Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Wideness of God's Mercy

A sermon by Rev. Greg Ledbetter | January 25, 2009

Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40

The Greatest Commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

There are ways in which today’s sermon is really the only sermon I’ve ever preached … the same sermon … endlessly varied … endlessly nuanced. And I suppose the essence of that sermon is this: that no matter what you’ve heard to the contrary from parents or pulpit, from friends or sniggering jokes or a doubting voice within: God loves you and me and us all … completely, without reservation and without end. And the implication of that great love is simply that we love each other—ALL of the each others—as deeply as we love ourselves which we should be encouraged … by God’s great love for us … to do.

So, that’s the sermon, really … just about enough to fill a Hallmark card. It is the skeletal frame of my own person and my own ministry. It is what gives me shape and form … it is what helps me stand and what keeps me from crumbling into a heap on the ground. But like any good skeleton, it continuously begs for flesh for its bones, substance to wrap around its essence … its spirit. And so that inner frame of God’s love for us and our love for each other is best understood, best “caught”, by observing others who are also given shape and form and helped to stand by that inner skeletal grace.

For a number of years, when I performed funerals, if it seemed particularly true of the person being remembered, I would use John Greenleaf Whittier’s little verse to affirm this sense of which I’ve just spoken. The verse says simply:

The dear Lord's best interpreters are humble, human souls.
The gospel of a life like hers, is more than books or scrolls.

And so, to give this simple, single sermon some flesh for its bones, I’d like to share with you words about one of God’s best interpreters: a women by the name of Marjorie Vines—Elizabeth Vines Murphy’s mother. These are words that I shared at Marjorie’s memorial service a little over six years ago.

Remembering Marjorie Vines

At the top of the parking lot, you could find her ... holding court, as it were, in the combined kitchen and living room in her home on wheels ... keeping company to Max ... sending out a hailing “Can you come in?” should you loop around the top of the parking and pause by the front door.

Marjorie was my neighbor, off and on, for the last year and a half or so. When they were in the area, she and Max lived in their snappy motor home at the top of our parking lot, nestled against the rising flanks of Shell Ridge. Their frequent presence in our neighborhood always stirred the vagabond within me, making me yearn for the open road they so often took to.

My friendship with Marjorie, like my friendship with Max, was caught in snatches. A head poked up into the motor home for a quick chat here and a casual encounter after a meeting there. Quick conversations amidst crossed paths. Sometimes when it simply wasn’t practical to make it to their home church, Marjorie and Max would join us in worship and afterwards she would almost always speak warmly of our time together. I guess we were just traditional enough to appeal to her old, Australian Baptist upbringing and just whacky enough to appeal to the twinkling eyed imp that was hidden just behind her genteel exterior.

My wife, Jan, knows that among the human traits for I which I have deep appreciation, it may be “gentleness” that I appreciate most. To me, Marjorie was a “gentle-woman.” Of course you know that Marjorie also fit that word in some of its more classic senses: in her own modest way, she had a certain refinement, an appreciation for finer things whether it be music or food. But Marjorie was also a gentle woman. Gentle ... self- deprecating humor ... In describing “gentle-women”--with the emphasis on “gentle”, Frederick Buechner, writes “Of course, they have their hang-ups and abysses and blind spots like everybody else, but when “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the meek,” if it wasn’t exactly them he was talking about, the chances are it was people very much like them.” In Marjorie’s children--John, Lynn and Elizabeth ... I see that gentleness, that meekness replicated, passed on. I think it is a profound gift to live in this “rough and tumble” world and remain gentle of spirit.

But life and its challenges have a way of peeling back whatever veneer we might have hidden our true selves under. And so, in the last few months, Marjorie, having to face that “respecter of no man”: cancer, got to show us what was beneath the surface.

My first glimpse of the “real Marjorie” came after a Pacific Coast Baptist Association board meeting as we were walking back to our cars. With a noisy auto shop behind us, Marjorie paused on the sidewalk to explain just how serious her cancer was and how she planned to attack it. She said that her plan of attack was two-fold: one, fully aware that no course of action was certain to succeed, she would resist the invasiveness and indignity of surgery and chemotherapy and would instead give her body its best chance of fighting off the cancer itself by assuming the strict regimen of a macro-biotic diet. Certainly the diet turned out to be no picnic itself, but she was willing to trust her body and its own powers of healing. The second plan of attack, more implied than stated, was that Marjorie determined not to get mired in the grim swamp of despair. She planned to co-mingle with her own mortality with her head up, her eyes clear and her humor intact.

My second glimpse of the real Marjorie came at her bedside the day before she died. The macro-biotic diet and Marjorie’s own natural defenses had simply not been equal to the deadly efficiency of her cancer. Max and Marjorie were now living with her daughter, Elizabeth, hospice had been called in and Marjorie’s by now extreme pain had been blunted blessedly back to the level of toleration by morphine. She lay in a hospital bed near the window overlooking the front walk. The morphine had dulled the pain but not Marjorie’s mind. As I entered the room where Max had been keeping vigil, Marjorie’s recognition was immediate and she gave me a tired smile.

I communed with Marjorie for 30 minutes or more. And the words I’m going to say about that time are not words I use often or easily, but you know the truth of them out of your own experience. Every moment with Marjorie that afternoon, she blessed me continuously. She spoke of the deep peace she felt at this time so near to the death that she freely acknowledged. And she spoke of the extraordinary sense of release that accepting death brought. There was a profound letting go that she had experienced and we both agreed that it was a letting go and a freedom of the soul that we should have learned much earlier in life.

Marjorie radiated and spoke of a certain kind of joy at her nearness to the mystery of what lies beyond death. We joked that it brought a whole new meaning to the old spiritual “If you get there, before I do ...“ She was eager to penetrate the thick curtain separating life from death and life again. She didn’t claim to know what lay beyond, but she was ready for whatever the next stage of her soul’s journey would bring.

I asked Marjorie what were some of her favorite hymns--and I wasn’t fishing for funeral hymns. I simply wanted to sing something to her that would bring her comfort. I wanted for the hymns that so well articulated her faith to her in word and melody to be a part of final moments … her dying. We are known, in part, by the music we love, are we not?

With little hesitation, Marjorie said the words: “Souls of Men” ... and I didn’t know if she’d quite gotten my question as I’d never heard of a hymn by that name. And then she began to sing, somewhat tunelessly, the words:

“Souls of men, why will ye scatter, like a crowd of frightened sheep? Foolish hearts, why will ye wander from a love so true and deep?”

And then Marjorie stopped herself and said: “I don’t know what that has to do with anything.” But, in conversation later, Max reminded me of the rest of the phrases of this hymn, some of which also appear in a hymn that I did know and that you might also know, particularly as we’ve just sung it:

There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.
There’s no place where earthly sorrows
are more felt than in God’s heaven;
there’s no place where earthly failings
have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our minds;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we would gladly trust God’s word;
and our lives would show thanksgiving
for the goodness of our God.

I ended my memorial reflection by saying that Marjorie, bless her heart and bless her memory, was quite wrong! The hymn “Souls of Men” had to do with EVERYTHING. The song expressed the bedrock convictions of Marjorie’s faith and being: a God who is love and who is kindly disposed toward God’s creation, a God whose mercy toward ALL is far broader than the reach of our minds. The hymn speaks of God as savior and shepherd and sharer of our earthly sorrows and burdens and shepherd and sharer of each earthly soul. The hymn served as a shroud of God’s great kindness that Marjorie drew around herself as she prepared her own soul for its passage.

The Talmud tells a story of Rabbi Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. A pagan came to him saying that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the whole of the Torah in the time he could stand on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary.” Would that modern Israel would return to the essential teachings of Rabbi Hillel. But for me and for many Christians, Jesus’ greatest commandment and the one like it are the whole of what there is to be know of the essence of God … and the rest is just commentary.

Paul’s great hymn of love in First Corinthians was not written for weddings, but for communities of dissimilar people seeking to get along … seeking to mirror the unity of the trinity … seeking to embody the peace of Christ in their times of earthly, gathering. And without love, Paul says, without the greatest commandment and the one just like it … the whole affair runs aground like an oil tanker foundering on the shoals, finally breaking apart and spilling its slick deadly cargo all around. And for the church and for every collection and gathering of human beings, to be without this divinely mirrored love is to be like a sail without wind, a balloon without breath, a mortal body without the animating spirit within.

To another community of faith, Paul spoke of the dividing wall of hostility that stands wherever love is not the guiding ethic, where human beings put conditions on their love in contradiction to God’s love, where the once wideness of God’s mercy and love have become narrowed and shrunken, a sickly, anemic, emaciated shadow of the real thing. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down! Even from his bucolic New England poetry studio, Robert Frost knew the essential truth of Paul’s words … that dividing walls of hostility wherever they stand are in danger being thrown down.

And to yet another community of faith, Paul offered a conclusion of what it mean to be one in Christ that surely stretched to breaking and stretched to absurdity what his readers and listeners thought could be true. Paul said that if we have taken onto ourselves the same Christ, taken into ourselves Christ’s love, then ALL other earthly distinctions cease to matter, cease to be determinative, cease to control how we see each other, cease to limit how we love each other. And there is a trajectory … an arc to Paul’s “case in point” … if we are cloaked and clothed in Christ than we can forget about ethnicity … we can forget about social standing … we can forget about gender … for now the only thing that matters and the only way we should think of one another is as Children of God. And if in Paul’s time he could call his contemporaries to forget about things as essential and unforgettable as these primay distinctions, what else in our time that others think is so essential and unforgettable must we also be commanded to “forget” in order to claim our oneness as God’s beloved children?

The world in which we live and the church through which we serve will only be “well” when it learns to live by the simple essence of Jesus’ words. The greatest commandment and the second one that is just like it are a tonic for the ailing soul of the church, medicine for what ails the world. Now to be sure, if our new president were to say to the phalanx of media microphones that greets his every utterance: “My foreign and domestic policy are ALL wrapped up in this simple phrase: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He would become as much then a laughingstock as he is now hoped now to be the savior of this nation.

Rescuing the nation and rescuing the planet for us must start with us. We can’t control what Barack Obama or Arnold Schwartzeneggar or Ehud Olmert or the president of China say or do. But we can control ourselves and seek to reorient ourselves continuously to these two simple commandments: love God … and love neighbor. And we can allow this continuous reorientation in love to find expression in this local body, this body of Christ that is determined that no one member can or should say to another member: “I have no need of you.”

If communities of faith everywhere will embrace and embody what is wisest and truest about their traditions, their confessions, the world will vibrate with new hope and new possibilities of healing and wholeness. I like very much how one of our sibling churches expresses their mission as a church and their “face” they show to their neighbors and the world around them:

We are a community of faith united in exploring what it means to follow the way of Jesus Christ, to be a people of God and to love and care for our neighbors. As a Church we will know no circles of exclusion, no boundaries we will not cross and no loyalties above those which we owe to God.

It’s hard to imagine that any community’s self-understanding could be much simpler or wiser or more compassionate or more Christ-like than that.

Love God … Love neighbor … save the world. It’s just about as simple as that.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Dreams into Deeds

A sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 18, 2009 | Second Sunday after Epiphany

Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2

"Faith is the turning of Dreams into Deeds"
-Hebrews 11:1
Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Parables translation

It all began with a time of abject failure … a broken dream … a missed goal … an unreached objective. Lives were at risk including the life of the dreamer … the journeyer … the climber of mountains.

It was 1993 and so already you know that I'm not speaking, at this moment, of Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead I speak of a man, my age, a mountaineer who had traveled to the most remote reaches of Northeastern Pakistan to climb what is arguably the most difficult to ascend mountain on earth … the vaunted K2.

Years of dreaming gave way to months of planning that culminated in many weeks of journeying and climbing to the high place from which K2's lethal heights could be challenged. But just as the assault on the summit was being mounted, the extreme altitudes took their toll, the life of a fellow climber was nearly lost and our mountain climber now found himself trekking alone … dangerously alone and severely depleted … back toward the starting point of his journey. But a missed turn and an overlooked river crossing took him to a tiny, remote village of Pakistani mountain dwellers who graciously took him in and nursed him to health.

While regaining his strength, the failed climber walked about and noticed that the children of the village had no school … the promised aid from the Pakistani government had dried up long before it reached the remote village. The few children who could studied alone in a field, without a teacher, without supplies, without a sheltering roof. And in the failed climber's mind there mounted up a new vision … a new dream. This new dream also involved scaling a difficult mountain, but it was not a physical mountain so much as it was a mountain of ignorance and extraordinary logistical difficulties.

Before he left to return to his home in the United States, Greg Mortenson told the village chief that he would come back someday and build a school for the children of Korphe.

Back home in Berkeley and living out of his car, Mortenson began to work to turn his dream into a reality … a sacred deed. Before leaving Pakistan, he had come up with a rough design for a school and calculated that the raw supplies for such a school would cost $12,000. Now, back home, Mortenson set about raising money for the promised school of his dream. He sent out 580 letters to, as he put it, "everyone who seemed powerful or popular or important." And by the way, some of you have suggested we raise money for our ministry center in a like fashion and while I don't want to rain on your parade, you may want to know that Mortenson got a grand total of one response back from his nearly 600 letters—it was a note from Tom Brokaw, a fellow University of South Dakota alumnus, and with the note, a check for a hundred dollars. Woo-hoo!

Like a hot-air balloon that's run out of fuel, Mortenson's dream was dragging along the ground, barely aloft. He shared with a friend both his dream and his discouragement and to help him out, the friend wrote a short article in a climbing newsletter about the dream of building a school in mountainous, remote Pakistan. A mountain climber living in Seattle who also happened to be a wealthy retired Silicon Valley research scientist had read the article and gave Mortenson a check for $12,000 with a note of encouragement attached: "Don't screw up."

And if you haven't read the book, Three Cups of Tea, I'll simply say that by the time Mortenson arrived back in the village, supplies purchased and ready to build the dreamed of school for the village children, the village elders had decided that what they REALLY needed was a bridge across the river that raged nearby and separated them from much of the rest of the world. They still needed and wanted a school, but the needs of the village dictated that the bridge needed to be built first.

Back home again, Mortenson's dream foundered again. He'd sold everything he owned to pay for his trip to Pakistan and the trip had ended in apparent failure. "Broke. Broke down. Broken." is how he described himself. Somewhere in Pakistan all the raw supplies for a village school sat gathering dust … or being carted off. And now back in Berkeley, living on the edge of depression, the dream nearly died … except for two things. One was the village elder, Haji Ali, who had believed Mortenson's first promise to build a school, though it had not yet been fulfilled, and who now just as surely believed Mortenson would come through with the means to build the village its bridge. The other thing was Mortenson's "don't screw up" benefactor who believed enough in the mountain climbing failure Mortenson and his yet-to-fulfilled dream to put up the money for the bridge.

Mortenson returned a second time to the tiny village of Korphe, this time with the supplies for a bridge. By summer's end, two years after his stumbling in a falling-down stupor into the village, a new bridge stood … a narrow, swaying span nearly as long as a football field and some two hundred feet over the river's angry flow.

By the end of the next summer, three years after these isolated Muslim villagers had taken Greg Mortenson into their homes and their lives, the first school the villagers had ever seen was completed, a teacher hired and classes ready to begin.

Over the next dozen years, the man who failed in his quest to climb K2 succeeded in building school after school after school in some of the remotest corners on this planet among people who had every reason to distrust him. And what Mortenson found in these remote Muslim villages were people who simply needed a chance … people whose faith was simple and non-extremist, people whose embrace of Mortenson transcended their faith and national differences, and people who leaped at the opportunity to bring education into the lives of not only their sons, but also their daughters … especially their daughters. Mortenson says: If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.

Mortenson's initial motivation for his work was simply to return the kindness to the village that nursed him back to health. He had no real sense of a larger project and no sense, at the time, of the wider implications of what he was doing. But in time those implications became very clear and they became clear to many others who are looking on … Mortenson and his observers understand that the extremism that Pakistan and Afghanistan are so capable of spawning is largely a result of extreme poverty and a lack of non-extremist education.

In a Parade Magazine cover story written in 2003, the writer of the story says: As the US confronts Saddam Hussein's regine in Iraq, Greg Mortenson is quietly waging his own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists, who often recruit members through religious schools called madrassas. Mortenson's approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education-particularly for girls- in the world's most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects will eventually dry up.

Later at a presentation attended by members of congress, Mortenson was addressed by Republican Congressman from California who said: "Building schools for kids is just fine and dandy, but our primary need as a nation now is security. Without security, what does all this matter?"

Mortenson said: "'I don't do what I'm doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids. Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities. But working over there [in Pakistan/Afghanistan], I've learned a few things. I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death'..."

After saying that he had supported initial efforts by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Mortenson said that he felt that we had made the fatal error, in our war on terro, of failing to rebuild Afghanistan as we had promised. He went to say: I'm no military expert, and these figures may not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840, 000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced, non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?"

Last Tuesday, while scrabbling around Bozeman, Montana helping younger son Alex find a room to live in, I wandered over from our hotel to the offices of the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute is the organization that has grown up around Greg Mortenson's school-building, terror-fighting efforts. There were two administrators at work in the office surrounded by maps and photos and mementoes of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I didn't see Mortenson … apparently he was speaking in Traverse City, Michigan at an elementary school and high school. But I did speak with his assistants and I asked how things were going with the work so amazingly described in Three Cups of Tea. They told me that Mortenson's work continues to go well … a dozen years after the completion of the first school. This past summer, they funded the building of ten more schools bringing the total number of schools built in Pakistan and Afghanistan to 78. And in addition to the schools, they fund teachers in other schools and in refugee camps where people have fled the many conflicts that continue to disrupt and destroy the lives of so many Afghans and Pakistani's.

As you might guess, Mortenson has begun to rack up some pretty serious awards and honors for his work. But on March 23 of this year, Greg Mortenson will receive an award that will probably mean more than any other. In Islamabad, Pakistan, at the Pakistan National Day Award Ceremony, the president of Pakistan will award Mortenson with the "Star of Pakistan", Pakistan's highest civilian award. Not bad for a homeless mountain climber whose failure of one dream led to the birth of another.

Henry David Thoreau knew something about dreams and failure. Thoreau said of his mixed blessing of a time at Walden Pond: I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Building foundations under our dreams. I'd say that's a pretty good description of what it means to be a church and the people of God. Week after week we hear the sacred and holy dreams of God's prophets of all kinds … and we who have ears to hear and hearts to courageously follow know that our work is to build foundations under these sacred and holy dreams.

Many have been drawn to that phrase: "castles in the air" … it stands for a kind of fanciful dream … and it's not a bad description of the vision that a San Diego couple, Scott and Gayla Congdon harbored in their hearts in 1980 … some 29 years ago. In particular, they had a burden for the people of Mexico, especially the desperately poor of Tijuana. Their burden became a sacred and holy dream and they built a foundation under their "castle in the air". They started a mission work that they called "Aiding Mexican Orphans and Widows" … or, perhaps you've guessed it, A.M.O.R. for short … Spanish for "love". In nearly 30 years AMOR has built some 20,000 simple, but sturdy homes in which a hundred thousand or more poor Mexican people have been able to escape the ravages of poverty. It has been our humble privilege as a congregation to have built nine of those homes and this summer we will build our tenth.

Greg Mortenson and Scott and Gayla Congdon might very understandably been intimidated by the challenges that faced them, frightened away from building a foundation under their castles in the air. But perhaps they had heard the heartbeat of a different drummer … a drum major for justice by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a sermon preached some years ago on the birthday of Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin said: "Martin Luther King preached that we should be governed by our dreams, not our fears." And to that we could add: "and not our failures."

There are so many before us who have fought the good fight, run the race to the end, and given their lives to overcome violence and injustice and the ravages of poverty. Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Dr. King, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day, Archbishops Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu and millions of other nonviolent drum majors for justice … all of thse form a sacred "cloud of witnesses" who hover over us. They learned the courage it takes to stand up against the forces of domination and oppression, of violence and injustice. And their spirits inspire us in our own time and place to face our fears, lend our hands and voices, and work to keep their dreams alive and, even more importantly, bring their dreams to fulfillment.

But like Mortenson and the Congdons and so many others, they had to face their own fears and become the courageous voices for justice that we know them as. It wasn't any easier for them than it is for us. We do well to listen again to Dr. King acknowledging his own fears just weeks after agreeing to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at ripe old age of … 26—26!!!. Sitting at his kitchen table in January 1956, Martin King picked up the phone and heard --

"'Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.' I hung up," King said, "but I could not sleep... I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud:

''I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left... I can't face it alone.'

"At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced God. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.' Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed."

These words are written on the wall of the display of Dr. King's kitchen, in the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

For the next 12 years, the same length of time that Greg Mortenson has battled his own fear in seeking to be governed by his dream, for the next 12 years Dr. King struggled against racism, war, and poverty, and offered our nation and the world a "dream." Near the end of his short life at the age of 39, he returned to this dream and offered us a word of hope and challenge. And it helps when hearing these words to try and enter into the very real and chilling fear that King sometimes felt, but a fear that never governed him or his dream:

In a sermon preached Christmas Eve of 1967 from his own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King said: "I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had. But I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes. But in spite of that, I close today by saying that I still have a dream. Because you know that you can't give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving. You lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of your fears and your failures. So this is our faith as we continue to hope -- that if there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward all, let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.

"So today I still have a dream -- that we will rise up and come to see that we are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream this morning -- that one day every person of color in the world will be judged on the basis of the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; that everyone will respect the dignity and worth of human personality; and that brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today -- that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream -- that war will come to an end, that individuals will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations will no longer rise up against nations. Neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream."

I dare say that in the 41 years since the uttering of those words, King's dream have come to partial fulfillment. Tuesday's inauguration is simple evidence that King's dream of a world no longer controlled by skin color is one giant step closer to fulfillment. And with this new president, we will join in praying anew that Isaiah's great vision of Shalom spoken again by King will be the guiding and the governing vision of this new administration. A dynamic peace with justice for all people.

Governed by our dreams and not our fears. Keeping the dream alive. Bringing the dream to fulfillment or turning our dreams into deeds. This is our work for as long as we have breath. A wise soul once said: Never tell a person that something cannot be done. God may have been waiting for generations for somebody ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.

Let us be that kind of somebody … somebodies who are ignorant of the impossible to do that very thing. Peace in our time? Shalom for all earth?
Let us give the final word to Paul, the Apostle, who was that kind of somebody: Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21


Image courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Fresh Start

A sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 11, 2009 | First Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon Texts: Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11

Ah, it's still early enough in the year to exult over this new flip of the calendar … How's the new year going for you? Is it anything in the way of a fresh start for you? New steps? New directions? New learnings?

It is stunning how many people have expressed gratitude for the conclusion of 2008. A truly difficult year for many people. And of course, the realities of 2008 and many years before that continue to bedevil so many places on our planet … places of great need and horrific violence. September 18th is the next Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah … I think the whole world prays that the awfulness in Gaza and Southern Israel ends LONG before their next flip of the calendar page.

Sometimes a new year is a time for new learnings. For instance, I've already learned in this new year that following is a proper, intelligible, grammatically correct sentence … please listen carefully, because I don't to have to repeat this: "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo." I repeat that this is a proper, intelligible, grammatically correct sentence. The fact that the word is an antonym creates this rather peculiar syntactical possibility. Here's what it means: THE buffalo FROM Buffalo WHO ARE buffaloed BY buffalo FROM Buffalo ALSO buffalo THE buffalo FROM Buffalo. OR … more plainly: Bison from Buffalo, New York, who are intimidated by other bison in their community also happen to intimidate other bison in their community. Well … just make sure you get the right number of "buffalo's" in there or people will have no idea what you mean.

We live by so many calendars … the academic calendar—the school year … that's a pretty dominant calendar in our home and in many of your homes … the liturgical calendar … liturgical nerds like Angela and me get pretty hot and bothered when thinking about the liturgical calendar … the seasons of the year are another way we mark the passage of time, though gorgeous days like yesterday make it a little difficult to remember which season we're in. Observant Jews not only live by the Gregorian calendar, but also by the Hebrew calendar … it is, by this way of measuring the years, the year 5769.

We have just entered 2009 and it seems it was just yesterday that we were all giddy and jumpy over Y2K … and next year it will be a whole decade since that event.

It still amazes me how much power the simple turn of the annual odometer can have for people … for us. Even though there's a certain arbitrariness to the movement from one year to another, it still spells a remarkable amount of hopefulness for people … the hopefulness of new beginnings and a fresh start.

T.S. Eliot, the poet of "endings and beginnings" said in his poem "Little Gidding":

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Beginnings … it's a spritely, optimistic word. It reminds one of spring and things popping from the ground and buds bursting …

Dorothy Day has long been one of my personal saints. She was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the early 1930's and a patron saint of just about every movement where social justice and acts of compassion and mercy are joined together. Dorothy Day was a journalist who watched the horrible effects of the Depression on the people around her in New York city. This is how she described the time and the people:

We were in the third year of the depression. Roosevelt had just been elected President. Every fifth adult American—twelve million in all—was unemployed. No smoke came from the factories. Mortgages on homes and farms were being foreclosed, driving more people to the city and loading them onto the already overburdened relief rolls. In New York long, bedraggled bread-lines of listless men wound along city streets. On the fringes, by the rivers, almost every vacant lot was a Hooverville, a collection of jerry-built shanties where the homeless huddled in front of their fires.

But Dorothy Day goes on to say:

An air of excitement, of impending social change, with the opportunity to implement our social ideas, buoyed up all who were young and had ideas. We met, we talked endlessly, feeling that this was the time to try new things.

Endings and beginnings … Dorothy Day helped found the Catholic Worker movement which helped lift up the plight of working men and women. In a time of horrific unemployment, it was a movement of great hope for many. In her book from which I've just read that describes the Catholic Worker movement, she titles the first section of the book: "Beginnings are always exciting." It may not seem like much to you, but that simple phrase has always stuck with me … "Beginnings are always exciting."

It's a phrase that seems to speak of so much of life, so much of existence … life is, it seems, an endless series of endings and beginnings, stops and starts. To wistfully close a beloved novel is a certain kind of ending … but then there's excitement of a new novel, a new story, new characters and setting and dilemmas and possibilities.

Yesterday felt like that kind of day. Scouring our hillside, scrubbing the windows, pilfering our closets … all done by a joyous and enthusiastic company … it was a wonderful way to begin a new calendar year together. As we tore away 30 years of overgrown junipers, clearing the front hillside for a new landscape, it almost had the feel for me of a mini-groundbreaking of sorts, as well, back-breaking. While I can grumble and grouse when trees come down, there's something within me that thrills at the possibilities and the hopefulness of a clean slate, a blank page, a bare hillside pregnant with opportunity and possibility.

I am not alone and we are not alone in this feeling. Even ancient souls, ancient writers could get misty-eyed and wax eloquent over the grand excitement of new beginnings and the great hopefulness of a fresh start.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

These words are the Biblical writers' way of speaking, not only imaginatively and poetically of earth's beginnings and humanity's beginnings … these words are the Biblical writers' way of speaking, not only imaginatively and poetically of EVERY NEW BEGINNING … EVERY FRESH START.

As our ancient ancestors in the faith pondered these words, they weren't thinking in any way scientifically or even historically … what they had in mind especially were the first four words and what those four words meant for each time that followed each ending: "In the beginning … God." It was the most powerful affirmation they could make about their lives and their faith … that God was present in each new start that came on the heels of endings of all kinds … quiet closures and towering tragedies. In every beginning that followed every ending, they took each new breath in each new day in the presence of the one whose very words and whose very breath had brought them into being.

I think that helps explain why the very early morning that is just being tinged by the first light of dawn is so sacred for me and for many of us. The last couple of winters, Jan and I started many mornings looking at the webcams at a couple of Sierra Nevada ski area. We love to watch the snow pile up and the ski season begin. But what we found most captivating was watching day dawn over these frozen mountain peaks … the darkness giving way to the blushing promise of the sun and a new day.

In many ways, each and every new day is like the first day of creation … formless void and darkness that await the invigorating and life-giving breath of God … dark, watery chaos that awaits the gentling and sculpting hand … thick, baffling darkness that awaits the lightening by a wisdom that peels back the darkness … pierces the darkness … baffles the darkness with light.

Our Advent journey of December, our candle-lighted celebration of the incarnation and our star-studded Epiphany … all speak of the light being kindled in the darkness and they all have their roots in this first of God's great creative acts … of separating the light from the darkness … the naming of day and night … the awareness of morning and evening … the hallowing of these solar and lunar movements of each day… and each of these latent and appropriate expressions of beginnings and endings … of old endings and new beginnings.

In the still very advanced date on the Hebrew calendar of around three thousand, seven hundred and sixty, a man named John came bursting from the wilderness with all of the wild zeal of an ancient prophet of Israel. We are led to understand that John is Jesus' cousin. I have a cousin like John … a wild hair of a man who, though he is a very conservative Christian, looks for all the world like an aging hippie or a Harley ridin' biker dude.

Jesus' cousin John bursts from the wilderness preaching a harsh message of change … I'm not sure that he actually coined the phrase: "Change you can believe in", but that was pretty much his message. Actually, it was something more like: "Change or die!"

The gospel of Mark, you'll recall, has no birth narrative, no Christmas story, no angels, no wise men, no Inn for there to be no room at the inn at. Mark travels light and lean and fast and begins the gospel with the advent of Jesus' ministry. And that ministry gets a jolting jump-start with the appearance of John who is as dangerous as a downed line in a storm. Mark says: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But I've always liked the way the Cotton Patch Gospel tells it. This is the musical based on the Cotton Patch translations of Clarence Jordan. In the Cotton Patch Gospel, John the Baptizer cries out: "Tell me … who warned you to flee from the fury about bust over your heads? You've got to reee-shape your lives!"

John may sound a little "cracked", but let's remember that it is the cracks and the cracked things that sometimes best let in the light of God.

And the message may sound harsh … foreboding … punishing and brutal … but you know what? It hit a common vein with the people who heard it and they showed up in droves to express their need and their desire to make a change … to create an ending to what had been and to open themselves to a new beginning … a fresh start. Like our hillside, in the act of submitting to this baptism of repentance, people who came to John allowed the old to be stripped away so that something new could come … so that God's ever-creative and ever-creating nature could express itself once again in them.

If we are to speak of God as creator, then who's to say that God isn't still creating … still imagining … still speaking God's creative Word in as grand and audacious ways as first described in the first story of creation? With our baptisms and in each and every re-affirmation of our baptisms, we are yielding ourselves to God's new start, God's new day, God's new creation within us that is mirrored in God's new creation in the world all around us.

In our final Welcoming and Affirming conversation later today and in our vote two Sundays from now, we are making a powerful affirmation that God is still creating, that God is still imagining, that God's final word has not been spoken. We who might wish to put a period in God's creative sentence may wish to reconsider and place, instead, a comma, a divine grammatical indication that God light and word and goodness will still continue to break forth in ways that are both familiar and radically and breathtakingly NEW.

At the heart of all of this creative juice and joy and energy is this simple truth: God loves us each and us all so very deeply … God loves and takes joy in all of God's creation from the greatest to the least. And consistent with God not being a "once for all" creator, but a creator whose timeline and possibilities for creating are infinite, God's greatest joy, one could argue, is offering to us fresh starts and new beginnings. A chance to re-enter in the imagination of our minds and the imagination of this time of worship, the cleansing and saving and reshaping waters of baptism.

It's God's gift to us … that though what we see in the mirror looks very much like the old, within it can be a brand-new day … the Spirit of God that brooded over the shapeless void on the first day of creation seeks to brood over our new beginnings, seeks to enter us again, anew, afresh and offer to us a fresh start.

You may remember the prophet's cry from that dark, somber first day of Advent some seven weeks ago … the anguished, yearning cry of the prophet Isaiah who said: "Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down."

Perhaps the most beautiful and yet overlooked part of the description of Jesus' baptism is that this new day of Jesus' life and ministry is the ringing answer of God to Isaiah's cry. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

In submitting to a baptism of repentance, the heavens are torn open and the Spirit of God is set loose. And with the Spirit comes this great word of God's esteem, not only for Jesus at his baptism, but for all who submit and re-submit themselves to the cleansing and saving and reshaping waters of baptism.

With the Spirit comes God's word of love for you and for me and with that love the invitation and the means to be made more nearly into the image of God and the expression of God's love.

We gather this morning to remember our baptisms … baptisms as a result of decisions we made or that were made for us … all valid, all real. And we gather to be reminded of God's great love for us each and us all, a love that we remember in that ancient story of our first creation … and a love that is renewed and refreshed with each baptism and each remembrance and renewal of our baptisms.

Today, on this day so early in a new year, we join in praying for the heavens to be torn open once more and the Spirit of God to fall upon us … and indeed, upon all earth, that we may ALL be remade into the image of LOVE.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me … mold me … fill me … use me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Another Road

A Sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 6, 2009 | Epiphany Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12

I think my very favorite road trips are the ones that start in the very early morning, long before the sun is due to shine. On a number of occasions, in years past, we would travel as family to Oregon for Christmas. But with Christmas Eve services needing to be done, Christmas morning was our travel day. We would get up in the wee hours, load the slumbering lads into the car and head north. And it seems that invariably, we traveled under incredibly starry skies … starry nights … the kind of starry nights you could navigate by.

It was just such a starry night—a starry night that you could navigate by—that the star-gazing astrologers in Matthew's gospel started out in search of their own Christmas.

What a strange and wonderful story … and it has fired the imaginations of all who've heard it … these questing souls from another land so captured by the dazzling sign of God's doing in the sky that they had to forsake the familiar comforts of home to go and see this thing.

And so let's answer the question that is implied by Matthew's gospel: Who are, in Matthew's telling, the very first people to recognize God's loving gift of God's own being? The neighbors? The townspeople? The local clergy? All of the righteous and holy bigwigs over in Jerusalem? King Herod? Surely one king would recognize another king?

No … it takes these Persian astrologers—if that's what they were—to wander far from home to come to Jerusalem and say: "Hey, what do make of this unmistakable sign of God's great doing that's hanging over you in the sky like a blimp on fire?"

"Sign? What sign???"

For every wise, far-seeing person, there are thousands who can't see beyond their noses … to paraphrase Thoreau.

Of course, part of the whole point of the story … the reason Matthew includes this story in his gospel … is to begin to proclaim that in Jesus, the light of the nations has begun to shine most brightly … so brightly that even star-worshiping foreigners like these Magi will be drawn to it.

This was the prophetic inkling that we heard spoken in this morning's opening reading from Isaiah … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Of course, the "your" in Isaiah's prophecy refers to Israel … God's glory was to rise upon Israel … yet Israel missed the glory when, Matthew tells us, it shone all about them. Completely and utterly missed it. It would be easy to launch into a grumpy tirade at this point about the modern state of Israel being as oblivious to the light and the truth as the Israel of King Herod's day.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. With every missile and mortar launched—from either side—the light dims, the brightness of dawn fades and the glory of God recedes and the prophet joins God in her weeping.

Lift up your eyes and look around; Isaiah beckons. Look around and understand your time and your context and your place in the order of things. Don't be dense to the goodness that God seeks to birth in and through and around you … and don't thwart that goodness with your own fearful responses to God's efforts to allow the dawning of light in your world.

Our fearful responses. And our missed opportunities. Epiphany will always symbolize fearful responses and missed opportunities for those of us who were a part of that heart-rending time twelve years ago. It was on the day of Epiphany—such an ironic choice of days for settling such matters—it was on the day of Epiphany 1996 that the American Baptist region to which we used to belong decided that there was a limit to who could be drawn to the light of Christ … that the light wasn't actually intended for everybody. It was on that day that churches that had thrown open their doors to sexual minorities were shown the door. Kicked out of the local Baptist family because they had taken too literally Isaiah's great ancient prophecy.

We weren't kicked out … shown the door, because we hadn't yet fully opened the door … but in some ways I wish we had been. And it was the light-denying efforts of our … "kinfolk" … that launched us on a journey that led us to Seattle of all places. It was the Baptists in Seattle that seemed to "get" the all-nations, all-people, all-everything nature of this new light that first dawned over Bethlehem. Such a dramatic contrast to the narrowing scope and light-denying tendencies of the region we left.

What we often overlook in reading and retelling the story and singing songs of the … "three Kings" … is the sinister note that is struck by Herod and the apparent blindness of the local religious authorities to both the light that is dawning as well as the menace of Herod. It is later in the 2nd chapter of Matthew that the slaughter of the innocents is described … a slaughter ordered by the King … and we know that it was not the first such slaughter … and certainly and sadly not the last. Whenever power feels threatened, the first to feel the deadly effects of that fear of losing power are the innocent bystanders, but especially the children … these are the "least of these." It's true in Iraq and Afghanistan … it's true on the Gaza strip … today … now.

In fact, wherever and whenever Herod reigns and culture and religion have lost their compass and their backbone, there is a need for wise, visionary souls to heed the still-dawning light … the glory of love incarnate and the promise of Shalom—glory and a promise for all nations, all earth. The whole world joins us in praying, I think, that the one being inaugurated into this land's highest office three Tuesdays from now is such a wise one. And we can't help hoping beyond hope that this president, as much as any that's ever been elected, lives out the psalmist's job description for a just ruler:

For the ruler delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
The ruler has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence the ruler redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in the ruler's sight.

Surely we have lived beyond the time when any one person's blood, from the greatest to the least, can be deemed anything less than precious. Surely the Shalom and compassioned tinged visions of the Prophets and the Psalmists have been in our common hearing long enough for all leaders to know that this is the aspiration of the highest wisdom we know, by whatever name the world's faiths should choose to call it. Every sacred writ of every faith is rooted in principles of justice and mercy and sacred respect for all.

The inauguration on January 20th is our nation's way of saying to Barack Obama: "All that the prophet and the psalmist are talking about … do THAT!" Whew. It's an awful lot to load onto one pair of human shoulders. And it's way beyond what we've come to expect from any one leader and any one government. And yet … and yet.

And, if there is a new dawning somewhere, a new light of hope which wise souls can perceive and to which we can be drawn, will we do our part? Certainly it's unfair to wish for our leaders to take steps on a journey we ourselves are not yet willing to make.

Epiphany is, for us, the invitation to heed T.S. Eliot's poetic urging: "We must be still and still moving." We must, as the pre-journey Magi, be quiet enough for God's dream to be caught, but once caught we just journey with all due vigor. Stagnation and excessive stopping on our journeys of faith can be fatal to our faith and have fatal implications for the needs of this earth. Ceasing in our exploration—another wonderful phrase of Eliot's, we risk becoming like the brightest and best of Jerusalem upon the Magi's arrival … the self-satisfied who said as one: "Baby? What baby???"

We started Advent … it seems so long ago … we started Advent with a song:

We wander through the night, we're searching for the light … of God

With weary hearts and feet, we wonder if we'll meet … our God.

It's a song that could have been sung by the Persian astrologers … it's a song we are called to sing during Advent, through Christmas, and during and beyond Epiphany. It's a song for every journey, a song for every night, a song for every heart. Searching for the light of God. The astrologers, these Magi, saw in their searching the heavens, a light of truth worth following with their whole lives, with every means at their disposal and with certain risk of losing their lives in their journeying. And I suppose friends and family, reasonable souls all, did their best to discourage such a foolhardy venture. I suppose all of the true great souls of history were like these Magi in some fashion—willing to put it all on the line for this soul vision that would not leave them alone and a vision they could not but follow.

My pastoral dream for Epiphany for each of us here is that we hear in the strange and wonderful story of the Magi our own call to journey … or a re-call to journey. That there is for you a star—a bright and hopeful vision of what can be—that has risen, that you can see and you are willing to follow. And I hope it strengthens you to know that you are not alone in your following … that you are joined and encouraged by a company of star-followers, vision-seekers, dreamers of Shalom. It's like the old line from "Imagine" by John Lennon, "You may say that I'm a dreamer … but I'm not the only one."

My dream for us each and for us all is to affirm words written by Alan Paton in Cry the Beloved Country, a story of South Africa's painful early journey toward the dawning light of equality and hope. In committing himself to being a part of the solution and no longer a part of the problem, Paton said:

I shall no longer ask myself if this is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this not because I am noble or unselfish, but because I need for the rest of my journey, a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself and to deny it with another.

Paton's journey changed him and so will ours. We'll recall that wonderful closing line from Matthew's story of the Magi telling that they "returned home by another road." "Could it be," one commentator asks, "that Matthew is offering a tantalizing hint about life for those who have met the Prince of Peace? Nothing is ever the same. You don't take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover an alternate path."

"In his poem, The Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot imagined the thoughts of the Magi back home: "We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods." This journey toward Shalom does not make our lives more comfortable; the journey toward Shalom doesn't help us fit in and succeed. We are no longer at ease in a world not committed to the bright dream of Shalom—a compassionate peace with enduring justice.

"Nothing is the same; nothing comes easy. A strange, unfamiliar road is now our path—but the road is going somewhere" (James C. Howell in Feasting on the Word).

We wander through the night,

we're searching for the light … of God

And in our wandering, we find that very thing … our God.

May this be your blessing of Epiphany.