Sermon delivered by David Burrow September 20, 2009 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
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We read today from three sources.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
Well, it's me again. Rev. Pope asked me to deliver today's message a couple months ago. At the time she was planning some vacation time this weekend. With her illness, it was convenient that this was already planned, and I was happy to go ahead with things today.
When Rev. Pope asked me if I would give today's message, of course I thought back to the two times last fall when I filled in while we were between ministers. I wondered how people thought that had gone and what Rev. Pope had heard about it. I figured one of two things had to be true. Either I'd done well enough that she figured I'd do well filling in now or I'd done badly enough that she knew everyone would be eager to have her back again. One way or another, here I am back for round #3.
Most of you know my "real" job is teaching. As a teacher it seems rather strange to me that it was just last week that we started the fall schedule here at church. While personally I'd prefer to have the earlier summer schedule year round, if we're going to switch, this seems incredibly late to be doing it. We've been in school more than a month now, and summer is a very distant memory. Indeed, church is just about the only place left these days where Labor Day still marks the end of summer.
Thinking about that switch from summer to fall got me thinking about the past season and just what I did over my summer vacation. I'd love to pretend I did something noble or inspiring, but honestly I didn't. I spent most of my summer working-teaching night classes at the community college and helping prepare the 50th anniversary celebration at Garrigan. I did some serious housecleaning, and I kept fit by doing a lot of walking. I also kept my sanity and avoided getting caught up in all those silly arguments in Congress by keeping my TV tuned to Food Network or ESPN instead of CNN.
My favorite part of the season, though, involved travel. The bookends around my summer were two big trips, and it's those that I really want to talk about today. I can't say either trip was particularly religious; it's not like I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Still, there were things in my journeys that I found inspiring. I've traveled a lot in my life, and I'd like to think I've learned something everywhere I've gone. I think travel can teach us a lot, and today I'd like to share with you a bit of what I learned this summer.
At the beginning of summer I took a group of high school students to New Orleans for the National Academic Championships. I know we have other teachers in this congregation, and they will certainly agree that driving 2,000 miles in a school vehicle and supervising high school kids for a week is definitely not a vacation-it's hard work. I enjoyed the trip, though, and I'm very glad to have gone.
This was a personally important trip for me. New Orleans is in a part of the country I know nearly as well as Iowa. Some of you know I went to graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi, and while I was studying down there every single weekend I'd go to the Coast on Saturday and New Orleans on Sunday. The area is almost a second home to me. I have a number of friends down there, and I know the places around there in the way a local person does. That's why I was absolutely sickened four years ago when I saw TV reporters standing in places I knew well that literally didn't exist anymore after Hurricane Katrina.
I went back down South at Easter in 2007, and at that point-a year and a half after the disaster-things were just barely starting to recover. I wouldn't have wanted to take high school kids there at that time; while hotels and restaurants were starting to re-open, it was still a lot like visiting a Third World country. Now in 2009, I'm pleased to say that while the Gulf Coast still isn't exactly the place I remember, it's definitely headed in the right direction. It always has been beautiful, and it's back to being a fun and easy place to visit.
The recovery of the Gulf Coast reminds us that when people are in need-whether close to home or far away-it's up to us to rise to the challenge and help out. We all have different ways in which we can help. Some, like Dwight and Joanne from our congregation, might be able to offer direct hands-on assistance to people on another continent. Others of us might help out closer to home-delivering Meals on Wheels or cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the needy. Still others can offer their financial support, their words of encouragement, and their prayers. We all can help, though, and we all must. When there's a need, we all need to respond, "Here I am."
What really inspired me on my trip down south was the ever-present optimism I saw in people-rich and poor, black and white-all over the Gulf Coast area. Almost everyone there has literally lost everything, but they're moving on and making the best of it. One simple road sign is a perfect example of this. At the entrance to a historic town at the west end of the Mississippi Coast, a sign reads "Bay St. Louis: Founded 1699, Incorporated 1812, Reborn 2005". It's a reminder to all of us that we need to take the disasters in our lives and turn them into rebirth.
I also saw signs on two churches in New Orleans that really spoke to me. One was in front of a Baptist church just down the street from the hotel where we stayed, a church that a mostly low income black congregation. It's probably not a church where I'd feel comfortable myself, but I loved the sign they had out front. It read "New Orleans knows the resurrection-we have lived it." Not far away I saw a Catholic church whose membership is probably white and middle class. Their sign read "God gave us a second chance. What are we doing with it?"
Those signs made me think, and I think their message applies to all of us as well as to the hurricane survivors. While we don't always realize it, all of us have known the resurrection and been given second chances in our lives. I' bet everyone here at one time or another has almost been in an accident-averting disaster at the last second? And pretty much everyone has done something we've regretted at some point-only to be forgiven, both by God and those we've wronged. God does give us all second chances and little individual resurrections. We need to realize that and make the most of what we've been given.
The trip to New Orleans began my summer, but then in August I was fortunate enough to be able to take a "real" vacation. I've traveled a lot of places in my life, both in America and overseas. This year, though, was a kind of special trip-and one that fits in with the theme Algona High just used for their Homecoming. For the first time in my life, I made a trip to Hawaii.
Surprising as it may seem, I was reminded of this very church when I was in Hawaii. Some of you know that back in the parlor there's a painting of a boat, the Morning Star, which signifies our church's gift more than a century ago to support a group of missionaries. The Morning Star was one of several mission ships that sailed to Polynesia to convert the native people there to Christianity. I saw the first church the missionaries built in downtown Honolulu-a lovely little building made entirely of coral. Their efforts paid off, too. To this day the United Church of Christ, the successor to the old Congregationalist missions, remains one of the largest denominations in the Pacific.
The same missionaries who built the early churches also set up schools throughout Polynesia. One of the schools the Congregationalist missionaries founded was Punahou Academy, which today is a very prestigious high school located in a somewhat seedy working class neighborhood north of Waikiki. In 1979, one of the students who graduated from Punahou was a local kid who grew up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment five blocks away-Barack Obama. Whatever your politics may be, you have to respect the historic accomplishment our President has made. To me it's kind of cool to think that a gift our church gave more than a century ago may have helped establish an institution that helped mold a man who changed history. Who knows what the gifts we give today may yield tomorrow.
The whole time I was in Hawaii-both in Honolulu and on the big island-I was struck by what locals call "the aloha spirit", a laid-back, welcoming feeling of friendship that is the trademark of the islands. Last week Rev. West referred to the Hebrew word "shalom", and its meaning is pretty much the same as "aloha".
I really did sense the feeling of aloha in Hawaii, and I couldn't help but think how much we need that spirit in the rest of America and throughout the world. So many people these days see the world in clear-cut, us or them, one way or the other terms. They know what they believe-whether the subject is politics, religion, the economy, the environment, or even which college football team is best or who should win on American Idol. They bad-mouth anyone who thinks differently and won't even listen to what they have to say. We see this fault in those we disagree with, but far too many people of all persuasions suffer from it. An amazing number of so-called Christians don't seem to have learned that Christian charity requires treating other people with respect and deference.
That aloha spirit we all need to strive for is summed up in an old quote you've almost certainly heard before. The words have been attributed to dozens of different people, and likely no one will ever know who was really the first to say it. I lived in Michigan when I was a kid, so I'm going to credit my old Congressman, a former President I still very much respect-Gerald Ford. Ford (and numerous others right up to our current President) said "We can disagree without being disagreeable." We all need to take those words to heart-in our daily lives, in our work, in our political dealings, in our church, in every relationship we have. We should welcome disagreement and give respect to those who don't share our opinions. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
One of the places I visited in Hawaii was the Iloani Palace, the only royal palace on American soil and the home of the kings and queens of an independent Hawaii before business interests overthrew the monarchy and sought annexation to the United States. Surprisingly, this was another place I was reminded of our own local church here in Algona. What reminded me of home was a small needlepoint sampler that hung on a wall at the palace, a long-forgotten gift to an obscure member of the royal family. That sampler bore almost the same words that can be found in the center window at the south end of our sanctuary. There were minor changes in the inscription, but the meaning was the same: "None knew her but to love her; none named her but to praise."
Both here and in Hawaii those words memorialize people no one today personally remembers. I think they really should be a motto for all of us, though, for isn't that how we would want to be remembered when we're no longer around. We certainly should strive to be people others would want to love and praise.
The inspiration I got on my vacation fits right in with our Bible readings today. Both the psalm and the letter of James implore us to be good rather than wicked, to truly be people worthy of praise. The gospels remind us to be servants of all and love one another. That's the spirit of aloha and the spirit the resurrection spirit they have down South. It's also good old-fashioned Christian charity, a virtue we need to work hard to maintain in our modern world.
I want to close with something else I learned in Hawaii. At the Iloani Palace I learned in detail about one Hawaiian woman who I found deeply inspirational-Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii. She was forced to abdicate and then imprisoned alone in her bedroom at the palace. Just like the early Christians, imprisonment made her firm in her faith. She spent her time creating religious artwork and composing hymns and religious poems.
I want to close today with a passage from Liliuokalani's most famous hymn, which is simply called "The Queen's Prayer". While she wrote it referring to her own circumstances, I think it can speak to all of us-because at times we all find ourselves imprisoned by the circumstances we have in life, and we need to realize it is God who can lift us above that. Listen to those words, translated to English from the Hawaiian language:
Lord, your love is in heaven
And your truth so perfect.
I live in sorrow imprisoned.
You are my light,
Your glory my support.
Behold not with malevolence the sins of man,
But forgive and cleanse.
And so, O Lord, beneath your wings
Be our peace forevermore.
I hope those words remain with all of us. May we all see God as our light and ask forgiveness for our failings and those of people who have wronged us. ... And may we all keep a bit of that spirit of aloha in our hearts each day.
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