Sunday, March 18, 2012

Your Own Song

Preached at Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
March 18, 2012

Psalm 107: 1-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

I always enjoy the opportunity to preach here at Prescott Church. Today I am aware of what a small speck I am, floating along the surface of a deep river of tradition and history in this church. Thank you for inviting me to be part of today’s worship and Rodney’s commissioning for mission work in Haiti.

I have heard about a tribe of people in one of the central African nations who cherish their long held tradition of assigning a song to each child. When a woman realizes she is pregnant she goes out to a safe and sacred place where the sun and the wind can speak to her without competition from other voices. She listens as does the child within her until the song of the child rises up out of the silence and claims the child. During the pregnancy the song is sung to the unborn child by his mother and father, by siblings and grandparents, by neighbors and friends. Friends sing the song as the child is born. The song is sung on birthdays and at the wedding of the child when love joins the one song to the song of another. And finally that song is sung when the person’s body is laid to rest. It is the song of one life and all the members of the tribe know the songs of their friends, family and neighbors.

Today we have gathered in this safe and sacred place to worship the God who has given us birth. We gather to sing songs of praise and to have our faith restored. We gather to be with people who know us and know the songs we love to sing. Being faithful in the Christian tradition includes belonging to a community. God’s grace is made evident through our community life, worship, mission and support for one another.

Rodney Rastall, a member of this community of faith, has been called to serve in Haiti. He will fly there this week and use his skill as a film maker to document the work of Trinity Hope as they educate and feed children in Port au Prince. He will film the faces of the children who are fed at Trinity Hope's school. And he will make it possible for the stories of those children to be shared around the world.

I asked Rodney about his favorite song. He tells me that the song that touches him most consistently and deeply is “Amazing Grace.” Rodney tells me that he and his family moved 27 times before Rodney finished the ninth grade. That is a lot of moving around! So many houses, schools and churches! So many names to learn, friends to make and songs to sing along the way. Rodney has carried his song with him from place to place. He came to Prescott about seven years ago and found a congregation of people who have sung his favorite song with him, given him a place in the bass section of the choir and taught him numerous new songs along the way.

Today’s scripture from the second chapter of Ephesians focuses on grace. It’s difficult for us to understand the grace of God. In our way of thinking we have to work and earn whatever we have. But in God’s economy of grace the process is different than what we are accustomed to. We cannot earn God’s grace by involving ourselves in good work. We cannot open a savings account and store the grace of God in a bank for the future. And yet, ironically, we cannot accomplish all the good work we are capable of doing without the grace of God to make it all possible.

Over two thousand years ago Cicero said, “It is not by muscle, speed or skill that great things are achieved but by reflection, force of character and good judgment.” Two thousand years later we are so busy working and trying to make things happen that we have little time left over to think about the value of what we’re doing.In this worship service, in this hour together, I hope we can realize the absolute value of simply being, being here and being here together. It may seem like nothing is being accomplished. But it’s not the accomplishment we’re trying to value. As people of faith we are here to value the grace that has brought us this far. We are here to acknowledge our need for continued grace in order to sing our own song.

Rodney will take with him to Haiti the love and support that he has received in this community. Seven years ago he found a place to stay, to put down roots. He found a place to belong and sing his song. Because of your capacity as a congregation to share the love and grace of God, Rodney has been encouraged to respond to God’s call. He has the courage necessary to go to a place where the needs are overwhelming. He has the faith to believe that what he has to give will be enough for the task at hand. This is when the people of Prescott get to celebrate your tradition of hospitality and your long history of being a welcoming and nurturing place for God's grace. This is the time when you have a chance to celebrate and sing your own song.Rodney came here and found people who help him sing his own song. Amazing Grace.

Life is unpredictable. Rodney knows this from first-hand experience. Packing up boxes and filling the moving van over and over again before he was fifteen years old.Who knew what the next neighborhood would offer him? The children of Haiti also know the reality of unpredictability. How could they know what the earthquake would do to them, their families and their hope for the future? How could they know that a man in Memphis, Tennessee would be willing to travel many miles to see them, meet them, help them and film them in an effort to solicit support for their schools, their lunch program and their futures? How do any of us know what their story, once shared, will mean to us all?

The Shakers have a song: “It’s a gift to be simple. It’s a gift to be free. It’s a gift to come down where we ought to be. And when we find ourselves in a place just right it will be in a valley of love and delight.”

It is by God’s grace that we find ourselves in a place just right. It is by God’s grace that we find that valley of love and delight.

Our Aztec neighbors south of the border tell this traditional story: A very long time ago there was a great fire in the forest that covered the entire earth. People began to run. Animals ran and flew. The owl spread his great wings to escape but he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at a very tiny bird that was flying back and forth from the river to the fire. The owl recognized the tiny bird as the Quetzal bird.

The small bird was picking up drops of water from the river and then returning to the fire to throw the water on the flames. The owl went to his brother, the Quetzal. “What are you doing? You must know that you cannot achieve a thing with these small drops of water. You must fly away and save yourself.”

The small bird looked at the larger bird. “Brother Owl, I am making the most out of the life I have been given.”

And it is remembered and told from generation to generation how the forests that covered the entire earth were saved from a great fire by a small Quetzal bird, an owl and many other animals and people who got together and put out the flames.

Only one of us will go to Haiti but all of us live by God’s grace. Together we can put out the flames and save the forest. Together we can put an end to hunger in Haiti. One drop of grace at a time.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Door Buster Bargain

Preached at
Prescott Memorial Baptist Church
March 11,2012

I Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

They are doing it again. The trees are leafing and budding. Over and over again- the trees are willing to give new life a chance.

Let’s do something together… Feel your feet on the floor. Feel the promise of the floor to hold your feet down. Realize with me how easy it is for us to take gravity for granted. Not one of us has worried since we came into this sanctuary that our feet might float up away from the floor and leave our heads dangling down from the ceiling. Take a deep breath. Fill your lungs. Let it out. Take another deep breath and let your shoulders drop. Let them relax. Notice how you are breathing, taking deep breaths and you are not at all worried about whether or not there will be enough oxygen in this sanctuary for you and for all of us while we worship together. There are some things we trust, some things that surround us in such abundance that we fail to appreciate them at all. Total bargains too. Gravity and oxygen are free.

We’ve been taught to value what money can buy. When the Twin Towers fell in NYC and our nation stood in despair, grief and confusion we were told to go shopping. It was labeled as patriotic to spend money. We shop—therefore we are... true patriots?

Because we're convinced there’s a limited amount of wealth in the world we have also been convinced there is an indisputable scarcity of all things valuable and meaningful. There’s not enough of anything for all of us to have what we want, what we need. So, because we trust in the religion of never enough, we work longer hours and worship the gods of consumption. It’s what our culture is good at—consuming.

Our colleges and universities no longer teach students to think. Instead the students are fed information. They expect to be handed information that will land them a career that will earn enough money to pay back all the loans they took out to be fed information. Money makes our consumer operated world go round.

Our institutions and systems encourage us to trust in scarcity. We admire those who get more wealthy than the rest of us. This is how we got into the banking crisis and the financial meltdown. We see the wealthiest consumers among us as heroes. The banks and bankers are above being held accountable. And so we bail them out even after they have reached in our pockets and stolen millions from us. We reward them with bonuses. They are the clear winners in a consumer society.

But every once in a while we hear about something different. Every once in a while we meet people who are motivated by something other than money. We read about cultures where people, relationships and nature itself are valued above all else. We have heard stories about groups of people foolish enough to trust that there is always enough of what really counts in life.

About twenty-two miles northwest of the city of St Francisville, Louisiana is Angola Prison. It’s a state prison for men who have been sentenced for life. Murderers, thieves and violent offenders of every kind live behind the walls of this legendary prison. The annual Angola Rodeo has made the place famous as have the crimes committed inside the prison. The men who live in Angola wear t-shirts that read: Angola ain’t no place to be. And sadly the men in Angola do not expect to get out or go home. Angola is their home. The inmates there are family for each other.

Burl Cain, a huge man with thick white hair, is the warden. He realized about ten years ago that the men in his prison were aging, getting sick and dying. He suggested that the prison open up a hospice program, a way for inmates to die with dignity, a way for men to avoid dying alone. Warden Cain suggested that the inmates be trained to provide hospice care to their dying brothers. And so the program began.

The actor, Forest Whitaker, has made a documentary that tells the story of the Angola hospice. The film is called “Serving Life.” Four new hospice volunteers are interviewed for the program as the film opens.

Ratliff, a tall African American man with wide boney shoulders once killed a man during a drug deal gone bad. The team of hospice professionals who sat at a table in front of Ratliff questioned him. “Have you ever lost anyone yourself?”

Ratliff looks up at the ceiling, remembering. “My mother.”

There is kindness in the nurse’s voice as she asks the man, “How did you handle that loss?"

“Not well.” Ratliff scratches his head and rubs his chin. “I still feel like she’s with me, you know? And I guess I wanna be part of this program to help somebody out, show my mother I ain’t all bad.”

The film shows four new volunteers going through rigorous training by other inmates and health care providers. They work beside their mentors. Then they get their first patients. We watch as they make beds with hospital corners, change diapers, dress bed sore wounds, hold the hand of dying men and watch through tears for the last breath. Ratliff has been a tough guy and yet this hospice work calls for courage more authentic than anything he has previously found inside himself.

Each hospice patient gets a quilt. Steve, serving time for first degree murder, has developed skill as a quilter. The other men assist Steve with piecing the quilt together. They have flowers, butterflies on them. The name of the man who is dying is sewn on the quilt. The volunteers present each hospice patient with his own quilt as he dies, keeping him warm. And that quilt is also used to cover the man’s casket as it is rolled out of the prison and down the hill to the cemetery.

Kevin, who has lung cancer, is filmed as he dies surrounded by hospice volunteers, men who care for Kevin tenderly, lovingly, reassuring him that he is not alone and that all is well on earth and in heaven. They lay his quilt across him and hold his hand as he fades away and breaks free from his prison life.

Ratliff reflects: “It gets hard, just watching a man wither away like that. But you got to be there anyway. They say hospice is about dying with dignity but I think hospice is helping us learn to live with love.”

The warden walks though the cemetery filled with white wooden crosses and he speaks of Kevin and his death. “He did a terrible crime, no doubt about that. But that’s not something we can change. The crime is done, history. This hospice program sets an example for how to live our lives now, giving back and making a difference for somebody else.”

There’s a light inside the sanctuary of each one of us. Caring for each other makes that light burn brighter. Murderers. Thieves. Violent offenders put away for a life time have found new light and life within themselves by giving themselves to others. It costs them nothing. Not a dime is exchanged. It’s something altogether different than what our culture would have us value.

We are the temples of God’s love. Our bodies, our time, our passions, our energies are the places where the light of God's love lives.

There are some things we can trust and depend upon. There is enough air for us to breathe. Gravity will hold our feet on the floor. It may sound foolish but we can trust that there is enough in this world for everyone to be satisfied. We don’t have to depend on the marketplace in order to live a rich and full life.

According to Peter Block and John McKnight who wrote The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, the competent community focuses on the gifts of its members, nurtures relationships, serves others and offers hospitality to strangers. In the midst of these practices the community experiences an abundance of all that really makes life worth living. And that is the real door buster bargain.

Jesus went into the temple at Jerusalem and drove out the merchants, turned over the tables and poured out the money. “Stop!” he ordered, “Stop making my Father’s house a market place.” Stop cheapening this rich life you’ve been given by making everything a commodity that can be bought and sold.

They are doing it again. The trees are leafing and budding. Over and over again- the trees are willing to give new life a chance. Such foolishness is the wisdom of God among us.