Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Preparing a table in the midst of our enemies . . . On the life and witness of Ruth!

     I must confess sermon-crafting in situations like this can be incredibly paradoxical.  On the one hand, I did not know the Ruth that all of you all did.  When I arrived at Advent a couple years ago, Ruth was already not herself.  In fact, she was so ravaged by her memory loss that caregivers in her facility told me on my first visit not to expect her to be able to receive Communion.  Swallowing was already a difficult challenge for her, as it often is for men and women in her condition.  So, me trying to figure out Ruth’s testimony to you all, her friends and family and partners in crime, is really tough.  I have no first hand stories from her upon which I can draw.
     On the other hand, as Ruth had been stripped of all the fa├žade of what we call life, I did get a view into her core being that parishioners often try to hide from clergy and each other.  And Ruth’s was amazing, at least from the perspective of an outsider.  Keep in mind, I had not yet met Susan and heard any stories.  The caregivers were very insistent about how hard it was for Ruth to eat and drink and for me to keep my expectations low.  Yet every single time I or Holly brought her Communion, Ruth’s face lit up and she consumed the Sacrament.  There was no hesitation, no gagging or choking, just grateful that her hunger and thirst were being met by the Lord.
     And make no mistake, Ruth was not happy to see me.  Quit laughing, I did not mean it like that.  We had no prior relationship.  It was not as if Ruth was excited to see this green-shirted or white-shirted or red-shirted clergy show up like a long lost friend.  I did not look like Tom or Rick or anyone else who had ministered to her over the years.  She was just happy to be receiving the body and blood of our Lord.  That was her focus.
     That was her focus on all my visits save the last.  My last visit was on Maundy Thursday last month.  That was the first day that she could not receive the Sacrament since I had been here.  She was disappointed in her eyes.  I saw it, and so did Susan.  I offered to lay hands for prayer and to anoint her with the new oil the bishop had blessed that morning and pray for her.  As the fragrance of that oil wafted over her, Ruth visibly relaxed and sunk back into her pillow.  Having seen that hunger and thirst for a couple years, I’ve no doubt that Ruth has received the healing for which she longed and for which I prayed that afternoon last month.
     That is, of course, great for her, but funerals and funeral sermons are more for the living.  We gather as a group of people touched by the life and witness of this lady we call Ruth wondering where God is and was in the midst of all this.  How can God redeem a death that seems so cruel?  Many of us worry about dementia and Alzheimer’s and other diseases which cause us to lose our minds.  Many of us will mouth the words, “If I can just keep my mind when I get older, it will be ok.”  We might grudgingly accept a need for assisted living.  We might even grumble as we are forced to depend upon a cane or walker to help us balance.  We might even choke down an unholy and bitter cocktail of drugs to help our hearts, our blood, or whatever ailments we have.  Heck, we might even think we have the courage to withhold prolonging treatment in the face of a terminal disease or condition.  Ah, but to lose one’s mind, THAT is a fate worse than death.
     And if we fear that so much, it makes sense that such a condition would be better visited upon those other than God’s people, right?  I mean, what good is it to serve God, to worship God, to love one’s neighbors as oneself—as by all accounts Ruth seems to have done in the stories many of you have shared with me—if He won’t honor His end of the bargain?  Where was He when Ruth started to lose her mind?  Where was He when Ruth lingered and lingered?  Where was He when the Ruth we knew left and was replaced by this shell of what we knew?  In rage, we might demand of God where His justice was in how she lived the last years of her life.
     Where is He for the family?  Susan and Edgar will have a really tough time over the next few months as these issues are raised in conversations that are meant to be comforting.  Some of us will make the horrible mistake of telling them that this, the death of their mother, is for the best.  As outsiders we may look on their emotional, physical, and financial investment in the care of their mother and think that a burden has been lifted.  Susan and Edgar will feel only the pain of having lost the lady who raised them, who nursed them, who taught them, who mothered them.  And our heartless words of “comfort” will serve only to make us feel better that we do not have the answers.  Yes, Ruth is in a better place.  Yes, Ruth is joining the choir of angels and archangels and singing in glorious harmony the praises of the Lord.  But we are not.  We are left searching, seeking, struggling.  That is where Ruth’s witness to you and to me is most profound.
     As Adventers have shared their favorite stories of Ruth, one common thread was the table cloth.  Adventers, some jokingly and some not so jokingly, spoke of that table cloth for dinner as the acknowledgement that they were finally Adventers.  It was a great thing to be invited to Ruth’s house for dinner and be asked to sign the table cloth.  Ruth’s practice, for those of you who never made it to dinner, was to embroider the signature of all those who shared a meal with her in her house.  As I was laughing about this practice, well more the responses to the practice, with Susan yesterday, her lightbulb went off.  Susan had the table cloth and planned to bring it today.  Most of you saw it over in the parish hall this morning.  A lot of you went looking for your own signature.  As people found their names, they shared stories about the meal.  A few remarked on the color of the embroidery thread Ruth had chosen for them.  And some people panicked.  Where’s my name?  Did she wash me out?  I know I signed it! 
     I suppose I should take this moment as you are all chuckling, nudging , and murmuring to remind you that, if a stupid human priest can notice all these details about you, imagine the details that God can see in your or my life!
     Watching and listening, of course, drew me right in to Psalm 23 this morning.  I often think it is a foolish preacher who bothers to preach on that well known psalm because it is so well known.  But, I am sometimes cognizant that we are too familiar with things and thereby miss them.  Psalm 23 might just fall into that category. 
     One of the great myths about our faith is that when we convert, when we “get Jesus,” all our problems will be saved.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many people chose to be baptized thinking they’d never have another money problem, they’d never have a health issue, they’d never have a relationship issue, that they’d be taken care of by God.  That’s a failure on the part of clergy leadership.  We should be telling people it gets harder.  The Enemy of God is not happy when we choose the Lord, so the pressure points often get more acute to drive us from the faith.  If we discover that our problems do not go away, maybe we will think God does not really love us or that His covenant does not apply to us.  And we will turn away.
     Certainly the psalmist recognized this issue or temptation.  Does the psalmist understand that God will take away all his or her problems?  Of course not!  The table is spread before the enemies.  They are not destroyed.  They are not removed.  The enemies are still there, surrounding the psalmist.  Yet the psalmist understands that God will provide abundantly in the midst of his enemies.  We think of pastoral enemies because of the setting of the psalm, The Lord is my shepherd.  Because we are familiar with the psalm and the setting, we think in terms of wolves or lions or brambles or grassless pastures, but the psalm was intended by God to be so much deeper for us.
     Even in modern Nashville, where sheep have not been seen outside the zoo since pretty much ever, God was shepherding Ruth.  Like us, she experienced the normal vicissitudes of life.  Susan and Edgar might be a perfect son and daughter now, but I bet Ruth could share some stories that would disabuse us of our silly notions.  By all accounts, she and Edgar had a wonderful life together, but I bet she could share with us that there were marital difficulties at various times.  Perhaps we perceived her as having all her material needs met, but I am sure she could tell about the hard times in her life, too.  None of us would dare make the claim, “At least she had her health.”  Nobody, but especially no disciple of Jesus, goes through life untouched.
     But she recognized where her protection, her abundant life came from.  Not a person outside my church has failed to mention how Ruth’s dinners were meant to be an escape of sorts, that for the few hours you were wined and dined at her table you could forget your cares and enjoy the feast and the friendship.  Where do you think she learned to model that behavior, my friends?  Right here in this psalm!  She loved you, her neighbors and her friends, as she did herself.  She wanted each of you to experience, however insignificantly she could provide, the Peace and abundance offered by her Lord.  She wanted you, her friends and family, pointed in His direction, because, in the end, He is the true shepherd.
     Those of you perhaps wrestling with her testimony and the claims of the Christian faith might well point out her end of life as justification for your doubts or fears or disappointment.  I would not leave you without a couple thoughts to consider in light of the life of Ruth.  We serve a God who specializes in redemption and resurrection.  For reasons known only to Him on this side of the grave, He often chooses to work through suffering.  The ultimate example of that suffering was, of course, modeled for us by Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, and His call to us is to pick up our cross and follow Him.  Crosses are not easy things to bear.  There is not much glory in this world to be found in following God.  Sure, from time to time, a bright light (we call them saints) will shine for a brief moment, but the world is often determined to snuff out the memory of those lights.  By all accounts, Ruth lived a life that glorified her Lord.  For most of you in attendance, she was that kind of light we call a saint.  Many of you have spoken how she loved you like a sister, a daughter, or a son.  All of you who have shared that with me have pointed out how Ruth wanted you in her inner circle of love, that being a cousin or a co-worker or a friend was just a little too distant for her.  And each of you has remarked how you have missed that Ruth these last years.
     She simply loved you as best she could in light of her certain knowledge that God loved you even more.
     How do we know?  As I mentioned in the beginning, let’s consider the end of her life.  In no way would any of us choose to suffer what she suffered.  In absolutely no sense of the word would we ever expect that any good could come from such evil.  The veneer that we all put up in front of one another was stripped bare from Ruth.  What’s worse, there was a time when she knew it was being removed.  How did she respond?  At her core, still she hungered and thirsted for her Lord.  And those of you who saw it, or have seen it, know what I mean.  There was no “appearances” in Ruth at the end of her life.  She did not pretend to be pious.  This was who she was.  God was whom she desired in spite of her sufferings and her losses.  And as we recall that this day, God is again glorified in suffering.
     Make no mistake, God did not want her to be a widow or to suffer the loss of her memory as a lesson to us.  Just as we read a couple weeks before Easter at the tomb of Lazarus, our Lord weeps with you, her family and loved ones.  This was not the life He desired for Ruth when He created the heavens and the earth.  But He still has the power to redeem all things, even those of us who have entered the shadows of the valley of death.  Even as He weeps with us at this tragedy, He has power and authority to call her out!  To bring her to Him for all eternity!  And that is the promise which comforted Ruth.
     That, brothers and sisters is what makes Ruth’s testimony a Gospel lesson for us all.  If this was the end of her story, it would still be tragic.  She has died.  But in this season we call Easter it is appropriate that we remember the promise upon which she staked her entire life—that He would redeem her from all things, even her own death!  That, my friends was the promise upon which her hope rested.  That, my friends, was the promise that compelled her to love you each as she did.  That, my friends, was the promise that caused her to set that table for you and point you in the direction of her Lord who sets an even better feast!  A feast whose foods make Ruth’s look bland!  A feast whose wine makes Ruth’s taste like Boone’s Farm!  A feast to whom the invited never need worry whether their name can be found, for it has been cleansed and sealed in the Body and Blood of our Savior, Ruth’s Savior, Jesus Christ!

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†

Friday, April 14, 2017

Adornment or a symbol of oppression or a way of life?

     I suppose the origins for this sermon was in a conversation last Saturday, though I admit I did not real theologizing about it until later in the week.  Last Saturday, to refresh our memories, we were in the midst of the parish cleanup.  Holly and I were washing windows in the parish hall.  John Stokes had invited me again to the Rotary Pancake breakfast, and I had accepted, not realizing the conflict.  Now, you all know John.  Everybody in Brentwood knows John.  Everyone that came by John to say hello got introduced to me.  Some paid attention to the “This is our priest,” promptly shook my hand, and took off.  Others wanted to talk to a priest.  Still others did not hear the priest part.  And let’s face it, I was dressed like a cleaner, except for my cross.
     One gentleman decided to tell me the story of a lady’s cross.  He went into great detail about the origins of her cross.  It was made out of dogwood.  Her favorite tree had been a dogwood which was killed in the blight or fungus that killed them all thirty years ago.  The brother had taken up carving as a way of using the wood.  He made the whole family crosses out of that tree.  He’s even painted the top of hers to match the bloom.  It was a good story of a cross and told a bit about families and memories.  Clearly he was impressed by the story of the cross.  Then he asked me if mine had one.
     Now, many of you know the story of my ordination cross.  It survived a run through Chosin Reservoir.  The gentleman who gave it to me specifically rejected giving it to family members because I was greater battles.  For those of you who do not know the story, ask at another time.  Frank had enlisted in the Marines underage, had been sent to Asia, and before that battle at Chosin Reservoir served as an acolyte for an Anglican Eucharist.  This cross had been given him by the bishop, and, as far as Frank was concerned, explained as well as anything why he had survived when so many had perished.
     It’s a good story.  It’s a really good story.  It makes carving a cross from the deadwood of a tree seem . . . trivial.  But I was not in a mood to be trivializing.  I sure did not want to embarrass John or a friend of John’s.  Palm Sunday and Holy Week were upon me.  So I deflected.  I started off with a discussion about how all crosses point to the Cross and the love and heartfeltness we should all feel toward God, particularly this time of year.  The comments annoyed a couple people who were listening to his story.  You ministers are always so . . . churchy.  I am certain the other fellow meant it as a slam, but I am glad he is encountering ministers in his life that are excited about God and the Church and the Gospel.  For so long, many of us have been . . . less than excited.
     Of course, too much passion can be a bad thing.  Some of my colleagues were in a discussion this week.  One clergy friend was buying crosses for those being baptized.  It was there that he got a lesson in the cross as a fashion accessory.  Boy or girl?  What color looks best on them?  Low cut blouses or high neck colors?  As he griped about his experience, others chimed in.   I was asked if I wanted one with a little man on it.  I was asked why it was so popular to begin with.  Clearly, a nerve had been struck, and many had a story to one up each other.  One colleague even posted a magazine article, I think it was Glamour but it may have been another fashion magazine, that helped the reader figure out what kind of cross went with every kind of outfit.  Apparently, the cross is not the sacred symbol we consider it to be.  As an aside, our own Frank says that crosses had become more of a fashion statement that a statement of faith when he retired from the jewelry business.
     Then I wondered if the ever was a worldwide symbol of faith.  The cross in Rome was a symbol of futility, humiliation, and power.  There are other ways to kill people, but crucifixion is particularly drawn out.  It goes on and on and on.  Heck, we get a sense of that from our readings today.  The authorities want the condemned men to die quickly because of the solemnity of the occasion, so they ask Pilate to break the men’s legs and speed their death.  Let me state that again, they need Pilate’s permission to speed up the death of the condemned.  We can’t have it happen too quickly, else the people will never learn the lesson.
      And imagine the lesson for the family members and friends.  They get to watch the loved one suffer and die, and they are powerless to do anything about it.  What must have been running through the ladies’ minds as they watched Jesus die?  What kind of raging futility must have gripped Mary?  Was she mad at Rome?  At those who conspired against her son?  At Pilate?  At Jesus for putting Himself in this position?  At God, for making her watch on helplessly?  And I wonder f maybe there were fear?  She had to be worried on some level that maybe she was next.  She had raised Him.  Where had He gotten these ideas that He was the Messiah?  Someone might come looking for her.
     Christians quickly adopted the Cross as the standard or symbol of their faith, but the adoption process was not particularly quick nor uncontested.  Most of us know that the fish, not the cross, was the figure drawn in the dust to mark a house church in the time before the conversion of Rome.  And, let’s face it, when did Christianity ever really truly dominate the world.  Sure, we had some prestige in Western Europe.  Many of our modern countries trace their existence to some sort of divine providence arising out of those periods.  But the world?  Movies are out now depicting the missionary activities of the Church in places like Asia or South America.  For all our handwringing, I wonder if the Cross was ever the sign or standard that we would like to believe it was.  Somehow, given the condition of the world, I doubt it.
     I am thankful, of course, that we liturgical Christians focus on the Cross for a few days each year.  Unlike our brothers and sisters who chose not to follow liturgical seasons, you and I come face to face with the Cross for a few days every year.  Like others, we might convince ourselves that we are the “special” Christians.  Like others, we might delude ourselves into believing that our relationship to God means we have a special relationship with rulers.  Like others, we might even convince ourselves, or allow ourselves to be convinced, that we are really powerless to change the evil in the world, that we are unfit or impotent to help God with His plan of salvation on earth.  For all of what we call Holy Week, you and I and all liturgical Christians (who bother to attend and remember) are called to remember that the Cross was The plan of salvation.  The Cross was the means by which God redeemed the world to Himself.  The Cross is the means by which we know God’s love for each one of us.
     For our more Protestant brothers and sisters, the Cross is strongly (and correctly) identified as the source of their salvation.  The Cross becomes that mysterious means by which our mortal, sinful selves were crucified with and died with Jesus.  And while this existence is not yet the Resurrection that was begun on Easter morning, it surely is a sign of the hope we have in Christ, a pledge of His power to redeem each one of us.
     But the Cross is more than “just” a means of personal salvation.  The Cross was a signifier to those early Christians, and to us, that a new reality was bursting in.  Rome, the superpower of the day, had put down the leader of this new reality in as cruel and as permanent a way as possible, and still God was sufficient.  This new reality, this heavenly kingdom, could not be stopped.  Nothing, not even death could stop its determined advance because God was the One empowering it, nurturing it, determining it.  It was that sense of things becoming on earth as they were in heaven that caused Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to begin to change the world.  It was Christians who began adopting abandoned babies off the trash heaps.  It was Christians who began to care for the widowed, the aged, and the infirm.  It was Christians that nursed the common people through the plagues.  Heck, we like to think we fight about sex now, but it was Rome whose patron goddess was sex even as their patron god was war.  Christians, according to non-interested experts, removed the shame that was associated with sex during the empire.  To be sure, these changes did not happen overnight.  Great numbers of Christians were killed for their willingness to help others.  Rome argued that might made right, and they were quick to punish any and all who stood against them.  It took three centuries for the empire to begin to convert, at the sign of a cross before a battle I might add, and those “great times” to really begin.
     What caused so many normal people to fight that system?  What caused so many people to love and serve others into the kingdom?  What convinced ordinary people that this life was worth laying down in service of others in a culture that rejected them?  The Cross.  For so many that cross stood as the symbol of God’s love of the world and all that is therein.  The Cross was that wonderful and visible reminder that the world could throw its best and strongest weight at God and that God was still up to the challenge.  God was still redeeming the world, one soul at a time, one service at a time, one family at a time, one group of people at a time.  And no matter how hard the world resisted, God would win in the end.
     Brothers and sisters, we live in an age that is not so different from the age in which our Lord was nailed to the Cross.  The poor and homeless are still with us.  Disease still ravages us.  Slavery still surrounds us and benefits us.  Human beings are beaten for no good reason, like sitting on an airplane having bought a ticket.  Wars are still happening.  Heck, I could give a homily on the injustices of the world, and I am sure I would forget a couple.  But the message of the Cross is not just one of personal salvation, as important as that is, but one of molding and shaping us to be heralds of this new order, this kingdom come.  All of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be is signified by that rugged tree.  And each and every one of us has a role to place in the advancement of God’s kingdom.  To be sure, it will not come fully until the Day our Lord returns in glory.  But part of our response to the Gospel is to remind people that we are a Resurrected people.  We may not look like it all the time yet.  We may not sound like it all the time yet.  But we are, by virtue of the Cross and empty tomb, a people who can hope, who can serve, who can lay down their lives for others, in loving imitation of the One we rightly call Lord and Master.  And through His call on all our lives, we can help change lives, families, systems, governments, and the world.  The Cross is not just a fashion statement or means of torture; it is the place where our lives find meaning and purpose.

In Christ’s Peace,

Brian†