Yesterday morning, before retreating to do my writing, I did a little reading of the newspaper….that hybrid thing the News and Free Press pony up to print on Saturday. Imagine my surprise to discover that the three most interesting stories, relative to Mother’s Day, were deadly.
Sometime during the evening of Thursday, January 20, after the last program of a busy church had ended and the last member of that busy church had left, the church’s pastor….the only pastor the church had ever known….the pastor who had started it from scratch and nurtured it from a handful of visitors to over 800 members….the pastor who, in ten crazy, wonderful and relentlessly-forward-surging years, had led those members from the auditorium of an elementary school to a beautiful facility known as Christ United Methodist Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina….
I never knew Leo Sullivan but, according to the Detroit Free Press, he died the other day….right between Wilma Sugar and Lester Utterback. Or, as a semi-regular scanner of the death notices once said to me: “Isn’t it amazing how, day after day, all those people die in alphabetical order?” Whatever! Leo was 80 when he succumbed, one suspects to heart disease, given that memorials (in lieu of flowers) were directed to his best friend and cardiologist, Dr. Kim Eagle of the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center.
Thomas Long is a most interesting fellow who presently does full-time what I am soon to do part-time….namely, teach divinity students a little bit about preaching. In his most recent book, Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian, he reports the following:
Yesterday morning, before retreating to do my writing, I did a little reading of the newspaper….that hybrid thing the News and Free Press pony up to print on Saturday. Imagine my surprise to discover that the three most interesting stories, relative to Mother’s Day, were deadly.
During one of those days in our marriage when we weren’t talking about anything specific or dramatic, Kris suddenly said: “With the exception of the years I spent at Michigan State, the question of where I went to church….or whether I went to church….has always been decided for me by somebody else. First, by my mother. Then, by you.” Not that she was complaining, mind you. Just observing.
There are some days when I survey the landscape of opinion and wonder if I believe anybody. And there are other days when I survey the landscape of opinion and find myself believing everybody. In part because, on some days, concerning some issues, it would seem as if everybody has a piece of the truth, but nobody has the entire truth. So I find myself swayed by the voice of the one who speaks loudest….or last.
I have no aptitude for criminology, but this much I know. If you are going to put someone on trial for murder, it helps to have a corpse. I am sure people have been convicted without one, just as I am sure that life insurance claims have been settled without one. But in both criminal cases and insurance cases, it’s helpful to have one. Corpses bring closure.
About a week ago, I received an inquiry from the person responsible for coordinating the clergy retirement ceremony at this year’s session of our denominational assembly. He didn’t say how many retirees there are….rumor puts the number at eleven or twelve….but he did say we would each be given four minutes (and not a second more) to speak.
Surveying the list of new movie releases, I read that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was reissued on Friday and is expected to play on 500-700 screens across the nation and run through Easter weekend. Which proves that Mel is every bit the marketer as he is the movie maker….this being the season where the passion of Jesus is already front and center in churches, quite apart from theaters.
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
Shopworn (and more than a little shaggy) is the story about the Methodist, newly arrived in heaven, being given a tour of the premises by St. Peter. Down the hallway they walked, Peter pointing out the doors. “Behind this door, the Catholics. Behind that one, the Presbyterians. And that door over there opens on the Lutherans. But when we pass this next door, we need to tiptoe very quietly.” “Why is that?” the Methodist inquired. “Well,” said St. Peter, “that’s where the Baptists are. And they think they’re the only ones here.”
It was a Saturday pretty much like this one, albeit thirty years ago. The place was the Methodist Theological School in Ohio where I was a trustee in those days. Given its setting on the banks of a meandering river, the graduation exercises were held out of doors on the lush green quadrangle. The library formed the background. The platform was elevated for the seating of the dominant players. Everybody else sat in folding chairs, grouped on the grass.
Before we go any further with this little exercise, let me say clearly and confidently (leaving no room for anyone to misunderstand or take offense), that I believe you can worship anywhere, any way, any time, with anybody, wearing pretty much anything. But speaking solely for myself, it feels good to once again pray, preach and sing the praises of almighty God in this place, wearing my brand new tie.
I do not know how the crow flies. All I know is that’s the way most of us want to go. The shortest route. The straightest path. The quickest way. The crow, of course, is not dependent on good roads, open roads, paved, plowed or salted roads. For the crow can fly above it, to it. To my knowledge, no old timer at a backwoods gas station ever said to a crow: “Birdie, you can’t get there from here.” The crow can get there from anywhere.
Some years ago, I began my Easter sermon with the line: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” As sermon openers go, it wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t altogether true. There are some people who want to die. I know more than a few of them. And not everybody wants to go to heaven. I know a few of them, too.
In the southern Appalachians, at the corner where North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee meet every morning for coffee, there is a little hospital where a colleague once spent several more days than he wanted, going from sick to well, worse to better and broken to whole. And to relieve the monotony of his medical incarceration, he initiated conversation with any and all who entered his room, including the lady who came daily with mop and bucket to clean his floor.
My stepfather, who is closing hard on his 90th birthday, informed me with great glee that he had been served a jumbo, juicy, jelly donut with his breakfast yesterday morning. I explained that the occasion was sometimes known as Fat Tuesday and went on to connect it with Ash Wednesday, reminding him that people in Europe often used up their cooking fat on the day before Lent, the better to prepare for the culinary leanness of the season. Which explanation he accepted, whereupon he laughed and said: “I think we should have Fat Tuesday every Tuesday.”
If you were present at last Tuesday’s meeting of our Administrative Council, you heard me talk about a strange little phrase, “Paying the rent.” Which, when I use it, has nothing to do with dollars that are mailed to the landlord, but everything to do with expectations that are satisfied for the congregation. “Paying the rent,” in this instance, has to do with preachers and the degree to which they are willing (or unwilling) to tailor the work they do to the tasks the congregation wants to have done.
Although, as a pastor, I have kept many a death watch, I have never been on a death march….my own, or anybody else’s. I have never done the “dead man walking” thing. Although, like many of you, I have seen the Dead Man Walking movie. Twice, however, I have been to Dauchau, a scant thirty miles from Munich, where I have walked from the barracks where the dead men lived (and no, that is not an oxymoron) and walked to the chambers where the dead men died.
Illinois. Michigan. New York. Massachusetts. The rest of New England and the northeastern seaboard. Buffeted by snow. Buried in snow. Blitzed with a blizzard of snow. It is clear that God is venting his wrath and visiting his payback upon the blue states. If, at the last minute, the storm were to miraculously bypass Ohio, there are some of you….or a few of you….well, maybe two or three of you….who might actually believe that.
Once upon a time…though not so very long ago, really…we had a pastor on our staff who regularly prayed about pain, asking that those who suffered from it might be relieved of it. But in order to make our awareness of pain more inclusive, the preacher subdivided pain into categories such as physical pain, mental pain, and emotional pain.
Several of you asked whether I went outside on Wednesday evening to watch the lunar eclipse. To which I replied: “No, I stayed in the house to watch the Red Sox win the World Series.” As I told Kris, you can always watch a lunar eclipse.
Last Sunday….Mother’s Day….Sue Ives was sharing a platform moment with the children who attend our Sunday Night Alive service in the Christian Life Center. Using a bird’s nest as her prop, Sue led the children through the stages of being a mother bird, from bringing food to the nest so her offspring could eat, to gently pushing them from the nest so her offspring could fly. Bright child that she is, Anna Kileen (age six) figured out where Sue’s message was going and inched closer and closer to her mother who was also on the platform.
I don’t know why everybody crams into the kitchen. But every time we throw a party or host a family gathering, that’s where people seem to end up. So last year, when we bought in Bloomfield, we got ourselves the biggest kitchen we have ever had.
Truth be told, I’d go back to Egypt in a heartbeat. Where I’ve been twice, dragging tourists behind me. I’ve descended into the bowels of the pyramids, claustrophobic though I am, singing in the darkened dungeon of that inner sanctum:
Once upon a time they came from the East, found a level plain in the Land of Shinar, and built a city where they settled. They were as ingenious as they were industrious. They were all on the same page, given that they were all of the same language.
Later this evening, while the rest of you are finding your way to any number of Super Bowl parties, I will be finding my way to Metropolitan Airport so that Julie can fly back to San Francisco following a whirlwind visit for the funeral of a family friend. So I’ll miss the first half and maybe a little more. But I find myself in the strange position of not caring who wins.
When problems with short-term memory caused my mother to have less and less interest in television (given her inability to connect the first ten minutes of a program with the next ten minutes, or the last ten minutes), she continued to enjoy watching The Weather Channel. Its messages were short, repetitive and highly visual. Storms were of special interest, seeing as how she spent seventeen years in coastal Florida thinking about hurricanes.
During this morning’s services, we introduced Carl Gladstone, Lynn Hasley and Jeff Nelson to the gathered congregations. All three graduated from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in mid-May. All three were commissioned for ministry by Bishop Linda Lee at sessions of the Detroit Annual Conference later in May. All three were appointed to the ministerial staff of First Church, effective July 1, 2004.
On a day in October, coming back from Chicago, I stopped in Grand Rapids for a round of golf, stealing 18 holes from the greedy jaws of winter. On a 200 yard par three, I dropped my tee shot five feet from the pin and proceeded to sink the putt. Since it was the only time I matched or beat par all day, I smiled at my partner, shook hands around the foursome, and thanked the prevailing gods of golf for their uncommon and surprising beneficence.
When I was a kid in grade school, sending and receiving valentines was more about popularity than affection. Getting a bunch meant that you were the king or queen of the class. Getting a few meant that you were the dud or crud of the class. Reading them was fun. But counting them (assuming there were enough to cover your desk and spill onto the floor) was even more fun.
“Come over and see this picture of Jesus,” she said. It was several years ago. I did not know the lady well. I anticipated that she had either painted or purchased a likeness of Jesus. Instead, she handed me a photograph. It had been passed on to her from her mother. “Now wait a minute,” you say. “A photograph of Jesus?” That’s what she contended she had. Then she told her story.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed or not, but not everything that looks tame is tame. Like some of the animals that run around my neck of the woods. One Sunday afternoon, a little red fox scampered across our deck. Then, just a few nights ago, we froze him in our headlights on the side of the road. Maybe it wasn’t the same fox. And maybe it wasn’t a fox at all. Not that I would know.
Over the course of eight summers (from the summer following the third grade to the summer following the eleventh grade), I went to church camp twelve times. A week each time. Meaning that there were some summers when I went twice. I camped at Lake Louise, Lake Huron, Mill Lake and Judson Collins Camp on Wampler’s Lake in the Irish Hills. That’s where I started.
While I remain a great fan of athletics, it has been years since I looked up to athletes….at least in the sense of idolizing them, worshiping them, or falling for the fallacy that they can do no wrong. Still, when the athletes are basketball players, I have little choice but to look up to them, given that their heads are so much higher off the ground than mine.
Before computerization in the publishing business, records were kept in hard copy, in file folders, placed in file cabinets, kept in file drawers. At both the offices of the News and the Free Press, before the joint operating agreement, there was a room called the Living Obituary File. In that room were file drawers with clippings and information on the rich and the famous in the greater Detroit area.
It seems about once a week, someone will say to me: “Who do we call to schedule an appointment with you?” Like I have people who do that for me. Which I could, I suppose. But if you want an appointment with me, you call me. Or you take your chances and drop in on me. Which carries no assurance. But you never know.
Your First Church trustees….ever relentless in their efforts to look out for you and this building in which you gather….have turned their attention to doors. More to the point, they have returned their attention to doors, given that I remember holding….then tabling….this same discussion five years ago. For the doors in this building are old and worn. They neither look good nor work good. Few of them can hold a finish on….or keep intruders out.
Several years ago, a member of this church for whom I have enormous respect walked into my office, shut the door, took a seat and shared his reason for coming to see me. “I know we know each other,” he said. “But given my lack of family to tell my story when the time comes, I wanted to tell you a little bit more about myself. Because the chances are pretty good that I am going to die on your watch.”
I find it fascinating that in the very same week St. Christopher has been called into question by the Roman Catholic Church, I should be standing up to preach a sermon inspired, in no small part, by a love affair that many of us have with the automobile. For St. Christopher has long been revered as the patron saint of drivers.
Most jobs around the church I feel called to do. Some jobs around the church I get paid to do. But other jobs around the church, I volunteer to do them….either because they’re there….or I’m there….or you’re not there….or whatever.
A few Fridays back, Jeff Nelson graduated from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, one of our thirteen United Methodist schools of theology, where it is neatly nestled on the Lake Michigan lakeshore, cradled in the northernmost bosom of Northwestern University.
Whenever people back me into a corner as regards my understanding of scripture, I am often led to say: “I take all of the Bible seriously. But I do not take every word of the Bible literally.” Which Bryant Oskvig would understand.
The following remarks were shared at a Thanksgiving service which combined congregants from Temple Beth El, St. Hugo of the Hills Roman Catholic Church, and Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church. They were offered in response to a tribute bestowed upon Dr. Ritter commemorating forty years in ministry and twelve years of pastoral leadership in the greater Birmingham/Bloomfield community.
Let me begin with a couple who both appreciated the finer things in life and were comfortably able to afford them. When it came to travel, they went by the best means to the best places. That is, until their plane went down….suddenly….dramatically…..into the choppy waters of the sea. But the emergency exits opened (as engineered) and the inflatable slides were positioned (as instructed), meaning that virtually all were evacuated (as scripted).
After listing the title for this sermon in Steeple Notes, I discovered I had preached the same text under the same title in the late nineties. On that occasion, I took an entirely different bent, slanting the sermon toward a discussion of exorcism. Truth be told, there are but a handful of lines from that prior effort recycled in this text.
Many of you remember Lee and Jan Loichle who, along with one of my all-time favorite people, Eleanor Chambliss, co-chaired the “Now’s Our Chance” campaign which made our Christian Life Center financially feasible. Lee and Jan now live in Scottsdale, Arizona where, thanks to a Friday phone call, I learned that they are cheering us on this morning.
When I was a kid, I went to church with my mother. The minister of our little church would speak to my mother. “How’re you, Miz Craddock?” he would ask. And the five of us kids would go along like little ducks after our mother. “How’re you, Sonny? How’re you, Honey? How’re you, Sonny? How’re you, Honey?”
Sometime late Thursday afternoon, when the church was teeming with kids rehearsing with various choirs, the bubbling water feature in the narthex was knocked to the floor, disassembling its component parts and flooding the narthex carpet. What surprised all of us was that it was not the roughhousing of middle school boys which did the deed, but a bit of over-zealous leaning by some grade school girls.
Some years ago, I told you the story of Father Gene Monahan and the day he addressed a large gathering of his fellow priests, the better to address the changes that took place in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Approaching the platform, he was barefooted. He had on a pair of whitewashed trousers and a T-shirt. That’s all. Peering out at his colleagues, he said:
A week ago Saturday night, I told several tables worth of turkey eaters that what I knew about nature (as a kid) would have fit inside a baseball glove….which is where I would have carried such knowledge, had I had it, given that baseball was all I cared about or wanted to do in my free time. True, there was the occasional Scouting outing in the woods.
You tell me. How ironic is this? On Friday night I stayed home for a change, the better to research this text about a manager-in-residence who takes a few accounting liberties, commonly known as “cooking the books.” Then I awakened at 4:00 in the morning with all of this swirling in my head, leading Kris (who was also awake, given my tossing and turning) to say: “Why don’t you go downstairs and outline your sermon? Maybe then you can go back to sleep.”
It seemed odd when she said it, but (as I was soon to learn) there was much more to it. She was bright, vivacious, talented, attractive and young. He was bright, vivacious, talented, handsome and less young. Color her, mid-twenties. Color him, pushing forty….not as in nudging forty, so much as in shoving forty. He was my friend. My divorced friend. She was his friend. His new friend. His new, never-before-married friend.
This sermon was preached in response to the 300th anniversary of John Wesley’s birth on June 28, 1703. Its only connection with Father’s Day was the observation that John Wesley represents our denominational father in the faith. Birthday celebrations were somewhat big in the Detroit area in mid-June, given the four-day bash in honor of the Ford Motor Company’s 100th birthday. All things considered, the timing seemed appropriate.
Anywhere you go anymore, there will probably be some kind of reminder (verbal or visual) to turn off your cell phones or put them on “vibrate.” We will soon have that kind of reminder here. Don’t ask me how. But we’ll have it, given that several services in a row….before, during and after Easter….were interrupted by ringing cell phones.
As will soon become apparent upon reading the sermon, these words were written in observance of First Church’s annual observance of Pentecost. For those reading them from afar, let me acknowledge my awareness that Pentecost Sunday officially falls on June 8 of this year. As you probably know, Pentecost moves across the calendar in direct relation to the date of Easter. Some years ago, I decided to institutionalize our Pentecost observance on the first Sunday of June.
Every trade has its tools. And one of the tools unique to my trade is a good sermon illustration. Which is why, when a good one surfaces, it becomes an attractive target for thieves. Not that we preachers like seeing ourselves in that light. But when it comes to a good story, we’ll steal from anybody.
Given the incredible talents Chris and Doris Hall possess, along with the incredible blessings Chris and Doris Hall bring, I would not….even for a moment….seek to be frivolous at their expense. Meaning that this morning’s title (“Are Chris and Doris Hall in Their Right Minds?”) is a serious question rather than a tongue-in-cheek quip. A question I intend to answer. With an answer that is chock-full of meaning.
Let me introduce you to Bill Muehl….Grosse Pointer by location….Episcopalian by confirmation….University of Michigan trained lawyer by vocation….who was rerouted by God in 1944 to New Haven, Connecticut, where he ended up teaching forty years’ worth of young mumblers at Yale Divinity School how to preach. Including me.
While I find it hard to keep up with local press coverage, my friend David Mosser manages to sift through news dispatches from Great Britain. Which was how he learned, last November, about two British mental health workers who visited a female client, chatted for several minutes, decided she wasn’t interested in talking with them, and then left (presumably to fill out a case report in the car before continuing on to their next stop). What they somehow failed to observe was that she was dead.
Let me start with a disclaimer of sorts. I am not a grandfather. Neither do I sleep with a grandmother. Kris and I have two children. Our son, Bill, died nine years ago. Our daughter, Julie, presently lives and works in California. We often tell her that grandchildren would be nice. We drop hints about how much fun it would be to take a four-year-old to Disney World.
One of my better friends in the ministry is an African-American colleague (about my age) who once served a congregation that took pride in being as social as it was spiritual. In other words, they knew how to pray. But they also knew how to party. And they invited my friend (their pastor) to many of their parties. But while they expected him to show, they didn’t expect him to stay. Nor did they want him to stay.
I simply don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Atlantic City. But I remember, as if it were yesterday, the thing that surprised me above all others. No, it wasn’t the Boardwalk (which, by the time I saw it, was a shabby reflection of its former glory). And it wasn’t the casinos (because that was so long ago, there weren’t any).
If you watch commercial television at all, you are well on your way to believing that everything that currently ails the world can be cured by better cell phone reception. Day after day we see vignettes of businesses in trouble, families in trouble, marriages in trouble, when suddenly this guy shows up with a cell phone and says: “Here, try this.” Immediately, things improve. People improve. Differences disappear. Faces smile.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my nephew (or to be genealogically precise, the man who married my wife’s niece) was the 60th person in line at Wal-Mart at 5:15 in the morning. Unlike some men who wait until 5:15 on Christmas Eve, John wanted to get in early and get out cheap.
Let’s start with a question. When a Roman Catholic priest is ordained, what is the first thing he does? He celebrates mass, that’s what he does. And it is a really big deal….his first mass, I mean. He announces the date, names the place and sends out invitations. Friends come. Family comes. Colleagues from the seminary (and from the hierarchy) come. It’s the culmination of one long journey and the beginning of another. So people want to be there.
The following communion meditation was shared on the fourth and final Friday of a month-long mission project in Manciones, Costa Rica. My wife (Kristine) and I were privileged to be a part of this collective effort. Our goal was to build a church for a new congregation. Which, while not fully completed at the time of our departure, was well on the way.
Unless my memory has completely failed me, it was the late Mae West (that queen of burlesque) who used to say: “Always remember, darlings, that too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Obviously, Mae West never cooked with garlic. Or ginger, either.
This being summertime, it is not uncommon for me to run into parishioners on days other than Sundays, in places other than sanctuaries, and have them say to me (sheepishly….and more than a little apologetically): “You probably haven’t seen me in a while, Reverend. But it’s summer, you know. And in the summer, I get my religion on the golf course.”
The other day, I received a call from CBS. Except I thought the caller said CVS, leading me to wonder why I was being called by a drugstore. But it really was “television people,” not “pharmacy people” on the other end of the line. I was being offered an invitation to publicly debate a very hot and divisive topic in the life of Christendom.
When I was a little kid, it was not unusual to receive small amounts of money from relatives. Sometimes folded in a card (like for birthdays), sometimes peeled from a wallet (like after visits). Never in great amounts, mind you. A dollar or two. Occasionally five. Seldom ten. Never twenty. But appreciated at any level.
I begin with a pair of stories that I choose to call signs of our time. The first was told to me by one of my younger clergy colleagues, currently serving a church in that geographic region of the state known as Saginaw Bay. It seems my friend was doing a little preparatory work with a couple contemplating matrimony.
Last Friday night, at the end of a busy day, I said prayers in my office over several pieces of pita bread packaged in plastic, along with a giant container of Welch’s grape juice. Not for my use or your consumption. But for Jeff Nelson’s use and some senior highs’ consumption. You see, Jeff served holy communion yesterday afternoon at the end of a youth event focused on world hunger. But Jeff cannot serve communion….yet.
If you were to force me into making a list of my all-time favorite Bible stories, this one would surely be on it. That’s because I’ve been to the pool with the five porticos. I’m talking about the “real thing.” You don’t get many opportunities like that in Jerusalem. Eighteen feet of rubble has covered most of the original biblical sites in the city.
Not that I am all that superstitious, but I can’t ever recall visiting a graveyard in the dark. Even I, who preach that death is always normal, never final, and seldom catching, would find that “spooky.” I would wait until dawn, or at least the half-light of dawn.
W.W.J.D. “What would Jesus drive?” Apparently, a group of clergy (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish) asked that of a group of Detroit-based automotive executives on Wednesday as part of a campaign to improve environmental ecology. And while I know a little something about the issue, I know next to nothing about the group.
Let’s start with a short list. The third dumbest thing I ever did in my life was to park my car on the rim of an Upper Peninsula dump near the town of Paradise on a Monday night in 1968, so that I could watch scrawny bears come out at dusk, paw through a mountain of trash bags and forage for garbage. The second dumbest thing I ever did in my life was to go back to the same rim, of the same dump, to watch the same bears paw through the same garbage on Tuesday night in Paradise.
This morning’s sermon is occasioned by a very special day in the life of First Church, Birmingham. We gather to celebrate a 50-year anniversary in our present sanctuary, having moved here from the corner of Maple and Henrietta in September of 1952.
It happened just a couple of weeks ago, on a Friday as I remember. But it’s happened so many times, it’s hard to separate one occasion from another. Kris and I were in a nice restaurant…. alone, for a change. Most of the meal behind us. Coffee and the check in front of us. When the waiter appeared before us and said: “Kindly allow me to tempt you with a little dessert.”
Eight and a half years ago, in the pregnant stillness that characterizes this sanctuary on Christmas Eve, I told you of my mother’s birth. It took place in New York City in July of 1915. She was the first child born to Agnes and Anton Meyers. Her last name should have been Markesich, but my grandfather changed his name at Ellis Island, figuring that “Meyers” sounded less foreign than “Markesich.”
Among the people who remain on my Christmas card list is a corporate vice president of Weight Watchers International. Her husband was a former colleague and, through him, we became good friends. We have broken bread together on numerous occasions and never once did she slip abusiness card under my dessert plate.
As Laura Simms tells it, there is a Norwegian fairy tale which features a hero at an intersection looking at three signs. The first reads: “He who travels down this road will return unharmed.” The second: “He who travels down this road may or may not return.” The third: “He who travels down this road will never return.” As the fairy tale tells it, the hero chooses the third.
The pink card by the kitchen sink, addressed to my wife, announced a meeting of the Landscape Committee at 1:00 this coming Wednesday. Note that the card was not addressed to me. Nobody lets me anywhere near the Landscape Committee….or the landscape, for that matter.
The entire summer before I went away to college, my mother made me go to the basement and practice ironing my shirts. This was back in the day when mothers….at least my mother….ironed everything including tee shirts and shorts.
It could be said that this sermon began seven weeks ago at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, when Will Willimon stepped into God’s pulpit in Duke Chapel and said:Not long ago, I was involved in a meeting concerning racial problems here in Durham. The meeting was overly long and rather depressing.
From time to time, I have both revealed my true age and tested the outer limits of your memory by talking about the games I once played as a child. But, to my knowledge, I never once mentioned that grand old standby of playgrounds everywhere, “Red Rover.”
I can tell you this. If you are going to dwell anywhere for more than a few days, beds are optional but a table is a necessity. I learned that in the jungles of Costa Rica. For the year I went, things were more primitive than they have ever been, before or since. I spent two weeks building a church in a jungle, on a piece of land reachable only by dugout canoe.
About a year ago, Will Willimon (my colleague at Duke) was invited to meet with several students studying to be attorneys. They wanted him to speak to the subject: “On Being a Lawyer and a Christian at the Same Time.” Which not everyone believes is possible.
You want to know what I wish? I wish I could collect a dollar from every woman who walked into the sanctuary, opened up her bulletin, read this morning’s title, and convinced herself that I was going to preach a sermon about her husband.
You don’t have to be very old to know enough Bible to win a pot of money on Jeopardy. But you have to have a few years under your belt to understand enough Bible to win (or even survive) in the game of life. Where the Bible is concerned, you can learn it by reading it.
Everybody loves a good family reunion story. I mean a “real” family reunion story. I am not talking about those annual gatherings where everybody brings a dish to pass and there are games for the youngest, ice-cold watermelon for the oldest, prizes for those who came the farthest, and the “annual reading” of those who have been hatched, matched and dispatched “since we assembled last.”
In the tradition of the late Sam Levinson, Harry Golden was a popular Jewish author and after-dinner speaker whose stories I first encountered in a delightful collection entitled “Only In America.” In one of his essays, he said he was puzzled, as a child, by his father’s religious habits. For although his father loudly and frequently proclaimed his disbelief, he never missed a service at the local synagogue.
Since we have been talking together about fish and fishing, you have told me every fish story in the book. Not all of them preachable. Most all of them apocryphal. But there is this one, shared with me wistfully….but certainly, sincerely.
Not that I don’t appreciate the generous introduction, Peter. I really do. It’s just that I don’t feel entirely comfortable here. I’d feel more comfortable up there. Back where the choir loft used to be. That’s where I sat with the tenors. In fact, nobody ever sat there before I sat there. I was here the day they opened the doors.
A cherished colleague writes: I went to see a lady in our church who was facing surgery. She had never been in the hospital before, and the surgery was major. I walked in there. She was a nervous wreck. Then she started crying.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested upon each one of them..."
When this service is done, I am going to not one, but two Super Bowl parties. But I find myself in the incredibly strange position of not caring who wins. I do have a slight wager riding on the outcome. But it is with Hunter Hook. It involves ice cream (as most of our wagers do).
Buried in yesterday’s stack of e-mails was Stew Peck’s story of an 87-year-old woman who gave up beer for Lent, only to lament the fact that the hard liquor she commenced to drink instead made her brain furry and her tongue fuzzy. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Since this will soon get a little heavy, perhaps we should begin a little light….like with a guy named David who, much to his surprise, received a parrot for his 40th birthday. The parrot, himself, was fully grown, with a bad attitude and a worse vocabulary. Every other word was an expletive. Those that weren’t expletives were, to say the least, rude.
The phone rang late one night and, as I always do, I answered by saying: “Bill Ritter speaking.” Which was followed by another voice….higher, sweeter and infinitely more teasing than mine….saying: “I bet you don’t remember who this is?” I didn’t.
When I reached what I thought was my lowest point, somebody said to me: “Cheer up; things could be worse.” So I cheered up and, sure enough, things got worse.
That line did not originate with me. But it could have been written by this poor, unnamed man in Luke’s little parable. The man once harbored a demon. Then the demon left, or was expelled…. the story doesn’t say. The demon wandered the desert in search of lodging. Finding none, it returned to the man. In the meantime, the man had swept, scrubbed and tidied his soul. So the demon went out and collected seven demons worse than itself. Whereupon they entered in. And the Bible says that the man’s “last state” was considerably worse than his first.
Let me begin by asking you a question….a two-part question, really. When your children cry out in the middle of the night and (in comforting them) you say, “There, there now; don’t be afraid, everything is going to be all right”….are you, in that moment, an angel….and are you absolutely certain that you are going to be able to make everything all right?
I am not a shopper. I am a hunter. When I need a suit, I go hunt for a suit. Upon spotting it, I shoot it….allow them to measure it….tailor it….then bag it….the better that I might walk out and wear it. I don’t want to comparison shop for it, wait for the store to reduce it, or go back home and ponder it. Find it, shoot it and wear it….that’s my motto. A few weeks back, I set a personal record. One suit. One sport coat. One pair of slacks. Two shirts. Two ties. Two stores. Forty minutes. Talk about power shopping.
Coming home from the Royal Oak’s Farmers’ Market along about 9:30 yesterday morning, the lovely lady I live with was overheard to say: “Let’s see, we’ve got brussels sprouts, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans for the casserole, shrimp for the appetizer….Becky said she would bring the dessert….I’ve got everything but the turkey. Unless, that is, you want me to get a ham.” Which I don’t. Although I’ll concede that a ham might be easier than a turkey. I don’t really think Kris wants a ham. And I know Julie doesn’t want a ham. So I guess I’ll have to go out to the woods this afternoon and “bag” us a turkey.
In the last fifteen years, I have made four visits to Israel. On the first of those occasions, I traveled with a group of clergy and had relatively little responsibility (thereby allowing me a fair amount of time on my own).
Let me introduce Fred….a man whose character was as drab as his life. Fred shuffled paper in a low level government job, retiring after 40 years on the payroll. He lived alone in a one-bedroom rental apartment, yet showed little signs of regretting his solitary existence.
I’ve got a Bible story in one hand and a personal story in the other. I am tempted to let you choose hands, thereby determining the order in which I tell them. But I will not yield to that temptation. Meaning, I’ll pick. You get the Bible story first.
I love looking at those big picture books that are sold to those of us who need something to put on our coffee tables. You know the ones I am talking about. Some contain pictures of animals. Others, pictures of Australia.
I have long been fascinated by the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus….especially some of the smaller, easy-to-overlook details. Everybody….well, almost everybody….knows John’s story about how Thomas says to the others: “I won’t believe until I place my hands in his holes.” Whereupon Jesus appears….sufficiently holey….and says to Thomas: “Okay, check me out.”
The title of this morning’s sermon is tied to a phrase employed by Frederick Buechner in talking about the promise of eternal life, which I quoted in my Easter letter to the congregation of First Church. For readers not familiar with First Church or its publications, let me share the contents of that letter.
It was, as I remember it, the winter of’64….which slid, ever so slowly, into the spring of ’65. I was in New Haven, Connecticut, finishing my final year in Yale Divinity School. I was also a Methodist waiting for an appointment. My first appointment. Not that I was alone in my anxiety. Even though Yale was intentionally inter-denominational, there were a couple of other Methodists on the floor….Jim Bortell of Illinois and Ivan Burnett of Mississippi. Which explains why most nights, along about ten o’clock, we would go to the refrigerator in the basement, dish ourselves some ice cream, and spend the next half hour speculating on where we would be appointed (and what it would be like, once we got there)...
There once lived a couple (a man and his wife) in a small house in the city. One day the man noticed that a tree, a sapling really, was starting to grow through the living room floor. He thought about mentioning it to his wife. But he didn’t, lest he appear foolish. For who had ever heard of a tree growing through the living room floor? His wife noticed the tree also, but didn’t say anything either. With each passing day, the tree grew larger. It grew taller and its trunk, thicker. Pretty soon it was no longer a sapling, but a sturdy young tree. The man and his wife watched the tree grow. But they never mentioned it, for who had ever heard of a tree growing through the living room floor?
William Shakespeare suggested that sermons could be found in stones. And Annie Dillard once wrote an entire book under the title, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Both ideas are figures of speech. Stones do not talk. Neither do they preach. You may hold opinions to the contrary. But in this season where the spirit of charity is supposed to overwhelm us, I trust that you will keep them to yourself.
Like a lot of little boys on their way to becoming bigger boys, there was a time in my life when I was into autographs. Any autographs. But especially baseball autographs. To this day, I have Babe Ruth’s…..by itself….on a ball….addressed to me. I never met The Babe. But I know someone who did. It was my Great Aunt Edna. The meeting occurred in the twilight of both their lives, whereupon she was able to get “The Babe” to sign one for “the kid.” Which you can still read today. And which might be worth a small fortune if I hadn’t once needed a baseball for an extremely important game of catch. It took place with my son….ever so many years ago.
There are endless variations on the old story about the revival preacher, out making his rounds, who happened upon a farmer abusing his mule with a shovel. Apparently, the mule wouldn’t go….or wouldn’t go right. So the farmer got out of the wagon, grabbed his spade, and gave the mule a couple of blows upside the head. Leading the preacher to admonish the farmer (albeit in tones slathered in the syrup of humble piety) that the mule was one of God’s creatures, too….and that he would surely proceed as directed, if addressed with words befitting a Christian. To which the farmer replied: “Well preacher, that’s what I’m afixin’ to do….once I get his attention.”
A couple of Fridays back, Matt Hook left me a voicemail asking if I would like to go to the zoo with him and his four kids. Leigh was gone for the weekend and Matt may have been looking for some relief. Either that, or he looked around the house and said, “Zoo here….zoo in Royal Oak?”….and dialed my phone. Unfortunately, I missed Matt’s voicemail, given that I haven’t been to the zoo in years and I do enjoy Matt’s kids. Besides, it’s fun to relive your childhood through children….even somebody else’s children.
He was young and energetic….freshly minted….multi-talented. There was nothing in the world of computers he didn’t know or couldn’t do. Which is why he flew west, a few weeks ago, to plan his future. And which is why he flew east, a few days later, to ponder an offer. Except that he never got off the plane. He got on, to be sure. He just never got off. People were waiting for his face at the gate. But it never appeared. Had he missed the flight, they wondered. Airline records said no. He hadn’t missed it. He’d made it. He just hadn’t exited from it. So the cabin attendants went back to check. Which was when they found him….dead in the restroom.
Let me launch right into this with a story that is so perfect….so fitting….so right….it would be a crying shame if it turned out not to be true. It concerns a young man who went off to college. Upon reaching the dormitory, he began to unpack his suitcases. Apparently, his mother had done his packing for him. In the process of putting clothing into drawers, he discovered two long narrow pieces of cloth among the shirts, socks and underwear. They were neatly folded and ironed. At first he didn’t know what they were. But when he looked at the design, he recognized the pattern as being one that he had seen before. At last it came to him. These were the strings of his mother’s favorite apron.
Back in my novel-reading days….to which I will probably not return until I glide (or somebody pushes me) into retirement….I kept company with an author named John O’Hara, who wrote about the “social set” living in the mythical town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Critics have suggested that O’Hara’s signature novel was one of his earliest. Oddly enough, it begins with a 14-line quote from W. Somerset Maugham.
Three kids are in the schoolyard, bragging about their fathers. The first one says: “My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper….calls it a poem….and they give him fifty dollars.” The second kid says: “That’s nothing. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper….calls it a prescription….and they give him a hundred dollars.” Leading the third kid to say: “I’ve got you both beat. My dad scribbles a few words on a piece of paper….calls it a sermon….and it takes eight people to collect all the money.”
Except for a couple of college years and a few widely-spaced vacation weeks, I have never been a renter. But I have been a landlord. During two separate periods of our lives, Kris and I have owned small homes that we have made available to others. One was in the wilderness of Lake County. The other, a tiny bungalow in Redford Township.
Now that Christian Laettner (great name) and Jerome Williams (another great name) have begun to corral some offensive rebounds, nobody misses Dennis Rodman. Dennis was a loose cannon when he played here. And, given his fondness for driving around in his pickup with a long gun riding shotgun, Dennis may have carried a loose cannon when he played here. But he doesn’t play anywhere, anymore. Just when he should be at the top of his game, nobody wants him….not the Bulls….not the Suns….not the Mavs….not even Madonna or Carmen Electra. What’s more, he is running out of skin to tattoo. And he’s only 33.
While we still, as of this moment, have two open positions on our program staff, absolutely no one has come to Gary Morris or myself suggesting that we interview Jeremiah. Jeremiah wouldn’t fit here. For the fact of the matter is, Jeremiah never fit anywhere. Not in his time…. which was 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Not in his place….which was the kingdom of Judah (roughly half of present-day Israel).
Those of you who date back to my early years in Birmingham will no doubt remember a Palm Sunday Steeple Notes article, wherein I told you that there is no mention of “palms” in the synoptic Gospels. “Branches” is what the record states. Not “palm branches.” Just “branches.” They could have been palms, for there are plenty of palms in Israel. They should have been palms, for no branch makes a better carpet. They must have been palms, for it is hard to imagine my Sunday School teacher as being wrong. Palms is what I remember.
Have you ever been watched while you eat? Years ago, my mother told me that people would notice the way I ate and draw conclusions about me….and about the people who raised me. To some extent, she was right.
Wow, these guys are good. I mean, really good. I am talking about Nielson and Young and what they can do when they apply four hands, four feet, two minds, two hearts, four thumbs and sixteen fingers to the 176 keys (72 black, 104 white) and the six pedals of two pianos. This isn’t just pounding out a few tunes, here. This is about striking a few chords, here. And touching a few hearts, here. Ah, the miracle of the musical. How sweet it is. And how blessed we are.
On a day, not so long ago that I can’t remember it, I made an illegal left hand turn….blatantly…. with my wife in the car. This is the same wife upon whom God once laid the responsibility of reminding me that I have been granted no immunity from such things as winter flu, cholesterol in the arteries, the after effects of burning the candle at both ends, and ordinary traffic laws.
Mike Norton is a nice guy. Not to be confused with Ed Norton (who once worked in the sewers of New York and hung out with Jackie Gleason), Mike Norton is the pastor-in-charge of our new church start in Canton Township. Thanks to your splendid response to the “Pass It On” campaign, a ton of our money is bankrolling his effort.
The title of this morning’s sermon sounds like the oft-repeated refrain of the man they call L.P. (as in Larry Parrish, beleaguered Tiger manager….for the time being, but apparently not for eternity). In fact, if John Lowe is to be believed, Larry might be history before these words are hardened into print or circulated over the World Wide Web. For not only can’t the Tigers win ‘em all, they can’t win many….or any. Which seems to be getting to everybody.
Like a lot of people I know, my mother stopped going to movies several years ago….shortly after Howard Keel stopped singing to Kathryn Grayson. Too much sex and violence, she said. Too many dirty words, she said. And too few happy endings, she said. She wanted happy endings….thus ensuring that she would leave the theater feeling better than when she walked in. Which may be an oversimplification of her position on the matter. But not by much.
So I told big bully Billy Brisbois that I was not afraid of him, when he cornered me on the playground of Noble School. But I was. Afraid of him, that is. But either I hid it well, or he had bigger fish to fry that day….meaning that I escaped a beating by my bluffing (something that has served me well on any number of occasions, since). “Don’t let them see or smell your fear,” they told me….with reference to both animals and enemies. So I didn’t. Still don’t.
What do you say to someone when you are angry at them? I mean, really angry, and you want to reach into your arsenal of weapons for words that will hurt as they hit and poison as they penetrate. If it’s a marriage, you can always drop the “D” word. That usually gets attention. And if it’s not a marriage, there are words that begin with letters other than “D,” but I won’t enumerate them here. My favorite way of venting my spleen is with the “G” word….as in “grow up”…. “are you ever going to grow up?”….or “come back and talk to me when you decide to grow up.” It really gets to people when you question their maturity. It really gets to me when anybody questions mine.
Once upon a time, preachers survived on the food that parishioners left on their porches. Chickens….eggs….sacks of string beans….portions of pigs….all backing the claim of the Pastoral Relations Committee which promised, at the time of hiring: “Even when we can’t pay you, Reverend, we will always feed you.” And, in their own way, they always did. Thankfully, that day is done. Today’s preachers are paid in checks rather than chickens. Although I did come home from church on a recent Sunday to find a key lime pie in my front door….hand carried from Sanibel Island by Jane Pettibone, because….well….she knew I’d like it.
Whenever we have a discussion in our house about the realignment of chores….especially when that discussion centers around the enormous number of things that Kris is responsible for, measured against the miniscule number of things that I am responsible for….I find myself making the grand gesture of offering to do the laundry. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it sounds easier than the rest of the stuff she does. Maybe it’s because I did my own laundry in college. Maybe it’s because the penalty for failure seems lower in the laundry than in the kitchen. Having heard Julie say (on more than one occasion): “Oh no, Dad’s gonna cook,” I can’t remember her ever saying (on any occasion): “Oh no, Dad’s gonna wash.”
In the home where I was raised, a very small yard was dominated by a very large tree. Every other year the tree produced apples. But we seldom, if ever, ate any. That’s because they were never any good. Some were bruised. Most were malformed. And virtually all of them housed worms. If you had patience (and a good paring knife), you could turn a bushel of them into a quart and a half of applesauce. But that, and a week’s worth of blossoms, were about all the tree was good for. Fruit farmers we were not. Had we wanted good fruit from the tree, we would have taken better care of the tree. But, as I remember it, we never thinned it, never trimmed it, and never sprayed it. And the effort we didn’t expend was reflected in the reward we didn’t receive.
From time to time, I am met by a visitor at the close of the service whose sole purpose in waiting for me is to get me to sign his bulletin. Don't get the wrong idea. He is not seeking my autograph. What he is seeking is my verification that he has been present in our sanctuary. At issue is his attendance record and his desire to keep it spotless. Back home (in his own church) it is easy to have his presence noted and marked. But on vacation, he apparently feels some need of proof. So he takes home a bulletin signed by the pastor.
Last Sunday, Harold Melin ushered in the center aisle at 9:30. This Sunday, Harold is in Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital with heart problems. He needs a pacemaker. But, so far, they haven’t been able to install one. It seems that Harold has funny veins. They cross….where they aren’t supposed to.
Greetings from Birmingham, Michigan….home to Oakland Hills and a lot of other nice places. And home to a polyglot of people….some of whom love golf….some of whom love gambling….some of whom love Miller Lite….some of whom love the Lord….and some of whom love all four.
Last week’s mail brought a Christmas letter from friends, the first line of which reads: “Well, another year under our belts….and I mean that literally.” And most of us can identify with that, since we will be saying pretty much the same thing, come the middle of January. For whatever else Christmas may be, it is an unbridled adventure of tasting and feasting, nibbling and snacking, that commences around the time the Thanksgiving Day Parade rolls down Woodward Avenue and concludes shortly after half time of the Orange Bowl.
Pardon me if I exaggerate, but it sometimes seems as if everyone I know is either starting a diet, or breaking one. We have become a people preoccupied with poundage. There is a slice of conventional wisdom which says: “You can never be too rich or too thin.” But we know better, don’t we? Especially the part about being too thin. “Thin” kills….some of our brightest and some of our best.