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As he got back into the car, his wife asked him if he had had any luck. "Yep," he replied, [Are you ready for this?] "beep repaired!" (1) GROAN!!!
"Be prepared!" The motto for Boy Scouts, and a good motto for anyone. We live in a wildly unpredictable world. Ask the people in the Midwest or Northeast who have been suffering through this horrible winter. Ask the thousands and thousands of Americans whose jobs seemed so secure and promising only a year ago but who are now in unemployment lines. Ask the couple who bought their first house a couple of years ago because of an almost too-good-to-be-true mortgage who are now losing that home because the mortgage was indeed too good to be true. Ask the parents who received the phone call last night and made the mad dash to the Emergency Room praying all the way that their child might survive the accident. Ask the anguished man in Gaza whose home is now a pile of rubble because of the political squabbles surrounding him. We never know, one day to the next. Be prepared.
Of course, the Christian church has preached this theme for generations. Any number of gospel lessons could be used as texts for sermons about being prepared for eternity - the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns to house his worldly goods but who died before getting the chance to enjoy them, (2) or the story of the foolish bridesmaids who were unprepared for the arrival of the bridegroom. (3) In some fundamentalist churches the emphasis is heavily on apocalyptic themes, the rapture of the church, the Great Tribulation, and the imminent return of Christ. There is the threat of being "Left Behind" that has fueled the interest in those best-selling books and the movie that grew out of them. The message is BE PREPARED!
Fine. But this morning I would rather move being prepared back a notch. To insure against the danger of having our eyes so firmly fixed on heaven that we are no earthly good, I would encourage you to BE PREPARED in the here and now. Be prepared for THIS life and the life to come will take care of itself.
How do we go about it? Well, I have some very good news for you. Whether you realize it or not, you have already begun...by being right here. I am absolutely convinced, after a lifetime of dealing with people at the heights, at the depths, and every place in between, that there is no better way to BE PREPARED for life out there than by spending time in here. It is here in God's house that we build the solid foundation that is crucial to surviving the winds and waves that come with the storms of life.
Ann Weems is a wonderful poet, a Presbyterian, the wife of a Presbyterian minister even. Her son Todd was brutally murdered just after his 21st birthday. How does a mother deal with such a devastating blow? Friends tried to help and offer consolation. One was a seminary professor who called to her attention all the biblical material that seemed to be saying so much of exactly what she was feeling. Noting her prodigious poetic talent, he encouraged her to put her feelings to paper. The result is a remarkable compilation that not only helped her healing process but has helped thousands of others as well. The book is titled Psalms of Lament and comes from that collection in scripture where other poets have bared their souls in despair. My copy says, "To David, Through Tears - With Hope. Ann Weems." Her poetic preface, composed after her work was done, describes what she has learned:
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls
of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one. (4)
A promise of healing and wholeness. "Through Tears - With Hope." That is the church.
Many years ago, I was a member of my high school Glee Club -108 young men (it was an all-male high school) and one of our most requested songs was this:
No man stands alone;
Each man's joy is joy to me;
Each man's grief is my own.
We need one another;
We NEED one another. If you recall the story of creation from the first chapter of Genesis, you will remember the litany of "and God created this, and it was good...and God created that, and it was good," and so on. It only takes until the second chapter of Genesis for us to find something that is NOT good - "and God said, 'It is not good for man to be alone.'" No man, no woman, no boy, no girl, is an island.
This is one of the reasons I believe in the church, I encourage folks to attend, and I challenge them to join and take responsibility for what goes on. For all its flaws, for all its foibles, for all its failures, the church is God's divinely instituted way of offering people who need people the chance to find them. It offers the chance to give life meaning through involvement with others. Vaclav Havel, the first President of Czechoslovakia upon its freedom from Communism (and himself a poet and playwright) has said, "The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less." (6) The church cannot and will not allow such a state of blissful ignorance.
We can make a difference, you and I. The vast majority of what happens in our lives is in our hands and is very much of our own choosing. In Robert Fulghum's best-seller with that wonderful title, It Was On Fire When I Laid Down On It (7), he recounts the following conversation: he spoke with a colleague who was complaining that he had the same stuff in his lunch sack day after day. "So who makes your lunch?" Fulghum asked.
"I do," said the friend. Up to us.
A man went for a walk in the forest and got lost. He wandered around for hours trying to find his way back to town, trying one path after another, but none of them led out. Then abruptly he came across another hiker walking through the forest. He cried, "Thank God for another human being. Can you show me the way back to town?"
The other man replied, "No, I am lost too. But we can still help each other in this way - we can tell each other which path we have already tried and been disappointed in. That will help us find the one that leads out." (8)
That is exactly what Christ's church is all about. We make our way through this vale of tears, we become confused, we get lost, we search for a way out. We finally find our way with the help of others who care, others who can share with us their own disappointments, their own blind alleys, their own roads already tried.
The church. Think about how it helps you to be prepared. Early on, from our first days in Sunday School, we learn that "God is great and God is good." God is big and strong and mighty, and there is nothing my God cannot do. God made this world. God made the animals and the birds. God made you and me. Even when we see news of horrible disasters like earthquakes and floods and terrorist bombings, we see miracles as little babies are found alive in the rubble, children reunited with parents after all hope had been lost. We learn that the great God of heaven can take even awful things and bring good out of them.
In the church we learn, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world." Before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC one afternoon and said, "Those of you inside, are you listening? Do you hear me? You have already been defeated. Do you understand that? You have already lost and we on the outside have won. Out here, we know how this struggle for black freedom and liberation will turn out, for God is on the side of the oppressed. It's not 'We shall win.' Oh, no! We have already won! Only you on the inside have not realized it. We outsiders have, and we know the future. We are the future." (9) If you and I ever gave thought to that Bible School song that we sang, we knew that Tutu was right. We saw it, not only as a nation but an entire world, on January 20th as we inaugurated our 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, an African-American. A generation ago, as we watched the fire hoses and police dogs in Montgomery, the beatings at the Pettis bridge in Selma, who woulda thunk it? Yes, changes have come - not finished yet, but on the way.
In the church we learn, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." (10) The Bible. There are many good books in the world, but there are none like THE good book. About 92 percent of Americans own at least one, and the average household has three. It is unrivaled as the world's all-time best-seller. Unfortunately, most Americans are remarkably ignorant of biblical basics. One Gallup survey, for example, shows that fewer than half of our nation can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis). Only one-third knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (many said Billy Graham, not Jesus). One quarter could not say what we are celebrating at Easter. One New Jersey pastor made his own small effort to encourage Bible reading, posting this adage on his church sign: "A Bible that is falling apart usually belongs to a person that isn't." (11)
If we are serious about being prepared, we will take seriously the words that Scoutmaster Paul wrote to Scout Timothy saying, "Continue in what you have learned...from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped...[may BE PREPARED]...for every good work." That was and is one of the lessons of God's house.
In the church we learn, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." We believe, because of what we learn here, that we have a mission in this world. The gospel is good news and it demands to be shared - it deserves to be shouted from the housetops, printed on balloons, slapped on billboards, chanted at ball games, scrawled across the sky. Can't do all those things? We learn in church that one of the best ways to share the gospel is by the way we live.
Most important, we learn, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (12) You scholars know the name Karl Barth, probably the best theologian of the last century. Dr. Barth was asked near the end of his remarkable career to state the most significant truth he had come across in his lifetime of study. After a moment of thought he is reported to have answered, "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so." It is in this holy place we learn that the Jesus we come to know in scripture is living and dying proof of God's love for you and for me.
Do you want to BE PREPARED? Not only for the life to come, but for life in the here and now? Then you have come to the right place. And you are welcome to stay, you and your family and your friends - bring them ALL in. We will help you to...[let me hear you say it, Scouts]...BE PREPARED.
1. Appropriate flames may be directed to "firstname.lastname@example.org."
2. Luke 12:16-20
3. Matthew 25:1-13
4. Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p. xvii
5. Author unknown
6. Quoted by Martin Marty in Context, June 1, 1990
7. New York: Villard Books, 1990, p. 6
8. Harold Kushner, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, (New York: Summit Books, 1986), p. 43
9. Quoted by Marc Mullinax, "Expecting Adventure." The Living Pulpit, Oct.-Dec. 1997, p. 42
10. Psalm 119:105