Did I Say That? Road Rage and Other Demons

By Rev. Scott Summerville

A friend of mine was on a business trip last year. She was driving on a freeway near Dallas. She had to cut across four lanes of traffic in a short distance to make a left-hand turn off the freeway. As she tried to squeeze into the traffic another driver seemed to be intentionally trying to keep her from changing lanes. Gestures were exchanged. Words were exchanged. (“Hi, how are you?” “How is your mother?” …that sort of thing.)

Before she could think through what was going on, she was in a full rage, and she and the other driver pulled off to the side of the road and got out of their cars. She said, “When I remember this it feels like it was a dream; I can’t believe that I actually did this. I actually got out of my car, and this guy twice my size got out of his car, and we continued our discussion, until he threatened me with bodily harm. It was not until he threatened to hit me that a light went on in my brain, and I realized there was not going to be a good outcome of this conversation. I said to him, “You wouldn’t hit a girl, would you?” and I jumped back in my car and drove away.

She said that whenever she recalls the incident, she can=t even remember how she came to be stopped alongside the highway or getting out of her car to confront that raging stranger. My friend is a very feisty person, as you may gather from this anecdote, but she is also a very intelligent person. In fact, she has a PhD! But for a certain period of time along that highway she didn’t even have a high school equivalency certificate – she was possessed by rage.

In ancient times, people had a simple explanation for behavior like this. They would say that these people were possessed by evil spirits. Perhaps you have encountered this particular evil spirit on the Thruway or the Bronx River Parkway. Maybe you have encountered one of these road rage demons inside your own head. AWho said those words that just came out of my mouth? I certainly don’t talk that way.

For our ancestors demons, invisible spirits, were everywhere, constantly looking for places to inhabit. Our ancestors gave constant attention to the spirits around them and inside them. They believed that what we would call mental illness or physical illness were both largely the result of spirits finding their way into people=s minds and bodies.

When we read the Gospels, we bump into demons in every chapter. They are the cause of disease. They are the cause of mental anguish. They lead people to do self-destructive things. Jesus has a fascinating relationship with these demons; he has authority over them; they recognize this authority and they fear him. They talk to him and he to them.

The Gospel of Mark tells us of one of the very first incidents in Jesus’ ministry where he encounters a man who was possessed by demons in the synagogue at Capernaum. The demons are terrified by Jesus; they cry out, “Have you come to destroy us Jesus of Nazareth; we know you are, the holy one of God! This is so interesting – because it suggests that these demons had feelings -human feelings.

And here’s another interesting thing: Jesus never destroys a demon – he simply asks the demons to move, to leave. The demons are powerful until they are confronted, and then they are pathetic – “Don’t hurt us!”

It is hard to talk about this part of Jesus= ministry in our times, because it is so foreign to our way of thinking. If you went to your doctor with a headache, and your doctor suggested you might have a demon, you would look for another doctor. We do not see the world the way the ancients did, as a place filled with demons, but we still contend with forces that we do not understand and that can wreck our lives.

If you have experienced addiction or if you have been close to someone who is addicted, you know what it is like to be with someone who seems to be possessed. It is as though they are two different people. It is scary and disorienting to be with someone, when you do not know which person they will be on any given day.

Talking with someone who is high on drugs and who is feeling so good about being high even as they=re telling you all the things that they are doing to ruin their lives makes for very strange conversation. You feel as if you are talking to a person, but you are not really talking to the person you know. You can understand how the ancients believed that human beings can be possessed, such that it is the same body and form of the person, but it has been overtaken from the inside by an alien spirit.

It is dangerous to take the Bible literally when it speaks of demons. But it is also dangerous to ignore the Scriptures when they speak of demons, because this part of the scripture’s message carries a deep truth, even though it is different from our scientific view of things.

The truth is that human beings can indeed be possessed by destructive forces. Those forces may come from deep in the mysteries of our own minds and souls, or they may arise from chemicals we put into our bodies.

Sometimes demons are poured into our ears as children -demons like racism and prejudice. The child trusts and believes what the child is told. In recent years as our congregation was developing its Welcoming Statement, some of us shared stories with one another about where our prejudices came from. I have heard some powerful stories as people have reflected on their prejudices toward gay people. Some white people recalled the way they were brought up – they way they were taught as white people to see people of color as alien, different, and dangerous. Some people made a connection between the way racial prejudice infected their souls and the prejudices they learned about people of different sexual orientations.

We can absorb prejudices, particularly as a child, as easily as we pick up a glass of water. It all seems so innocent and natural, until we are confronted with the fact that those prejudices have hurt and even destroyed other people. When things get planted in us as a child by those we trust the most, it takes a kind of exorcism to get it out. It takes courage to face these things, especially to acknowledge that prejudices we learned have caused harm to other people.

For our nation to elect an African American as president is more than just a sign of new attitudes; it is more than a turning point in our national history – it is in some sense an exorcism. Something has been driven out – I feel that. I feel it at the club where I go to swim, where the men mingle in the locker room, speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Polish, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, and other languages I could not identify – where men of every shade of skin color ever invented come together and exchange glances or chatter – something is different – it is hard to describe but it is there – there is an unspoken understanding: “An African American is president of the USA, and we are all on the same level now – in some small way we have made a step closer to the ideal of human solidarity.”

It is easy enough to say that we are scientific now and we know how to explain all the phenomenon of the world and the human mind – this demon business has nothing to do with us. But there is a great deal we do not know and do not understand, even about ourselves.

We do not think of demons the way that our ancestors did. But we all have our inner demons to wrestle with B fears, obsessions, addictions, persistent resentments, buried anger, and inability to receive forgiveness or to offer it.

In our worship, in the hearing of the Word of God, and in the sacrament we are offered the opportunity to hold these very things before God and to invite them to depart.

It is an awesome thing to face one’s demons. But, where else, if not here before God, surrounded by sisters and brothers in Christ, hearing the word and receiving the gifts of God B where else, if not here, will we let the word of truth and love penetrate to the very depths of our being and set us free.

Grace and peace to you.

Watch Over One Another in Love

by Rev. Scott Summerville
Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? The One who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because the Lord is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, the One who does not faint or grow weary, whose understanding is unsearchable. God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

I will give three sermons this morning – and there is no extra charge. Three for the price of one! What a bargain.

Sermon Number One: the Spirituals

I love to sing the spirituals. At my funeral service I want the congregation to sing For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest, and I want them to sing the spiritual, Fix Me Jesus.

The spirituals have the power to convey the deepest emotions. They go directly to the heart of human love and sorrow and suffering and hope, and they do it with such elegant simplicity.

To think that until recent years the spirituals were not included in our Methodist hymnals.

The spirituals are diamonds forged in the intense heat and pressure of human suffering. Out of unimaginable suffering, out of unspeakable human degradation and cruelty, out of sorrows too deep for words, there came forth this music.

One hundred years ago W.E.B. DuBois, one of the great advocates of civil rights, said of the spirituals:

[They are]… the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil. Sprung from the African forests, where its counterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed, and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of people’s sorrow, despair, and hope.

Every time we sing the spirituals and take some comfort in them, it is literally true that we are being comforted by the tears of slaves, who transposed their tears into song and bequeath those songs to all future generations.

….Oh, fix me, oh, fix me, oh fix me; fix me Jesus, fix me….

Sermon Number Two: Servant Leadership

I do not often take my sermons from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. However, today I am going to share with you a paragraph from the Book of Discipline.

For those who are not familiar with the United Methodist Church, our denomination is governed by a General Conference that meets every four years. It is comprised of lay persons and clergy elected from all the regions of the church.

The General Conference produces a Book of Discipline that summarizes the theology and rules of our church.

Earlier in this worship service I asked the members of the church Council to stand. In addition to those who are members of the Council, others of you serve in positions of responsibility and served in a variety ministries and committees of our church.

It is crucial that when we undertake leadership and responsibility in the life of the church that we understand the true nature of this commitment. It is not primarily to do a job. The essence of leadership is to serve God and to serve the people.

The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, described the essence of leadership in the church as, “watching over one another in love.” What a simple and beautiful way to summarize the meaning of leadership in the Christian community.

I share with you these words from the book of discipline in the section on servant leadership, paragraph 136:

Within The United Methodist Church, there are those called to servant leadership, lay and ordained. Such callings are evidenced by special gifts, evidence of God’s grace, and promise of usefulness. God’s call to servant leadership is inward as it comes to the individual, and outward through the discernment and validation of the Church. The privilege of servant leadership in the Church is the call to share in the preparation of congregations and the whole Church for the mission of God in the world. The obligation of servant leadership is the forming of Christian disciples in the covenant community of the congregation. This involves discerning and nurturing the spiritual relationship with God that is the privilege of all servant ministers. It also involves instructing and guiding Christian disciples in their witness to Jesus Christ in the world through acts of worship, devotion, compassion, and justice under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. John Wesley described this as “watching over one another in love.”

There are two phrases in this description of servant leaders in the church that I would highlight today:

The first is: “promise of usefulness.” Those who are entrusted with positions of leadership in the congregation and those who undertake specific responsibilities in the ministries of the church have been entrusted with these responsibilities because others see in you the promise of usefulness.

So make yourself useful. Whether you are fixing the plumbing, teaching the young, witnessing for justice, organizing a meal, or developing policies and strategies for the congregation: make yourself useful in what you do by doing your job well, with good cheer, and to the very best of your ability. Make yourself useful.

And while you are making yourself useful, remember this other phrase used by John Wesley: “Watch over one another in love.”

Remember that the main task of every member of the church – especially those who are entrusted with leadership responsibilities – is to watch over one another in love.

When we watch over one another in love, a spirit of mutual affection and mutual support pervades all of the activities and ministries of the church, and the body of Christ is strengthened, and we learn and grow and serve together harmoniously.

Leaders: make yourself useful, and above all, watch over us – as we will watch over you – in love.

Sermon number three:

Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah, read today from the 40th chapter.

… the Lord God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

I said today that when we sing the spirituals and take some comfort in them we are being comforted by the tears of slaves, who transposed their tears into song, and bequeath those songs to all future generations.

When we read the Scriptures, and when he Scriptures encourage us to find strength in God and not be weary and not faint, we are hearing those words spoken to us individually at this very moment in time.

We also are hearing words that have been heard by every other person sitting about us in the congregation, and millions of others, perhaps hundreds of millions of others or worshiping as we are today – and these are just the living.

We may also be aware that we are hearing words that have been spoken to the hearts of human beings for generations, for centuries, for millennia before we heard them.

Human beings over a great span of time, human beings by the hundreds of millions, have heard these words spoken to them:

The Lord God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

In every imaginable circumstance of life, and in circumstances beyond our imagining, human beings before us have heard these words.

It so happens that when I visited a member of Asbury Church in the hospital two weeks ago, as she was awaiting the results of her tests, and the signs were not encouraging, I asked her about how things were with her soul. She took out from the book she was reading a small piece of paper, well-worn, a piece of paper she had clearly had in her possession for many years. She handed me this paper. On it were typed words of Isaiah, chapter 40.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.
… the Lord gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

She said to me, “I am fine; I really am fine. And this is why.”

As I mentioned to you in our prayers today, she is doing fine. Even with the diagnosis that would have been shattering news to many people, she is well.
Old words found in an old book are living and powerful in her. And by her witness these words can become more alive and more powerful for each of us as we cope with whatever weighs on our bodies and our minds. At this stage of her life this, our sister in Christ, watches over us in love, and we watch over her in love, and she bears witness to us to the power of the living Word of God.

Sermon Number Four:

Just kidding!
As I promised — only three today.

Grace and peace to all of you.

Bosses From Hell and One From Heaven

by Rev. Scott Summerville

Mark 1:14-16

I don’t want you to think that I’m looking for your sympathy, but I must tell you that I had to write two sermons this week. At the beginning of the week I read the Scriptures for today, and I was fascinated by the words of the apostle Paul in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians (7:29): “Brothers and sisters… from now on… let those who have wives be as though they had none.”

Hmmm… no wife. What is this? I have had a wife for a very long time, and I had always been of the opinion that I should pay close attention to my wife. I am certain that this is her opinion as well. I have found that I pay a heavy price when I do not pay close attention to my wife. But there it is in the Good Book: “from now on let those who have wives be as though they had none.”

I follow this advice for several days. I ignored my wife as completely as possible, during which time I composed a sermon on this very subject: “Living As Though You Do Not Have a Wife When, In Fact, You Have One.” However, but by the end of the week I was forced to abandon both my sermon and my attempt to be faithful to the teaching of the apostle Paul with respect to wives. Let just say, living as though my wife was not there was not working well. Furthermore, I got a phone call at the end of the week from a young couple who are planning to be married here later this year, saying that they were going to be in town and they were going to come to the service this morning. That did it. I had to tear up that sermon on the importance of ignoring your wife and start afresh.

Fortunately there are always several weekly Scriptures from which to choose, so rather than focusing today on First Corinthians chapter 7, I shall focus on the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1 (14-16).

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Years ago I preached a sermon on this passage in which I stated that this was the most sad and tragic passage in the entire Bible, because it is where Jesus asks men to give up fishing. I was an avid fisherman at that time. After I preached that sermon, I was cornered at the coffee hour by a retired commercial fishermen. He said, “Young man, if you knew anything about real fishing, you would have had a different interpretation on that gospel story. Do you know what it’s like to be on the deck of a fishing boat getting sprayed by freezing water for twelve hours at a clip, with your back breaking and your hands cracked?”

It always fascinates me how much our own life experience affects the way that we read the Scriptures. To me, the fishermen in the story were giving up something very pleasurable – fishing. To the old fisherman, they were giving up back breaking, miserable, dangerous labor. No two people hear the same story in exactly the same way. What’s more, no person comes to the same story in exactly the same way when they read it again and again. This is what makes the Scripture so rich and fascinating in the life of the church. The words stay the same, but each person reading this story has different life experience, and each of us is changing our perspective throughout our lifetime.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

What does this story connect to in your life at this very moment?

As I read those words this week, what came to my mind was all the people who are struggling with their bosses. This week several people spoke about painful experiences they are having at work because the of the behavior of their bosses. I hear this complaint very often. So as I thought about the gospel story today, my attention turned to the way Jesus called forth the devotion and love of those who worked with him. I thought of Jesus as a boss. The disciples refer to Jesus as Master; to them he was the boss. They dropped everything and freely followed him.

So what sort of a boss was he? Does he have anything to teach us about being a boss? Let’s think of the disciples as his staff. Does the interaction that Jesus has with his “staff” shed any light on the struggles many people have in the workplace, especially the struggles people have when the boss is not anything like Jesus Christ?”

You can have the greatest job in the world on paper – a perfect career – but if the people you work with and especially if the people you work for are not reasonable, emotionally mature, and ethical, your life can be miserable.

So what kind of a boss was Jesus?

He was always clear about what he expected.
He was not a manipulator.
He was extremely direct.
He acted with authority, but at the same time with humility.
He expected extraordinary things of those who followed him, but when they failed, he did not reject them; instead he strengthened them so they would be less likely to fail again.
He rubbed shoulders with his staff. They shared the same food; the same living conditions; they traveled together; his feet got just as dusty and dirty and sore as theirs.
He did not treat his staff as his personal servants – in fact he was a servant to them, even shocking them by washing their feet.
He also embodied the principle that the essence of leadership is love. One of his last memos to his staff read, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

So the question, “What kind of a boss was Jesus?” is a question we can answer pretty readily. Those of us who have authority over other human beings at work or in other positions of leadership, can learn a great deal from Jesus and the way he inspired and loved and served those who worked for him.

The second question I posed is more difficult. Does the relationship between Jesus and the disciples offer any guidance for those who are struggling in their relationships with people in authority over them?

Many people are in unhappy and abusive situations in their work. I hear from people whose bosses, as they experience them, are inconsistent, manipulative, inappropriately angry and unsupportive. This phenomenon is common enough to be one of the most significant life issues that face people today. The distresses of the economy and widespread job insecurity are likely to make the problem more severe.

There are a number of internet sites devoted to people sharing their stories about bad bosses. Here’s an example – a story from one of these sites:
“This group of engineers, who had won an award for efficiency and productivity, actually had the president of the company stand up at the awards dinner and berate them [at the awards dinner!] He told them that they were not good workers, they were lazy slackers, and many of them should leave the company. Then he pointed to the door. This was apparently his way of motivating people, or keeping them from getting ‘a big head’ about their success.”
Ouch! I should add that there are also web sites for stories about good bosses.
There are not nearly as many of them, but there are such places.

Very often those who are in charge do not seem to be aware of the negative effects that they are having on those who work under them. And it’s not like you can say to your boss, “The staff has conferred and we have decided that we should let you know that you are a inconsistent, defensive, inappropriately angry, and unsupportive, and, PS, a few of us think you’re just a jerk. ”

This is the dilemma of being in a relationship of uneven power, unequal power – you can’t just say what you think and what you are feeling.

Living in abusive conditions of any sort makes people sick. Several years ago a member of this congregation was dealing with a messy situation at work and she had internalized the mess – she was constantly attacking herself, blaming herself for the problems, and blaming herself in addition for not being able to deal with the problems. By having other people as a sounding board she was able to acknowledge that she was not the problem, and she was able to come up with a strategy that worked for her. She was able to stay in that job with integrity and with some satisfaction. It was gratifying to see her achieve this sense of control and dignity where before she felt abused and powerless.

I asked the question: Does the interaction that Jesus has with his “staff” shed any light on the struggles many people have in the workplace, especially the struggles people have when the boss is not anything like Jesus Christ?”

Jesus deeply loved his disciples; at the same time he was aware of their humanity and they never expected them to be anything other human. Sometimes it is hard to remember when people have authority over us that they are simply human; but that is an essential awareness. It helps us realize that their hurtful behaviors are arising out of their own human failings, their own fears, their own ignorance. It is important to remember that everybody in the situation is human. And the boss may be more scared than you are.

Back to the story of the fishermen: When Jesus called the fisherman they dropped their nets and followed him. Fix that image in your mind: “Follow me!” And they dropped everything and followed him. This is radical faith.

No one wants to lose a job, especially in these times, but the image of these fishermen dropping everything, giving up their old jobs, and following Jesus is a powerful primal image of faith. Sometimes we have responsibilities to other people and all sorts of reasons why we feel we must suffer abuse rather than move on. I am not advising anyone to do anything foolish. But I do say, remember the fisherman. Living by faith means at some point in your life you do things simply because they are right, even if they do not seem to be practical. Sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown in order to free ourselves and get a fresh start.

Maybe you’re not going to quit your job today; but remember the fisherman; remember that you also have the power to take bold action when you need to. Sometime we value security so much, that we allow ourselves to remain in unhealthy and abusive conditions that kill our souls.

This subject is one that grows that longer you ponder it, and I cannot encompass it in one message. I would be very happy to hear from any of you this week or at any time how you have experienced these kinds of struggles in your work, what have you have learned, and how your understanding of the gospel affects the way you cope with challenges in your life and work? If you would allow me, I might even use your experience as material for a future sermon.

One more comment for now:

You may not be able to control the boss, but that does not mean that the boss has the power to control you, at least not all of you. It is not possible to control how others will be, especially when others have power over us. This makes it all the more important to nurture those parts of our lives that we do have control over- our relationships with family, friends, and church, so that whatever we have to face, we will be able to draw from an inner reservoir of wisdom, love, and strength. We need strategies to cope with the difficult people and the problems we confront, bad bosses and all the rest, but every strategy must begin with the strengthening of our inward being.

We cannot control other people, but also we cannot surrender our lives to the domination of any other human being.

I shall conclude with a “good boss” story. This is from a “Good Boss” web site:
My boss is a dynamo. She works very long hours and does very detailed and technical work, but she never forgets to tell me how much she appreciates me. If I have stayed on long after my regular eight-hour day she thanks me profusely and has even treated me to dinner. She often will come to me with photocopying jobs, and upon finding me busy with other peoples’ work, she just rolls up her sleeves and does it herself. She’s not above doing “menial” tasks! She is a real team player, and sees our work as “our work” rather than a division of duties. She is a true example of one who leads by example. I am proud to work for her and with her, and I believe that the quality of work we produce is enhanced by the fine working environment she creates.

May you find such a boss;
may you be such a boss,
may you become such a leader.

Grace and peace to you.

A Double Blessing

Rev. Scott Summerville

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are good words to ponder in this week of giving and receiving.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is a notion that we officially subscribe to in Christian churches, but it is not necessarily one that is easy to understand or live by.

Ten days ago a most remarkable story came to light. With all the financial scandals and bankruptcies and economic bad news, it seemed like just one more sorry tale, but the story was not quite like any of the others. I am referring to the story of Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street wizard who personally stole $50 billion. He stole more money than has been stolen in all the bank robberies that have ever occurred in human history. If you took all the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are in prison for robbery and added up the value of everything they’ve stolen, is not likely that it would add up to anything close to $50 billion.

His friends are mystified. The thousands of people who depended upon him to protect and grow their assets are devastated. A number of significant charitable foundations will close their doors because they entrusted their funds Mr. Madoff. Libraries, concert halls, universities, hospitals and thousands of private investors will lose precious assets. Mr. Madoff has confessed his crime, but he has given not a hint as to why he did what he did. That is part of what makes this story so fascinating.

Why do some people who are highly successful in the affairs of this world take a turn in their lives in which they are seized by a passionate desire to give and to devote their lives to service? They contribute their time and resources to combat poverty and disease and hunger, or to promote education, religion, and the arts.

Look at Bill and Melinda Gates. When Bill Gates was in his garage mixing up computer parts and playing with software and when he was in the early days of building the Microsoft empire, do you think he was dreaming about curing AIDS or solving the educational crisis in this country? Probably not. But now he is.

Many extraordinary people have made their mark in the world and then realized that there are different ways to leave one’s mark in the world; they discover that deep within the human soul there is a need to give; it is a need that is stronger even than the need to achieve. Why did this particular human being, Mr. Madoff, embark on a very different path? After achieving the highest levels of success in business and finance, with more money than he could ever spend, he took his brilliant mind, his skill with people, and his knowledge of the intricacies of investing and finance, and he applied all these things to mass robbery. People from far and near fell all over one another to lay treasures at this his feet.

Perhaps when his story is told we will learn that he was just an exceptionally greedy person. But for the moment we must suspect some more complex explanation for his behavior. What is it that makes a person a giving person or one who takes?

It is more blessed to give than to receive…. So it says in the Good Book – but is that really the way it is?

You just got a big bonus! You got a raise! … Feels pretty good!

You just got a higher return on your investments! …. Feels pretty good!

You have just received an inheritance! … Uh… feels bad? No! Feels great! It appears that receiving feels pretty darn good. The joy of giving is less obvious and is not so easily explained.

I recall a time when our children were very young and our son was giving a gift to his sister; the first time he had ever consciously given a gift to someone else. He held the gift in his hands, placed the gift in his sister’s hands, and for a moment he seemed pleased; he was doing something that he was expected to do; he drew away his hands, then looked at the gift now held firmly in his sister’s hands, and he burst into bitter tears. He knew the concept of giving; new it was something he was supposed to want to, but the actual act of giving something away was unbearable.

Spiritual growth is marked by an expanding desire to give. One who is growing spiritually gives, not out of obligation or because it is expected of them, but because it is something they want to do, and in the act of giving they receive something.

When you are raising a family or when you have direct daily responsibilities to care for a loved one, perhaps an older parent, you are giving all the time; your role in life demands that you be giving, giving, and then giving some more, and it may not always be clear that you are receiving at the same time. For many people it is when they are a bit older and maybe the children are grown or they have become established in their work that they can see more clearly their need to give.

An individual stopped by my office last week; this person has recently retired. She was looking for work to do, not for pay, just because she needed to be doing something useful that involved other people. Most organizations are very happy to have our money and they may do very good things with our money, and giving our money is a very important way in which we give, but the giving of money alone does not satisfy the human need to give. Offering people the opportunity to give money is easy; offering the opportunity to give something nonmaterial is more difficult. I told this person who came inquiring that I did not have anything to offer her at the moment. But later that day I got a phone call from someone seeking volunteers at PS 15, right nearby. It was followed up by this e-mail:

Dear Reverend Summerville:
Thank you for the opportunity to tell you about our SMART program….. SMART (Students and Mature Adults Read Together) pairs mentors (age 55+) with students in the public schools who need help with their literacy skills. The volunteers, called mentors, work 1 on 1 with 1 or 2 students for 30 minutes each, once a week during the school year. SMART is currently in 24 schools in Yonkers and will open shortly at School 15, which is very close to Asbury Church. Certainly the kids benefit from the attention and the help, but I’ve never met a mentor who hasn’t told me they get more out of it than the kids! It would be wonderful if I could talk to anyone you know who may be interested in joining us.

So I’m passing this information along to the individual who came looking for something to do, and I hereby pass it along to you as well. I know that some of you are already involved in this work and take great satisfaction in doing it.

In this time of giving and receiving; as we come to the end of another year and ponder our lives — where we have been and where we are going — as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, as we face the many challenges of these times, there is still nothing more important than seeking out opportunities to give: our love, our knowledge, the wisdom of our experience, skills and talents we have acquired and developed, our material goods, and our prayers for the world.

In receiving we are blessed.
In giving we are doubly blessed.

May you be doubly blessed in this time.

Grace and peace to you.

(PS: Let me know, if you are interested in learning more about the SMART program.)

This Messiah Brings Justice

Rev. Scott Summerville

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…” Isaiah 61:1

Yesterday was International Migrants Day. Some of you are immigrants to this country. All of us are descendants of immigrants to this country. Every one of our lives is affected every single day by the services provided by recent immigrants.

They serve at every level of society, and the newest and poorest immigrants serve at the bottom of the economic ladder: they wash the dishes and the clothes, they provide child care, they sweep up the leaves, cut the grass, dig the trenches, and paint the houses; often they take on work that is dangerous or would be considered unpleasant to those who have other choices. Even when we speak of illegal immigrants, the vast majority of these individuals are not criminals or threats to wider society; the vast majority are desperate and hard-working. They are often so desperate and so hard-working that they become victims of exploitation. When they are taken advantage of or abused, they are less likely and less able to seek justice.

In the story that is about to be told in the Christmas pageants of countless churches, we will remember that Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus, were themselves immigrants for a time; dwelling in the land of Egypt when King Herod threatened the life of the Christ Child. They found sanctuary in Egypt; they were refugees. They remained there until Herod died and they could return safely to Israel. Fortunately they were not deported, or the Christian story would have had a very different ending.
In our church and in most Christian churches the words of the prophet Isaiah are read throughout the season of Advent.
Isaiah 7:14 … the Lord … will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’uel.
Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah 40: [1] Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.[2] Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. [3] A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. [4] Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. [5] And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

We connect the words of Isaiah to the way that we understand Jesus as Messiah, as savior. We usually focus on the words of Isaiah that sound soothing to our ears; the words of comfort, the words of peace. But along with the words of comfort and peace spoken by the prophet there is the word of justice. In fact, in Jewish tradition, which we embrace as our tradition, the main thing that the Messiah brings is justice. In the tradition of the prophets of Israel the Messiah’s main purpose is to set things right in this world, with particular emphasis on securing justice for the poor and oppressed.

Isaiah 11:
[1] There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [2] And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. [3] And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

The Messiah does not bring gifts. The Messiah brings justice.
Yesterday our church conducted its annual meeting, which is normally presided over by our District Superintendent. This year the Superintendent sent a substitute and asked to be excused from our meeting, so that he could join our bishop, in a vigil in lower Manhattan, at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Varick Federal Detention Facility on Houston Street. Methodists were there from our annual conference, and from the Methodist Board of Church and Society, from the women’s division, the Korean caucus and others groups. The vigil called for a moratorium on the raids, detentions and deportations that have disrupted families and terrified the lives of countless immigrants.

We must find a way to resolve justly the condition of illegal immigrants in this country, those held in detention and those who live on fear of arrest in the night; and we need to do so in a way that recognizes the need for proper security at our national borders, but recognizes that these people are here largely because they provide a service in our complex economic system – they are paid to be here. Enormous profits are made from their labor. They are not the enemy.

Today we heard these words from the book of the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61:1, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”

Christmas is about the comfort of God – the good news of God- for hurting people; and it is about the justice of God- the good news of God for those who have the short end of the stick in this world. There is a second vigil taking place this weekend: Two young men, Rommel and José Sucuzhanay, were on their way home from a bar in Brooklyn a week ago, when they were suddenly set upon by a car load of strangers. Rommel and José were walking arm in arm as brothers; according to Rommel who survived the attack. He said the men shouted anti-gay and anti-Hispanic slurs, as they descended upon them. Until yesterday José was on life support, declared to be brain dead, as his parents were en route from Ecuador. Last night the family announced that he had died. His brother is lucky to be alive.

The police are investigating the crime against these two brothers as a hate crime. This afternoon in Brooklyn a coalition of organizations will hold a vigil for José and for all who are victims of hate crimes. One of the groups participating in the vigil will be Methodists In New Directions, also known as MIND, an organization which members of our congregation helped to establish two years ago.

Intolerance breeds violence.

Prejudice breeds violence.

The path to shalom, the way to God’s peace, is the path of knowledge and understanding. It is a good thing that church leaders are standing up and speaking out for immigrants in this country. This helps to break down the atmosphere of prejudice and intolerance. When churches condemn gay people and deny them their rights, the church is contributing to an atmosphere in which some will turn to violence. Our church leaders need to be just as strong in working against prejudice against people based on their sexual orientation.

Next Sunday the children will act out for us the story of Jesus’ birth. Seeing the pageant and then gathering on Christmas Eve in candlelight and singing the songs of the Savior’s birth- this is for many of us the sweetest time. As we drink in all that is sweet and that is hopeful in this time, as we taste the comfort of God in the celebration of Christmas, we also remember that the Savior comes to bring bread for the hungry, to restore rights to the victims of injustice, and to remember those whom the world forgets.
The first sermon Jesus gave that we have any record of, is described in chapter four of the gospel of Luke, where it is written:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

That is the savior whose birth we proclaim.

Shalom, salaam, Grace and peace to you.

God, Be Merciful to Families

Rev. Scott Summerville
Isaiah 64:1-9

We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O God, you are our Father [and Mother]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O God, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

This is the season of the year that really puts the focus on our families. In many ways the family is defined by who we sit at the table with, even if it’s only once or twice a year.

Who is your family? How is your family? With whom are we sharing the holiday feasts? Who is part of the family, and who is not? Where are the empty spaces in the family circle? Who is gone from us, separated by death, and how do we deal with – how do we cope with – those empty spaces at the family table and those empty spaces in our souls?

Who is new in the family circle? Someone married into the circle. Somebody has been away from home, maybe off to college, and is back in the circle for the holidays. Somebody had a baby since the last gathering and there is a brand new person in the circle, who promptly grabs all the attention. The family circle does not stay the same over time.

The holiday season is the season of light – the season of candles – but some of the light that shines upon our families may be uncomfortable. The holiday season can reveal the divisions in our families. Who is speaking to whom and who is not speaking to whom?
Who has cut themselves off from the family and left a broken place in the circle? What are the uncomfortable memories – what are the unresolved grievances that strain or even break the family circle?

Our family circles can be places of simple pleasure where we gather and find our place in the universe, or the family gathering can be a place where we strain to keep the appearance of family while underneath we are aching and longing for something more from one another.

The holiday season is an intense time for pastors. It is intense for us, because we are balancing all the busy activity of the congregation and all the busy activity of our own families. It is also an intense time, because we are aware of how the hard the holidays can be for many people. In this season grief can feel greater; loss can be more intense; sadness and separation can be harder to bear than they are in ordinary times. Families are the most complicated things in the world. When we are with our families there are things happening deep inside us that we are not even aware of. When we are with our families, things are happening in us that are deeply rooted in our genetic code, our instincts, and our basic needs for nurture and acceptance, and it is very difficult to be thoughtful or objective about our own families.

The family is the place of life’s simplest and deepest joys – the joy of birth, the delight of welcoming life into the human family, the excitement of weddings, the sweet ecstasy of being a grandmother or grandfather, the sharing of memories that span generations. Because the family is so crucial to our very being, family can also be the place of our deepest hurts and wounds. Our families are where we learn what it means to belong or not to belong, to feel accepted or not to feel accepted, to be part of the circle or to be outside of the circle.

The family is so crucially important. The family is sacred ground. The family table is sacred space. Honoring this sacred ground in the sacred space of our families can be challenging, sometimes very challenging. In this season of the family, I offer some cautious advice for treading upon this holy ground.

Do not try to fix your family. Just try to love your family and accept people as best you can.
Do not judge your family by some standard of perfection or assume that other families do not have the same kind of struggles and human troubles that your family may have.

There are all kinds of families these days: the so-called traditional family is no longer the typical family. There are blended families. There are adoptive families. There are single-parent families. There are countless immigrant families in this country where loved ones are separated by thousands of miles and by national borders, such that parents may not see their children and children may not see their parents for years. There are combinations of people in all kinds of ways that constitute families. But every family has its challenges, and there are no perfect families. Every human family is human. No human family is perfect.

During the season of Advent we often hear the words of the prophet Isaiah and his promise of the Messiah who will bring the day of God’s peace. This morning we also heard a prayer spoken by the prophet Isaiah. In this prayer Isaiah addresses God as “Our Father.” Some inclusive language translations of this verse use the words “God, Our Father and Mother,”
to convey that God is not literally a father and to draw out the loving parental qualities of God that are conveyed in the prayer.

In this prayer Isaiah is praying to God on behalf of a great extended family of Israel; perhaps we could even say that Isaiah, this prophet with a universal vision, is praying for the extended family of humanity. I suggest that we hear this prayer as a prayer for all of our families.

The beginning of the prayer is intense and dramatic:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

But the prayer ends quietly and humbly; the prayer ends with the prophet speaking intimately with God:

64:7 [God], there is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
64:8 Yet, O God, you are our Father and our Mother; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 64:9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember our sins forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

In a way it is a very humble prayer, it is a prayer of confession; Isaiah acknowledges the human failings of the people. He prays to God that God will be merciful. But in another way this prayer of Isaiah is bold and audacious. Just as Moses had done long before, Isaiah takes it upon himself to remind God of God’s special relationship with God’s people. A mortal human being has the audacity to say to the Almighty, “Consider this: we are all your people.” Is it possible that there is something that God does not know or that God has forgotten, such that a mortal being would need to remind God or invite God to consider something? Is it possible that there is something that God has not considered? It’s one thing to say to your wife or your husband or your parents or your children, “Have you considered such and such…?” But what does it mean to say to God, “Have you considered?…?”

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O GOD, and do not remember
iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

Isaiah is a very subtle advocate for the people:
Yes we have sinned and deserve whatever we have coming to us, but, God, if I may humbly remind you, not that you can forget anything or need to be reminded of anything, but if I may humbly remind you, you made us and we are yours. You made us, and we are yours!

Isaiah was a great prophet; he also would have been a great diplomat or a great lawyer.
How beautifully he pleads the case for humanity. The prophet Isaiah speaks to God and says, “God, if you judge us by the standard of perfection then our goose is cooked and we are lost. But if you love us and remember where we have come from and how human we are, then you will not judge us so harshly. God, don’t reject us; we are your people. No matter what separates us, we will always be connected; we will always be the clay that you have fashioned, we will always be connected to you and you to us.”

Which brings me back to this holiday season and to our families. The thing about family is that we can separate ourselves from one another physically, but even if we move to opposite ends of the earth, we will always be connected. I think it would be great if families could say: “We will hang in there with each other; we will not reject each other, we are bound together; we can be family, even if we are not perfect. We will not try to change or fix each other. We will do our best to find each other’s strengths and support each other in all the changes of life. We know that we do not have one another forever; so the time we have is sacred time.”

Blessings to you and your family and this family of faith in the unfolding of this Advent season.

Shalom, Salaam, Grace and Peace to you.

Getting Saved: The Way of Compassion

by Rev. Scott Summerville
Matthew 25:31-45

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

For the past year our congregation has been involved in a project in Ghana called the Dorcas project, which involves building and equipping a health clinic in a place called Yipala. The project will serve people in a region that currently has no formal health services at all. I want to plant an idea in your mind this morning. When we signed on to participate in this project, the mission coordinator for our area, Joseph Ewoodzie, told us that he wanted not only our financial contributions; he wanted – and in fact expected – that one or more persons from this congregation would go to Ghana to meet people of Yipala, to see firsthand what this ministry is all about, and do some hands-on work on the project. So I plant the idea that some of you, maybe some of us, might consider making this journey next year.

I also recommend that you see a movie entitled Yesterday. You can get it from the video store or through Netflix. It is an amazing movie, and it will help you understand why projects like the Dorcas project are so significant. There is also a message in this movie that is straight out of the gospel lesson for today. I will tell you a bit about this film.

It is the first African film to win an Academy award. It is set in South Africa in Zululand in the countryside at the time when AIDS was beginning to ravish the population. The heroine of the story is a woman named Yesterday. She has a seven-year-old daughter named Beauty. We meet them on a long, hot journey as they are walking from the village of Rooihoek to a clinic in the village of Kromdraai . Our congregation’s involvement in the Dorcas project has made many of us aware of the fact that in rural Africa seeing a doctor or getting any kind of medical care, if it’s possible at all, often means that sick people must make long and difficult journeys. In this film we see Yesterday taking a long walk to the clinic at Kromdraai. But every time she gets to the clinic the lines are too long, and she must turn back and make the long walk home.

On their long walks to and from the clinic her little daughter chatters away, asking a thousand questions, unaware of how sick her mother is. The child is so bright, so full of life. When she eventually does get to see the doctor, the doctor asks Yesterday where she got her name. She tells the doctor that her father gave her the name “Yesterday” because, he said, “Things were better yesterday than today.” After giving her a test, the doctor begins asking Yesterday many disturbing personal questions: Has she slept with anyone else other than her husband? Does she use protection?” Yesterday stares at the doctor in despair and disbelief. The doctor does not say so directly, but it is clear that Yesterday has just been given a dreadful diagnosis: she has AIDS. The doctor says that it is important that Yesterday contact her husband so that he can be tested. Yesterday looks sadly at the doctor and asks, “Am I going to stop living?” The doctor does not answer.

Yesterday has only fond memories of her wedding and her life with her husband, John, and she has been faithful to him, so for her the diagnosis of AIDS is not only a death sentence, but also a death sentence for her husband, and a revelation that her trusted husband has been unfaithful to her. In one moment her world falls apart. She returns to her village. When she cannot reach her husband by telephone, a friend agrees to take care of Beauty, and she goes to Johannesburg to find John at the mine where he works. She waits for him as he emerges from the mine after a long day’s work. She tells him of her diagnosis. His reaction is to beat her viciously. Returning home, desperate, sick, and brokenhearted, she vows to herself that she will stay alive until her daughter goes to school the following year.

In the community where she lives there is a great fear of AIDS and great ignorance about how it is contracted. Those who suffer from AIDS are ostracized. In a nearby village a woman was stoned to death when it became known that she had AIDS. Yesterday is more and more alone, except that she has one dear friend who consoles her and helps her with her child.

One day months later she is approaching her house, she sees her husband seated outside, frail and shaking, looking utterly defeated. He has come home, his own body ravished with AIDS. He is in a helpless state. At first she simply walks past him not even acknowledging his presence, but later she brings him into the house and she confronts him across the kitchen table. When he breaks down and asks for forgiveness, she consoles him. When the fearful villagers demand that he leave their village, Yesterday builds a hut for him outside of town, leads him there to care for him, and there he dies.

Following the death of her husband, Yesterday lives long enough to see her child go off to school. It is a painful, poignant film. It is not a tale with a happy ending. It shows humanity with all our capacities for harshness and cruelty and betrayal. And in the midst of all those things it shows the human capacity for forgiving love and extraordinary endurance. It is a powerful film.

For me there were many tense moments in watching this film, but probably the most wrenching was the reunion between Yesterday and her husband. I had mixed feelings when she let him into the house, and even when he broke down and asked for forgiveness, I was not myself prepared to forgive him. But she did forgive, and she took him in and cared for him.

We come today to a most unusual story in the Gospel of Matthew. There are many startling things that Jesus taught, and Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is certainly one of the most startling. It is a parable – imaginary depiction – of the day of judgment. Jesus imagines the judge of the universe separating humanity into two groups: on one side are those who fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, gave clothing to the naked, and visited the sick and the prisoner. On the other side are those who did not feed the hungry, who did not provide water for the thirsty, who did not welcome the stranger, and did not clothe the naked or visit the sick or those in prison.

What is so odd about this story is that there is nothing “religious” about it. The people who pass the test and get to heaven are not “religious” people. God does not ask whether they were Methodists, Baptists, Jews or Hindus. God does not seem to care whether they went to church or synagogue or temple or whether they bowed to the east or bowed to the west. God does not seem to care whether they said their prayers ten times of day or once a year. In this parable the judge of the universe does not care whether people are male or female, gay or straight, young or old, married or single.

From a Christian point of view the story is curious because there is no mention of faith. There is no religious test for getting into heaven. The Lord of the universe does not say, “Come to me all you who know my name and who have faith in me.” In fact the people who are saved in this story, the ones who make it into the heavenly kingdom, do not even know that they have a relationship with God. The Holy One says, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me water, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison and you noticed me and responded to my need.” They say, “When? We never saw you before.” The Holy One says, “When you did it to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.”

This is a very challenging story for those of us who are in the religion business. This story seems to say that God is not in the religion business; God is in the compassion business. In the film, Yesterday, you see the real nature of compassion, not as a lovely word, but as something that operates in the messiness of human life. For John, Yesterday’s husband, compassion meant that the woman he betrayed, the wife he had beaten with his own hands, the woman who was going to die because of his unfaithfulness, this same woman was going to protect him and clean him and feed him and keep him warm until he died.

The word “compassion” comes from two words, “com” meaning “with” and “pascho” meaning “to suffer.” We may tend to think of compassion as being nice or kind, but at a deeper level compassion means to suffer along with others.

I spend a fair amount of time in hospitals and nursing homes, and my mother is in a healthcare facility. In those places you realize that being compassionate isn’t just doing a nice deed for someone on an occasional basis. Being compassionate means being deeply human in hundreds and thousands of small interactions with other people who are hurting. It means how you are in a thousand interactions, when you’re tired and when you are confronting the suffering of others and it is not comfortable to confront that suffering. Day in and day out, year in and year out, compassion is your way of being. Compassion is a spiritual quality that some people have. When we are in the hospital bed or the nursing home, we feel in our bones the difference that it makes, when we are touched with compassion physically, and when we are spoken to as one human being to another, and not as somebody’s job or somebody’s caseload.

The startling thing about Jesus’ message in Matthew 25 is that God is in the compassion business not the religion business. Or another way of putting it: unless religion is in the compassion business, religion is not doing God’s business.

I got a phone call last week from a guy named John. Many of you have met John. He is a retired New York City fireman and an active member of the United Methodist Church in Bay Ridge, where Mary Ellen I served for seventeen years. He has visited Asbury Church a number of times. John was calling to say that he was standing on the property of the Bay Ridge United Methodist Church, where the church and the parsonage and the garage used to stand. John said that he had just watched the wrecking crew knocked down the last wall of the garage. Over the past two months the old church building constructed in 1898 was demolished. The house we lived in for seventeen years, a beautiful hundred-year-old brownstone, was demolished. The last thing standing was the garage next to the parsonage. He said it took just four swings of the wrecking ball to knock it down.

John had been part of the planning committee that had decided that these buildings needed to come down in order to make way for a new church and a new ministry for the United Methodists in Bay Ridge. In the redevelopment plan, a new church and a new parsonage are going to be built, funded through the sale of part of the land. I spent seventeen years keeping those buildings standing, but I have made my peace with the necessity of change. It would have required millions of dollars to repair the beautiful old church.

If you ever think that the church consists primarily of a building, then talk to people who have seen their church burned down or see it torn down. A building, no matter how lovely, is just that, a building. The judge on the last day does not say, “Nice stained glass!” or Beautiful bricks!” and surely God does not say, “Great sermon!” God’s standard of judgment is the standard of compassion.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

I take these words this morning to be a threefold challenge: I take these words as a personal challenge to my life, my values, my stewardship of my time and resources and talents and commitments.

I take these words as a challenge to my ministry as a Christian person and as a minister of the gospel, to keep foremost the standard of compassion, the challenge of the gospel to address human suffering and to live out the gospel in action.

I also hear these words in the context of this particular moment in history. We do not know where the current economic crisis is heading or the full impact it will have on our nation, on the most vulnerable in our society, or what impact it will have globally on the poor. In such times the church is surely a place of spiritual comfort. We all need spiritual comfort. But if the church is only a place of spiritual comfort and not a place of spiritual energy channeled into works of compassion, then we have missed the message.

Whatever stresses we may be facing personally, the times we live in are times that challenge us to greater effort, to greater commitment, to greater sacrifice, to the works of compassion, to being a church that is engaged in the world and working compassionately to address human suffering.

So be it.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

Good and Faithful Servant

Rev. Andie Raynor
Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ …

Today’s Gospel passage is about a Master and his servants, about the money, or “talents,” that he entrusts to them and what they do with these in his absence. It’s a strange, harsh parable, which doesn’t turn out the way you expect… and I have the sense that it was just as difficult for those first listeners to hear as it is for us.
Remember, the master gives the three servants talents, which were the equivalent of many years of work. He gives one five, another two, and another one talent. After a long time, the Master comes back and asks the five-talent man what he has done with his money. He answers, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.” The Master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” The two-talent man has made another two, and receives the same joyous invitation. The third servant, however, was so afraid of losing the one talent that he was given that he literally buried it in a hole. When the master returned, he holds out the unearthed talent saying, “Here, take it. Take what is yours. I never asked for it and I don’t want it. I’m afraid of you, afraid of the burden of this responsibility. Take it, for goodness sake.”

In these days of economic uncertainty, the actions of the third servant are understandable. How many of us are afraid of losing what we have? He doesn’t have much, and he doesn’t know what to do with what he is given. He is afraid-afraid of what he perceives to be the master’s temper, afraid, of his own inability not to blow it. That money is like a hot potato in his pocket. He’s got to get rid of it before he loses it. He feels put upon, and starts grumbling against the Master. Didn’t his fellow servants get more than him? Obviously the master doesn’t trust him, doesn’t think as much of him. Obviously it’s a set up. And so he does the safest thing he can think of… he simply socks the money away. He doesn’t want to deal with it. He tells himself it’s the master’s fault- that he’s a “hard” man, that he’s dishonest. He convinces himself that it’s better not to risk it, that the master will just be glad to get his money back.

The only problem is, when the master does return, he is not happy… not happy at all with this third servant. And so the servant learns that it is not enough just to break even, or not to have lost the money. What the master praised in the others was a leap of faith, the courage to take that with which he entrusted them out into the world and to multiply it. When they did this, they doubled his investment. “Well done!” he tells them both. “Well done!”

This is a lesson in stewardship- not just stewardship of our money, but stewardship of all that God has given us. Our time, our talents, our gifts, and even our pain.

Frederick Buechner writes (in the lovely way that only he can) about the stewardship of pain. Yes, pain. And I’m going to share his thoughts about this with you because the idea intrigued me, and because we all have known pain. Perhaps that is part of why some of us are here. We are here to heal the pain of our lives, to come to terms with our suffering, to make peace with those things we carry into the world, and those we bury and try to forget. Pain and joy make up our stories. Some of us have been given a lot; some have been given a little. Some take the things that happen to them and use it for good, while others live in fear of losing what they have. Again, what would it mean to be good stewards of all that happens to us, all that is given us?

In an interview several years ago, Buechner tells of being at a retreat center where he shared a difficult episode from his childhood. “It took place in the 1930’s,” he said, “during the Depression when there wasn’t much money. An awful lot of drinking was going on in the world and in my family – an unsettled and unsettling time even for a child of ten, which I was. The episode (centered around) a time when my father had come back from somewhere. He had obviously had too much to drink. My mother did not want him to take the car. She got the keys from him somehow and gave them to me and said, ‘Don’t let your father have these.’ I had already gone to bed. I took the car keys and I had them in my fist under the pillow. My father came and somehow knew I had the keys and said, ‘Give them to me. I have got to have them. I have got to go some place.'”

“I didn’t know what to say, what to be or how to react,” Buechner continued. “I was frightened, sad, and all the rest of it. I lay there and listened to him, pleading really, ‘Give me the keys.'”

“I pulled the covers over my head to escape the situation and then, finally, went to sleep with his voice in my ears. A sad story, which stood for a lot of other sadness of those early years.”

When he finished sharing this story, someone came up to him and said something for which he was unprepared. The person said, “You have had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. But you have been a good steward of it.”

“That phrase caught me absolutely off guard,” said Buechner. “To be a steward of your pain. I didn’t hear it as a compliment particularly. It is not as if I had set out to be a steward of my pain, but rather of something that had happened.”

“I thought a lot about what the stewardship of pain means,” he said; “the ways in which we deal with pain. Besides being a steward of it, there are alternatives. The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.”

“I think the world is always asking us to do it that way. Our families are… so apt to say, ‘Don’t talk about things that cause pain. You can’t trust the world with those secrets. Those are family secrets. Keep them hidden. Keep them hidden from each other. Keep them hidden from yourself. Don’t allow yourself to feel them.” How many of us have hidden our family secrets? Have hidden the pain of addiction, or financial problems, or depression or abuse? If you don’t talk about it, you can pretend not to feel it, but you also stop growing in the way of compassion and wisdom.

Buechner goes on to say that, “Another thing you can do with your pain, of course, is to use it to win sympathy. I guess a sob story is a story you tell hoping that people will sob with you. Sort of an end in itself, a way of giving yourself a kind of stature in the eyes of the world as a suffering one.”

“Another way of dealing with pain, is using it as an excuse for failure: If only I had gotten the breaks. If only those bad things hadn’t happened, who knows where I might have been today.”

Stewardship of pain. What does that mean? According to Buechner, “it means, before anything else, to keep in touch with your pain, to keep in touch with the sad times, with the hard times of your past (because) it is at those times where you are most open to the pain of other people – most open to your own deep places. Keep in touch with those sad times because it is then that you are most aware of your own powerlessness, crushed in a way by what is happening to you, but also most aware of God’s power to pull you through it, to be with you in it. Keeping in touch with your pain, I think, means also to be true to who in your depths you have it in you to be – depths of pain and also in a way, depths of joy, because they both come from the same place.”
For some reason, reading Buechner’s thoughts on the stewardship of pain made me think of my father. He, too, had more than his share of pain as a child. In fact, the central story of his early life is the death of his mother when he was nine.
Growing up, I could not see my father apart from this loss. He existed in the world as someone with a broken heart; but what seeped through those cracks, strangely enough, was something magical. His brokenness made him tender and imaginative. It loosened up the joints of his psyche and opened him (and us) to the reality of things we could not see. Refracted light, like a prism, spilled out of him, dappling and illuminating our lives with glimmers of the mystical. And because he had the courage not to plug the holes, life was fluid and exciting and full of possibilities.
He was a good steward of his pain because he did not bury it – did not bury the feelings, the memory, or the most alive part of himself, the part that yearned for meaning, yearned to go out into the world as a seeker. His pain prompted spiritual exploration and compassion for the suffering. He took his experiences with him; and when he returned to us at the dinner table, his hands and his heart were full of treasure, full of stories that made life meaningful.

The one talent man, as you remember, was afraid; he took what was given him and hid it in the ground. He didn’t want it. He didn’t ask for it, and he didn’t wanted to be entrusted with anything. He just wanted to keep to himself, in his little corner of the world. The outer darkness that the Master casts him into can be thought of as “the natural consequence of what it means to bury your life. If you bury your life, you don’t live you life. You don’t meet other people who are alive. You are alone; you are in the dark.”

The other ones, the ones who came back with more than they started out with, dared to trade with their talents. They traded with their lives. “We were made to be life traders,” Buechner says, “because I have what you need, which is me, and you have what I need, which is you. That is the joy into which the Master invites his servants.”
“Pain can become a treasure if we treasure it to the point where it can become compassion and healing, not just for ourselves, but also for other people.” Bob Woodruff, the ABC news anchor who was injured by a road side bomb in Iraq several years ago, has used his pain to advocate for wounded soldiers, especially those with traumatic brain injuries. Tom Arnold, the comedian and actor who was repeatedly abused as a child by a teenaged male babysitter has used his pain to help others who have suffered sexual abuse. Our President-elect embodies the hope of a people whose generations of pain, of being told that they can’t, now echoes through the nation with a resounding, “Yes, we can!”

My father’s pain became a gateway to mystery and spiritual experience for my family. My own illness became an illuminated path toward deeper empathy, deeper connection with others, and the experience of being on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of generosity from friends and strangers. I hope that I have been a good steward of my pain.

And so, we are here. Each one of us has been given many talents, many blessings and many heartaches. How we come to understand these will form the story of our lives. Be a life trader. Take the risk of going out into the world with your hands full of your life. Let your fingers overflow with the precious coins of your stories and with the good news that we are not alone in the world. The cross stands before us, reminding us that out of the greatest pain, endured in love and faithfulness, comes the greatest beauty and our greatest hope.

We have been entrusted with so much… with life on this beautiful planet, with holding, tenderly, the hearts of those in pain, with being God’s instruments of compassion and peace. If we bury our lives, our pain, our truth, we will never be who God created us to be. But if we have the courage to venture out into the world, with everything we have, and with the intention to do God’s work, then perhaps one day we will hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done.”

Let Justice Roll Down

Rev. Scott Summerville

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

Amos 5:21-24

Yesterday morning I performed at a burial service for a family that lives out of the area. I had no previous connection to this family. All I knew was an eighty-six year old man named Tony had died, and I was to meet his family at the graveside.

Ten family members and friends gathered beside the grave. His daughter brought his ashes to be buried alongside his wife in the town where he had spent his childhood. The ashes in a simple black box were placed on the grass ,and a photograph of Tony was set against the gravestone. There was Tony, with a striking smile and bright eyes.

His daughter read this obituary. He was born the son of Italian immigrants and grew up on a vegetable farm near Armonk. He was a craftsman, a union carpenter. The five homes he lived in as an adult were all built according to his own plans and with his own hands. He was a very innovative and creative man.

The last house he built was one of the most energy-efficient homes of its type in the country; it was written up in the New York Times.

He was an avid birdwatcher. In lieu of flowers the family asked that funds be contributed to a conservation organization concerned with birds.

The ceremony was brief. It is unlikely that I will ever see these people again, but it was a meaningful encounter. There, in the space of five minutes, the story of a life was told.

We human beings make sense of the world by telling stories. We make sense of ourselves by sorting through the hundreds and thousands of miscellaneous events that make up our lives. We sift through all those countless events, like a child walking along the beach and picking out favorite stones. We select a tiny percentage of all the moments that make up our lifetime, and we weave those moments into our life story.

I learned ten things yesterday about Tony; ten things about a man who lived eighty-six years. It is amazing that seeing one photograph and learning ten things about Tony, I felt that I had come to know him. His story grabbed me, it touched me.

There are so many stories being told this week. The election of a new president and all the history that surrounds this election has touched something in the core of our nation. The presidential race was a contest between two individuals with striking and remarkable stories. After a long and rancorous campaign, on election night it was gratifying to hear gracious words and mutual respect expressed both by the victor and the defeated. Both men chose to speak not only of the moment, but of the history of the moment, and the way this election represents a new and unique chapter of a nation’s story.

The congressman from Georgia and legendary civil rights leader, John Lewis, was asked on election night whether 40 or 50 years ago, in the thick of the struggle for civil rights, did he ever think he would live to see the day when the United States would elect an African-American president?

He spoke with tears flowing on his face and a look of dazed bewilderment and said [parpaphrase], “At that time, it never crossed my mind that I would live to see this day. In that day all we wanted was to be able to sit at the lunch counter. All we wanted was to be able to ride the bus seated alongside a white person. All we wanted was to be able to take a taxi ride in the same car with a white person; all we wanted was to get rid of those signs that said ‘colored restroom’ and ‘white restroom’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountain and ‘white’ drinking fountain.”

There are things that you can’t entirely understand unless you live them directly. I was born in this country and my parents and their parents were born in this country. I do not believe I can understand what it is to be an immigrant or the child of immigrant. And as a white person who has never experienced prejudice, I can only partially understand what John Lewis was experiencing on Tuesday night or what other African-Americans and what other persons of color were experiencing on Tuesday night. I cannot entirely grasp how these events impact of their life stories, but I know this impact must be so profound.

I read of a woman who said that after the election she was concerned that her children would not appreciate the historic significance of what has happened. What a paradox that is. Those who struggled for civil rights from the days of the abolitionist movement in the 1700’s and in the 1800’s – those who gave their lives seeking to defeat slavery in the Civil War – those who were heroes of centuries of struggle: Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth and Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks, and Viola Liuzzo, and Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis – they lived for the day and in many cases died for the day when a person of any color could be elected president of the United States, and it would be no big deal.

There are millions of families this week where the elders have been talking to the children and grandchildren and telling them their stories, telling of the ways that racism and segregation affected their lives and their communities and how that was part of their life story, and telling how the story of the events of this week are writing a new chapter to that story. An awful lot of tears have been shed this week, so many healing tears, so many painful memories released in stories and tears.

To repeat what others have said: the very fact that the new president of the United States is referred to as a black president is itself a reflection of how we still racialize one another in this society. It is just as accurate to say that Barak Obama is a white president. And it would be quite adequate and just as accurate to say that he is simply the new president. In time I hope – I trust – that he will simply be the president, but at this moment history makes him more than that. Our story as a nation makes him more than that.

The reading today from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the words of the prophet Amos, is a passage that is deeply connected to the antislavery and civil rights movements of the United States. This passage was one of the favorite passages of Martin Luther King Jr.

Before I comment on that fact, let me clarify something: Last Sunday I referred to Martin Luther in my sermon. Apparently this caused a bit of confusion among some of the young people. And maybe not just among some of the young people. When young people hear “Martin Luther,” they narturally think “Martin Luther King Jr.”
So some people thought I was talking about Martin Luther King Jr., when I was talking about Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was a German monk and teacher of the Bible who lived in the 1500’s, roughly around the time of Columbus. He personally challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and the Pope; in doing so he played a very large part in starting the Protestant Reformation. More than 400 years later, Martin Luther King Jr. was named after Martin Luther. I hope that clarifies the record.

So, as I was saying, the words read today from the book of the Prophet, Amos, were very important to Martin Luther King Jr., and these words played a significant role in the civil rights movement. King frequently quoted these words:

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

He quoted those words to religious people who refused to join in the civil rights cause. He quoted those words to people who went to church and synagogue every week, who faithfully practiced their religious liturgies, who said their proper prayers, who worshiped the God of love and justice, but who would not lift their voices or risk their security on behalf of their brothers and sisters who were oppressed by segregation and racism.

Amos the Prophet was originally speaking the word of God to his fellow Jews, who observed all the proper festivals and made all the proper offerings at the altar of God, and then went out and oppressed the poor. Through the prophet Amos the God of Israel declared that justice and righteousness mean more than conducting a good worship service or saying beautiful prayers. That was a hard message for the Jews of his day to hear.

For many Americans it was a hard message to hear when Martin Luther King Jr. challenged them to move out of the safety of their sanctuaries and confront injustice in society. It is still a hard message for us to hear, because there is injustice in every age, and it is always safer and more convenient to ignore it, and to hide from it in the house of God. But our Bible does not give us that hiding place.

The Hebrew prophets declared: do not use religion and worship as a substitute for justice and truth. Instead, worship the God of justice and take strength from worship to do the things that are hard to do and face things we would rather not face.

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Preaching from this biblical text places me in a potentially awkward situation. As soon as I finish speaking today, the choir is going to sing, and in fact I am a member of the choir!

“Take away from me the noise of your songs!” Oh dear. Should we cancel the anthem?

No. We will sing!

We will sing not only for our own pleasure and not only for the comfort it brings; we shall sing to praise the God of justice and righteousness.

We will sing, knowing that we stand under the judgment of God.
God wants from us a heart that loves justice.

God desires our songs of praise, as long as we who sing are committed to living lives of justice and mercy.

So be it.

Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.

Between Time and Eternity

All Saints Sunday Message
Rev. Scott Summerville
Revelation 7:9-17

7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

7:10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

7:12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

7:14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

7:16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

7:17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


In the book of Revelation, the last book in our Bible, there is never a dull moment. The book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse, is the most puzzling book in the bible. This book refers to strange beasts and mystical numbers, the throne of God and the river of life, human choirs and choirs of angels, the fiery pit and the blood of the Lamb. Much of the book of Revelation is not edifying, that is to say, it does not provide clear and meaningful instruction to believers today.

Martin Luther – the guy who kicked off the Protestant Reformation – did not care one bit for the book of Revelation. He said, “It reveals nothing.”

But there is a reason that this book is so hard to make sense of: the book of Revelation was written in a time when Christians were experiencing persecution. The writer of this letter tells us that his name is John – not to be confused with the writer of the gospel of John. John had to be very careful; there were things he could not say openly, so he wrote in symbolic and imaginative language. This makes it very difficult to interpret this writing for our own time, which is why I very seldom preach from this book of the Bible.

In today’s passage John has a vision of heaven. One thing that is clear in this book is that in John’s imagination heaven is a place where human divisions fall away: “Around the throne of God is a multitude too vast to be counted of human beings from every nation, tribe, peoples and languages.” When you think of the word, heaven, what image comes to your mind? Do you see choirs of angels and multitudes of saints in their white robes singing, “Glory! glory!” surrounding the throne of God, or is your image of heaven a more personal encounter with a loved one? Do you imagine heaven as a place of stillness; or are you musically minded, and is your vision of heaven a place where orchestras and jazz bands are banging out tunes?

Naturally we have many different ways of imagining heaven, but in every Christian conception of heaven there are people from all the corners of the earth, and the distinctions that we make so much of here – wealth and status, of gender and ethnicity, and all the other ways we divide ourselves – these divisions cease to matter there.

As we read the names of loved ones today, we will hear names that come from many places on the earth. There are names with origins in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. This church is a living community with family roots all over the world, and the names that we read reflect the diversity of our origins. A very wise older member of this congregation said to me, “Some people miss the good old days of our church, but I’m glad to be living now. In the old days, everybody looked like me. It’s much more interesting now.”

In recent years this congregation went through what we called a “discernment process,” Out of the time of exploration came the Welcoming Statement you see in our Sunday bulletins. We welcome all who enter here of every race, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic circumstance, age, physical and mental ability, family and marital status. The welcome extended here is meant to be a reflection of God’s welcome and a reflection of the heavenly gathering where the things that divide us now divide us no longer.

Every Sunday we pray the prayer Jesus taught, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ message is not simply about getting to heaven; it is about ordering our human life and our relationships in such a way that the kingdom of heaven becomes real here and now.

Today we are stretched between time and eternity. In the framework of human time and history, we are two days away from a momentous national election, set in the context of global crisis and war. History will be made in this week. It is exciting and scary to be living in such times.

We feel the urgency of the great issues that face us as a nation and as a world. Some members of this church have experienced directly the agony of war. All of us are feeling in some way effects of the current economic crisis. Increasingly I hear people tell of significant effects of the economic crisis on their lives: loss of jobs, reduction of income, loss of savings. In such a time those of us who do have jobs and health benefits and money in the bank, need to dig deeper and share more of our resources in the church and in the community.

In this historic week, in this historic time, we come here today in some sense to step outside of time. We remember those loved ones who long ago or perhaps a short time ago were immersed as we are in all of life’s challenges, worrying about family and work and money and health and politics. Then for them those worries ceased. We read their names; we share mementos of them; and we ache inside as we face that mysterious boundary, that chasm that separates the living and the dead.

Before we plunge back into all the things of life that are pressing upon us; before we leave here today to encounter the high drama of this week to come, we come together to remember those we love but see no more.

Even in the midst of all the crises and challenges and struggles of our life in this moment, we pause to acknowledge and to contemplate that which lies beyond this life and this moment and this Earth. We gather here in between time and eternity, to give thanks to God for the inexpressible gift of love and friendship and the bonds of family and the bonds of affection that join us together in Christ.

In the long list of names we read there is a chronicle of extraordinary loss: how can we begin to comprehend so much life that once was with us and part of us and now is gone from us? How can we begin to comprehend this loss?

We cannot comprehend it, but above and beyond this loss is an incomprehensible quantity of love, love that is not lost, love that is not forgotten, love that unites us still with those we have lost and through God unites us with the saints of every time and place. So, more than anything else, this is a day of thankfulness for all the love we have ever known and all the love we have, and this is day to remember that there is even greater love to come.

Thanks be to God.

Grace and peace to you.