A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

A Room Full of Friends: Kathleen Norris

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 25, 2021

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 2:11-22

 

In our continuing series of A Room Full of Friends—writers who have taken up residence on my Study Room bookshelves—this morning we will look at another Presbyterian author: Kathleen Norris. (I hope you have noticed how many good Presbyterian friends I have, by the way.) Norris, a best-selling writer, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1947. She later moved with her parents to Hawaii and then returned to the east coast to complete her studies at Bennington College in Vermont. She became arts administrator of the Academy of American Poets and published her first book of poetry two years later. Then in 1974 she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota and moved there with her husband, David.

Even as she embraced the spirituality of the Great Plains, she returned to her Presbyterian roots. There she was—a married woman with a Protestant background—trying to get her feet under her again. More often than not, she found herself filled with doubt instead of faith. In the midst of her doubt, however, she was drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community whose days are centered on a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture. She says no one could have been more surprised than she was when she ended up with two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. As both an insider and an outsider, she became immersed in this world of liturgy, ritual, and deep sense of community.

When Norris was a child, she loved to sing in church choirs and she really enjoyed church—though she cared little for the theology—didn’t think much about it, really. Then when she went to college she drifted away, taking on Literature as a substitute for religion. But years later, she felt an urge to return to church—to try to rediscover the religion of her youth. What she found when she got there, though, was a far cry from what she remembered. It seemed in her absence, society had corrupted the Christian community by its emphasis on polarizing. Insulting other people had become a form of argument. It didn’t matter what the issue was. It seemed like the stand a person took on particular issues was more important than baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles Creed. Somehow Christians had become more interested in their opinions on political matters than on other things. Of course, there are plenty of areas where folks differ—in practice, theology—all sorts of things—Norris recognized this full well—but surely the Christian community is healthier when the focus is on what unites brothers and sisters of the faith—rather than what separates them.

Even if the church wasn’t the place Norris recalled, still it became the very thing she needed most at this time in her life. In the church and in the monastic community, Norris learned to live with her doubts. In fact, she learned that God takes pleasure in working with someone who has doubts—whether they were about herself, about her husband’s mental illness and alcoholism, about her role in the world…

Recognizing the grace of finding two faith communities to feed her soul, Norris explains: “For a couple of years I really struggled with what I should be doing with my life. And the monks would say, ‘Well, you sit with us in the choir, you sing the songs, this is where you should be, this is what you should be doing. Let’s see what happens.’ It was not a conversion. Here’s a list of things to believe and do. It was: ‘Keep showing up. Something good will come of this.’ Also, going to church. This has meaning. This is above and beyond my experience. Eventually I could see that all these things had more weight than my doubts and my frustrations.”

In her book, The Cloister Walk, in a chapter entitled “Small Town Sunday Morning,” Norris describes the beauty and blessing of the community she found in a little Presbyterian Church. I invite you to hear her words:

At the worship services of Hope and Spencer there’s a time after the sermon, and before the Lord’s Prayer, in which people are asked to speak of any particular joys they wish to share with the congregation, or concerns they want us to address in our communal prayer on that Sunday, and also to pray over during the week. It’s an invaluable part of our worship, a chance to discover things you didn’t know: that the young woman sitting in the pew in front of you is desperately worried about her gravely ill brother in Oregon, that the widower in his eighties sitting across the aisle is overjoyed at the birth of his first great-grand-child.

All of this pleases the gossips; I’ve been told that on Sunday afternoons the phone lines in town are hot with news that’s been picked up in church. For the most part, it’s a good kind of gossip, its main effect being to widen the prayer circle. It’s useful news as well; I’m one of the many who make notes on my church bulletin; so-and-so’s in the hospital; send a card, plan a visit. Our worship sometimes goes into a kind of suspended animation, as people speak in great detail about the medical condition of their friends or relatives. We wince; we squirm; we sigh; and it’s good for us. Moments like this are when the congregation is reminded of something that all pastors know; that listening is often the major part of ministry, that people in crisis need to tell their story, from beginning to end, and the best thing—often the only thing—that you can do is to sit there and take it in.

And we do that pretty well. I sometimes feel that these moments are the heart of our worship. What I think of as the vertical dimension of Presbyterian worship—the hymns in exalted language that bolster our faith, the Bible readings, the sermon that may help us through the week—finds a strong (and necessary) complement in the localized, horizontal dimension of these simple statements of “joys and concerns.”

For many years this aspect of our worship has also been strongly ecumenical. If your neighbor who’s a Catholic, or a member of the Church of God, had a heart attack the day before and was flown to Bismarck in the air ambulance, you ask for people’s prayers for him and his family. Our prayers also extend to those who seldom darken a church door. Not long ago, the congregation learned from one of his longtime friends that Bill O’Rourke had died. (Wild Bill to his friends, way back in his drinking days.) Most of us knew that he’d been failing in the Veterans Hospital for some time. I knew him casually, but still missed him. An old-time cowboy—he broke horses for the U.S. Calvary between the world wars—he was permanently bow-legged. In retirement he’d become a fixture at the café on Main Street; you could nearly always find him there holding court. More rarely, I’d run into him outside. Bill would wait for someone to come by who would stop and admire one of the Ford pickup trucks from the early 1950s that he kept polished and in running condition. When his death was announced, a sigh ran through the congregation. All but the youngest members, and our pastor, had known him for years, and had their own Bill stories.

It was an odd moment. Bill’s death felt like a loss, to me, to many people, but we also knew that our young minister would know nothing of him. The pastor was about to begin the intercessory prayer that follows this part of worship, when one of Bill’s oldest friends couldn’t resist saying, “You know, Bill paid me the first fifty cents I ever made, back in 1930.” The minister smiled, but looked a bit nonplussed. He took a breath, as if to start the prayer. From a pew in the back of the church came a voice, “And I’ll bet you still have it.”

Of course we laughed for a good long time, before continuing with our worship; it was the kind of story Bill would have enjoyed. He didn’t care much for church decorum, but he took some aspects of religion seriously enough. The last time I saw him was at the Lutheran church, where he’d come for the funeral of an old friend. Bill sat alone at the back of the church. “I wanted to make sure they gave him a good sendoff,” is all he said to me, after the service. He was apparently satisfied.

When the minister finally got to say his “Let us pray,” we were ready. We had been praying, all along. We had been being ourselves before God.

“We had been being ourselves before God.” Learning to “be ourselves before God”—well, to me, that’s what a faith community is all about. Learning to accept ourselves and one another—lifting one another up—celebrating with one another—holding each other’s stories. As a body of believers, we come together on any given Lord’s Day to worship—raising our hearts, and minds, and souls to God—in thanksgiving, in praise, in wonder. At the baptismal font, life-giving water marks us as God’s own—uniting us to every believer of every place and time. No more barriers of race, gender, status, or age. No more barriers of nationality, history, and practice to overcome. Around the Table of our Lord, we gather and we are nourished by the promises of our Lord and Savior. Truly we are blessed for we are a community. Here we learn, day by day, how to be ourselves before God—maybe, maybe even—our best selves.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art by Vincent Ledvina via Unsplash, used by permission;  Music CCLI 20016020/13

 

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

A Room Full of Friends: Frederick Buechner

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 18, 2021

8th Sunday after Pentecost

John 13:33. 36; 14:1-6

This morning we resume the sermon series, A Room Full of Friends as I continue to introduce you to some of my favorite writers who, over the years, have come to reside on the shelves of my study. To me, they have become a room full of friends.  Today we consider Frederick Buechner: an ordained Presbyterian minister, he is the author of more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction and he has long been recognized as a kindred spirit to those who find doubt as a constant companion on their faith journey. Listen now to an excerpt from a sermon he wrote entitled “Let Jesus Show”:

When Jesus sat down to eat for the last time with a handful of his closest friends, he knew it was the last time, and he didn’t have to be the Messiah to know it—they all did. The Romans were out to get him. The Jews were out to get him. For reasons that can only be guessed at, one of his own friends was out to get him, and Jesus seems to have known that too. He knew, in other words, that his time had all but run out and that they would never all of them be together again.

 

It is an unforgettable scene there in that upper room—the shadows, the stillness, the hushed voices of people speaking very carefully, very intently, because they wanted to get it all said while there was still time and to get it said right. You can only imagine the way it must have haunted them for the rest of their lives as they looked back on how they had actually sat there with him, eating and drinking and talking; and through their various accounts of it, including this morning’s message from John, and through all the paintings of it…and through 2000 years of the church’s reenactment of it in the Eucharist, it has come to haunt us too. But I think of the Lord’s Supper as haunting in another way as well—not just as a kind of shadowy dream of an event long past but also as a kind of foreshadowing of an event not all that far in the future, by which I mean our own last suppers, the last time you and I will sit down with a handful of our own closest friends…

 

Who are these friends for you, who are they for me? We have to picture them for ourselves, of course—to see their faces, hear their voices, feel what it’s like to be with them. They are our nearest and dearest—our husband or wife, our children, a few people we can’t imagine living without or their living without us—and the sadness is that we have known them so long and so well that we don’t really see them anymore for who they truly are let alone who they truly are to us, who we truly are to them. The sadness is that we don’t see that every supper with them—even just a bowl of cornflakes in the kitchen some night after the movies—is precious beyond all telling because the day will come beyond which there will be no other supper with them ever again. The time will come when time will run out for us too, and once we see that, we see also that every one of our suppers points to the preciousness of life and also to the certainty of death, which makes life even more precious still and is precious in itself because under its shadow we tend to search harder and harder for light.

 

There in that shadowy room the disciples turned to Jesus, who was their light, with greater urgency than maybe ever before because, with all hell about to break loose, they had no other place to turn. They had drunk the wine he told them was his blood and put into their mouths the bread he told them was his body, and thus with something of his courage in them they asked him a question they had never risked asking…before. It was Simon Peter who asked it, and what he said was, “Lord, where are you going?”

 

As if they didn’t know. As if they didn’t know. As if you and I don’t know—both where he was going and where all of us are going too. He was going down the stairs and out the door. He was going into the night. He was going to pray in the garden to the God he called Father not to let the awful thing happen to him that he knew was already happening, and the Gospels do not record that he got so much as a whisper in reply. He was going alone, and he was going against his will, and he was going scared half out of his wits. He sweated blood is the way the Gospels put it.

 

The Last Supper not only prefigures our own last suppers wherever and whenever they are to be. It also is our last supper. You cannot read the account of it without in some measure being there, and the table where he sits with his friends is our table, and as they drew close to the light of him, we too try to draw close as if maybe in the last analysis he is the one who is our nearest and dearest—or our farthest and dearest because he is always just too far away to see very well, to take hold of, too far away to be sure he sees us. If we have any hope at all, he is our hope, and when Peter asks him, “Lord, where are you going?” the question within his question is “Are you going anywhere at all or just going out, like a light?” and that is also our question both about him and about ourselves. When time runs out, does life run out? Did Jesus’ life run out? Do you and I run out?

 

“You will seek me,” Jesus says, and no word he ever spoke hits closer to home. We seek for answers to our questions—questions about life and about death, questions about what is right and what is wrong, questions about the unspeakable things that go on in the world. We seek for strength, for peace, for a path through the forest. But Christians are people who maybe more than anything else seek for Christ, and from the shabbiest little jerry-built meeting house in the middle of nowhere to the greatest cathedrals, all churches everywhere were erected by people like us in the wild hope that in them, if nowhere else, the one we seek might finally be found.

 

A friend of mine told me a story about a Christmas pageant he took part in once as the rector of an Episcopal church somewhere. The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw.

 

The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughout the pews with their parents.

 

At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about 9 years old and smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoes could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”

 

There was a lot in the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.

 

There is so much for all of us that hides Jesus from us—the church itself hides him, all the hoopla of the church with ministers as lost in the thick of it as everybody else so that the holiness of it somehow vanishes away to the point where services of worship run the risk of becoming only a kind of performance—on some Sundays better, on some Sundays worse—and only on the rarest of occasions does anything strike to the quick the way that little girl’s cry did with every last person who heard her realizing that Jesus didn’t show for any of them—the mystery and miracle of Jesus with all his extraordinary demands on us, all his extraordinary promises.

 

Let Jesus show in these churches we have built for him then—not just Jesus as we cut him down to size in our sermons and hymns and stained-glass windows, but Jesus as he sat there among his friends with wine on his breath and crumbs in his beard and his heart in his mouth as he spoke about his death and ours in words that even the 9 year old angel would have understood. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he said in the midst of his own terrible troubles. Take it easy. Take it easy. Take heart. “Believe in God,” he said. “Believe also in me.”

 

Well, we are believers, you and I, that’s why we’re here—at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or father believes in a child.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked from where he was sitting, and Jesus answered, “I go to prepare a place for you…that where I am you may be also.” Can we put our money on that? Are we children enough to hear with the ears of a child? Are we believers enough to believe only what a child can believe?

 

“I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, “that where I am you may be also. He was speaking about death because that is what was uppermost in his mind as it was uppermost in the minds of all of them that last time they had supper together and as I suspect it is uppermost in our minds too more often than we let on. He says he is not just going out like a light. He says he is going on. He says he is going ahead. He says we will go there too when our time comes. And who can resist giving our hearts to him as he says it?

 

“You know the way where I am going,” he says, and then Thomas speaks out for every one of us in a voice that my guess is had all the irritation and frustration and sadness of the little girl’s. “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”

 

If I were as brave as the rector at that Christmas pageant, I would stop talking precisely here with those stark honest words. When it comes to the mystery of death, like the mystery of life, how can any of us know anything? If there is a realm of being beyond where we are now that has to do somehow with who Jesus is, and is for us, and is for all the world, then how can we know the way that will take us there? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” is how he answers. He does not say the church is the way. He does not say his teachings are the way, or what people for centuries have taught about him. He does not say religion is the way, not even the religion that bears his name. He says he himself is the way. And he says that the truth is not words, neither his words nor anyone else’s. It is the truth of being truly human as he was truly human and thus at the same time, truly God’s. And the life we are dazzled by in him, haunted by in him, nourished by in him is a life so full of aliveness and light not even the darkness of death could prevail against it.

 

How do we go where he is? As for me, I think what we are to do is to try to draw near him and to each other any way we can because that is the last thing he asked of us. “Love one another as I have loved you” is the way he said it, and that is what the little girl asked too on that Christmas Day. By believing against all odds and loving against all odds, that is how we are to let Jesus show in the world…

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art Photo by Unsplash, used by permission

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

A Room Full of Friends: Fred Craddock

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 11, 2021

7th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 8

 

We are now several Sundays into the summer sermon series: A Room Full of Friends. Throughout the series, it is my hope to introduce you to some dear friends who reside on the shelves of my study. Already you have met Eugene Peterson, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ann Lamotte, and others. Today I bring to you Fred Craddock. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest influences of the 20th Century on the craft of preaching—particularly preaching that embraces the art of storytelling. In my opinion, Craddock helped preachers embrace poetry and imagery and life in such a way that preaching became less like the presentation of a theme paper and more like the presentation of the Gospel. A few years ago, when Fred Craddock left his earthly dwelling and entered into glory, the news lit up my Facebook and Twitter feeds because so many of us felt the loss of someone who had impacted our lives deeply. It is my prayer that his influence will continue this morning as you listen to an excerpt from a sermon Fred Craddock preached on Psalm 8. It is entitled, “A Little Less Than God.”

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” Such a huge statement made by the psalmist, probably living in the desert of Israel. How could he say, “in all the earth”? Probably had never seen huge chunks of icebergs break off and plunge into the sea. Probably never saw a flight of flamingoes startled by the appearance of a person. Never saw alligators dozing in the sun along the Amazon…Probably never heard the trumpet of the elephant…How could he say, “in all the earth”?

Because he is in a worshipful mode. He may have talked to some travelers who had seen some things and heard some things that he didn’t know, but not necessarily. He had his faith in God as the one God of all creation and he had Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Everything that is, is from God. So, he didn’t need to travel to say that. There are many people who travel all over the world, buy a lot of trinkets, complain about the service, and come home exactly the way they were. You can stand in the doorway of your cabin in the Appalachians and say in worshipful tones, “in all the earth…”

When I started out in ministry, I thought in terms of right and wrong and true and false and biblical and unbiblical. But now that I’ve gotten wise, there is a bigger category, more important to me; small and big. When I consider the moon and stars, O God, why do you even think of us? We’re so confused. The moon and the stars go in their courses every day. We can count on it; we can chart it. Whatever the century, whatever the country, we know exactly where every star and all the moons will be. We know exactly because they are ordained by God. But we are so confused.

You said, “I’ll give you dominion over land and sea and all that is in the sea and all the beasts of the field, the fish that go in the sea. Over everything, I give you dominion.” And we don’t know what it means. Some people think it means rape the land, you own it. Soil the streams, you own them. Darken the air, it’s yours. Toss your McDonald’s trash all along the highway, “This is my land.” Some people think that’s what it means, “You shall have dominion.”

There are other folk who think it means that you shall accumulate. It’s yours, so accumulate. And some never think about the fact that the more they get, the less somebody else has. If you get a huge meal, somebody else is hungry. That’s the way it works. What does it mean, “You shall have dominion”? It seems that we can just grab, hold, collect, hoard. After all, we have dominion…

When I consider the moon and stars that God has ordained, why does God pay so much attention to us? We’re so mixed up and we’re so temporary. The moon and the stars, the moon and the stars forever. As for me, I’m just a blip on the screen. There was a time I did not exist. There will be another time I do not exist, but in the narrow time between whence and whither, what am I going to do? Why does God pay attention to us? We’re so brief. We see it in the seasons: spring of the year, all the world is a poem of light and color, then it gets hot and the grasshopper drags itself along and the thermostat’s broken and everybody’s mad. Then it cools off; you grab a sweater, kick a football in the air; it’s beautiful, but not for long. The cold weather blows the leaves off the trees and bony fingers on those trees beg for cover and down comes the snow, the flying cloud, the frosted light, the year’s dying in the night. “Happy New Year.” What happened?

Do you live as though you’re going to live forever? At our little place over a creek, a couple of years ago I was out working in the yard, and I found a beautiful arrowhead, beautiful, beautiful and perfectly shaped. I picked it up and said to myself, “Fred, you’re not the first one to live here.” And the plow goes along and hits something hard. The farmer stops and goes around to pull out what might be just a little boulder. It’s a cornerstone, actually a hearthstone. There was once a family here; made popcorn balls, pulled molasses taffy, sat around the fireplace and sang from the old paperback book, “Oh, How I Love Jesus,” O What Wondrous Love is This.” They put poultices on the sick, put salve in their noses, cooked collards, and laughed and cried; gave birth and died, right here. We’re not the first ones. We’re not the last ones. Life is just so brief….Why does God pay attention to us? So small, so wrong, so brief.

And the psalmist says, “I know. God made us in God’s own image. When God made the duck, God said, ‘That’s good.’ When God made the elephant, God chuckled and said, ‘Well, that’s good.’ When God made the dogwood tree, God said, ‘That’s good,’ and so with the squirrel and the quail, and the grouse and the turkey. ‘That’s good.’ But it wasn’t enough and finally God said, ‘I’m going to make something just like myself, my very image. I’m going to make something that, when people look at it, they’re going to say, “God.” And that’s when God made you.”

Now we don’t want any of that stuff like, “We’re only human.” I’m sick of that. A shortstop catches the ball without mistake 300 times and finally he drops it and somebody says, “Only human.” What was he when he made the play? She bakes a cake eight inches tall, beautiful. Then the church has a fellowship dinner so she wants to outdo herself. She makes one, looks like the sole of your shoe. “Well, I’m only human,” she says. What was she when the cakes were eight inches tall? When the singer climbs the silver stairs and leaves every note as clear as the morning dew, what do people say? “Oh, that was wonderful.” If her voice cracks, “Well, she’s only human.” Why, why, why do we say we’re human when we make a mistake? Weren’t you made in God’s image? Don’t ever say, don’t ever say, “I’m only human.” When somebody says, “That was beautiful,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “Best I’ve ever eaten,” you say, “After all, I’m human.” When somebody says, “That was a beautiful prayer today,” you say, “Well, after all, I’m human.” Would you do that?

I know sometimes we don’t act like it. You take the expression, “You have made us but little less than God,” and then hold it up beside the daily newspaper and it doesn’t seem to fit. Left a baby in a trash bin? Hit a pedestrian and didn’t even stop? Took people’s money that was supposed to go for Medicare, Medicaid? It doesn’t seem to fit, I know, I know, I know. But once in a while, once in a while…

When I was a minister in the mountains of east Tennessee, the church had vacation Bible school in the summer. I had these kids, I don’t know, third or fourth grade. The thing lasted two weeks. I was ready at the end of one day to call it quits. Took about twelve kids, all day, two weeks. The lesson that year was on, you know, nature. Well, I use up all that stuff in one day; then what am I going to do for the rest of the time? I thought of something. I’ll send them out into the woods and let them get something that reminds them of God and bring it back. I rang a bell and said, “Now when I ring this bell, you go out into the woods, find something that reminds you of God, and when I ring it again, bring it back and tell us what it tells you about God.”

So I rang a bell and they scattered. My plan was not to ring it again, but I did. I rang it again and here they come. And I said to her, “What do you have?”

She said, “A flower.”

“And what does that tell you about God?”

“God is beautiful.” Now that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“A rock.”

“What does that tell you?”

“God is stout.” Hey, that’s good, that’s good.

“And what do you have?”

“Huckleberries.”

“Well what does that tell you?”

“God is good; God feeds us and feeds the birds.” Another good answer.

Well, here’s Jim East, meanest kid I ever saw, but he was always there. You didn’t want him to be there all the time, but…

So I said, “Well, Jimmy, what do you have?” He was holding the hand of his sister from the kindergarten group. I said, “What did you bring, Jim?”

He said, “My sister.”

I said, “What does that tell you about God?”

And Jimmy said, “Uh, uh, uh, I don’t know for sure.” And that’s it. That’s it. This mean little kid recognized there wasn’t a thing in the forest that told him as much about God as his sister. That’s it.

In The Education of Little Tree, that marvelous story about a Cherokee Indian boy in western North Carolina, raised by his grandparents, poor as Job’s turkey, didn’t have a thing. He knew the grandparents had nothing to get him for Christmas; they had no money. But he wanted to give his grandmother something so he got some leather hide a sewed a little pouch, a coin purse I guess you would say.

He didn’t want to give it to her and hurt her feelings because she would have to say, “Well, Little Tree, I don’t have anything for you.” So you know what he did? You remember the story? He pushed that little coin purse that he made down in the bin of dried beans. They ate dried beans all winter. He pushed it, he said, down into the beans about Christmas deep. She would start reaching into that bin every day, October, November, December. Then about the middle or toward the last of December, she’d say, “Little Tree, Little Tree, look what I found, look what I found.” And he would run over and look at it, “What is it?” She said, “It’s a Christmas present. I don’t know who…” And Little Tree said, “That’s beautiful.”

A little less than God. I know, I know, some of us act like garbage sometimes. But I looked out one day and saw our garbage can with stuff spilling out the top and I thought, “That’s awful, that is really awful.” But during the night it snowed and the garbage can was a mound to the glory of God. How does Paul put it? “You are created in God’s image. You are recreated in Christ Jesus. You are God’s masterpiece.”

A little less than God. Amen.

*Cover Art Photo by Евгения Пивоварова via Unsplash

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021

6th Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 26:1-8; Luke 9:23-37

 

This morning we continue the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends. For those new to the series, my goal is to share some of my favorite authors whose books reside on my shelves. Over the years, they have become dear friends. Today’s focus is on people who have sacrificed in tremendous ways because of their faith.

Whenever I think of such people, Corrie Ten Boom immediately comes to mind. Born in 1892, Corrie’s family were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They owned a small jewelry store in a narrow little house in the heart of the Jewish section of Amsterdam. There they met and became friends with some wonderful Jewish people. At the time, Corrie lived with her older sister and her father. She was 48, unmarried, and working as a watchmaker in the shop that was started by her grandfather.

Corrie’s involvement with the Dutch underground began by giving temporary shelter to her Jewish neighbors who were being driven out of their homes. She found places for them to stay in the countryside. Soon word spread and more arrived seeking shelter. In time, Corrie constructed a false wall in her bedroom so she could hide people behind it. After a year and a half, her home developed into the center of an underground ring that reached throughout Holland. But on February 28, 1944 a Nazi informant came seeking help. Before the end of the day, her home was raided, and she and her family were arrested.

Corrie’s father died within 10 days from an illness, but Corrie and her older sister, Betsie, remained in a series of prisons and concentration camps, first in Holland and then in Germany. In later writings, Corrie explains how she struggled with and overcame the hate that she had for the man who betrayed her family and how she and Betsie gave comfort to other inmates. She describes a typical evening in which they would use their secreted Bible to hold worship services. She writes,

At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last, either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb.

Betsie, never strong in health, grew steadily weaker and died in December. Some of her last words to Corrie were, “We must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”

Due to a clerical error, Corrie was released from Ravensbruck one week before all women her age were killed. She made her way back to Haarlem, and tried for resume her life, but found her heart wasn’t in it. Instead, she had a burning desire to travel and tell her family’s story. In time, she documented the story in such books as The Hiding Place and Tramp for the Lord.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, son of a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Berlin, was born in 1906. He was an outstanding student and gifted pianist. Although his family expected he would have a career in music, at the age of 14, he announced his desire to become a minister and theologian. They were less than pleased. By the age of 25 he was a lecturer in systematic theology. In time he became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

After a time of deep prayer and introspection, Bonhoeffer joined his brother-in-law and a few others to plan the overthrow of Hitler in 1939. Though their plan failed, in April of 1943, two men arrived in a black Mercedes, put Bonhoeffer in the car, and drove away. He spent two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.”  On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer had just finished conducting a service of worship when two soldiers came in, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us.” It was the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.” He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies arrived.

Immaculee Ilibagiza wrote Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. In it she tells her story about the Rwandan genocide that erupted with a savagery that shocked the world. In just 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed.

In the early spring of 1994, Immaculee was visiting her family while on break from the university. Signs of trouble with the Hutu majority had been mounting and at dinner one evening, her brother implored her father to move the family away. Her father was the chief administrator of a Roman Catholic school and a figure of authority in the region. He had lived through two previous civil wars and remained confident that order could be restored. The very next day a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, was struck by missiles, and crashed, killing all on board. A well-organized campaign by Hutu extremists against Tutsis soon followed.

Government ministers began to openly threaten Tutsis on state radio. Soon, hundreds of people crowded around Immaculee’s home, seeking guidance from her father. He appealed in vain for help from local authorities. Soon her family dispersed. Her father arranged for her to hide in the home of a local Episcopal priest, in a bathroom, where she found seven other young women. The 3 X 6-foot bathroom was assumed to be a temporary shelter. The eight women would spend the next three months there.

Repeatedly, Hutu gangs came to search the house, carrying lists of names of Tutsis unaccounted for but they never attempted to enter the bathroom. Immaculee writes, “It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I remember dry [mouth]. I didn’t even have saliva to swallow. It was something like all your body became paralyzed. You don’t think anymore.” Immaculee began talking to God. She prayed constantly, clutching her father’s red rosary in her hand. She promised not to seek vengeance if her life was spared. At the same time, she had a growing certainty that none of her family had survived. In her words: “I remember I dreamt about Jesus, and he was telling me, ‘Well, when you come out, there will be no one in your life in your family. And I want you to know that, even if they took care of you, I can take care of you better, so I want you to trust me. I’d like you always to pray’ — and that was so real. It was a thing that was so real that I didn’t doubt.”

On July 7, 1994, after most of the killing had ended, Immaculee and the other women emerged from their hiding place. Just as she feared—her family was gone. Only one brother survived because he happened to be out of the country. So much horror. So much hatred. So much loss. Still, Immaculee betrays no bitterness at the events that claimed most of her family. Instead, she stresses understanding and forgiveness: “I don’t want just to hate somebody. I felt bad enough that I don’t want just to hold this kind of bad feeling in my heart for long, if I can help it,” she writes.

Such hateful, horrible things have happened down through the ages—even to people of faith—often in the name of God. Yet Jesus, God’s beloved Son, walked the dusty roads of Palestine listening to people’s stories and responding with understanding and love and mercy. Many people became angry with him because he was kind and good to the wrong people. It was one of the reasons they killed him.

Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world—one which valued love over hate, serving over being served, sacrifice over self-indulgence, truth over deception, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting, and peace over war.

Jesus modeled how to live with one another and inspired people to build bridges of goodwill. We need bridges of goodwill—in our country—in the world. No doubt there are serious issues at stake and sometimes even after prayerful consideration, people of good faith disagree. So, the question is this: How can we model the way of Jesus—listen to each other’s stories—respond with empathy and grace—love each other—no matter what?

Today we celebrate the freedoms we have as citizens of this great nation we call home. But let us never forget that our citizenship in God’s kingdom matters even more. It is a place where every believer is invited to—called to—dwell. As citizens, it behooves us to practice being neighbors in a neighborhood filled with people of difference colors, different nationalities, different denominations, different backgrounds, and different beliefs. It is a kin-dom of love and God calls every believer to BE love—to BE Christ for the world—no matter the cost.  Amen.