Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
Beginning at the End of the Story: Mark 13:24-37
Today is beginning of the new church year, the first Sunday in the season of Advent, the season when Christians are invited to shift our attention the ways Christ is always being born in the world by recalling the specific biblical stories of Jesus' birth. I realized this last week that over the next four weeks, between the children's pageant, the Christmas cantata, and our service of lessons and carols, we are all going to end up hearing a full accounting of Jesus' birth at least three times. The kids are going to teach it to us. The choir will sing it for us. We will sing it all together on Christmas Eve. You may be familiar with these stories. You may even have come to expect to hear these particular stories repeated at this time of year. That's what Advent is for... hearing about Mary and Joseph and waiting for Jesus to be born.
I don't know about you, but just about the last thing I expect to be hearing right now is this whole business about the sun darkening and the moon not giving light. And, yet, at the beginning of every Advent every year, the very first Gospel reading on the very first Sunday is always an apocalypse of some kind. This one in Mark 13 is called the Little Apocalypse. It's not little because it isn't world changing. It's just shorter than many apocalyptic stories in Hebrew Scripture and other parts of the New Testament. This is definitely not a story about a sweet, squishy baby Jesus that we might expect to hear this time of year. This story is about a grown-up Jesus at his most pointed and most severe, preparing his followers for the end of his life and all that will come next. When he shared these words with them, words inspired by ancient Jewish prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, he wasn't trying to terrify them, even though these images can sound pretty scary. Scaring people is not actually what an apocalypse is for, even if how that is how these Bible stories often get used. Now, they have a more important purpose. They are for reminding people that God is bigger than their current circumstances.
One of the most important things I ever learned about the Bible was that apocalypse stories aren't just about the supposed "end of the world." They are really about right now. Biblical scholars consistently point out that the apocalyptic stories we read in the Hebrew Bible arose during times of great struggle and pain. Similar stories in the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament did, too, or adapted ancient stories to a new situation where people were being oppressed. These kinds of stories are nearly always a way of reframing history, even time itself, into an outlet for God's intervention into the world. And undergirding every one of these epic stories of stars falling and the earth splitting is the idea that God can create something new and holy and redemptive in the midst of a destructive and cruel world. It is a statement that Babylon, and Assyria, and Rome will not have the last word. God will. And, the Word will change the world. As Jesus understood it, we must stay awake, that is pay attention, to the seismic shifts happening around us, not to predict when God will break into our world, but in order to be ready to respond to God in this world. It is our job as followers of God to watch, to be alert, for we do not want to miss playing our part in this new creation. We are both witnesses and participants in this new creation with God. We will miss out on our parts if we sleep through the cues.
For Mark, "staying awake" meant growing in discipleship, preaching about the ways God is active in our lives, tending to the tormented, and engaging with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. That's what Jesus tells his followers to do in the earlier parts of chapter 13. You'll notice that each one of these actions is rooted in the concept of a just and loving God who calls us to strong relationships and great compassion. The message in this chapter of Mark is that God's entrance into the world was not a one time thing. It will happen again. In fact, God's entrance into the world through Jesus was but one holy, beautiful disruption. There are more. They will definitely be worth staying awake for.
I have shared before the words of scholar Kathleen Norris who once said that apocalyptic literature is a command to come to full attention to the here and now. I think we need to carry this definition of apocalyptic literature into how we hear all the stories of Jesus' birth over the next few weeks. It can be easy to be lulled into complacency by the familiarity and repetition of these stories. Even if you are new to this religious community, these stories are so common, that you have probably heard at least a few of them. I am going to urge to you listen to each of these stories with as fresh an ear as you can this year, because we can still learn something new about God's presence in our world and in our lives even though we may have heard these stories a million times. Remembering Norris' council to pay attention to the here and now, ask yourself, what does it mean for you to listen to these ancient stories while also being firmly rooted in the here and now of our common culture and life.
Here's a couple ways I've thought of to listen to the birth narratives while also being aware of the here and now. In our current cultural climate that so rarely seems to trust women and people with little political power to tell the truth about their lives, what does it mean for us to believe a teenage girl when she tells the origin of such a scandalous and impossible pregnancy as the one described in the early chapters of Luke? In this culture where greed and self-absorption are so often praised as "looking out for number 1," what does it mean for us to hear, in the early chapters of Matthew, of a young man who trusts that same teenage girl even when it may not be in his best interest to do so? In a world where we are supposed to be impressed by shows of physical strength and threats of destruction, what does it really mean for us to believe that God was made present in the flesh of a vulnerable child? In each of these questions, the ancient story is not lost or obscured by the here and now. It is illuminated by it. I'm not the only one who can come up with these kinds of questions. Each of us can pay attention this way. There is world-shaking wisdom and love in those stories. Let's stay awake so we don't miss it. So, what questions will you ask of the birth of Jesus that keep you rooted in the here and now. How are you going to stay awake?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3482
Mark Allen Powell: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2265
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, "First Sunday of Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Kathleen Norris: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2005-11/apocalypse-now
Our Sermon for November 26th, 2017: Caring for the Sheep, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46
Caring for the Sheep: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46
Did you know that every year, about 50,000 pounds of clothes are left at the starting line of the Boston Marathon? That's right... 50, 000 pounds of clothes. I learned about this giant pile of clothes back in April when WGBH, the PBS station out of Boston, did some reporting on it. Has anyone here ever been to the running of the marathon? I haven't. It was glad the report reporter described the early morning scene just before the start of the race. Ten of thousands of runners arrived in Hopkinton Common, where the race starts. It's still pretty chilly in the Boston area in April. The runners show up in jackets and sweatshirts, gloves and sweatpants. But, they don't run in all that gear. When most of them start they race, they are wearing light shirts and shorts. Where does all of the warmer clothing go?
Apparently, it just gets dropped at the beginning. Or shed as they head out of the first quarter mile of the race. Then, volunteers come and bag it up. For a long time, that was it. Some charity might come and pick up the bags. But, sometimes no one came and the clothes would just get thrown away (apparently, after running 26 miles, few people feel like coming back to get their sweatshirts and a program that carried bags of clothes to the finish line had been discontinued due to security concerns). All of this changed when a lady named Judy Pitasi showed up. She couldn't stand to see all of those clothes go to waste. After volunteering with the race for many years (her brother ran in a couple times), she passionately spoke up to the organizers about how these clothes could actually do some good. They ended up putting her in charge of the newly formed clothing collection program.
She and a whole bunch of volunteers (last year, it was 201) pick up any clothes, towels, yoga mats, anything that gets discarded along the way, between the starting line and the Ashland town line. They haul their bags of goodies to the 10 trucks that Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay sponsors. All of that stuff is then separated out, with a portion sold in the Big Brothers Big Sisters' thrift stores and the rest sold to other thrift stores around the country. The proceeds go back to the mentoring program that Big Brothers Big Sisters run. The most recent years' hauls, which netted about 26 tons of clothing, have raised enough money to cover a full year's mentorship for 20 kids. When asked why she was so passionate about doing something good with the clothes left behind, Pitasi said, "It’s just inside me, I’ve gone without at a period in my life, so I know what it’s like not to have 'the best' or to have your shoes worn out or whatever. So, I think I have a good understanding of what others might need." Her work helps clean up the streets, provides thrift stores with quality athletic clothes, helps a local non-profit get funds, and, in turn, helps kids get mentors. This seems like a win for everybody.
If there was anything that would get you on the sheep side of the sheep vs goat list, it would be something like this, wouldn't it? I mean, it's right here at the end of Matthew... well, not the very end, but in the chapters before Jesus' trial and execution. It is the point where Jesus is trying to leave his followers, and some of his naysayers, with the last bits of teaching he will have time for. He is telling them something about what it means to follow God and work with God to build God's reign. Jesus told them that God's inbreaking can happen at any time, so they need to stay awake and pay attention. Jesus told them that they had been entrusted with great gifts that they can use to serve God and warned them not to squander them. Jesus told them that God had some expectations of them, too. This part of Matthew 25 is the part about God's expectations.
He calls upon imagery familiar to them, both because they are from farming communities and because they are familiar with the apocalyptic and prophetic literature of their faith. As you heard in our reading from Ezekiel today, lists of good and bad animals were common. In Ezekiel's case, it was a list of greedy sheep and skinny sheep. God would judge harshly those sheep who took more than their share and scattered the frail and sick sheep away. God would tend to the sickly sheep. The lean and the lost would make up God's flock. Maybe some of this language is also familiar to you from other parts of Matthew. You may remember that in chapter 5, God will bless the mournful, the meek, and the poor in spirit. That sure sounds like Ezekiel's flock to me.
Jesus cites a slightly different list... it's not sheep and sheep, it's sheep and goats. As I have said before when preaching this scripture, I'm still not sure goats get such a bad rap. But, they do. Goats are on the judged list and sheep are on the blessed list. The people who will be blessed are the people who have fed and clothed Christ through feeding and clothing their neighbors in need. People who welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned and tend to sick will be counted among the blessed. Scholar Fred Craddock once proposed that out of all the questions that Jesus could have asked his followers, out of all the theological arguments and questions about dogma, we should take notice that this question seems most important: "How did you respond to human need?" In all of their preparations and faithful waiting, this is what Jesus told them to pay attention to. Or, at least, it's what he would be paying attention to.
It's interesting to me that neither the sheep or the goats realized that they were being sheep-like or goat-like. Isn't that strange? I mean, I'm pretty sure Judy Pitasi knows she's doing a very good thing by organizing the clothing donations at the marathon. It is probably a clue to us that this parable is to be more than just a check-off list of what to do to get to heaven. While it's true that Jesus was certain that God calls us to action to live out our faith, this section might not simply be a reiteration of a list of how God resides in the lives of those who struggle and who are burdened. I read an article by a scholar named David Jacobsen who pointed out something interesting. Did you notice that at the beginning of the reading, it says that the Son of Man with gather the nations before him? I hadn't paid much attention to the nations part before. Jacobsen thinks we should.
The "nations" is usually shorthand for gentiles who don't follow Jesus. Now, the person who wrote Matthew was trying to figure out how to equip a particular group of Jesus' followers who were being persecuted by the broader religious community. Jacobsen thinks that what is happening here is that this author wanted to make sure this particular group of persecuted Christians knew that Jesus was looking out for them, that Jesus would pay attention not just to their behavior but to the behavior of the people who had power over them. Of course Jesus would ask his followers to tend to the poor and hungry. That's what Jesus called the whole point of their faith. Jacobsen thinks Jesus was asserting that he would bless the people who care for the poor and oppressed among his followers. Even people who don't consider themselves followers of Jesus, when they clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned, Jacobsen thinks they were honoring Jesus without even realizing it. They didn't intend to be sheep, but they were assuredly sheep because of their actions.
This is a radically different interpretation than I've read before. While I certainly think it helps explain why the sheep didn't know they were doing sheepish things (they didn't follow Jesus... how would they know what he expects or thinks God expects of them), this interpretation certainly troubles any notion that those who do what Christ commands but don't explicitly follow Christ will be excluded from God's reign. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising. I mean, "love your enemies" is at the core of Jesus' teachings in this Gospel, too. This is a Gospel with all kinds of hard, paradoxical sayings. What is clear though, is that God's grace will always be wider that we can imagine. It probably will end up extending well beyond the people who look just like us and believe just like us. If we want to find Jesus, we'll need to look for the people, all the people, who are caring for the skinny sheep and the lost strangers.
Have you heard of the Muslim man, Adeeb Joudeh, who keeps the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem? His family has been the keepers of the key since at least the 1500's. Another Muslim man, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, is in charge of opening the door to welcome in those who come to worship. His family has also been doing this for a very long time. These two families came to be entrusted with these roles when splits within Christianity soured relationships among the many Christian denominations who worship in the space. The Christians could not trust one another, but they do trust these two Muslim families to make sure that all the Christians will have access to the space for worship. Those guys sound like they might be sheep to me.
Pastor Chrissy consulted these sources while writing this sermon:
Edgar B. Herwick III: https://news.wgbh.org/2017/04/12/local-news/what-happens-50000-pounds-clothes-left-boston-marathon-start-line
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3477
Fred Craddock, "When He Shall Come," The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Carla Works: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1019
Oren Liebermann: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/26/middleeast/easter-muslim-keyholder/index.html
To Be Entrusted: Judges 4:1-7 and Matthew 25:14-30
Every person that I’ve actually personally known who has hiked the Appalachian Trail has been in their mid-twenties. Most of them have been guys. All of them have been white. When I picture a thru-hiker (that's the phrase I've learned that you call someone who has hike the whole trail), I think of one of these guys' faces, skinnier than when they began the hike and usually covered in a scraggly beard that they’ve grown along the way. While many of the people who hike the Appalachian Trail fit this description, all of the thru-hikers don’t. If I only ever talk about or share pictures of people who look like these guys I know, I’m not capturing the reality of the trail or the people who hike. And, I’m not helping different kinds of people imagine themselves taking on a challenge like a through-hike. This week, I remembered the story of Emma Gatewood. Ms. Gatewood did not look like the hikers I know. But, she was a thru-hiker. And, she probably helped save the trail.
There are a couple books and movies about Emma Gatewood. I’ll put links to one particularly helpful article and a film below. I read about her in article written in 2015 in the Washington Post. Gatewood decided to hike the trail after reading about it in National Geographic. She was about 66 years old when she first attempted a thru-hike in 1954. She began here in Maine. She didn’t make it on that first attempt because she broke her glasses. She went home, prepared some more, and started out again in 1955. She was 67. She wore regular old sneakers to hike the trail. All she carried with her was a blanket and a plastic shower curtain, a far cry from the enormous and technically advanced gear many hikers use. While all thru-hikers rely on the kindness of the people they meet on the trail, this was especially true for Gatewood. While she ate many Vienna sausages, raisins, peanuts, and greens she gathered along the way, a good portion of her meals were supplied by strangers. As she traveled, she slept on porches, under picnic tables, and on beds of leaves. While the trail was much more difficult than she thought it would be, she said she would not and could not quit. She finished hiking the whole trail in 146 days.
Emma Gatewood, who many people would call Grandma Gatewood, would go on to hike the whole trail two more times. She was 74 years old during her third successful attempt. She was the first woman to hike the whole trail and the first person to hike it two and three times. She completed other long hikes, as well, including one from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. A part of the Buckeye Trail, a trail across her home state of Ohio, is named after her (which is fair… she helped get the whole trail made). When she was hiking, journalists were fascinated by her story and covered it widely. Stories about her hikes brought attention to poorly maintained parts of the trail. The article I read actually credited the attention she brought the Appalachian trail with helping keep the trail from falling into complete disrepair.
What seems clear from the article I read is that Gatewood, who had survived a 30 year marriage to an abusive husband and had secured a divorce in a time when that was rarely able to happen, was already strong before she hiked the Appalachian Trail. The press coverage just helped other people see it. In turn, she inspired generations of new hikers and also helped preserve natural areas that had seemed to mean a great deal to her. Telling stories like hers has helped generations of people see a world of greater possibility. Telling her story has helped people know that hiking is not just for young guys in their twenties. It is for everyone who is called to the challenge. Gatewood, just by existing and choosing to share her adventure with the world, has helped people imagine a world full of possibility.
I chose to share some of Emma Gatewood’s story because one of the scriptures today is about a woman in an unexpected place. You remember how I said I picture thru-hikers based on the patterns of people I know who have hiked the trail? Well, the judges in the book of Judges have a pattern, too. A scholar named Dennis Olsen describes the pattern as something like this…
Her story starts out similarly to the other judges. The people have turned away from the covenant with God following death of a previous judge. In this portion of the Bible, the authors express a belief that God is being willing to dole out punishment for lack of attention to covenant. They say that God allow a Canaanite king named Jabin to oppress the Israelites. Then the people cry out. Up to this point, this sounds just like the other five stories. In the other stories, it says specifically that God appoints a man, Ehud or Shamgar or Gideon or Tola, as prophet, judge, and military leader to save the people. It is different here with Deborah. She was already serving as prophet to God’s people. In fact, she had been doing it long enough, and with enough wisdom, that the place where she was based carried her name. They called in the Palm of Deborah.
One of my favorite things that I learned about Deborah is that we’re not actually sure if she’s married. In many English translations, she is called the Wife of Lappidoth, but the Hebrew is far from clear. According to the scholar Sarah Koenig, in Hebrew, the same word is used for both “wife” and “woman” and the word Lappidoth means “torch” or “lightning.” It is entirely possible that Deborah was being called a fiery woman as well as a prophet and judge. Given what she does next in the story, I could totally believe that someone would call her a woman of lightning. She calls up the Israelite general Barak and she tells him that God has given him a mission. She then gives him strategic military instruction on how to defeat the Canaanite general Sisera. Military leadership is rarely in the hands of a woman in the Bible. In this story, the confidence and the strategy are all Deborah’s. Barak mostly has to do what he’s told.
Now, this is where our reading for the day stopped. I think we should really hear what happens in the next couple chapters, too. When Deborah, a respected prophet and judge, tells Barak what to do, he has a very interesting response. He says, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Doesn’t that strike you as a strange response from a military leader? God tells him, through Deborah, what to do and how to defeat his enemy and he says no. Well, not exactly no, but insists that Deborah goes with him? Some scholars read this as Barak having such great respect for Deborah that he can’t imagine leading his army without her by his side. Some other scholars think he is afraid. Whatever the reason, Deborah, woman of lightning, immediately agrees to go. She then proceeds to tell Barak that God will defeat Sisera not by his hands, but at the hands of a woman. Now, you might think this is Deborah referencing her own leadership. This may actually be a reference to another woman, Jael. Sisera, who grows terrified on the battlefield while facing Barak, hides in Jael’s tent, where he assumes he will be safe. He wasn’t safe. Jael finishes the job Barak started. And, the Israelites are saved, at the hands of two fiery women and one reluctant man.
Our reading from Matthew reminds us that each one of us has been entrusted with great gifts that we can choose to use to serve God. In Jesus’ parable, not everyone understood how to use the gifts with which they were entrusted. Jesus’ harshest criticism is for the people who squander the gifts they’ve been given. His greatest invitation is to each of us to use all of our gifts to serve God and neighbor. I think one of our greatest gifts is these surprising stories: Stories about fiery women and bold leaders… stories about women of lightning who are not afraid to act. These stories show us how God can use any person for good, especially those whom the broader culture ignores or denigrates. The more we hear stories like this, the easier it becomes to imagine our own future with God. Maybe we are the ones who will be called up next to serve. If we are, I pray that we can use our gifts as boldly as Deborah and Emma did.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Stories/films about Emma Gatewood:
Dennis Olson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3470
Sara Koenig: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2216
Talitha Arnold: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-10/sit-it
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_november_19_2017
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4998
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3469
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Looking for Empty Lamps: Matthew 25:1-13
I read a really beautiful story this week in an article called “Love’s Road Home" (there's a link to the article below). It was a story about a wedding that a judge named Terrence Lavin got to officiate in Chicago back on Halloween day. He was very happy to officiate this particular wedding. He said, “These two fighters are now, and shall forever remain, together. And I have to tell you that I’ve never been more confident about a knot that I helped to tie.” He was marrying two people name Sam Siatta and Ashley Volk. The story of how he came to know them is what caught my attention. These weren’t people who just came to the court house looking to get married and signed up with whatever judge would have them. No, these two are a couple that Lavin sought out and developed a relationship with. He saw great potential in their lives and wanted to help them reach it. He only saw the potential, though, because he was paying attention. Or, in the words of Jesus, he was awake, and aware that something good and holy can bloom anywhere, including in someone who has just been released from prison and can’t find a job.
Lavin’s part of this story began his nephew, Conner T. Lowry, who enlisted in the Marines in 2008. According to his uncle, Mr. Lowry wanted to join the Marines because he thought it would help him “straighten out his life a little bit.” Judge Lavin was not in favor of this decision at all. He felt like the risks of joining the military at this point in history were too great for people in the enlisted ranks. He was critical of the war, even as he as supported individual soldiers. In short, he was worried, as any of us would be if and when someone in our family joins the military. But, Conner was clear that he intended to enlist, and he did, with the same exuberance and confidence with which he had lived his entire 20 years up to that point. His uncle, and the rest of the family, sent him off with great love and their blessing.
In late February of 2012, Conner was on a tour in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. One night, when he talked to his mom, he told her that he had a mission the next day. He also told her about tension that had developed when some American troops had burned copies of the Quran while destroying some possessions of prisoners. This action had not help strengthen the relationship between the American and Afghan troops. Civilians were protesting. The Afghan troops had actually been asked to leave the outpost where he was stationed. The next day, on the mission that he had mentioned to his mother, Conner, now Corporal Lowry, was killed when standing in a turret in a moving vehicle. The vehicle he was in struck a live electrical wire hung over the road on which they were driving. According to the article I read, his mother, Modie Lavin, still isn’t sure if it was a trap or an accident that killed her son.
Terrence Lavin, her brother, Conner’s uncle, wanted to do something to honor his nephew, but wasn’t sure how until he came upon Sam and Ashley’s story in an article (not the one I’m talking about) in the New York Times magazine. Like Conner, Sam had been a Marine and had served in Afghanistan. His time in the service had been hard. His role had been similar to that of a sniper and he had spent much of his time in intense, bloody battles. Even after his tour was up, he was still jumpy. The article I read described him as feeling sorrow, shame, and confusion about his time as a Marine. He had already been drinking as a kind of self-medication. He would continue to drink more and more. One day in 2014, he drank so much that he blacked out and broke into a neighbor’s home, possibly thinking it was his own. He and the neighbor, also a former Marine, got into a heck of a fight. Sam lost the fight and ended up sentenced to six years in prison.
He was able to get out early and had been trying to rebuild his life with Ashley, but they hit a string of bad luck. Due to a paperwork issue, he lost his disability from the military. Given that he had a felony on his record and was on probation, he had trouble finding a job. He wasn’t drinking anymore and was getting help with his PTSD, but, still, things were hard. Ashley worked nights as a bartender just to scrape together enough for them to have a roof over their heads and the essentials they needed for survival. Ashley said that she had loved Sam since they were 10 years old. He had proposed while he was in prison, tying a piece of dental floss around his finger to remind him of the future that he hoped they could build together. Judge Lavin thought it was obvious that they were committed to one another, but they really needed some help. They needed someone who was awake enough to really see them. Because of what happened to his nephew, Justice Lavin was awake. He was paying attention.
Lavin invited Siatta and Volk to meet him at his office. Lavin listened to their story and did something very important: he asked Sam what he needed. That where all stories like this should start, with this question: What do you need? Siatta said he needed a job. Lavin, who had been a steelworker as a young man and knew many people in unions in the area, connected Sam with a group called Helmets to Hardhats. This group places veterans in building and construction jobs. Fortunately the local carpenters’ union was accepting applications. Sam got put at the head of the line. He began a carpentry course last summer. Now, he’s an apprentice carpenter. Ashley still works as a bartender, but she doesn’t have to pull all those extra shifts. In early October, while they were on a date, Sam asked Ashley, again, if she wanted to get married, maybe on Halloween. She thought he meant next year. No, he meant this year… just in a couple weeks. Of course she said yes. Remember, she's loved him since she was 10 years old. Justice Lavin agreed to officiate.
It was a small wedding. Sam’s mom and Ashley’s parents were present. The lawyer who had represented Sam for free also attended, as did the retired judge who helped get him released early from prison. The man who helped him get in the union came, too. Justice Lavin wouldn’t let them dress in costume for the wedding (their original idea)… there is such a thing as decorum he said, but he did spread rose petals down the aisle of the courtroom and bought some flowers to spruce up the place. Sam and Ashley used Sam’s parents’ wedding rings. Ashley did keep the string that Sam used to wear around his finger to bring himself hope, but she left it at home, in a safe place. During the wedding, Justice Lavin spoke of Ashley’s great strength, saying, “She kept on fighting, for him and for them.” He praised their commitment and happily administered their vows.
They didn’t get a honeymoon, but they did have a night off to celebrate with their families over pizza, a very Chicago thing to do. That night, Ashley said, “We finally have a future. We got Sam set up. He’s on the right track. Now it’s my turn.” She had once dreamed of pursuing journalism or opening a dance studio. She had even trained as a welder. Now that they had Sam’s work squared away, she could take some time to remember what she was passionate about. And, Sam felt better because he could return some of the care and hard work that she had been happy to dedicate to their life. Surrounded by people who loved them, they were sure that they had so much in life to look forward to… all because a stranger was paying attention and acted on their behalf.
Now, I don’t know if anyone in this story is religious or even understands themselves to follow Jesus. But, what I do know is that I see something holy in their interactions. I mean, isn’t this a lovely story story of care for stranger and love of neighbor? None of this would have been possible had Justice Lavin not been prepared… had he not been standing at the ready to live out his values and use his privilege to help someone else. His grief became the door through which he could see and understand someone else’s pain. His grief woke him up. He knew neither the day nor the hour in which he could be called to help the stranger. But, he stayed awake, and he ended up helping change someone’s life.
What is keeping you awake? What is reminding you of the on-going potential for Christ's coming into this world? Maybe the fact that there has been one more senseless mass shooting is pushing you to find a way to act in accordance with your faith. Maybe the generosity of your neighbors in last week’s wind storm has inspired you to be a better neighbor in this town. Maybe you have watched over the last several weeks the countless testimonies of women, sharing their stories of harassment and assault, and realized that you feel called to make the world safer for women. What is keeping you awake? Are you prepared to greet Christ in whatever form he coming?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
C.J. Chivers, "Love's Road Home," The New York Times, November 10, 2017
Susan Hylen- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3459
Carla Works: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1017
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4994
Bob Ekblad, "Proper 27," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.