Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Sermons ... sort of

I rarely post sermons to the blog, but I thought I'd share what I said at the memorial service for my father last Friday, and the poem that passed for a sermon yesterday at the wee kirk, along with a Donald Hall poem that I also read during worship yesterday.
Do Justice: A Sermon Honoring the Life and Faith of James Evans Ensign
My sister observed this week that our father was a man who spoke his truth. Apparently it runs in the family. Pete dug out our grandfather’s law school year book that described dad’s father as “the sort of fellow who is never satisfied to take the other fellow’s word for anything, but wants to find out what is correct.”
Dad did, indeed, speak his truth. But I also think some words from St. Francis are accurate about dad: “preach the gospel,” St. Francis said. “If necessary, use words.”
Dad’s life was, in many respects, his living testimony to the truth as he was given it to understand. He spoke his truth, to be sure, and he also lived it. Both in his speaking it and through his living it, the truth that dad understood came constantly as a challenge not only to “the other fellow’s word for anything,” but also to any status quo that did not measure up.
Sometimes that meant that the car in the driveway was not as clean as it should be after a teenager washed it. Other times it meant that the grass was not as neatly – or timely – mowed. But, honestly, dad’s truth was considerably larger than the domestic sphere, and his passions reflected and responded to the deep and broad challenge of Christian life and faith as he understood it.
I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, and with most families, choosing scripture to share at the service is an exercise in picking the comforting words. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we’ve certainly included some comforting passages today along with music that dad loved and that reflect his convictions. But when I think about my father, I think less about the comfort and more about the challenge of scripture.
My earliest lessons in interpreting scripture came from my dad. I think he sat each of his kids down at one point or another along the way to explicate John 17:21. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John’s rather mystic take on the relationship between Creator, Christ and Creature was the foundational theology of the YMCA, and it was among dad’s favorite passages.
I’m pretty sure dad taught me that just about the time I discovered the Beatles, and I can’t read it without hearing “I am you and you are me and we are altogether.” I have always thought of that particular passage as John’s goo, goo, ga joob Christology, but for my father it underscored the deep challenge of seeing something of God in every human being.
If we are invited into the holy relationship, it can only be because there is some spark of the divine in us. At his best, my father tried to see that in everyone. Resurrection faith, to which we witness in worship today, promises us that that spark is not extinguished in death.
A light so strong that no darkness – not even the darkness of death – can overcome it deserves and demands our attention. A light that strong can light your way in darkness – through the valley of the shadow of death and through the various valleys that each of us walks on the journeys of our lives.
Dad certainly walked plenty of those places – some of his own, to be sure, but often he chose to accompany others through their own valleys. I believe he chose that path in response to the challenge of his faith. When I think of my dad in those terms, I hear the words of the prophet Micah.
 “Do justice. Love with passionate kindness. Walk humbly with your God.” Micah doesn’t say, “be a fan of justice; like it; it’s a nice idea.” Micah says, “do it.”
My father did justice. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann insists that justice in the Bible amounts to sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it. My father believed that jobs belonged to unemployed young people who wanted to work, so he found them jobs. My father believed that learning to swim belonged not just to kids whose families had the means to belong to swim clubs, so he organized and gave swim lessons to countless children from marginal neighborhoods in Chattanooga. My father believed that shelter belonged to everyone, so he worked to find housing for this city’s homeless.
My dad also believed that stories belong to children, so he fell asleep many a night in the midst of Old Roney or Pappy’s Tater Patch or Wicked John and the Devil. Dad believed that games belong to kids, too, so he played countless driveway hoops games – apparently reaching retirement age only when I cracked one of his ribs. Dad believed that later truth – about games – so deeply that he created, organized and ran a community basketball league for teenagers in North Chattanooga so that his kids and several hundred others would have a league of their own.
In each of those efforts, whether in the broader community or on the domestic level, and in so many others, dad aspired to treat the least of these as brothers and sisters who are created in the image of God and therefor deserve respect and concern. Maybe it really does take one to know one. Perhaps in order to treat the least of these in the same way you would treat the king of kings it helps to have been, yourself, among the least in at least some aspects of your life.
Jim Ensign grew up pretty much dirt poor no more than a mile from here. While life took him far beyond the small circle of those Depression Era days, he never forgot where he came from, nor the challenges that face poor kids, in particular.
Other than my mother, I do not think I have ever encountered anyone whose life more embodied the words of Matthew 25 than did my dad’s. He simply lived it: whatever he did with and for the least of these he did as if he were doing it for a holy one of God.
And while this may or may not fit the narrative arc of this sermon, I would be remiss if I did not also say that dad taught his children a great deal about what it means to be married, to love, honor and cherish the one to whom you make sacred vows.
He was a child of the church and, in particular, a child of this church. He was baptized here; he was ordained first as a deacon and later as a ruling elder here; he raised his children here; and now, as the Book of Common Worship puts it, his baptism is complete and it is good and right that we mark that here. 
I imagine that it was here that he first heard the truths that shaped his life, and that, resurrection faith tells me, he heard again this week:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”
Come, inherit the kingdom. Well done, good and faithful servant. Amen.

A Balm in Gilead
The week has been full of sadness.
That would seem rather obvious, though too soon on a Monday afternoon.
There is a balm in Gilead, but we don’t live there yet.
Through the terminal windows
Behind the hipster in the Batman t-shirt
While I await a flight home
To join my family
For my father’s final journey
I can see the Navy Yard.
Some seemingly ceaseless clearly meaningless alarm
Ringing, ringing, ringing
Draws fellow waiters into conversation –
A momentary community of the annoyed. Meanwhile,
Across the broad, quiet river sparkling beneath
Helicopters circling in a lovely autumn sky
That makes postcards of Washington’s monuments
Another spasm of American violence
Interrupts both private grief and public annoyance
With the urgent drone of news
Of gunman or men and a dozen lives endings.
Another window opens on public mourning
In America this is everyday
Life and death.
Thank God. Someone has finally shut the door.
The alarm ceases and scattered applause ripples through the crowd.
There is a balm in Gilead, but we don’t live there yet.
Hours later, hundreds of miles further on, I receive the news of dad’s death,
And recall our last conversation a couple of weeks ago.
If I’d known it was the last time we’d be speaking
I’d have taken notes so I’d remember
I’d have tried to talk of big things and important
Instead of just the weather in September.
The news from home would make me angry
But I am yet too tired for that,
So the news just rings, rings, rings like that stupid alarm
That no one will shut off. Is there no community? No consolation?
No one to turn the damn things off?
There is a balm in Gilead, but we don’t live there yet.
Levinas – whom they called the most Jewish Protestant  –
said, “ethics is prayer” and
“paternity is a relationship to a future not my own.”
Oddly, I understood those old lines anew
Friday, when after memorializing my dad,
My baby brother took all the grandchildren a half mile from the church
To the front porch of 238 Jernigan – the house where my father was born,
About a half mile from where he was baptized,
About a half mile from where his baptism was complete in death.
Pete took a photo of the kids on the porch swing.
We owe them a community that values their future.
My father taught me that.
Our Father, who art in heaven, calls me still to work for it.
On earth, as it is in heaven – a balm in Gilead.

A Grace
God, I know nothing, my sense is all nonsense,
And fear of You begins intelligence:
Does it end there? For sexual love, for food,
For books and birch trees I claim gratitude,
But when I grieve over the unripe dead
My grief festers, corrupted into dread,
And I know nothing. Give us our daily bread.