Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Out of the Whirlwind...GOD!

Job questions God … and … in the end … God questions Job
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter
(preached* 10/22/06)

In the end, God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends…Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads.” – Barbara Brown Taylor

Biblical Text
Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?


Nearly fifteen years ago to this day … I’d been your pastor for all of a month …we’d just finished worship … Jan drove away and then suddenly came driving back into the parking lot … “Greg, they just said on the radio that there’s a bad fire in the Oakland Hills” … a “hot-spot” that they’d thought was out got going again during the previous night … and now all anybody could do was stand and watch … which is what (I’m only a little embarrassed to say) we went and did. We trundled the boys into the car, drove over Wildcat Canyon, north of where the fire was burning, and made our way to Berkeley. We made our way to just below the Claremont Hotel where we joined throngs of people who stood in the hot, smoky night air, slack-jawed, dumbly looking up at the fire that consumed one gorgeous after another.

There really was nothing anyone could do … oh, the helicopters with big buckets of water did their part, but it was only when the fire ran out of fuel at the top of the Berkeley and Oakland ridge that fire became even remotely manageable.

Modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.

Halfway across the Pacific, about a week ago, in the place of my early years of upbringing, the ground shook as ground will at times … it shook mountainsides until they fell … it shook roads until they split … it shook buildings until they collapsed. And the earthquake that struck Hawaii was not considered particularly large.

Once again, modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.

I’ve been in way more hospital rooms than I’d care to tell about … hospital rooms where there’s one kind or another of some wildfire of an awful disease raging inside the person I’m visiting … and in way too many of these cases the top of the ridge for them … the place where their disease ran out of steam, ran out of fuel … was the place of transition for the person from life into the deep mystery beyond life.

And yet another time, modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.

We spoke of Job a couple of weeks ago … and we acknowledged that if there was a single, pulsing theme that ran through Job, a continuous thread, it was a book-long, drawn out, agonizing question that never really gets an answer as we think of answers.

It is a question that got echoed in the title of a book that a Rabbi wrote some twenty years ago after he watched his son die slowly and painfully of a disease that made his son into an old man before he was even a teen. (NOTE: the disease is called progeria)

“Why” Rabbi Harold Kushner agonized in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Why do bad things happen to good people”??? The book so powerfully hit the nail on the head, that it became a runaway bestseller … and it remains a bestseller— especially among Christians.
And “WHY”, the author of the book of Job likewise asks, “Why must our lives be so full of undeserved suffering?” “And is there any meaning to our suffering?” “And … why does God seem to stand idly by while we suffer?” “Where is God?”

I have heard people say “When I die or when I get to heaven or when I stand face to face with my maker, I’m going to ask God ________________________ [insert BIG question here].
What are your questions? Please feel free to speak them aloud … (Two of the questions: Why must little children die of starvation in poor countries? Why is there Alzheimers disease?)
Thank you … in next Sunday’s sermon I’ll come back with answers to ALL of your questions.
Many of your questions are courageous … as Job’s questions are courageous. I’ve always appreciated the courage of the author of the Book of Job and the courage of the Biblical editors who retained the book of Job … Job’s questions are stunning in their boldness … with his questions, Job grabs God by the divine lapels and yammers out one hard, aching question after another.

Job comes off a little like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick … especially in the movie where Gregory Peck playing Captian Ahab has strapped himself to the whale and cries out crazily in the midst of the wind and storm and rain.

So … in Job, we see that Job gets as close to “God’s face” as perhaps any human being ever has. Job “gets into God’s face” … you know that’s a colloquial term that means “confronts” Job has intestinal fortitude.

Who would dare to address God this way? Who would dare to rattle God’s cage so boldly? Within the mindset of Job’s time, I can’t believe that God didn’t “smote” Job … that God didn’t shoot a giant bolt of angry, divine lightening at Job for his audacity … “Take THAT, you little pest.”

And you know, the amazing thing is that Job rants on and on and for the longest time, God doesn’t do a thing … God is completely and utterly silent … God is completely and utterly silent to the point of absence.

And I suppose this represents a crisis of faith … is God only the echoes of our longing? Are we actually alone in this universe and God only the sad fabrication of our existential loneliness and frustration? Let’s not kid ourselves that the people of the so-called “Old Testament” times were crude simpletons … ancient unsophisticated brutes. Long before you and I wondered if there was a God, the author of Job plumbed the depths of that question … perhaps deeper than anyone before or since.

Some of our questions this morning … or perhaps some of the questions that rose up in us that we did not speak … surely have to do with our own crises of faith … our own agnosticism … our own frightening moments of atheism.

I’ve spoken Madeleine L’Engle’s descriptions of the cold, dark waters of atheism that broke over the bow of the vessel of her own faith when running up against inexplicable human cruelties. And St. John of the Cross wrote of the “Dark Night of the Soul” where faith becomes depressed … and then nearly impossible; the soul dry and the spirit listless. I would be lying if I said I did not know such times in my own life and my own faith. It is why I find myself turning and returning to L’Engle and St. John of the Cross and others in my own journey … in my own times of need and struggle.

Have you ever been in a setting where you were scorned for your doubts? Your questions? Your struggle with the neat little pat theological answers that so many seem to prefer? My understanding is that Doug Holmes came to Shell Ridge eleven years ago as a refugee from such a congregation where it was taboo to question the “party line” … taboo to doubt.

The character of Elihu, in the book of Job, represents such a mentality and it’s a mentality that the author of the book of Job is contending against. When Job finally falls silent in his complaint, and before God responds, Elihu jumps up and wrestles the microphone away from Job … he castigates “Job’s friends” … you know, “Job’s comforters” … he rebukes their silence in the face of Job’s suffering … he rebukes them because they are old enough to be wise, but their years have seemed to have taught them nothing.

But Elihu’s hottest anger is reserved for Job whom he believes has wrongly turned his attention from God to his own suffering. He believes Job is WRONG to contend against God … WRONG to lift up his own righteousness before God … WRONG to make his case that he is undeserving of his dreadful fate.

I don’t know that it’s that Elihu is wrong in what he says … much of it is pretty hard to argue with. It’s that in the face of such great suffering, it’s the wrong answer at the wrong time to Job’s question.

And note the name of the book, by the way, isn’t “Elihu” … it’s “Job” … Job, ultimately is the “hero” of this story … and as the hero, Job’s questions and the courage it took for Job to cry out in righteous despair and frustration to God is, in fact, heroic.

And it’s why I return again and again to this “hard nut” of a Biblical book … the book of Job. The theological view in the book of Job represents a stubborn streak in the ancient Hebrew soul that refuses to believe that God has abandoned God’s creation, refuses to believe that the universe is not somehow still within the bounds of God’s care. Job will not let go of God even though it may seem that God has let go of Job.

And so here Job is … and maybe here we are … Job is spent … he is physically spent … he is emotionally spent … and he’s down to his last theological dime. His faith is almost flat-busted, there-ain’t-nothin’-left-in-the-cupboards broke. This friendly little wager between God and Satan, with which Job’s story begins … has just about made a winner out of Satan.

And now what? I like Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this text. She claims that "for most of us, the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God – without any hope of consolation or rebirth." We can get angry and even impolite, she says: "In the end, God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends…Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads …”
And out of hiding God comes … with a vengeance.

Jan hates it when I get too loud in the pulpit … when my voice strains … and children start looking scared. But how else are you going to depict God’s response??? God doesn’t speak in the still small voice of Elijah on Mt. Horeb. This time God IS in the wind … in the storm … in the loud clapping thunder. People who have lived in the Midwest and survived a deadly twister say that the twisters, when they pass by, sound like a thousand locomotives thundering past.
God speaks out of the whirlwind … God speaks out of the twister … and if God’s voice is to be heard over the sound of a thousand locomotives, then God is speaking UP … and speaking OUT … and speaking LOUD.

Do you get it? God is not silent. God is not absent. God IS.

Now be sure that what God has to say to Job doesn’t “feel” very kindly … it is a divine, rhetorical blast that burns every last hair off of Job’s head … but God is speaking to Job “face to face” … and Job, finally says in response to God … “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” That is to say, that God had finally become REAL to Job.

Yesterday, Jan and I were privileged to get to attend the Cal/University Washington football game (Thank you, Robert Scheid!). We sat on the aisle in the “blue section” 50 rows up. Part way through the game, I noticed someone coming up the long flight of stairs. It was woman whose progress stopped and started, stopped and started. I turned my attention back to the game, but when she got a little closer, I looked again and saw the reason for her halting progress. In her hand, climbing the stairs with her was a little girl, perhaps three or four years old. The little girl was dressed up in a pint-sized replica Cal Bears cheerleader’s uniform. Her right hand was grasped by the woman’s hand. And in her right hand was a tiny white cane that bobbed about. The little girl’s eyes were closed and suddenly I understood. (NOTE: I add, parenthetically, that the scene was so plaintive that my eyes instantly teared, though neither the woman nor the little girl asked for—nor needed—my pity nor even my sympathy..)

Now I watched discretely for a few moments as the grandmother—we later concluded—and her granddaughter made their way slowly up the stairs. It was clear that the grandmother was there to serve as the girl’s “anchor” … to hold her hand while the girl learned to “make her way” in the world. There was nothing the grandmother could do to alleviate the child’s blindness, but she was learning to make it on her own. So here was this little frail whisp of a child … lost in a screaming sea of humanity … 50,000+ of us … with a mountain of stairs ahead, an enormous journey for such a one … and what made all the difference was the familiar hand of Grandma in hers.

Might this be the story of Job in a nutshell? In being drawn out of himself—in the time of great affliction, Job was given … no answer … no protection … not even healing … only God. Only God! Do we get it? Contrary to what some might see as the evidence, God is not silent. God is not absent. God IS.

There’s an old Swedish spiritual the echoes the experience of one who has come face to face with God, one who has come to know in spite of all the reasons we might have to not believe, that God is real.

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
thy power throughout the universe displayed:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God; to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God; to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!

God of the whirlwind, heart of our hearts, soul of our souls, source of our life, it is you who have brought us into being in this time and this place. You feed us each day with the fruit of your earth. You quench our thirst with water that courses through our bodies. Oxygen created by you fills our lungs and without the continuous flow of your Spirit through us and all creation we would not exist. You are the never-ending flow and the ongoing process of all life and we are your creatures. Hear us now as we call to you.

There are things about our world that we do not understand
and matters for which there are no words but only feelings. Hear our prayers, O God, as we speak aloud our prayers to you:

Names are spoken out of the congregation …

Gentle, great, merciful, loving God:
In the quiet curve of evening, in the sinking of the days,
In the silky void of darkness, you are there.
In the lapses of my breathing, in the space between my ways,
in the crater carved by sadness, you are there.

In the rests between the phrases, in the cracks between the stars,
In the gaps between the meaning, you are there.
In the melting down of endings, in the cooling of the sun,
in the solstice of the winter, you are there.
In the mystery of my hungers, in the silence of my rooms,
In the cloud of my unknowing, you are there.
In the empty cave of grieving, in the desert of my dreams,
in the tunnel of my sorrow, you are there.*

*Concluding poem: In the Quiet Curve of Evening …
Words, music copyright © 1993, Juliana Howard, Used by permission.

Sending Forth
Benediction for All Voices:

Let us leave this place
knowing that wherever we go,
God has already gone there before us,
speaking a word of healing.
And may the blessing of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
be with us in all the places of our lives,
this day and always. Amen.

Wrestling Minds, Wringing Hands

The Doctor is “IN”: Hope for Hurting Minds
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter
(preached* 10/08/06)
This sermon was preached on the occasion of
our observance of “Mental Health Awareness Sunday”

Our preacher, Veronica, said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.”
– Anne Lamott

Biblical Text
Job 1:1, 2:1-10

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." Then Satan answered the LORD, "Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life." So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, "Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die." But he said to her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?" In all this Job did not sin with his lips.


PEANUTS: Lucy is sitting in her little booth with the DOCTOR IS IN sign prominently displayed. Charlie Brown is sitting in front on a little stool, and Lucy says, "you know what you’re problem is, Charlie Brown? The problem with you is that you’re you." He’s crushed, so Charlie Brown asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?" Lucy says in the final frame, "Sorry, I don’t give advice. I just point out the problem."

The problem with you is that you’re you. And the problem with me is that I’m me. So … what do you do with the unique burden of being “you”? And what do I do with the unique burden of being “me”?

I had been a pastor for about five years … a husband for about seven … a father for about 3 … and I kind of felt like my new favorite comedian, Brian Regan, who tells of himself, “I’m just trying to get through life without screwing up too badly, and so far it’s not going too well.”
So, when the burden began to feel larger than I could manage on my own, I decided to seek out someone who could help me bear it … and perhaps understand it. A friend told me about the Good Samaritan counseling center in Glens Falls, New York … and so I started commuting each week through the lovely rural stretches between our village and the upstate mill town of Glens Falls.

Joe Roberts was my counselor … a former American Baptist minister from New Jersey who turned to the “healing arts” … Joe was a great listener … and I was a pretty good talker. I talked and Joe mostly listened for about 2 ½ years. Then I was “fixed” and I moved to California …  … rrrrright!

Joe was not a pietist … he was not given to casually tossing out “pat religious solutions” to emotional challenges … but I do remember him saying, in whatever part of your life your are experiencing your challenges … invite Jesus into that area, even if it’s an inner place, an inner predicament where you wouldn’t want to be caught dead, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed.

I wish I had known of Anne Lamott’s writing when Joe said that to me because I would have loved to have quoted her, saying right back to him, “You know, Joe, If Jesus knew what I was thinking now, he'd drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

Dear friends, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed … don’t hide your inner self and you inner pain from God … bring it all … the good … the bad … the ugly … and maybe especially the ugly … bring it all. Joe helped me.

It’s too bad that Job didn’t have a Joe Roberts he could confide in. Same with King Saul and his “evil spirit” and the prophet Elijah out miserable and alone in the desert. All of these were afflicted in one way or another. Job’s life took this miserable, hideous turn that only seemed explainable by conjuring this bizarre conversation between …. spffff … God and Satan … God tells Satan about Job, [etc.] … Satan says, “Lemme at ‘im … I’ll turn your boy to mush in no time … then see how he curses you to your face.” And bizarrely, God, in effect says: “Sure … go ahead, he’s tough, do what you want—just don’t kill him. May this is where the saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And you thought that originated in child-rearing … or marriage or … insert your own challenge here … “Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”

Many scholars think that the part of Job in which this odd exchange between God and Satan occurs is tacked on to the original story. They also think that about the “lived happily ever after” ending, as well.

But the original part of Job is the long story of his suffering and the deep crisis that it puts him in. He is in agony as he loses his belongings and his family and his health. Job’s agony is complete … it is physical, emotional, spiritual and existential. Perhaps Job needed even more than my friend Joe Roberts could have offered. Suffice it to say that Job suffered … and the book of Job is about suffering.

And I want to suggest that the beginning of the book of Job … the odd, almost hallucinogenic introduction is one way of trying to express just how baffling and bewildering undeserved suffering is when it comes our way. And I would further suggest that when it is the suffering of one who is emotionally ill, it may be the most baffling and bewildering of all.

Mental illness often hits without warning, changing the interior of the mind and changing the exterior of the person so afflicted. Whether or not it has hereditary roots for any given individual, it can be for him or her a profound curse … and it can feel as though divine beings are playing some kind of cruel joke with the afflicted one as its butt.

Mental illness takes a terrible toll. I read recently—and these are broad figures, but I read recently that in America alone, during any one year, up to 50 million Americans suffer from a clearly diagnosable mental disorder. Depression affects nearly one in every ten Americans.
We can put a face on this by saying that in a congregation the size of ours, given the averages, we expect that somewhere around 14 of us suffer from depression. I know that a number of you have been courageous in sharing your own experiences, your own challenges and struggles. You have helped others of us as we have tried to understand our own inner geography with its potholes and sinkholes and even dark abysses.

Rick Mitchell wrote courageously in our September Newsletter of his own struggles that ranged from medical challenges to emotional challenges. One of Rick’s named challenges was anger … which was one of the issues that sent me to Joe Roberts. Rick said:

Looking back in my family, there was not always the acceptance of getting help, especially where mental health issues were concerned. While my father wasn't physically abusive (by the standards of his day), family life was often tense, and psychological/verbal abuse occurred more often than it should have. We are so thankful that this cyclic family pattern has been reduced and hopefully eliminated through help gained from medical and counseling assistance we have received.
Let’s put another kind of face on mental illness … each year, some 5000 young people, aged 15 to 24, commit suicide in America, with thousands more adults taking their lives. Suicide usually ranks first or second among causes of death of teens and young adults.

If it wasn’t obvious before, let us say it now that mental health can be a matter of life and death … and it should be a matter of deep concern for everyone … including those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus. Rick Mitchell went on to say in concluding his column:

Does all this have anything to do with the church's life and mission? You bet it does! It's often been said that God has "no hands but our hands," and I believe that one of God's most favored channels of help for hurting humanity is through those who've made a personal commitment to the 'helping professions.' We can all do our part by being accepting, supportive, and understanding of others' needs -- and our own.
There are at least three areas where people of faith and their congregations can help, ways we can express our loving concern for those afflicted with the undeserved suffering of mental illness:

The importance of destigmatizing mental illness

“The Doctor is “IN” … I wonder if Charles Schultz knew what a service he performed in help to destigmatize seeking help for one’s emotional needs. Insofar as Charlie Brown represented a kind of “every man”, with the help of Charles Schultz, we came to accept the fact that it was OK to be in need of advice, it was OK to admit that our lives were not entirely manageable on our own, it was OK … of course, Schultz’s strips are often deeper than meets the eye.

John Ortberg suggests, rather interestingly, that Jesus himself—whether he knew it or not, implicitly helped lay the ground for the destigmatizing of our inner struggles that can set us apart from others:

Jesus lived a common life. He let his friends see him in unveiled moments of joy, sadness, anger, and fatigue. Jesus’ followers never had to guess whether he was delighted or disappointed. As life was nearing its end, he did not try to convince them he was filled with optimism. He was so transparent, he took the risk of openness and said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.
The importance of reminding strugglers of their innate value and love-worthiness.
Elise Elrod … a transgendered woman from Peace Camp … formerly a successful businessman and pastor before her sexual reassignment surgery … accepting herself has been a long, arduous struggle … she had us repeat at Peace Camp this summer: “I … Y … Q … Y … Q … R”. Now say that faster and faster until you “get it”. (I like you like you are.) Those are important words for all persons … they are words the welcoming and healing church must speak without reservation … and to the words the church must add actions that support the words.

The importance of a supporting community for all of our minds’ times.

Consider the paralyzed man being carried by the four “stretcher-bearers” … what a wonderful image of a community that has learned to serve each other, to be “wounded healers” to one another.

Paul loved to speak of the church as a body, using the human body as a metaphor for the body of faith … in the body there must be great sympathy among all the parts, those that are prominent and those that are modest … Paul suggested that we do well to learn to laugh and cry with one another … and Paul seems to echo the story from the gospels when, in Galatians, he says: “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law.” (Galatians 6:2)

Paul was a wise preacher, and there are wise preachers all around today from whom we can learn in our growth toward being a welcoming and healing congregation.

I like what Rabbi Barry Block told his Chicago congregation recently in a sermon … and might they be challenging, truing words for us here as we seek to be a supporting community? He said:

I pray that our congregation will always be a safe and comfortable place for people with emotional traumas and mental illness. May our hearts be open, reaching out to our neighbors in the hour of deepest depression. May our minds be open, seeking to understand the person whose behavior has become difficult to comprehend. May our doors be open, even to the folks whose mental illnesses have made them most difficult to accept. Let us welcome them all in our congregation and community, with love and caring, with dignity and respect.
In her wonderful memoir of faith, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes about her wise pastor at her Presbyterian church in Marin County:

“Broken things have been on my mind recently and in the lives of people I love. Our wonderful friend Ken died of AIDS—not long after, my friend, Mimi, began to die after a long struggle with a rare blood disease . . .Our preacher, Veronica, said recently that this is life’s nature: that lives and hearts get broken, those of people we love, those of people we’ll never meet. She said that the world sometimes feels like the waiting room of the emergency ward and that we who are more or less OK for now, need to take the tenderest possible care of the more wounded people in the waiting room until the healer comes. You sit with people, she said, you bring them juice and graham crackers.” (p. 106)
One last wise preacher, John Buchanan speaks of: “the least of the least.” These are the ones who are at the bottom of the cultural food chain … those who are pushed out to the farthest margins of existence … these “least of the least” are the ones about whom Jesus spoke when he said: “in as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” The “least of the least” are the ones to whom Jesus directs us to aim our care … and it’s a caring that is intended not just for “the other”, but for all of us, the “least of the least” beyond us as well as the “least of the least” within us each.

Preacher Buchanan says:
The good news is that the healer has come, the “wounded healer,” to use Henri Nouwen’s striking image: the one who touches the leper, the one who welcomes into the kingdom all those on the outside looking in wistfully, the lonely, the isolated, the unloved, the unwanted, the marginal, you and me when we are quarantined for whatever reason, worried, afraid, anxious, guilty, sick in body and soul—reaches out and touches us. The good news is that the healer has come. Jesus is his name.
Dear friends, invite Jesus in … don’t be embarrassed … don’t hide your inner self and your inner pain from God … bring it all … the good … the bad … the ugly … and maybe especially the ugly … bring it all … bring it all … bring it all.

Let us pray:

Psalm 23
a paraphrase by Leslie Brandt

The Lord is my constant companion.
There is no need that God cannot fulfill.
Whether God’s course for me points
to the mountaintops of glorious ecstasy
or to the valleys of human suffering,
God is by my side,
God is ever present with me.
God is close beside me
when I tread the dark streets of danger,
and even when I flirt with death itself,
God will not leave me.
When the pain is severe,
God is near to comfort.
When the burden is heavy,
God is there to lean upon.
When depression darkens my soul,
God touches me with eternal joy.
When I feel empty and alone,
God fills the aching vacuum with God’s power.
My security is in God’s promise
to be near to me always,
and in the knowledge
that God will
never let me go.

We sing together:
O God we call, O God we call,
from deep inside we yearn, from deep inside we yearn,
from deep inside we yearn for you.

Sending Forth
Benediction for All Voices:

As children of God we know we are loved.
With all our questions we know we are accepted.
Let us go forth boldly from this place
to love and serve God in every situation that faces us.
And may the blessing of God –
birth-giver, pain-bearer and life-bringer –
be with us now and always. Amen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

For Such a Time as This

On Taking Risks & Embracing a Spiritual Broad-Mindedness
A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter (preached* 10/01/06)

If we do not learn to live together as brothers and sisters,
we are going to perish together as fools.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

SERMON TEXTS: Esther 4:14; 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 & Mark 9:38-50

For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Esther 4:14

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him … whoever is not against us is for us. Portions of Mark 9:38-40

For Jews, a new year began on the evening September 22nd … for Jews we are now in the year 5767. Perhaps you remember the old classic, “In the year 5767 …” Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the new year and begins a 10 day period of “high holy days” that culminates with the highest holy day in Judaism, which is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. At sundown tonight, Yom Kippur begins. It is the most solemn day of the Jewish year.

For Muslims, Ramadan started on September 24th. This is the most holy time in the annual Muslim calendar. Muslims believe that during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, the Holy Qur’an was sent down from heaven. It was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel as “a guidance for mortals, a declaration of direction, and a means of salvation.”

The month of Ramadan is a time of worship and contemplation during which Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of everyday life. Daylight hours are spent in fasting, prayer, and study of the Qur’an.

At the end of the day, the fast is broken, but it is resumed the next morning. Ramadan ends with the holiday of Id-al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast Breaking), three days of celebration with gifts, meals, and prayer. (from Seasons of the Spirit)

And for Christians—Doug Brown, what Sunday in the liturgical year is this again? … wait … I think it is the 17th Sunday of the lesser feast of St. Douglas the ill-humored … or was it St. Douglas of Lingua … a highly quotable figure who said, rather famously, “don’t need no stinking lectionary”.

Actually, Catholic Christians remember today St. Therese of Lisieux who is, perhaps the second most popular catholic saint after St. Francis of Assisi whose feast is this coming Wednesday, October 4th.

While Christians are not uniform in their observation of this Sunday, many Christians around the world choose this first Sunday in October to celebrate that in spite of our many differences, followers of Christ come around the same table and break the bread of Christ’s body and receive the cup of Christ’s blood.

So in the Muslim world there is a major time of introspection and deepening of faith going on … and in the Jewish world there is a major time of reflection and atonement going on … and in the Christian world … we, uh, come together to eat.

While for Christians, this time is not particularly notable beyond the celebration of worldwide communion, these are the highest and holiest of days for Jews and Muslims. Together with Jews and Muslims, we three faiths represent the off-spring of Abraham and Sarah …we’re often called the Abrahamic faiths …

Now you don’t have to be a basher of all things religious to yet be able to acknowledge that these three faiths alone have been at the center of many of the world’s bloodiest and most horrific conflicts. Father Abraham and Mother Sarah must drench their graves with their tears over the way their offspring have sometimes spoiled the inheritance that Abraham claimed.

The recently ended war in Lebanon is just the latest example of Jews and Arabs battling it out … and of course internally Lebanon is a barely contained hotbed of animosities between Christian, Arab and Jew. And, of course we know that the highly un-civil war that is breaking out in Iraq is between competing versions of Islam … Sunni and Shia …

As the song that I wrote just after 9/11 asks it:

When will the offspring of Sarah and Ab-a-ra-ham
Gather 'round the fam'ly tree?
God and Allah are one, Jews and Arabs are kin,
No one is safe 'til all are free.
(Children Keep Asking Why – Words/GHL-Music/Neal Young)

So it occurs to me that in the midst of these holy seasons and holy wars, that the time is right for leaders of good faith (and I say that with as little self-conscious irony as I can) … the time is right for leaders of good faith from each of these traditions to come together for the purpose of making peace among the children of Abraham … and Sarah. And would that our own American Baptist General Secretary, Roy Medley, would stand and be among the first of those leaders to join in such a gathering.

There actually are some precedents for such gatherings. An “Abraham Summit” was held at a Jewish temple in Washington, D.C. in October of 2002. The summit partly conceived by Bruce Feiler who is the author of “A Walk through the Bible” and “Abraham”. Feiler also initiated “Abraham Salons” where people within the same community could come together and discuss their faiths … their differences … and their similarities.

TIME Magazine in that same year put Abraham on its cover … saying: “Jews, Christians, Muslims all claim him as their father … can he be their peacemaker?”

This entire, long introduction simply leads me to two people in the Bible whose words and actions give us some small hope that we can play our own part in the healing of the great drama of conflict among people of faith in our world.

Playing that part takes a measure of courage that is willing to put one’s own self on the line and take risks … and playing that part also takes a measure of what I would call “spiritual broad-mindedness”.

The two Biblical people are Queen Esther of the Old Testament … the Hebrew Testament … and Jesus.

First, the story of Queen Esther as told by Tamar Frankiel …

The original setting of the Esther story, in ancient Persia, is set in a time when the Jews of the realm were under threat of their lives. Haman, the king’s appointed minister, was an anti-Semite of the first order (indeed, this is the first major evidence of the people being called “Jews” rather than “Israelites” or members of a tribe). His personal grudge against Mordecai was translated into a determination to destroy all of Mordecai’s people. He had persuaded the king that the Jews were dangerous because they kept their own customs – suggesting they might be traitors to the king. A decree was issued that on a certain specific day, chosen by lot, the 13th of the Jewish month of Adar, all Jews in all the Persian provinces would be attacked and killed.

No one doubted that this decree could be carried out. Like most emperors of the era, King Ahasuerus ruled with an iron hand. He may have advisers, but once a law was signed, there was no reprieve.

But, as the biblical story tells us, it so happened that Ahasuerus had chosen as his queen the beautiful Esther who, unbeknownst to him or any of the court, was a Jew. Mordecai appealed to her to find a way to step in. Yet she knew that if Ahasuerus rejected her, even for some trivial reason, she would die. Would she take the risk?

Esther’s decision comes as the pivotal point of the story. Mordecai appeals to her: perhaps you have been put in this place for just this reason!*

*Dr. Tamar Frankiel is
Dean of Students and Professor of Comparative Religion
at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California,
a transdenominational rabbinical,
cantorial, and chaplaincy school.
She is author of numerous
books on Jewish spirituality.

And now Jesus … the quintessential anti-terrorist of his time … he doesn’t drape himself with murderous intent toward all who were not with him—whether they be Samaritans or Jews who opposed him or the Roman empire … and he does not spout violence inciting invective like:

“Whoever is not FOR us is AGAINST us!” … no … Jesus quite oppositely declares that: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There is, in Jesus’ words, what might be called a “spiritual broad-mindedness” that cuts against the militant, triumphant creedalism of his time … and ours.

We need religious leaders in our world who understand that the time for conversation about the decidedly mixed blessing that religion is for the world is NOW … we need religious leaders of all faiths who are blessed with the feckless courage of Esther and who understand that if they are to be more blessing than burden in this conversation, they will be of a mindset typified by the spiritual broad-mindedness of Jesus. Whoever is not against us is for us.

CONCLUSION (a blend of what was written and what was actually said):

There is a new documentary movie out called “Jesus Camp”. From the little I’ve heard, it is one of those “be afraid, be very afraid” kinds of documentaries. I want to be clear that I have not yet seen the movie, but I am led to understand that it is about a Christian summer camp that is all about teaching little Christian boys and girls to be good warriors for their Lord, fighting the good fight against everyone who is not like them. And I suppose there are elsewhere on this aching planet … Muslim camps … Zionist camps … where little Muslim and little Zionist boys and girls are being taught to be warriors for their faiths. And it strikes me that they all may well be hastening the day when God will return, but not to end the world as these might think in a judgment that vindicates their narrow versions of faith, but when God will return to stand and weep over the smoking ruins of earth … making painfully and profoundly true Martin King’s sad warning: If we do not learn to live together as brothers and sisters, we are going to perish together as fools.

Now I want to contrast “Jesus Camp” with the simply named “Summer Camp” at the “Oasis of Peace” at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam community in Israel. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam is an intentional peace-making community where Jews and Arabs live together peacefully and productively. This Jewish/Arab community is a living model in a land where there are many who are skeptical of this possibility.

This summer, a dozen young adults who grew up at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam hosted a week-long camp for 10-12 year-old Palestinian children from refugee camps. Acting as camp counselors, chaperones, and activities organizers, young residents from the “Oasis of Peace” demonstrated the profound impact they can have on the region by touching the lives of Palestinian girls and boys who had never met someone from “the other side.” Organized and directed by Ranin Boulos, age 22, activities included swimming, arts & crafts, drama, music, nature hikes, soccer, dancing, and even a special performance by the Arab-Jewish Youth Circus, as well as field trips to the Arab-Hebrew Theatre of Jaffa, a tour of Old Jaffa, a trip to the beach, sailing, and a tour of Jerusalem including a visit to the Biblical Zoo. The young Jewish and Arab organizers from Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam created an experience that not only affected the lives of the children who participated, but also changed the lives of the organizers as well.

“I didn’t think these kids would have this much impact on me. We got really, really attached to these kids,” said Ranin. “Now, they have hope. They came here and saw that there are different people … they even started learning a few words in Hebrew. They loved our village, and the impact of the village on these kids was very clear Now they realize that things can be different. When they grow up, they will realize ... They have memories.”

Link to complete article:

And how about at “Camp Shell Ridge”? … what do we find here? I hope we find a community more like Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam … a “Jesus Camp” that lives out, not a spiritual narrow-mindedness of fundamentalist faiths, but a spiritual broad-mindedness that Jesus demonstrated when he said: “… those who are not against us are for us.”

It is my hope, further, that every communion Sunday at Shell Ridge will be one form or another of “Worldwide Communion Sunday” …

It is my hope that every time of worship at Shell Ridge is a time of acknowledging that God is the God of all people of whom we are one family … a deeply beloved family, of course, but one of many beloved families, nonetheless.

It is my hope that every time our children gather to learn in this place:

  • They will be taught and they will learn that there are many members in the diverse, worldwide Christian family and that God loves us all,
  • They will be taught and they will learn that there are many children in many faiths in the world who claim Abraham and Sarah as their ancestor and that God loves them all;
  • They will be taught and they will learn that their Christian faith is a good and noble faith in a world of many good and noble faiths and God loves them all.
  • They will be taught and they will learn that they are a part of God’s plan to bring peace with justice

I pray that within the collective consciousness of the children of Abraham there is yet a seed that is preparing to germinate … a seed of justice … a seed of peace … a seed of hope … a seed that will sprout and grow into a new family tree … a family tree that is sturdy and fruitful and protective and a thing of beauty for all to see.

But it will take time … it will take courageous voices of spiritual broad-mindedness being raised above the din of the religious zealots … and it will take more time and more courage, still. As the last verse of my song tries to tell it:

When can we stop running, when can we weary lie down?
Not for a long, long, long while.
Labor for peace, children, labor for justice come 'round.
Labor for earth, reconciled. (GHL)


*The sermon above is a slightly edited version of what was preached on the Sunday noted. My sermons typically go into the pulpit in what I think of as a “rough, but preachable” form. They are, however, rarely in a form that is ready for immediate publication.

For Additional Reflection:

Seasons of the Spirit

Just as Esther took her stand and acted to preserve life, and as Mark’s community exercised hospitality in times of risk, to welcome and shelter those who are vulnerable still requires our courageous action today. In such a time as today, who waits on your action and courage? What aspect of your identity as God’s child may be hidden, in need of claiming for God’s work in this time and place?

Help us, O God, to recognize the times in which we live and to choose to live faithfully. Grant us courage to stand with and speak for those at risk. As we are able, help us to preserve community and redeem the time you entrust into our hands. Amen.

Keep It and Live It, That’s All.

A thousand cults, a thousand creeds,
Is one a rose and the rest all weeds,
Or is each one suited to meet some needs?
Is your own so great that the rest seem small?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

Pagan, or Christian, Gentile or Jew,
How may you know that your own is true?
Not for him or for me or for others, but you,
To live by, to die by, to stand or to fall,
Why, keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the wolves of the world are on your back,
Does it help you to beat the mad pack back,
To laugh at the snap of the snarling pack,
Does it leap in your heart like a huntsman’s call?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the strong are cruel and the weak oppressed,
Does it help you to help? Does it sting in your breast?
Does it sob in your soul with a wild unrest,
To fight against might and let nothing appall?
Then keep it and live it, that’s all.

When the last fight comes and you take your stand,
And the sword of your strength breaks out of your hand
And the ground ‘neath your feet turns to shifting sand,
Does your religion sing when your back’s at the wall?
Then keep it, it’s yours and that’s all.
--Edmund Vance Cooke