Colorado.  But still our elected officials fiddle while our earthly home burns.  We are slaves to capitalism.  We are addicted to fossil fuel and individualism.  We want the immediate gratification of having our own vehicles so we can go where we want when we want.  We refuse to pay for adequate public transportation so we can sit in traffic jams spewing poison into the air we breathe.  We keep to regimented work schedules that create “rush” hour frustration. We fail to replace lead pipes for others because it’s not our problem.  Are we our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers?

Dear creator, you know all of this already, and my prayer is not to surrender our problems for you to solve.  I pray because you are always more ready to listen than I am to share the concerns of my heart.  Help me, please, to see how I am part of the problem.  Take the log from eye so I can better see the beauty of your creation and accept anew my role as steward and caretaker of it all.  Amen

Dream or Mirage?

There is so much on my mind and heart on this 2022 version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The demands of other commitments keep me from sharing those today.  Instead I want to share some less familiar quotes from King that are not from his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech.  These lines from King’s 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech were quoted in a powerful article by John Blake two days ago:

“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history,”

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

Blake goes on to say, “Those are words that lift the soul. How much will they mean, though, if the US becomes a performative democracy — a country with the veneer of fair elections but run by White minority rule? 

If that happens, January 6 — not January 15 — will be a truer reflection of what the US stands for.

And what King said in 1963 will no longer be a dream. It’ll be a mirage.”

John Blake, CNN, January 15, 2022, “MLK had a dream. Trump had a mob. How two days in January offer competing visions for America”

Dear God

January 15 is the birthday of Russell Sawmiller, Jr., a dear friend who joined that innumerable caravan of the saints in 2020. Russ was many things to me: senior pastor, colleague, mentor, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, and most of all a life-long friend. I am reposting here a letter to God I wrote after his death as a tribute to Russ on this his 95th birthday.

April 17, 2020

Dear God,
I’m writing this and asking that you forward it to my dear friend Russ who should have checked in with you early this morning. He never could figure out computers or cell phones; so I can’t send him an email or text, but I know somewhere out there in your marvelous universe he’s there and will be able to hear some things I should have said to him much sooner.

I first met Russ 49 years ago this summer when I had the good fortune to be appointed as his colleague and associate pastor in my first church after seminary. I’m sure there was divine intervention in that appointment because I had specifically told my bishop that I wanted my own church and did not want to be an associate pastor, and thanks to Russ I never really was, at least he never treated me like one.

Thanks, Russ for always treating me as a colleague. We were co-pastors in fact even though our titles never reflected that. Thanks for teaching me so much about being a pastor that I didn’t learn in seminary and didn’t even know what I didn’t know. You did that in a collegial way without ever making me feel like the greenhorn I was. You let me learn from my mistakes instead of warning or lecturing me, even when you had to clean up my messes. I think the only time you gave any disapproval was when I confided in you something I was too embarrassed to trust anyone else with. You just gave me one of those looks and a pointed rhetorical question: “Do you have a death wish?”

Since I heard about your passing this morning I have been flooded with memories of our times together, I didn’t appreciate those years at Indianola while we were up to our butts in alligators, but in retrospect they were some of the very best years of my life. I remember you giving advice like, “take a day off — and get out of town!” Sorry I didn’t do very well taking that advice to heart. You taught me from your own hard experience to be very careful about not becoming too beholden to parishioners who would expect preferential treatment or unacceptable power in church decisions. And, as you often said, “Sometimes it’s too hard to take it ‘one day at a time.’ Those days just settle for a half day at a time.”

I remember the day it dawned on me that we had to be related since my mother was a Sawmiller! I can’t believe it took me weeks to figure that out, and then not until you mentioned the little town of Kossuth where my mom was born. So we were distant cousins and maybe my job with you was some sort of nepotism, but I rather think it explains how well we worked together.

I am grateful for memories and pictures of you baptizing both of my kids. You broadened my perspectives on life, theology, sociology, politics and coping with personal tragedy in so many ways. Your wife had died of brain cancer just 3 years before we met, leaving you with two children to raise and a gaggle of women knocking on your door to take Marilyn’s place. You introduced me to a whole gang of your clergy friends who accepted me as a colleague and by example about how to do relevant and creative ministry in ways that I had never experienced in the very conservative church and community I grew up in.

In spite of living in the social unrest of the early ‘70’s, working in a rapidly changing neighborhood in a church in transition, i.e. dying, we had fun. I still chuckle about the time your friend Dick Teller asked us why we needed two curators for our “museum” where much of our large church building was described by phrases like “this is where the women’s society used to meet,” or this is “where the nursery used to be.” But then you taught me churches could repurpose spaces for community needs like the Neighborhood Services food pantry, Huckleberry House for runaway teens, and the first Ohio State University child care center. All of those programs moved on to bigger spaces as they grew, but you planted the seeds that are still serving that community 50 plus years later.

You taught me about collaboration with other churches in the University-Indianola Outreach program, and oh what stories Stan Sells had to tell us about funny experiences with those neighbors who lived in a totally different world than our church members. You taught me that church work and meetings could be fun, that good team building staff meetings and birthday lunches strengthened bonds that didn’t break in times of stress.

We played racquetball, not well, but it was great stress relief, and when I got depressed because a particular election outcome was not to either of our liking you gave me a nugget of wisdom I’ve never forgotten: “Steve, elections are like buses and pretty women. If you miss one there will be another one coming along soon.”

Our partnership included many Sunday mornings in the wonderful hideaway study up in the bell tower before worship when you’d tell me what the morning sermon was about and ask me to help you find a Scripture that fit. That last minute scrambling (aka proof texting?) was the exact opposite of how I had been taught to preach, and I must confess that many years later when I got the chance to teach preaching to seminary students I often used you as an example of how not to go about picking a preaching text!

By example you taught me and others to treat life as sacred without taking oneself too seriously. You shaped my ministerial career in so many ways, not the least of which was that my time with you was nothing like any horror stories I heard from other associate pastors. It was so obvious from the first time we met that you were different than many other stuffed-shirt pastors I had known who had made me reluctant to answer God’s persistent call to ministry. And it wasn’t just me that felt that immediate connection that made you such a good pastor and friend. When one of my good friends from seminary first met you shortly after we had both received our first appointments he told me how lucky I was and that he wished he had someone like Russ as his senior pastor.

I learned so much from you about ministry that I was ready to fly solo when you left Indianola for another challenge, just not as soon as I expected; but having a few months on my own at Indianola, a congregation where I already felt safe in an established community was the perfect basic training for the next step in my faith journey. I don’t think you planned it that way, but thanks anyway.
When four years later I was asked to take another appointment as an associate after having my own church my friends were aghast that I would do that. But because I had such a positive experience working with you it was something I could do. I’m glad to say my other staff experiences were mostly good — not as good as ours had been of course — but I do believe that was in part because I went into those situations with a positive attitude thanks to you.
I learned about generosity and hospitality as you offered your Vineyard cottage to my family when our children were too young to do our normal camping vacation. You couldn’t help that it rained that entire week, but being there stuck inside with two toddlers for a week may explain why I didn’t visit the Vineyard again for nearly 20 years. But when I did I was happy to return every year for the next four years, and those laid back weeks there with you were some of the best ever and something I looked forward to every year. The last year we vacationed together was 2001, and I’ll never forget that date because I flew home through New York that year on September 6th, just five days before the towers came crashing down.

I remember your loyalty to your mom and one of your many, many moves to be there for her in her last years. And speaking of moving! You moved so often I sometimes wondered if you were in witness protection! I hope your search for home is finally satisfied. I imagine Ralph has already given you a hard time about being late to join him on the other side, but I’m glad you two are together again with all your old Boston buddies sharing even more memorable years of memories than you and I have.

I’m so sorry your last years here were so hard, but I’m glad you really haven’t had to deal with the awful mess our world is in right now. If you can send us any divine intervention now we could sure use it.

I’m happy those years when you weren’t the old Russ are over and you are at peace. But I’m sad for the new memories we won’t get to make. I’m sorry I wasn’t as good a friend as you deserved these last few years but knowing the old Russ I loved wasn’t there made it hard. There would be no more boring retiree meetings together, no more cranberry pecan pancakes at First Watch, no more walks on the beach at Lucy Vincent or Gay Head.

I almost wrote “no more words of wisdom,” but I know that’s not true because after 50 years we share a bond that transcends death. What I’ve learned from you about life will always be a part of me. So, till we meet again at some First Watch or beach in the great beyond thanks for being a great friend, mentor, and the father figure I always wished I had.

So, thanks good friend for all the Russellisms, for the laughter and the tears of a life well lived and generously shared. As the finality of human life sinks in and the light of eternity shines a little brighter with you in it, I’m reminded of the words of Walter Brinkley, one of our elder members at Indianola. When Walter’s wife died he summed up the way I’m feeling in this world without you. He said, “I’m smiling through my tears.”

Peace and love,
Steve

Time and Life’s Purpose, A sermon on Luke 2:22-38

[I preached this sermon at Epworth UMC, Columbus, OH on January 2, 2022.  To watch the livestreamed sermon go to epworthkarl.org, click on “Worship,” and then on “Archived Worship Services.”]

My Facebook news feed has been full this week about a saint the world lost last week, and I’m not talking about Betty White; although I think she might qualify.  One story about Bishop Desmond Tutu especially caught my attention because it dealt with what inspired Tutu to choose the career path he followed.  “When Desmond Tutu was a child he would go after school to the kitchen of a small hospital where his mother worked as a cook. He would remain there, helping his mother and doing his homework until they both went home at the end of the day.

Several times a week, a young white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston would leave his bicycle behind the hospital and would then walk through the kitchen on his way to visit the sick, and when he did he always raised his hat to Desmond’s mother and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Tutu.”

This simple act of courtesy and respect toward his mother so impressed the little boy half hidden behind his mother that it profoundly influenced his entire future as well as the future of his native land. He knew he lived in a world where virtually all white people didn’t even bother to speak to blacks, much less show them respect.

He lived in a world where a black person had to step off the sidewalk to make way for a white person who might be walking toward them.  Years later, Tutu wrote in his autobiography, “I wondered what kind of man this was and what kind of church he represented. And when I found out, I decided that I wanted to be a priest like him.”

In our Scripture for today we find Simeon and Anna who, like Bishop Tutu, knew who they were called to be.  Simeon and Anna are the first people to recognize Jesus as the Christ without some angel telling them.  Why these two old folks?  Because they are the ones looking for God’s revelation.  Other people, like us perhaps, were too busy to notice; they are like Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary.  When Jesus came to their house Martha was busy in the kitchen, not doing anything wrong.  We all love a good host or hostess taking care of us.  But sometimes we stay busy to avoid stuff we don’t want to face – including Jesus.  Maybe we’re afraid or embarrassed to face Jesus because he knows who’s naughty or nice?   Or maybe we feel unworthy because we haven’t accomplished our purpose in life.

We all know that December is the month when even the biggest sports fan can overdose on football bowl games.   And even if you aren’t a fan we all know that the purpose of a football team is winning the game-even if it means scoring 48 points as Ohio State did yesterday.  And whether or not a team is achieving that goal makes all the difference in how it behaves. If the team with the ball is winning they will take as much time as allowed between plays.  They run the ball instead of passing because an incomplete pass stops the game clock.  Their players are taught to stay in bounds when they are tackled because that keeps the clock running between plays.

But if the team with the ball is behind that’s when the last few minutes of the game can take forever.  That team calls time out as often as it can; they try to get out of bounds to stop the clock, sometimes even fake injuries or whatever they can do to stretch those last two minutes out as long as it takes to accomplish their purpose. 

Simeon is like the team that is ahead.  His life purpose is fulfilled when he sees the Christ child, and he says “Ok, God.  I’m done here.  Take me home.”

When I was in college 100 years ago my big goal after graduation was to buy a Corvette and go to California.  God had different ideas, and I bought a Volkswagen and went to seminary. Simeon and Anna spent much of their time in prayer.  They went to the source instead of buying into the popular notion of what the Messiah would look like; and that’s why they were prepared for God’s surprise.  They understood that God’s revelation may not look like anything we expect.

The next story in Luke’s Gospel after this one tells us that Jesus knew his life purpose by age 12. That’s when his parents found him in the temple learning from the teachers because as he told them he had to be about his Father’s business.  For most of us it takes a lot longer to discover our purpose.  Anna Mary Robertson was 76 when she found her calling.  When she did she painted over 600 famous paintings, and because of that we know her as Grandma Moses.  When asked why she started painting she said, “I was too old to work on the farm and too young to sit on the porch.”  Does that apply to any of us?  I’ve looked everywhere folks and the word retirement does not appear in the Bible.  Older folks in the Bible like Abraham and Sarai, like Elizabeth and Zechariah don’t get put out to pasture, they just get a new job description from God.  My dear mother-in-law was wheelchair bound in her 90’s, and still asking what she could do to make a difference in God’s world.  The secret is asking, seeking, and never giving up until we see the Lord. Then and only then can we, like Simeon, be content to let the clock run out. 

Today is the second anniversary of the tragic death of a good friend of mine and yours.  I want to honor his memory today.  Bill Casto’s death was very painful in so many ways, but this text reminded me of Bill because in his “retirement” he found his purpose and passion in a relentless ministry to homeless people in Columbus. 

I have two friends who have had near death experiences and both reported that they were told, “It’s not your time yet.  There’s something more you need to do.”   I believe trying to figure out what that one thing might be is asking the wrong question.  What if we ask instead what we need to be?  So many New Year’s resolutions or goals focus on things we want to do or not do, and we know what happens to good intentions before January runs out.  Let’s think bigger this year, namely what is my purpose as one of God’s people?  Who does God want me to be and does this action/word help me be that kind of person? 

How do we know what that looks like?  We discern who we are through prayer and sharing the journey with other pilgrims.  Simeon did that and trusted God’s promise.  Do we? Do I?  Or do I get discouraged; disappointed that what I wanted I didn’t get for Xmas?  Or  I didn’t get that promotion I thought I deserved; didn’t get to take the path I wanted to take or realized too late that I missed an important turn off the freeway and have to go miles before I can turn around and correct my course?

How do we discern what our purpose is?  Not some one time project or act, but an entire way of life dedicated to finding our purpose and aligning it with God’s will.  Simeon and Anna had found theirs and were sticking to it.  How did they know what to do?  They were in the temple where they thought God dwelled.  We know better.  God is everywhere – in burning bushes and other miracles but more often in the still voice we can’t hear unless we really listen.  Like Elijah God wants us to be still and know she is God and we aren’t.

That means tuning away from false promises like the prosperity gospel and its false prophets.  In the word of the old hymn – go to the source – take time to be holy. I know, none of us feel very holy.  We are fallible human beings who screw things up all the time.  That’s why we get a do over with a new year.  Let’s make 2022 the year we learn to forgive others and forgive ourselves.  Life in God’s grace is not like football.  In football if you fumble or commit a penalty you can’t undo it; it’s all there on the digital record of the game to be replayed in agonizing slow motion incessantly.  And if you commit the unforgiveable sin of targeting you get thrown out of the game. 

Not so with God’s grace.  We get to go back to the drawing board or the huddle and call another play and hope it is the one sent into the game by God and not by the other team?  I have always found deep meaning in the lyrics to a song called “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of LaMancha”* from way back in 1965.  The words still speak to our following God’s purpose. 

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are to weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into hell
For that heavenly cause

And I know
If I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart
Will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
Oh, that one person, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.”

But we also need periodic rest while still seeking our purpose and fulfillment.  None of us are super heroes or heroines.  We need to take breaks from pursuing impossible dreams like exhausted nurses and doctors working with dying patients need time off.  Worship and prayer is one way we can stop the merry go round and get off for a while – take a sabbatical.  It’s there we can find the blessed assurance and be satisfied as Simeon was that his life purpose was fulfilled.   Wow – for me that rings so true and so false at same time!  Come on, God, how do I discern when I’m done?  Is resting a way of letting go and letting God or is it giving up?  The dilemma is that we only will really know when we have kept the faith, run the race, and finished the course.   

So here we are on the threshold of a new year that feels a lot like the last two.  I remember early in 2020 I kept a journal where I  measured this darn pandemic in days, having no idea it would grow into weeks, months and years.  I have been calling 2022 Ground Hog Year, after that classic movie “Groundhog Day.”  But here we are again asking what our role is as people of faith in this new covid year?  I have often begun the new year by praying the Covenant Prayer of Methodism founder, John Wesley.  I’m going to invite you all to join me in praying that prayer, but I must warn you it involves maybe the hardest thing we can do, which is to surrender to God. 

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition 

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven.  Amen.

*Lyrics to “The Impossible Dream” – composed by Mitch Leigh, with lyrics written by Joe Darion. The song is the most popular song from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha and is also featured in the 1972 film of the same name starring Peter O’Toole and is also featured in the 2021 film Nobody.

Lighting the Christ candle

The prophet Isaiah knew all about a weary world.  He said,

“Even youths will faint and be weary,
    and the young will fall exhausted;

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.”

Tonight we celebrate the end of our Advent waiting. 

Tonight we join Christians all over this weary world rejoicing and giving thanks for a God who loves us enough to become one of us.  That God shares our sorrows and removes our fears with a thrill of hope that sets us free to rejoice.  

Tonight we come as people who have walked in darkness, but we have seen the great light.  We have lived in a land of deep darkness—and on us the light has shined.

[Light the Christ Candle]

And so we light the Christ candle as a sign to all who are weary that God invites us to a stable where we, like the infant Jesus, can be wrapped in the arms of our loving God and sleep in heavenly peace.