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.


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