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.


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