Friday, October 25, 2013

"Heart" Not the Band

Sermon preached October 20, 2013

Texts: II Timothy 3:14-17; Luke 18:1-8

            This week Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Not long ago, the world lost a former Nobel laureate in literature when the Irish poet Seamus Heaney died on August 30.  He won the award in 1995.
            One of Heaney’s poems is entitled “Keeping Going.”  It is a poem dedicated to his brother Hugh who stayed on the family farm.  It contains an image of Hugh as a boy using a white wash brush and a kitchen chair to pretend he was playing the bag pipes.  It also contains a starling image of a North Ireland reservist shot to death while waiting for a ride, a reminder that our lives cannot be isolated from the troubles of the wider world.
            The year following being awarded the Nobel prize, Heaney gave a poetry reading and lecture at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.  He read “Keeping Going” and then followed with these remarks (play).
{Interview with Seamus Heaney:}
Do you ever imagine what God’s voice would sound like – James Earl Jones? Whoopi Goldberg?  George Burns?  I kind of like to imagine God sounds like Seamus Heaney.
Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again.  That’s it.
Is it?  I am not sure if given time even Seamus Heaney would have said that his statement was unequivocally and completely true, but there is truth here, important truth.  We hear it in our Scripture readings for this morning.
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it.”  Keeping going.
“The Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Keeping going.  Heart, though not the band.  Some of you may have been hoping to hear some of “Crazy On You” or “Magic Man” and if you have no idea who the band “Heart” is, it is o.k.  You’ll get through life just fine.
Let’s explore the passage from Luke just a bit more.  Jesus tells this story, the gospel narrator tells us, in order to encourage us to keeping praying and not lose heart.  The story itself is both true to life and somewhat confusing in its context.  It is about a judge “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”  It is about a widow seeking justice.  At first the judge refuses.  Either he does not think the widow’s case has merit or he has little concern for justice.  Perhaps he recognizes that the widow has very little social status.  She is among the voiceless and powerless.  Yet she finds her voice, and is so persistent that the judge relents to her request.  “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
The story is true to life.  We know what it can be like to want to just get someone off our case.  It is a little odd as a lesson about prayer.  There is the underlying implication that there is something of God in this judge.  Jesus ends by saying, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?”  Are we to be pests in prayer?  Does God need to be bothered to do justice?
That does not seem like God to me, nor does it fit with Jesus teachings about God.  Rather God is at work for justice in the world, but the world is a bit like the judge.  Don’t we know what it is like to experience the world as a place that often has no respect for God or for people and their struggles?
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Our task in the world is to be people of faith, of trust, of heart.  Our task in the world is to trust that indeed God is at work for justice, God is at work for goodness, God is at work creating beauty, God is at work for reconciliation, God is love.  We trust that, and we do not lose heart.  We are about getting started, keeping going, getting started again.
This is important because the world can be a discouraging place.  Our government ended its shutdown and averted a potential fiscal calamity, but I am not convinced we have seen the last of government by crisis.  Our political system seems more geared to the next election than to governing for the common good.  While our government struggles, hunger remains, poverty grows, the gap between those doing extraordinarily well and many others widens.  What is so disheartening to me is that I grew up in a time when there was talk about a great society. I was only four when then President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech at the University of Michigan on “the great society.”
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life….  The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all.  It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.  But that is just the beginning.  The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.  It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.  It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.
Just so you know, I did not memorize that at age 4.  The point I am making is that it is discouraging to me to see how far we seem to have fallen in our national aspirations.  Our goal has been to avert crisis, not build a better world.
It is a tough time to be the church, particularly mainline or old-line or long-standing denominational churches.  In the United States, the number of persons in such churches has diminished.  Newer churches have sprung up, and part of their selling point is that they are not us.  I drove by a church the other day with the logo – “Real God, real people.”  The underlying implication might be “and no denomination” though I know there is a denomination involved.  And there is a lot of hand-wringing in our denomination, and a lot of it focused on pastoral leadership.  There is quite a bit of stuff out there that says that the reason The United Methodist Church has lost members is because it lacks the right kind of leaders.  One highly-touted denominational report said that “a large portion of the Church’s clergy has performance effectiveness issues.”  More recently a United Methodist lay person and economist shared with one of our denominational boards that a retired United Methodist bishop shared with him that “we have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  I hope you don’t mind me saying that this can be discouraging.
It is into this world, this world as it is that the message comes, “do not lose heart.”  Do not lose heart.  Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – heart.  Do not lose that.  Keep on praying.  Keep on reading those Scriptures that are intended to equip us for every good work.  Keep doing the good.  Keep working for justice.  Keep creating beauty.  Keep struggling with those things in your life that you need to struggle with.  Keep loving.  Trust that God is at work.  Trust that God works with, in the words of the philosopher Whitehead, “the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (Process and Reality, uncorrected edition, 520).  Trust that working with God energizes us for life, makes for a meaningful life.
In our keeping going there are many to inspire us along the way.  Many of us continue to be inspired by the young Pakistani girl, Malala.  Since age 11, she has been standing up for the education of girls in her native Pakistan.  At age 15 she was shot by a Taliban soldier for her standing up for education.  She has recovered and remain undeterred in her work.  She was considered for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
I am inspired by my family.  If United Methodist pastors are sometimes under fire, school teachers are even more so and by a wider group.  The teaching profession is frequently denigrated as examples of marginal teachers who are difficult to let go are dredged up time and again as if this was the norm among teachers.  My wife Julie keeps going, giving her heart and soul to the education and well-being of children, whether in first grade or children with special challenges.  This morning in the United Methodist Church in Virginia our son David is preaching for laity Sunday.  He is going to share how his faith and church have been important to him as he has dealt with the difficult issues around support for and custody of his daughter.  His daughter has significant developmental issues and has been diagnosed with Rett syndrome.  Given her needs, David has given up trying to fight for visitation.  Our daughter Beth broke her hip at age 10.  It may be one of the reasons she is a doctor today, doing her residency in Rochester, NY.  Standing for long periods of time on those long days is uncomfortable, but she continues her work.  Sarah meets new challenges, like being a camp counselor this summer and now beginning her Doctor of Physical Therapy program, with a lot of grace and poise.  My family inspires me.
I am inspired by many of you.  I witness how many struggle with illness with grace.  I see how many deal with death with courage.  I witness how often you give of your time and energy not just here inside these walls but in our community, and I know I don’t know nearly all of that.  I appreciated this week how we have been hanging in there, though tired and stretched.
Among the lines Seamus Heaney ends his poem “Keeping Going” with are these:
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens…..

But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all?  As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.

            My friends, you have good stamina.  You have heart.  It is about keeping going as we follow Jesus.  It is also about walking on air against our better judgment to follow the winds of the Spirit.  It is also about working with the tender elements of the world which slowly and in quietness operate by love so that, at least sometimes, hope and history rhymes.

            Heart, not the band.  Keeping going.  Together.  Amen.

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