Friday, August 28, 2009

Forty Years Ago Today

Sermon preached August 23, 2009

Text: Psalm 84

Today’s Psalm is a very happy psalm, a joyous song. It evokes sunshine and paying attention to beauty. We will get back to that, but first a detour, a difficult detour.
Not all the psalms are so sunny, as indicated in the prayer for today. Take these words from Psalm 38 for instance: I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart…. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes – it has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off. This psalm reminds me of the words of Scott Peck. Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. (The Road Less Traveled, 15). It reminds me of similar words of D. W. Winnicott, British psychoanalyst. Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for every one from the very beginning. (quoted in Winnicott, Adam Phillips, 51).
We will get back to Psalm 84, but not just yet. When did the truth about life being difficult become clear to me, because it is now? I think it came to me over time. Maybe some of it was watching the struggles in my parent’s relationship. They divorced when I was in my early 20s. There is adolescence with all of its heartbreaks – not being the athlete one would like to have been, hearing “no” when it had taken all the courage you could muster to ask that girl for a dance or a date. Life certainly became more difficult for me when, at age 21 I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. There were countless times since that I have wished this would just disappear, but it never did, and because of it I am at an increased risk for colon cancer, and because of that risk I get my colon scoped every year and have for the last eight or so years. A couple of years after that diagnosis, one of my best friends from high school and college was diagnosed with leukemia and died. When you confront death so closely, you become aware that life is difficult – and in the last year my father died, and in the last month a friend and colleague in ministry, a woman probably in her late fifties, died in an accident on her farm.
I feel the truth that life is difficult deep in my bones, and the truth of it has been confirmed not just in my personal life, but as I have grown more aware of the wider world. A woman named Rebecca Kamate (not her real name) works with women in the Congo who have suffered rape. Here is part of her story as reported in the New York Review (August 13, 2009, 18). “What pushed me into this work,” says Kamate… “is that I am also one who was raped.” This happened a decade ago; the rapists were from the now-defunct militia of a local warlord backed by Uganda. “Their main purpose was to kill my husband. They took everything. They cut up his body like you would cut up meat, with knives. He was alive. They began cutting off his fingers. Then they cut off his sex. They opened his stomach and took out his intestines. When they poked his heart, he died. They were holding a gun to my head…. They ordered me to collect all his body parts and to lie on top of them and there they raped me – twelve soldiers. I lost consciousness. Then I heard someone cry out in the next room and I realized they were raping my daughters [ages 12 and 15].
Difficult seems much too tame a word for such horror. Life can be horrific, terrifying, cruel, as well as difficult.
Not only can life be difficult, but goodness can be fleeting. Forty years ago this year – yes, there was Woodstock – but forty years ago this year The Beatles played music together for the last time. Music so many enjoyed was to be made no more, and it remains a significant event. The most recent issue of Rolling Stone (September 3, 2009) has as its cover story; “Why the Beatles Broke Up.” In my teenage years in the 1970s there was this persistent rumor that The Beatles were going to get back together for a concert, an album, but it never happened. In 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed by a deranged man. In 2001 George Harrison died of cancer.
Ready to get back to Psalm 84? Just last year, Paul McCartney released a CD of new music, Memory Almost Full, and on it was this song. {Play about a minute of “Gratitude” link at the end of the sermon!}
Gratitude. That’s the spirit of Psalm 84 – gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. How lovely – sparrows nesting, swallows laying eggs and hatching young. Happy are those who sing God’s praise. Happy are those whose heart is a highway to the place of God. God does not withhold any good thing from those who walk that highway in their heart to God.
Here’s the deal, we have an absolute need in our lives for gratitude, to cultivate gratitude, to feel gratitude, to have grateful hearts. We need to see beauty and goodness in the world, even when we see pain and harm and ugliness. They are both there, and if we neglect either we miss life. We need to notice the sparrows and swallows and sunshine and feel joy, but it is not a shallow joy that forgets that there is real horror in our world. We need to feel the goodness of life and know that this goodness is just there, that there is a quality of gift about it for which we can be grateful. We are to be those who sing, “I’m so grateful for everything.” This, too, I feel deep in my bones. Life is difficult, yes. Life is filled with beauty and goodness and wonder, some of which I help to create, and much of which I am simply the beneficiary. Gratitude and joy are knit deep within, too.
Maybe like me, you feel both these things deep inside, and have days when you forget one or the other – the pain and difficulty of the world, the joy of the world for which we can be grateful. Today, in the spirit of the Psalm I invite us: Remember the joy. Cultivate gratitude. Trust in the goodness of God.
Maybe like me, you do that best when you take time to really think about what you have to have to be grateful for. The Psalmist is doing a little of that in Psalm 84 – making a gratitude list. I want to share some of mine with you.
I am grateful to God, the God I know in Jesus Christ. And that’s how I know God, through Jesus and the tradition in which he lived and the tradition which he inspired and inspires. The God I know in Jesus is the source of life and beauty. This God’s very nature is creativity and love. God loves all who live, persons and creatures and world. God inspires goodness, creativity, justice and love. I am grateful for God’s love in my life, for God’s constant invitation in my life to be all that I can be and to do the good I can do with my life. That loving invitation comes again and again and again, even when I have ignored God, and that constant connection is grace.
I am grateful for the relationships which sustain my life – especially for my family. I am deeply grateful for Julie who has shared my life now for close to thirty years, twenty-seven as my wife. We have had the joy of bringing three children into the world and while we have experienced the twists and turns of parenting, we could not be prouder or more filled with joy when we think of David, Beth and Sarah. I have been blessed with friends who care about my life and give me the opportunity to care about them.
I am grateful for my body. Okay, that may seem a strange thing to say. It is not as tall as I might have liked. I wouldn’t mind if my hair had not abandoned ship a few years ago. I have already told you about some of my inward parts and we don’t need to go there again. Still, this is me. These are the eyes through which I have seen the world, though they now need glasses. These are the eyes through which I have read the Bible and theology and philosophy and poetry. These are the hands that have touched the world, that have held my own children, that have held the children of others to be baptized, that have done some good in the world. These are the ears that have heard the music of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck. This is the face by which people know me.
I am grateful for this church. Being a pastor here has its challenges. I am sometimes frustrated by our building. I wish I could please everybody all the time, but that is not possible. We have changes coming and maybe more changes that need to be made so that we can be all God calls us to be. Still, I am grateful for you all and for this place. You help keep me on my toes. You challenge me to keep growing in my faith and we all walk the journey of faith together. I think we have a good thing going here and I want to see us share it with others.
I am grateful for meaningful work. This is my job, and there are times when it is important for me to see it as my job, lest I be consumed by it. Pastors are not the only ones who can get consumed by their jobs. I wrote about that very thing on my blog about a month and a half ago. It is o.k. to remember that even if my job involves ultimate meanings, the job itself does not contain all ultimate meaning. God has called me to be a pastor, but first God called me to be a Christian, a full human being who finds what that means in Jesus. It is o.k., then, to have times when I don’t have to like all that I do, just do it. Sometimes being a pastor is just a job. I am deeply grateful that it is also often so much more. And I am grateful.
I am grateful to be a citizen of the United States of America. I am aware of our failings and foibles. I am also aware of how much our country still symbolizes freedom and opportunity and the bringing together of diverse people. I will talk about how we can do better, but I do so because I care about this country.
My list would not be complete with a word about my gratitude for music and movies and books – art and thought which engages my mind and enlarges my heart.
I began with a couple of quotes, let me wrap up with a couple more. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast: Gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness (Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, 12). Without gratitude we are not alive to much of the world. We don’t see the world as it is. E.B. White: I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. Life is difficult, sometimes even horrific and terrifying. It needs saving and that is the work of God and the work God invites us to join in. Life is also filled with goodness and beauty and delight, things to be savored and enjoyed, things for which the appropriate heart-response is gratitude. But I would add, this, without savoring the world, enjoying the world with deep gratitude, we have little energy to work on improving the world. The woman whose horrific story from the Congo we heard works to help others because she believes she can make a difference, because she sees a goodness that is possible.
Savor the world, enjoy the world with gratitude, and use the energy of joy and gratitude to improve the world. Trust that this is possible, and be among those whose very hearts are a highway to the place of God, among those who trust in the goodness God inspires, even in a difficult world. Amen.

Paul McCartney "Gratitude"

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