Thursday, May 26, 2011

Memorial Day

This weekend, we stop to remember that there are lives that must be honored. There are also lives that have been dramatically altered. The courses of lives have been dramatically reshaped, by both the physical and psychological wounding that come with war. These people warrant our ongoing care. I find myself haunted by a poem that was written over sixty years ago at the conclusion of WWII by the poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish. During WWII, MacLeish served as the Librarian of Congress. When the War ended, the Library of Congress staff wanted to hold a Memorial Service for its staff members who had gone off to fight and had not returned. MacLeish, whose identity as a writer, poet, and man of letters were already been well established, was asked to write it. He was in his early fifties and had been an artillery officer in the First World War, so he knew about combat and battlefield deaths. The poem MacLeish wrote was called The Young Dead Soldiers. These are some of its lines:

We were young. We have died. Remember us.

We have given our lives, but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.

Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them.

Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing, we cannot say; it is you who must say this.

We leave you to our deaths. Give them meaning.

We were young. We have died. Remember us

For lives lost in previous and ongoing wars, may they rest in peace. For those of us who are still granted the gift of life, may we be bearers of peace.

-- Pastor Matt Braddock

Sermon for May 15, 2011

The Secret Life of Sheep
Click HERE to listen

“Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10:1-10

The Secret Life of Bees is a novel about Lily, an adolescent white girl searching for freedom from abuse and shame. The story takes place in South Carolina in 1964. After fleeing her abusive father, Lily finds shelter in the family of an African American beekeeper named August. August leads a small community gathered around a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been passed down from the time of slavery. They call this icon of the Virgin “Our Lady of Chains” because she broke the chains of bondage. At one point, August tells Lily about the power of the statue. August places his hand on Lily’s hand. She puts her free hand on top, a black-and-white stack of hands resting on August’s chest. Then August speaks about Our Lady in Chains. “When you’re unsure of yourself, when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside you saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand . . . And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love—but to persist in love.”

Persist in love?! We receive constant messages of gloom and doom, war and violence, shrinking budgets, program cutbacks, marginalization of people, and the demise of the institutional church as we’ve known it. How do I persist in love when all I want to do is hide from life’s pain?

I resonate with the words of Ted Loder, a retired Methodist Minister who wrote a prayer book called Guerrillas of Grace. Loder prays, “Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much: too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls . . . sometimes the air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion; too much of darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. Too much, Lord, too bloody, bruising, brainwashing much.”

Where’s this abundant life Jesus promised? Because honestly, I see a lot of doubt and small living. What would happen if we really believed God’s energies and possibilities were present in the midst of the abuse and shame within us and around us? In a world of fear and scarcity, how can we understand Jesus’ vision of full, abundant life?

Jesus says we can learn something about this abundance in the secret life of sheep. I don’t know much about sheep, but I hear they are defenseless, willful animals, likely to wander into danger or foolishly follow the crowd, unable to care for themselves, and in need constant protection and care. Jesus says his followers are like those sheep. Maybe we are different, but I doubt it. And it bothers me. I don’t want to admit that I can be that way.

Sheep have a secret, though. In the midst of competing noises and distracting voices, they know the shepherd’s voice. They know how to listen and follow. They know how to get in synch with the one who nurtures them. Jesus isn’t really talking about sheep and shepherds, by the way. He’s talking about what it takes to live a life of abundance. The passage we heard from Acts 2 gives another vision of a church marked by abundance. The community expected great things from God and equally great things from themselves. The Jerusalem church was a place that joined prayer, worship, generosity, hospitality, study, praise, communion, and grateful consumption. We call these activities “spiritual practices.” Regularly repeated, these kinds of activities awaken us to the abundant life God envisions for us. Spiritual practices enable us to create lives in synch with the One who nurtures us, moment by moment and over the long haul. Acts 2 presents a community in which everyone has enough because everyone is willing to share. Private property is never fully private; its use is accountable to the needs of the larger community. Abundant living is not an accident. It emerges from an intentional life of prayer, worship, study, hospitality, and praise.

And listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

I once had a friend who claimed to hear the voice of God. His name was Willie. Willie always made me a little nervous because the things God told him were not very pleasant. For some reason, God usually let it be known thorough Willy that those who failed to follow God’s commands would receive harsh punishment. It usually involved eternal fire and endless abandonment. When he moved to Florida, I was relieved. For the most part, his messages from God made me nervous for selfish reasons. I was young and I was afraid God was going to tell Willie some secret detail of my past, and I didn’t want to be around if the Lord was going to embarrass me or punish me in front of my friends.

I had a similar experience at a place called the Church of Brotherly Love. It was a small African American church on a country road in the middle of nowhere. The pastor, Sister Bradley, had been the minister there for 30 years. Sister Bradley invited me out to one of her church’s weeknight revival services. The guest speaker was a woman who was known to be a prophet. She preached for an hour and a half, telling us that she was telling us what she was hearing from God right as God said I to her. As she wrapped it up, the Prophet Lady began to pray and God started giving her messages about specific people who needed healing. She called specific people whom the Lord wanted to free from various sinful ways. She would say, “There is a woman here with 4 children who can’t pay her bills. She has been drinking a lot to escape her pain. God wants her to know that there is another way to solve her problems, and the answer is Jesus. Where is that woman?” We were supposed to be praying, but I popped an eye open and secretly scanned the room, looking for someone to respond. Finally, a tearful woman stood up and walked down the small center aisle of the church. This happened with three or four other people. The Prophet Lady would close her eyes in silence, nod her head in agreement with the voices in her head, call people forward, lay her hands on them and pray over them. Then the people would shake and fall to the ground, filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s when I started praying. I did not want to be called forward. I didn’t want to be exposed. I didn’t know when to fall down and shake. “Lord,” I said, “I know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve done. Let’s just keep it between you and me and not tell the Prophet Lady about it. OK?” Then the Prophet Lady spoke. “You, the young pastor over there.” I was going to be wise and point to someone else behind me, but I knew to whom she spoke. She said, “The Lord has a message for you.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “God we had a deal here.” Mercifully, I never had to go forward. She gave an encouraging message, and let me sit back down. God is good!

Do you ever wonder if God still speaks to us? Are we listening? Are we listening correctly? Are we in tune with the proper voice.?

We often walk a fine line when trying to answer this question. If someone claims to hear the voice of God directly, we sometimes consider the person to be a fanatic or mentally unstable. The other side of the line is that we want to hear from God. We want to know that the God we worship is real and interested in communicating with us.

Listening is an important, underrated spiritual practice. Listening helps us to tune in to the voice of God. We listen for God in scripture. We listen for God in the voice of others. We listen to the voice of intuition and conscience. It takes practice to be a really good listener. Let’s try it. For one minute, I want you to listen. Pretend you are listening like a baby noticing sound for the first time. Take a minute and noticing the variety of noises and rhythms. Tune in to the messages coming to you from all directions and multiple levels of experience.

There is perhaps no greater way to show our regard for our friends, family, and associates than to truly listen to them. Listen to children. Listen to an animal. Listen to the waves on the beach, or the roar of a city neighborhood. In all these ways, and in a thousand more, listen for God and you will come to a greater appreciation of your place in the universe. And you will begin to know what abundant life is all about.

Abundant life means living in a way that follows God’s aims for the world. Abundant life means living in a way directed toward loving deeds and peaceful goodness to our neighbors. Abundant life means living cultivating an awareness of the goodness of God so much so that it naturally spills out and spills over and intersects with every aspect of our lives. Abundant life means offering random acts of kindness toward those around us. Abundant life means a life full of God, which means a life full of love! And when you get right down to it, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love—but to persist in love.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...