Sermon delivered by David Burrow June 20, 2010 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
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Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. … and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; … If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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.'
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Months ago I was asked if I’d deliver the message today. When I looked through the calendar, the first thing I noticed was that this Sunday happened to be Father’s Day. Seeing that, I wondered if I was the best person to have in the pulpit today. I’m a single guy, and while there are a lot of aspects of teaching that are like parenthood, I don’t pretend for a moment that my relationship with any of my students is like that of a father toward his children.
What’s more, throughout my life Father’s Day has always been kind of a strange time for me. You see, it’s not like my dad and I were particularly close while I was growing up. As a kid I watched all the TV dads of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and my father definitely wasn’t like any of them. Some TV shows—like The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, The Waltons, or The Courtship of Eddie’s Father—featured dads who played catch with their sons or went fishing and had meaningful conversations about the troubles in their lives. Others—like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, or The Flintstones—had dads who were bumbling and seemed to solve all their problems by screaming. My father was anything but touchy-feely, and he wasn’t athletically inclined; but he was also not bumbling, and I don’t think he ever yelled once in his life.
No, my dad wasn’t like any of the fathers on TV. When I was a little kid, what my father mostly did was work. He worked at his main job, he sometimes moonlighted to earn extra money, and he was constantly tinkering to keep our cars and appliances running.
When he wasn’t working, what my dad would mostly do was sleep. He learned in the Army to catch any bit of rest he could, and he could sleep anywhere and anytime. He’d doze off while reading the paper or watching TV, and every week he’d fall asleep at church. My dad was a good Christian man, and he went to church every Sunday of his life—but even with my mom nudging him sharply, I don’t think he ever heard the entire sermon.
I don’t fault my dad for sleeping, and I certainly don’t fault his working hard. We were a large family, and—like almost every man of his generation—he was the sole breadwinner. It took a lot of work to pay the mortgage and feed seven hungry mouths, and he had to be dead tired after working so hard.
When I got older our family grew smaller and our financial situation improved. That might have been a time I’d have gotten closer to my dad, but unfortunately at that point every spare moment of his day was spent taking care of my mother, who was very sick. By the time I was in college, the main time I saw my father was when we were visiting my mom at hospitals in Burlington or Iowa City.
I might have gotten to know my dad better as an adult, but unfortunately that also was not meant to be either. I moved to Algona shortly after my twenty-first birthday, and my dad was killed less than a month after that. My parents have been gone since 1983, and by now I’ve spent more time without them than with them.
While I may not have been close to my father in the way that TV characters were, the influence he had on me is immense, and I loved him and continue to love him deeply. It was my dad, George Burrow, who was the inspiration for the hymns, the prayers, and the message I’m bringing you this morning.
While he may not have heard every word of the sermons, my father definitely knew how to live a Christian life. He was a model of patience and tolerance. That was true in his dealings with everyone, but it was especially true with his own family.
For instance—my dad was a combat veteran of World War II; yet he was supportive when one of his sons declared himself a conscientious objector and another worked openly against the Vietnam War. He grew up in an all-white, all-Protestant farm town; but he was delighted when his youngest son got a job teaching in a Catholic school, and he was welcoming and hospitable when his daughter came home from college with a black man she was dating. “People are people,” he’d say, and he meant it.
My father was a researcher and professor of chemistry, who worked with some of the most famous scientists of the 20th Century. None of his kids really cared much about science, though, and that was okay with him. He told us we needed to find out what we were good at. The group of us have degrees in math, history, Spanish, English, and anthropology, and he was proud of all of us.
In all these different ways my dad was a wonderful model of tolerance and understanding. I hope I’ve learned from him and can apply that same acceptance of everyone in my own life. It would be a better world if we all could do that.
My dad was a product of the Great Depression. He wasted nothing and stretched every penny to its limit. I remember him driving miles out of his way to avoid paying tolls. He drank sour milk and ate expired food, and he’d pretend that he liked it. He reused and recycled long before it was fashionable to do so, and he had no problem telling his kids their Christmas wish lists were too expensive.
While he was thrifty with most things, what he was never tight with was charity. Even when our money wouldn’t stretch far, he’d find a way to support the church and help groups that were fighting diseases or aiding those in need overseas. He never made a big deal of charity, and he never wanted his name mentioned. When anyone did ask about his donations, he’d just quote the Golden Rule. He knew that no matter how much he struggled with money, there were lots of people far worse off.
When thinking of my dad, I couldn’t help but recall one specific occasion I spent with him, which happened to be one of the last times I went to church with my father. In July of 1983, right before I started student teaching, my brother Paul and I joined my father on a trip out east. Paul had a real reason to make the trip. He was attending a convention of the National Education Association. My dad and I basically just went along for the ride. Each day we’d drive my brother into the convention center in Philadelphia and then spend the day exploring different places around the area.
That Sunday we decided to go to church, and we happened to go a historic little church in New Jersey, right at the place where Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas, 1776. I was in that same area again just two weeks ago when I took my quiz bowl team out east. Today the site is marked by the interchange of the New Jersey Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Back in the ‘80s, though, Washington’s Crossing was still a sleepy little hamlet along the river south of Trenton, and a little white wood church much like ours was still the biggest building in town.
I couldn’t tell you a thing about most of the church services I’ve been to in my life, but I remember that one to this day. The quaint old church was beautiful, the service was simple and meaningful, and the message really cut to the core of what Christianity is all about.
The gospel was the same one we read today. They read the King James Version, where Jesus says, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
There was a long silence after the minister read those words. If we’d been in the South rather than a stoic Eastern church, people might have responded to the gospel with a loud “Amen”. In New Jersey, though, the small congregation just nodded knowingly, and my father and I were among those who nodded.
Those words from Matthew really are the heart of the gospel, though a lot of Christians ignore them. Many Christians focus only on faith. They seem to think it doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as you believe the right things. Jesus himself, though, says that’s not enough. In this gospel he prods us to get out of the pew and put our faith into action—feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Jesus reminds to see God in those in need and serve God by serving them.
My dad didn’t talk much about his time in World War II, but I remember one conversation he had that was very revealing. He talked about how his view of the war changed from the time he volunteered for duty to when he came home. It was very direct one-on-one combat on the islands, a situation where soldiers on both sides could directly see the people they were fighting against. He said that in his Army training they’d been taught to think of Japanese soldiers and indeed the whole Japanese society as being evil. He came to realize, though, that—whether or not they were from an enemy land—the people he was fighting against were just people. “We’re all just people,” he said quietly, “and it’s high time everyone everywhere starts to realize that.”
I often wonder what my dad would think if he were still around today. It’s more than a quarter century later now, and our world is as divided as ever. Even in our own country people seem to want to choose up sides and look for differences rather than finding common ground. People overlook the message that we are all one body and that to love God we must also love each other. Instead too many people of all religious faiths use God’s name to preach hate and suspicion and fear.
So, when thinking about Father’s Day, I know there’s one big thing my dad taught me. It’s that we’re all one family in God’s eyes—those of us here, all of us in America, and everyone around the world. We all have a purpose to fill, and while we may have our differences, we need to see beyond them and truly love each other. Like the Bible says, we need to treat each other like brothers and sisters—feeling pride at other people’s accomplishments and feeling pain when others are suffering. We need to put our faith into action and serve God by doing his work in our world.
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