Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Losing and Finding--A Sermon On Words- 9th Sunday after Pentecost

photo by Calamity Meg / flickr


Losing

I want to talk today about losing. Losing something that is important to us.  We lose things all the time. Keys, glasses, I lost an appointment book—I kept everything in that book. Never found it. We’ve all lost something. But my question today is: Have you ever lost a word? Do you know what I mean?  We all keep looking and looking and we can't seem to find what we lost. We know we put it down somewhere. We look high and low, in the chair cushions,  in the back seat of the car,  run our fingers underneath the car seats. We move the newspapers—look even in the driveway. It isn't there. We can't find the word.

Home

I know someone who lost the word, home. Just lost it one day. His marriage broke up. Shattered into a hundred pieces. He lives in the same house. But he has lost something and can't seem to get it back. Do you know anyone like that?

Peace

There are people today in Iraq and Afghanistan that have lost the word, peace. Some of their children and young people do not even know the meaning of this word: peace. And those who live there  have known is war and destruction and pain ands death.  But this word, peace just slipped away. Some of our troops come home wounded and broken. Wives and sometimes husband whisper I just want peace back. Somewhere the word got lost with PTSD and depression and sadness. Many people today  here and there have lost this word, peace.

Forgiveness

Some of us have lost the word, forgiveness. Why did the newspapers put the word front and center when they talked about the survivors in Charleston? It made headlines when the people who had lost loved ones said to this disturbed young man: "We forgive you.”  It made front page news because so many folk lost this word along the way. Forgiveness. I know people inside the church—come every Sunday just bitter. Over some will or some slight or some mean person that tripped them up. They hardly know the meaning of this word, forgiveness. The word got lost somewhere.

"I"

Ever known anybody that lost the word, ‘I’? Oh, we can all say the word, “i” with a little ‘i.”  Sometimes now we can say: "i." Little i. But we can't say: "I." Big I. Something happened. We got ground down, beat up one time too many. Doors slammed shut in our faces. Disappointment followed disappointment. And slowly, ever so slowly we lost this word: I. And some of us have spent most of our lives trying to get it back.

Church

Many people in our time have lost another  word, church. The word means less and less to a lot of people today. And if it does mean anything it is something negative and unpleasant. Church, they say sarcastically. Fussy people. Looking down their noses. Turned inward. Cold and hard. Meanest people I ever met. They lost a word. Church. And they're not here today. They don't understand what church was supposed to be. They have lost a word.

Finding


photo by Allan / flickr

But sometimes we find a word. Have you ever done that? Last fall, I was out in the yard, I brushed back the leaves, I was digging a hole to plant some daffodils. And as I was digging I struck something hard. It wouldn't budge. Probably a rock, I thought. Old concrete block left over from when they built the house. I kept digging. Guess what I found? It was a word! I pulled it up, brushed it off.  It was a church word. Old as most of the Bible.

Kerygma--Good News

The word had a strange name: kerygma. You might say I don't know that word. But you do. At least you've heard it. Kerygma. It means good news. It means to tell the old, old story.  Preaching.  Herald. Proclaim. It means to tell a story, the old, old story.

Many people have lost this word. When they hear kerygma they think about anything but good news. Good news?  Don't preach to me! Why down at that church they look down their nose at me or my child that got into trouble. And such preaching becomes a lethal weapon used to clobber somebody, to manipulate and push around. It's bad news. No wonder so many lost the word. Don't preach to me. Nobody likes that. That droning on and on and on about things that you care nothing about. Mark of the Beast. Great Whore of Babylon. Is the Bible literally true? Where did Cain get his wife? Who cares. We lost a word somewhere.

Jesus came preaching, Mark says on the first page. "Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God."(1.14) And the result? The people came in droves. They just kept coming because of this fresh, good, good word. It addressed them. It spoke to their hearts. This news touched the things of their lives. Nothing about the Jebusites and the Ammonites. No. It challenged all their presuppositions. It made them human. And they began to entertain the strangest of notions. And this finding of a word led to the finding of other words. The Prodigal found the word home when he thought it was lost forever. In a jail cell, sentenced to death, Paul found the word peace. Simon Peter, after the crucifixion, after he had lied and betrayed the best thing he ever, ever knew he found a word. He thought it was lost forever. It was the word forgiveness. Zaccheus was short and a despised and hated tax collector. He found the word: "I." I am. I am. I am somebody. And all over in Corinth, in Ephesus,  Galatia, Jerusalem, Philippi and even in Rome they began to find this word, church. A special, special place where they were stretched and forgiven and brought into a circle of healing love. And many of you here wouldn’t be here if you had not heard this word, kerygma—good news.

Koinonia - Community

But there’s more. Early last Spring, as the bulbs I had planted in the fall were beginning to come up, I turned up a spot where I would plant my tomatoes. And deep down in the hole I struck what I thought was a rock. I had to dig around it. It was a pretty good size. I finally knelt down and began to pull on it. Finally it came out. It left a big hole. It was not a rock. It was a word. Much like kerygma, but different. I brushed it off. There was printed these letters on this word. It read: k-o-i-n-o-n-i-a.

Koinonia. It got lost somewhere. It is supposed to mean fellowship, sort of. But that really doesn't do it justice. It's bigger than the word, fellowship. But we've almost lost it. Koinonia doesn't mean soggy chicken or cold beans at a pot luck.  And it doesn't mean agreement. We're all in agreement—we’re in fellowship. It doesn't mean everybody is a Democrat or Republican and we just meet together to undergird each other's prejudices.We lost something precious when we defined it as a circle of like-minded who just enjoy each other other's company immensely. Having the best time in the world. Fellowship is far more complicated than that. It means to take in. Period. Not just your own kind.  All kinds.

John Fawcett came to understand this the hard way. He was born in bleak Yorkshire in 1739. He was left an orphan when he was twelve. And he lost the word, fellowship. He was an apprentice to a tailor in Bradford, which was almost slavery. For when he was just 13 years old he worked from 6:00 Am until 8:00PM every day. Learned to read at night by reading Pilgrim's Progress. When he was 15 he heard the great George Whitfield preach and became a Christian. He was married when he was 18 to a woman several years older than he was. He was called to the Baptist Church at Wainsgate. Ugly, ugly little village on the top of a hillside. Little money. Few people. No parsonage so they "boarded around." His wife and children must have loved that.

It was hard place and so five years and four children later, Carter's Lane Church in London called him. He went and talked to them and accepted the church. More people. More money—almost enough to live on. When he returned home to Wainsgate they were shocked. And when he loaded his belongings on a wagon to leave for London, the people gathered around and began to cry. "Please don't go. Pastor, please don't go." His heart won out over his head. And he unpacked the wagon and stayed. He was Pastor at Wainsgate for 54 years. The Sunday after he unpacked the wagon, before he preached, he led them in the singing of a hymn, he had just written the night before. He lined it out, line by line, and this is what they sang: "Blest be the tie that binds, Our hearts in Christian love, The fellowship of kindred minds, Is like to that above”.  John Fawcett had found a word and it changed his life and theirs too.

Diakonia - Service

Just last week I was raking leaves. They keep falling even in summer. The dog next door came and stood by me and when I saw him, I swear he was thinking: “What is he doing?”  And I raked over something. It was not stick. And it was too large for the plastic bag. I brushed it off. It was a word. And old-fashioned word. Almost out of date. It was beautiful when I brushed the dirt off it was strong and solid. It read. Diakonia. It means to serve.

We've largely lost it today. I pull into the gas station. I pump my own gas. If I want my tires checked I do that myself. If I want the windshield cleaned I do that. If I want to know if my oil is all right I pull up the hood and try to find the dip stick. And when the gas is through I take out the pump handle, replace it, screw my gas top on, close the lid, go into the station because the pump won’t take my credit card.  The man behind the counter looks up from his newspaper and says: How much gas did you get? And when I don't remember, he asks if I will go out and find out the amount and let him know. And as I drove off I looked back at the sign: Service Station. We have lost a word.

But in my yard I found a word. It doesn't mean to serve the church really. It doesn't mean that we come here to get our needs met though we all do and should. Or like the man said we're like a filling station, we do come here to get filled up. And I hope that happens.  But this word means a whole lot more than that. Jesus said we find diakonia when we give it away. We're supposed to be a real service station.

People don’t come to church to help you pay the preacher—or just to help out in the nursery.  Sometimes they tell me I come here to get my needs met—emphasis on the I. It really is a me, me, me age. But they keep coming back because they discover this word: service. When they got sick and could do hardly anything—somebody came over and cut the grass and somebody brought a casserole—or several. And when I visited their hospital room—on the table by the bed were about 18 get well cards. Somebody cared—and that’s what we call service. I lead a lot of Grief groups. Folks who have lost children. Some have had to say goodbye to husbands, wives,  grandparents, brothers and sisters. And do you know what they tell me? I couldn’t have made it without: and they name a husband or wife or neighbor or child or a Pastor that stood by them.  And weeks later when they can stand it they will be back in their pew and when church is over people who love them surround them and hug them and whisper: “I was praying for you.” They know this word diakonia. It’s a healing word.

After a long and distinguished career as a Minister, Carlyle Marney preached a sermon to his last congregation:”They were the most church I ever knew.” For somewhere in those crowded busy years he had found in that all-too human church what Jesus had in mind. The Most Church he ever knew. In that place they had found three words—probably more. But the church had discovered: kerygma—a good news—even for the preacher. They had polished the word: koinonia—a fellowship that really is a circle that takes people in and helps heal them and change them forever. And my friend, Dr. Marney must have discovered this third word where he served. Diaknonia. Service. For this Pastor saw a people reach out and try to help wounded world. And what they found made a profound difference in other people’s lives and their own.

photo by comeonandorra / flickr



--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

(This sermon will be preached at the Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC July 26, 2015)


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Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Confederate Flag Came down in South Carolina

The day SC took the flag down. photo by Elvert Barnes / flickr

It was a big day in our State when the Confederate flag came down. Not without controversy. Some folk said we were turning our backs on our ancestors. Some said this political correctness has got to go. Some said it was an important part of our history and ought to stay.

Yet it was a powerful day when the conservative Governor of our state, surrounded by legislators elected by South Carolina citizens,  had voted to remove this flag. It was another chapter in putting to rest part of our tortured history. This flag has been waving on Statehouse grounds since 1961.

photo by Jim Surkamp /flickr
Kathleen Parker, South Carolina and writer for The Washington Post wrote a splendid column on this segment of our history. In her article she said that Robert E. Lee would have raised a toast to this historic occasion when the flag in South Carolina finally came down.

She writes that Lee opposed the building of memorials to Confederate soldiers, fearing they would stir more resentment and division. It was time for the healing to begin. Lee left orders that he did not want this flag displayed at his funeral.

Robert E. Lee was a great man. On that day at the Appomattox Court House  on April 9, 1865  Lee surrendered and the war was over . The two Generals, Lee and Grant sat across the table from each other. It must have been a hard day for Lee. He had said "I would rather die a thousand deaths than do what I have to do in this surrender". He and Grant both had lost so many lives. 5Over 620,000 men. But that day after they signed the surrender papers General Grant told Lee that his officers could keep their weapons and the horses they owned. No Confederates would be marched to prison camps but would be  allowed to go home. Lee said he had one request to add to Grant's generosity. He asked that not only his officers keep their own horses but all his soldiers who owned horses. He told Grant that it was time for Spring planting in the South and that without those horses plowing would be well-nigh impossible. Grant honored that request. Lee's men could keep their horses.

photo by Jim Surkamp / flickr
Charles Bracelen Flood* reports that as the signing was over and Lee had thanked Grant for his generosity--he mounted his horse, Traveler. Grant came on the porch and took his hat off and the Union officials who were there took off their hats as Lee rode by. Flood writes that one of the officers was heard to say, "This day will be remembered forever." Never again would Robert E. Lee allow an unkind word to be spoken of Grant until the day he died.

Last Saturday at the mall I saw a young man in a pick-up truck kept riding around and around in a circle with two Confederate flags flapping in the breeze. He even stopped once and made sure both flags were unfurled so everyone could see.

I wish he had known this wonderful story the writer, Flood gives us. On General Lee's first Sunday back home after the war he went to his Episcopal Church. At Communion time an unheard of event happened that day. A well-dressed black man got up out of his seat and went to kneel at the altar to receive the Communion elements. The attendees in Richmond that morning were in shock. The Rector was appalled. Black folk were consigned to the balcony could never take Communion until all the whites were served and returned to their seats. The tension must have been enormous. Robert Lee left his seat, moved down the aisle, knelt next to the black man and received the Bread and the common Cup. Only then did others make their way to the front.

Black folk in Charleston taught us much about forgiveness after their church was invaded and their members murdered by a white man weeks ago. A white man in Richmond acted out forgiveness as he walked down the church's aisle and knelt at the altar beside a man who had just been freed from slavery.

The flag has been a symbol of racism and hatred to our black brothers and sisters. Thank God South Carolina has done a fine thing. The American flag still waves over our capitol in Columbia symbol of more than our founders ever really dreamed: "liberty and justice for all." We still have a long way to go--but thank God for this event in our state's recent history.

*You might want to read a great book about Lee, Charles Bracelen Flood, Lee The Last Years ( Boston Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981)



photo by Tony Cyphert / flickr
 
 


--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com






Monday, July 13, 2015

Donald Trump Must Have Flunked History

photo by Gage Skidmore / flickr
Although Ken stopped talking about it, the compilations of Margaret's dislikes became an obsession with him. When she refused to patronize a Chinese laundry, he learned that she was against the Chinese and, it seemed, all Orientals. The Russians she hated with patriotic zeal. The English she thought snobbish, the French immoral, the Germans brutal, and all South Americans lazy. Category by category, she closed humanity out." 
   --Sloan Wilson, A Summer Place

The other day a friend turned on Fox News. "Why Fox News?"  He said: " I like it." He joins a crowded theatre full of folks that turn in day after day and night after night to listen to their rantings.

Suddenly on the screen Donald Trump was front and center. Not only, of course on Fox News but on all the stations and the newspapers ad naseum. When are we going to learn that giving exposure to negativism and arrogance are not healthy foods.

I watched carefully as Mr. Trump yelled and screamed about the illegals. Especially the Mexican whom he said just might be rapists, murderers, ready to hook all our children on drugs and take over our jobs. Well, not all, he conceded.

I recalled my trip to Ellis Island. Passing Miss Liberty with her torch held high, our boat landed on the island where most of the immigrants had to first come years ago to enter the United States. It was moving to think about all the tributaries from all over the world that emerged to make America what it is.

As I looked at all their displays I came to a room
 and read these words:

"Japanese sentiment on the West Coast peaked between 1914 and 1924. A 'Swat the Jap' campaign swept Los Angeles in 1922. In addition to signs...leaflets were printed that said:



JAPS
You came to care for lawns
  we stood for it
You came to work in our truck gardens
  we stood for it
You  sent our children to our public schools, 
  we stood for it
You moved your families in our midst
  we stood for it
You proposed to build a church in our neighborhood
  BUT
WE DIDN'T AND WE WANT STAND FOR IT
  You impose more on us each day
  until you have gone your limit
WE DON'T WANT YOU WITH US
SO GET BUSY, JAPS, AND
GET OUT OF HOLLYWOOD!"
    
And then I remembered--from the very beginning our country has had to struggle with the true meaning of the tiny-big word: all. This all has often been a word that sticks in the throats of many. Do we have such a short memory? Not too many years ago it was the Italians, the Irish, the Japanese and the Chinese that we picked on. Remember those ships we turned away from Germany crammed with Jews who sought refuge from Hitler? We turned them back. Remember the Japanese camps where we penned up decent citizens for years? Most all the non-Anglos have had a hard time getting into our country.

Read Timothy Egan's fine article on this problem: "Not Like Us". It appeared days ago in The New York Times. He reminds us that Miss Liberty has had a hard time keeping her promise to the peoples of the world. We thought maybe a great deal of this us-them business was behind us but the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate groups across the land are at an all-time high.

Wonder how many of these protesters are fine Christian people? Jesus reminded us that "I was a stranger and you took me in." Somehow in our fear or prejudice we have forgotten our whole history. And, as George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

                                      --Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com






Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Churches--What's Happening Out There?





Lately I’ve been preaching in small churches. The Reverends are on vacation and somebody has to do it. And having not shed all my ego-mania…I am enjoying writing sermons (can you believe it) and then going out in all directions and meeting new folks and seeing how different churches do it. 

Most of the churches are small. But small has nothing to do with importance. Those people who wander in Sunday after Sunday find something to keep them going. They enjoy being together and probably catching up on the news and gossip. After a long hard week battling old age or visiting someone in the hospital or just trying to slosh through another week at their job—they keep coming back. They sing old songs and choruses. They bow their heads and whisper prayers. Some say the Lord’s Prayer and recite the √áreed. They pray for their friends and loved ones. Usually there is a long list of those names their bulletins. They listen to the sermons. They take the preacher seriously—even the ones who nod off and can’t keep their eyes open. 

The Pew Research Center—that keeps taking the pulse of many things—released a report in May saying that America’s religious landscape is changing. We’re still a very religious people—though not as religious as our politicians that keep saying: ”We’re a Christian nation!”  

 Well, maybe. But this latest hoopla in South Carolina over the flag, the furor of so many over same-sex marriage and wondering: will the government force us to marry anybody—it’s coming. (Folks, I’ve turned away some couples that I thought, in my considered wisdom, were not ready—and in old age my considered wisdom has gotten a lot looser.) The church will always decide who they marry. Racism still runs like a dark thread through just about everything we do. Look at the flag controversy. We’ve sorta forgotten those 600,000 men and women who have hobbled back from the longest war in our history—wounded and broken. 71% of us still claim some kind of Christian affiliation.Yet all the polls say every church group is facing a downward turn. 

Atheists and agnostics numbers have nearly doubled while overall indifference to religion is rising. Mainline Protestants, it seems, have taken the biggest hit. Their adults dropped by 5 million from 2007 until 2014. That’s from 41 million then and 36 million now. The percentage of those folk who say they are Christian has fallen from 78.4% to 70.6%. 

This new term, nones which we keep talking about lately report that 22.8% of the US population have no religious affiliation. Not atheists exactly—just don’t know and most don’t care. Down the road from my church—and those I’ve been preaching in—are a couple of huge churches. Why they have to have policeman on Sundays just to direct traffic in their more than one services. And all of us mainliners—preachers and pew-sitters— are saying: “Why can’t we be like them? What’s wrong with us?” 

Consequently this mega-things are becoming the standard of excellence. So slowly we’re beginning to adopt some of their styles and techniques. Not all bad—but not all good. I read this article the other day that sent chills and fever through my body. It said, with a straight face, “If the mainline church is to grow it must create satellite churches much like the mega-church.” Huh? Find a room on Butler building somewhere pipe in the sermon while folks wander in and sit on folding chairs and watch a screen. Maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy—but our standard of excellence is found elsewhere. In our desperation for more folk and more money—the answer is not to be like them. No. 

Several years ago I remember somebody asking the Hershey (as in bars) people why they were still successful after all these years. Zillions of other candy products were their competitors. They said, we just keep making chocolate—good chocolate. Out there are folk that are starving for something besides Fifty Shades of Grey or the World Cup. My friend with ALS and her family and her friends—don’t need titillation. They need some sort of lifeline to help them through whatever they face. Quiet. Mystery. Wonder. Community. A word from the Lord.

Danny Glover, in the old wonderful movie Grand Canyon,  every year would leave his boring job and tiny apartment in an unsafe neighborhood—and visit the Grand Canyon. A friend asked him why he kept doing this. It was a long way and it was costly. Danny said: “I go out there and sit on the rim of the canyon and look out—just look. And then I get up and go back home and I can make it another year.”


We mainliners really are going through changes—but we must remember our standard of excellence. Everybody I know needs to sit on the ledge and be quiet and just look until the tears come and we are open-mouthed. There are some things that technology just cannot do.

photo by Ignacio Izquierdo / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com



Friday, July 3, 2015

July 4th-Lessons from a Blackboard


photo by Vicki Wolkins / flickr
A friend of mine said he went into a Seminary classroom to teach a class and someone had left these words on the blackboard. This is what he read: 

            “We gather together to tell the story…
              To break bread and share the cup…
              To quieten the terrors of our lives…
              And to lift up our hearts to hope.” 


On this Sunday after our national Holiday, July 4th I can’t think of anything better to talk about today than these particular words. We could talk about talking the flag down. Good idea. We could talk about why we cannot do anything about gun control. Good idea. We could talk about racism and how far we still have to go. Good idea.  Or we could talk about the longest war in our history which seems to be unending. Good idea. We could talk about same-sex marriage. Good idea. But we have heard arguments on all of these ideas all week…all year, really. So I want us to change the subject. Those words on the blackboard got me to thinking. Why are we here?
 photo by The KarenD / flickr

We gather together to tell the story. And what a story it is. Mark’s Gospel said it plainly:  “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”(Mark 1. 14-15) Luke who followed Mark told us about the first time Jesus preached. He stood in his hometown and opened up the Isaiah scroll and read: “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor.” A good news for everybody. Everybody? Every body. Poor. Why most of them would not set foot in a church. We are mostly a middle class outfit. Gays. Most of them are not in church today—why whether it is true or not they have gotten the message—the gospel is for straight people. I love the words that Saint Magdalene Episcopal Church put on their billboard: “We truly regret that gay marriage attacks the sanctity of your fourth marriage” Good news. For everyone. Yet a lot of what I hear coming out of the church today is bad news. Pushing people around. Judging who’s in and who’s out. Mixing politics and religion together and the brew is beginning to stink. No wonder a whole lot of people are sitting at home this morning in their pajamas drinking coffee. Who wants to go to church and feel like an outsider? 

A couple of years ago my wife and I spent a month in Oxford, England. And as we opened the door to the chapel of New College right in the middle of the foyer stands a life-size statue. It is strange. Modern. The figure is bound from head to foot in some kind of wrapping. Life-size. I looked at the title and it was Lazarus. The artist called it: “Lazarus Rising from the Dead.” An American artist named Jacob Epstein carved this figure. Even though Lazarus is bound in his grave-clothes his head is turned in response to Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb. His face betrays a mixture of terror, confusion, and genuine joy. 

I couldn’t get this figure out of my mind. I took several pictures of the statue and keep one in my Bible. In the statue Lazarus is still bound. But his face is turned to Jesus and he about to break loose from the wrappings that bind him down. Remember Jesus words at that tomb: “Unbind him and let him go.”

This captures the good news of the gospel as best I know. Who among us is not bound down by many things? Life, for many of us has not turned out the way we thought it would. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But we are tied down by a thousand different things. If you were to write down right now what it is that cripples you and keep you tied up—I wonder what it would be. We are all tied down by something—or many things. And the good news of the gospel is that Jesus says to all of us: We can be unbound and set free. One translation says: “Unbind him and let him go home.” Some of us are like the Prodigal and find ourselves in some far country, far from home. 

Yet we come back here on Sundays to hear a good news. Hey, folks—all those things that wound us and cripple us and make us less than human—Jesus says to each one of us: Unbind them and let them go. And so, week after week we stumble in here hoping to hear a news that is good. There is a power let loose in this world. A power that can set us free from all those things that hold us back. That’s why we come. But there’s more. 

We gather together to break the bread and share the cup. Once I was in a group where we were asked to think what was the warmest room in the house where I grew up. Hmm. For me it was the kitchen. The kitchen? For you see the kitchen was where I did my homework. It was also the place with four chairs around a Formica table with my mother and father and brother. And though we were about as dysfunctional as most families—something happened there. We were all together. We were connected—and the food my Mama kept cooking was just something to behold. For me the warmest room in that house was the table. 

photo by Huzzah Vintage / flickr
And in the church—the table is the centerpiece. It’s where we all gather. I love the old Invitation to the Supper: 

“You that do truly love the Lord Jesus and want to be his true disciples, draw near with reverence and thanksgiving and take this supper for your comfort. Come to the table not because you must but because you may, come to testify that you are righteous but that you sincerely love the Lord Jesus sand want to be his true disciples. Come, not because you are strong but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on heaven’s rewards, but because in your frailty and sin you need heaven’s mercy and help; come not to express an opinion but to seek a Presence and pray for a Spirit and meet a friend.” 

And we keep doing this because we are reminded week after week and year after year that we get what we need here at this Table. It is the best symbol I know which tells us what the church is really all about. Good news. Good news for all. All the hungry—which includes all of us. Once a priest was serving the Sacrament and people filed down the aisle to kneel and to receive the bread and the cup. And in that line was a woman whom the priest knew. She was a prostitute. Many knew what she did. And she stood in that long, long line with her head down ashamed. And when she came to the altar and knelt there were tears in her eyes. And as the Priest came to her she shook her head and did not want to take the cup. And the priest, God bless him, said, “Take it, it’s for sinners.” This is good news. What we find here is love and acceptance and food, as my Mother used to say that will stick to your innards.  Good news. For everybody. Every body.

 We gather together to quieten the terrors of our lives. I do not know a time when people in this country have been more afraid. We joined the rest of the world that sad day when the towers fell.  And out of it has come this a fear that pervades almost everything. Did you know that the largest department in our government is Homeland Security? Almost every politician beats this drum. Fear…fear…fear.  

photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. /
flickr
 And if we are good stewards we must keep our citizens safe as best we can. But we come back here to find something to hang on to. Peter Steinke who worked with troubled churches says: The more anxious the system the more we seek certainty. I served as Interim in a big church. On one July 4th. And they had a tradition when you came in there was this huge American flag that covered the whole backdrop behind the Pulpit and the Choir. Why if that thing had fallen over we would all been suffocated. 

 And we are seeking certainty everywhere we turn. But we don’t come to church, even on this July 4th Sunday to pat ourselves on the back and say God bless America and forget the rest of the world. We come to with our fears. Not to avoid them. 

 You’ve got your fears and I have mine. Old age. Sickness. Cancer. ALS. Drugs. Sex or the lack of it. Money…money…money. Family members—not to speak of our national and international fears like Isis.  


Rowan Williams who was the Archbishop of Canterbury warns us “when all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is one way of dealing with problems of the world and the problems of our country. 

 There is another way. And this is one of the reasons we gather here week after week. Do you know the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer was a Minister and as Hitler took over slowly everything in Germany and Jews were driven from their homes and businesses Bonhoeffer spoke out. He helped form a group called the Confessing Church to speak out against Hitler. It was a dangerous move. He was invited to the United States where he could escape Hitler and all his madness. And he taught in a Seminary in New York. But he kept hearing about the trouble in his beloved Germany. And he got on a boat and returned home against the advice of everybody--knowing what going home to Germany would bring. And he kept preaching and speaking out. One of his favorite scriptures was: “We do not know what to do but our eyes are on you.” (II Chronicles 20.12) He was arrested by the Nazis and put into prison. And even after the war was declared a failure for Germany one of Hitler’s last acts was to have Bonhoeffer hanged in Flossenburg  prison April 9, 1945. And in church we look about all these things that go bump in our nights—and remind each other, over and over: “We do not know what to do but our eyes on are you” 

In a hard time we gather here to hear a larger word: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” And down a few verses the Psalm reminds us: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”(Ps. 46.1-3, 7) 

This is why we open the Book Sunday after Sunday. Our direction does not come from talk radio, the Internet or some TV special. We open up the book and ask: Is there any word from the Lord? And Sunday after Sunday we get what we need for whatever it is we have to do. “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” But there is one more reason we come here. 

We gather together to lift up our hearts in hope. William Coffin used to say: “Faith puts you on the road. Hope keeps you there.”  

 My brother and I went on a cruise several years ago. Just the two of us. And we had a good time. And every night we would wander down to the auditorium to the karaoke songfest. And a whole lot of people, some of them more than a little tipsy would get up on the stage and make fools out of themselves. Some people sang off-key and it was terrible. And every night, without fail People would begin to call out loud, “We want Bill, we want Bill to sing. And we want him to sing: ‘I Believe I can Fly.” Now when Bill got up it got very quiet. You could hear a pin drop. And fat, old Bill with the thinning hair and the lined face from too much booze and cigarettes, would begin to sing:


            I used to think that I could not go on
            And life was nothing but an awful song
            But now I know the meaning of true love
            I’m leaning on the everlasting arms.
            If I can see it, then I can do it
            If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it. 

            I believe I can fly
            I believe I can touch the sky
           I think about it every night and day
           Spread my wings and fly away
            I believe I can soar
            I see me running through that open door
            I believe I can fly
            I believe I can fly
            Oh, I believe I can fly.” 

photo by JJ / flickr
All over the house you could hear sniffling and someone crying. I looked around and people were wiping their eyes. And we all so far from home began to sing along with Bill--a hope for our lives and our pain and our worries: “I believe I can fly.” Every night without fail we would gather in that darkened room and somebody would say, “We want Bill to sing. And we wanted him to sing: ‘I Believe I can Fly’.” And he sang for us all. Hope—that’s what he sang there is the darkness.  

Isn’t that really why we come? And to leave here and go back to whatever it is we face. Some hard things. Some things that we don’t know if we stand. Things that seems to have no answer. And we look around us at people just like us. They don’t have any answers either. But we gather together, we tell the story around a table…we try to deal with the terrors of our lives…but most of all we lift up our hearts in hope. And sometimes we learn it from one another, and sometimes from the book—and sometimes even from a sermon.

Paul said it so well when he wrote to the Church at Rome: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And if you let your finger down the page, you will read these words. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”(Romans 15.5-6, 13) And friends, that is a July 4th message for us all.

(This sermon was preached at the North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian  / July 5, 2015,  Anderson. SC)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com




Same Sex Marriage: A Long Time Coming

(If you don't know Prayer and Politics by Ken Sehested--check it out. (www.prayerandpolitics.org)
I am indebted to him for this picture and the words that go with them.
 

Just amazing. Vivian Boyack, age 91 (at left in the photo), and Alice “Nonie” Dubes, age 90, have been together for 72 years, and this past weekend they tied the knot in Davenport, Iowa. “This is a celebration of something that should have happened a very long time ago,” said Rev. Linda Hunsaker who performed their wedding. (Photo by Thomas Geyer)

           +                  +                +                  +                  +               +

As I write these words I think of my son, Matthew and his partner, Mark whom I married just last June in Philadelphia. It was the first same-sex wedding I have performed. This is what I said in the service.

"This is the beginning of a great week-end. For beginning tomorrow friends, family and loved ones will come together to celebrate 25 years that you all have been together. But today is different from just marking this partnership of 25 years.

What you did 25 years ago was a private matter between two persons. Society did not give you full rights and privileges that all citizens should have. You were put in a different category of simply not fitting in...of being so different from everyone else that you had no legal or religious status in your relationship.

Thank God this is changing before our very eyes. For granting gay people the right to be married makes what has been a private matter a public and legal event of enormous consequences. But it goes much further than this--it proclaims a truth that has always been there--you are just like everyone else--and the false categories we have put around gay people are falling away.

So what you did 25 years ago is now acceptable in this state (Pennsylvania) and many other states. Nobody knows the struggles you both have gone through your whole lives to be where you are. To be told by culture and government and church and families and even friends that there is something wrong with you...that you don't fit in...that you're not like everyone else--that you should not be who you are--is a terrible thing. And yet--despite whatever you have had to overcome--and that has been a lot--you found each other and you established a relationship which is life-affirming and as fine as you will find in any marriage. And so we applaud you for that. So--this is an important day and we all rejoice with you.

Wallace Stegner is a great writer and in one of his books he writes:

"It is something--it can be everything--to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can't handle."*

And so I ask you both the same questions I ask every other couple who wish to be married. Mark and Matthew--do you take each other to live in the holy estate of marriage? Will you love each other...comfort each other...honor and keep each other in sickness and in health and that forsaking all others...you will be faithful to each other as long as you shall live?

Then I ask you both to repeat after me the old marriage promise, which people have been saying for hundreds of years.

I, Matthew take you Mark, to be my beloved partner...to have and to hold, from this day forward...for better, for worse...for richer or for poorer...in sickness and in health...to love and to cherish my whole life long. I give you this promise that I made to you 25 years ago.

(I then asked Mark the same thing.)

Because you have made your promises to one another...and have already sealed that promise with 25 good years...I declare that you are now married not only by the state of Pennsylvania...but also in the presence of God who celebrates the joy and wonder when two people come to this place.

Let us pray:

Lord God, we thank you for Matthew and Mark and for this special day in their lives. We also thank you for every tributary along the way that has brought them to this good place. Be with them in all the days to come...keep them safe from danger and may your promised goodness and mercy follow them all the days of their lives. Amen.

*Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird (New York: Doubleday), 1976) p. 213


--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com




Thursday, July 2, 2015

ALS--Teresa's Journey

                                       " I feel like Alice in the book, Alice in Wonderland when she said,                                          
                                 'I fell down a rabbit hole,                                   
I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.'"
--Teresa Gray

 

Fifty six year old Teresa Gray was diagnosed with ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease in November, 2013. I asked her if she would tell me about her journey and she graciously agreed. So I sat in her beautiful living room surrounded by the things she loves—pictures of family members and friends. There were books everywhere and momentoes of trips and special treasures she had picked up along the way. Outside hydrangeas and flowers bloomed. Somewhere in the distance a bird sang. We were surrounded by life—her life.

Teresa opened up her heart and told me her ALS story. She had been a Middle school school librarian for 9 years and loved introducing her students to books. And after the doctors gave her the terrible news they told her to get her affairs in order. Teresa said, “Remember Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland? I feel like Alice when she fell down a rabbit hole and said, ‘I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.'''
 
Teresa Gray's journey through her rabbit hole started over two years ago. On July 4, 2013 she said her lips felt numb and she had a hard time trying to blow up balloons for a party. Her family began to notice that she tended to cough and clear her throat after she ate.  Then in November she ate a small piece of apple, and  it became lodged in her throat and she could not breathe. Her husband pounded on her back and she began to breathe again. 

The incident scared Teresa enough that she saw her internist who called in a specialist who ran a multitude of tests.  Every test came back normal except swallowing was difficult. Looking at her last test the Doctor told her it looked like she had ALS. “If was as if the air in the room had been sucked out,” she said. Teresa knew that ALS was a progressive degenerative disease . Eventually these victims are robbed of their ability to move, speak, swallow or breathe. She knew there is no cure for ALS at this time.
 
So her journey began. There would be a multitude of doctors. ALS patients are treated by neurologists, gastroenterologists, pulmonologists, speech and physical therapists. Those first days of diagnosis were filled with appointments.

One of her first questions was: Should I tell everyone outside my family? She opted to tell. Teresa wanted people to pray for her and let them know what was going on in her life.

Teresa found that most of her symptoms centered around swallowing which grew progressively worse. This was followed by an overwhelming sense of fatigue as her muscles slowly began to die.

That Spring her Principal suggested that the students raise money for ALS instead of the usual charity. Teresa spoke to the school assembly and told them about her illness. After that program a long line of the students formed around her to hug her, to say they would be praying for her and hoped she would get well soon. At the school's fundraiser they raised nine times more money than they had ever raised for any other group.

 Teresa refused to become an invalid. She began to lend her support to the Greenville Hospital System's dream of building an ALS Center in Greenville. There was no center in South Carolina and ALS patients had to travel to Augusta or Charlotte for specialized treatment.  An ALS Center in Greenville would provide one room where specialists come to the patients. As ALS patients become less mobile it becomes very difficult to travel long distances for treatment. Over 30,000 people live with ALS in the United States and 5,000 more join their ranks every year. Wade Hampton High School in Greenville donated  $226,000 to the Greenville ALS project during their Spirit Week. The young people in her church raised money for this same project during Super Bowl Weekend.

Over that summer Teresa realized that she would have to leave the teaching job she loved so much. But she did return that fall to say goodbye to her colleagues and students.

Fatigue continues to plague Teresa.  At Christmas dinner with her family some food lodged in her throat and she could have died. Her swallowing mechanism was breaking down and in January she knew it was time for a feeding tube because swallowing was so difficult and dangerous.

Teresa said she has no bucket list except life. I asked her what helped and she reeled off a long list.  She joined a Prayer group which became most meaningful. She draws strength from her supportive family and many friends. She attends a weekly Healing service where a priest anoints the sick with oil and calls out their individual names in prayer. Teresa said that her own church has surrounded her and her family.

She has been interviewed by The Greenville News, she has been on several TV programs—telling her story. Several videos have featured Teresa and her journey. She said that Social Security and Disability insurance helps a great deal—but those affected should apply early because the waiting period could be long.  

Teresa’s list of what helps continues. She tries to live every day to the fullest. She says she does not think of ALS all the time as she first did when she was diagnosed. But she does know that one day there will come when ALS will invade her life further.

Despite this difficult illness, Teresa is grateful for many things. Washing her hair. She can still walk, type, read
and she continues to be thankful for every day and all the things that she can still do. She serves as a Deacon in her church.  Her husband David gave her a pendant that reads: “one day at a time.” Teresa said, “My husband cooks when I am tired, tucks me in if I fall dead asleep from fatigue. He looks after me. I am so fortunate for David and my immediate and extended family and all those people out there that pray for me.” She cried as she said, “I want to live long enough to see my son graduate from college and hold my grandchildren.”

Like Alice in Lewis Carroll's book, she already knows that today and the days to come are very different from her yesterdays. At 56, disabled but hopeful, she has found a whole new life.

Teresa is wrong about not having a bucket list. Her bucket is filled and running over with life, meaning and hope. She continues to touch the lives of many. She refuses to give up. As I left my interview and drove toward home I remembered something that an Editor of The New Yorker said about a troubled writer named Ross. The Editor said of him, “He just keeps going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captures his colors and nobody silences his drums.”  Those words express the blond-haired woman in Greenville who refuses to give up. No wonder Teresa Gray is a hero for so many of us. 
 
 
 
--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com