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.

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