Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In Good Times & Bad

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on October 14, 2007
20th Sunday after Pentecost/Year C

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

This was not exactly another Friday night. It was intended to be the night of a lifetime … the night among all nights for the young woman and man. They had met a year earlier and now were preparing to enter into a life covenant with one another. The wedding was scheduled to be performed in a beautiful outdoor courtyard—enclosed on all sides, but wide open to the sky. Unfortunately, between the rehearsal on Thursday and the afternoon of the wedding on Friday, it poured BUCKETS.

October in California is famous for its lingering Indian summer, warm days and gentle evenings, soft breezes and rustling leaves. But this year has started off a bit on the soggy side and it threatened to drive the soon-to-be-married couple into a drab room off of the courtyard where they would, to be sure, be properly hitched, but not in the style they’d hoped. At five o’clock, the rain had stopped, but threatening clouds persisted. The temperature was hovering in the high 50’s—but at the moment, at least, it wasn’t raining. The hotel staff set out the folding chairs and stood the flowers on their stands where they danced in the breeze. A friend of the family rolled out the white runner and scattered rose petals daintily on its surface … and then a gust of wind blew it all away. At 5:30, there were occasional gaps in the clouds overhead, but still no rain. Now a solitary musician, a saxophonist, began his gentle wailing while the guests began to mill around the back of the courtyard.

Finally the time came: the guests were seated with the bride and groom’s mothers not far behind. The groom, best man and I entered from the side and were soon joined by the matron of honor. Then the bride came strolling down the flower-strewn, but now runner-less aisle, her arm looped in her father’s while the saxophone player offered up the most interesting version of Here Comes the Bride I’d ever heard. And still, the rain restrained itself from dampening the couple’s hopes and sending us all scurrying. We were shivering, but we were dry. Soon, we found ourselves in that so familiar and so difficult verbal terrain where spouses-to-be audaciously claim that no matter what lies ahead, they will survive it together as a couple, they will stick with it through thick and thin. In spite of admittedly knowing nearly nothing about the future and what it holds, this couple was the latest in a really, REALLY long line of marital daredevils to claim that their covenantal promise is: “for better, for worse … for richer, for poorer … in sickness and in health.”

The other really long line that Friday night’s couple joined was that of the writers and singers and poets and prophets and dreamers of the Bible whose every thought and word was based on the belief that God’s love and presence was as predictably certain as the daily emergence of the sun and the laws of gravity and the fact that the California Golden Bears will never quite be able to keep from stumbling in their ascent to the top of the college football heap. Corinne, let’s just let that deep sigh out and move on.

The Biblical writers knew they dwelt in an errant universe where calamity could strike at any time and where humanity could be unspeakably cruel. But that was far less important to the Biblical writers than the simple facts at the heart of the universe that God “IS”—simply “IS” … and that the God who “IS” is “for” God’s creation … for the earth and all that is in it. For the Biblical writers, God was a loving creator who had included God’s own being in the creation so that it was impossible that they could ever be apart.

Much, much later, in his letter to the Roman church, Paul reminded them that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God” … NOTHING. It was as though God had stood alone shivering in the early twilight of the creation of the universe and pledged God’s own being to a creation that was yet to be, promising for God’s own part: “I take you to be mine: for better, for worse … for richer, for poorer … in sickness and in health.” What has been joined together in the heart and imagination of God’s own being, nothing … NOTHING can put asunder. Not even our own willful, back-turning, back-sliding, so careless-in-the-things-that-really-matter selves can force God to turn God’s back on us. The author of the second epistle to Timothy, writing in the Spirit of Paul, said: if we are faithless, God remains faithful—for God cannot deny God’self.

It would be a denial of God’s own being to be anything other than faithful to God’s children, to God’s creation. Would that human parents could remain as consistently true to their best parental instincts and ideals. Would that the 16 year old boy in Martinez had had a father and the 9 year old boy in Berkeley had had a mother whose hearts were as clear about remaining faithful and loving as God is toward us all. And is it not implied in the contract made at birth—if not conception, that we parents—both biological as well as “situational”—promise with every cell and neural impulse to seek the highest good for the children we parent, truly: “for better, for worse … for richer, for poorer … in sickness and in health.” And I’ll leave it to the leaders of tonight’s “Healthcare for ALL” to possibly suggest that were we as faithful to the children among us as we believe God is to us, that there would be no uninsured child in this nation OR, if it be in our power, anywhere on this planet.

We may affirm that God is a faithful, loving parent who wills our highest good, but we’ll also acknowledge that God does not shield us from every earthly ill.

Several years ago at Peace Camp … several of us sat in a dormitory lounge passing a guitar around and sharing songs we knew. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of the summer gathering. My friend Joe Phelps, a pastor in Louisville, picked up the guitar and started singing a song called: “Poetry” and it became an instant “dormitory lounge” classic. Walt Wilkins is a friend of Joe’s and the writer of this song. Listening to the song, Walt clearly has no trouble thinking of God as creator and sustainer and gentle lover of all that is:

Now, somebody made everything

From the soul, inside out to Saturn's rings

How my baby smiles and how Ray Charles sings

Of course we were created

The clouds make rain, the ocean makes sand

The earth breathes fire, and lava makes land

Now that took a mighty hand

And a wild imagination

One of these days the Ramblers are gonna show up and sing Walt Wilkin’s wonderful song.

But the verse of the song that has always stuck with me the most is just a little snippet that goes: “the world has a way, if you know what I mean, of scuffin’ you up”. When I first heard them, those words hit with surprising force. Maybe it was because my pastor friend singing them had been through some very tough times. Maybe it was because I knew that each of us in that circle had been scuffed up a time or two or ten. Have you ever been “scuffed up” by life?

I’ll bet that’s how Israel in exile might have described it when Jeremiah spoke to them the word of the Lord that told them to hang in there.

And I’m fairly certain it is “life in exile” that is being described when the psalmist tells this morning of “being tried as silver is tried … of being brought into the ensnaring net … of having burdens laid on their backs … of having to endure a trek through fire and water.”

And what about being afflicted with a disease, as Luke tells it, that causes the whole human family to flee from the sight of you. It helps to remember that being “exiled” doesn’t necessarily involve being shipped off to a foreign land … it’s also being treated as foreign and strange and frightful by those of your own community … even those who are unaware they’re doing it … it is being exiled while yet in your own land.

Exile can even be something as simple as age and aging--though that’s certainly not true for everyone. I’m thinking right now of Millie Harris, whose birthday we celebrated on Wednesday at the American Baptist Women’s White Cross luncheon. Seeing Millie on her walker lets you know that life’s laid some “scuffing” on her, yet she entered the patio room with her trademark smile on her face and a quip on her lips. And perched jauntily on her head was an amazing velvet birthday cake hat complete with velvet candles.

Now no matter what age it is you are turning, it is good to be remembered on your birthday … perhaps it’s a small symbolic reminder that at the heart of all things, we are beloved.

I have a dear friend whose friendship goes back over thirty years. We met when he worked at my uncle’s church camp while I had a huge crush on his sister. In the more active times of our friendship, we were like blood-brothers and soul-mates. We roomed together in college and even began seminary together before he wandered off to get married and … scuffed up a bit by the experience.

He has long since re-married and has a wonderful family and a good career. Our friendship has been in a kind of “maintenance mode” in recent years, but the one thing we can always count on is that a birthday will never pass but that we will pause to call and catch up with each other. On May 5th, I called and wished my friend a happy 49th birthday. On September 7, on my 29th birthday … er, my 49th birthday, the day came and went with nary a word from my friend. It seemed odd to me, but perhaps it was simply a measure of how many years it had been since we’d been “best friends”. A whole month went by in silence … and then one day, a note:

Hey Greg,

I just realized for the first time in all the years I forgot your B-day. I'm sorry. I have been going through a lot of stuff lately. I know that is really no excuse, but it took my mind of off regular things for awhile. On the 28th of August I had to have a prostate biopsy. That was not fun. Then I had to wait to hear if I had cancer. My biopsy came out okay, except for one sample. They took 14 samples—NOT FUN!

From August 17th through September 4th I went through at least 20 tests. I had MRI's MRA's for my brain and neck. I was in the hospital almost every day. So, the end to my summer was not fun for me. After all the tests they ruled out a lot of things. I was diagnosed on September 4th with Parkinson's disease the day before school started. At first the doc thought I had symptoms of what the call Parkinsonism's. There is no medication for that form and the symptoms are horrible and scary. He tried me on a medication and said I'm going to treat you for Parkinson's and if the medication works on you; that will be a good thing. Well, the medication worked thus it relieved a lot of anxiety for Polly and me. She was a wreck anyway because she was reading stuff off the net. I choose to not read stuff and I went right to acceptance. Polly on the other has had a really hard time. But, now she is better. As of yet I don't have the tremors. Most of my symptoms are motor related. I have not missed one day of school. I'm still running as much as I can. My left side is affected a bit more than the right side. All in all I'm doing well. I hope you and your family is doing well too. Take care,

I hope you had a good B-day.


“Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night.”

My friend Steve is entering a new time in his life—but “new” in this instance does not imply better or improved. He is entering a kind of exile where slowly, but damnably surely, his body will become exiled from itself.

We have all seen changes of one terrifying kind or another afflict people we love. And many of these changes are denoted by innocuous names that truly fail to convey the dreaded implications. And yet when we hear these names, there is a stiffening in our posture and perhaps a similar stiffening in our spirit.

What do we do when we get to the other half of the promise that seemed held out to us so cheerily at birth. At birth and in youth and even the perpetual youthfulness we many of us seem determined to live out, we often live as though the first half of the marital and divine promise is the only one we’ll ever know: better … richer … health. So what do we do when that chapter seems to end and now we arrive at the second part of the marital and divine promise: worse … poorer … sickness.

Perhaps we could call this “ultimate measure” time. You’ll likely recall that famous quote of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said: The ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands at times of challenge and controversy. What is true for the trials and tribulations of the world we live in can also be very true of the trials and tribulations we must face as solitary human beings as we come up against our own limits, our own mortality. Our “ultimate measure” will likely be exposed by the serious scuffing life can lay upon us.

My friend Steve and I took classes in college from an Old Testament professor who was a bull of a man. On the handball court, he would regularly whip opponents half his age. Then the summer between my junior and senior year, this stalwart professor suffered a serious, but non-fatal heart attack. And though he regained his health, his spirit was irreparably broken. And when he finally died several years later, it could be said that he had truly died some years before.

If we’re going to talk about the “ultimate measure” of a person, it’s not that we’re speaking of superhuman existential courage … scoffing at death when it sneers in our face. That’s not it. But it may be that the ultimate measure is the kind demonstrated by the 10 lepers in Luke’s story. The ultimate measure of a person is that in our hour of greatest need, we turn with confidence to that which will never fail us, will always be with us and for us, for better, worse, rich and poor, sick and healthy times of our existence.

The ten lepers know that in their condition, they really have no one to turn to, no one who will be with them and for them … except other lepers. But the communities of their upbringing and the center of their faith are all virtually closed to them. And with God so very strongly identified with the family and the temple, the lepers are, therefore, virtually without God. Yet in Jesus they see a glimmer of hope. The prophets of old had spoken of hope and healing that would come to barren and wasted places. And in Jesus they see the word of that hope made flesh.

And though Jesus had all the same reasons to reject the lepers as everyone else seemed to, he did not. We do not know exactly what transpired, but Luke tells us that Jesus inspires the ten lepers to go to the priest to present themselves and in that simple act of trust they find their healing. But Luke goes on to tell us that one of the lepers is “leprous” in more than one way—he not only has the dreaded skin ailment, but he is also a despised Samaritan. And though he, like the other nine, has been restored to health, he yet remains a Samaritan and what good will it do him to present himself to a priest of Israel, what good will it do for him to “go back home” when his home is not where the others are going.

And so, with what surely is some great trepidation, he turns back … back to the one in whom there had been no judgment, only welcome and hope and healing. I deeply appreciate what Ann Fontaine says in her blog in considering the odd actions of the healed Samaritan leper, returning to Jesus. She says: “When the ten lepers were all suffering from a common disease, they were bonded by their outcast status. When they were all healed, the nine returned to their life: their ethnic and religious life. The foreigner only had Jesus at that point … and perhaps he had found his true home.”

Given the chance, I wonder how my friend, Steve, would describe his encounter with God--with the Divine--in this utterly new and foreign time in his life. He did say to me in his note that, unlike his wife who has been quite undone by it all, that he has “gone right into acceptance.” His reference is, you might know, to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ “stages of grief”. In her classic book, On Death and Dying, Ross describes the five stages as:

* Denial (this isn't happening to me!)
* Anger (why is this happening to me?)
* Bargaining (I promise I'll be a better person if...)
* Depression (I just don't care anymore)
* Acceptance (I'm ready for whatever comes)

I told Steve that in jumping straight to “acceptance”, he was a better and stronger soul than I am.

Jeremiah seems almost pastoral in seeking to move the exiles past all of the other very understandable emotional stages to the stage of acceptance. Might it be in acceptance of what cannot be easily or immediately changed that we find new strength for living and wellsprings of God’s grace?

Jeremiah tells the broken-hearted exiles who are now foreigners in someone else’s land, to settle into this experience, to live their lives the best they can, to resume the normal patterns of their lives as though they had not been uprooted and forcibly moved to a foreign land. It was in exile that the people of Israel learned to live with God in their hearts, and not just in the temple. Perhaps in finding God in the midst of their exile, the exiles found their true home.

Every one of us here, I suspect, has something … a wound, a weakness, an awareness … that cannot be easily or immediately changed. It may literally be a sickness unto death or it may be an inner affliction that will dog and worry us all the long way to the grave. Whoever we are, whatever our affliction, we may find our healing in approaching the source of grace and presenting ourselves to that source with “bold humility”.

We cannot guarantee that the promises we make to one another in good faith will survive the rough and tumble of human existence, we cannot guarantee that the good healthy genes of our parents will help us beat every deadly disease, we cannot guarantee that we will nimbly avoid every awful accident. We can only acknowledge that within the heart of all that is in this world, this universe, God is for us … that wherever we are, God IS with healing and grace for our change-battered souls.

God is the firm foundation upon which our lives can safely rest, come what may. And, as we will sing in a few moments:

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Anybody Listening?

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on September 30, 2007

Year C / 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Text: 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Many years after Paul had died, a wise church elder wrote a letter to a young leader of the church … or perhaps he wrote to young leaders in general. The wise church elder felt it was important to speak in the continuing spirit of the Apostle Paul who had been a wise shepherd and guide for the early church. And so he wrote this letter as though it was Paul writing to his young protégé and traveling companion, Timothy. Writing in the spirit of Paul, the Apostle’s counsel and wisdom found new expression in a new time in the life of the church.

I guess it’s a little like trying to remember the wisdom of one of your parents or a beloved mentor in their absence, and while you can’t quite quote them verbatim, you have a sense of how they might have approached a new time or a new predicament.

I told one of you recently that I continue to be amazed at how poorly received are my long and eloquent sermons to my children. And my personal sermons to my dear spouse are only slightly better received. I cast gems at their feet … I weave nearly visible wisdom in the air with my words … and do they clasp me in a warm embrace, eyes wet with gratitude, mumbling their deep and abiding thanks that I have seen fit to gently correct and guide them? Perhaps someday. And in ways they can’t know and I can’t even always say, they do bless and gratify me.

But I have also been blessed by the presence of others … students … docile souls who have been putty in my pastoral hands. But seriously … I have and we have all been blessed by women and men who were and are engaged in the study of ministry and related matters. Beth … Amy … Micky … Nancy … Jodie … Trevor … Jennifer … Angela. And looking back I find myself wondering who guided whom? Truly there was a high degree of mutuality and reciprocity in our relationship as student … pastor … and people. We all learned. We all grew.

Now it so happens that one of those ministers in training is all growed up and is now a pastor in a far place. In fact it’s so far away, that I’m pretty sure you can’t get there from here. In approximately one hour, our dear friend Trevor Hanbridge will be duly installed as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Springfield, Vermont. I really do think of the happy meeting of Trevor and Calvary as a modern sign of God’s continuing activity. In reading e-mails from Trevor and e-mails from one of the members of the pastoral search committee—a young man I knew from my days in Vermont, it seems clear that this is a marriage that has been and is blessed by God.

At some point in that service, an audio recording of a greeting from me on our behalf will be played at Trevor’s installation. What I’ve written is certainly no epistle, but it does give me joy to warmly recall the friendship masked as guidance that I was and we were all able to share with Trevor … and, also, of course, with Cindy, Isabelle and Mae.

Dearest Trevor, Cindy, Isabelle and Mae,

What a joyous day and time you must be having. And what a joyous day and time your now beloved congregation must be having.

And dear Calvary Baptist friends, my warmest congratulations on this God-drenched time in your life as a congregation.

Three years ago this month, a wide-smiling, bright-eyed, slightly graying young man from Burlington wandered into the open arms of our California congregation. Of course it was his lovely wife and daughters of whom we took the most notice. But this young man very quickly insinuated himself into the deepest places of our hearts. How blessed we every one of us Shell Ridgers have been to spend three years on a common journey with Trevor and the Hanbridge family.

One of the most impressive things I have noted about Trevor is his unwavering commitment to his family. Next to his loyalty to his God, nothing claims a higher place in Trevor’s life than his wife and his two daughters. One should always be suspicious of a pastor who thinks God calls him or her to place the church above their family. Trevor has got it right.

I must say that I liked Trevor from the first moment I met him. I’ll also say that I like the person and pastor Trevor is becoming. For three years I watched Trevor perform a slow, intricate dance with his God and his faith and this not-always-comfortable calling into pastoral ministry that yet beckoned him like a siren. Yet every step of Trevor’s dance was taken with thoughtfulness and integrity. Trevor could have tried to become a living miniature of the many wise and wonderful human influences in the church and the seminary around him, but instead he chose to remain, or perhaps I should say, continue to become his own man—his own person. Trevor certainly values the council of others, but he seems also to know his core and his foundation.

Calvary Church, you will be blest repeatedly as you share your journey with a pastor who has his priorities in order, is in love with God and his family, and is on a journey of life and faith whose outcome cannot entirely be known except that God is with you and you are on this journey together.

So, dear friends, on this day when you formally join into this sacred movement of Christ’s ministry together, my prayer for you is that you will strongly encourage one another in your becoming—that you will determine to grow as partners in this marriage of ministry. Grow in compassion. Grow in Christ-likeness. Grow in wisdom. Grow in depth and breadth of love for all people, and indeed, for all of God’s beloved creation.

God has richly blessed some two hundred years of this congregation’s life and ministry, your work and your witness. May God go with you, pastor and people, into every future minute and moment as you discover new vitality as the hands and feet of Jesus, serving in his stead.

Finally, to Trevor, Cindy, Isabelle and Mae: I love you all and the Shell Ridge church family and I wish you and the Calvary Baptist family the very best.

Peace, your friend Greg (or “P.G.”)

I’ve taken a few moments to mentally compare my celebratory note to Trevor with the Epistle to Timothy … and I realize how much trust and courage it takes to write a note as strongly worded and as fiercely directive as was the Epistle … or any of the other New Testament epistles. These are passionate sermons inscribed in blood on parchment and hide. They are written with great passion because they are about things that matter greatly. On the occasions I’ve stepped into the pulpit with that kind of passion, I’ve always done so with great fear and trembling … and I’ve always ended completely drained and literally trembling.

Now it may be a while before the right combination of trust and courage allows Trevor to preach on the subject of “blind greed”, but the author of 1st Timothy and the author of Luke’s gospel have noooo such fears, no such restrictions … they lay it out in living color. And their message? Greed is blind, greed is corrupting and greed kills.

It’s hard to contemplate a sermon on money and greed without thinking of the two Barry’s across the bay. Barry Zito is the former Oakland A’s pitcher who signed away his zen-loving soul when he inked a contract last year for $126 million, the highest paid pitcher in baseball history. As an impoverished pitcher in Oakland, he won the Cy Young award for the American League’s best pitcher. In a Giant’s uniform this year, he was, shall we say: lackluster? And then there’s Barry Bonds, the skinny but highly skilled player who was once baseball’s highest paid player. Barry now looks like two of his former self while the shadow of alleged steroid use clouds what should have been one of baseball’s brightest careers.

Only those who spent the last few months colonizing Mars will not know that Barry broke the most sacred record in sports, besting Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron as the new home run king. Except there’s that little cloud of doubt and suspicion. And actually, it’s not a little cloud.

A New York fashion designer bought Bonds’ 756th home run ball at an auction for $752,000. Then he ran an online vote to determine the fate of the ball. The three options were: send the ball to the Hall of Fame as it is, send the ball to the Hall of Fame with a giant asterisk branded in it or send it into outer space and oblivion. The fans chose to send the ball to the hall of fame with the asterisk to indicate that Bonds’ home run record will always exist under an air of suspicion.

And this summer, in the Tour de France one cyclist after another was dismissed from the tour for evidence of cheating. And last year’s winner will likely soon be stripped of his award.

As most of us know, Diablo Valley college has been rocked by a grade for sale scandal … criminal charges have been filed against 34 current or former students and 21 more are being investigated. A columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Ask a high school or college student about cheating, and before you can finish the sentence, the person will blurt out two things: "Everybody does it," and "It's no big deal."”

Million dollar baseball contracts, a branded ¾ million dollar baseball, steroids in baseball and blood doping in cycling, and academic dishonesty that “everybody does” and that’s “no big deal”. And these are just odd, random examples of values and balance and perspective gone awry. And it seems to me that one could argue that at the heart of these cultural maladies … these ailments is the old demon “greed.” Greed for money, greed for influence, greed for advantage, greed for privilege, greed for power, greed for winning at all costs. It’s all greed. And the wise old pastoral soul who writes in Paul’s name and the gospel writer who wrote Luke and Acts both wish to warn and remind us that “Greed is blind, greed is corrupting and greed kills.”

Greed may be dressed in Giant’s orange and black or the Tour’s yellow jersey or it may have a really odd Donald Trump hairdo, but in the end, the wise souls wish to remind us, greed feeds on itself, feeds on others, is nearly blind to its detructive ways and consumes everything in its path.

In Luke, this morning, Jesus tells a parable that is astoundingly graphic. It’s about an extremely wealthy man who dress and conspicuous consumption tell the listener that this man has more money than he knows what to do with. He’s so wealthy that he uses bread for napkins and throws it on the ground where the dogs fight over it. When the dogs aren’t fighting over the bread, they are, in an odd depiction of kindness, licking the wounds of a beggar who lives at the wealthy man’s gate. And though the rich man is aware of the dogs, he seems completely unaware, completely oblivious to the beggar lying on the ground in his desperate and depressing condition. You get an early sense of where this story is going because while the dying beggar has a name, Lazarus, never is the rich man given that honor. It’s the first of several reversals in the story, reversals for which Jesus’ parables become well known. In this life, it is the wealthy and the powerful whose names we remember on concert halls and charitable foundations. But who remembers those whose lives are like the dust in which they are forced to dwell? The nameless multitudes whose misfortune it so nearly is to have ever been born.

And so what an astounding reversal of social expectation and an astounding reversal of roles. Lazarus soon dies, in Jesus’ story, and is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham where he takes his rest. This is the royal treatment. The rich man is sent to eternal torment and even there remains unnamed, just another rich brute too blind to take note the great suffering that was at his very feet.

And you would think, within the context of this story, that his eternal torment would make him a bit wiser … and yet his two requests of Abraham regarding Lazarus shows that he still considers Lazarus as a lowly slave … a go-fer. Even in torment he cannot see the humanity of the one who had suffered on his doorstep.

If I were to take this sermon up to this point and leave it now in your hands to complete, where would you go with it? Any takers? I ask the question because in our modern era where satellite communications have given us a window on every corner of the planet—including the most miserable and afflicted corners, there are literally billions upon billions of Lazarus’ whose thin limbs, distended bellies, tattered clothing and sore-covered limbs are within our view … they are on our “virtual doorstep”. Probably not even Jesus could have foreseen a day when our technological omnipresence in the world would rival that of God’s. And we’d better hope that Jesus’ parable is just a stern warning to middle class and better citizens of first century Palestine, because if you and I have any sense that heaven and hell are literal realities, then we all better pack our coffins with a whole lot of aloe vera and lidocaine.

In a conversation with Jan’s mother who was visiting last week, she reminded me that the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that there will be 144,000 people in heaven … but according to my rough calculations based on Jesus’ parable this morning, there will be about 6 billion people gathered around Abraham’s bosom … I hope it’s a big bosom … and the top 5 percent of the world’s population who control the lion’s share of the world’s wealth are going to be begging a few of those billions to dip the tips their fingers in cool water to slake our eternal thirst.

When I was in junior high, I sang in a church youth choir directed by my mother. And one of the hot junior anthems of the late 60’s and early 70’s was entitled “Hey, Hey, Anybody Listening?”. The song went: “Hey, hey, anybody listening, hey, hey, anybody there? Hey, hey, anybody listening? Anybody care?”

It seems to me that this was the song Jesus was singing when he told his parable and it seems to me that it was the song that the author of the epistle to Timothy was singing: “Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?”

We do well to remember that Jesus’ parables were not typically sweetness and light. And of the harsh judgment found in his harder parables, we’d do well to consider that it may just be folk like us who receive the gloomiest verdict. It’s as if Jesus is asking: “Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?” At the end of the parable, the rich man, now desperate to warn his brothers, is now bargaining hard with Abraham: “but if someone goes to warn my brothers from the dead, they will repent." And Abraham said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets”—in other words, what has been taught to them for generations, “neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." '

Well, how do we find our way out of this homiletical corner? In part, it is by listening again to some of the final words to Timothy, words that remind the wealthy of his time and ours that we are all linked together, every way you can describe the polarities of human existence, that we are all yet bound up in a single garment of destiny, as Martin King put it.

As a fellow Baptist preacher said, “A faithful response to the poor now involves not only some clear refusals to own or spend in certain ways and some very personal acts of self-giving, but also commitments to far-reaching structural change. This does touch on who pays how much tax, and on what workers everywhere are paid and on what kind of healthcare is available to the poor. If we don't hear the Gospel impinging on those questions, it's not the Gospel of Jesus we've been hearing.”

From time to time, we are blessed to be able to serve the poor. Whether Winter Nights or Mexico Mission or White Cross or volunteer overseas missions or whatever … each of these experiences and others reminds of what we know deep down … that each time we serve, the ones we serve serve us … and inspire us and free us and renew our faith and empower us to live out the mission and meaning of Jesus. As Dorothy Day said so truly—this is my paraphrase: “I really don’t know about the salvation of any single soul; somehow we must all be saved together.”

So, dear friends, I’ll say to Trevor’s church and I’ll say to us, my prayer for you is that you will strongly encourage one another in your becoming—that you will determine to grow as partners in this marriage of ministry. Grow in compassion. Grow in Christ-likeness. Grow in wisdom. Grow in depth and breadth of love for all people, and indeed, for all of God’s beloved creation.

You may not realize it, but every sermon you’ve ever heard and every sermon you’ll ever hear again is asking one way or another, the question: “Hey, HEY! Anybody listening? Hey, HEY! Anybody there? Hey, HEY! Anybody listening? Anybody care?” Amen.