Getting Older

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256px-George_Burns_1961INTRODUCTION: There’s nothing like an old friend when you have nothing worth saying, as though you ever really do, and are focused on getting back to writing a novel instead of your blog. One such old friend is the Rev. John M. Miller, or “the Least Reverent John Miller,” as I call him, whose sermon from The Chapel Without Walls arrived by email this morning. John remembers a Pickles comic strip. I think of George Burns.

FOR OLDER AMERICANS WHO ARE GETTING OLDER

Text – “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (RSV)

This sermon has taken many years to germinate. In one sense, it has taken almost seventy-nine years for it to come to full fruition. Thus the first reason for preaching this sermon is that the preacher himself is an older American who increasingly realizes he is getting older. The other reason which prompts this sermon is that Lois and I have lived in a retirement home for almost three years. That has given me the opportunity to have observed more than three hundred other older people getting older. That leads someone such as I to reflect on what all that means.

Hilton Head Island has a much older average population than the average American community. That has been true for at least the past fifty or sixty years. Over time we had three large retirement homes built here, plus several other smaller facilities of various types for various older people. The Seabrook, where we live, has 225 residents. Of those people, a hundred are ninety or older. We even have eight centenarians, people who are a hundred years of age or more.

Americans are getting older. Of course everybody is getting older, even newborns. However, by means of advancements in medical care, nutrition, and physical activity, many millions of Americans are going to make it into old age, whether they like it or not. Are we thinking about that? Are we consciously and conscientiously preparing for it? Or shall we just let it happen, come what may, with little or no thought given to it and what it might portend?

A member of The Chapel Without Walls sent me an email piece which he received as an email from someone else who no doubt received it as an email. It is called Ramblings of a tired mind. Among other things, it said these things: “I was thinking about old age and decided that old age is when you still have something on the ball, but you are just too tired to bounce it….The older you get the tougher it is to lose weight because by then your body and your fat have become really good friends….Aging: Eventually you will reach a point when you stop lying about your age and start bragging about it.”

But what happens if you realize you are old and you’re not bragging about it, or you fear it, or you wonder what is going to happen to you because of it? What if you’re older and not feeling well, and you think you are probably going to feel worse and worse, or you are fairly certain you’re going to run out of money because you lived too long and you see no way out of that heretofore unforeseen eventuality? Old age isn’t for sissies, they say, but must it be a severe trial for everyone who makes it into old age? For everyone, no, but for many, sadly, yes.

 When I was young, I didn’t like the Book of Ecclesiastes. I thought the writer, who is variously known as Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, or The Preacher, was too skeptical and cynical and sour. Now that I’m old I am more positively drawn to the unquestionably older person who wrote Ecclesiastes than to any other writer in the entire Bible. I suggest all of you take an hour or two this week to read this short book, and then ponder it and ruminate upon it. It is directed especially to older people who are getting older, and it has multitudes of golden nuggets for golden-agers. I’m serious. Read Ecclesiastes. Throughout this sermon I will use isolated quotes from Ecclesiastes. I won’t identify them as such, but if you listen closely, you’ll recognize them when you hear them, because you heard two readings earlier from this outstanding book.

I have said this before in several different ways, but I want to say it again: God does not determine when or how or why anyone dies. In my opinion, it is a serious mistake for anyone to believe God determines those things, because it can turn people into puppets or doormats. “Nature,” terminal illness, or longevity may terminate our lives, or we ourselves may do that, but it is never God who settles when anyone dies. Young or old, we die when we die. There is no explaining when or how or why it happens, other than medically or forensically. Theology can’t unveil why death happens when it happens. We die when we die, and faith cannot explain why.

That having been said, it behooves all of us, particularly as we get not only older but actually old, to contemplate everything we need to do to prepare for death. This may sound morbid, but what is really morbid is not to prepare for death by merely waiting passively for death to negate our existence. When we are living is the only time we have to prepare for death.

So what do we need to do? We need to have a written will, and a living will, and a medical power of attorney, whereby we designate someone to make medical decisions for us if we are physically and/or mentally incapable of expressing our own wishes for ourselves. We need to make sure somebody knows where all our important papers are, and to have access to them if they are under lock and key. We should establish a legal power of attorney for someone we trust who can handle our financial affairs if we are unable to handle them ourselves. We need to let our spouse or children or other relatives or attorney or somebody know what our wishes are concerning some sort of official recognition of our life soon after we have died.

I’m going to give you an opinion about which I have thought a great deal, probably more than most people. In my vocation, one is thrust into thinking about these things more than most other people. My advice? Please don’t tell your children or your lawyer that you don’t want any kind of service after you die. That is unfair to those who have known you and loved you, even if you are an irascible or ornery old coot, which of course no one here is. Everyone is a child of God, and as such, other children of God should be granted the opportunity and privilege to acknowledge and give thanks for the life of everyone who dies. Those who know they are going to die may not want a service, but a memorial service or celebration of life is for those who have lost the one who has died, and not for the deceased.  Everyone dies, and everyone else should have the  option of giving thanks to God for that person’s life when anyone dies. In my long-considered opinion, it is unseemly for a dying individual to prevent others from joining into a celebration of that person’s life, and also in a witness to the resurrection for those who are Christians.

Half a century in the ministry has convinced me that sadly, many people live too long. Most such people are not happy about that situation, but slowly or rather suddenly, there they are. For many oldsters, their quality of life declines into oblivion. It is my three years in a retirement home that have alerted me as nothing else could to the heart-wrenching reality of how relatively quickly too many Americans discover themselves to be living too long. Laws, customs, and faulty theology all contribute to their dilemma. The long-running British comedy on PBS called Waiting for God accurately describes this sober circumstance in a humorous but also telling manner.

Last Monday evening Turner Classic Movies showed a bittersweet film called Whales in August. It was about some elderly people on the Maine coast, and it starred Betty Davis in her final role, Lillian Gish, Ann Southern, Vincent Price and a couple of other loveable, colorful geezers. In the movie, Betty Davis and Lillian Gish play elderly sisters. The sister who is nearly blind says to her more positive and able-bodied sibling, “We have outlived our lives.” That was an honest, but sober, statement. We have outlived our lives. “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” – Ecclesiastes 2:17).

Outliving one’s life in advanced age is a circumstance no one would ever choose. Nonetheless it is a situation confronted by increasing numbers of older people. Where once they were hale and hearty, now they are frail and weak. Where once their funds were sufficient, now they wonder which shall give out first, their money or them. Is it wise or prudent  — or ethical — to run out of money in old age? In any event, can it always be avoided? “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other, so that man will not find out anything that will be after him” Ecc. 7:14).

Countless older people have told me that wherever they are living is the last place in which they shall live. They say they are too old for another move. Don’t count on it. Circumstances may force older people to move to a nursing home or to be closer to children in other quarters or in a nursing home there. We like to think we are in control of our lives, but we may not be.

Thus far society has not made sufficient preparations for the legions of oldsters who are confronting the viability of the American health system. Social Security, pensions, and 401Ks cannot handle the costs of maintaining everyone who needs to be maintained. Here is an extremely sober and sobering question: Is it valid for any of us, if we are very old and sick, to keep on living? Voluntary, not mandatory answers to that question are the only valid ones.

Illness of any sort becomes a growing concern for older people. Dementia is a far greater concern. The older we get, the more likely we are to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Dementia requires more care than almost any other form of illness. If one spouse in a marriage begins to lose memory, demands inevitably shall increase for the other spouse who is still doing relatively well. Both can only try to make the best of it.

A few days ago I saw my longest-term close friend on the island. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years. I was astonished at how much he had aged in that time. He has lost weight and is stooped and uncertain in his gait. His wife has had dementia for perhaps eight to ten years, and he is at the point where he simply is no longer able to give her the care she needs, but he has not found a suitable and affordable memory care facility for her. And so they both toddle along into a darker and ever more uncertain future. “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad” (Ecc. 7:3) Was Koheleth correct when he wrote that?

One of my favorite comic strips is Pickles. It features flinty Earl, his wife Gladys, and their grandson Nelson. Earl and Gladys look to be in their seventies, and Nelson is about six or seven. Last Monday Earl was in the kitchen with his hand on his chin. Gladys asked him what he was doing there. “I came here to get something,” he said. “To get what?” she asked. “I don’t know. It slipped my mind. But I’m not leaving until it comes to me!” Exasperated, Gladys disappears. Earl looks after her, saying, “How about bringing me a chair?” On Tuesday he was still in the kitchen, trying to remember why he came there. She offered him a cookie while he waited. “Now I know why I came here!” he said, happy that the mystery of his muddled memory had been solved.

It is wise for older people to do what they can while they can still do it. Take trips. Go on cruises. See relatives, or have relatives come to see you. Visit friends. Go to the movies. Walk.  Play games, especially “thoughty” games like bridge. Have fun. Enjoy life. “I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” Ecc. 3:10-11). Life becomes more of a mystery in old age.

On the cover of the bulletin today is a quote from an article wisely entitled Old, frail, called by God (Christian Century July 17, 2017. It was written by Joyce Ann Mercer, who teaches pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School. The author quoted the psychologist Erik Erikson. “Old age in one’s eighties and nineties brings with it new demands, revelations, and daily difficulties.” He said it is the time of the struggle between integrity and what he ruefully identified as “despair and disgust.” He went on, “Loss of capacities and disintegration may demand almost all of one’s attention. One’s focus may become thoroughly circumscribed by concerns of daily functioning so that it is enough just to get through a day intact, however satisfied or dissatisfied one feels about one’s previous life history.” To me, Erik Erikson sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the Preacher.

Commenting on this, Dr. Mercer writes, “Perhaps at no other time…does the body occupy such a premier place in defining the contours of life….The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.” How true that is! Why should anybody imagine, as we get older, that we should be physically able to do all the things we could do when we younger? Can a fifty-year-old Triumph sports car still do 140 miles per hour for four hours? Can a century-old clock still keep perfect time? Why do we think we can do what we always did? Why do younger people expect us to do more than we can do?

Joyce Ann Mercer ended her article with these words: “God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people….God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.” Or, as Koheleth put it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15).   

 It has often been said that in old age people are “cramming for their finals.” That phrase is meant to be humorous, but it is also very serious. Many who are older feel closer to God. If that is true, we should make the most of it. Cram away! Carpe diem; Seize the day! If you didn’t do it before, do it now; get as close to God as you can, because God is getting ever closer to you.

Some of you have met my wife’s sister, Millie Ruhl. Millie has been visiting us for the past three weeks. In December, she will moving into The Seabrook. Lois has the second-best memory of anyone I have ever known, but Millie is the unquestionable Number One Rememberer.

When Loie and her two sisters were in grade school, their parents were the counselors for three summers at the Nottingham Camp in northern Maryland, near the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a very fine camp which attracted girls and boys from wealthy families all over the Northeast. The three Seifried girls had a free ride there for those idyllic years. Millie was reminiscing about the prayer the entire camp recited every morning. It was composed by the camp director, Cal Burley, a remarkable man about whom I have heard much through the past twenty years. “O God, forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee in anything we may undertake, mercifully grant that Thy Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts and minds in all that we do this day, so that, at the end of the day we shall hear the eternal benediction: Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is now gone, but well done yourself, Calvin Burley.

“If a man begets a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but he does not enjoy life’s good things, and also has no burial, I say that an untimely birth is better off than he” (Ecc. 6:3). Mr. Burley taught values to his campers, and his life continues to live on in them. May we also live on in those who shall live after us long after we are gone.

miller

Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls

The Rev. John M. Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head, N.C., Nov. 12, 2017 sermon.

John Miller has written and published six books including The Irony of Christianity: A Pastor’s Appeal for a Higher Theology and a Lower Christology, which was published by The Institute for Religion in 2002. The book remains available thru Amazon.

Sermon: You shall see My back

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A sermon on The Book of Exodus 33:12-23 for Reformation Day celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the 16th Century Reformation, preached at Central Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

With all that’s happening in the world these days, many thoughtful people wonder about the nature of God, or conclude there is no God, that the whole thing is a made-up story to serve our own purposes rather than seeing something real that cannot be seen.

“See, there is a place by Me” [says God to Moses in the wilderness] “where you shall stand on the rock; and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:22-23).

This strange reading from the Book of Exodus which puts a face on God —  God has no face, no hands, no feet — may just be the text to help us get reality straighter than we had before the crisis that imperils the human species itself: the onset of climate departure. Not just climate change, but climate departure, the point of no return to nature as we have known it. Maybe God has put us again in the cleft of the rock and is passing by. We only get to see God’s back.

While our hearts and minds are reeling on the edge of the abyss of despair over the rise of the KKK and the alt-right in Charlottesville, the hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes in Houston, Puerto Rico, northern California, and Mexico City to say nothing of the inexplicable massacre of more than 500 concert-goers in Las Vegas while two little boys with matches in Washington and Phnom-pen play chicken with nuclear toys, we are like Moses in the wilderness pleading to see God’s glory. We are teetering on the edge of an abyss into which we dare not look.

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world,” wrote Karl Barth. Elsewhere he insisted that the God we know in Jesus Christ is essentially unknowable. So today we clasp our hands again asking about God, asking about what, if anything, is ultimately and finally Real. We only see God from the back, clasping our hands in prayer — the beginning of an uprising against the present disorder of the world.

Like Moses in the cleft of the rock — between a rock and a hard place — in the wilderness where nothing is certain — we have forgotten, to paraphrase our Lord, that “Humankind does not live by tweets alone…but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

In the Hebrew mind, to see someone’s face is to know them. But God says to Moses, “You cannot see My face and live. I will put you in the cleft of the rock, cover you with My hand and passed by. Only after I have passed by can you see My back.”

Why the back? Why not the face?

We are mortals who don’t want to be mortal, mammals who don’t want to be mammals. We are part of nature, not the masters of nature, not the exception to it. “You are dust,” says the Creator in Genesis, “and to dust you shall return.” Mammals are not meant to wake up with morning tweets from a mortal who can’t sleep and needs to hear Echo’s voice before breakfast and coffee.

We are living in the period of Narcissus of the Greek myth who dies because he cannot take his eyes off his reflection in the pond — his own face, his own image, his own glory.  A mere a mortal who must eat and drink to survive, Narcissus dies because to drink would have disturbed the pond in which he sees only himself. And, when he dies, a flower blooms on that very spot.

On this Reformation Sunday and the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we do well to pay heed to a declaration that may strike us as curious: “Human nature is, so to speak, a perpetual factory of idols.”

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!     Who said that:

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, or someone else?

Would you believe it was John Calvin, the much misunderstood 16th century reformer whose work was turned into stone by the Calvinists who mistook his face for God’s, turning his work into an idol?

The issue for Calvin and the Reformed theological tradition which is Central’s tradition, was not atheism. It wasn’t unbelief. It was idolatry. It was misplaced worship of the products, phantasms and fantasies produced by the human heart and mind, the substitutes for ultimate reality that command our worship.

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Who said:

“The human mind, stuffed as it is with presumptuous rashness, dares to imagine a god suited to its own capacity; as it labors under dullness, nay, is sunk in the grossest ignorance, it substitutes vanity and an empty phantom in the place of God. To these evils another is added. The god whom man has thus conceived inwardly he attempts to embody outwardly. The mind, in this way, conceives the idol, and the hand gives it birth” —

Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, William Barber II, Cornel West, Elizabeth Warren, or John Calvin?

“I will cover you with My hand while I pass by. You can see me from the back.”

There is in the Hebrew Bible, and in the writings of Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, a profound sense of God’s absence as well as presence. By the time Moses gets to see God from the back, God has already passed by.

In the Lutheran and Reformed tradition from Luther to Calvin to Bonhoeffer to Bill McKibben, there is a long-standing recognition of God’s absence or hiddenness.  Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. …

 Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness. . .

 Humans are challenged to participate in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world. One must therefore plunge oneself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transform it. . . To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism. . . but to be a human being. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.. . .

One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, a converted sinner, a churchman . . . This is what I mean by worldliness—taking life in stride, with all its duties and problems, its successes and failures, its experiences and helplessness. It is in such a life that we throw ourselves utterly in the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world and watch with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, and that is what makes a human and a Christian. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

 The world may be God-less, but it is not without gods. The idols are everywhere. And the chief idol of our time is the prosperity gospel: the gospel of greed that escapes all suffering.

These small gods our hearts have manufactured are not real but they are no less powerful. When they are unmasked, we see their ashen faces – the faces we have created because we refuse to live as mortals who cannot see God’s face, discontent to spend time in the cleft of the rock in order to see God from the back, the scarred back of God, whipped and lashed by the hands of Narcissus’s god-filled world.

Presbyterians and others of the Reformed theological tradition often ask why our membership is declining. Are we dying?

On this Reformation Sunday in the year of the 500 Anniversary of the Reformation, could it be not because we haven’t kept up with the latest cultural trends and fads but because we’ve forgotten our identity? Could it be, in part, not because other churches have bands and are better at entertainment, and make God more accessible to a tweeting culture, but because we have surrendered the one thing that makes us Reformed Christians: humility before God — a profound sense of awe before the holiness of God whose face we cannot see?

Could it be that we have mis-translated the rallying call of the Reformed tradition to mean that the church must always be changing itself, that we are the agents of our own change. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda! is properly translated “The church reformed and always being reformed!” Which is to say, under the judgment and guidance of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, not changing our image in Narcissus’s reflecting pond. It is a theological-ethical perspective which, as McCormick Theological Seminary’s Anna Case-Winter wrote in Presbyterians Today (May, 2017), “neither blesses preservation for preservation’s sake nor change for change’s sake.”

Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda . . . calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges both liberal and conservative impulses and the habits and agendas we have lately fallen into. It brings a prophetic critique to our cultural accommodation—either to the past or to the present—and calls us to communal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide Thee; Though the eye of sinfulness Thy glory cannot see, Holy, holy, holy! All Thy works shall praise Thy Name in earth and sky and sea!”

We don’t get to see God’s face. We cannot see God’s full glory.  But, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, we do see God’s back! And for mortals, that’s plenty good enough! And from the darkness of this cleft in the rock, we join with Luther in trembling before the Holy One, and join Barth and Bonhoeffer by clasping our hands together in the dark as the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

 

That word above all earthly powers,

No thanks to them, abideth;

The Spirit and the gifts are ours

Through Him who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go,

This mortal life also;

The body they may kill:

God’s truth abideth still,

His Kingdom is for ever.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 29, 201

Who’s taking the pictures? Who’s singing?

Re-blogging Dennis Aubrey’s photographic essay today (see previous post) took me back to the sermon Dennis inspired years ago with his experience in the basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene in Vizelay, France.

At the end of a week in Chaska when my cup has been overflowing with reasons to touch again the power of the non-rational that is deeper than what goes on in my spinning head, we republish “The Stones Are Singing” in thanksgiving for Dennis’s and PJ McKee’s influence on me and Dom Angelico’s influence on them.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 11, 2017.

Boundary-breaking God

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) R.I.P.

INTRODUCTION: The Japanese theologian to whom Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness is dedicated delivered these words a decade ago from the pulpit of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St Paul, Minnesota. Contrary to popular misconception, the biblical prophets did not fore-tell the future; they rather forth-told a word greater than their own. Kosuke Koyama‘s experience led him to hear something quite clearly – a word he could not have known would be more important in 2017 than the day he spoke it.

THE SERMON, June 6, 2006. Texts: Leviticus 19:33, Psalm 139: 7-10, and Luke 14: 1-6. [Bold type added by Views from the Edge.]

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ,

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Lev. 19:33.

This is a challenging suggestion for the immigration and naturalization policy of any nation. God does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. The God of the Bible is more concerned about the welfare of the aliens, the weak, than of citizens, the strong.

Remember your own experience in Egypt! “Love the alien as yourself!” Jesus is even more emphatic when he says, “Love your enemies!” We think of aliens and enemies as potential threats to our community. They must be kept outside of our boundaries.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” observes the New England poet, with sharp insight. Something there is in the gospel of Christ that dismantles walls. Jesus “has broken down the dividing walls,” we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (2:14)
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“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) – This Word, the truthful Word, “breaks down the dividing walls” by making honest dialogue possible. When communication breaks down peace breaks down. It takes a great deal of dialogue to come to mutual understanding between peoples of different language, religions, racial and cultural practice. Often the choice is between dialogue and mutual destruction, between diplomacy and war. The alternative to dialogue is taking the sword. Jesus says; “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52). Our “sword” today is incredibly destructive! Our fear, today, is of nuclear proliferation. We fear it because we started it! “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live”! (Dt.30:19)
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The brief gospel text for this morning is a record of a profound dialogue. The story is honest and transparent. We can understand it very well. The dumfounded lawyers and Pharisees only reveal the sincere quality of the story. In conversation with Jesus, the man of total honesty, human hypocrisy is exposed and expelled.

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” but they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this (Luke 14:1-6).

How boldly Jesus simplifies and zeroes-in on the central issue! “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” This is the question that distinguishes the gospel from religion. This story is only one of a number of “Sabbath controversies” told in the gospels. The gospel breaks boundaries. Religion often insists on boundaries. The gospel opens windows in hope. Religion may shut windows in fear. The gospel is “scandalously” inclusive. Religion often is piously exclusive. “You shall love the alien as yourself” expresses the spirit of the gospel. Religion tends to question whether everyone deserves to be loved.

The Sabbath is a holy institution commemorating the holy rest God has taken after creating “heaven and earth.” Sabbath is mentioned as one of the Ten Commandments:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Ex.20: 8-11).

“On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered” (Lk. 6:6) “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (13:10,11).

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, … Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy” (the disease of the swelling from abnormal fluid retention ). A man of withered hand, a woman who is bent over, and a man with dropsy appear “on the Sabbath in front of him.”

Jesus cures them. Jesus “works” on the Sabbath! Some for whom it is important to “keep” the sabbath complain, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day”(Lk.13:14). Jesus, for whom the persons with need are more important than the rule, responds, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”

Jesus comes to heal the broken human community. He is the embodiment of direct love-action and action-love. He cures sick people publicly on the Sabbath with unassailable authority and freedom. The people are amazed – ecstatic – and praise God. Representing the God of compassion, Jesus breaks the boundary attached to the sacred Sabbath tradition. In his “boundary breaking” he restores the authentic purpose of the sabbath – that is, to bring health to human community. The Sabbath is for healing. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” says Jesus (Mk.2:27). What a freedom he exhibits!

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The gospel of Jesus Christ is “scandalous,” says the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1: 18-25) for he is “the man who fits no formula” (Eduard Schweizer, (Jesus, chap. 2). Creeds, doctrine, theology, or tradition cannot domesticate Jesus. No one can confine Jesus within walls. Let me quote from a Swiss New Testament scholar:

“…teaching in itself does not convey the living God. It may even hinder his coming, though it (the teaching) may be totally correct. It is exactly the most correct and orthodox teaching that would suggest that we had got hold of God. Then he can no longer come in his surprising ways” (Eduard Schweizer, Luke: A Challenge to Present Theology p.58)

We feel uneasy when Jesus breaks the boundaries we make, because boundaries are a part of our accepted culture. “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yet, fences can never be the final word. Tragically in our real lives fences work more in the direction of mutual alienation than mutual embrace. “Before I build a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out” – says the poet. That is a good question!

When I was in my early teens, Japan followed her gods who were rather poorly educated in international relations. They were parochial. They spoke only Japanese. They did not criticize Japanese militarism. They endorsed the inflated idea that Japan is a righteous empire. Trusting these parochial gods, the people recited, to paraphrase: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, behold the glory of the divine emperor of Japan is there!” Japan broke international boundaries in pursuit of self-glorification and aggrandizement. Without any threat from her Asian neighbors, Japan attacked and invaded them. The Japanese gods approved and Japan ruined herself. Blessed are nations that have a God who criticize what they do! The God of Israel said to God’s own people: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

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The infant Jesus “was placed in a manger – “for there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Being thus edged out even from a human birth place, Jesus breaks a boundary. When he “eats with sinners and tax collectors” (Mk.2:16) he breaks a boundary. Crucified, nailed to the cross, – completely immobilized – he breaks a boundary. Dying between two criminals, becoming a member of this community of three crosses, he breaks a boundary. Being “numbered with the transgressors”, to quote from the Book of Isaiah (53:12), he breaks boundaries. This is an amazing story. The one who is totally vulnerable, disarmed, non-violent, and immobilized and humiliated has broken all the boundaries, which threaten the health of human community.

With our geopolitical realities, we may think that the way of Christ is romantic and not realistic. Then we must know that the alternative is the historical fact of 5000 years of human civilization replete with constant warfare. Should we continue this state of endless destruction for another 5000 years? Gandhi’s practice of non-violence has done more to increase the welfare of humanity upon the earth than many wars put together. Martin Luther King Jr. says: “Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival”! (Strength to Love, p.47) “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God‘s weakness is stronger than human strength” cries the apostle Paul (1 Cor.1:25).

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“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26). The birds of the air and the Father who feeds them are free from all boundaries. Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Check Point Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today. “One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself” says James Baldwin. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.

 

John Doe, Judas, and a Secure Promise: Potter’s Field

Sermon on Judas’s Great Legacy

Text: Gospel of Matthew 27:3-8

Then Judas the traitor, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, repented and took the thirty silver pieces to the chief priests and elders of the people. “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man!” he said. But they replied, “How does that concern us? That is your affair.” Throwing down the silver pieces toward the Most Holy Place, he withdrew and went away and hanged himself. Picking up the silver pieces, the chief priests said, “It is unlawful to put this into the treasury, for it is blood money.” Therefore, after coming to an agreement about it, they used the money to buy Potter’s Field as a burying place for foreigners, and to this day that field is known as “The Field of Blood.” – Matthew 27:3-8, Anchor Bible translation by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann

I have always felt that Judas got a bum rap.

The tradition has not treated him well, even according to its own standards. Yes, he bore responsibility for betraying his Lord with a kiss in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. And, yes, he committed suicide. But little or no attention has been paid to the small detail of Judas’ repentance or the depth of the sorrow that led to his suicide.

Matthew’s Judas is repentant. Listen:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death; and they bound him and led him away and delivered him to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, Judas repented…and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver toward The Holy Place, Judas departed; and he went out and hanged himself. (Matthew 27:1-5)

Judas’ suicide, like most if not all suicides, issues from an irrecoverable despair.
He had changed his mind and had tried to turn back, but the dice had already been thrown, as they would be thrown again by the soldiers, rolling the dice over who would get to keep Jesus’ clothing. Not even throwing down the silver pieces at the feet of the religious authorities could change the course of events his betrayal had set in motion.

Some believe the deal Judas cut with the ruling religious authorities was a craps shoot. He had gambled that leading Jesus’s opponents to the secret place where Jesus gathered with his apostles would force Jesus to be the kind of violent revolutionary king he had wrongly supposed he would become. By arranging a face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the Temple police, he imagined he could force Jesus’s hand toward a violent insurrection, and it appears he was not alone in that expectation. For, after Judas had led the temple police to him, Peter had drawn his dagger and cut off an ear of the high priest’s slave, only to hear Jesus rebuke the way of violence with an order to put away the sword. As a result, says Matthew, “all the disciples abandoned him and fled.” No one remained to stand with him as the witness to a different course than the way violence and terror. Jesus alone is innocent of the way of blood-taking.

By the time we see Judas throwing down the silver coins at the feet of the temple authorities his head was spinning. His expectation of a grand seizure of power – a kind of coup d’état that would overthrow the Roman colonizers and replace their temple collaborators – had crashed. What does one do when one’s great dream dies? What does one do when a grandiose scheme crumbles?

Either you revise the dream or you fall hopelessly into despair. We might wonder whether perhaps Judas’ biggest mistake was not the betrayal so much as it was not subsequently trusting a divine providence greater than his sin and more powerful than his ability to thwart it. Awash in guilt and sorrow, he threw down what Matthew calls “the blood money” toward the Most Holy Place – that is, the Holy of Holies, regarded as the most sacred of all places in the universe – and took his life.

The “blood money” never went back into the sacred treasury. It was dirty. So instead, the chief priests and the elders, not wanting to be sacrilegious, took the money that had secured Judas’s cooperation in the plot against Jesus – the “blood money” that purchased Jesus’s crucifixion – to buy “the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” What is called the “Field of Blood “is also called “the Potter’s Field.” Why?

Why the Potter’s Field?

Matthew does a strange thing. He quotes a text found in the Book of  Zechariah (Zech. 10:12-13) but attributes its source to Jeremiah. Although the Book of Zechariah speaks of the Field of Blood which is also called the Potter’s Field, the text there never explains why it is called a potter’s field.

What would a potter’s field be? A potter uses clay to make pottery. The site referred to in Matthew is known traditionally as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters’ clay. It’s where the potter, the sculpting artist, gets the clay.  It’s an artist’s field. Jeremiah compares God to a potter and of us as the potter’s clay. So perhaps it is called Potter’s Field as a witness to the truth that the John and Mary Doe’s who eventually will land in the pauper’s cemetery belong to the Potter every bit as much as those society regards as worthy of burial in a more distinguished cemetery, a sacred place, if you will.

There is a great irony here in Matthew’s telling of the story: Judas returns the soiled holy money taken from the temple treasury, throws it back at the inner sanctum where only Oz was allowed to enter, the Holy of Holies from which the chief priests pulled the levers intended to keep Judas and Dorothy and every other mystified traveler in line with fear – and that soiled not-so-sacred money buys the Field of Blood for the less than holy, also known as “the Potter’s Field”.

Potter’s Field in New York City

In the City of New York there is a cemetery called Potter’s Field. It’s the place where the indigent are buried. It’s the place where the homeless and the unidentified, the John Doe’s and the Jane Doe’s , are buried by the City of New York. One might call it Pauper’s Cemetery, an act of charity for those who, at the end, like the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay their heads.

Potter’s Field has been moved four times since it was founded early the 19th century.
Today Potter’s Field is managed by the City of New York Department of Corrections. The Department’s website describes its history.

The City of New York has undertaken the responsibility of laying to rest the bodies of those in the City who died indigent or un-befriended, since the early part of the 19th century, when they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823, these remains were removed to Fifth Avenue and 40 – 42 Streets, Manhattan. When this site was selected for a reservoir, the remains were again removed to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street, this ground being later granted to the Women’s Hospital. In 1857, the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred to Ward’s Island, 75 acres of which were allocated for this purpose.

Today Potter’s Field, the latest place for the internment of the un-befriended poor is on Hart’s Island where it has been since n 1869, next to a prison.

Thirty inmates from the N.Y.C. Reception and Classification Center for Men… are charged with burial and upkeep of the entire cemetery at present. They are carefully interviewed to ascertain that they can perform these services without becoming emotionally upset.

In 1948 the inmates of the prison next door to Potter’s Field on Hart Island, many of whom were without friends and families, appealed to the Warden and offered to build a monument to the un-befriended dead. In cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross, on the other is the word ‘Peace.'”

In my mind’s eye Judas is buried there – on the ground sanctified for the outcasts for whom Christ lived and died. He’s buried in some Potter’s Field where the Potter in mercy welcomes the broken pieces of the pottery He has made, gathers up the shards of broken schemes and grandiose schemes, and takes whatever is left to make something altogether beautiful.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me:  Can I not do with you . . . just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand . . . . [Jeremiah 18:1-6].

Christ’s words – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – are a plea to the Father, the Potter, for his beloved, betraying friend, Judas, and for every other Judas to come down the pike through all the centuries since. By God’s strange providence alone the 30 silver pieces of “blood money” that Judas threw back down toward the Most Holy Place became the unwitting source of the witness to God’s unconditional love and mercy, “Potter’s Field.”

Judas made two mistaken bets. The first ended in Jesus’s execution, the end of a grandiose dream. The second was concluding too early that despair and guilt have the final word – that there was no mercy strong enough to re-claim him.

The learning for us latter-day Judases? Perhaps it is that, although life is full of risk-taking and tragedy, its meaning and destiny are more than a craps-shoot. The destiny of every broken dream and every broken soul is not determined by our gambling or our failures. It’s determined by a secure promise that now and at the end we are in the hands of the Potter Who owns all the clay of Potter’s Field.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2017

Climate Change has no boundaries

kosuke-koyama-2

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009)

“Climate change – global warming – has no boundaries. The light of the sun and the air that sustain all living beings know no boundaries. The Berlin Wall of 96 miles was there for 28 years up to 1989. The racial wall of the South African Apartheid existed for 46 years and ended in 1994. In their limited existence, these walls have done immeasurable damage to humanity on the both sides of the wall. The Orthodox Church of the East and the Catholic Church of the West did not speak to each other for 911 years from 1054 to 1965. The Great Wall of China and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin are tourist spots today.

Mezzanine_924-2

James Baldwin (L)  MLK, Jr.

“’One cannot dehumanize others without dehumanizing oneself,’ says James Baldwin. ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ we pray. It is this prayer that breaks the boundaries in a way that is pleasing to God.”

Sermon from Baltimore

This sermon by Robert Hoch of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore applies the meaning of the Gospel of Matthew 4:1-11 (the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) to current events in Baltimore and the United States.

Click Finding Water to read the sermon.

Then post a comment here on Views from the Edge.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2017.

 

Listening for the Whisper

Video

In this time of great restlessness many of us long for the “still small voice” heard by Elijah hiding in the cave of his own self-righteous pouting. This sermon was preached in a moment similar to this – the political campaign season of 2014 – and the search for stillness in a world gone mad. FYI, several of the members of this lovely church were in their 9os. They owned neither cell phone nor computer. They had no idea what a tweet was. But they knew experienced a stillness that sometimes comes with the wisdom of age. I post this here in honor of Carol and Maxine.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, now available through Amazon, Wipf and Stock, Barnes and Noble, and your local bookstore.

 

 

 

The Sound of Trumpets in the Morning

Video

Times such as this beg for an historical perspective. According to a Jewish legend, what Satan missed most after falling from heaven was the sound of the trumpets in the morning. This sermon was preached the Sunday before the 2012 U.S. election.

Sermon: The Year Everything Shook

The theme of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness represents a life-long search. Yesterday the sermon below reappeared from a lost  thumb-drive. Like Be Still!’s first chapter, “Of Tides and the Ocean,” the metaphor is the shoreline. Here’s the sermon preached at Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, MN in 2004 on the text of Isaiah 6:1-8. “On the Shore of Time” was the original title.

It’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes. Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina, nine years old than I, and the abundant, tangible evidence of my mother’s love.  Old Table represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

“The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.  His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:1-5.

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past”:

            Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Then I thought I heard the Lord’s call to Isaiah in the temple, asking “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN,  January 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE SHORE OF TIME

Gordon C. Stewart

October 17, 2004

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 104:1-4, 24-35

Luke 12:22-34

 

It is not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes.  Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

 

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina and the abundant evidence of my mother’s love.  It represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

 

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

 

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

 

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

 

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

 

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

 

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

 

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

 

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

 

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

 

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

 

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

 

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.   His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

 

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

 

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

 

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

 

 

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

 

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

 

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

 

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

 

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

 

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

 

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

 

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

 

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”