Sunday, May 22, 2011

One house, many rooms

John 14:1-7

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

John 3:16-17

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Last Time

This could be the last time I awake

This could be the last breath that I take

This could be the last time that I pray

This could be the day I fly away

This could be the last time I sing a song

This could be the day I say so long

This could be the last meal that I eat

This could be the last beat my heart beats

But I can't place such a bet

So I won't just sit and fret

Until I'm gone

This could be the last day my eyes see

This could be the last day you see me

This could be the last night in my bed

This could be the last thought in my head

I won't cast my life to the wind

I'll treasure as much as I can

While I can, I can

Though I may be gone before too long

As long as I am here I'll sing this song

This could be the last time

This could be the last time

This could be the last time...

Well, here we are. Did you have any doubts? Did you wonder at any time in the past few days or weeks if Harold Camping of Family Ministries radio just might know something you didn’t? If you lived close enough to the Hayward Fault and felt yesterday evening’s minor shaking, would you have had momentary second thoughts?

So, the end of the world as we know it did not happen ... as far as we know, everyone who started the morning on this earth ended the day on this earth. The Rapture, which some understand to be the pre-judgment sparing of the faithful, if it is ever to occur, did not happen yesterday.

It was, however, quite the truly weird day outside of the Family Ministry headquarters. Joining some of the faithful who gathered to be raptured were Christians who called Camping a false prophet ... there was a woman dressed as an angel passing out free tickets to the other side ... Santa Claus was there pouring free koolaid ... I believe everyone who drank it survived ... there was a man from Minnesota passing out free cans of beer ... and a young man from Sacramento who would pass for Jesus nearly anywhere in the world was there to add a certain note of authenticity to day that almost ran away with weirdness.

“Of that day and of that hour” it says in the gospel of Mark, “no one knows—not the angels, not Jesus, but God alone. So be alert ... stay awake.”

For as long as I can remember ... possibly even going back as far as the early 80’s, I have been bumping into Harold Camping on the television and radio ... as I scrolled through the channels or turned the knob through the stations, I encountered his droll face and low monotone voice so often that they became familiar to me. I never lingered long ... our understanding of God and the Universe and reality was so profoundly different that there didn’t seem to be any point in having a silent, one-sided argument that he couldn’t win and I couldn’t lose. But the little I did hear made it clear that he was among those who was absolutely certain that the Bible was a riddle to be deciphered and if it could be deciphered properly, then God’s hidden timeline for the universe could be teased out.

17 years ago his study and calculations indicated that the earth would end then ... and then ... well, then, as yesterday, the sun came up ... the world went about its business ... the sun set ... and another day. Sort of like the ancient story of creation ... evening and morning ... morning and evening ... and God saw that it was good. And God rested.

When I was a pastor in Vermont, I learned that our little corner of the world had been the epicenter of another failed prediction of the world’s end. William Miller was a Baptist minister who had actually grown up in my little village of East Poultney. As an adult, he moved a few miles west to New York State where he served as a pastor. In the 1830’s he became convinced that the time of Jesus’ 2nd Coming or “2nd Advent” was approaching. He began to spread his word and a world-wide movement of anticipation came into being. The movement took on Miller’s name and were known as “Millerites”. William Miller started spreading his message in the rural areas of New York and New England, but by the end of the decade in the major cities of the East, he proved to steadily increasing audiences of Protestants from many denominations that the end of the world was almost at hand. By 1843, probably over one million people had attended the Millerites various camp meetings, and between 50,000 and 100,000 of these were persuaded to bring their earthly affairs to an end by October 22, 1844 -- the date ultimately announced as the day the saints would be translated to the New Jerusalem while the world perished in fire beneath them.

October 22, 1844 was a day very much like May 21, 2011 ... the sun rose ... the sun set ... as it did the next day and the next.

The failure in Miller’s time was known as “the Great Disappointment” ... it was a shattering failure for tens ... maybe even hundreds of thousands of believers. Three groups emerged from the ruins of Millers failed predictions, one of those being the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

And so it goes.

The hope and belief in the end of the world and the return of Jesus in judgment and glory is as old as the faith. The early Christians, with plenty of encouragement from Paul, believed they were living in the last days ... they utterly believed that Jesus would return in their generation. In Paul’s early letters, you can sense the immediacy of that belief.

In 1st Thessalonians 4, Paul tells the Christians there: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

But in 2nd Thessalonians, as the faithful begin to die without seeing the second coming, Paul—or someone writing in the spirit of Paul—writes now to counter some of the confusion and disappointment regarding the delay of Jesus’ return. This letter, as well as other writings of Paul, addresses the tendency to “put off life” ... because if Jesus is coming soon, why bother with the mundane details of life? Already in Paul’s time amidst the first generation of Christians, adjustments to expectations and reassessments of how to live while waiting were going on. Some people in Paul’s time quit working and gave up their responsibilities in the confidence that trivialities like that didn’t matter.

I find myself wondering what all of those un-raptured folk in their RV’s are doing who’ve been driving around for months spreading the word. They gave up their jobs and sold their homes and put it all on the line. I suppose you’ve got to at least admire that they gave it their all ... but I wonder what they’re doing this morning? Camped in a Walmart parking lot somewhere, I suppose, wondering if their friends and family and former employers will welcome them back.

I think it’s worth naming the implications of a “second coming” as both Paul and Harold Camping seemed to understand it. There is a savageness and a disregard for much of God’s human family that I think we should find extraordinarily disturbing. Paul’s writings speak of “punishment of eternal destruction” for those who do not confess Jesus or live by his commands. In a recent interview, Harold Camping was asked to estimate the number of people who would be spared the mayhem and destruction of God’s judgment and he guessed around 200 million. Now that’s not a small number and it’s certainly a good deal larger than the 144,000 hinted at in Revelations and claimed by some, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come knocking at our doors.

But doing the math on either scenario leaves about 7 billion souls heading for, in Paul’s and Camping’s words—but not mine, to eternal destruction. Endless suffering and punishment.

Now I don’t believe that ... and I don’t think it’s hard to understand that those who do believe and espouse words and ideas like that are dangerous to life on this planet. It is to say, these folk, that in God’s economy, nearly the entirety of God’s human family is unworthy and expendable ... even loathsome.

These loathsome and expendable souls would include those whose loyalty was offered to someone other than Jesus as well as those who lived and died in ignorance of Jesus. People of other faiths and people of insufficient faith and people of no faith ... all consignable to fires of everlasting damnation.

Wow ... I didn’t think I’d ever say those words in a sermon. One of my favorite religious cartoons is of a pastor standing in front of a long dressing mirror with a giant Bible perched in his hand and he’s practicing the word “Brimstone!”.

Until I breathe my last breath, whenever that is, I will bet my life and faith on a different understanding of God and God’s love.

I have a startlingly clear memory, as I’ve noted a time or two, from my childhood that has shaped my life profoundly since. I was 10 or 11 ... I was riding my bike with a friend near my home ... and I guess as we flew along we were engaged in some pretty hot and heavy theological discussions because it suddenly occurred to me as we rode and talked that I absolutely, flatly rejected any understanding that people were “going to hell” just because they didn’t believe in Jesus as we did. It was as clear to me as a bolt of lightning and as startling as a thunderclap. And every subsequent occasion in my life when I have been faced with choosing an understanding of God based on a punishing judgment or embracing grace, I have chosen ... claimed ... grace. That moment of clarity has informed my understanding of people of other faiths and people of no faith ... it has informed my understanding of race ... and gender ... and sexual orientation ... and any other area where we are tempted to draw lines of division and exclusion and judgment.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy ...” claims the hymn that I grew up singing, “like the wideness of the sea.” And what is likely the first verse of the Bible I ever heard and learned declares that God so loved the world that God gave dearly of God’s self so that the world might not end in punishment and destruction, but in mercy and salvation.

It is absolutely true that if you want to squeeze the blood of judgment and condemnation out of the Bible, you absolutely can. Hate-mongering preachers have been doing it for nearly two thousand years. As with many other written works, the Bible can be easily shaped to serve the needs of a whole host of pre-existing biases. Let’s understand, in this “Bible as Literature” moment, that the Bible was created by the contributions of an uncountable number of people over thousands of years, and edited by scores more over still great periods of time. The thoughts and understandings of the writers and editors varied as times and needs and circumstances varied. And what we have ended up with is not a scientific textbook, or a magical book of hidden riddles, but a sacred work of extraordinary variety and depth and range of experience and understanding. And in that sacred work, our Bible of Jewish and Christian writings, we can discern a long arc understanding of the being and desires of God ... and it may be an arc that begins with God as a savage and jealous God who destroys Israel’s enemies, but it is an arc that even before we enter the Christian scriptures, as with the hopeful prophecies of Isaiah, is already showing bold evidence of God’s great dream of Shalom ... peace with justice for all people and all creation. And these prophecies and the great bold hope of the ancient prophets comes to fullness and fruition in the person and work and great Spirit of Jesus. And the arc of God’s movement from judgment to grace that is made manifest in Jesus is an arc that cannot turn back, but can only go forward seeking to make ever more manifest the saving and grace laden goodness of God’s love for all.

Dear friends, this world of God’s imagining and God’s embracing is, as we know, also a world full of pain. I believe in a God who yearns to embrace this world in hope and mercy and grace ... I believe in a God who hopes for the healing of body and spirit of all persons ... I believe in a God who will never give up on any one soul any more than God will give up on creation.

So ... back to yesterday for a final moment. I wonder how many babies were born yesterday ... I wonder how many babies were born on the so-called “day of judgment”. Here’s my take on it ... I hold to that statement that says: “Babies are God’s way of saying “The world should go on.” I trust that a normal number of babies were born yesterday. Therefore I believe, and I believe God believes ... our world should go on.

Jesus said: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms” ... it’s a BIG house ... and there’s a LOT of rooms ... about 7.2 billion rooms by current estimations.

Yes, I believe the world should go on.

So be it.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

The new community of the Spirit

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sermon: The New Community of the Spirit

Do you remember “photo albums”? They were these big loose-leafed books that people would take and paste their photos into. My photographs don’t quite get to the “album” stage ... I have hundreds and hundreds of photos in a file cabinet in our garage that will never get pasted neatly into these photographic scrapbooks with their little handwritten descriptions that distinguish Uncle Ed from Aunt Sally as if Ed’s mustache wasn’t enough.

Photo albums represent a time before nearly everything became “virtual” ... practically real, but not quite. Anymore, we take photos that rarely get transformed into physical photographs ... most often they exist only as an assemblage of electronic information. Now I have a virtual file cabinet crammed with photos.

But whether “real” or “virtual”, there is something quite wonderful about “snapshots” ... they are instant portraits of life ... freeze-frame images of friends and family often doing what they do best ... eating a meal ... sharing a laugh ... multiple generations held in one another’s arms while also being held in one another’s love. Snapshots don’t tell us all there is to know, but they do give us a good glimpse into the life of a family or a community.

My maternal grandfather was a professional photographer, but I have to admit that as much as I cherish his artistic enlargements, such as the ones that are hanging in my office, it may be his “snapshots” that I cherish even more. Many of these are black and white photos of surprising clarity that depict my family’s life 30-40 years before I was born. There’s Grandpa Leo cutting a dashing figure with a foot perched on the running board of his latest jalopy. There’s Grandma Colene looking a bit shy and wistful. There’s little Faithe, my mom, wearing a new pinafore and looking the perfect blend of the parents who bore her. And so it goes with snapshots that give us little glimpses of worlds and lives that have gone before us.

Whereas cameras have only been recording images “instantly” for fewer than two hundred years, the act of capturing a scene through painting is thousands of years old. But I would argue that the real pre-cursor to photography ... to “snapshots” ... is the art of capturing a scene with words. This morning’s reading is a perfect example.

Our reading comes from the book of the ACTS of the Apostles. This is the second of two biblical books written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. This is, if you will, “Luke, Part II” or “Luke, The Sequel.” Or who knows? Maybe Acts was written first and Luke is the “prequel.”

In any event, Luke ends with the death and resurrection of Jesus and Acts picks up with the ascension of Jesus into heaven and the subsequent coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Now in our observance, the Day of Pentecost, as described in the first part of the second chapter of Acts, is still ahead ... some 50 days after Easter. But this morning we are given a portrait of the community of faith AFTER Pentecost. This is a snapshot of the church in the days following the coming of the Spirit. It is what the community of the Spirit looks like put into a rough sketch by Luke’s words. And so what do we see when we peer into the photo album of this “New Community of the Spirit”? What marked the life of the community?

· They shared a simple communal life of meals and prayers

· They experienced the power of God breaking forth in new ways

· There was a spirit of equality and generosity

· Their lives together were marked by a simple and abundant joy

· They lived at peace and harmony with their neighbors

· And they could not help but grow

So ... where do we sign up? How can we get some of that?

Let’s be clear that what Luke is describing is not a group of people who got together and planned and strategized this happy communal experience into existence. Luke is describing a community that the Spirit of God breathed into existence. Luke is describing a community and its characteristics that are a result of the blowing of the Spirit’s powerful, healing, motivating, transforming and unifying breath. For their part, the community simply heeded the instructions to gather and wait for the coming of the Spirit. And when the Spirit came, the community Luke describes was the result.

Now mind you, this is a community that had just lost its beloved leader and teacher ... they’d lost their heart and soul and very breath. The loss was staggering and they were still staggering. They not only had that loss to absorb and to comprehend, but they were also a community very much beset by the powers that be ... both the religious and the civil authorities. When they assembled, they did so knowing that (Life Together, again) it was at great risk to their lives and the continued existence of their fragile community.

Isn’t it true that sometimes communities on the margins and communities that live counter to the dominant culture are sometimes the richest communities there are? And not rich, of course, in monetary wealth, but rich in mutual love and meaning and joy.

And let’s be sure that Luke’s snapshot in words doesn’t tell ALL there is to tell ... it doesn’t describe what we also know to be the pain of community. It’s a rosy picture Luke creates with his words ... there are sepia tones that hint at the “idealized” nature of this portrait. It’s like a description of the early days of a marriage before the kids came and the job was lost and things got harder ...

When Luke was written, there were already “fault lines” and “hairline cracks” in the church that had taken Jesus’ name ... just as when the photos were taken of my mother’s family, there were already stresses present that would lead to my grandparent’s divorce.

It is as if Luke wants to remind future generations of “the New Community of the Spirit” of what is possible when the wind of the Spirit is allowed to blow freshly and repeatedly over their lives.

· a rich communal life

· the power of God

· equality and generosity

· simple and abundant joy

· a neighborly peace

· and growth

Don’t forget, Luke says, don’t forget what you are at your purest as God’s community on this earth. Luke lives and writes a full generation or two following the community he is describing. And he wishes to preserve this glimpse into the church at its inception so that no matter what future ecclesiastical battles and scandals were brewing, the church could look back and glimpse its younger, truer self. And seeing itself before it got full of itself and all serious and somber, it might be freed once more to be God’s New Community of the Spirit, that is: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

If you were here on Easter Sunday, you’ll remember my description of the group of French Catholic monks who lived and ultimately died living amongst and in service to their poor Muslim neighbors. As I read Luke’s description of the New Community of the Spirit and as I make my own attempt to distill that portrait into a few succinct words, it’s hard to think of a community I’ve “known” that better fits that description: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

The brothers of that little community may have wielded little power as the world understands power. But let’s be certain that the power of their “love of neighbor” on their poor neighbors was immediate and profound. And let’s acknowledge the broader effect and wider witness resulting from their martyrdom as they remained true to their love for each other and their call to serve in the Spirit of Jesus.

So here we are, many dozens of generations removed from Luke’s description of that happy little band of disciples ... as with the rapid growth of the church following Pentecost, the world has grown and become impossibly complex. And the truth we all know is that we can never go back to what was, we can never go back to when life was simpler and purer and sweeter ... we cannot recreate and recapture Luke’s description any more than can inhabit the world in my family’s photo albums before the “trouble” came.

What we can do, is what Luke, perhaps, intended all along, and that is to be challenged and moved in our own communities by the description of community at its best ... to distill his observations into some principles that can shape and guide us as we move steadfastly into a future that cannot be known ... but can be entered with a particular mindset and intentionality.

And so let me return to that succinct description of the New Community of the Spirit:

· They shared a simple communal life of meals and prayers

o No one is an island. We become complete individuals in no small part through the gifts of one another. And when the community becomes a dynamic organism of souls, it is no less a miracle than our own human bodies with its wondrous variety and interdependence and its ability to survive and thrive against so many odds. And at the heart of our communal life should be the nourishment of our bodies and souls ... simple meals and heartfelt prayers during which we can

· The power of God was breaking forth in new ways

o We can—you and I—be conduits of God’s power that is best known as “love” ... when we open ourselves to embodying and expressing that love all around us, extraordinary things can happen ... walls of enmity and distrust can fall ... lives broken by violence or neglect can find healing and new purpose ... wars can end ... the hungry can be fed ... exiles of all kinds can find their way home.

· There was a spirit of equality and generosity

o Ah ... apparently those who would shape the American policies on taxation are strangers to Luke’s description of community. If there was a single part of this description of community that could work its way into the public bloodstream, I guess this is the one I’d wish for. If our leaders and legislators could look in the mirror each morning and ask of the face looking back at them: “How could I today seek the best for those I serve? And how can I help bring an equality of safety and security and opportunity and material essentials to those I serve? And how can I engender a spirit of generosity so that I and those I serve will always seek to serve and never ignore the needs of my neighbors.

o If we’re going to talk about equality and generosity, then it’s worth noting that philosopher Ayn Rand is back in the news. She is the author of “Atlas Shrugged” which has just been made into a movie, she was the leading proponent in her time of a “rugged individualism” that is antithetical in almost every way to the word “community”. Jim Wallis called her: the shameless promoter of the gospel of aggressive self-interest. It is the “me first” and “me only” philosophy of people and communities like her that make it so hard to create of this world a neighborhood. Congressman Paul Ryan is the architect of the latest Republican budget proposal that severely punishes those who have the misfortune to be poor Americans. And it will come as no surprise to you to learn that he greatly admires Ayn Rand and requires his staff to read her. Jim Wallis notes that he wishes Ryan required his staff to read the Bible instead.

· Their lives together were marked by joy

o Joy ... “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” ... Joy is that deep, natural uprising from one’s soul and out of the shared soul of the community that comes when we know that we are doing our best together, serving together, tending to one another and tending to our neighbors. Joy is an outcome ... it is not a happy face and a fancy wrapping, but the result of good living and honest living and generous, purposeful living. Joy is the shared song sung by communities that live well.

· They lived at peace and harmony with their neighbors

o Healthy, well-balanced communities, like healthy, well-balanced individuals never feel threatened by others, by their neighbors, by those who are different. It is the soul-confidence and soul-competence of individuals and their communities that allows them to create inter-dependant relationships with others, not competitive relationships.

o It is puzzling and troubling to me that the church has far too often defined itself over against its neighbors in the world faith community and has felt itself to be in competition with other faiths and Jesus our champion.

o Similarly puzzling and troubling is our nation’s struggle to see the world as a neighborhood, as Martin Luther King described it ... a neighborhood we learn to care for one another and respect and value one another. If someone in any neighborhood attempts to garner all the wealth and power, that’s not a neighborhood that knows much “peace and harmony”.

o In the midst of more bombastic responses to the threats of the world around us, I’d like to think that generously serving our international neighbors may be the surest way to the security and peace that we seem to think can only be achieved through a well-funded military.

For years, cynical people have loved to poke fun at Mr. Rogers of Public Television fame. It was always a “beautiful day” in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. But beneath the seemingly child-like philosophy of the program was a very focused and determined Presbyterian minister by the name of the Reverend Fred Rogers who took very seriously the need to express and live out the simple spirit of the Christian community at its very best and its very purest, that is: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

No gospel of aggressive self-interest ... but a gospel of loving generosity and concern.

And let us not be surprised—and indeed, let us celebrate—that it was Presbyterians of Fred Roger’s ilk who this week helped bring Presbyterians to a new place of loving acceptance as they opened doors long closed to the full embrace and acceptance of lesbian and gay women and men into the gospel ministry—the good news of God’s love for all. It’s a beautiful day in their neighborhood.

We create neighbors and neighborhood whenever we embrace and embody those simple principles of community described in that snapshot of words by Luke so long ago: a rich communal life where the power of God is expressed in equality and generosity, and simple and abundant joy, and peace with its neighbors.

Every time one of my favorite communities prepares to sit down and share the simple goodness of their evening meal, they first stand humbly at their chairs and they sing this prayer, which is my prayer for us and our community as we seek to make of our world a “beautiful neighborhood” of mutual love and concern:

Happy those who with their hands,
bring to harvest, the fruits of earth.
Blessed are we to share this share this food,
served with loving care and faithfulness.
May we strive to share with those
whose hunger knows no end.
With thanksgiving let us be
as good as God for others.

(Weston Priory)


Monday, May 09, 2011

Was it worth it?

A sermon by Greg Ledbetter, Third Sunday of Easter, May 8, 2011

Matthew 5:21-26 // Concerning Anger

21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.”22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:38-42 // Concerning Retaliation

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:43-48 // Love for Enemies

43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

SERMON: Was It Worth It?

The Lanyard - Billy Collins

The other day I was ricocheting slowly

off the blue walls of this room,

moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly—

a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid long thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,

laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

(from “The Trouble with Poetry” by Billy Collins (2005))

I have both a confession and a glad admission to make. As the offspring of a deeply conscientious mother who has NEVER forgotten a birthday or anniversary, my confession is to the shameful number of years that this son failed to send a gift or a card to the one who gave him life—though I have always called. The glad admission is that this year I remembered, with Jan’s help, to purchase a card, sign it and mail it in time for the postal service to deliver into my mother’s stunned and amazed hands. I’m sure that makes up for all the years of oversight and neglect.

As we variously honor “mothers”, we naturally find ourselves also honoring mother figures ... I’m thinking just now of dear friends, Meg and Bill, a couple from my first pastorate. If I wanted to name “other mothers”, that is, loving, nurturing, mothering figures, these are two who would be near the top of my list. So important were they, that this past February, I drove through a near blizzard across the state of Vermont to the New York border so I could spend, literally, only ten minutes with Meg, the widowed wife of this couple.

There are many things I remember lovingly and warmly about Bill and Meg. In addition to the many wonderful meals we enjoyed in their simple home, one of the things I remember best is their police radio. It was a radio scanner that monitored all of the public emergency frequencies. As it scanned through the frequencies, it would stop on channels where there was any activity ... any talking. As police spoke to each other or their dispatchers, and as the volunteer fire and emergency medical response crews received and made calls, all activity and conversation in Bill and Meg’s home would cease for a moment while all ears tuned into what was being said. And then they’d respond to what they’d heard: “Uh oh, there’s been an accident down to Route 30.” “Hmm, that sounds like Michael picking up that call.” “Say I think they’ve picked up Clay and Edna’s grandson.” In many ways, Bill and Meg were defined by the steady crackle of that radio and its reporting of the urgencies that were all around, all the time. I used to poke fun at them for being addicted to that police scanner, and while they smiled and laughed, they never denied it.

I’d say on a much larger scale, we—the public—are pretty much the same. We have become addicted to the immediate ... addicted to what’s happening now. I think that addiction is, in no small part, one that has been quite intentionally fostered and deepened by the medias’ need to sell newspapers and TV advertising. All forms of media are fighting for their lives, and so they do all they can to lure us and snare us ... to grip us and hold onto us. That’s how the old newsroom axiom came to be as editors sought to increase readership and viewership: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Increasingly, world news has become “media events” and increasingly we seem defined and seem to mark our lives by the occurance of these events. It’s not unusual to ask the “Where were you when ...” question. Where were you when Kennedy was shot ... Where were you when King was shot ... when the first man walked on the moon ... when the planes hit the towers.”

I’ve read a couple of historical novels recently about mediaeval times and I was reminded about how slowly information traveled, how long you could remain ignorant of major world events. Today we are gripped by “moment by moment”, “heartbeat by heartbeat” accounts of what is going on. We watch tornadoes as they twist through farmlands and suburbs ... we watch the waters of tsunamis rise and advance inland wreaking terrible havoc. And it’s not just the tragedies ... if you arose early enough on a recent Friday morning, you could watch William and Kate emerge from Westminster Abbey and kiss, not once, but twice on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

To what extent, I have to wonder, are our thoughts and days defined by what the media tells us should be on our “mental plate”. What should grip us and hold us?

Many of us have felt something between disgust and nausea over the amount of press time given to the whole Barry Bonds fiasco. It is times like these that it is easy to feel manipulated by press overkill—though I have to say, that if one resists turning on one’s television, you get a lot more say over what goes into your head and what gets loaded onto your mental plate.

And, of course, there are certainly some events that we should not ignore ... events that have import and significance for our lives and our world. I think of an event like the earthquake last year in Haiti where the shameful poverty of that nation was exposed to the world. And, I’d like to think that reducing the world’s ignorance of the plight of the poor anywhere is a first step in helping the poor everywhere.

It was 19 years ago that many of us were glued to our TV’s as LA exploded over the outcome of the trial of the police officers who had beaten Rodney King. Ever since, we’ve known that outburst as “the Rodney King riots”. It was, I think, some of the greatest racial tension our country had known since the 60’s when Watts exploded and burned.

You may recall that the rioting was not restricted to LA. A demonstration swept across the Cal campus in Berkeley. It spilled down through Berkeley until it reached the Bay Bridge where traffic and protesters stalled and mingled for several hours. I was driving away from a pastor’s meeting in Berkeley and I was literally the last car on Interstate 80 driving south when the protesters breached the highway and shut down traffic. To this day I have chills when I recall looking in my rear view mirror and seeing no cars behind me ... only people streaming across the highway like human river that has breached its banks.

There were many of us who watched these events unfold locally and in Los Angeles who felt that there were “messages” in these events that could not be ignored. One of the messages had to do with the continuing challenges around race. The riots were triggered when four white police officers were acquitted of brutally assaulting an unarmed black motorist, even though there was a 10 minute video of the event for all the world to see. As the riots raged, tensions grew, among people, between African American residents and Korean shop owners in Los Angeles. The racial tensions spread in many directions. The helplessness and the marginalization of the poor, African-American residents of central LA helped fuel the anger and the outbursts that raged, like the fires, for several days.

Watching on our TVs from a safe distance, many of us yet felt the pain of poor, minority peoples who felt, yet another time, the insult and injury of injustice. The natural response of several local congregations was to get together ... and to talk about this ... what it meant ... where it was going ... what our wider response might look like. We talked about our neighbors across the hill in East Oakland and the flats of Berkeley. We used phrases like: “we are our sisters and brothers’ keepers” and we wondered about the degree to which we had helped create or sustain injustices near or far. And out of that talking we discovered that we shared a reluctance to just wring our hands in despair from afar and we discovered that we share a desire to make a positive difference where injustice and racism and poverty walked hand in hand.

Now I must tell you that it was at those conversations in late April of 1992 that I first met a woman who has become, in the years and miles since, a very dear friend--though it must be noted that we do have lovers’ quarrels from time to time. There is a quote by the French aviator and writer, Antoine de St. Exupery that fits well my sense of my relationship with my friend. St. Exupery said: Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. This could also, of course, be said of spouses, friends and fellow church members. Now this friend was, at the time I met her, if my math is correct ... hmm ... a spritely 71 years old. It was 19 years ago. If my math is correct, that would make that friend ... hmm ... 90 years old ... today. And Dorothy, dear and trusted friend, we’re not done ... the road still goes on ... we have, you and I and all of us together, here, miles to go before we sleep. Keep talking and walking and don’t you grow weary. And don’t you let us grow weary.

Let me return, for a moment, to that instinct that drew us together ... the instinct that serious public cataclysms demanded serious thought and serious conversation. The thought and the conversation were necessary pre-cursors to action. We had to speak aloud together our instincts and values born of our lives and our faiths. We represented various elements of the broader Christian community and were by no means identical in our thinking or values. But we valued sharing what we knew and believed. I like that instinct ... to talk and think BEFORE responding or reacting.

I’ve always deeply, deeply regretted our nation’s reactive response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The first public words to come of out our leaders mouths were ones of anger, enmity and revenge. I do not remember a single thoughtful introspective word or thought that came from those who would lead and guide us through this new crisis. Only anger, enmity and revenge. We are nearly 10 years removed from those tragic events of 9/11. We know the approximate cost in dollars and heartbreak of the terror attacks. The cost was enormous ... staggering. I can only wonder, in the spirit of the prince of peace, what the total cost, in dollars and heartbreak, of our national reaction to those attacks, that reaction borne of anger, enmity and revenge. Take 9/11 and multiply by ... what? ... 10? 100?

And now we’ve ... yes, “we’ve” killed the master mind ... mission accomplished. Has it been worth it? Have the ends justified the means and the dreadful costs along the way? Does the death of this man in Pakistan vindicate all the white crosses on a hill not so far away? And does his death vindicate the 10’s and maybe 100’s of thousands of innocent civilians who had the misfortune of standing in the way of our manhunt.

What if, following the horrors of September 11th, we had declared a national month of mourning which would include a moratorium on any rash reactions by our government. And what it following that month of mourning we had committed ourselves, leader and citizen alike, to another month or even a whole season of discerning, with wisdom and compassion, the course and the days ahead. And what if in that time of discernment we had allowed the mountain top preaching of our own rabbi to filter into our thinking ... a rabbi who had some very important things to say about anger ... and enmity ... and revenge. That these things, unchecked anger, unhealed enmity and an unquenchable thirst for revenge are utterly antithetical to a life well lived and a world that has any hopes of one day seeing itself at peace with justice.

What if ... what if ... what if.

A colleague has written these concluding thoughts with their deep, deep resonance with the words and, I believe, the spiritual heart of Jesus. I offer these words in the spirit and in honor of my own mother who taught to me that the only viable way forward in my own life and in the life of this terrible wonderful world is in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace. And I offer these words in honor of my own very favorite close at hand peacemaker, Dorothy Vance.

The Only Sermon
by Andrea Ayvazian

if we dug a huge grave miles wide, miles deep
and buried every rifle, pistol, knife, bullet, bomb, bayonet,
if we jumped upon fleets of tanks and fighter jets
with tool boxes, torches
unwelded them dismantled them turned them into scrap metal
if every light-skinned man in a silk tie said
to every dark-skinned man in a turban
I vow not to kill your children
and heard the same vow in return
if every elected leader agreed to stop lying
if every child was fed as well as racehorses bred to win derbies
if every person with a second home gave it to a person with no home
if every mother buried her parents not her sons and daughters
if every person who has enough said out loud I have enough
if every person violent in the name of God were to find God
we would grow silent, still for a moment, a lifetime
we would hear infants nursing at the breast
hummingbirds hovering in flight
we would touch a canyon wall and feel the earth vibrate
we would hear two lovers sigh across the ocean
we would watch old wounds grow new flesh and jagged scars disappear
as time was layered upon time would slowly be ready
to begin.

May we one and may we all yearn, pray and work for that new time ... that new beginning ... that new day ... the day of God’s Shalom: peace with justice for one and for all.