Saturday, May 25, 2013

Finishing Their Work

It's Memorial Day weekend. The practice, who those who don't know, began in the aftermath of the Civil War in the south with something called "Decoration Day". Those who remembered the death of their loved ones in the war began going to cemeteries and decorating the graves of the lost. Over time the practice spread, and eventually it became tradition not just to decorate the graves of soldiers, but to commemorate anyone you loved who has gone to their "great reward".

My uncle, for example, will go to the grave of my grandfather this weekend. My grandfather is a vet. He fought in WWII. Was at the battle of the bulge as a 17 year old kid. But that's not why my Uncle goes. Every year on Memorial Day he leaves a golf ball on the grave. It's a simple tribute, but for a son who spent hours and hours with his Dad on the golf course, it's appropriate. It's a tribute to a great dad.

Tomorrow, in Gettysburg, there will once again be a memorial service at the national cemetery at which President Lincoln spoke so eloquently during it's consecration. Two minutes the Gettysburg Address lasted. Lincoln thought it was a failure and the words would be lost to obscurity.

How many of you had to memorize it when you were in school? I know I did. Probably the most famous two minute speech ever given.

The words are captivating, I think, because the Great Experiment - democracy - of which Lincoln spoke is still not that old. Certainly it's grown since the Civil War, but we need to remember that for the nations of the world at the time, democracy was odd... even threatening. Most of the nations of Europe at the time were still monarchies in one form or another, and they ruled most of the world as colonies. Colonies that had the same say in their governance the American Colonies had with Britain before the Revolutionary War. Democracies were the things of rebels and rabble-rousers. And I'm sure that many at the time wondered whether or not the cost of the Civil War was really worth it.

58,000 men had died at Gettysburg, and many, many others had been wounded at that battle. The townspeople from the area had to bury all the bodies. It was their backs that had dug the graves, and their hands who had cared for the wounded. It was those people who listened to Lincoln's speech that day, and all as the war raged on.

Lincoln's declaration, his address, was that the cost of the battle for the cause at hand was both dear and necessary. So dear and so necessary that it was worth further sacrifice of time, energy, money, and blood. Blood Lincoln himself would ultimately have to shed as part of the cost. And we keep teaching the Gettysburg Address to our children, because in the 150 years since Lincoln uttered those words more time, energy, and money have been spent. More blood has been spilled and more graves have been dug. We don't want our children to forget it, and we want to remind them that maybe, someday, it will be their turn to carry this Grand Experiment forward themselves.

Our nation isn't perfect. Our intentions haven't always been purely nobel. Such is the reality of democracy. It's a human institution practiced by humans. That's why we have elections. If the last bunch did things we didn't agree with, if they turned out to be bums, we vote in a new bunch. It's not perfect, but given the alternatives I think we can all agree that even with all it's flaws, democracy has been, and will be, worth the cost. That's the idea we want to pass down to our children. This idea that has become the way we govern cost something. It's been consecrated with blood. Care for it as a trust, and never forget what has been sacrificed so that you might have the chance, one day, to be entrusted with it's care.

The book of Hebrews is different than the other Epistles. Nobody really knows who wrote it. Authorship wasn't really ascribed to Paul until the 4th century, and while the translators of the King James Bible continue this tradition, it's writing style, grammar, and even subject matter is unlike anything else Paul wrote. Some people think one of Paul's students wrote it. Others have thought it might have been Priscilla, the woman Paul speaks of who raised Timothy to the faith. If, in fact a woman wrote Hebrews, afraid of the scandal of female teaching in a patriarchal world, it was all the more reason scholars speculate the early church buried the authorship. In the end, it might have been Paul, or it might not have been Paul.

But most scholars agree that the purpose of Hebrews was "encouragement". Encouragement to early Christians who were being persecuted, even slaughtered, and beginning to wonder if in the delay of the return of their Messiah, Jesus - which they had been promised was immanent - wasn't a delay, but rather a sign. A sign that he wasn't who others had been saying he was. Hebrews is a letter to people asking the questions, "Is our continued faith in Jesus worth the price?"

Much of Hebrews is a reminder of all of those who have suffered so that the faith could be carried down through the ages to us. Of course the author spends a lot of time talking about the gift of Jesus, the gift of his blood. But the author also speaks of Abel who dies at the hands of his brother because of the sacrifice he makes to the Lord. Of Enoch, the only man we are given account of who God takes without tasting death because of his faithfulness. The author speaks of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. He mentions Rahab, the prostitute at Jericho who risked her life so sneak the spies of Israel into the city. He lists judges like Gideon, kings like David, and prophets like Samuel. People of high and low places who when their moment came, their moment of truth, did what they had to in order to keep the faith alive.

And what a faith it is!

A faith which aspires to the last being first. A faith which ascribes the highest moral order to a person giving up his or her life for their friends, and defining friend as anyone who was created by God. A faith that calls us to serve the least of these, and overcome hatred with love. It's a faith that often puts us at odds with the ways of this world. The way the world is organized and managed and ordered. It's a faith that isn't afraid to speak out to presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, generals, or dictators. Industrialists, bankers, stock brokers, or venture capitalists. The professional or totally unskilled. The sober and drunk. The wife and her child, and the widow and the orphan. Nobody is exempt from the demands of it. It's a faith which asked:

Do you love what Jesus loves?
Do you love who Jesus loves?
Do you love like Jesus loves?

A faith that aspires to restore what we believe was intended in the first place: a world where we hold one another and all that the Lord has created for us, in trust, with care and responsible stewardship. A world where justice isn't arbitrary, but fixed on something so deep it's at the foundation of everything created. A world where that justice is tempered with mercy, and we judge others slowly remembering we aren't God. A world where God is present. A comforter. A provider.

It is this faith, Hebrews tells us, that has been handed to us by Jesus, but has been intended for all since the beginning of the world. A faith that calls us to struggle against the sin of death and disease. Against those who seek to take advantage and wreak havoc upon others, particularly the innocent and those who can't protect themselves. A world where hearts seek to do the will of Jesus first.

Love. Love. Love.

And so in chapter 12, to those losing heart, losing faith, we are introduced to a new concept. In animistic religions both then and now, people engage in the practice of elder worship. That being the idea that those who have gone before us, now in some form shape our way forward now. Some elders in these traditions are agents on our behalf. Others are out to get us.

Hebrews though gives us another view of those who have gone before us. They are a part of the "great cloud of witnesses" who have already passed down the baton of this great race of faith, who now stand along the course of the race we now run, rooting us on. Figures of hope. Figures who carried the faith of love and grace down to us.

"We made it. So can you. We knew in part, but now we know fully. This reward is yours also. Don't give up. Come join us. Not just as one who is here solely by grace, but as one who helped carry that grace to others."

These are those who have helped carry the faith of love and grace to others. Some you've read about. Some you know. Some handed that grace to you, hand to hand.

I typed out this sermon on a MacBook that belongs to the church. It's a fancy shmancy machine that's probably more computer than I'll ever need. It's one of many laptop computers I've had over the years. Too many for me to remember, really.

But I still remember my first. It was manufactured by a company called Ultra and it had Windows 386 and some version of DOS loaded on it. That's so old that now Windows just uses one number - currently 8 and nobody uses DOS anymore. It had a black and white screen, and it came with one of the first mobile printers. It didn't have an ethernet port or was wifi capable because the internet was something we only heard about in the movie War Games.

(Remember that movie? Matthew Broderick, pre Ferris Bueller, as a teenage hacker who hacked into a defense computer that threatened to blow up the world with nuclear missiles? Kids, that was back during the Cold War and Berlin Wall, both of which you can read about it in your history books.)

It was the first laptop I had ever seen and it cost $3000 back in 1991, which adjusted for inflation is just over $5000 now. $5k for a laptop computer. Can you imagine? And there I was, a snot nosed kid toting around for what was at least a couple of years the only lap top anybody ever saw on the campus of the seminary where I was student. Not even the professors had one.

And all because my grandmother bought it for me. She thought I needed it to be the best seminary student, and eventually the best pastor I could be.

She took her turn carrying grace. Now she's in that great cloud of witnesses.

She's standing there with her grandfather, who - after her father, before his drinking days were up temporarily abandoned his family to life of booze and pool on the road - stepped into her life and brought stability and love. A grandfather so close she called him "Dad". It was he who she called out to on her deathbed earlier this year. The one who helped her know that she was coming home.

He took his turn carrying grace. Now he's in that great cloud of witnesses.

He's standing there with her. He and the drunk, my great-grandfather Po-Po, who came home, started going to this new thing called Alcoholics Anonymous so he could be a father and husband. An old drunk who found grace, and then sponsored countless others to learn how to live responsible lives in the world by following one simple rule: Don't drink.

He took his turn carrying grace. A drunken sinner. Now he's in that great cloud of witnesses.

Helen Dornette, a retired school-teacher, never married, who inherited a large sum money, but never saw fit to spend it. She invested it, plus that which she saved herself, and at the end of her life started giving it away. Some she gave to me in the form of a scholarship that enabled me to carry that insanely expensive lap top around that seminary campus.

She took her turn carrying grace.

There are so many for me... my paternal grandmother. Carol. Sherman and Henrietta. Joe and Weezy Myers. The Hersheys. Helen and Pat Price. Stan and Betty Weller. E Larry Moles. Dr. and Mrs. Flickenger. The Connors and the Reeves. Fred Blosser. So many others....

I'll bet you now some of those faces along the side of the road. Witnesses who carried the faith in grace and love, and helped hand it down to you. Maybe you need a moment, remember, and give thanks.

It is they, these good people, who line the course which ends at the foot of a cross. Cheering you on. Their cause... his cause... is worth the sacrifice. Today, we remember them. Tomorrow, let us finish their work, carrying the faith of grace and love so that one day we too will stand, cheer on those whose day is still yet to come.