Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two sermons re: birds, etc.

As happenstance had it
on Sunday May 25th, 2008
two great sermons were given, at two churches in the Milwaukee area, one by my wife Dee Dix at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Waukesha
and the other by good friend Rev. Dr. Tom Bentz at Brown Deer UCC.
Dee practiced hers before me Saturday as a trial run - among other reasons because she did not want to run, heaven forbid! overtime. I first listened politely and with all ears and eyes on her, but soon I realized that this message was something very special. For me, and later for several others.
I sent copies to Rev. John Helt and to Tom Bentz with whom I correspond regularly. Both of these clerics admire Dee, and in fact she came to Milwaukee from Maryland in 1980 when John Helt, then pastor of Friedens UCC (13th and Juneau) convinced the church council on which I served that we should have a Parish Worker. Especially as it would cost the once mighty but then poor and foundering church little, for her stipend would be paid by the UCC Board of Homeland Ministries.
The indelible humor runs that I was assigned by Rev. Helt to be Dee's contact person from the church council. "Be sure she gets what she needs." I tried to answer the charge. He later baptized our infant daughter Erin, now about to be graduated from Lawrence University.
When Tom Bentz received Dee's sermon on Sunday, he greatly admired it and then offered his from the same day. Following the lectionary they both hewed the same schematic.
These are two very important people to the sewer raccoon news editor. The sermons follow, and I am lucky to have their permission to run their sermons in this lowly rag. They're making sure I get what I need:

May 25, 2008--- Dee Dix
Scripture: Psalm 131
Matthew 6:24-34

“Birds of the air….lilies of the field…contented children.” Beautiful, bucolic images that also have a finger-pointing indictment quality about them.

I apologize to those of you who have heard this story before but it has a grounding power for me whenever I begin to sink in a whirlpool of worry. It was years ago and yes; it is about Erin and Lee, though I won’t be more specific about who had what role. We were using a giving calendar for the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering in Lent. Most of you are familiar with the calendars; they are fun to use for givers of all ages. We were counting shoes and putting money in a box for each child, counting coats, counting cans of food…you know the drill. Then we got to the square that read “Make a gift in gratitude for your family’s love”. Okay, I said, we’re not going to take this from the common pot of coins; I want each of you to make a gift from your own piggy bank. One child placed a generous gift in the box. The second put in a $20 bill, almost the whole bank’s worth. Ever aware of the sibling rivalry at work between them I said, “Wait a minute, this isn’t a contest. Don’t put anything in that box you want to get back later. This is a gift for less fortunate people, not a game. Put it in, it stays in. Do you really want to give that much?” It was truly one of my better parenting moments. And with a sincerity that pierced my heart, our child replied, “I don’t need it. You and Dad give me everything I need. I want to give it away.”

Now I realize this kind of logic won’t carry water with We-Energies if they want to shut off your electricity, or pay for the medicines your insurance won’t cover, or put gas in your car to get to work. But a heart grounded in love sees a world of possibilities and joy that no stockpile of possessions can guarantee.

Both of our scripture lessons today invite us into a place of security that our world denies with vehemence. We need money, we need status, we need health & good looks, we need a strong defense, we need…. Scarcity and danger are everywhere. If we don’t amass enough resources we will be lost, impoverished, alone, overwhelmed. I don’t believe this is a unique time or circumstance in history except that the extraordinary breadth and speed of our communications gives the negative voices exceptional power. Birds, and flowers and children are sentimentalized but not valued to the same degree as economic “experts” and prophets of doom.

Psalm 131 is one of the shortest psalms of the 150-song collection, but it is more intriguing than many of the longer ones. The authorship and date are really not known though it’s sometimes lumped under “David”. David would certainly have had the ego to qualify as author, but it was probably just attributed to him. What was the author’s story before the hymn was penned? It does not sound like the creation of a life-long practitioner of humility. No, the author seems more likely a battle-scarred veteran of the self-made man wars. He has known grasping, scheming, defeat and victory. I wonder, does he write this after he bottoms-out or as he sits with his Midas treasure? Either way he recognizes the emptiness of his life and yearns for a contentment long forgotten. Oh, to be as a child comforted by his mother or father, secure and safe. In verse 3 he identifies the source of his comfort--confidence is God’s promises, and extols Israel to embrace the same wisdom.

The author of the Gospel according to Matthew was a Jewish convert to Christianity who repeatedly emphasized to his community that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises found in the Hebrew Scripture. The Realm of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the realization of God’s ultimate victory of love and justice---that was the main point for Matthew’s gospel. Jesus teaches that we are not lost, but rather found, in God’s embrace. The God who gave us life knows the struggles we face, cares about the details. Know that, and live accordingly. Resist the temptation to feel responsible for everything. Turn away from the powerful delusion that we can ever be truly secure with our possessions and life circumstances.

Today’s reading in Matthew comes early in Jesus’ ministry. He has been baptized, undergone temptation and preparation in the wilderness, left Nazareth following John’s arrest, called the first 4 disciples and begun preaching, teaching and healing throughout the region of Galilee. The other gospel writers deal with this introductory period differently, but as I said, Matthew very carefully builds a case for Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Some commentators liken this gospel to a play in 7 acts. Today’s text is part of the chapters 5-7 section, an inaugural discourse by Jesus. We find the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, the salt of the earth, light of the world passage and other familiar sayings in this section. At this very beginning of his ministry, Jesus is laying out directly to his followers that God’s realm is different. Discipleship will not be a step up the social or economic ladder. It will be costly. Following the old rules isn’t enough, God expects us to live with a radical spirit of compassion, and courage and confidence. Few of his followers “got the message”, still seduced by messianic dreams of victory over the Romans and a restoration of King David’s glory days.

Most of us don’t get it either. We try, really hard and perhaps succeed for awhile, but usually we soon fall back into fear and return to parceling out our goods in a miserly fashion, as if any of this was “ours”. The birds and flowers don’t have bills to pay, you say. If we all just trusted in God where would the world be? What would happen to civilization and progress?

I believe that applying Jesus’ words to these questions is the wrong formula though. Like using “why” answers for “how” questions. Both are legitimate, but they don’t make a pair. Jesus repeatedly warns about the spiritual dangers of wealth and sends his disciples out with few possessions, but he also cautions them to be wise to the world. I do not believe he would be opposed to reasonable planning or resource provision. Defining “reasonable” and “how much” is where we get into trouble. The birds and flowers offer some insight. Both of them unselfconsciously participate in God’s realm. They live without (apparent) anxiety, radiating a beauty that few human endeavors can reproduce. When Jesus points to their example I think he also invites us to pay attention to the uncomplicated blessings of God’s realm. Too often our lives are a whirl of dreaming, scheming, acquiring and tending, moving from one task to another with hardly a moment to rest or appreciate. How many of us are really going to rest this Memorial Day week-end, or give thanks for the sacrifices of lives in service in the military and to humankind in other areas? Will we be so busy “celebrating” that we’ll have to go back to school or work on Tuesday to recuperate? Slow down, Jesus says, echoing the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Yes, resting periodically is one of the Big Ten. Stop a moment and savor the countless gifts around and within us. I’m not saying anything new and I don’t need to make an exhaustive list of ideas; just restating Jesus’ examples is enough. Whether we live in an apartment or a house we can find ourselves re-centered by watching a finch, or chickadee or even a noisy sparrow. And don’t we smile with surprise to find a persistent dandelion brightly blooming in the crack of a sidewalk? Who has not known the glory of a sunrise, the sound of a gentle brook, the aroma of fresh bread, the endearing love of a pet, or the laughter of children? Children are exceptional guides to attentive living, of course. Take a walk from A to B and it is always full of detours and discoveries…stop and look…what’s that?….

Rest in God’s promises and find your heart opened to new possibilities. I’ve been known to say I felt nibbled to death by guppies when worries consume me. I found an even better saying that makes the same point. “Ants pick a carcass cleaner than a lion”. Terrible troubles may come upon us, the lion may come to our door, but our spirits are more likely to be destroyed by small worries that obstruct hope and limit our vision to seeing the world as only a dark and fearful place.

And finally, a reminder that Jesus’ words apply to communities as well as individuals. Fear saps our collective energy, limits our imagination and is dangerously contagious. This may not be a popular question, but I believe it is an appropriate one—how might our deficit anxiety be limiting our ministry? I am not suggesting we ignore the “elephant in the room”, but that we invest equal energy in faithfully examining our call to service in this time and place. This church, in Christ’s name, has extended herself in tremendous ways. We have taken risks and sometimes paid a steep price, but we are still here at 100 East Broadway. In this Ordinary Time of the church year, of our lives, where are we being led to radically trust God’s providence? What lessons do the birds and flowers and our children have to teach us? May the Holy Spirit bless us with vision and courage, to serve with confidence and love. Amen

Now, for Tom's; to me it's like two birds of a feather answering each other:

For the birds

Sermon by Rev. Dr. Thomas Bentz May 25, 2008
Brown Deer United Church of Christ Brown Deer, Wisconsin

This is it: this is the day you may truly say: “This sermon is for the birds.” . . . for the hawk, the eagle, the sparrow, the robin, the vulture, the ostrich & other strange grounded birds – like us.
But first (did he say “vulture”? yes) my favorite vulture joke: Guy gets on an airplane carrying two vultures. As he tries to stuff them in the overhead compartment, the stewardess comes & sternly says: “I’m sorry, sir, but you can only have one carrion.

Carrion birds were the congregants when St. Francis started to practice his preaching. The people in town wanted nothing to do with him and would not listen to his preaching, so Francis went out in the cemetery and preached to the birds, and, as his biography says, “As he began to preach, all the birds in the trees came down to him, and stayed still, even as he went among them, touching them.” (So, I trust, you will not move, but be moved by my touching sermon, see and get in touch with the birds.)

This holiday weekend we can see, as I did yesterday, the bright electric billboard coming into the city on I-94, the bright electric billboard with an American flag and the words: “Remember the fallen.”
This is a “memorial" day to remember not just the past flights of the American eagle, and those who have fallen under her banner, but to recall all the fallen, and all who have & will fly on wings of faith.
This is not really our memorial day, nor an American holiday, nor our ancestor’s Decoration Day; this is Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” when tested Job and the rest of us who rest from our jobs are asked: “Is it by our wisdom that the hawk soars and spreads its wings?
"Is it by our command that the eagle mounts up?” (Job 39:26)
Is it by our hand that the sparrow is fed? Is it by our hands that the nearly given-up-for-dead, rise up?

My “good news” lesson this week came not from America, but from under the earthquaked rubble in China, where Wang Zhijun tried to kill himself by twisting his neck against a brick cutting his throat. Breathing had become harder as day turned to night. The chunks of brick and concrete that had buried him and his wife were pressing tighter by the hour, crushing them. Their bodies had gone numb.
“I don’t think I can make it,” he told his wife, Li Wanzhi, his face just inches from hers, their arms wrapped around each other. She sensed he was giving up. “If God wants to kill us, he would have killed us right away,” she said. “But since we’re still alive, we must be fated to live.”
And they lived. They were pulled from the rubble of their collapsed six-story workers’ dormitory 28 hours after last week’s earthquake. Though she lost the arm that was wrapped under his body, they were spared the crushing end that was met by at least 32,000 others. They were spared by the “God of the sparrow,” and, as we sang and Li and Wang live, “God of the earthquake: How does the creature cry Woe? How does the creature cry Save?”

Buildings fall, builders fall, birds fall, airplanes fall, empires fall, as Tom Petty sings, “We all fall down.” The greatest downfall recorded in the Bible is the fall of Job: he lost his property, his money, his family, his status, his fawning so-called “friends,” his health, his status, and almost lost his faith. On Job’s sad “memorial day,” all he could say was, “Oh, that I were in the days when God watched over me … when I was in my prime 29:2,4) Job bemoans the rise of bad people, and his own fall, despite his goodness, or at least all of his good works.

Then Elihu (whose name means “Yahweh (Jehovah) is God,” speaking for God, tells discombobulated Job: “Hear this, Job: Stop and consider the wondrous works of God. Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars and spreads its wings?
"Is it by your command that the eagle mounts up?” (Job 39:26)

I don’t know about you, but as gas prices are mounting up with wings like the red flying Mobil horse, my retirement savings are tanking, and the house I once owned now owns me, with negative equity, & we can hear Proverbs reverberate: “Don’t wear yourself out to get rich…for suddenly it takes wings, flying away like an eagle.” (23:4-5)

God knows, & we should know, that money is not what we amount to; the wings of faith mount us up.
The Word of God does not tell us: Wait for your stock to go back up, wait for wealth, wait in the doctor’s office for steroids, wait for a fresh reinforcement regiment of Marines. As Isaiah (40:31) says, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.”

You know the American bald eagle, mounted on our money and our flagpoles, was an endangered bird; now it is mounted back up and soaring again from the mountaintops in the skies and in our eyes.

But we, at least it’s true for me, seldom soar like an eagle. I am more like the robin flying into a closed window, blessed just to be still breathing, hoppin’ and bob bob bobbin’ along.
And the song is something to which I can hear Jesus sing along: “Live, love, laugh and be happy.”

Hear also this little echo after Elihu: Consider the tiny – as well as the wondrous – works of God. Or as Jesus saw it: “Consider the lilies. Look at the birds.” Not just the soaring hawk & the lofty eagle but also, he would say, the lowly sparrow. Though Jesus does not name the sparrow in our Gospel lesson today, he did say, earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, the only time that he speaks of sparrows: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground.” (Matt. 10:29)

Well, I have to tell you: one of them did fall to the ground – on my front porch, on ice, right under my empty birdfeeder, when it was around zero. I found the frozen dead sparrow, and found myself guilty of unintentional birdslaughter. Had I just put some seeds in that feeder . . . But then Elihu asked me: “Is it by your command that the eagle soars?” With an echo: “Is it by your hand that the sparrow is fed and survives?” And I must admit: No; it is not I; it is God’s eye that is on the sparrow, God’s hand that feeds the birds. God spares the sparrow, so I know he cares for me.

Ah, yes, the sparrow; but would God also spare the grounded, head-in-the-sand ostrich? You bet. Elihu told the wing-clipped Job, “The ostrich’s wings flap wildly, though its plumage lacks” the lift to fly, and it leaves its eggs on the ground, so “that a foot may crush them,” yet “when it spreads its plumes aloft, it laughs at the horse and its rider.” (Job 39:13-18) Ostrich? Us? Head in the sand? Sure. Sometimes. All of us. But not long enough to suffocate. We may not fly, but God has given us wings … and grace. God’s eye is on the ostrich, and on us.

Can we fly? Why not? Have any of you ever dreamed that you were flying? It is my favorite dream. I feel deflated when I am awake and land back on the ground. But the dream is real. Birds, holy spirits and saints from Francis to us are made to fly.

The early bird catches the worm. The eternal God dispatches the living Word, hatches the world, catches us all when we fall, snatches us off the ground after we’ve crashed into locked windows or on Wall Street, and, in the promise of Isaiah and Francis, we sparrows and saints “will take on wings … and will fly … and will not die.”


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