Age to Age: Celebrating Gwen Long’s 100th Birthday

Gwen and George Long

Psalm 71 NRSV

Psalm 71 is a beautiful declaration of an individual’s trust and hope in the faithfulness of God through every stage of their life: birth (v. 6), youth (vv. 5, 17), and old age (vv. 9, 18). Throughout any long life filled with many ups and downs, the Psalmist wants people to know that God can be trusted.

Most scholars believe that Psalm 71 is the declaration of a person in the latter stage of life who is uniquely capable of reflecting on all of life’s stages. Some suggest it could belong to an older David written shortly after Absalom’s revolt, but most believe it was an older member of the Rechabite community that was living in exile. Verse 21 suggests that it could have been a leader of that community offering hope to others during exile.

What a God-given coincidence that one of our lectionary readings for this day is this beautiful Psalm. Because on this day, we celebrate that this community called First Christian Church in Fort Smith has such a leader—someone who comes to us today on her 100thbirthday to offer all of us much hope.

Gwen was born on August 25, 1919 in Antlers, Oklahoma to Hugh and Lillie Vaughn.

Born ten years before the Great Depression, Gwen is probably the only person who is here today who rode a horse to grade school.

Gwen’s childhood was a rather unsettled time as the family lived in various places in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwen’s father would find different work in the new oil industry.

When Gwen graduated from the 8thgrade, her dad said that he could help get her an apartment as she continued her education, but she would need to find work to pay for room and board, which was not an easy thing to in that time.

At first, Gwen got a temporary job helping a woman in Camargo, Oklahoma who was pregnant. Then, she got another temporary job helping a Catholic woman who had several children. This was before Gwen was baptized into the Christian Church, so she recounts: “She must not have been a very good Catholic, because if she was, I suppose I would be a Catholic today.”

During her sophomore year, Gwen worked in a cafe south of Woodward, Oklahoma. But Gwen said that was a difficult experience, because the woman she worked for was an alcoholic and she “didn’t much care for that.”

Frustrated with her job in the cafe, as she was walking home one day, she happened upon a couple sitting in their front yard. They owned a mercantile store in Vici, Oklahoma. When they found out that Gwen was looking for a job, they said to Gwen: “Young lady, we have been praying for God to send us a daughter!”

The couple were leaders in the Christian Church. Gwen not only started working in their store, but she started attending their church, and at the age of 16, Gwen was baptized. Although she could not see it then, looking back she says she knows that it was God’s providential presence led her to that couple. For this is when life took a very promising turn for Gwen.

She soon met a young man who was working at a full-service filling station named Oliver Wendell Beck. After a courtship, the couple was married in 1937. World War II had just started when their son Kenneth was born on January 2, 1940 in Seiling, Oklahoma.

At this time, a new Air Corps Basic Flying School was being constructed in Enid, Oklahoma where Wendell landed a good job. However, not long after the young family moved to Enid, while Wendell was helping to unload gravel from a box car with a piece of heavy equipment, he was accidentally and tragically crushed to death.

Gwen remembers “There I was a widow and a single mother of a two year-old after four short years of marriage. She adds: “I was only 22 and had no sense. There is no way I could have endured that period in my life without God. I know God was with me.”

Gwen miraculously had the determination, the wherewithal and the strength to move back to Vici where she found childcare for Kenneth, worked hard and finished High School graduating as the Valedictorian of her class.

One day, a man from Oklahoma City was driving by the school looking for a secretary. The man saw Gwen and asked her to get in his car so he could dictate a letter for her. When Gwen finished writing the letter, the man read it and hired her on the spot. She then moved to Oklahoma City where she was able buy a house for her and little Kenny

Gwen soon learned of a grand opportunity at the Douglas Aircraft plant in Midwest City. This is where Gwen would become a real-life Rosie the Riveter. Their spirit of “We Can Do It” inspired not only their contemporaries but each subsequent generation of working women in all fields of employment.

More than ten-thousand Oklahoma women worked at the Douglas Aircraft Company and Tinker Field during the Second World War.

And Gwen adds that as a riveter, she made “barrels of money.”

During this period, Gwen received word that one of her good friends who in was living in California went through a painful divorce. Gwen, who had not that long ago lost her husband empathized with her friend’s loss like few others could. To help her distraught friend, she sold her car, and boarded a train with little Kenny and headed west where another riveting job awaited her in California.

Looking back, she knows without a doubt that the presence of God was with her and Kenny on that train.

After comforting her friend in her grief, and perhaps having been comforted herself in her own grief, yet another sign of God’s providential care, Gwen transferred back to the Douglas Plant in Midwest City. When the war was over, she got a job in the cosmetic department at Haliburton in Oklahoma City. It was then that her friend from California moved back to become a beauty operator at Haliburton. Soon after moving back, her friend met a soldier who had just returned from overseas, and the two of them married.

What does this have to do with Gwen?

Well, one of her friend’s customers had a brother who had also just returned from serving overseas in France and Italy. And obviously feeling grateful to Gwen for giving her hope after her divorce in California, she set up a blind date up for Gwen to meet this soldier. His name was George Long.

Gwen said that she was single 9 years after losing Wendell, because she never met anyone she wanted to marry, someone who would be a good daddy to Kenny. She says she supposes Kenny made her picky. George, however, fit the bill. George was college-educated, smart, handsome, an Army Major and a good father.

After marrying, George and Gwen raised Kenny and two had two girls Carolyn and Kathleen.

Gwen remembers that period of her life between marriages vividly. She said most of the time she really didn’t know what she was doing. Moving to Oklahoma City as a secretary and then taking the job at the Douglas plant and then going all the way out to California and then back to Oklahoma. She says, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I just did it.” But looking back, “I know it was God leading me, helping me. I know it was God’s presence.”

George and Gwen had a wonderful life together. Kathleen and Carolyn were both able to go to college, something Gwen was never able to do. And fortunate for First Christian Church, George transferred to Fort Smith as an engineer with OG&E. They joined our church after attending the first service here in this sanctuary. Here, George worked tirelessly on our Property Committee. Gwen sewed the drapes for the baptistery and made the cover for our piano. They both devoted their lives to this church.

During George’s retirement, they had the wonderful opportunity to spend 20 years traveling in RV’s across the country.

After many wonderful years, tragedy struck Gwen’s life once more as her son Kenny was diagnosed with brain cancer. After a 2-3 year-long courageous battle, on September 4, 2006, Kenny died. He was only 66 years old. Your children are supposed to bury you; you are not supposed to bury your children. And to compound the tragedy for Gwen, just three short months later on November 28, George, her beloved husband of 58 years, passed away.

Gwen said that losing her son and husband so close together was devastating, but she knows God was there, and it was God who got her through it.

Life after George has not been easy for Gwen. Although Gwen said George left her well taken care of, she says the only trips that she has been able to take since she turned 90 are trips to the doctor. She says she used to go anywhere she wanted to go, but now, living at Brookdale Assisted Living, “she only goes down to eat at 8, 12, and 5.”

She says she doesn’t know what she would do without Carolyn and Kathleen and calls them both gifts from God. “God has been so good to me, my whole life long,” she says.

And today, on her 100thbirthday, her very presence with us is a declaration of God’s faithfulness that offers us so much hope, hope that only someone who has experienced God’s protection and deliverance throughout a life-time can give us.

Her sense of humor, her smile, her laugh, her honesty (which sometimes can be brutal), the way she is still so very much engaged in the life of this community fills us with so much hope.

She gives us hope that although we experience many hardships in life (death, divorce, disease, in a thousand different ways we experience them), those hardships are never lasting. However, the faithfulness of God is lasting, from age to age.

Like the Psalmist, perhaps the eldest leader of the Rechabite Community, Gwen, our eldest leader gives all of us hope, for…
1 In God, Gwen has taken refuge;
and she has never been put to shame.
2 In God’s righteousness God has delivered Gwen, rescued Gwen; inclined God’s ear to Gwen and is to Gwen a rock of refuge, a strong fortress.

5 For the Lord is her hope,
her trust, from her youth.
6 Upon God she has leaned from her birth;

And today, she praises God continually.
8 Her mouth is filled with God’s praise,
and glory all day long.
9 The Lord will never cast her off in the time of old age;
or ever forsake her when her strength is spent.
12 God has never and will never be far from her.
God will always make haste to help her!
14 Thus, she hopes continually,
and will praise God yet more and more.
15 Her mouth will tell of God’s righteous acts,
of God’s deeds of salvation all day long,
though their number is past her knowledge.

17 From her youth God has taught Gwen,
and she still proclaims God’s wondrous deeds.
18 So even to old age and grey hairs,
God will not forsake her, and today on her 100thbirthday, she comes into to the house of God to proclaim God’s might
to all the generations to come.

20 The Lord has revived her from many troubles and calamities
and she knows that
even from the depths of the earth
God will bring her up again.

And the good news is that God’s faithfulness that Gwen has experienced throughout her life is for all people. As Gwen has trusted in God’s faithfulness, so can we. The good news is that Gwen’s story of trusting in God’s providential care from age to age is not the only story in this room.

So today, as a community of faith, we join hands with Gwen to praise God. Our lips shout for joy. For, with Gwen, our souls have also been rescued!

Thanks be to God!

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When God Refuses to Listen

heather in ainsleys chair

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NRSV

I like to be honest from this pulpit. I like to be real. So let’s be really honest this morning. Have you ever prayed and had the feeling that God’s not listening?

You come to this place of worship and you go through all of the motions. You sing all of the hymns. You actually pray during the moment of silence, instead of spending those moments planning the rest of your day. You listen reverently to the choir’s anthem, and like few people, you even listen intently to every word of the sermon. But as the organist begins playing the prelude, you wonder if it was all just a big waste of time.

I believe this is a reason some people stay home on Sunday mornings. They are not getting through to God and God isn’t getting through to them. Sometimes, they blame it one the music. They say that the music just doesn’t inspire them. But most of the time, it is the preacher’s fault. They usually say something like, “I am just not being fed anymore at that church.” Have you heard that before?

Well, Isaiah suggests that their belief that worship is a waste of their time, that God is not listening, is not the choir director’s fault, and it may not be the preacher’s fault either.

Isaiah says that the reason that you may feel like worship is not bringing you close to God, the reason you don’t feel like God is listening, the reason that you feel like God has not heard a word you’ve said is because God has not been listening to a word you’ve said.

Isaiah says that if we truly want to know that God is listening to us, if we truly want to feel close to God, if we want our worship on Sunday to mean something, there are some things that we must do.

And if we don’t do those things, according to Isaiah, God might respond to our worship this way: “What are your services to me? I have had it up to here, I am sick to my stomach of all your worship! I have no desire for any of it. Stop tramping into my courts. And I have had enough of your preacher with his fancy robe who thinks he is all that with all of his seminary degrees. Your prayers, your hymns, they have become a burden to me. I have stopped listening!”

So, according to Isaiah, what must we do to be heard by God?

Put away the evil of your deeds. Pursue justice and champion the oppressed, give the orphan his rights, plead the widow’s cause.

If we want to be heard by God, if we want worship to be meaningful, Isaiah says that we better doing what we can help the most vulnerable members of our community.

My friend Rev. Dr. William Barber has he wonders why we spend so much time doing the things about which “God says so little” while spending so little time on the things about which “God says so much.”

I wonder if Isaiah is suggesting that the church might re-evaluate our ministry-team meetings. Like any congregational-led church, we have a lot of meetings here. We are having several tonight.

If Isaiah was here, he might ask us: “What has been the subject of your longest, most arduous church meeting? What was the agenda of that meeting that caused your spouse at home to worry about you, or even question your whereabouts, because they thought you should have been home hours earlier?”

Was it about how our church could could advocate for those in our community who feel oppressed? Was it about meeting the needs of children who do not have the support of family? Was it about defending the rights of widows or the rights of the most vulnerable members of our community? Was the agenda something about which God says so much? Or was the agenda something about which God says so little?

Rev. Michael MacDonald writes that many Christian Americans not only never have any lengthy church meetings about how they can better serve the poor, they just simply have a bad attitude about serving the poor. So bad, that many folks probably wished they had the license to rewrite the many scriptures which speak for the poor.

I would argue that many people actually believe they have such a license. Because as a pastor, it has been my experience that whenever I have spoken on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, someone almost always accuses me of being a “liberal.” Then, they will something like, “The Bible says that God helps those who help themselves.”

When in fact, the overall message of the Bible says nothing close to that. Aesop’s Fables say that. Benjamin Franklin said that. Thus, I want to respond: “Who’s the liberal here? The one who is conserving the Judeo-Christian teachings of the Scriptures to help the poor and champion the oppressed, or the one who is re-writing the scriptures with the words of a fable or Deist Ben Franklin?”

For example: This is how McDonald said some Americans would rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan:

The lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “Now by chance a priest was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and saw a man who was hungry and ill clad.  He thought about stopping to help him, but decided that the man had probably been planted there by advocates for the homeless, so he walked by on the other side lest he give encouragement to those who wanted to divide society along class lines in order to gain political power for themselves.

So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, thought about helping him. But the Levite was afraid that he would rob the man of his independence, and he could plainly see that the man had sandal straps by which to pull himself up. So, he too, passes by on the other side.

But a Samaritan came near him and was moved by self-righteous pity. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds pouring oil and wine on them, no doubt as a publicity stunt to make his own self feel good and look good before his peers.

Then the Samaritan put the man on his own animal and brought him to an inn. The next day, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, and will repay you whatever more you spend,” thus encouraging the injured man to live like a parasite off other people’s hard-earned wealth.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?  The lawyer said, “[Well of course] the two who showed him mercy by walking by on the other side.”

And God says, “You can pray without ceasing, but I won’t be listening. I won’t listen to those of you who pervert justice, those of who champion the cause of the rich and powerful, those of you who take advantage of the powerless. God ahead, have yourselves a worship service, have two of them, but I won’t be there.” God says, “I simply don’t listen to the prayers of those who are all about feeding themselves while orphans and widows, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, go hungry.”

I believe Baptist evangelist Tony Campolo is right when he says that the one thing every Christian should do is not only write a check to help the poor, but help the poor in such a way that we actually build a relationship with them, get to know them on a personal level.

When I have been in conversations with churches about feeding the food-insecure, I always say that I believe we should merely hand them a meal.

I believe we should to sit down at the table with them, and get to know them, listen to them, love them, befriend them, be family to them. Let them know that we are willing to fight for them, defend their rights and plead their case. Be there to help them become the person that God is calling them to be.

Campolo says, in a way that only a good ol’ Baptist could say it, that one important reason that Christians should want to actually sit down at the table with people who are poor is because on the last day, when you are standing before the Great Judge, as God is separating the sheep from the goats and points to us and asks the question, “When have you clothed the naked, fed the hungry, given drink the thirsty, when have you shown generosity to the least of these my brothers and my sisters?”—That is when you are going to want to have the new friend you met around that table standing beside you, and you are going to want to be able to turn to them pat them on the back, and say with a confident smile, “Go ahead, you tell it.”

Do you want to come to this place on Sunday morning and really have an encounter with God? When Mary Beth begins playing the Postlude, do you want to know that you have actually communed with the creator of all that is? Isaiah, and I believe Jesus says, that will depend on how you commune with the most vulnerable members of our community.

Steady Until Sunset: Remembering Larry Gene Vaughn

Larry Vaughn

In the 17thchapter of the Book of Exodus we read the amazing story of how the Israelites defeated of their enemy, the Amaleks. The Amaleks were a group of nomads who attacked the Hebrews in the desert of Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The Amaleks swooped in on the Israelites and cowardly killed those who were lagging behind.

For that is what the enemies of life do. For some the enemy is cancer. For some it is diabetes, renal failure and heart disease.

And when the enemies of this life attack us, we are faced with a choice. We can surrender to our enemies; we can succumb to their attacks; we can bemoan or whine, or we can stand our ground and fight.

Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some men for us and go out; and fight with Amalek.’

This week, I have heard more than one person say that they had no idea Larry had the health issues that he had or that Larry must have had more health problems than he let on.

Because Larry was always so positive. Always upbeat, steady. Although he spent five hours a day, three days a week in a dialysis unit, he never complained.

He knew he had an amazing life. He was grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time in over 40 countries through the Oil and Gas industry, to learn different customs and to appreciate different traditions. I love listening to his stories, especially the way he would describe the beauty of wildlife in different parts of the world and the food he enjoyed while traveling. Always remaining true to his positive spirit, every steak he ate was the best piece of beef, and every deer he saw was a monster.

Many men in Larry’s health surrender and succumb to such illnesses. They lose strength within to fight, to continue living, to continue working. They can reach down and dig deep; however, there is just nothing left. No amount of digging will see them through.

However, men with faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Joshua, men with faith in the God, understand that true strength does not come from within, but comes from and by the grace of God.

Moses said to Joshua:

Choose an army and fight. I, myself, retired a long time ago from fighting. I am too old, too tired, but I will stand on the top of a hill and raise the staff of God with my hands and summon the grace and strength of God to defeat our enemy.

So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of a hill. 

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Moses noticed that Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, he noticed that Amalek prevailed. [This was a certain sign that it was God, and God alone, who was giving the Israelites the grace, perseverance and strength to defeat their enemy].

I don’t believe can be no other explanation for the optimism and positive spirit of Larry Vaughn considering his poor health. It was more than some inborn competitive sprit or personal determination, drive or grit. It was something divine.

Larry simply never quit. He kept persevering. He kept fighting. He wanted to do whatever he could to keep to keep living, to keep working, to keep hunting, to keep being there for his family and friends. “Oh, to do that, I need to have a triple bypass and possibly a valve replacement to be on the kidney donor list. Ok, sign me up!”

Many studies have been made to identify symptoms of depression or the giving up on life. People who give up and surrender to the enemies of life become detached and disengaged from the world around them. They no longer care what their neighbors are up to. They begin to ignore their children and their grandchildren. They stop communicating with their spouse, and most certainly with their ex-spouse. They become disinterested in their church.  And they stop paying attention to the news and to sports.

Although dialysis took a toll on Larry, he possessed any of these symptoms. Larry enjoyed his evenings with Elizabeth, watching the news, the wheel of fortune and a movie. He was forever selflessly doing things for his Jason and Jordon, always finding time to do things with and for Grayson. Through thick and thin, he never missed a day without checking in with them. Just as he did throughout his life, no matter where he was.

He was not only interested in his church, attending every Sunday, but he was even interested in his pastor. He kept up with my work with persons with special needs through Ainsley’s Angels on facebook. He became especially concerned about me when he discovered that I had not been hunting since 1993. So concerned, that he scheduled us a dove hunting adventure for the first of September.

He cared about what was going on in the world, and he was in no way, shape or form disengaged from sports. He continued to follow his alma mater Arkansas Tech in sports and loved watching Razorback game.

It was obvious to everyone that knew Larry, that he never gave up. For as Isaiah 40:29 reads, Larry was a living testimony that “God gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might God increases power.” And in the 73rdPsalm we read: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Larry Vaughn was a living example to all of this great truth.

That’s why so many of us were left scratching our heads when we learned of his passing. We simply had no idea that he was so sick.

Our story continues in Exodus:

But Moses’ hands grew weary; so Aaron and Hur took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur held up the hands of Moses, Aaron on one side and Hur on the other, and the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set.

God has always used others to do God’s work in this world. God calls each of us to minister to one another. God uses us to supply God’s strength to those who are weak, to keep them steady, to help them fight the good fight, to finish the race. Such was the case in this victory of Amalek. Moses did not possess the strength to keep his hands raised through the duration of the battle, so God sent him Aaron and Hur who brought him a rock to sit upon and then held up each of his hands.

God also sent Larry others to give him support when he was the most weary.

Last week, when Larry needed support, God sent him good friends, Dr. Dana Rabideau and Wayne Wright who who traveled great distances to be with him. They were so faithful to him. And of course, his twin brother Jerry, who had been a part of Larry his entire life, was there with Susie letting Larry know that he was loved. As was his companion Elizabeth. Divorced, but still together, until death parted them.

Larry and Jerry love to tell stories about them fighting and whipping one another. Jerry talks about beating him up during the day and Larry sucker punching him while he slept at night. Jerry talks about one incidence when Larry stabed him in the leg with a knife during a competitive game of Mumble Peg. Jordon remembers the two of them wrestling, trying to get the best of each other, in the White River. But more often than they were horsing around and competing with one another, they were supporting one another. They were loving one another. And in the end, Jerry, you were there for him.

You could say that you brought your brother Larry a rock to St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa to steady his hands until the sun set. And together with Elizabeth, Dana and Wayne, you were to Larry like Aaron and Hur were to Moses.

And the hands of Moses were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his army.

And the good news for us today is, that this same God, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Moses and Joshua, the God revealed in the Risen Christ and in the life of Larry Vaughn, will give us strength in our grief, joy in our suffering and grace in our lives. God will send others: friends and family and church members to hold our hands, to keep them steady, until the sun sets, until the battle is won.

But the really good news is that the final battle, the battle with life’s final enemy has already been won. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?”

The good news for all of us today is that as God has stood by Larry and gave him strength to battle the enemies of life, through our resurrected Lord, God has defeated death, and Larry is now and forever with his Lord.

May this good news help us now to live our lives as Larry lived his: Persevering with the strength of God, receiving help from friends and family who provide us a rock, living with the steady purpose of sharing the joy and the hope of the Lord with all people, until the sun sets here and rises forever in eternity. Amen.

Thank You Angels

Roll with the Wind Logo

I am grateful for the opportunity to be a local Ambassador of an amazing organization called “Ainsley’s Angels of America.” I am also an ordained minister. I have been a student of the Bible and a minister for over 30 years. I have a Masters of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry Degree. So, when I speak about Angels, I like to believe I have a certain level of credibility and authority to do so.

Faith was born when Abraham met some strangers by the Oaks of Mamre. Although Abraham was unaware that these strangers were actually Angels sent by God, Abraham and Sarah welcomed them into their home with an extravagant hospitality. They graciously included the strangers, treating them as if they were family. And in doing so, they became part of the Divine plan. Abraham and Sarah became educated to what God was up to in the world, and they joined God in that mission. They themselves became messengers of God. Abraham and Sarah became Angels who changed the world.

So, here are three things I know about Angels:

  • Angels are messengers sent by God. They are holy gifts to the world.
  • Angels first appear in our lives as strangers, and when we include them and love them as family, something miraculous happens.
  • Angels educate us on the importance on inclusion. When we include others in our lives, we become a part of what God is up to in this world. When we include others, we discover that we are the ones being included in something divine. We ourselves become Angels on a mission to change the world.

Therefore, I do not use the word Angels casually or haphazardly, but I use it with careful theological justification and authority when I say:

“Athlete Riders, thank you for being Angels.”

“Angel Runners, thank you for being Angels.”

“Guardian Angels, thank you for being Angels.”

“Sponsors who give to support our mission, thank you for being Angels.”

“All volunteers who made the Arkangel 5k possible this past weekend, thank you for being Angels.

If you think you have it takes to be an Angel, please register today at www.AinlseysAngels.org.

Join us on a mission of selfless inclusive love, and together, we shall change the world.

Perilous Prudence

greedy fool

Luke 12:13-21 NRSV

In his book entitled, Contending for the Faith: The Church’s Engagement with Culture, Ralph Wood, criticized so-called “seeker-sensitive” or “user-friendly” churches that started springing up all over at the turn of this century. These are churches that try to attract people in today’s culture by adapting to, or even mimicking the culture. The goal is to have people walk into these churches and feel as comfortable as they do walking into a shopping mall, to create an atmosphere that doesn’t feel like church.  The primary goal is to make worshippers feel at home, at ease, as comfortable as they can be.

Wood believes this is the opposite of how we should feel when we come to worship. He contends that there should be a necessary friction between the ways of the church and the ways of the world.

Church historian Robert Wilken agrees.  He says that when a person comes into a Christian church for the first time, he or she should feel “out of place.” Every Sunday morning, at least for one hour, we all ought to be a little uncomfortable.

Why?

Because the way of Jesus is usually not our way.

The truth is that when we read the gospels we discover that Jesus, more often than not, looks at things very differently than we look at things. To our dismay, we open our Bibles on Sunday mornings to learn that Jesus is not a white, conservative, English-speaking, American capitalist who values the things we Americans all hold so dear to our hearts: prudence, productivity, prosperity, not even freedom.

We open our Bibles and hear Jesus say things like, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his or her soul.”

This is disconcerting as most of us honor those who “gain the whole world,” or at least a big slice of it.  We honor these people every year in our celebrity magazines with our yearly lists “the most successful” and “the most famous.”

Yet, Jesus calls these successful people, these Forbes 500-type-people, these “winners” in the game of life, well, he calls them “losers.”

Which brings us this morning to the little story of Jesus and the rich farmer.

Here is a prudent, productive, and prosperous man whom we might call a tremendous success.  He is not only a success at farming, but he is also a wise manager of his success. He very astutely builds great, secure barns to hold his grand harvest. We might give him the “Farmer of the Year” award.

And because we don’t like to acknowledge that Jesus’ ways are not our ways, we would like to think that Jesus might praise the man. We would like to read words form Jesus admiring the man for being so capable, resourceful, and prudent.

However, Jesus says to the man, “You fool!”

Nothing “seeker sensitive” or “user-friendly” about that!

That was going to be the title of this sermon this week: “You Greedy Fool!”  But after sleeping on it Monday night, I thought to myself, “I can’t put that in the newsletter. That’s just ugly. That’s going to surely offend someone!  Let me see if I can call this sermon something else, something a little nicer—I got it, “Perilous Prudence.”  There, that sounds better.

But that’s not what Jesus said to this businessman, this capitalist that we might want to praise and even imitate.  He didn’t say, “You know, I like what you did with these barns. I am proud of your ingenuity.  But just make sure you don’t place your entire sense of security in those barns. Your prudence is apt to be a perilous thing.”

No, he didn’t say anything of the sort. In essence, Jesus says to this successful business owener: “You greedy fool.”

Twenty years ago, I attended a Christian ethics meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. During one session of the conference, we had a discussion on marriage equality.  A number of speakers, most of them pastors, defended their opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis of protecting the American family.  “Marriage equality,” they said, “was a grave threat to the American family.” A chorus of “Amens” resounded around the room.

I will never forget an older pastor (had to be in his 90’s), who stood up and said: “I was a pastor for over sixty years, and you know something, I’ve never had a family in any of my congregations destroyed by a gay couple. But I have seen dozens of marriages ruined, and numerous families devastated by nothing more than simple greed—working too many hours, overspending, buying too much, getting too deep in debt.  If we want to save the American family, must must something about our greed.”

You could hear a pin drop.

The farmer was a fool, because as Jesus implies, he thought he could secure his life with stuff.  Perhaps his thinking was that if he just got stuff piled high enough, deep enough, it would somehow be a barrier of protection against any misfortune that might come his way.  The more he accumulated, the more safe and secure he would be from all alarms.

The Apostle Paul calls such thinking in Romans, “serving the creature rather than the creator.”  In Ephesians, he calls it “idolatry.”  And for such thinking (thinking we might call prudent, productive, prosperous), Jesus calls the man a “fool.”

Preacher and author, James Howell, once preached this text in the Chapel of Duke University. In the sermon he said, “This university has all sorts of awards that honor successful alumni who have had success in business, medicine, law, and even the ministry. These are people who have taken what they have learned here and worked that into a successful life. But what I want to see is this university establish an award, not for the person who has achieved success because of his or her Duke education, but for the person who has suffered the most, lost the most, because of what he or she learned here.”

Sounds like a rather foolish suggestion, doesn’t it?

But what do you think Jesus would have called his suggestion?

No, the ways of Jesus are certainly not our ways.

Selfishness, greed and materialism are perhaps the greatest sins of our culture. And according the Bible, greed is not only the biggest danger we face as individuals, it the biggest hindrance to the advancement of the Kingdom of God on this earth.  In fact, one could say that the way most Americans live, the accumulation of goods beyond one’s needs, is a lifestyle in direct contradiction to the word of God. It is a clear violation of the law of Moses, and it is condemned by the prophets.  And Jesus has more to say about this sin than any other sin.

But here we are—embracing and living the American dream.  The reality is that most of us have much more than we need.  And we still want more.  It is our nature as Americans.  We are capitalists.  We are consumers.  The bad news is that Jesus calls us fools.

How did I start this sermon?

If you came here to feel comfortable, at ease, at home, you’ve come to the wrong place. For his ways are not our ways.

His way loves peace. Our way loves guns.

His way welcomes the foreigner. Our way fears them.

His way liberates the oppressed. Our way is apathy.

His way speaks truth to power. Our way is silence.

Our way saves, accumulates, and conserves. His way gives it all away.

Our way disparages the poor. His way blesses them.

Our way honors those who achieve great wealth. His way sends them away empty.

Our way holds grudges and judges. His way forgives and accepts.

Our way values freedom, self-sufficiency and independence above just about anything. His way values total dependence on God over everything.

Our way is one of self-preservation. His way is one that picks up and carries a cross.

But, here’s the irony of the gospel.  The bad news that the ways of Jesus are not our ways is actually very good news.  Let me explain with a story.

An old, holy man once saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water of the Nile River.  Knowing that the scorpion would surely drown, the old man leaned out over the water, hanging onto some roots, and tried to rescue the scorpion.  As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively he withdrew his hand. A few seconds later, having regained his balance, he stretched himself out again.  This time the scorpion stung him so badly that his hand became swollen and bloody. The old man’s face contorted with pain.

Just then, a passerby saw the man stretched out over the river struggling with the scorpion.  He said: “What are you doing? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature!  Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”

The old man turned to the stranger and said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”

In the light of our selfishness, greed and pride, thank God, that Jesus’ ways, are not our ways.

Let us pray.

Lord, Jesus. Thank you that it is in your nature to save us. Come and save us.  Come and turn us from our foolish ways and foolhardy lives and draw us into your wisdom. Help us to see all our accumulations as your gracious gifts, given, not to be hoarded, but to be shared with others. Enable us to see our lives as dependent upon you for their significance and sustenance.  Lord Jesus, make us wise.  Amen.

Poetry in Motion: Remembering Mary Jane Tyler

mary-tyler-fort-smith-ar-obituary

When a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit life, Jesus responded my telling the story that we call “the Parable of the Good Samaritan.” After he tells of the one who selflessly acted like a loving neighbor to one in need, Jesus then tells the lawyer: “If you want to inherit eternal life, then go and do likewise.

I have always found it interesting that the Greek word for “do” in this text is poiei.  Jesus says to go and poiei.  I find this interesting because this wordpoieiis related to our English word, poem.  It means poetry. 

            Poetry is something that that has been fashioned, something beautiful made by human creativity.  A poem is something beautiful that has been made with words, something “done” with words that has deep, lasting meaning.

To be with God, Jesus said, “You must go and poiei.” You must go and poieilike this Samaritan. You must become a poem. If you want to experience life abundant and eternal, says Jesus, you must become poetry in motion.  You must fashion your life in such a way that the way you live, the way you work, the way you serve, the way you love, all that you do, becomes a living poem, becomes a beautiful hymn of praise to God—one that lifts up the fallen, pours expensive oil on their wounds, bandages their hurts, gets them more help if needed, and pays their debts.

Do you want to experience life that endures forever? Then go and live a beautiful poem of selflessness and sacrifice.

This is how many of us will remember Mary Jane Tyler. She was poetry in motion.

Most are aware that the Bible contains a collection of beautiful poetry that we call the Psalms. Thus, it should not surprise us to learn that Mary Jane’s favorite Bible verse was a Psalm.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 100).

This was not only the favorite scripture of Mary Jane’s life, but I believe it is fair to say that this was Mary Jane’s life. Her life was no less than a living Psalm of praise to God.

The joyful noise that Mary Jane shared with the First Christian Church in Fort Smith still rings in this sanctuary every almost every Sunday through our hand bell choirs that were at one time under her direction.

Because her life was a living Psalm, Mary Jane gave this world many good gifts.

When I asked Steven to send me an email naming the one special gift that he received from his mother for which he is most thankful, he couldn’t name one. He sent an email naming FIVE special gifts! And not surprisingly, each of the gifts he listed are the subject of numerous Psalms.

In that email, Steven wrote:

“I will always be grateful for her love of nature and for the natural beauty of the world: whether it was birds in the backyard, sunsets on the beach, hikes to a waterfall or flowers in the garden.”

Mary understood with the Psalmist that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:4-5).

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small (Psalm 104:24-25).

With the Psalmist, Mary Jane’s life on earth was a continual song of praise:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy (Psalm 96:11-12).

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens… When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1, 3-4)

Secondly, Steven writes that he will forever be grateful for her love of learning something new and the value of being a lifelong learner.

Again, it is the Psalmist who reminds us:

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90).

Joel Dorman has written:

When we are lifelong learners, we keep the wonder of the moments. [Thus, we are able to see the world through fresh eyes every morning. Sunsets and sunrises are more strikingly breathtaking. We are pilgrims in a journey called ‘existence,’ and we operate in an intentional and purposeful manner to slow down, look up, and show others the hope inside of us.

Mostly, when we “number our days” we keep God in God’s rightful place: [and that is] first.  There is an active, continuous recognition that these seventy to eighty [or 90] on Earth is not all there is.  There is a conscious connection to our eternal destiny.  When God is first, we can fully understand the words of our Lord’s half-brother, James, who wrote, ‘Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.’

Thirdly, Steven writes that he will always cherish Mary’s love of travel and the kind of experiences that change you and how you see the world.

It was Mark Twain who wisely said:

            Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

No wonder in Psalm 10, we read these wise words:

From now on every road you travel will take you to God. (MSG)

Mary Jane understood that to celebrate the diversity of humankind is to celebrate divinity, as each person on this planet was made in the image of God.

Therefore, it does not surprise any of us who knew Mary Jane that Steven says that the fourth gift of his mother that he will always be thankful for is how she modeled the importance of being a volunteer in social justice causes, [through her involvement] in local organizations, and her church.  

As the Mary Jane observed the injustice and inequality of this world, with the Psalmist, she lamented:

How long will you defend the unjust

and show partiality to the wicked?

Defend the weak and the fatherless;

uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82).

Lastly, Steven writes that he will forever cherish the reality that his mother had the kind of love inside her that enabled her to be a peacemaker.

“We need more peacemakers in this world,” she would say.

“That’s a gift I’m still working on,” says Steven.

In a world fraught with so much so much fear and division, violence and hate, oh, isn’t this a gift we all should work more on? For what this world needs perhaps more than anything else is more peacemakers like Mary Jane.

Of course it was Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”Peace it what was proclaimed at his birth by the angels: “Glory to the God in the highest and on earth, peace!”

And it what he proclaimed every time he talked about leaving them:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

It was the first blessed word that he spoke to his disciples on Easter morning:  “PEACE!” “Peace be with you!”

But long before Jesus, it was the Psalmist who declared:

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace (Psalm 29:11).

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:14).

Consider the blameless, observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace (Psalm 37:37).

Great peace have those who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble (Psalm 119:165).

And the good news is:

Because Mary Jane sought peace, when she needed peace the most, she received it. Because Mary herself was a Psalter of peace, because she followed her Lord who said that if we want to be with God we must go and poiei, because she fashioned her life in such a way that all she did became poetry in motion, a beautiful hymn of praise to God, as I visited with her in the nursing home under hospice care about a week before she died, it was obvious, that although she was in the valley of the shadow of the death, she feared no evil. It was obvious that she knew her Lord with with her. Her good Shepherd’s rod and staff were comforting her.

After we prayed together, she thanked me. She then closed her eyes and slept, no doubt dreaming of green pastures and still waters.

And today, her cup surely runneth over with goodness as she dwells in the house of the Lord forever.

I would like to conclude the service this morning with a note written by Mary Jane, as I believe she may have written it for each one of us who are here today.

As I’ve thought about the meaning of life, many scriptures and writings have influenced me through the years, there are two that have accompanied me:

Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

And this verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much;

to win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;

to earn the appreciation of honest critics’

and endure the betrayal of false friends;

to appreciate the beauty,

to find the best in others,

to leave the world a little better,

whether by a healthy child,

a garden patch or a redeemed social condition,

to know even one life has breathed easier

because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.