Funeral sermon for Kathy Strong

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across some old correspondence between me and John Strong, Kathy’s dad. John had asked me for a copy of a quotation I’d used in a sermon. It was from a book called When Breath Becomes Air, written by a brilliant young brain surgeon who was dying of cancer just as he was finally finishing his medical training.

I guess you could call it a cancer memoir, because it was about the last few years of this man’s life, but don’t get the wrong idea: it was much more about how he lived through that time than about his dying.

The part John asked for was this: “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult—sometimes almost impossible—they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily of act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”[i]

It wasn’t hard to understand why this resonated with John. It was a few months before Jane died—Kathy’s mom—and Kathy was fighting her own illness, and the daily, ongoing balance of life and love and pain and hope must have been very present for John.

It certainly was very much so for all of us in the Strongs’ parish family at Good Shepherd Church. And so it would continue to be right up to the day when Kathy finally lost her fight to live—at least to live in the mortal body that suffered so much these past few years—and we lost Kathy.

Continue reading

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost

So the wind is howling, the waves are starting to fill the boat, and there’s Jesus lying on the cushion in the stern, sound asleep.

When is he going to wake up and do something?

The people with him in the boat are fishermen. They’re seasoned sailors who know what they’re doing out there. They know when things are under control … and they know when it’s time to worry … and right now they are absolutely terrified.

How is it possible Jesus is still asleep?

It’s not surprising that he’s tired. He’s been preaching to a crowd so large they had to get into the boat and push off a little so people could see him from the place where they were gathered on the shore. Then he spent some time talking privately with his closest followers.

And then when evening comes, instead of stopping, he decides they’re going to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and they’re off again. They must have been wondering, why go now, when they could wait and sail by daylight?

Who knows, but Jesus said go, and they went. And now they’re out therein the midst of these shrieking winds, in a boat that’s about 26 feet long and 8 feet wide, with room for 12 to 15 people—small enough to be vulnerable to a storm of this magnitude, which comes up all at once with gale-force winds.

Everyone else in the boat is sure they’re about to sink, and Jesus sleeps on.

When ishe going to wake up and dosomething about it?

They finally go and shake him awake, and he rises to his full height, and rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And that raging storm is suddenly replaced by dead calm, and they know at last that they’re safe.

Bad things happen, even when you’ve got Jesus there in the boat with you, but if you keep Jesus close, and call on him when your troubles seem about to overwhelm you, you can trust that all will be well.

Certainly that’s one lesson we can take from this story. When the storms of life rage around us, if we put our trust in God, we’ll be fine, no matter what happens.

But I have to admit that there’s a question that’s been nagging at me all week as I thought about this story. I kept asking myself why the people in that boat were still afraid—“enormously afraid,”[1]—in the dead calm that followed the storm.

When everything was OK, they were still afraid. When Jesus stood up and ordered the wind and the waves to stop—and they did!—these people who had feared for their lives were actually more afraid then comforted. Afraid, maybe, of this display of divine power breaking into their world.

“Who isthis then,” they asked each other, “that even the wind and sea obey him?”

Who is this man, anyway?

They’ve been traveling with Jesus for a while, but they still don’t fully understand who he is, or what it means to have this kind of power demonstrated among them..

They’re just beginning to know him—I mean, reallyknow him.

And you know what? So are we. Even after all this time, we 21st-century disciples are still like those first followers in so many ways.

We ask ourselves—or should—“Who is this then?” What is this Jesus guy really all about? And that other question—when is Jesus going to wake up and do something? That’s something I find myself wondering about all the time lately, with all of the terrible things that are going on in the world. Why doesn’t Jesus just wake up and make it all stop?

He told people way back at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,”[2]and sometimes I still have a hard time seeing it.

Why do we still seem to be waiting for that promise of a better world? Why does God not care that we seem to be perishing.

In that moment of dead calm, after he ordered the wind and the sea to stop—and they obeyed—Jesus said to the others in the boat, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”[3]

I have to tell you that when it comes to making sense of the apparent conflict between the claim that the kingdom of God has come near and the actual sorry state of our world, I struggle just as much as the folks in that boat to have faith.

I share that with them, and another thing I share is that I’m still getting to know Jesus, too. I mean reallyknow him.

What is he really all about? What can we take from his example and teaching to show us a way of being in our world?

You could spend a lifetime learning to answer that one, and it’s a two-step process. It takes study, and it takes prayer.

The prayer brings us into the kind of quiet conversation Jesus had in the boat that day before they set sail, a dialogue of questions and answers between friends, of growing understanding as he spoke to them and answered their question.

It takes the dialogue of prayer, and it takes reading and rereading all those stories about the things he said and did—and studying them in community, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit—to bring all the pieces together and understand this guy …

… who criticized those in power, and said it would be very, very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

…who consistently sought the company of the people on the edges, outcasts, people who were sick and suffering, sinners and tax collectors.

…who cured the sick or pre-existing health conditions, without asking to see their insurance card first, and a photo ID.

… who fed the hungry for free, without suggesting that it was in any way their own fault that they had nothing to eat.

And who told his disciples that their job was to do the exact same work he was doing, telling the good news and bringing comfort and healing to the sick. And who told them that the way to become great was, paradoxically, to be a servant to all.[4]

Mr. Rogers had something similar to say about greatness. He said,

There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.

I apologize for jumping straight from Jesus to Mr. Rogers, but Mr. Rogers has been on my mind since Friday night, when Chris and I went to see the new movie about him, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It brought back a lot of tender memories of watching the show with my kids when they were little, but I was impressed all over again with his apparently simple wisdom, which was just so profound.

You probably know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and one of the things I really love about him was that if you look at the things he was saying, he was really presenting very basic Gospel wisdom without using the traditional theological language that we use here in church. Which, oddly enough—I know it sound contradictory—oddly enough, that can be a real help in this project of getting to know Jesus better.

It’s no accident, for example, that the show was called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, because like Jesus, Fred Rogers was all about loving your neighbor, and like Jesus, he had an expansive view in a quiet, ground-breaking way, of who that neighbor really is.

And even in his final messages after 911, before he died, he held on to his hope for a better world, which is just what we’re called to do as Christians.

We’ve got to believe that the reign of God is indeed growing,[5]as hard as that sometimes is to see. We’ve got to keep looking for it, and we’ve got proclaim it when we see it, and finally we’ve got to find our own place in it, our own way of living into hope and not into despair.

When Mr. Rogers talked about kindness, he meant more than just being nice to the lady next door. He was speaking Gospel truth in non-theological language. He was talking about the kind of love that Jesus was talking about, that Jesus proclaimed, and he was talking about the kind of lovingkindness of God which we mentioned in our opening prayer today, which is so much bigger than just being nice. Lovingkindness.

And we each have our own role to play in bringing that into the world. First we have to have faith in it, and then we live it.

I have one more Fred Rogers quote to share this morning:

Imagine what our real neighbors would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person. There have been so many stories about the lack of courtesy, the impatience of today’s world, road rage and even restaurant rage. (And, I might say just to update this for our world today, we seem to have lost our sense of civility, and we experience a lot of new kinds of rage, including, for example, social media rage. There is so much rage out there. There is so much anger in our world.) Sometimes, Fred said, all it takes is one kind word to nourish another person. Think of the ripple effect that can be created when we nourish someone. One kind empathetic word has a wonderful way of turning into many.[6]

I truly believe in that ripple effect. I dream of it spreading and spreading and spreading.

I imagine what our world would be like if it really were based on kindness to every living soul. And where else should we look for the center of that spreading ripple, except in our own hearts?

Amen.

 

[1]The New Testament: A Translation. David Bentley Hart.

[2]Mark 1:15 NRSV

[3]Mark 4:40

[4]Mark 10:43

[5]Preaching Mark in Times of Strife(Part 1 of 2), Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&rp=blog53&post=4999

[6]The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, Fred Rogers.

Territorial

This little birdy has been hanging out on the window looking into the chancel for the past few days. He’s just about the prettiest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. (Those in the know identified him as an indigo bunting.) He made his presence known on Sunday by pecking and flapping against the window all through the service. I’d like to think he was drawn to us by some spark of recognition in his tiny avian heart that all of Creation is one in giving God glory, and all God’s creatures are welcome here. But friends who know birds say it’s more likely he sees his own reflection in the glass and is “fighting” to guard his territory. I guess they’re a lot like us in more ways than one.

A Father’s Day prayer

I spent a few hours yesterday watching my 19-month-old granddaughter play on the floor with her dad while we adults talked: laughing giddily when he bounced her on his legs, commanding him to kiss the tiny imaginary “baby” she rocked in her arms, playing a surprisingly physical game that involved sliding an ice cube up and down the grooves in a metal coffee table, and occasionally throwing her harms around his neck and chanting, “hug, hug, hug!”

Of course I was charmed. One of the most beautiful kids in the world, and one of the best dads. Blessings upon blessings this Father’s Day.

It made the sadness I felt for all those fathers and children who are apart from each other this day all the more poignant. Of course the kids at the border, who did nothing to deserve the terrible thing that is happening to them. But also dads and kids serving their country in far-away places, and those who have lost their lives in service to others. Those whose lives were taken by gun violence closer to home. Those separated by the plague of addiction. Those whose fathers have been unable, for whatever reason, to provide the love and stability they needed. Those remembering fathers who lived long and happy lives, for whom Father’s Day will always be a reminder of both love and loss.

Thank you, God, for all who show a father’s love in our world … for those who are special to us … be close to those who are sad today.

Preach it!

On vacation in Philly, I asked our Lyft driver if she liked the work, and she asked what kind of work Chris and I do. After a while, she took a big breath, said she understood I was “off duty” – are we ever? – but wondered if she could ask me for some advice. Sure, I said, wondering what was coming next.
She told me she’d been a Christian for 25 years, and she still believes in Jesus, but lately she’s been having a lot of trouble with Christianity because of the way it’s being used to justify things that don’t seem Christian to her, and she named some examples. I won’t repeat the entire conversation, but we did think a little about what Jesus would say if he were standing at the border today.
She said she prayed every morning for God to fix this sorry world, and then she prayed for God to tell her what she could do about it. I told her I thought she was asking the right questions, and the only “advice” I had was to keep praying and stay true to her faith in Jesus.
Later, I thought about how much courage it would take to start a conversation like that with a stranger, especially when that stranger just admitted to being a Christian preacher.
And later still, I wondered which one of us was actually doing the preaching.
She does like the work, by the way. Because, she said, I have conversations like this.
Me, too.

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost

If any of you have ever had that feeling that your family, your own family, doesn’t really understand you, you’re going to sympathize with Jesus in today’s Gospel. His family thinks he’s gone crazy. He’s been out preaching and curing people and driving out demons, and everywhere he goes, he’s attracting these huge crowds of people, and his family is worried about him. They basically plan an intervention, and when they hear that he’s come home again, they go looking for him. Their plan is to restrain him, to take him away and make him stop what he’s been doing.

But when they get to the house, the crowds are so thick, the family can’t get to Jesus, so they send in a message: “We’re here!” They want him to come out so they can take him away. And he’s not exactly glad to hear that they’re there. In fact, his response is quite insulting. He asks the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then he points to the ragtag bunch that he’s got sitting around him and says, “These are my mother and my brothers. This is my family.” He turns his back on his own biological family.

Oh, family.

Continue reading