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You Can Go Home Again

You Can Go Home Again

    Provided you wait sixty years.

    Someone (you know who) also said that a prophet is not without honor except in his own land.  He could have added, "unless he is old and irrelevant."

    I returned to preach at the church which provided me with the launching pad for fifty years of pastoral leadership.  Sunday morning, August 11th, at First United Methodist Church, Stamford CT, I greeted the worshipers as they entered the nave.  There might have been eighty souls.  Three of them are my contemporaries and I remembered their names.  To them I'm still Bobby. 

    Bobby preached and prayed.  Herewith are the texts of each.  With the wisdom of hindsight, the sermon should have been entitled "A Long Overdue Kiss" or "A Belated Thank You." Instead, it is entitled--

What Life, Finally and Forever. Is All About

Yeah, yeah, the cliché you expect is love, love, love, that’s the only thing there’s too little of, and we need it, heaven knows.  I don’t disagree; but as a Methodist, with a bias toward putting into action what I believe, I substitute another word for love, giving. 

You and your pastors taught me that.  Loyd Worley, “Pop” you called him, always “Dr. Worley” to me.  And Pollard Jones, who is reported to have opined about me that “Bob Howard takes to basketball the way some men do to hard drink.”  I had my own key to the gym at the old church, a privilege no other in my generation was given.  My high school buddies referred to that brick edifice on River and Main as the Methodist AC.  Athletic Club.  In my dreams every once in a great while, I return to that room on the second floor of the parish house, worrying about the gym floor finish… which worry there’s no need to explain.  My family knows why I dream of gym floors.

Sixty plus years ago I stood in your pulpit, not this one, the one that no longer exists except in memory, and I gave you hell.  College sophomore that I was I was suffering the throes of living with a trio of agnostic roommates, one of them openly atheistic.  Bobby Howard was not prepared for their onslaught of ridicule and argument.  I began to wonder if one could be intelligent and a Christian.  Beulah Worley‘s senior high class in Sunday School was thought-provoking but it hadn’t readied me for the antagonism I met daily in both classroom and dorm. Asked by you to preach on Student Recognition Sunday, that forlorn Sabbath between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I agreed to the invitation and forthwith gave you a piece of my angry mind.  And you? You turned the other cheek, told me you were sorry I found you wanting, and beamed on me as you always did, like I was someone special and you were proud of me.

You gave me the benefit of the doubt.  But then you were always giving to me. Gym key.  Celebrations. Do you still have a Thanksgiving morning breakfast?  That began when I played football for SHS on that day, usually against Fairfield Prep.  I asked for the breakfast.  My mother presided over the cooking of it in the kitchen and served in the Social Hall.  You paid for my trip to Cleveland following the blizzard of ’47, to attend a national conference of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.  Best of all, you gave me a life’s companion, a pretty little PK from the district parsonage, just to the north of the church’s driveway.

You also gave me a pattern for church life and witness which I have replicated over and over on Long Island.  For 47 and a half years.  I taught generations of MYFers camp songs, but not Dr. Worley’s favorite, the endless “Ten blue pigeons sitting on the wall,” which I learned later was a sobered up version of “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” converted thanks to my pastor’s passion for teetotalism.   I’ve spent a hundred nerve-wracking) weekends on “retreats” with junior highs, latter day facsimiles to sleep-away district rallies.  I played on the church’s basketball team.   I held poorly attended Watchnight Services.  With a lot of help from Barbara we put on church plays.  That is, I tried to give those to whom I was a pastor an experience in the church positive, personal, fun-filled yet deeply committed to guiding us all into the mind and heart of Jesus Christ.  Like you gave me.

Thank you, First United Methodist Church of Stamford.  I couldn’t have done it (forty-nine years of pastoral leadership) without you.

Which is a long way around to the text for the morning in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, here labeled The Sermon on the Plain.  These lines in particular:

From Luke 12:32-40: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

No, I don’t intend to preach another stewardship sermon this morning, as if you were in the midst of an Every Member Canvas, or whatever they call it nowadays.  I want simply to celebrate giving as the heart and soul of the Christian Gospel.  Self-giving, that is, freely, happily offered, joyful the more when it is accepted and appreciated.

That, self-giving, the self-giving of God, is, after all, the origin of the universe.  C. S. Lewis is reputed to have said it one evening when a fellow dinner guest asked why, why this whole scramble of human activity, for what reason did whomever or whatever dream up human existence.  The Oxford don replied without hesitation that God made the universe for love and joy.  It’s a gift of God’s mercy. 

Of course, we haven’t always embraced the gift of life lovingly and joyfully.  The sad truth is we have pretty much spoiled it with our violence and selfishness, forgetting we are guests here, not the owners. Yet, even then, God gives freely extravagantly to his blissfully unaware children.  I mean, what’s just about the most famous verse of the New Testament, the one whose numbers are on posterboards behind backboards at championship basketball games.  Right: John 3:16, which reads… go ahead, say it with me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  Gave!  Again.  The heart at the center of creation beats with compassion and generosity, giving of itself freely again and again.

Like the sermon title says, that’s what life finally and forever is all about: giving, giving yourself to others happily and often unreasonably.

In simple ways.  Like giving the benefit of the doubt.  This past week I received an Email from the Executive Director of the Long Island Council of Churches, another Methodist, Tom Goodhue, who included in his report this observation about married life, that the three little words a wife longs to hear most from her husband are not “I love  you,” but “I was wrong.”  Giving face, not saving it. 

Time too.  Those in my profession can tell you, that in the grieving hour what the griever needs is not words even God’s words of comfort, quotes from the Bible.  It is more than enough that you are there, a presence, more often silent than not.  The gift of self, a shoulder to cry on, an embrace in which to be enfolded.  When I look back on my years as a pastor, my singular accomplishment in that role is that I stayed… for years and years, was there to marry children I baptized, which may characterize me as a stick-in-the-mud or a solid rock.  Take your pick.  Time, your time for the other, is a precious gift, maybe your most precious gift to give. 

And wherewithal, what Jesus names in the story of the poor widow, your living, your whole living.  Crassly, your money.  Jesus does not flinch from such crassness.  He tells us that where our money is there our heart will also be.  Not the other way around.  Tell me how a family (or a church) spends its money and I will tell you where it’s really at, no matter what fine words it may use in its description of itself.  Giving is the clue.

It is also the Gospel, the soul message around which we gather and gives us reason for being, to give freely, gladly, generously the living with which God, the giving God, has blessed us. 

St. Francis memorably puts it, that it is in the giving that we receive, a bright consequence to generosity of spirit and substance, a subject I would gladly address, were you to invite me back for your two hundred and twenty-sixth anniversary, provided, as it is said, “God willing and the Rippowam don’t rise.”

 

Let us pray:

Giving and forgiving God, in the footsteps of Jesus, equipped with his deep pockets of grace, make us cheerful givers… always.  Amen.

______________

I've conducted something of a crusade on this website for Sunday morning prayers by the pastor, prayers that really are prayers and not reiterations of the sermon.  I have seen no change over the past ten years of my advocacy. The pastoral prayer languishes in my corner of Christendom.  So... when I got the chance I seized it and offered a prayer at First Church on August 11th, that is a prayer, not a second sermon.  Here it is:

 

  



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