Sunday, February 08, 2009

On Eagle's Wings

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter | February 8, 2009 | Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Langston Hughes was a writer whose named I learned in a college literature class. He was a poet and playwright, among things, and a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Langston Hughes wrote a poem that is memorable for many because of a phrase spoken by its narrator who says: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” The poem is entitled, “Mother to Son”.

Well son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And places with no carpet on the floor--
But all the time
I's been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light,
So, boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
Cause you finds it kinder hard.
Don't you fall now--
For I'se still goin', honey,
I's still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

A long, long, long, long time ago—I don’t actually remember when or even where—for I am, you realize, quite old, I heard the Reverend Jeremiah Wright preach. You may remember that Jeremiah Wright is the fiery preacher whose words from the pulpit almost derailed a bid for the presidency. While I don’t remember when or where I heard Jeremiah Wright preach, I do remember that he preached a sermon entitled: “What Makes You So Strong?” If I remember correctly, Wright began by reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son. In his sermon he noted over and over again the many and deep wounds sustained by African Americans and then noted famous African Americans who had risen up out of that milieu of brokenness and pain. And the question was raised again and again: “What made these people so strong that they could rise out of the quagmire of their people’s pain to a place of greatness?” Wright said, at the end of his sermon:

What makes us so strong? God’s strength. David answered the question: “God is our refuge and strength.”[30] What makes us so strong? Isaiah answered the question: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.”[31] God is the source of our strength.

Our strength comes from the Spirit of God. This same Spirit of God will empower you as he empowered our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is what makes us so strong.

On a recent Saturday, Jan and I tackled a couple of projects in our backyard. We dug up some shrubs that had never quite gotten used to the wet, clayey soil of our back yard. In their place we put six of the prettiest little blueberry bushes you’ve ever seen. They’re beautiful to the eye and the fruit they produce should be tasty and nutritious … that is, if we can get to them before the birds do. After we finished planting the blueberries, we finished by adding another apple tree—a Pink Lady—to our miniature orchard.

When we finished our work, we sat out on our lawn chairs enjoying a bowl of soup and the beauty of the day. Jan noticed over our heads—directly over our heads, several turkey vultures gliding through the air. I looked up and at first I thought they were just passing through … continuing their endless duty as a part of death’s clean-up crew. But they didn’t pass through. Instead they began to wheel around in a circle. And more vultures came and joined their circle in the air until there were eleven of them, straight overhead, wheeling in this enormous gliding circle in the air. The sky was painfully blue and this dance of the vultures in the air overhead was a thing of exquisite beauty. And then it became clear to us that the vultures were slowly moving upward … they were not flying so much in a circle, per se, as much as it was an upward spiral. And then a red-tailed hawk joined their upwardly spiraling number. And we watched and watched as they spiraled up and up and up until they were nearly lost to our sight.

What was it that made these glossy black birds and their hawk fried rise up on an invisible elevator in the sky? These great-winged feathered friends had found a thermal—a warm current of air rising up, so it seemed, from our back yard. It was an upward current of air that pushed under their wings and lifted and lifted and lifted these eleven turkey vultures and one red-tailed hawk. They never flapped their wings, they simply stretched them out to receive the source of invisible support and uplift.

Someone else who appreciates the invisible, but very real support and uplift given by the very air we breathe, is a neighbor of ours who lives in Danville. He’s a man whose given name is “Chesley Burnet”, but you know him better as “Sully” … short for his last name of Sullenberger. On January 15th, Sully Sullenberger used the extraordinary supportive strength of the air around us to safely land a jet whose engines had ceased to function. Because he was able to turn a frigid Hudson River into a safe landing field, Sullenberger has become an international celebrity and a bona fide hero in the cynical city of New York. At a Broadway performance of “South Pacific” last night, the stars of the show ended the performance by noting Sullenberger’s presence and trained the spotlight on him. The crowd and the cast gave the captain a long, loud standing ovation. So much for cynical New York! All this because Sullenberger knows that even a multi-ton wedge of aluminum and steel full of passengers and cargo can be held aloft by the gentle strength of the wind. It is astounding to see how far the captain glided the engine-less jetplane as he sought a safe landing place.

You may remember that the Hebrew word for “wind” is the same word used to speak of the Spirit of God in the Hebrew scriptures. The word is Ruach … it’s a word that sounds like what it names and describes. Ruach is a breath-y, windy word that hints at the desert winds. And it’s not surprising that the animating, supporting, omnipresent wind that sculpts the sand and shakes the tents of nomads comes to be thought of as an analog of God’s own being—invisible, but powerful … soft and gentle at times, but still firm and strong and supportive and eternally present. What makes you so strong?, one could ask ancient nomadic Hebrews as well as a certain US Airways pilot, and they might both answer: Ruach.

It is the sometimes breezy, sometimes gusty presence of God’s own being that is the source of strength and sustenance to which the prophet Isaiah and the author of Mark’s gospel invite us to turn. It is as we wait upon God that God’s Spirit comes to us and give us the strength and the support and the uplift that we need. In our gospel reading this morning, it was time spent away from the crush of the crowds and their many needs, waiting upon God in prayer, that gave Jesus the strength and support and uplift to continue his ministry.

Strength … support … uplift. Anyone here in need of any of that? If you are at all like me, you know what a failing game, what a steadily downward spiral it is to try to go it alone, to try to make your way in this world on your own strength only. It has nearly become a modern, cultural cliché to speak of our drained and busy lives, to speak of the daily stress that corrodes our being and diminishes our primary relationships. We’d like to be more involved, we’d like to relate better, we’d like to care more and give more of ourselves, but our tanks are empty and our reserves are low. And our lonely, tired journeys of self-sustenance, self-support, self-strengthening continue down the sinking, darkening path. And in so doing, we become like desert sojourners who wander in circles around a reputed waterhole, not quit knowing or believing it is there. So close are the life-giving waters, yet there is a distinct reluctance to strike out toward them for fear that they may be yet another mirage … a promise unfulfilled and unfulfilling.

It was to such disbelieving sojourners in exile that Isaiah spoke: Have you not known, have you not heard? Isaiah asks in a tone of dismay.

Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is Yahweh, God, who sits above the circle of the earth … who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. … Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? The Lord who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because the Lord is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Israel is weary in waiting and weary in wondering if their exile should ever end. They wonder aloud if God has forgotten them … forgotten about them. They wonder aloud if the Spirit of God’s tender, loving being has ceased to blow. They are discouraged and losing heart. And they cry out to God’s emissary, Isaiah, with their frustrated questions.

I am reluctant to call myself “God’s emissary”—or at least any more than I would call any of us that. In our tradition we believe in the priesthood of all believers. We are each an emissary for God—for ourselves and for each other. But I have heard questions on many occasions similar to those rained upon Isaiah. Questions that agonize over personal pain and relational pain and pain in our cities and pain in far-off war-torn and poverty-torn places. Some of the questions have come from some of you. And some of the questions have risen out of my own struggling heart.

To us and to his own people, Isaiah asks: Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Clearly a pastoral word is needed for those are suggesting that God is unaware of them, fails to see them or attend to their needs.

But Isaiah isn’t finished. Isaiah has already countered the amnesia of faith that so often and so easily sets in when hard times do … the amnesia of faith that is the frequent companion of our life’s struggles. Isaiah has spoken of God’s being that is simply larger than our scrutiny, larger than our comprehension, larger than any earthly struggle, larger than any earthly thing or thought. And now Isaiah seems to be answering the question:

Have you not known? Have you not heard? He asks again. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

What makes you so strong? And the strong ones among us may well answer: “The Spirit of God’s own being that is the wind beneath my wings.” It is the Spirit of God’s own being that comes when we wait upon God, when we seek God patiently, when we commune with God with our whole being.

I have a wise friend that I speak with from time to time. It may sound odd, but I only see this wise friend at night. That’s because this wise friend is our church custodian … our janitor who empties our trash and cleans our toilets. Nasir is a tall, Fijian Muslim man with big hands and a hearty laugh and a powerful faith. And in recent weeks in our brief conversations in passing, he has been sounding the theme of “patience”. In my mind’s eye and my mind’s ear, there is Nasir standing outside the kitchen door with a trash bag in his hand, and with a deep voice saying: “Patience. It’s all about patience. We must learn to be patient.” And I take that as a word of the Lord to me and to us. As much as Isaiah’s word that they—US—who wait upon God will renew our strength … will rise up on wings like eagles … shall run and not be weary … walk and not faint. It’s all about patiently waiting for the Spirit of God to be made known and made real to us.

And when the Spirit comes, what do we receive? What do we get? A promise that nothing can hurt us? That God will protect us? That suffering and pain will bypass us? No. That’s not how God works. That’s not how God is among us. God has something more important to offer—it is the gift of God’s own presence … God’s own being … God’s own Spirit to strengthen, support and uplift us.

One of my mentors and heroes, William Sloane Coffin, suffered what no parent should ever have to suffer, but which too many sadly have. His son, Alex, drove off a wet road one night into the Potomac River and was killed. Just a month earlier Coffin’s mother had died. Ten day’s after his son’s death, he spoke to the congregation at Riverside Church in New York City. In his sermon, he said with all of the authenticity of someone who had been there: God offers us minimal protection, but maximum support. Minimum protection. Maximum support.

You who wait upon God will renew your strength … you will rise up on wings like eagles … you shall run and not be weary … you walk and not faint.

The question is do we have the time, the patience, the modicum of faith to wait until the Spirit comes? And do we even still hold to a sense of God that is vibrant and vital enough to have any meaning in our harried, pressured lives. Do we even believe in God in any lively and meaningful way? Perhaps we are in need of a spiritual “re-awakening”.

Former British PM, Tony Blair spoke at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast to an audience of political and religious leaders. In his remarks, he spoke of his "first spiritual awakening" when his father almost died when he was still a child. He said:

I was ten years old. That day my father – at the young age of 40 – had suffered a serious stroke. His life hung in the balance. My mother, to keep some sense of normality in the crisis, sent me to school. My teacher knelt and prayed with me. Now my father was a militant atheist. Before we prayed, I thought I should confess this. 'I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God,' I said. 'That doesn’t matter,' my teacher replied 'God believes in him. He loves him without demanding or needing love in return.' That is what inspires: the unconditional nature of God’s love. A promise perpetually kept. A covenant never broken. And in surrendering to God, we become instruments of that love."

God believes in me. God believes in you. God loves me and loves you. And we needn’t fully understand what that all means in this terrible, wonderful world to yet receive from God, as we wait patiently upon God, the great gifts of God’s strength and God’s support and God’s uplift. Like the turkey vultures and the red-tailed hawk spiraling into the sky … like Captain Sullenberger laying the great silver bird upon the Hudson … like William Sloane Coffin laying his heartbroken soul into the gentle hands of his God … like the wise old woman who said, “Walk, children, and don’t you get weary.” … we are invited to lay our lives and our souls into God’s care … and there to wait for a holy breeze … a divine ruach from God to lift and renew and restore our weary souls.

We who wait upon God will renew our strength … we will rise up on wings like eagles … we shall run and not be weary … we walk and not faint.


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