Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon:Billy Graham on Life and Death

February 25, 2018
The Rev. Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter

White House Photo / Pete Souza

Billy Graham on Life and Death

Growing up I watched a lot of TV preachers.  They were, quite simply, good television.  I was not drawn so much to their message, but I was fascinated about how they delivered it.  They were, to my eyes, showmen.  Some of them, not all, hucksters.  Modern snake oil peddlers.  Jimmy Swaggart.  Jim Bakker. Jerry Falwell.  Selling prayer cloths for hundreds of dollars to the proverbial little old lady watching from home living off of her social security check.  Some of them stomped around the stage with a well-worn Bible in hand.  Others lined up people in the aisles to heal from all kinds of illnesses – with a hole scrum of people assigned to catch them when they fell over.  And they always fell back.  I remember when Oral Roberts urged followers to give money to his university – named for him of course – or God would “call him home.”   I would watch these television evangelists with a combination of cynicism and grudging fascination. 

Billy Graham by all accounts was in a different category.  This past week the evangelist died at the age of 99.  Like any person in the public eye for so long, his passing has invited many to consider his legacy.  He was an evangelist to millions of people around the world – the figure quoted is 200 million. He was a councilor to presidents.  He escaped many of the excesses of his more dubious evangelist contemporaries.  Yet Graham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement was mixed. He was a man born in the heart of the Jim Crow south who thought the best way to fight racism was to convert people’s hearts to Christ – so he was not the strongest advocate for institutional change that took another preacher – Dr. King – down a different path.

The reason this morning I wanted to pause to comment on Graham’s life and legacy is to square some of his words with that of the gospel this morning.   

By Chapter 8 in Mark, Jesus is getting serious with his disciples.  He is asking all of the big questions.  Mark 8:27-38: “Who do people say that I am?”  And he spoke to them about this death, less they think that the miracle, teaching and healing ‘show on the road’ would never come to an end. He taught them that he would suffer, be rejected, killed and rise again three days later.   If they wanted to follow him, they would have to pick up their crosses.  Jesus led them right into paradox and mystery: If they wanted to save their life, they would have to lose it.  If they trusted enough to give in and give their lives over to him, they would save it.  They would be saved.  These are verses I’m sure Billy Graham preached on the many of his crusades – picking up crosses and saving souls. 

Peter did not want to hear about Jesus suffering and dying. 

Which leads us to another serious subject that Billy Graham talked about quite often.
(“How an aging Billy Graham approached his own death” by Grant Wacker in the Washington Post February 21, 2018)

When Graham preached, he said that “death was, of course, inevitable.” “As no one knew when Christ would return,” he said, “everyone should think instead about the sure thing they did know: the certainty of their own death.”  He repeatedly insisted that death fell on everyone. Graham would quote Anglican poet and priest John Donne, who said that there’s a democracy about death. ‘It comes equally to us all and makes us all equal when it comes.’

In a Washington Post article, Graham noted that many people tried to avoid this inescapable reality by playing word games, by changing the title of a cemetery to a memorial park, for example. But he left them no loopholes. First, he said, “accept the fact that you will die.” Second, “make arrangements.” Third, “make provision for those you are leaving behind.” And finally, “make an appointment with God.”

Some of what Graham said can sound more slogan-like than the paradox and mystery we may be used to hearing in church. But one thing in undeniable, Graham’s words touched millions of people’s hearts and led them closer to God. 

How about that list?  Accept the fact that you will die.  Isn’t that how we started Lent on Ash Wednesday?  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Make arrangements.  There is nothing wrong and everything right and real about having conversations about life and death along the way.  Everyone here can have a file or one place where loved one’s can go and learn what they need to know. 

Make provision for those you are leaving behind – and that only works when people don’t skip the second step.  It is a matter I bring up with parents set to baptize their babies: do they have a Will?  Have they, have we, made plans. 

Make an appointment with God.  We hope that can mean: come to church.  Come back to church.  Sit and pray. Find quiet.  Say your prayers.  Confess your shortcomings.  Leave room for the holy. 

If you don’t know where or how to begin, talk to me, or David or Charlie.  That is what we help people do: navigate this conversation about life and death that is far from easy. 

We can see how Graham tackled today’s gospels saving and losing equation: “I urge each of you to invest your lives, not just spend them,” Graham told a group of young people. You cannot count your days, but you can make your days count.” A good life and a good time were not the same. 

Truth-filled words for generations of people today who might decide to follow – but only for so long – who may participate but are reluctant to join.

When I sit and talk with people who have gotten serious when it comes to facing what they know will come, eventually we approach the subject of fear.  Are they afraid, as much as Peter was for Jesus, to die? 

Billy Graham showed that it is possible to have no fear of death, but to be very afraid of dying.  He said he had seen “some of the terrible things that happen to people that are dying. I don’t want that.”

Graham told a friend that he was prepared for death but not for growing old.

Each week even without knowing it, we reencounter what Jesus told his disciples in Mark 8.  We say: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Chris will come again.  We place our lives in the past, the present and the future. 

And, I believe, our present can be made more alive and meaningful when we’re able to see and learn from where we have been and to peer out and imagine our future beyond what we know.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining a heaven as Billy Graham did -- “a place where there will be no sorrow and no parting, no pain, no sickness, no death, no quarrels, no misunderstandings, no sin and no cares” – if, and it’s a big if, if it does not deter us from facing head on the work our world requires today.

I think that is why Jesus pushed so hard up again Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” 

The many images of Lent of wilderness and journey only work if we know what are heading for and towards.  There will be a showdown in Jerusalem.  A trial.  A final word.  A suffering and a death.  And a rising and a new day.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Sermon for February 18: Never Again

February 18, 2018
1 Lent, Year B

Never More?

There are a few non-negotiables when it comes to Lent. It is what the Prayer Book says it is: a time of self-examination and repentance. A time of prayer, fasting and self-denial – and a journey that we may not want to begin.
Many mark these days by intentionally doing something different.  Whether it is going down the familiar “giving up or taking on” route or just paying more attention to God’s call on our life.  Grabbing or guarding more time for quiet and centering.  Pausing to remember why we care -- why we believe.

The wilderness is another Lenten non-negotiable.  It always starts with Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness with wild beasts being tempted by Satan.  Wilderness is both location and metaphor in Scripture.  It is the place where life gets scary and lonely – when priorities such as food, water and security become very real – and where temptation lurks.  It is a time apart to consider how the presence of God can feel both far and very near.

Each one of us has our version of wilderness.  When we’ve been cut off from support systems and loved ones. When we’ve experienced a forced or self-imposed exile.  When tragedy strikes and we retreat or cocoon – or when grief or depression settles in for a long season. 

Wilderness in Scripture is not meant to be permanent, rather a space to move through onto to something more. 

Things can become clearer in the wilderness. 

Every other week it seems we hear reports of hikers being rescued in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  They find themselves lost or wander too far off known pathways. We too get lost in the wilderness. And we can be found.  We can be drawn into promise of the prophet Isaiah 58: v. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Along with Jesus and the wild beasts, I love this phrase in Mark: Jesus was with wild beasts, “and the angels waited on him.” 

Beyond a few mentions in Christmas pageants, we don’t think much about angels anymore.  I rarely mention them in sermons. But angels fill the pages of Scripture as expressions of God’s messengers.  They convey and communicate and show up.  They watch over and protect.  How many us have felt, when we had passed through a moment of crisis or danger, that somewhere we must have a guardian angel looking over us?  These are not just the promises to soothe a frightened child.
Our call to welcome the strangers comes with some hefty backing: 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

Novelist Marilynne Robinson captures the feeling that a parent has sending a child off to wherever parents send children off to, be it school or summer camp. A first date in the family car, college and beyond.  “Any father…must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God. It seems almost a cruelty for one generation to beget another when parents can secure so little for their children, so little safety, even in the best circumstances. Great faith is required to give the child up, trusting God to honor the parents’ love for him by assuring that there will indeed be angels in that wilderness.”

God assures us that there will be angels in the wilderness.  God sent them for his son Jesus.  God sends them to us.   We prayed this morning in the Litany: Guard and protect all children who are in danger.

In the use of the Great Litany as we begin Lent, you see how we work into our prayers events in our larger world.  We do so because our God is a God who acts in history.  Who led people out of slavery, who returned them home after exile, and who sent a Son to be a Messiah to preach freedom and love and peace.  And Christians have this stubborn belief that leaders can help shape our world for the good of us all – and thus closer to what God desires.  We certainly know that bad and evil leaders can bring about death and destruction. So we offer our leaders our prayers.  So we pray: Guide the leaders of the nations into the ways of peace and justice. Give your wisdom and strength to Donald, the President of the United States; and Chris, the Governor of this state, that in all things they may do your will, for your glory and the common good. Give to the Congress of the United States, the members of the President’s Cabinet, those who serve in our state legislature, and all others in authority the grace to walk always in the ways of truth. Bless the justices of the Supreme Court and all those who administer the law, that they may act with integrity and do justice for all your people.

“Never Again” are two powerful words.

They can be spoken between two people who have wounded each other by words or actions, and then spoken out of deep regret. 

“Never again” has been associated with the Holocaust.  The phrase reportedly first appeared on handmade signs put up by inmates at Buchenwald in April, 1945, shortly after the camp had been liberated by U.S. forces.

“Never again” are aspirational words.  Words spoken out of ruin and rubble with an aspiring hope that what has just happened will never happen again in one’s lifetime.

“Never again” can be spoken between those whose trust has been broken and confidence has been shaken.  Never again will I… take you for granted, say what I just said, hurt you in any way.
God spoke “never again” in Genesis 9.  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God gives us a model of repentance – a change in behavior based on seeing the results of one’s actions.
A parishioner told me about the Parkland Florida shooting at the end the Ash Wednesday service.  I might have heard something passing by the TV about a school shooting in the mid-afternoon, but in all honesty, it did not register.

A clergy friend of mine wrote on his blog this week (The Rev. David Romanik at “I hate that I have a ‘mass shooting routine.’ I hate that these events have become so commonplace that I know exactly how I’m going to respond. There is a grim and predictable routine: shock, sadness, outrage, blame, and apathy, all within the span of a few days, or even a few hours. Mass shootings have become so common that the only thing we feel like we can do is wait for the next one to occur.”

Even the offering of prayer has become like salt in the wounds in our current climate we are living through.  Prayer without action is always suspect.  Jesus had a way to sniff out hypocrisy. Matthew 6: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.

We’re beyond a tipping point it seems.  When “never again” is replaced with “please Lord let it not happen here.” We are people and a nation in need of deep repentance. The greatest prosperity the world has ever seen and we are awash with guns that have little to nothing to do with the hunting culture that is still strong and beloved in our state and by some of our families. 

The debate has been so soiled and positions so hardened that many us feel that we are nearly powerless to affect change.  We are getting farther away from “never again”.

And we still pray for the lives lost at another mass shooting. 

Alyssa Alhadeff, age 14
Scott    Beigel, 35
Martin Duque Anguiano, 14
Nicholas Dworet, 17
Aaron Feis, 37
Jamie Guttenberg, 14
Chris Hixon,   49
Luke Hoyer,    15
Cara Loughran, 14
Gina Montalto, 14
Joaquin Oliver, 17
Alaina  Petty, 14
Meadow Pollack, 18
Helena Ramsay, 17
Alex Schachter, 14
Carmen Schentrup, 16
Peter Wang, 15

We pray that even if we as a society and our leader could not protect them in their schools, that God’s angels were indeed present.

May you and I use this Lenten wilderness time to link prayer with action.  May we find ways to turn and change.  Use what God has given us and make a difference in the lives a few people you touch and know.  Reach out to a stranger – or an angel – and draw them in.

May this Lenten wilderness help us find again those pieces of our lives that seemed to have been lost.  Dust off something you put down some time ago and make it new again.   
 As we prayed in the Litany:  Give us true repentance; forgive us our sins of negligence and ignorance and our deliberate sins; and grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit to amend our lives according to your word.