Friday, November 9, 2018

Hebrews 12:1-2, Revelation 21:1-6a "All-Saints Remembrances"

         Each year on this first Sunday in November, we set aside time during worship to remember those individuals in our church family and in our own families who died during the past twelve months.  However, this year – with the recent mass shooting in Pittsburgh - I cannot help but be aware of others outside of this congregation who are also being remembered – perhaps today even - in other churches and faith communities - those who died tragically and unexpectedly through gun violence – in homes, on streets, in schools, in churches and synagogues, at festivals.  So – before we look inward, let’s look outward – beyond these four walls - for a moment and silently remember those in our country who have been victims of gun violence…..
Each year, as I prepare our own congregational all-saint’s remembrances, I seek a theme or commonality among these people who have passed away - something we might learn from them that is worth tucking away in our own hearts and minds. 
         This year, I realized that only one person, Rita Gerry, was from our own church family.  The others were parts of our individual families.  I also discovered that one was young, a life cut off too soon, and the others had been blessed with long and fruitful lives. 
Once again, I found myself wondering what we can learn from those who died young and those who lived well into their 80’s and 90’s.
         When I thought of BRIAN JOHNSON, Lois Waldron’s son and Chuck’s stepson, the phrase “only the good die young” from the Billy Joel song kept going through my mind.  Brian’s life and untimely death had nothing to do with the lyrics of the song, but I contemplated what we can surmise when the good do die young.  After all, we have such a tendency to only mourn their passing and its effect on family members left behind.  However, surely there is more.
         BRIAN died in a motorcycle accident in Mexico pursuing his dream of completing an around-the-world motorcycle adventure with two close friends.  Brian was a commercial airline pilot and a true adventurer, his life defined by unending curiosity about people and places.  He was described as a man who befriended everyone, helped whomever he could, and treated people from all walks of life with a deep and genuine respect. 
Brian earned his first pilot’s certificate shortly after he graduated from high school and finished pilot training during his university years.  In addition to flying, he loved scuba diving, spear fishing, caving, and especially sky diving.  Brian traveled to every continent except Africa and Antarctica, lived in New York and Paris, and finally settled in Guam.
There he hiked in the jungles and up and down the rivers, brewed his own beer, and rode his motorcycle all over southeast Asia. His biggest and final motorcycle adventure was not simply for the sake of saying that he had done it, but it was a way to, as Lois said, “bring a world without borders to a society that seems more fragmented than ever.”
Brian can teach us, what? Maybe what we can learn is embedded in these quotes:
One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted.  Do it now.
You only live once?  False.  You live every day.  You only die once.
Life is a brief intermission between birth and death.  Enjoy it.
If you’re listening to this, two things are true:
1.      You’re going to die.
2.     You haven’t yet.
The rest is up to you.
         The others we are remembering today were all part of the so-called Greatest Generation – some smack in the middle and others on the cusp.  Tom Brokaw coined that phrase in his book of the same name.  In it, he celebrated those men and women who persevered through the Great Depression of the 1930’s and experienced WWII either in the military or on the home front.   
         RITA GERRY, a longtime and active member of this church, was on the cusp of that generation.  Rita was a Mainer through and through.  She graduated from Standish High School where she was a cheerleader.  She and her husband, Ivan, settled in Raymond on a property she called “Merrywood” where they lived for decades. 
I enjoyed many afternoons of tea and cookies with Rita and learned that she loved all sorts of animals and birds and was a horse back rider and school bus driver for many years. In that job, she was strict but fair, and many of those students still kept in touch with her decades later. 
Rita’s gardens were the envy of the neighborhood, and she generously shared cuttings and seeds.  She knit endless numbers of scarves and pairs of mittens for family members, friends (like me), and for our Christmas Fair.  She had a strong community spirit and was part of the Raymond Fire Department Auxiliary.  Rita was also an active church member here for many years, serving a Deacon and elected an Elder.  She made prayer shawls, worked tirelessly at the pot roast suppers, and was in worship every Sunday.
         RICHARD ALLEN was my father and was at the other end of the Greatest Generation, living to be almost 98.  He grew up in Montclair, NJ, graduated from Penn State where he was in a ROTC unit for all four years.  Upon graduation in 1942, he received the only commission that year to the Marine Corps and was sent to Harvard and MIT.  There he trained in the new field of radar and met his future wife, Barbara.  Though told it was a war marriage and would never last (they only knew each other for four months before they tied the knot), they would be together for nearly 75 years. 
During WWII, he served in the Pacific and was an officer in the 51st Defense Battalion, the first Marine Corps combat unit ever comprised entirely of African American enlisted men.  After the war, he remained in the Organized Reserves of the Marine Corps, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. 
He worked for Pfizer for 35 years in human resources, significantly expanding the company’s minority and veteran hiring practices.  In addition, he was an active church member, serving on Pastoral Search Committees, among many others, and participating each year as a prophet in the annual Christmas pageant.  Both at Pfizer and at church, he actively worked for minority rights during the turbulent Civil Rights years. 
         Upon retirement, he and my mother traveled – playing in mixed doubles tennis tournaments in Germany, riding motor scooters in Bermuda, and ballooning in France.  He also began to fulfill a lifelong passion for collecting vintage movie posters, at one time owning over a thousand of various sizes – including the likes of Gone with the Wind, King Kong, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane.  In addition, he co-authored what is now the definitive text on movie posters.
         He was known by all to be gracious, unassuming, and always the gentleman.
         JOE FORAN SENIOR was Joe’s father and my father-in-law.  Joe was quite introverted.  However, if you took the time to engage with him, you found that he was a gentle, thoughtful, and very intelligent man.  He was a hard worker and loved his family most of all.  
He took great delight in what has become a Foran family “Friday evening after Thanksgiving” tradition – singing every Clancy Brothers song ever recorded along with other Irish songs they did not record – either led by a paid Irish singer, as Karaoke, or simply unaccompanied.  “Wild Rover” was by far Joe’s favorite. 
Joe, my husband, said this about his dad: “A true member of the Greatest Generation.  Before WWII, he wasa knuckleball pitching prospect for the St. Louis Cardinals.  As a Navy Signalman during WWII, he was strafed repeatedly on the signal bridge of the Amphibious Command Ship during the invasion of Okinawa and witnessed firsthand the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.  He was father of eleven kids (as far as he and his wife, Lois, got toward their goal of a ‘baker’s dozen’).  He was a career advertising man.  In fact, many of the plots of Madmen episodes came from his ad agency in New York.  Conservative, but thoughtful & analytical, he adored devoting hours to dissecting politics and current affairs with his children.”
         LEO FORAN is Joe’s uncle and my favorite uncle-in-law.  Leo was thrilled when my sister and I did our 60 mile breast cancer walk in Michigan, where he lived.  He was at the finish to greet us and saw that we were well-fed and taken care of both before and after the walk.  Joe said this about his uncle: “A Korean war veteran, and like his brother, Joe, he was a gifted athlete (though playing basketball rather than baseball).  For 34 years, Leo was a judge in the Michigan District Court for the western suburbs of Detroit. 
In spite of ironically naming himself the “Hanging Judge of Dearborn Heights”, he was an active life-long progressive Democrat, as liberal as his brother, Joe, was conservative.  An ebullient Irish extravert, he was a great and prolific storyteller.  And even when he got older and began to tell the same stories over and over, his skill was such that they never lost their charm.”  I would add that Leo was elected a judge six times without opposition, even as the demographics of the area he served transformed from a predominant population of Irish-Americans to African-Americans to Middle Eastern Arabic immigrants.   
         DOROTHY LAYTON is my aunt and my father’s sister.  Dorothy was both the only girl in the family and the youngest – a half dozen years younger than my father who was the middle child.  She probably could not help but be a bit of a tomboy, always trying to keep up with her brothers and join – uninvited - in their games. 
When I was growing up, she and her family spent every Thanksgiving with us, and, in turn, we traveled from Montclair, NJ to Darien, CT each Christmas Day for a wonderful dinner of turkey with all the fixings.  Dessert was always the climax of the meal because it was a flaming plum pudding that she had made from scratch weeks before. 
In fact, she is the reason that I continue that tradition to this day and make those same puddings that age for at least a year before being served each Christmas. 
         Dorothy loved the outdoors and particularly loved our rustic family cottage in Algonquin Park where she went until the last two years of her long life.  If the Layton’s had the cottage for the first part of the summer, she would be there beginning in mid-to late June, often by herself until other family members could join her.  Though we do have a quasi-indoor shower at the cottage, Dorothy took great pride in never using it, instead only bathing in the lake, no matter how early in the season or how cold the water. 
         Dorothy was kind and gentle.  My mother remembered her as always having a smile on her face – and I would agree with that.
MARIAN LUM is the mother of Susan, Peter, Christopher, and Charles, all of whom have a connection to Raymond through their summer home (fondly known as the family compound) at Kings’ Grant.  Peter often comes to worship here during the summer when he is in Maine. 
I met Marian years ago when she stopped by the church one morning while on a walk.  She had seen my name on the signboard and wanted to know if I was Richard Allen’s daughter. 
Her husband, Donald, had worked with my father at Pfizer in corporate human resources for many years – and had been a sort of mentor to my Dad.  Marian joined in worship periodically over the years and made several very generous donations to our church.
         She spent much of her adult life in Garden City, NY and was an active volunteer in scouting, the local garden club, and the Garden City Community Church.  Following her husband’s retirement, they moved to Tucson, Arizona, and she immersed herself in all things Southwest.  They also hosted my parents several times. 
Marian later moved to an active retirement community nearby, purchased the summer home in Maine and split her time between delightful Maine summers and the warmth of Tucson during the winter months until the very final years of her life.
LOU NERREN – Lou was a transplant from the Deep South who never quite lost her Southern drawl.  She and her twin sister grew up as two of seven children on a cotton farm in Mississippi.  She played on a state champion basketball team in high school, graduated from Penn State, and taught physical education and math – all this before joining the Marines in 1950.  
There she was a procurement specialist, but also averaged 31 points a game on the travel basketball team and even starred in a recruitment movie. Lou and her husband later moved to Raymond where she once again taught math. 
She was a lifelong Democrat, an advocate for women in politics, and an accomplished seamstress who loved creating costumes and fancy dresses. In addition, she sewed hundreds of fleece blankets for those she loved or those who needed their warmth. She donated many to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center and Camp Sunshine. Some of our youth even took a stack of them to HOME when they joined other UCC middle schoolers on a weekend mission trip.
Lou owned a small shop in Raymond.  She loved bridge and while living at the Maine Veterans Home, she became quite adept at poker and bingo. 
         Religion and theology deeply interested Lou, and she was a practitioner of centering prayer.  She wanted little to do with organized religion, so she never turned up here for worship – though she was open to the possibility of coming to hear one of my sermons.  However, she much preferred reading them on my sermon blog. 
However, Lou actively participated in Lenten studies here, keeping all of us on our toes with her very liberal theology and thought-provoking questions.  In addition, she always wanted to know how she could support our mission projects. 
         When I think of this “Greatest Generation” – whether you think they were in fact the greatest or not –  and consider what they offered us from their experiences, I came across these five attributes in a blog post I read this week that certainly characterized the people that we honor today:
1. Personal Responsibility - We live in the age of blame. If we can’t find someone at fault for our trials, we will just invent something.  In their day, to be given responsibility was an honor and was seen as one of the great lessons of leadership.
2. Humility - In their day, there was an expected norm of dignity and respect. It was a high cultural standard, and humility was at its heart.
3. Work Ethic – During their time, being idle was simply not an option. Everyone worked to survive, both personally and as a country. They took deep pride in their work and service as well.
4. Prudent Saving - In the 30’s and 40’s, everything was saved down to the last penny and the last green bean. To be frugal and thoughtful about spending was the discipline of the day.
5. Faithful Commitment – Committed love and loyalty was valued highly – whether in a relationship, family life, or job.  A lot had to happen before one gave up and moved on.  There was a recognition that commitment takes work, not necessarily unpleasant, but work none-the-less.
         In conclusion then, maybe, when all is said and done, whether you do not live to be 50 or you live to be nearly 100, the bottom line is this: “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.”

         May all those we remember and honor today be at peace with God, knowing theirs were lives faithfully and lived well, and that each one of those years was a year that God blessed.

Isaiah 1:12-17 "Justice and Worship"

Embedded in what often seems to be the great mystery of college administration and communication is the following correspondence:
Memo from President to Vice president:
Next Thursday Haley’s Comet will appear over this area.  This is an event that occurs once every seventy years. Call the department chairs and have them assemble their professors and students on the athletic field and explain this phenomenon to them. If it rains, then cancel the observation and have the classes meet in the gym to see a film about the comet.
Chairmen to the Professors:
By order of the phenomenal president next Thursday Haley’s Comet will appear in the gym. In case of rain over the athletic field the president will give another order, something which occurs every seventy years.
Professors to the students:
Next Thursday the president will appear in our gym with Haley’s Comet, something which occurs every seventy years. If it rains, the president will cancel the Comet and order us out onto our phenomenal athletic field.
Student writing home to parents:
When it rains next Thursday over the athletic field the phenomenal seventy year old president will cancel all classes and appear before the whole school accompanied by Bill Haley and the Comets.
         Sometimes we just do not listen. It is like when we are contemplating change.  Sometimes we do not allow change to occur because leaving the familiar behind and heading down a new road is scary business.  Sometimes it is because we believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds right now.  Sometimes it is because we are too tired or jaded or apathetic.  However, sometimes it is because we just do not listen.  Here in the church, that means that sometimes we simply do not listen to Jesus – and to Biblical prophets like Isaiah. 
         And so, we remain in our own little world – like the 8th century BCE Judeans to whom the prophet Isaiah spoke. Listening to Isaiah was difficult at best because what he had to say seldom put him on the right side of the royal court and King Uzziah, to whom he spoke. You see, Isaiah was a visionary and could not help but see the world from a different and considerably more dire perspective than his listeners.
Isaiah’s warnings were frequently caustic and fiery.  In fact, in many ways, Isaiah was a radical activist, not violent or part of a mob (as perhaps the King himself would have wanted you to believe), but a real verbal flame thrower, the sort that put into stark contrast the intentions of his audience over and against their day-to-day behavior.  Nobody really liked to listen to what Isaiah had to say – especially when he was on one of his tirades about social and economic justice and the need for systemic change.
         Part of the reluctance to hear such negative news was surely because the reign of King Uzziah was marked by relative peace and security and at least by public prosperity.  It was a lot easier and far more satisfying to call Isaiah a purveyor of alternative facts or just chalk the whole thing up as fake news.  And it was hard to believe Isaiah anyway, given the economy.  You see, all in all, from a distance, life appeared to be quite comfortable. The stock market was buzzing along, and unemployment was low.  So – Isaiah’s fiery rhetoric only put a damper on the good life. 
However, archeological evidence would one day tell a different story.  As Biblical scholar John Holbert wrote, there were “a few large and opulent homes and palaces on the heights of the capital, Samaria, and myriad one-room hovels in the valley below.  The gaps between rich and poor were wide and growing wider.”
Holbert goes on to say: “There were a few rich folk who seemed inordinately fond of the temple and its elaborate worship, and many poor whose access to the goods and services of Judah is minimal at best.”  And, mind you, it was not that the rich were out to intentionally mess with the poor.  It was simply that the affluent folks were neglecting them, ignoring them, convincing themselves that, for the good of the whole society, it would be best to look the other way – pray for them certainly, but under no circumstances indulge them.  After all, if widows, orphans, and other assorted riffraff had a mind to, they ought to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps simply by working harder and not depending on a socialistic safety net to pay their health insurance premiums and provide lunch for their kids at school.
Against that cultural fabric, Isaiah spoke the stinging words we just heard.  After hundreds of years of coddling the Israelites and giving them second chances, Yahweh/God seemed simply weary of it all:
“Why this frenzy of sacrifices?”
“Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices,
    rams and plump grain-fed calves?
 “Quit your worship charades.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
         Back in the 8th century BCE, such words declaring that God rejected the usual worship rituals would have been scandalous.  After all, those traditions were commanded in the Torah, in the Laws of Moses.
Now, we are certainly a far cry today from burnt sacrifices and slaughtering rams and grain-fed calves on the altar here.  However, even today, Isaiah’s words are scary stuff for a pastor who takes the Bible seriously.  I wish I could leave the prophet’s words tucked into the middle of the Good Book between the love poems of the Song of Solomon and the even more radical prophet, Jeremiah.  I wish I could let Isaiah’s scathing diatribe go - and not have to really think about it.
However, the prophet’s words haunt me.  As your pastor, needless-to-say, this passage is not an easy one to preach on. 
 As your pastor, who spends a great deal of time preparing for worship each week, I cannot help but wonder if our worship is inspirational and transformative as surely God wants it to be.  Or if it is just another prayer-performance and worship charade.  The thought that the worship through which I lead you might be burdensome to God is, well, let’s just say this text is a difficult one to preach on. 
However, when I read the passage closely, I realized that, as Mennonite pastor, Joanna Harader wrote, “Thankfully–considering where we are and what we are doing here–the heart of this passage is not disdain for worship, but a call to justice. “
She goes on to say: “The problem with worship is not the worship itself, but the danger that we might mistake our worship for faithfulness; that we might use worship to make us feel holy, thus letting us off the hook for the hard work of actual holiness.  For some people, worship can be like a ‘God pill.’ It’s a lot easier to attend church for an hour or so once a week than to try to follow Jesus all the time. But we can’t nourish our spiritual souls with worship alone…. At its best, worship does not provide holy feelings, but helps nourish our spirits for the hard and holy work of justice to which God calls us.” 
         Worship and justice go hand in hand.  However, the justice which Isaiah advocates is not symbolized by the image of the blindfolded lady holding the scales – everything being fair, even, and balanced.  That is not the way the world worked in the prophet’s day, and, unfortunately, it is not the way the world works today.
As Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton notes, “Biblical justice is not impartial; it is rather maximally partial to the welfare of each individual. God is saying that our Western morality of staying out of other people’s space is inadequate and is in fact an utter failure of our humanity when we use it to justify our lack of compassion as many Christians today do.”
And so, Isaiah – with Jesus centuries later following in his footsteps – Isaiah challenges his listeners to do more than go through the motions of worship.  He challenges them – because of worship - to be advocates for the powerless – from the widow who has no husband to the orphan who has no parents to the poor who have no money.  If you listen – really listen – to Isaiah, that prophet who was a mouthpiece of the Holy One, if you really listen to him, you will discover that there is only one kind of worship that is acceptable to God and that is worship that breaks down walls, builds bridges, and leads us out of our own little world.
         And so, if our worship is not inspiring and motivating us to step out of our own little world and confront such issues as poverty, hunger, the opioid crisis, and race relations, if our worship is not inspiring and motivating us to question sexual misconduct, the widening gap between those who have and those who have not, and the immigration crisis in our country, if our worship is not inspiring and motivating us to openly consider just what we as individuals and as the church are doing to usher in the Kingdom of God that we pray for each week, then we are participating in the sort of worship that so wearied God 800 years before Jesus arrived on the scene. 
         I have always believed that a preacher should sermonize with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  I also know that such an attitude flies in the face of those who come to church to escape - even for just an hour or so - the complexity and harsh realities that characterize what goes on outside our own little world.  However, to provide only comfort, to provide only a sanctuary from the myriad of global crises we face is not who I am – and is not what I believe the church should be. 
And so I side with Isaiah – and with his call for justice within the context of worship. As your pastor, entering this season of stewardship discernment with you, I hope that you will choose to side with Isaiah as well – and that you will reflect your commitment in your financial pledge to sustain the ministries of our church. 
In return, for as long as I am your pastor, I pledge that worship will be not be a retreat into the past but will instead attempt to motivate and inspire us to move out of our own little world and into the future.  In addition, I also pledge that I will do everything I can to sustain you as you do so. 
I know that making a strong commitment as a church to look outward and to step out of our own little world is not easy under any circumstances.  However, when money is scarce, it is even more difficult to trust that the Spirit will lead us where we need to be. However, I also know that churches that survive and thrive are those that intentionally integrate compassion, a call for justice, and worship.  A church that will survive and thrive is one that will ask the hard and often controversial questions and will struggle as a congregation to find – and act on – an answer.
I know too that, as Joanna Harader reminds us, “in practice, justice requires structural change–and we are all standing on this structure together.
Those of us who are pretty comfortable are understandably not too excited about the possibility of the ground moving under us–of losing our balance and sliding into a less comfortable position.” She goes on to say, “Being nice is a lot easier than doing justice. Attending worship is a lot easier than doing justice. Following rules is a lot easier than doing justice.”
         However, Isaiah has something to say about that conundrum as well, something important to carry with us into a bold future.  So, in conclusion, let’s listen again to the old prophet
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
    they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you will eat the good things of the land;
         There is forgiveness – for all the times we have insulated ourselves in this building, for all the times we have clutched at the past rather than embraced the future.  But, even more important, there is hope.  Because, you see, our God who does not give up on us – never has and never will. 
“Come.  Sit down,” God says to us. “Let’s work this out….Come and listen:  Blessed are the poor.  Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice….for they will be comforted, they will be filled, they will be called children of God.”