Eastern Montana was rocked by the news this week of a man from Sidney who was killed in a random shooting in Las Vegas. Violence is a terrible thing, but when it hits this close to home, life suddenly tilts sidewise. Everything becomes askew as we are forced to look again at our own mortality and the suddenness of the end of all things.
Violent death is nothing new. It stalks our land, the world and takes away the secure cocoon we attempt to build around ourselves. The Bakken brought new people and new problems into our sphere of reference and I don’t think we have sifted through what all that means for us yet. Someone has said the only constant in life is change and the older we get the more that is so.
After hearing of the shooting our anxiety levels rise and we have a tendency to say things like, “Well, I guess I won’t go there any more” or “it’s best just to stay home.” But violence happens next door as well. We can never escape from that sense that nothing is safe even when we install security systems and pass laws for carrying concealed weapons to protect ourselves.
The instant nature of news reporting also heightens our concerns. I once read it took six weeks for the news of President Lincoln’s assassination to reach places on the west coast. Immigrants who came to this country did not learn of deaths at home until months after it happened. Today, we are a news flash away. Everyone knows and everyone knows now. The recent local paper noted a father and son from Glendive traveling in London saw the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge, only moments after it happened. The people who were killed were just walking across the bridge on a Spring day when death came.
No one wants to spend time thinking about tragedy and mayhem, but these reminders make it real and whether we are hearing about 200 people killed in a bombing in the Middle East or several hundred refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to find new life makes our security all the more precious.
The United States for generations was an isolationist nation. There has always been that strain of isolation running through our history. The two oceans were to protect us from the foreign entanglements of European monarchies except they haven’t. The Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans have shrunk to puddles in the face of technology — new communications techniques as well as more sophisticated military weapons. When North Korea is practicing its missile capabilities to reach our western shores, there is a collective shudder that runs through us all.
It is interesting to note that our enemy these days is hard to pin down as a living, breathing entity. Rather we identify our enemy as “terrorism”, that is anyone who wishes to disrupt the status quo. It can be a home grown terrorist as well as someone from outside our culture. Fear is a powerful way to conquer people. A dictator rules by fear. Fear is giving up our freedoms for that sense of security for which we all yearn. Terrorism equals disruption equals fear equals a surrendering of our liberties for security. No people are safe from that.
I was recently listening to an Old Testament Bible scholar talk about the children of Israel at a time when their world had fallen apart. Their leaders both religious and political had failed them and they were angry, condemning and afraid. Everything was gone and there was nowhere to turn. The scholar noted that was when God said, “I will make a new promise with you. It will not be something you can quantify, something you can measure, but rather it will be written on your hearts.” God always keeps God’s promises. In fear we come. Once we are willing to accept God’s promise and live as people with a new destiny — caring for the poor, lifting up the defenseless, speaking for the voiceless, putting our money into programs that bring life rather than military weapons, not using our money to defend the rich but rather the powerless then, with our perspectives going in the right direction, our fear is replaced by hope and new life.
Sermon March 19th, 2017 Savage.
Luke 15.1-32 Lenten #3
Today Scripture blesses us with three old, very familiar parables from the teachings of Jesus. These were Sunday School lessons for most of us and we can remember sitting around the little tables in the basement rooms of our various churches. Some of the tables were painted. The chairs were all small and fit us just right. We had folders probably from Augsburg Publishing with colored pictures and the teachers led us through a flannel board story as Jesus taught it, then we talked a little about it and then we colored a picture so we would have something to show our parents when we went upstairs for church.
Three parables and each one of these has one purpose only, that is to let us know how very much God loves us. That we are important, each one of us. Just like children are loved by their parents, so God loves us and doesn’t want any of us lost to him.
What can we hear Jesus telling us today? We are all grown up now and do these Sunday School stories even matter. We are told the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling. Jesus eats with sinners. He spends time with people who are not like us. If he were a good Jew he wouldn’t do those things. To answer this grumbling and to illustrate just how important each person is to God, Jesus begins by telling about a shepherd and his sheep, a subject near and dear to the hearts of most of his listeners. Sheep were a livelihood in the nation of Israel. Think of the sheepherders’ wagons we were familiar with out on the prairies. Probably an old Norwegian bachelor and his dog. One morning your 100 count flock is down to 99. What has happened to the one? Do we have a problem with coyotes or is it just lost? Leaving the 99 (for one sheep?) the shepherd begins to look and eventually finds the lost sheep. Returning to the flock he is jubilant to have his flock back to full size once again. Somehow, to just forget about the lost lamb is not in the nature of the shepherd in the story. One sheep is important.
Story 2. When I was in India, especially traveling in the rural areas we saw women with several bracelets on their wrists. The bracelets were gold and we were told by the guides that the bracelets were a woman’s saving account. When she was in desperate need, she could take off a bracelet and sell it and get money for the family. Well, likewise, almost 3000 years ago women in Israel did the same thing only the woman we hear about in Luke has gold coins on a bracelet like a charm bracelet women wear today. That is her savings’ account. But she has lost one and in spite of all the others that dangle on her wrist, one is precious and she sweeps the floor and searches until she finds it. Remember in this parable, God is portrayed as a woman!
Story 3 is much longer. It is the well known parable of the Prodigal Son. The main characters in the story are a father, an elder son and a younger son. In a seminary class the professor asked us how many of us were the eldest child in the family. Hands shot up all over the room, including mine. Then he asked how many of us felt as though we had been short-changed being the eldest child. That the younger brother or sister got away with everything. That we had to be the dutiful child, the good one. Every hand remained raised. There wasn’t a one of us that didn’t have that bit of resentment clinging to our childhood. So, where do you belong? Which son are you? This story is one of the major pieces of literature in the Western world, known by people everywhere, it is a very personal story and that is precisely why Jesus tells it. Where do we fit in this ancient tale about relationships in families and relationships between God and us?
There are two important threads running through these stories. Most obvious is the importance of one in the sight of God. In a world full of billions of people it is very hard to feel special. In 1985 I spent six weeks in India. We saw masses of people everywhere and yet we saw ways this culture attempts to assert individuality. Once riding our bus past a slum I saw a single red kite flying high above the shanties; another place a pot of red geraniums sat on a window sill. Nothing much, but it made the point I am one and I am here. See me. We were sitting in our bus after an afternoon concert in Calcutta. People were heading home after dark. For a moment the bus driver turned on his headlights. They shone into the crowd and it was masses of people, hundreds, maybe even thousands moving back and forth in the dim light. I thought, looking at that that I could have walked down the street stepping on the heads of people it was such a solid mass. One person counts. In the recent debate over health care it is estimated that 24 million people will lose insurance. That is a staggering number and one we can block out pretty easily. But what if that one is a sister, a brother, a child, a niece or nephew, a neighbor, a friend. One person counts and God says so in each of these parables. Don’t forget you matter not only to those who love you, but most important to God.
The other theme is one of celebration! God says when one sinner returns — when one lost son comes home, when one sheep is found, when one lost coin is scooped up and refastened to the bracelet — it is party time!! The father in the lesson of the prodigal son tells the eldest we are celebrating because your brother who was lost has been found. God never stops searching for those who have wandered away from the fold. I used to tell my confirmation students they were baptized which is rather like a brand — the cross on your forehead and you can run, but you can’t hide, because God will never let us go.
Our world these days is so high-tech. There are some new books out and quite a discussion these days on Artificial Intelligence. I don’t even want to know what it all means, but as the discussion continues, there is the fear of humanity losing itself in a world of machines where there is no talk of soul. Where words like religion and faith do not belong. One author said everything is being boiled down into mathematical formulas and humans will have no thought of conscience. Right and wrong will become only mathematical probabilities. When that is what is preached in the world, it is no wonder our young people do not see the need for church or bringing up their children in the faith. There is a sense of hopelessness and uselessness. We have to work harder to keep a sense of the nature of humanity and that we are created beings of a great and good God. Now we can’t escape these changes much as we might want to, but we do need to keep up our prayers and diligence in reading Scripture and living the life to which we have been called. Like the younger son in the story, the call of the world is loud and it draws us farther and father away from the things that really matter.
But there is also that pesky eldest son with whom we all can identify. We may be one, important in God’s eyes, but we also want to be No. 1 which places us in a position of importance in the eyes of the world and the two cannot go together. In the parable we never do learn if the younger son mended his ways or the elder son accepted his brother back, but regardless we do know the Father who breaks all the cultural rules and runs to meet the son he thought he had lost forever, a Father who loves both his sons with a deep and tender love and will never turn anyone away when they are trying to find their way home. And for that we can say a heartfelt thanks be to God.
Wish I could say the snow is gone, sprouts are poking up from the ground, the grass is turning green, the ice is out on the river and the Canadian geese are back in droves, eating grain in the fields, and I could, on Sunday, but not Monday nor today. Sunday it was 72 degrees in the area. I was driving to Miles City in the forenoon and actually thought how dry it was. Monday we had about 4 or 5 inches of new snow on the ground and today the winds are expected to gust to 41 miles per hour. I am sure the drifting out in the country is serious.
Now, how do I explain this weather phenomena -- it is spring. Spring in Montana, on the prairies and, as one old-time rancher once told me, "It's calving season and you can't have calving season unless you are knee deep in mud or snow!" Well, there is some truth to that and is probably why calving has gradually been pushed back a few weeks as the decades have passed. The problem is, if you want to sell your calves in the fall, at a good weight, they have to have a certain period of time to grow and eat and put on weight. It is the law of the land. So you can't wait too long to get started.
When I was pastoring, our church organist, a rancher's wife, had occasions when calving, blowing and drifting snow, and harvesting kept her busy and everything else just had to take a back seat. It is hard work, the ranching life. This winter, with all the snow we had, cattle had to be fed hay. They ate up a lot, which was an added expense, and it took time to take the feed out and reach them wherever they were. I saw the big semi-loads of hay moving around the country all winter. The problem with this snow is that we had a little rain first so that meant the ground was frozen when the snow fell on top of it. The livestock can't get through to whatever grass is there.
Most ranchers bring their cattle in closer to the buildings when calving starts so they don't have to go out too far to check on them. Checking usually takes place several times a day and unfortunately during the night as well. Usually husbands and wives try to spell each other with the night rounds and fortunate the family that has a son or daughter and their family living on the place and sharing the work load. In 1964, in the middle of the calving season we had a terrific snowstorm in this area. There were reports of calves being born and then smothering in the snow almost immediately if someone couldn't get to them in a hurry. The calves are the ranchers' 'bread and butter'. It is a lot of hard work getting them to the auction ring in the fall. Weather reports say we have a week of snow and colder temperatures ahead of us, but must of the weather is supposed to be above zero.
The little house on Towne Street, that burned recently, was an historic home. I am sure if you know the house and its location you might scratch your head at my statement. It was just a small, old house. But Eileen Melby and I included it in our book on historic homes of Glendive because it was an example of a type of home, lived in and lived in lovingly.
The lady (now deceased) who owned the home at that time had lived in it all her life. “It seems like every other house along here was railroad people and even up until after the war...” she remembered. (Meaning World War II)
“When I was a little girl I would wake up in the morning and lay in bed listening to the sound of doors slamming up and down the street as the men went to work.” It was a blue-collar neighborhood whose men worked for the Northern Pacific railroad and the sound of slamming doors meant they were heading down Towne street to the roundhouse to go to work.
Her father had come from Norway to Glendive because he had an uncle here. Working a six day week, each day ending at 4.30 p.m., he worked 33 years for the Northern Pacific railroad. “I remember my dad would come home on Saturday night and always bring home the funny papers -- THE CHICAGO HERALD EXAMINER, and always brought us each a candy bar in his lunch bucket. That was a ‘Leaping Lena’. It had cherries in it.” In 1909, the house was purchased by the family for $2500.
Hard times in Norway brought the next generation to America in 1928. The woman’s father-in-law was working on a section crew in the Glendive area. Her husband worked for the NP on the building and bridges crew for almost thirty years.
The house was in an area that had a number of Norwegian families. Glendive was like that in those early days. There was a section called “little Italy” and there was a German Hall, all on the East side of the tracks known as the ‘South side’. Another person remembered the older ladies in those days, with their head scarves on, cutting through the railroad yards on their way to mass at the Catholic church. The blue-bloods, the professional folk, lived on the ‘other side’ of the tracks and rarely did the two groups cross paths. One disappointed land developer called Meade Avenue ‘horse thief row’ declaring that is how those folks had made their money. Actually he was disappointed because they had not bought land he was trying to develop in another part of town.
Lincoln School was the school for those living on the east side of the tracks. Built in the early 1900s it served as a neighborhood school for many years. I remember the kids from my neighborhood walking six blocks to school. We walked in bunches moving together up the street.
What Eileen and I learned as we did our research was that every home has a story to tell. When it was built and where it was built tells you what was happening in the life of the community at the time. The house on Towne was very modest, but it served three generations of a family and served it well. I visited the lady of the house often and we laughed together and I even tried out a few Norwegian phrases with her. It was a neat little house, showing some wear as we all do as we get older. But it wasn’t just an old house, it was a home, with a history.
My New York Times post this morning moved its headlines from"the sublime to the ridiculous". President Trump has now accused President Obama of tapping his phone lines! That is pure paranoia. I do not understand the man's thinking patterns and I am fearful he is going to bog us down in such nonsense that nothing will ever get done in our government. Those well meaning folks who voted for him voted for what they hoped would be a change in Washington as well as breaking through the gridlock. If this keeps up he will be blaming his problems on aliens next. Well, that may be a little over the top, but if you remember Watergate, President Nixon was close to a complete breakdown due to pressures and was doing and saying some strange things. Trump supporters placed a lot of trust in him. I hope they won't be disappointed.
And then there is the "loyal opposition" as they are called in British Parliament. Throughout the country I wonder if we are descending into a one-party system. Good business sense tells us when there is a monopoly that is not a good thing. Competition forces us to be the best we can be. There is good sense in encouraging a two-party system and in some cases a three-party system just to keep everyone on their toes. The other day Mitch McConnell said something about making a reliable Republican nation. Not good!! I am not opposed to the Republican Party. We have had many great Americans come out of that group, but to have a single political philosophy be able to dictate the conscious of the Nation is frightening. That is too much power. Every group needs to have someone call them to account for their actions and a balanced, two-party system does just that.
Another issue that must be dealt with is the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is odd, I think, for it to happen in a country that purports to be a supporter of Israel and a strong supporter at that. In the movie, "Fiddler on the Roof", one Jew asks Reb Tevye, "Why do we always wear a hat on our heads?" Tevye, thinking for a moment, responds, " because we never know when we are going to have to go." Meaning fleeing oppression is just a part of the history of Jews in the world. I am sure the Jewish parents and the children in America today are fearful and no human being should have to live in fear. In Billings, Montana, many years ago a Jewish family had put a menorah in their window. Someone broke the window. The community, in a surge of support, put menorahs in all their front windows and then went on to make the city a safer place for all people to live. A recent news article talked about the need for Black families to teach their sons how to act when confronted by law enforcement even when they have done nothing wrong. One rule was, "Keep your hands out of your pockets. Keep them where they can be seen." Fear of cultural annihilation like the Standing Rock issue, or those facing deportation, or the LGBTQ community who have to face "being different" or people with mental and physical disabilities are always at a disadvantage in the main stream of society. Someone being attacked by a gang of bullies will defend themselves.
I like to quote our Constitution: "We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secures the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity so hereby ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." My 8th grade history teacher made learning the preamble a requirement for her classes. The Preamble to the Constitution has stuck in my memory and is something I pull out whenever I am examining the motives of those around me. These words have ever been a beacon for freedom movements across history and across the globe. May they remain in the national consciousness forever.