Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is offering us words to live by.
“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)
Each of us, in our own way, is inclined to worry. Maybe we worry about where our next meal will come from, or maybe we have the luxury of worrying if our meal was sustainably farmed. We might worry about having enough warm clothes for the winter, or if we look foolish in our clothes, if they fit right. Possibly we worry about being able to afford a gift for our loved one, or why we give one another so much stuff we really don’t need, or deep down, even want. We worry about the complexities within our relationships with significant others, siblings, children, in-laws, and friends. We worry about the drama that unfolds as we break bread together during our Thanksgiving meal and beside our Christmas tree. Will Aunt Edith be drunk before noon? Will Johnny even show up this year? Will Uncle Tom storm out, slamming every possible door on his way? Will mom live long enough to see Christmas? Will I still have a job come New Years Day? We find all sorts of ways to cope with these worries, often by over consuming and indulging. Anything that will make us feel better for a bit.
Yet, there is another way to live. We can choose to follow Jesus, the Christ, the Love that walks this earth. In doing so, we are committing to a lifetime of putting our trust in God. It’s not just a one time action. It’s a daily, sometimes hourly, conscious decision to turn our worries, our insecurities, our fears, our very livelihood over to God. And whenever we realize worry has started to drive us, we can hit the brakes, and turn our attention back to God. This is the rhythm we are called to live into. This is what it means to walk the Way of Love.
If there is one lesson Jesus is trying to help the gathered crowd understand, as he preaches his famous Sermon on the Mount, it is that God’s love for us is unconditional. There is nothing any of us can ever do to escape God’s love for us. And all we need to do, to experience the transformative power of God’s love, is to accept it. When we make that daily, sometimes hourly, conscious decision to be in relationship with God, we are accepting God’s gift, God’s love for us, a way of being that acknowledges we are more than good enough, we are worthy of that kind of unconditional love. Jesus points to the examples of God’s love for us in creation:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30).
Stories of trusting in God’s radical love and care for us surround us. In creation, we are reminded by the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We are reminded by the stories of our neighbors; in art and literature.
In Linda Sue Park’s book, A Long Walk to Water, readers are inspired by the true story of Salva Dut, who in 1985 was an 11 year old boy that was separated from his family, in what is now South Sudan in the Second Sudanese Civil War. Overnight, Salva became one of the 17,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. Salva walks with other refugees for weeks on end, struggling to survive, as other Lost Boys and fellow travelers perished from hunger, thirst, disease, wild animals, and military attacks. During his initial journey to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he reunites with his uncle. As Salva’s body and mind became weaker, he wondered how much longer he could go on. Yet, Salva’s uncle gently pushed him, giving him small goals----just walk to that tree, now just walk to that rock. It becomes Salva’s philosophy for life, one goal, one day, one step at a time.
Later, when they were forced to leave the Ethiopia refugee camp, Salva found himself leading 1,500 other lost boys to a refugee camp in Kenya. He led them there using the same small goals that brought him this far. Eventually, Salva learns he will head to a family in Rochester, New York. He describes the strange sensation of putting on so many clothes at once--shirt, shoes, pants, underwear, and socks after years in a threadbare pair of shorts and a t-shirt. On the airplane ride, the bubbles of a coca-cola reminded him of his early childhood, when his father once brought back a single glass bottle for his entire family to sip from.
As a young adult Salva felt called to help those in South Sudan gain safe and accessible access to water, and founded Water for South Sudan. With the help of some trusted friends, including his church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, Bishop Jack McKelvey, and the Diocese of Rochester, Salva began to raise funds. The publication of the book, A Long Walk to Water, helped his foundation to soar, and to date they have built 349 wells, each serving 600-750 people. All because Salva chose to trust, as he took one step at a time as a Lost Boy in Sudan, and then again as a young man, when he trusted if he kept telling his story, that eventually they would begin to bring clean water to South Sudan.
One way I try to live into the words in today’s gospel, is with a practice I began in late summer. When I find myself worked up, anxious, or unsure of how to handle a situation…When I find myself frustrated with my own shortcomings or those of others... When I am worried about a particular individual…I write a few words on the scrap paper, offer a prayer to God, and place the scrap in the paper box. In doing so...I am physically trying to take my worry and put it in God’s hands. I am trying to let go. I am trying be present to God’s love and let it wash over me. A week or two later I’ll look at the offerings. Whatever has been resolved, I give thanks to God for. If something is still ongoing, I offer more prayers of trust. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps me to let go of my worries and trust in God.
As we enter this season of gratitude, as well as, a season ripe with complexities in our relationships with others, I would like to invite us to practice a similar exercise. You each have an envelope, an index card, a piece of paper, and pen. On the envelope I’d like you to address the envelope to yourself. On the piece of paper you will see two questions:
Please write your answers on the index card, stuff the envelope and seal it. No one but you and God will ever see what you write. You’ll have 2-3 minutes, and when you are ready, come forward and put it in this basket, or signal an Usher or myself to come get it from you. In six to eight weeks, I am going to mail these to you. I hope it will be a reminder of all there is to give thanks for in this season, as well as a way to practice trusting in God. Amen.
By Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
To every thing (“Turn Turn Turn”) there is a season (“Turn Turn Turn”), and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; A time to kill, and a time to heal.
So today is a season, if you will, of honoring veterans, and in some case a hoping of healing for them.
As most of us know, today, the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great World War, or “The War to End all Wars.” The 11th of November was first called Armistice Day, and then Veterans Day, and eventually it was a national holiday. (There is a fascinating article in this past week’s New Yorker about the end of that war, titled “The Eleventh Hour,” being as strange as its beginning.)
Veterans Day is for honoring living veterans, as opposed to Memorial Day in May when we remember the fallen. But I think it’s human nature to remember the fallen ones today as well.
Let me tell you right off that I’m a veteran.
My father and my three uncles and my grandfathers and two great-grandfathers were all veterans. One of my great-grandfathers, John Pender McLeod, who fought at Gettysburg and other places joined the 14th Vermont
Regiment just up the road in Brattleboro.
My dad was a fighter pilot in WWII. In 1940, he and his brother talked the local recruiting office into promising they could serve together as pilots. It wasn’t approved policy, but somehow it all worked out and they went through flight training and duty assignments in England, Ireland, North Africa and Italy together.
We have lots of newspaper clippings written about the exploits of those “Flying Hattendorf Brothers.” Gene Autry’s weekly radio program during the war did a radio dramatization with actors and sound effects and dramatic music playing as they acted out one of their P-38 missions.
My own military service in the Army was in 1969-71. I did basic and advanced training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I got pulled out of training regularly to help with military funerals in the state, as there seemed to be lots of them there that fall. I was a military pallbearer for 22 funerals in four months, (and almost all of the deceased died in Vietnam). At the end of the graveside portion, after Taps is played, the flag is carefully folded into a triangle and is presented to the next of kin. The officer-in-charge takes a knee and says, “On behalf of the President and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Those words stick in my mind: “On behalf of a grateful nation” … that’s what we do on Veterans Day … we come together as a “grateful nation” to give thanks for “honorable and faithful service.”
When I got to Nam, I first served with the 75th Rangers, Company F, attached to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, serving in Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of my assignments were going out in six-man teams on long range reconnaissance patrols, secretly imbedding ourselves for a couple of days and nights to watch enemy movements. It was a difficult time. I lost my best friend there, Fred Hopson.
Truth be told, I was never enthusiastic about serving in the war in Vietnam, but I gave it my all, made the best of it, thinking I was trying to make my own small corner of the world a better place.
When I came home I was not spit on and I didn’t get things thrown at me like some Vietnam returnees I know did, but I came home right as the sentencing was happening for Lt. William Calley over atrocities committed in the My Lai massacre. So when I got home, all anybody wanted to ask me was how many women and babies did I kill? And even though I hadn’t killed a single woman or baby, that was not a conversation I wanted to have. I just wanted to get back to civilian life.
I literally put Vietnam away – my uniform and medals and all in a box in the back of a closet at my parents house. I asserted that Vietnam didn’t have any effect on me. I refused to count the two birthdays I spent over there.
I thought I was seamlessly reentering civilian life. Perhaps in some ways I was. But old friends, besides having aged a bit, did seem a little different. I was sure I hadn’t changed at all, of course. It took me 35 years to figure out I had some issues to deal with.
But I did. And I have. And I hope I’m the stronger for it.
To everything there is a season: a time to build up, a time to break down; a time to rend, a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks – He goes on a tirade about the scribal class, although Mark is full of tension between Jesus and the scribes. Did the scribes really cheat widows out of their homes? We don’t know, but through that Mark gives us a way to connect that lesson with Jesus’s observation of a poor widow giving all she had, which seems to be more about the ways the scribes treasury consumed the means of the poor.
But the widow still gave … out of a sense of obligation, perhaps, out of a sense of hope. In ancient Israel, the poor were not required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for the religious institution to remain. She was serving society in the only way she was able. I relate to that personally in that I thought by accepting my military call, I was serving society as well.
To everything there is a season. This season right now, this time of year, always feels different to me; it does funny things to me. I suspect that fewer hours of daylight effect some things.
But to some me, the season we’re in right now is “All Saints,” not just the All Saints Day last Sunday. The season began the first of November or before, and it goes on through Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, at least to Epiphany. I think of these 10 weeks or so as “All Saints Season.” During this time, manifested publicly at our house with a candle in every window, I feel I have a heightened awareness of the spiritual – I’m in an intensified period of what my Scottish grandmother called the “thin places.”
“Thin places” are those times or events in our lives when it seems like the veil between heaven and earth – or between this visible, touchable, physical world and the invisible, spiritual, eternal world is stretched very thin. It happens when the curtain between them seems more porous – thinner – and between heaven and earth – between the here and now and the there and then – communication seems to pass back and forth more easily, that we’re in a more Godly place, when we are more hyper-aware of life’s deeper meaning.
God feels closer, and we feel more interconnected. Everything that has happened before has led us to this moment, and this moment is part of a larger, unfolding future. Thin places are mystical. You can’t create them or invent them; they simply happen. They come from God. I think of them occurring mostly in peaceful or beautiful or magnificent places, but thin spaces happened for me in training and in wartime.
One of the ways armies train you for war is to debase the enemy, to make the people you’re fighting against less than human. One way of coping with war was to de-personalize those other folks (even of the good guys and the bad guys looked exactly alike).
Most of our travel in Vietnam was by helicopter, but we used trucks sometimes if we weren’t going very far. About two-thirds of the way through my tour, I can remember going through a village in a convoy on the back of the last truck. Most of the people were walking in the same direction we were going. They had separated up ahead to let us go through, and I was seeing the people funneling back together behind us, all of these eyes looking up at us as we blankly stared out at them – or over them. And I’m not sure exactly what happened, but calling it a “thin place” is about the only answer I’ve ever come up with.
Somebody I told this to suggested it seemed like a “silent thunderclap.” All of a sudden, for me, this sea of humanity that I’d been seeing for the last ten months without personality or personal traits, mysteriously turned into individual people with individual faces. All of a sudden, they became real people, with personal stories, and that changed the whole nature and experience of the war for me. Frankly, It made my last months in country more difficult. More wrenching.
This time of year, in this “thin place,” I’m filled with gratitude for all of God’s blessings. High among those blessings are the sacrifices of so many veterans, living and gone. They came from farms and from cities, they came from colleges and factories. They came – white, black, red, yellow, brown – with Polish names, Italian, Jewish, Russian, African, English, or Arabic names. They answered the call from every quarter and section of our American life.
Some years ago, I encountered a “thin place” that was military related, but not about my service. My dad was involved with reunions of his 82nd Fighter Group Association. Dad was president of the group for a while, and hosted some 350 people when he brought the reunion to Atlanta one year. As the original members began dying off, they starting inviting family members along. The first one Sheila and I attended was in Hartford in 2003. There were air museum tours, a river boat ride, and a memorial service for those who had died in the last year, but the event that I remember most was the final banquet.
There were flourishes like the color guard, and presentation a rose to each lady present. The pledge of allegiance was amazingly emotional. At one point, each former service member was asked to give his name, home state, when he’d served, and what his duty was.
I think the first to talk probably seemed the oldest. Dave Hawkins was in a wheelchair with his wife beside him. From Idaho, he’d joined the Army Air Corps when his was 18, and married his high school sweetheart a week before shipping out. Their youngest daughter was with them. He’d been a crew chief.
The next person was Olin Medley, joining up part-way through college. He was a pilot, like my dad; in fact the two of them crossed the ocean together on the Queen Mary. His wife and two daughters were with him, and he was from Oklahoma City, where he still lived.
Early in those personal introductions, I had closed my eyes, not really thinking about it, as I listened to each speaker. In my mind’s eye, I could see each speaker in his youth, full of vim and vigor, these now older, senior veterans. What hopes, dreams, and visions they must have had as they answered their nation’s call. What heart-break they felt as they left careers, girl-friends, parents, children. I saw them in their former youth … and I suspected that they saw themselves momentarily back in their youth as well.
The master of ceremonies for the evening, Monty Powers, talked about how they had been part of something larger than themselves – that the missions couldn’t have happened without the P38 pilots in the air but also the ground crew on earth to keep the planes flying and all the support at home and from the allies to keep the machine of war going on to victory. He spoke of how all our common life depends upon this sense of teamwork and sacrifice.
The freedom we enjoy, this abundance of life, the liberties we so easily take for granted were paid for at huge cost. 43 million Americans have offered themselves for this freedom; two million were permanently disabled due to battle wounds, and 660,000 have paid the supreme sacrifice of their own lives.
We are – all of us – so much more interconnected than we know. Actions of veterans way back in the 1770s or the 1860s have had a huge impact our lives today (to say nothing of more recent wars)
“On behalf of a grateful nation …”
So in this season that I call “All Saints,” on this Veterans Day weekend, I invite you to acknowledge – to join me – in this “thin place” in which we find ourselves surrounded – surrounded – by so great a cloud of witnesses. Can you sense their presence? Many of them have sat in these pews and worshipped in this space. All the Saints.
Let us be thankful … for those who have gone before … and for those 25 million veterans who are still living in our midst. May we truly be “a grateful nation.” Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The world is full of suffering. So much of it feels incomprehensible and entirely demoralizing. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, find ourselves asking how a just God can allow the suffering we see.
Sometimes the suffering is personal and individual. This summer I visited with a hospice patient who was dying, in her 40’s, and leaving behind children. She asked why God was letting this happen to her.
Sometimes the world’s suffering happens on a larger scale, either as a result of human frailty, or human evil. Yesterday we again heard the devastating news of a mass shooting in a congregation of people simply gathered for prayer, and in recent months we have watched the unfolding drama of persons fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands, looking for asylum in our own country, only to be turned away (at best) or put into detention.
And this is apart from the tragedy of millions losing their homes, businesses, and sometimes their lives to extreme weather events occurring (at least in part) because our species has been unwilling to make the changes that might alter the course of global warming.
How can God allow it? This is the question asked by an ancient poet who took an even more ancient legend and produced the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, from which we have been hearing excerpts for the last three weeks, and then again this morning.
The legend that opens and closes Job is a pretty disturbing tale. The narrator tells us that a man named Job was a person of integrity, and without sin. He was fully blessed by wealth, family, and the respect of all who knew him.
One day it seems that things got boring in the heavenly court where God hung out with the angels, and was bragging about Job and Job’s faithfulness. An accusing angel suggested that Job was only faithful because he had it so easy. And so God and the Accuser decided to enter into a bet. God allowed the Accuser, Satan, to punish Job with terrible suffering, to determine whether Job would retain his faith or not.
And so Job’s sons and daughters were all killed in a terrible building collapse, and his servants and flocks likewise all died in a series of attacks by enemies, and finally, Job himself contracted a horrible disease. Despite his wife’s loss of faith – she urged him to “Curse God and die” – Job remained faithful.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken;” he told her, “may the name of the Lord be blessed”*. This is the Job of whom James wrote in his Epistle, when he spoke of “the patience of Job”.
As Job sat, living with the losses that had befallen him, three of his friends came to visit, to mourn with and comfort him.
And then the great poem that constitutes the Book of Job begins, and it tells a different story than the one to which we had been listening.
The poet’s Job finds, in himself, a different voice, and he begins to cry out in outrage against the troubles that have befallen him.
God damn the day I was born, and the night that forced me from the womb…
Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark?
Now I would be at rest.
Job’s friends, who have sat silently with him up until this point, can’t live with this angry Job’s new attitude.
They are very certain of the way reality is structured – God rewards the just and punishes evildoers. The tragedies that have happened to their friend must be the result of SOME sin he has committed: he needs to acknowledge it, and perhaps God will show mercy.
For about 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate the question of whether his suffering is the result of his (or even his children’s) sin, with both sides becoming increasing more strident and insistent.
God doesn’t make mistakes, the friends argue – there must be something Job has forgotten, which has caused his punishment, and the sooner he acknowledges it, the better. He will only be getting himself into worse cahoots with God if he persists in his denials.
For his part, Job grows more and more adamant that God is not behaving with the justice that Job expects of God:
God does not care: so I say
he murders both the pure and the wicked.
How can I prove my innocence?
Do I have to beg him for mercy?
Job eventually addresses himself directly to God – demanding a reckoning, his day in court, as it were:
Grant me one thing only, and I will not hide from your face:
Accuse me…I will respond
Or let me speak, and answer me.
What crime have I committed,
and how have I sinned against you?
Why do you hide your face
As if I were your enemy?
And so eventually God does show up, and responds to Job in a voice out of the whirlwind.
But God does not give Job the answers he demands: instead, he gives Job more questions. In a stunning series of images, God asks Job, in effect, “what do you really know?”
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Have you ever commanded morning,
Or guided dawn to its place?
Do you hunt game for the lioness
And feed her ravenous cubs?
Do you tell the antelope to calve,
Or ease her when she is in labor?
Do you show the hawk how to fly,
Stretching his wings on the wind?
And, astonishingly, God acknowledges the validity of Job’s challenges:
Do you dare to deny my judgement?
Am I wrong because you are right?
And after hearing God’s words, Job is both silenced and satisfied:
I know you can do all things,
And nothing you wish is impossible.
I have spoken of the unspeakable
And tried to grasp the infinite.
I had heard of you with my ears
But now my eyes have seen you.
The translation we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation, has Job conclude with these words:
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I much prefer the translation of poet Stephen Mitchell:
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The Book of Job concludes with a return to the original legend. God chastises Job’s friends:
You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
God rewards Job with a return to health and prosperity, and Job lives for a hundred and forty years and “dies at a very great age”.**
So does this help us to understand the world’s sufferings that we began with?
Of course it doesn’t.
What this magnificent text teaches us is that we’re not God, and we are not going to understand. It holds a mirror up to the foolishness of our desire to write the rules and define the terms. Like Job, we don’t command the morning, or feed the lioness’ cubs, or show the hawk how to fly.
Our job is to live the best lives we can and do as much good as we can, accepting as graciously as we can the troubles that come our way, without claiming the right to determine whether or not they are “fair”.
And the text teaches us something else as well.
It reminds us of the grace of God’s presence with us, even in our most painful times.
It reminds us that even in the reality of our pain, it’s not all about us. As Job discovered, there is some comfort in understanding that we are dust, and that we only need to be ourselves, that we don’t need to be God.
When terrible things happen, we need to grieve, and then, little by little, we need to move forward, back into the blessings that we lose sight of when we suffer loss.
Ours is a faith that the cross is followed by the resurrection. Our call is to embody God’s presence in the world, through our love and service.
IN the name of God. Amen
**All quotations from Job in this sermon (except where otherwise noted) are from the Stephen Mitchell translation, published by Harper Perennial, 1987