Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Everybody has a shelf life

So I went into a religious bookstore yesterday, and immediately saw a sale rack. I never pass them up. I found a bargain or two and tucked them under my arm.

And then I saw two copies of my book of stewardship sermons. They have been marked down to "half off," which is cheaper than I can buy them from the publisher.

I take them to the sales clerk, who points out that they are close outs. "These are old books," she notes, "and they don't sell any more. It's time to take them off the shelves."

"Ah yes," I say, "but in a used book store, we often pay top dollar for valuable books."

"Well, that's the problem," she says. "There are too many religious books published, and a lot of them don't have any lasting value. So we need to clear them off our shelves on a regular basis." Touche.

As I mulled over whether I should say anything more, she noticed the name on my credit card. "You have the same name as the author!" she exclaimed, as I smiled silently and waited for her to make the connection. She didn't. I suppose she's not accustomed to having a has-been author in her store.

Meanwhile, let me make this invitation: If you want to buy a copy, click here. You'll notice that Amazon has a lot of used copies, some of them for only a couple of bucks. Curiously, some are also for sale at more than the original price. Hmm...

One can draw a number of lessons from this:
  • Some people value your work, some do not.
  • Some people once valued your work, but don't any longer.
  • Sometimes people value you only if your name is the same as the author of the book you're buying (even if it's you).
  • Somebody else may inflate your value if they think that they can get additional money out of unsuspecting fools.
  • Those who sell books often don't have a sufficient regard for the labor that it took to write them.
  • Just because your book is marked down or overpriced doesn't mean that you are less or more valuable in the sight of God.
  • The thrill of getting in your name in print will not last forever; somebody has to make room for Joel Osteen.
  • Everybody has a shelf life, including Joel Osteen. Here today, gone tomorrow, but the Word of our God will stand forever.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Thank God for Her

Last Wednesday, it didn’t seem the same. I was leading a communion service at Abington Manor, as I’ve done each month for the past ten years or so. Mary Clark wasn’t there to assist me. She had passed away after a long illness.

Mary was one of the very first residents of that local nursing home, living there for twenty years. A number of years ago, my friend Bob London observed her compassionate care for the other residents. Knowing her to be a Presbyterian, he said, “I’ll bet you were ordained a deacon in your church.”

“Oh no,” she replied. “And I could never be a deacon either, since I live in a nursing home.”

It was the kind of challenge that Bob always rises to meet. After a conversation with her pastor and a congregational vote, Mary was elected a Presbyterian deacon, with the understanding that her ministry would be in residence at Abington Manor. She was ordained there in the activity room, served with distinction, and I pause to honor her life and ministry.

Mary worked the hallways, offering words of encouragement wherever they were needed. Rarely to be found in her own room, she would “drop by” and be a friendly presence to the residents, with particular care shown to those who had difficulty adjusting to institutional life. She was an advocate for fellow residents, their rights, and their abilities. By all accounts, she was also the best Presbyterian bingo caller they ever had, and she saved all her bingo winnings to donate to her church.

For me, she was the Bread Lady, holding the tray each month and gently encouraging all to take in the Body of Christ. She would not distinguish between Protestant and Catholic, able or disabled. Sometimes she would wake up a worshiper and say, “It’s Holy Communion; take it, because we need it.” That remains about the best invitation to the Lord’s Table that I know.

We are called to serve Christ wherever we are – that’s one of the lessons Mary lived and taught by example. While I mourn her absence, I entrust her to the power of Christ’s resurrection. That little piece of bread that she took at communion was the appetizer for the heavenly banquet she now enjoys.

“Sometimes God drops a handkerchief,” Frederick Buechner writes, “and these people are called saints.” On the brink of All Saints’ Day, let us give thanks for the faithful folks we have known and live by their example.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Punchline

Just finished reading Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t remember if I read it as I was supposed to in eighth grade, but I did read it recently. Six-year old Scout is not sure about living in Maycomb, Alabama. It’s a scary place. There’s a cranky lady who judges the world from her front porch. A black man named Tom Robinson is falsely condemned for a crime he didn’t commit. The school kids pick fights when Scout’s attorney father defends Tom in court. At the end of their street is a spooky neighbor named Boo. The whole novel is about Scout coming to terms with the neighborhood. On the very last page of the book is the moral of the story. Scout is talking to her daddy Atticus at bed time, and complaining that people around town are accusing a neighbor kid of something he didn’t do. She says:

“An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice.”

Her father bent down, tucked in her covers, and said, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” (page 281)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Song of the Lonely City: a World Communion Sermon

Song of the Lonely City
Lamentations 1:1-11
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1)
This is a day when we imagine a world-wide community. We gather under the promise that “people shall gather from east and west, from north and south,” to sit at Table in the Kingdom of God.
How ironic that we are given a poem about a city that fell apart! Once it was a great city, a “princess among the provinces.” Now the streets are empty. The playful laughter of children is replaced by bitter weeping. The once-busy city is described as a lonely woman, a widow who cannot be consoled. The dream of community has been fractured. Today it’s worth reflecting on how this happens. A community is an interactive series of human relationships. How can it become a shadow of what it once was?
Some time back, I tried to take a shortcut from on the way from Harrisburg to Bloomsburg. The map suggested Route 61 north, somewhere around Frackville. I took the exit, went over the hill, and found myself in a strange site. The road I was traveled took an abrupt detour, with an ominous sign: “Warning - Danger! Underground Mine Fire.” Just beyond it, there was another sign: “Welcome to Centralia, Pennsylvania.”
I had heard about this place, but was not prepared for what I saw. There were sections where the asphalt road had melted and pulled apart. White smoke billowed out of gashes in the ground. The grass was burned yellow. Trees still standing had no leaves. Stovepipes spew steam and carbon monoxide from beneath the soil. At St. Ignatius Cemetery there was a freshly dug grave – the grim joke among the locals is that you can be buried and cremated at the same time, no extra charge.
The most haunting sight was how empty that community had become. Centralia is nearly a ghost town – just a handful of houses remaining, inhabited by seven survivors who can’t afford to buy another or are too proud to move. The coal mine fire has burned underground for forty-five years. Most of the row homes that once stood together are were plowed under or hauled away, although a few solitary places stand all alone.
Now the reason I describe all of this is to tell you how Centralia got this way. Two things happened: a mistake and the poison. The mistake was when somebody burned some garbage in 1962, and it was a little close to the coal vein. Nobody intended it to catch fire, but it did. It hasn’t gone out. And then the poison got in the soil and in the air. That’s when everybody began to move away. The community came unglued.
There are mistakes. There is poison. This is what somebody like Jeremiah is lamenting in the poem we heard today. The mistakes – the human errors – are the things that start the fire. The poison is what keeps being generated. As Jeremiah describes a lonely city, smoldering and steaming after invaders destroyed it, he can’t help but remember all the mistakes and bad decisions that brought the city to this point. As he considers the wreckage and the desolation of what is still their home, he sniffs the poison in the air: all the blaming, the denial of responsibility, the warlike tendencies.
This is not, of course, what God wants for us. God wants people to live together in peace, to dwell in unity as sisters and brothers, to live without division or destruction. God wants the one community of human beings to get along.
At times, God allows us to live with the consequences of our actions. Surely that’s what the poet means by saying, “the Lord makes us to suffer for the multitude of transgressions.” God did not make the mess; people did, and they have to live with the consequences of what they've done or left undone. It’s just that simple.
Nobody can blame God for the mistakes we make or the poisons we manufacture. Historian David McCullough talks about the Johnstown Flood, another Pennsylvania disaster that destroyed a city. After the flood, some preachers on higher ground declared it was God’s judgment on a guilty land. McCullough says slyly, “If that’s the case, God should have better aim; the flood blasted into churches and missed most of the bordellos.”
No, don’t blame God for that one. The Johnstown Flood happened because wealthy Presbyterians up in a hunting camp didn’t take care of a dam, showing little regard for the peasants downstream. Maybe you noticed: God doesn’t usually fish us out of our blunders or our short-sightedness.
What God does provide, however, is forgiveness for our mistakes and fumigation for our poisons. That’s what happens in the cross of Jesus. It was the mistake of humanity to nail him there, yet he took that – and all the poison that surrounded it – he took it away.
In the words of one early preacher, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has … broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… that he might create in himself one new humanity… reconciling people to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (Ephesians 2:13-16)
This is what gathers people from east and west, from north and south, to sit at one Table in God’s kingdom. It’s the promise that nothing needs to have the power to divide us. Thanks to Jesus Christ we are brought together - - one to another, all of us to God. The pains and poisons of the world never need to break us apart.
As we come to God’s Table, we have the opportunity to leave our mistakes behind, to let God’s love cancel them, and then to begin living toward God’s dream of “one humanity.” The promise of the Gospel is that every ghost town is haunted by the Holy Ghost. Every painful ending has the promise of a new beginning. Every divided family and destroyed home can be rebuilt somewhere by the God who wishes us all to be rebuilt.
These are the promises of broken bread and poured-out wine. And they are available to every last one of us – taste and see!