Sometimes I’m just lucky!
This last week, for example, I bumped into what may be the most delightful mistake that has ever happened in the history of humanity – a fortuitous error that seemed, in bizarre context of its revelation, to redeem the whole world in one grand thunderclap of cuteness.
It’s moments like this that a fly on the wall watching me write my sermon, might witness me rubbing my hands like some villainous mastermind in a Bond film, as I eagerly anticipate sharing a story. I am certainly grateful to whatever Holy circumstance has conspired to give me the privilege of having you – a group of loving people that I can share with – everyone should have such a crew – folks who, I know, will appreciate a good story, and help me understand its meaning.
As you know, I recently added the name of one of my English department colleagues to our prayer list. Since she will be out for a number of weeks recuperating from a surgical procedure, I, naturally, have agreed to teach her class during her absence. This may not sound all that endearing, but I assure you, it is the improbable circumstance that led to the revelation of the cutest thing that has ever happened in the history of humanity.
After class the other day, as we made our way up to the dining hall we fell into conversation and it was revealed that my colleague’s surgery is scheduled to happen on February 14th…
“You’re having surgery on Valentine’s Day?!” I exclaimed with all the incredulity that such a fateful coincidence demands.
“Yes,” she said, though, she did not grimace at the irony as I expected. Instead she had a glimmer of mischief in her eyes.
“Emma,” she said (Emma is her kindergarten aged child) doesn’t call it Valentine’s Day. To her it is “Clementine’s Day.”
Meg and I laughed all the way to the dining hall. It was good medicine!
We agreed, then and there, that Emma, the child in question, must never be made aware of her mistake! She must never know that a thing called “Valentine’s Day” ever existed. The immediate and unequivocal superiority of Clementine’s Day as a notion, impressed itself so completely, that we decided that only reasonable course of action was to convert the entire world, impressing upon all the absolute necessity of summarily disposing of this silly “Valentine’s Day” thing!
After all, “Clementine’s Day” is clearly the better holiday! Is there anything more worthy of a holiday than the delicious, utterly sufficient, and sublimely orange fruit?
It even has its own theme song!
Dear friends, the revolution begins here. This coming Tuesday may still be Valentine’s Day for some, but it won’t be long before the world makes the transition to Clementine’s Day.
It’s only right!
One of the core beliefs that informs my ministry here at UCJ – one that, I hope, is likely to be familiar to you by now – is the belief that church is at its best when it offers both comfort and challenge.
If one of these crucial elements – comfort or challenge – holds sway without the tempering influence of the other, I am convinced that the community suffers.
The church that does not challenge itself to confront the ethical concerns of the day, lapses into complacence, and ends up looking and feeling a lot like a country club.
This is a very real danger.
Similarly the church that neglects its role as a place that comforts the bereft, sustains the hurt, and feeds the hungry, risks becoming unmoored from the very compassion that Jesus taught us is the path to human fulfillment and divine grace.
You don’t want that either! A church without compassion is like a candle without a wick. A lump that has no capacity to give light.
So… having set up for myself this measure of success, I’ve endeavored to achieve this balance of comfort and challenge…
but it’s not easy.
In recent weeks, with the mass shootings in California, and the video footage of the violent death of Tyre Nichols, my tendency, as your minister, has been to challenge you – challenge you to face up to and think deeply about the social context in which we live.
How do we, as followers of Christ, conduct ourselves in a society that appears to have an insatiable appetite for violence?
Is there a way?
Is it possible to feel God’s comfort even as we hear God’s challenge?
Can both challenge and comfort help bring us to a better, more just world?
I suppose you could spend a lifetime asking and answering this question… but for this morning, let take the small step of looking at the passages before us:
When I read the famous passage from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy again, this week, I found myself drawn to the word “witness.”
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
The voice of God, in this passage, sounds like the voice of a presiding Judge in a courtroom.
Let it be known that this choice has been given. If there is any doubt that this choice – the choice between life and death, blessings and curse – has been set before us, heaven and earth can be asked to verify the truth.
Heaven and Earth are witness.
In a court of law, the person who is a witness may have been at a certain place at a certain time to see something – that is the circumstance that has brought them forward – but the crucial thing – the matter that is at the essence of the notion of “witness” is truth.
The witness must have an unwavering commitment to truth. A witness, in a very real way is truth.
If the witness is not truth – if they bear “false witness” then society itself is undermined in a very dangerous way.
“Witness,” then, is a religious word.
To be a “witness” is to become the truth that you observe.
God is interested in this because God, of course, in interested in truth… so,
to be a witness is to play a role that God is interested in.
But this is no easy task…
Truth demands all.
Doctor King was a witness. Seeing violence, he spoke truth, saying:
“Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”
We cannot claim to have a civilized society if, in order to prop it up, we accept the possibility that children may be set upon by snarling dogs and fire hoses.
Civilization cannot be founded upon such uncivilized acts.
By uttering these truths, Dr King became a witness – a witness who (heaven and earth will verify) chose life
He chose life. Even though an assassin’s bullet found him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in April 1968… he chose life.
When Dr King chose life
Became the truth of life…
and for this,
He gave his life.
In my recent attempts to balance comfort and challenge, I have found it difficult to find moments that privilege comfort.
The world has served up so much challenge that demands our attention.
So when I heard the beautiful story about Clementine’s Day I held tightly to it.
I am aware, now, that placing my clementine story next to the truth of Dr. King’s sacrifice seems jarring.
And yet, God gave us a choice – between life and death, blessing and curse.
God made Heaven and earth witness to this choice.
Heaven and Earth are the truth behind this choice.
And we do find the blessing…
We do find the life…
We are witness to it, in the voices of our children singing together…
We are witness to it in the innocent capricious beauty of kindergarten poetry heard and spoken with a joyful clean heart.
Tyre’s pain is real.
We witness his mother’s pain.
and speak the truth of it…
And yet there is also something deep and essential about heaven and earth – the mystery of growth, perhaps, that Paul speaks of in 1st Corinthians 3.
We witness both blessing and curse
And with our eyes open, our voices raised against death
we choose clementine’s day
We choose life.