Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday - It is OK to Grieve 1 Thessaolonians 4:14-5

1 Thessalonians 4:14-15

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord

My wife texted me the other day while she was at school.  One of her friends wanted to borrow anything we might have about pirates.  Hats, necklaces, toy swords, and such.  I figured someone was having a party, but no, they were planning a funeral.  They wanted everyone to come dressed like pirates.

In the past several years I have seen a growing discomfort with death.

It has always been with us, of course.  Woody Allen once said that he wasn’t afraid of death, he just didn’t want to be there when it happened to him. 

We hesitate to say that someone has “died.”  So instead we began saying things like “passed away.”  Lately we don’t even say that, we say, “he passed.”

Several times people have told me that someone has passed and my first thought, literally and honestly, is to think “Good, what kind of test did he pass?  The Bar Examination?  The Drivers License test?” 

Even the way we speak of funerals has been softened.  We used to gather together when people passed – or died, and have what was called a funeral.  Funerals are often called “celebrations of life.” 

Now on one hand it is good to have to encourage the sharing of good memories and I’m all for laughter at any occasion.  But we are more and more going to the extreme of disguising the purpose of these post-death gatherings.  But more and more this term “celebration of life” has become synonymous with a party, not a worship service. 

I walked into one such Celebration of Life recently and there was a sign at the entrance, “No grieving allowed.”  Below that it said, “This is not a funeral but a celebration and laughter is encouraged.  Anyone shedding tears will be asked to leave.”

But here’s the thing. 

You cannot live your life without death or grief or pain or hardship.
One of the most beautiful arias in opera comes from Pagliacci.  A clown has learned tragic news that hurts him to the core, but he is a clown and cannot allow himself to grieve.  So he sings this song, “Turn your distress and tears into jest, your pain and sobbing into a funny face, Ha!  Laugh clown at your broken love!  Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!

Each one of us is going to die.  Each one of us will have many, many beloved friends and family members die. 

The secret that most people don’t know about living life, is that death will happen and it is OK to grieve.

Ernest Becker wrote a book back in 1973, The Denial of Death.  It was a profound book that claimed that people are too terrified of death to face it.

American writer William Saroyan said shortly before his own death in 1981, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

In the place of an awareness of death, we nurture what one person has called, “a flippant air of invincibility that only gives a second thought to our mortality for the briefest of seasons when tragedy strikes.” (“Overcoming the Denial of Death” Matt Reagan, July 7, 2012 article in Desiring God).

In the book, Becker asserts, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything."

Are we really so naive that we will, like a child playing hide-and-seek, place our hands over our eyes and convince ourselves that death is no longer there? If we want to live, we need to face the reality that everyone of us will die. 

Death is both inevitable and terrifying, and denying it will accomplish nothing but emotional shallowness.

On the other hand, knowing that you will die liberates you.  Accepting that you will die, enhances your life.

          Early in my ministry, in fact it was while I was still in seminary, a professor sent me to the nursing home to visit some shut-ins there.  It was part of a class I was taking on ministry to the elderly.  I got to know one of the shut-ins pretty well.  Mentally, he was pretty alert, and we had a number of conversations.  Finally one day, I asked him, as one 23 year old to someone who was, in my mind, incredibly ancient, “What is it like to be old?”

          It’s the kind of question only a very young person would ask.

          He thought for a minute and said, “I now view everything in life from the point of view of my death.”

          Without thinking, I pitied him and said, “How sad.”

          “Not at all,” said the old man.  “We are all dieing, but for most people, death is a secret.  People hide if from themselves.  But I know the secret.  I know I’m going to die.  And that helps me to treasure life, and to enjoy it.  Even here in a nursing home.”

          I have remembered that man’s words for a long time now.  And I think he’s onto something.  There is something very liberating about knowing that we are all dieing.

          Garrison Keeler is a radio personality who is heard each week on Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion.  He’s a story teller and in one recent show he told this story.

          A man was tilling manure into a field in the Spring, using a tractor and a disc plow. 

It was a long field.  The tractor was moving at five miles an hour, and the man was bored.  It was a warm day and the man wished he could be anything other than a farmer.  He was tired of working for his father.  Out of sheer boredom, he dozed off and started to fall backwards off the tractor seat. 

He woke up falling and, because the tractor was an old model with the throttle lever that was notched into place, the tractor just kept moving.  The man fell in between the tractor and the discs and, as he hit the ground, he grabbed on to the tow bar.  He hauled himself up as far as he could, but he couldn’t pull himself all the way up.  He just hung onto the tow bar with both hands as the steel discs were moving behind him.

His body was literally being dragged through the dirt and the manure.  He held on as tightly as he could because, if he lost his grip, he would have been cut in two by the moving discs. 

He was just about to lose his grip.  He didn’t even have enough strength to cry out or to weep – he just kept hanging on. 

The tractor kept moving, ever so slowly, until it came to the end of the field.  It began moving up the incline of a hill, and then into the woods. 

Finally it hit a tree and stopped, although the wheels kept spinning. 

It took him about ten minutes before he could stand on his two feet, climb up into the seat, and turn off the engine.

That man lost his life and got it back again. 

As Garrison Keeler told this story, he made the observation that he would think that after an experience like that you would have the feeling of absolute freedom and liberty.  All the weight would be gone. You would feel the sort of liberty that you read about in the Epistles when a person has died and has been reborn.

The sunsets are lovelier.

The friendships are richer.

Life is savored more deeply.

The gift of Ash Wednesday is that we come forward and have ashes placed on our head, and as each person stands before the pastor he or she hears the words, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”
All of us are on a journey toward death.

Death is hard, it is not easy.  Denying its reality does not make it easier.  Grief his difficult, and you cannot rush it. 

I mentioned a few moments ago that I once went to one of those funerals that was billed as “A Celebration of Life.”  At the entrance was a sign that read, “No grieving allowed.”

But it is fine to grieve.  Jesus, himself, attended the funeral of his friend Lazarus, and even though he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus from the dead, he cried.  It is the shortest verse of the Bible: “Jesus wept.”

But allowing grief and acknowledging sadness and pain is not the same as giving up hope.

St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.

Later, when death was no longer an abstract of some distant future, but close at hand, Paul wrote the Philippians while in prison, saying, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Having hope is not the same as being in denial.  Having hope is what Christians do in the face of reality.

It is fine for us to fear death – that is a human thing for us to do.

It is fine for us to grieve – to lose someone dear to us is not something that should be painless. 

But in the midst of our fear and in the struggle with our tears, “What shall we say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?”  That question was asked by Paul in the New Testament book of Romans, and in that question he continued to ask questions, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

“… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

In The Same Boat - a sermon on the book of Philemon


Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you] in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we] may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you,[g]24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Sermon                                      In the Same Boat                Maynard Pittendreigh

The Help is a novel that was published a few years ago. 

In the book, and also the movie based on the book, Eugenia, or Skeeter as she is more commonly called, has just returned home after graduating from the University of Missisippi and wants to become a writer.  For her first major writing project, she decides to interview some of the residents of the town in order to tell their stories.  The residents she wants to interview are the African American women who work in various white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s.  

Skeeter slowly builds trust with these women and begins to listen to their stories of what it is really like to be an African American maid working for white families in Mississippi in the early 1960s. 

It becomes very clear that the maids are simply not regarded as human beings; they are “the help.”

One of the stories Skeeter hears is told to her by Abilene.  Abilene tells about serving a luncheon for her employer’s card club.  While Abilene serves the food and fills up the drink glasses, the conversation at the table turns to a local initiative to have every family construct a second bathroom, outside if necessary, for the help—the black housekeepers and maids—to prevent them from using the white family’s bathroom.  In a town and in a time in history in which there where separate public bathrooms for whites and blacks, in Jackson Mississippi there is a sudden fear about cleanliness and hygiene those people to use their bathrooms.

As Abilene serves the women their lunch and iced tea, Abilene hears it all.

They talk as if she isn’t even there, which in a way she isn’t.

It is easy to look at people and not see them as -- PEOPLE.  They are not people – they are the other race.

How many times do we look at others and fail to understand – that is a human being, with feelings and pain and desires and hopes and dreams?

No - they not really people – they are just members of the other political party.

That man is not real people.  That homeless person is just a bum, not a person.

The rich look at the poor, not as people.  They are just poor trash.

The common person looks at those who are wealthy and powerful – they aren’t people.  They have no idea how real people live.

One of the many things the recent “Me, Too” movement can teach is that there are so many men who look at women as objects.  They are not real people, you can do anything with them and get away with it.

In Mark Twain's “Huckleberry Finn,”  Young Huck has run away from home to escape his cruel father. Everyone thinks poor Huck has been murdered, but he is alive and well and adrift on the Mississippi River in a canoe.  He takes refuge one night on Jackson’s Island.  Soon darkness falls and he is afraid, exhausted and alone.

Long past midnight, Huck creeps through the dense woods to a clearing where he finds the remains of a camp fire, and in the flickering of the fire’s light, sees the figure of a man on the ground.  The man gets up, to the terror of young Huck.  But then he realizes who this man is.  It’s Jim!  Miss Watson’s slave from back home.  Jim is an escaped slave!

It is at this point that Huck Finn reflects, “'I was ever so glad to see Jim. I warn't lonesome now.''

This unlikely pair begin their journey together down the Mississippi.  Two very different people, both in the same boat.

Huck is, in the beginning of this journey, conflicted about his travel partner.  In particular, he is conflicted about the sin and crime of supporting a runaway slave.  He wonders if Jim even has a soul.  But being two people in the same boat, the two talk in depth and they begin to bond. Huck connects emotionally with Jim. Jim becomes Huck's close friend and guardian.
Being in the same boat, they begin to see each other differently. 
They begin to see each other as – well, people.

Which brings us to the book of Philemon.

Philemon.  It is not the shortest book in the Bible.  But it comes close.  Close enough so that we just read the entire book of Philemon. 
Philemon.  I don’t remember anyone every starting a Bible Study on the book of Philemon. 
I don’t think anyone has ever selected as his or her favorite verse of the Bible one of the 25 verses of Philemon.

In fact, I have been preaching for 41 years!  This sermon you are hearing is my 2,749th sermon!  You think I’d gotten better at it by now!

But I have never preached on Philemon.  Which is why I felt moved to preach from Philemon today.

After all, Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

Which means that even Philemon, as short as it is has something to say.

And what Philemon basically teaches is that we are all in the same boat.  Just like the Skeeter and Abilene in the Help,

or like Huck Finn and Jim in Mark Twain’s novel. 

Let me give you a bit of background. 

Paul is writing to a man named Philemon, which is how this book gets the title, Philemon.  He writes about Onesimus, who was a slave who, like Huck Finn’s Jim, ran away from his owner.  There is even an implication in the book that Onesimus stole some money from his owner, Philemon. 

Sometime after running away from Philemon, Onesimus encounters Paul.  We don’t know how.  It may have been that he knew Paul, had heard about Paul, or even that for a short period of time they were cell mates in the local jail.  After all, Paul is writing this letter from prison.

At any rate, Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” has been very useful to Paul.  And an affection and friendship grows between Onesimus and Paul. 

Legally Onesimus should be sent back to his owner.  Paul does not want to do that, however.  But he writes this letter and he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus – not as a slave – but as family. 

You see, Paul, Onesimus and Philemon are all in the same boat.

They are all children of God.

Paul is the greatest theologian in history, but his is no better at being a Christian than Onesimus or Philemon.  They are all in the same boat.  Just Christians called to love and respect each other.

Philemon is the legal owner of Onesimus according to the secular world of that time.  And yet Onesimus became the Bishop of the church in Ephesus. It was one of the radical things that gave the Roman Empire a struggle – that a slave could be so highly regarded as to become a bishop.

They are indeed all in the same boat.  Before God, all are equal.

That is a very American value, that “all men are created equal.”  That phrase is in the preface of the Declaration of Independence.  Thomas Jefferson penned those words, but where did he get that concept of equality?  Some would say the concept came from John Locke or Voltaire. 

Scholar Sarah Ruden, in her book, Paul Among the People, argues that the concept started here – right here in the letter to Philemon.  It was here that Paul created the Western concept that the individual human being is "unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings." Before Paul wrote this little letter, Ruden argues, a slave was considered subhuman, and entitled to no more consideration than an animal. (Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People (2010), p. xix.)

It is so easy to look at people as subhuman.

You see someone and think, “That person doesn’t matter.”  Think again.  You are both in the same boat.

This month the American government shut down.

In our country, a government shutdown occurs when Congress and the President fail to pass an appropriations bill to fund government operations.  The first time this happened, if my research is correct, was in 1976, but they have become increasingly more common in recent years.

We watch these shutdowns with increasing frustration. 

Now, I am no expert in the economy or the Constitution or politics.

But I watch the politicians.  The Republicans blame the Democrats, and the Democrats blame the Republicans.  They demean and dehumanize each other.

I think they would get a lot more done if they understood they were all in the same boat, that boat being Congress.  Or better yet, that boat being America.  As long as one group demeans the other, nothing much gets done.

When you listen to or read reflections of astronauts who have orbited the earth, this is one of the concepts they share.  We are all in the same boat.  You look down on earth and you do not see the lines one sees on maps.  There is no line separating Canada, the US, or Mexico.  You look at Europe and you cannot tell where France ends and Spain begins.  We are all in one boat, all citizens of one planet.

But if you walk on the streets of this planet, you see people with different color skin.  You see clothing that suggests wealth or poverty.  You begin to fall into the trap of thinking – us versus them

But no

 – we are all in the same boat.

In Paul’s day there were slave and there were free people.  Paul stripped away those differences and wrote about how in Christ we are all in the same boat, we are all children of God, and there is no north, south, east, west, no slave or free, no rich or poor.

We are all human.  Created by God.

When Paul wrote to Philemon and asked him to take the runaway slave back, he told him not to receive him back as a slave, but as family.  Look at the former slave and see him as a human being.

What a difference it would make the next time we look at others we would see them as human beings.  Your boss, your employee, your maid, your teacher, your student, your next door neighbor, the other drivers on I-4, the stranger you meet at the store --- each one is a human being. 

The man can no longer look at a woman employee as an object to be used.  The wealthy cannot look at the poor as undeserving of help.  We, like Philemon, need to see beyond the surface to see each one as a person with hurts and pain and feelings and needs. 

Larry Nassar worked for two decades as a sports physician and as a trainer of some of our nations top Olympic starts.  He was widely respected, but underneath was a secret. 

He had been molesting the young women under his supervision.  In recent days he was sentenced to serve 175 years in prison.  Before being sentenced to prison he had to sit in a courtroom and listen to one accuser after another.  For seven long days he heard one story after another – 156 women took turns speaking. 

How could someone do such horrible things?

It is easy, if you look at someone as an object, and not as a human being. 

Nancy Ortberg is a Presbyterian minister who serves a church in California.  Prior to becoming a minister, she was an emergency room nurse.

She tells the story of what happened one night in the hospital at the end of her shift.

It had been a busy Saturday night and after a rush of seriously injured patients things were beginning to quiet down.  But the ER was a mess. The ER physician was debriefing a resident about procedures and protocols, complimenting the young resident on his competence.

And then he put his hand on the resident’s arm and asked, “When you finished did you notice the young man from housekeeping who came in to clean the room?”

There was a blank look on the young doctor’s face.

The older doctor said, “His name is Carlos. He’s been here for three years. He does a fabulous job. When he comes in he gets the room turned around so fast that you and I can get our next patients in quickly. His wife’s name is Maria. They have four children.” Then he named each child and their ages.

“He lives in a rented house three blocks from here. They’ve been up from Mexico for about five years. His name is Carlos. I want you to speak to him.  More than that, next week I would like you to tell me something about Carlos that I don’t already know.” (Forbes, 23 April 2007).

We need to look at everyone as human. 

And so Paul wrote to Philemon and said to him, “Perhaps this is the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”—a beloved brother who, like you and me, was created in the image of God and for whom Jesus Christ lived and died.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.

Copyright 2018. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.