Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let's Get Our Priorities Straight

Sheepscott Community Church November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65: 17-25

Luke 21: 5-19

Let’s Get Our Priorities Straight

As a child I was always thrilled by the readings of the last Sundays of the liturgical year. Why? Because they were scary. Earthquakes, famines, pestilences. Heavy stuff for eight- or nine-year-old ears to hear. Without explication and explanation of the text, a child’s imagination takes sometimes unfortunate flight, as in, well, if there are earthquakes and famines and pestilence, my family will be in danger. We might die.

Ever one to make deals with God, at that time I wrote a promise on a piece of paper: “If you will not destroy the world, I will give you my life.” Nothing big, you understand, just my life. Then I pricked my finger with the pointed end of a safety pin and signed my name in blood. Isn’t that the way it was supposed to be done? After that, I buried my note to God in a field. Apparently God read it, for here I still am all these years later, having just read one of the those same eschatological readings.

The word eschatology means the science of last things, and religiously speaking, as we are here, those last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell. Signs of the end times Jesus was speaking of in the gospel were famine and pestilence, wars and rumors of wars. The apostles wondered, as we ourselves do, especially at this time of the year as we sink towards winter, if that time, if that season was in the far or near future. Jesus was never particularly concerned with the hours of the clock. What he focused on was fulfilling God’s will and intent, and the time for that fulfillment, which is always now.

You may have heard the Shaker admonition to live each day as if it were your first and as if it were your last, consciously, with gratitude, and with a heart after service. For his part, God is always bent on rescuing his own from misery, and planning to do it with the gospel concerning Jesus, and by means of every life that will give itself away to him. That life may be in the form of a note signed in blood, or in a less dramatic way––the opening of the door of the heart a crack to take a chance that the promises of God may be true and that Jesus may be who we are afraid he is.

The time to focus on is now, not some unknown future, when in our own little cosmologies we perceive the signs lining up. Ah, this must be it! You know what the Bible says. No. Get your eye off speculative interpretations of Revelation and other writings, and onto the matter at hand. Who needs some supper? Who needs a visit but doesn’t know how to ask for it? What young mother is pulling her hair out with frustration in her sense of isolation and is becoming afraid of what she is capable of doing? Look around. The time is now and the needs are all around us, challenging us to see with the eyes of love.

In that vein, I want to tell you a story I heard last Sunday. As you may know, Rick Newell, who was pastor of this church for a year or two, and who has been the ongoing pastor of the Alna-Newcastle Baptist Church for the last 20 years, was ordained in that church last Sunday by the people of the church.

A good friend and mentor of Rick’s, Rev. Darryl Lavway, originally of this area, but now of Santa Clara County, CA, came East for the occasion. His responsibility was to give the charge to the minister, which he did, but not before making it clear to Rick and all those gathered just what he thought Rick and we ought to know about what is important versus what is not important. What do we need to remember?

He then went on to narrate an experience he had had a few weeks before. Eighty ministers of that county where he has his church, were invited to listen to 10 judges from the county courts, each of whom had a different jurisdiction, as in one for criminal court, one for traffic court, one for family court, and so on. The testimony he wanted to share with us was that of the judge from the court of domestic violence. All day, every day, that judge hears and adjudicates in cases of domestic violence.

The judge played a 9-1-1 tape for the ministers and those other judges. All listened raptly as a 6-year-old boy spoke with the dispatcher about what was going on in the next room. His mother’s ex-boyfriend was hurting her, he said. She had put the boy in another room to keep him safe. “But,” he told the dispatcher, “I have to go and check on my mommy now.” So he carried the phone out into the next room where his mother was and cried into the phone to the dispatcher, “My mommy is dead,” which she was.

In that same week, Reverend Lavway noted that he heard the head of the largest Protestant denomination in the world holding forth on the dangers of yoga, calling it evil. Reverend Lavway was aghast at this declaration, still recovering as he was from the story the judge told about the boy and his mother. That this significant person was using precious time and air space to name as evil something that Lavway thought unimportant in this context, while what mattered, what was important was the death of the boy’s mother and the consequent impact on the life of the boy. That went unaddressed at that level. Mr. Lavway was obviously scandalized by the what he considered the inappropriate declaration about yoga as evil, about who is inside the circle and who is outside the circle, about who belongs and who does not belong. All that when people are suffering and dying for want of human understanding and involvement.

I suspect this was the first time Darryl Lavway had heard a firsthand account of a real case of domestic violence, and it had been when he was ready to hear it. He was not filled with judgment about the mother, about the boyfriend, but filled with Christ’s loving concern for that child, and also Christ’s outraged sense of justice at the unnecessary suffering and death involved.

Darryl Lavway was convicted about this issue because someone had taken the time and trouble to arrange the meeting between judges and clergy, and he had taken the time to attend. He heard something new and passed it on to us, and so Christ’s loving concern for that child became our concern and inherently challengedus to explore the issue in our area. What he said to Rick Newell, and to all of us gathered there, including Lucy, who is the church’s music director, is that he and we need to learn from that story what is important and what is not important, what matters and what does not matter. We need to get our priorities straight. What is important is love, loving the suffering one enough to serve in the way and in the hour as God leads. Incidentally, I don’t think Reverend Lavway was saying yoga itself is unimportant. It has its its place as a tool for physical and spiritual health for some practitioners. What he was saying was the temporal juxtaposition of the 9-1-1 call with the statement about yoga from a denominational leader in a pulpit that could have been used to say something infinitely more important, about suffering in the world and the need for us to address it and be involved––all of that was a scandal to him.

When we are busy judging whether this person or this thing is good or evil, and whether to include or exclude that person or thing on the basis of our judgment, we may miss the task or situation that is right in front of us needing to be addressed. It was a big teaching that had obviously converted Darryl Lavway, and he used it to illustrate to this man being newly ordained what should be important and what should not be important in his ongoing, post-ordination ministry. We would all do well to pay attention.

I’d like to finish with yet another story that I heard last week, a true story from the daughter who lived it. This adult daughter’s mother was the apple of her daughter’s eye. When the mother in her increasing age developed Parkinson’s, her daughter invited her to live with her, wanting to take care of her. The mother moved in, time passed and the Parkinson’s got worse and worse, and so did the circumstances of living together, as they will when people are in close quarters out of necessity. It was hard for the daughter to see her mother failing.

Finally the mother died, and yes, the daughter was devastated because she loved her deeply. Perhaps there was relief as well, as happens when a huge burden is sadly lifted.

Several years later, the woman, who is a psychologist, was called to a nursing home because a patient there was out of control, and the treatment team didn’t know what to do with her. The woman met with the team, and as soon as she saw the diagnosis––Parkinson’s––and the medications that the patient was on, she was immediately able to understand the woman’s behavior and explain it to the team, while suggesting modifications to medications and as a result, to behaviors as well.

As she was leaving the building, the woman said she heard a voice that clearly said to her, “See? This is why your mother had to come and live with you.” The woman was able to bring the knowledge and wisdom from her own and especially her mother’s suffering to bear for the sake of this other member of the family of God. She was listening, she cared, she wasn’t focusing on the big questions of who and what was good or evil. That wasn’t her business. She was focused on dealing with what was right in front of her face: helping to relieve the suffering of another human being. For her the time is always ow; she learned that with her mother, and she has her priorities straight. For Darryl Lavway, the time has become now in a new way for him, and he has his priorities straight.

You may see it differently. That’s fine, but for me that sharing of stories––the judges with the ministers; the minister with the minister and the congregation; and the woman who had a story to tell over coffee––the willingness to share the stories, with those who have ears to hear them, and then act, this is a way to be fully in the moment, in the now, not worrying about or fearing a possible future time. It is recognizing the gift of Jesus, the Christ to the world, and what that means: new heavens and a new earth, where we care for one another, where God can bring good out of suffering, when we surrender to him our idea of the meaning of that suffering and make ourselves available for God’s purposes. Amen.

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