Sermon preached November 17, 2019

Audio includes two pieces by the Bell Choir, “Moon Over the Ruin’d Castle” and from “Everlasting to Everlasting.”

Order of Service 2019 November 17

“God’s ultimate victory over evil will come about through love not coercive power.”
–David Ray Griffin, The Christian Gospel For Americans.

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!
Oh Freedom, I love thee!
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Howard Thurman
The spirit in [woman or] man is not easily vanquished. It is fragile and tough. You may fail again and again and yet something will not let you give up. Something keeps you from accepting “no” as a final answer. It is this quality that makes for the survival of values when the circumstances of one’s life are most against, decency, goodness, and right. Men [and women] tend to hold on when there seems to be no point in holding on, because they find that they must. It is often at such a point that the spirit in [a person] and the spirit of God blend into one creative illumination. This is the great miracle.

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

Peak of Eloquence, Sermon 203 Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib
May Allah have mercy on you! Provide yourselves for the journey because the call for departure has been announced. Regard your stay in the world as very short, and return to Allah with the best provision that is with you, because surely, in front of you lies a valley, difficult to climb, and places of stay full of fear and dangers. You have to reach there and stay in them. And know that the eyes of death are approaching towards you. It is as though you are already in its talons and it has struck itself against you. Difficult affairs and distressing dangers have crushed you into it. You should therefore cut away all the attachments of this world and assist yourselves with the provision of Allah’s fear.

Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Sermon

To Gain Your Souls

There is a prayer in our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship
that I have used often over my 27 years of ordained ministry at memorial and funeral services.
I haven’t used it at every memorial service, but often.
It has spoken to me consistently over these three decades of ministry.
I want to share it with you:

Eternal God,
We acknowledge the uncertainty of our life on earth.
We are given a mere handful of days,
and our span of life seems nothing in your sight.
All flesh is as grass,
And all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but your word will stand forever.
In this is our hope,
For you are our God.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death,
You are with us.

O Lord, let us know our end
And the number of our days,
That we may learn how fleeting life is.
Turn your ear to our cry, and hear our prayer.
Do not be silent at our tears,
For we live as strangers before you,
Wandering pilgrims as all our ancestors were.
But you are the same
And your years shall have no end.
Amen.

It is a prayer that knows it will not receive the answer it requests,
yet requests anyway:

“Let us know our end and the number of our days…”

We don’t get to know that.
We don’t get to know the number of our days in advance.
We can only know,
if we are courageous enough to pay attention to the signs,
that our days are indeed numbered.
We don’t know the number.

At a deeper level,
the prayer is a request for us to be given the courage to reflect on our mortality.
Can we? Will we?
Can we live fully in the agony of the reality that life is fleeting?
That our flesh is as grass?

There is a reason for idolatry.

Idolatry or the making of idols is the big sin.
Perhaps the biggest sin.
Yesterday at the presbytery meeting that was hosted by Southminster,
Rev. Rachel Stramel was examined for ordination.
Rachel serves at Orenco Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro.
Even as she has already served as a pastor there for many years,
she went through the process of becoming an ordained PCUSA pastor.
Her final hoop was being examined yesterday on the floor of presbytery.

She was asked about sin. What is it?

She gave the answer that Paul speaks about in Romans.
Our big sin is to worship the created instead of the creator.
It is idolatry.
Rachel, by the way, will be an important addition to our presbytery and to the PCUSA.
I see in her, as did the presbytery, a person of great wisdom, humility and depth.

Why did Rachel point to idolatry as the big sin?

What is wrong with worshiping
(paying allegiance to, honoring, giving our fidelity to, ordering our lives around)
the created rather than the creator?

There are many reasons.

One reason is practical.

When we engage in idolatry in its many forms,
and we all do, I do, you do, everyone does,
no one, says the scripture, is without sin,
when we do that,
we try to cover the nakedness of our mortality.

We try to avoid the Void.
We try to ignore the reality that our flower is fading.
We try to make permanent that which is impermanent.
We substitute fulfilling our desires for gaining our souls.

From today’s text from Luke.

People are ogling the temple,

“how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God.”

Look at our beautiful building and all of its beautiful decoration!
Isn’t it beautiful?
Isn’t it amazing?
Isn’t it grand!
Isn’t it the most marvelous thing you have ever seen?
Isn’t it wonderful!

Jesus doesn’t deny how impressive it is.
Herod’s temple was magnificent.
We do build amazing buildings.
Skyscrapers and churches and sports stadiums with jumbotrons.
Big buildings for whatever big image of God we have in our big brains.

Jesus doesn’t deny how amazing and gorgeous it all is.

Jesus simply says,

“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

In other words, enjoy it while you can, friends,
because it won’t be here long.

Then, what will you do?
Then, who will you be?

Within 40 years from the time Jesus purportedly said this,
the temple was razed to the ground in one of the many wars to end the wars.

Jesus was teaching that even temples made for the glory of God can become idols.

Look at our temple!
Aren’t we grand?
Aren’t we amazing?
Aren’t we special?
“Aren’t we some punkins?” as my mother used to say.

Eternal God,
We acknowledge the uncertainty of our life on earth.
We are given a mere handful of days,
and our span of life seems nothing in your sight.
All flesh is as grass,
And all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but your word will stand forever.
In this is our hope,
For you are our God.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death,
You are with us.

A couple of churches back,
one of my parishioners was named Riley Ostby.
Riley was in his mid 90s when I was there.
He used to say a couple of things to me.
Not every Sunday, but on occasion, he would say with a wink,
“That was a good sermon. I admit, I only say that because I agree with it.”

And he would also say on occasion,
“My body is deteriorating, but my soul is growing.”

I left that church before he died so I didn’t get to officiate at his funeral,
which is another lesson about life.
Things are left undone.

Life is fleeting and we are wandering pilgrims.

We make plans for this day, tomorrow, and the next,
but we must remember to say, inshallah, God willing,
as things can change in a moment.

Idolatry is a sin,
that is something that causes estrangement from God,
because it substitutes that which is impermanent for that which is permanent.
Idolatry keeps us from recognizing the grace that we are naked before God.
We are vulnerable.

We can admire our own resumes.
We can admire the temples we have built.
We can acknowledge our works.
We can and should.

At funerals we say,
“She rests from labors and her works shall follow her.”

Yes. But…the true test comes when all is stripped away and not one stone is left upon another, and we are naked before our creator.

“Nothing in my hands I bring, only to thy cross I cling,” says the old hymn.

I included a reading from Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (peace be upon him).
In one of his sermons he said:

“You should therefore cut away all the attachments of this world and assist yourselves with the provision of Allah’s fear.”

Ali was the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.
Ali married Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.
When I was in Iraq I visited the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.
It is near the seminary preparing students to become Islamic teachers
and it is near the largest cemetery in the world.
The cemetery is called Wadi Al-Salaam or Valley of Peace.

While we were there,
we would see constant processions of people carrying caskets to the cemetery for burial. Continuous.
A perpetual reminder of mortality.
It is the perfect place for a seminary,
to teach students about the mysteries of God and to prepare them for ministry.

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but your word will stand forever.
In this is our hope,
For you are our God.
Even in the valley of the shadow of death,
You are with us.

Idolatry keeps us from being present to our mortality,
to our vulnerability,
to our need.

The role of true religion,
regardless of the brand,
Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism,
true religion hammers away at our idols,
knocking them down,
stripping away our protective armor,
so that we can experience grace.

It is grace in which we live and move and have our being.

Every lesson is a lesson in grace.
Every test is a test of grace.

We gain our souls when instead of fighting the tests,
Instead of fighting the destruction of our idols,
We accept their destruction.
We welcome it, even if with tears.

All flesh is as grass,
And all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but your word will stand forever.
In this is our hope….

Amen.