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.


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