Whatever the Mueller Report’s findings, recommendations and conclusions, our work is the same. Like the midwives, we continue the vocation of compassionate resistance. This sermon is long, but more timely now than the day it was preached (2014). If you decide to take the time to listen, please leave a comment to let the preacher know what you’re thinking.
“But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exodus 1:17).
For further reflection on the vocation of compassion in an anxious time, read “Being Human: Nothing Less and Nothing More,” p.40-41, in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock). Click HERE to take a look inside Be Still!
The line from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem came to mind while digging into the encounter between Jesus and the people of the perfect offerings. That’s right, the Jewish Leonard and the Jewish Jesus drank from the same well: Jewish scripture and tradition.
It was Leonard Cohen’s line about a “perfect offering” that led me to think of Jesus’s encounter with the perfectionists about terrorism — see James Tissot’s The Tower of Siloam — and the parable of the withered fig tree.
Jesus’s parable then led to the memory of Professor Lewis (Lew) Briner who would have read the text the way he read everything else in the New Testament — in Greek. As students, Wayne Boulton and I sat in the Briner kitchen to discuss theology or the news of the day. If we didn’t knock on their door, Lew would come to get us.
Following the memorial service for Wayne, Vicki asked if I had any pictures of Lew and Mil Briner. I did not. She entrusted two photographs to my keeping. Years after those nightly conversations over a beer or scotch, only one of us remains. Memories of Lew’s hospitality, scholarship, wit . . . and facial expressions are un-forgettable.
Lew chaired the ecumenical committee that resulted in the Revised Common Lectionary. Discussing a New Testament text was an education in itself. Seeing his picture again with Wayne, I wondered what Lew might say about this week’s Gospel — Jesus’s encounter with the “perfect offering” folks who compared themselves with sinners, like the 18 terrorists killed in the sabotage of the Tower of Siloam. What might Lew say about that, and the parable of the the withered fig tree that follows his confrontation with the perfect (innocent) people?
“Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” –Luke 13:4-6 NRSV
Sometimes Lew would shift our attention to something he’d noted in the Greek New Testament text that English translators sanitized because it didn’t pass Miss Manners’ Victorian sense of moral propriety. It disturbed him when a Greek word was mis-translated into what the translators considered the English vernacular. Words like “manure”!
“You want to know what it really says?” Lew would ask, lowering his head to peer over the top of his glasses, slightly raising and lowering his eyebrows several times with a twinkle in his eye, with an unmistakably mischievous smile. We knew something earthy was coming.
I can see the twinkle in Lew’s eyes. “Give me a year and let me dig around it and throw s—t on it!” If you really want to translate the Greek into the vernacular, use the vernacular! Sanitizing it wipes it clean. It removes the jolt. Besides, only farmers use the word “manure” these days, and the farmers have become fewer and fewer. Unless they have a garden, urban and suburban people might have to look up “manure”. No one needs a dictionary to look up “s—t”!
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything) That’s how the light gets in
There’s nothing like old friends. Once there were seven. Now there are four. We call ourselves The Dogs, old friends and classmates at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. Yesterday Harry Strong, Bob Young, Don Dempsey, our spouses, and I, gathered with Vicki Boulton and the Boulton family and friends at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis to sing God’s praise and to give thanks for the classmate who brought us all together again in 2004 for what we call The Gatherings.
Wayne Boulton was my best friend, dating back to 1964 when we were assigned to be roommates in Alumni Hall. Wayne has been the Dean of the Dogs who arranged our gatherings over the years: places, dates, the daily schedule, books and topics, and guests who would join us for a morning or afternoon. Since 1964, Wayne and Vicki, the love of his life, have been a continuous thread of friendship.
As much as I wanted to sing the hymns that are as close as the next drawn breath — O God, Our Help in Ages Past; Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; There Is a Balm in Gilead; and For All the Saints Who from their Labors Rest — I couldn’t. I shut my mouth (which is rare), and opened my ears to hear the deep resonance of the organ and the congregation singing the hymns. I trusted the gathered community to lift me from the sorrows of dust and ashes. And lift me they did — without knowing it, except for Kay, and with no other intention than to sing to the glory of God and give thanks for Wayne.
The next day, the four surviving friends gathered for our own time of remembrance, wearing the Chicago Dogs t-shirts Don had given us all. We sang hymns. We read from Wayne’s books and email exchanges with us, prayed, and hung on the edges of laughter and, and listened to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, Going Home, If It Be Your Will. Leonard reminded us again that there is a crack in everything, and “that’s how the light gets in.”
In this period of Narcissism, it is a matter of no small thanksgiving that Wayne did not call attention to himself. He was without guile, and as playful as a child. “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4 NRSV). Would that the same might be true for all of us lesser lights.
As the four old friends and our wives took Vicki to dinner the night following the memorial service, the crack in us had been wedged open wider, but, against the cynic’s logic, the light was brighter. As Leonard said, “That’s how the light gets in.”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
Llightning struck down 50 worshipers and injured another 50 In Aotearoa — the Land of the Long White Cloud — the Maori name for their home before foreign invaders re-named New Zealand.
The mind of western white nationalism makes few, if any, distinctions between Muslims and Jews. Although we rightly think of anti-Semitism as responsible for the gas ovens of Nazi Germany and the long history of anti-Jewish pograms, the term ‘Semite’ applies more broadly to the Hebrew- and Arab-speaking people of the Middle East. Whether gathered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or in the mosques of New Zealand makes no difference. Their existence is a threat to the mindset of white superiority and, more lately, western nationalism.
A 72 page white nationalist manifesto did not know, or chooses not to know, that the original invaders were not dark skinned people. They were not Middle Easterners. They were not Semites. They were not Muslim. It was the Dutch and English colonizers who “discovered” and then invaded the Maori “Land of the Long White Cloud” (English translation) that turned the Maori homeland into the land of their own displacement, subjugation, and long-suffering. The invaders were white Europeans who considered it their right and calling to spread their religion and culture around the world.
Judaism and Islam claim a common family origin in Abraham, but they do not same the same maternal lineage. They do not claim the same mother. Jews and Christians see themselves as the children of Sarah, the mother of Isaac. Muslims claim Hagar, Sarah’s banished slave woman, the mother of Ishmael, as their mother. Neither Sarah nor Hagar, nor Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Ishmael was “white.” The predominant religion of the western culture is rooted in Middle Eastern people and cultures. And, the scriptures Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common the memory that the estrangement between the Isaac and Ishmael ended when the re-united to bury father Abraham.
One can suppose with near certainty that yesterday’s attack on mosques in New Zealand, like the bombing of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh arose from the cauldron of anti-Semitism, hatred toward the children of Abraham — Isaac, the son of Sarah, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar. So apparently different, and yet the same.
Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge that feigns ignorance is a fools’ paradise that turns long white clouds of an otherwise blue sky into dark clouds of smoke, dust and smog.
Snoopy and Charlie Brown’s conversation greeted me today in Marilyn Armstrong’s “What’s the Point of It All?” Some mornings I’m like Charlie Brown. Other days I’m like Snoopy.
More often than I’d like, I’m the human being on the left side of the dock — a morose Gloomy Gus. But I’ve most always been blessed by a Snoopy. A Maggie. A Sebastian. And, then, after Maggie and Sebastian died, a Barclay who looks on the bright side of life. How about you?
Charles Schulz was a native Minnesotan. I never met Charles, but his cartoon of Charlie Brown and Snoopy sitting at the end of the dock looking out to the far horizon leads me to suppose two things about him. 1) Charles Schulz had a dog as his philosophical partner. Like me, he had a Maggie, Sebastian, or a Barclay. 2) He spent time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area (BWCWA), paddling a canoe through a narrow channel between the rocks, or sitting with his dog at the end of a Kawishiwi cabin dock . . . or nestled in a hammock . . . pondering the meaning of it all, and feeling more like Snoopy than a Gloomy Gus.
“Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.” – Charles Schulz
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero
— Gordon C. Stewart and Barclay, Chaska, MN, March 14, 2019.
Steve Shoemaker (1942-2016) shared equal time on Views from the Edge until his untimely death. Steve’s genre was poetry. Often his poems and verses led readers by the nose through his lines to the surprising last line that shed a humorous light on all that had come before. Steve was a 6’8″ gentle giant who lay on his side at night, quietly typing a new inspiration into his iPhone in the dark so as not to disturb his wife Nadja at 3:00 A.M. Poems like this one were waiting in my in-box in the morning.
Steve lived to write and craved desserts (especially his nightly bowl of ice cream) and sex, matters about which, so far as I could tell, he hadn’t lied. Nor did he brag or exaggerate. Of the seven friends who knew each other well over four decades, Steve was the least self-centered with the wryest sense of humor. He never denied himself a bowl of ice cream!
I will give up writing poems for Lent
I will give up eating desserts for Lent.
I will give up sex for Lent.
I will give up thinking about sex for Lent.
I will give up lying for Lent.
I will give up bragging for Lent.
I will give up exaggerating for Lent.
I will give up self-centeredness for Lent.
I will give up self-denial for Lent.
– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL
March 5, 2014 (Ash Wednesday)
In this era of ill-humor and self-indulgence, Steve’s tongue-in-cheek verse again rings the bell on the betrayals of our best intentions, and our common need for repentance and forgiveness.
We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.
The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.
“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”
What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.
We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”
The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.
“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”
Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.
Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.
Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.
Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today. What you have become is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point. Ash Wednesday is the leveler. The eraser. The antidote. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours. Today, the roosters comb their heads with ashes and stop crowing.
If it often seems that the roosters are in charge of the barnyard, today reminds them and us that, in the end, they are not. Neither are we. Ash Wednesday levels us all to the baseline of zero. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” No matter whether you’ve crowed or cowered, no matter the story you tell yourself about yourself in comparison to others, you are no exception. Every reason for pride or self-loathing, and division, is erased by a pencil bigger than our mortal selves.
Whether our stories are re-written by a better Author will continue to be one more matter of dispute and division, but there can be no reasonable doubt about our mortality. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the meantime, before the roosters stop strutting and crowing and all the cock combs fall to the leveling plain, those who see the face of God in the compassion of Jesus remember the ethic appropriate to those still living in the barnyard:
“As they were arguing over who was the greatest, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The roosters strut and crow, and you think you are dependent on them. Don’t be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves.”– (Luke 22: 24-26, GCS translation)
Today, I offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will do the same, for the sake of life itself.
Days before reading and re-publishing Linn Ullman’s lines about memory and the loss of it (“You just can’t think too deeply about it”), one of the four remaining classmates of what we’ve called The Chicago Seven, The Gathering, and now The Old Dogs, sent the rest of us an article on Alzheimer’s our latest deceased brother, Wayne, had published years ago.
As Wayne had imagined his ship going over the far horizon, his worst thought was not death. It was that he would live on, like his father had, without remembering how to tie his shoelaces and without recognizing Vicki, the love of his life, his sons Matt and Chris, daughters-in-law Liz and Libby, and the grandchildren who brought him such joy.
That nightmare didn’t happen. He went out with his mind in tact, as much as a hospice patient’s mind is ever fully there. Aside from his last few days, Wayne’s mind was clear and his heart was full. The article Harry sent the three other surviving Dogs is a reflection on Psalm 90:10, 12 (RSV):
The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
When he died in 1989, the sum of Dad’s years came closer to fourscore than to threescore and ten. With the psalmist, I attribute this number to his strength, but I would not wish the manner of his death on anyone. He died of complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.
It was my first experience with the death of an immediate family member, so I was no veteran. I found myself up against a more complicated reality than I had anticipated. I remember thinking at the time that some portion of this is just plain death: nasty, sad, the way death always is. But it is not natural death. It is something else. In the words of Martin Luther’s signature hymn, the disease threw every member of Dad’s little nuclear family—his wife, daughter-in-law, and myself—into a “flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
“Amid the Flood,” Wayne G. Boulton, Reformed Review, Western Theological Seminary, December 1, 2000.
Wayne died the way he lived and lived the way he died. Faithful son, husband, grandfather, and friend. Wise. Compassionate. Pastoral. Realistic. Hopeful. Consoler. Prayerful. Private. Counselor. Social critic. Political wonk. Brilliant Christian theologian-ethicist. Follower of truth wherever it led him. All of that and so much more. But, if I had the pen to engrave his epitaph on the simple grave stone in the cemetery of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, if might read,
A sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming, humble servant his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ amid the flood of mortal ills.