A Sermon (and a Prayer) offered Sunday, June 7th, at Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream, New York
Seven years ago this past week we had a party at Plattedeutsche Restaurant, shortly after which Barbara and I, Betsy and the boys, bade you and Valley Stream farewell. I had some worries about retirement, whether there would be enough to keep me busy (mostly, there is), how the money would hold up (readily, so far), and if I would go to seed (probably I have and donít know it). What I have found is that retirement is a splendid time to rethink and reevaluate where youíve been and what youíve done. So I have revisited old haunts and havens, reaching as far back as my school years in Stamford, but not neglecting my sojourns in Brooklyn and Valley Stream.
And in my reassessment of my life and times I have come to an unstartling conclusion, the same one which informs the popular book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, that there is no such thing as a self-made man (or woman); that each of us, if we accomplish anything with the time we have on earth, is the consequence of a lot of loving and guiding and, yes, nagging from the people around us, family especially.
Youíve always known that, right?
Pastor Howard is thicker than most; but on me too, especially in these years of reflection, it has dawned that I am very much Evelyn and Haroldís spoiled only child. That she came to these shores from Northern Ireland to provide her offspring with a college education in preparation for the work she assigned him, as ďa minister of the Gospel,Ē to use Dorothy DeBeauchampís phrase for my profession. I fought it, of course, that dream of Momís for me; but Dad collaborated with her and I didnít have a chance. Thank God.
Brooklyn Norwegian-American Methodists reinforced Mom and Dadís expectations; and a Long Island congregation sealed the deal. I am what you made me. Of course, you may not want that responsibility. Flatter me, nonetheless, by claiming you do. Life is a gift, in all the details, including any expertise and success we might achieve.
Faith is tooÖ a giftÖ as Paul the Apostle reminds us in that text from I Corinthians 4 Iíve quoted beneath the sermon title. As I read the lections for this morning trying to figure out what should be the sermon theme, I found in that most famous of passages, surrounding John 3:16, Jesusí midnight interview with Nicodemus, the message for the morning about how we are beholden to others for just about everything, including faith. I mean, where do we come by faith? From above, Jesus explains. From God, from Godís spirit blowing where it will and its blessed zephyrs find us. Which would seem to rule out any discipleís getting puffed up about how he or she found God. Faith is a miracle. Faith is a gift. Faith is what Evelyn and Harold Howard nudged their son toward until the blessed wind from above wafted his way.
When you are old enough, say seventy or so, you will probably come to the same conclusion about Godís way with you. And if youíve already arrived there, well, youíre years ahead of me.
Let me spell out a couple of consequences of this old manís discovery, the gift that faith (and most other important things) is. First, it requires humility. You and I didnít find God; God found us, more like he found Adam and Eve in the Garden, hiding and blushing, than like Isaiah in the Temple in a blazing vision (though, I know, I know, that may have been the experience of some of you). Humility, for the absence of our own initiative; but humility served with big helpings of wonder and gratitudeÖ like the waves of good feeling which sweep over me almost daily at the thought of my reconstituted knees and the fellow who gave them to me, Dr. SchutzerÖ and he, not so incidentally, would claim that his medical skills were a gift from above.
Humility, and patience. Patience with those who have not received the gift of faith, and may even be hostile to the thought that there is a God, let alone a God who scatters abroad with the wind knowledge of his power and mercy.
In these past seven years Iíve stumbled upon another ministry, part time of course, to my classmates from college, many of whom do not share Bobbyís commitment to Jesus Christ. One frequent Email correspondent states emphatically that he is an atheist. Two others with whom I am in conversation, either by regular mail or phone, style themselves as agnostics. Do I try to persuade them otherwise? Never. Do I listen to them? Lots. And I learn from them. I hear in their complaints with the believing majority echoes from within my own soul. When asked, and sometimes when not, I offer my take on the world we share, and it, that take, is rooted in my commitment to Jesus. They donít hold it against me. At least I donít think they do. The gift of their friendship and their patience with this Critical Christian strangely arrives for me as evidence of Godís power and mercy. But, please, donít tell them!
Seventy-seven and a half years and what have I learned? That the God who so loved the world that he gave his only son, really loves the world, all of it, including those who think God is a fiction, and those of us who say we believe but behave often as if we didnít. That if we are to boast of anything it will be in the breadth of Godís mercy, even as we offer a prayer of gratitude for the faith to behold the world and all of us in it held in the hands of a loving eternity.
A Prayer for Better Discipleship
God of good surprises, who lifts up the fallen and brings down the mighty, heals the broken and breaks the prideful, loves the loveless and softens the hard of heart; God of all sorts and conditions of us, those of us with attitude and those of us who could use some, who makes time for each of us in the solitude of our souls, reach out to us, again, and again, and again, through the gracious presence of Jesus that, like him and for him, we may spend our days making the world around us a preview of his kingdom of lovingkindness. We have no yearning for martyrdom or canonization; but we do seek an infusion of your grace to enable us to bring sunshine into our shadowed world, tenderness into our calloused relationships, and hope into a time and place battered by loss of substance and spirit. Help us. With you we know, have heard, and believe, that all things are possible, even that we may be disciples; if in small matters, so be it, taking the mustard seed as our emblem and Jesusí cross as our guide; that he may at last commend us to you as those who have tried, tried to be true and faithful, and all that that suggests, for you and the coming kingdom and world without end. Amen.