Sunday, May 31, 2020

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings
Isaiah 40:28-3/1Luke 8:11-15
            I remember my first airplane ride.  It was Thanksgiving weekend, and Syracuse University’s football team was playing in New York City.  I was in the marching band, and was obligated to be at the game.  I also had to perform in a concert that night back in Syracuse, a six-hour drive away.  My parents, who lived in New York at the time, attended the game, then drove me to the airport, where I caught a plane that got me to Syracuse in time for the concert.  I don’t remember much about the flight, but I do remember being in the air, and traveling the distance in much less than six hours.  It was a thrill.
            Today, flying isn’t as much fun, with crowded flights and airports, long waits in terminals, slow boarding procedures, and little leg room.  But that day—wow!  It was an experience.
            Even with the inconveniences, if you have to get somewhere far away really fast, flying is the way to go.  Many of us will put up with the hardships for the speed.
            Isaiah could not have imagined airplanes.  I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined moving through the air by any means.  The closest he could come was a simile.  Those who wait for the Lord shall “mount up with wings like eagles.”  Isaiah knew what flight looked like.  He had seen large birds soaring high above the earth, wings extended as they took advantage of air currents to float effortlessly, arriving at their destination quicker than any human could walk.  When he imagined God strengthening those who had grown weary, this is the image that came to mind.
            We moderns can visualize both kinds of flight:  the speed and power of aircraft and the beauty of birds’ flight.  We understand Isaiah’s example of the way God strengthens God’s people and helps them move to where God can use them.
            But wings are not enough.  They are the final step in God’s preparation for us to engage in the Christian journey.  The process begins long before we take flight.
            We can’t get anywhere in our Christian life without a solid base.  If we’re not (to use one of my favorite lines from Paul) rooted and grounded in our Christian faith, we’ll never take off, never soar.
            Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed helps us see the need for rootedness.  He wanted people to understand the need for constancy and for time to grow in their life of faith, so he told a story of a man who planted a field.  First century farmers didn’t have large machines to do the backbreaking work for them.  They had to walk the field, throwing handfuls of seed to the left, front and right of their path.  Of necessity, some seed fell on ground where nothing could grow successfully.  In fact, there were three kinds of unproductive soil and one kind of productive soil.  (We have to believe the majority of the soil fell into the last group, or the farmer would have wasted a lot of time and seed.)
            The three kinds of unproductive soil had one element in common:  the ground was not conducive to the seed taking root, and without roots, the seed wouldn’t grow.  (Those of us who have spent any time pulling weeds know how true the reverse of this maxim is.  If you don’t pull up roots and all, the weed comes right back.  There’s a sermon in that.)
            Before the green shoot appears, before the shoot flowers, before—to mix metaphors—the plant takes flight, the roots must be solid and strong.  Without a healthy root system there will be no soaring.
            God is the source of both our roots and our wings.  Without God, we can’t get started.  With God we can bloom where we’re planted, and soar to amazing heights.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Living in the Shadow of Denial

Living in the Shadow of Denial
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
            We live in a time of alternate truths.  Because of this we live in a time of denial.  You deny the accuracy of my truth.  I deny the validity of your truth.  We receive our “truths” from different sources, so the argument becomes source against source, your science against my science, My shade of gray against your shade of gray. 
            In this atmosphere we can never reach agreement.  To do so one of us would have to change his (her) paradigm—our way of seeing the world and our place in it.  That’s difficult because the one who changes has to begin by admitting he/she has been wrong.
            Why do I find it so difficult to admit I’m wrong? 
            I find it difficult to admit my paradigm is wrong because of my ego.  It’s like saying I’m sorry when I’ve done something to hurt you.  I know I did it, I know you—and our relationship—are suffering because of what I did, but my ego gets in the way of admitting my mistake.
            I find it difficult to admit my paradigm is wrong because I fear your reaction.  I know you will say, “I told you so!  Of course you were wrong!  Now you’ve admitted it I’ll lord it over you.  I’ll never let you forget it.”  In my saner moments I admit that the chances of you saying those things is small, but fear is irrational, and gets in the way of admitting my beliefs are incorrect.
            I find it difficult to admit my paradigm is wrong because if I’m wrong the consequences are overwhelming.  This is especially true in matters of religious belief.  If you’re right and I’m wrong, then it’s you who will find eternal pleasure at the end of the tunnel and I who will find eternal damnation.  There’s no room in this way of thinking for the possibility that both of our paradigms contain some correct and some incorrect beliefs.
            Some would argue that there are few if any absolute truths.  That everything is relative.  That a search for perfect truth is a fool’s errand and a waste of time.  This is what Pilate may have had in mind when he asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
            The greatest problem with this line of reasoning is that if there are no absolute truths can we say there are any truths at all?  We hear politicians and apologists for politicians argue that there are “alternate truths,” alternate sets of facts that are as valid as what most people consider basic truths.  If my facts have the possibility of being as true as your facts are, when yours are based on proven principles and mine are based on rumor, innuendo, and supposition, we’re living in a time of denial.
            The God of Israel presented the new nation with a list of truths.  We call the most important of these the Ten Commandments.  Many centuries have proven the validity of these truths.  Even if we set aside the first four, the ones about humankind’s relationship with God, and say they belong only to the religious realm, time has proven the validity of the remaining six.  Civilization works better when this ethical system is followed.
            Then, in Deuteronomy, the second giving of the law, another commandment is proclaimed, and identified as the greatest commandment: “There is one God; and you shall love that God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  This commandment is meant to shape not only our relationship with God but with our fellow humans as well, for we cannot love God without loving God’s creatures—and that includes everyone. 
            That’s the truth!  We can’t deny it.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

"It Ain't Over Till It's Over"

“It Ain’t Over Till it’s Over”
Acts 2:22-24
            Many of us know where this saying comes from—or rather who it comes from.  Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher (later  amanager) was famous for mangling the English language.  Reporters loved him because his interviews produced so much quotable material.  Some of his quotes have become famous.
            “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
            “It’s like deja` vu all over again.”
            “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
            “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”
How can you not love a guy who talks like that?
            His most famous quote is the title of this column: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”  At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make sense, and yet it does.  It makes perfect sense, especially for an athlete.  I’ve seen many athletic contests in which a touchdown, or field goal, or goal, or basket, or home run occurs in the last seconds of a game to change the outcome. 
            I was having dinner in a restaurant in Syracuse, NY many years ago.  The Syracuse University basketball team was playing at home that night.  The star of the team was a guy by the name of Pearl Washington.  The restaurant was playing the radio broadcast of the game.  The other team was in the lead (barely), and it looked as if they would win with time running out.  Time had almost expired when Washington got the ball and dribbled to the center circle.  He didn’t have time to get closer to the basket, so he heaved up a desperation shot—and it went in, winning the game for Syracuse.
            The restaurant erupted.  The radio continued to broadcast the reaction in the Carrier Dome.  The fans didn’t leave—didn’t want the celebration to end.
            If it’s not over till it’s over, and that’s exciting, how much more exciting if it’s not over when it’s over?
            I used to use that line at the end of a school year, when I met with my chorus for the last time.  I’d say, “You all know the saying ‘It ain’t over till it’s over.’  Well the great thing about this experience is it’s not over when it’s over, because you’ll carry these memories with you forever.”
            In a sense, this is what Peter was saying to the crowd that gathered on that first Pentecost.  Yes, Jesus had died, he said; but that wasn’t the end, because God raised him from the dead.  Peter had seen him.  Other disciples had seen him.  There could be no doubt that Jesus was alive, and this made all the difference. 
            Like others who had claimed to be the messiah, attracted a following, and run afoul of both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government, Jesus had suffered the death penalty.  The difference was that for the others, their career, their place in the sun was over.  They remained dead.  Jesus rose again, and, we believe, lives so that we may live—not just in some faraway, future paradise, but that we may live this life to the fullest.
            To those first disciples, it seemed to be over; but just when they had given up hope, Jesus returned to them.  What wonderful news!
            We are called to live into God’s future now, not to wait for the total fulfillment of the kingdom of God, but to realize that we live in the kingdom today—and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.  Because it ain’t over.  It’s only just begun.