The Gospel and Harry Truman's RosesOctober 14, 2001, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Harry Truman loved to grow roses and, we are told, he was good at it. There is a story about his daughter Margaret bringing home a young man in whom she was most interested. After the introductions and a time of somewhat awkward, halting conversation, the President tried to put the young man at ease by asking if he would like to see the President's prize roses. Thereupon, the President, his daughter and the young man exited to the rose garden. As they walked among the plants, the young man asked the President the secret of his success with roses. "Manure," replied the President, "and lots of it," going on at some length to describe in colorful detail the nuances of the proper kind of fertilizer. After about five minutes of such talk, a mortified Margaret ran to her mother in tears, pleading, "You must stop Father from talking about manureit is very embarrassing." Bess Truman replied, "I'll see what I can do, dear. But you have no idea how many years it has taken me to get your father to call it manure." It is good to laugh, and it is good to hear you laugh.
Harry Truman's roses remind us of a fundamental truth about life: hardship, difficulty and the dirty, smelly, residue and waste of life can be the seed-bed in which new and beautiful things emerge. This is not simply the optimism of another PresidentRonald Reaganlooking for the pony in a room full of manure. Harry Truman's roses remind us that hardship, difficult times and the detritus of life, not only test who we are, but become a context in which our true character and purpose emerge.
More than one commentator has recently observed that until September 11, we had four to five generations of Americans who had never known real hardship or the trauma and grief that are now upon us. Until then, the biggest crisis in some people's lives was the crash of tech stocks and awakening to the fact that they were no longer millionaires. They would not be able to retire before they were forty. Before September 11, our culture's heros were teenaged film or rock stars. Many a high school or college student flirted romantically with a culture of suicide. Television networks frantically searched for real life survival situations to increase ratings, while America's news media suggested that the gravest moral issues in life had to do with the sexual scandals of this or that politician.
All of that has changed, thank God! Our rightful heros have revealed themselves in the burning and disintegrating buildingsthe firefighters, police and emergency rescue people who continue to risk their lives daily for the common good. As a nation we are less self-absorbed. We have been jolted into recognizing that life is infinitely more intricate in this global village, than heretofore we thought. We cannot move unilaterally, politically, militarily or economically. The President's former thoughts about ignoring or breaking atomic testing treaties and bans on biological warfare have a new context for reconsideration. There are other interests to consider as well as our own, as this nation's leadership fashions our political, military and economic policies for the future.
The biggest change is the painful discovery that there is no guarantee we will not know in this country the sufferings and hardships we have observed in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the continent of Africa, albeit from the safety and comfort of our television screens. Life is once again precious, fragile, complex and interdependent. As a result, people are beginning to question the way they have been living life, searching for meaning beyond possessions and power. That is the context, the seed-bed of the American rose garden. What then, does the Christian Gospel have to say to all of this?
First, the only foundation worthy of building our lives on is faith. But it is not faith in freedom, nor faith in free markets nor faith in the American way. All of those are blessings from God for which we are grateful. The faith I am talking about is trust in the sovereignty of God and the goodness of life. Last Thursday I was privileged to be a part of the Shloshim held at the Park Avenue Synagogue. Shloshim is a Jewish service of remembrance and faith affirmation that comes thirty days after the loss of a loved one. It is a time in which those who have been grieving come together to pray and make a commitment, right in the midst of their grieving, to entrust their lives and future to God. Several speakers were holocaust survivors. It was moving to hear them speak of faith that enabled them to pick up the pieces of their lives to move forward and embrace life in its goodness. The centerpiece of this Shloshim was the psalms that we have been reading these past four weeks in worship here. "Those who abide in the shelter of the Most High... say to the Lord: My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.1 "I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."2 "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."3
Attending the service had interrupted my preparation for today's sermon. As I sat among them, praying with them, I thought of today's lesson from Jeremiah and his word to those rulers and other leaders who had been deported to Babylon in the tragedy that was Israel's in 597 B.C.. Jeremiah tells them to put down their roots, make plans, and live into the future trusting that God can use even this tragedy to bring forth new life. God had not abandoned them, says Jeremiah, but gone into exile with them. Such confidence, such faith in the shelter of the Almighty became the source of a historic tenaciousness that has enabled the Jews to endure, not just exile, but captivity, discrimination, the holocaust, and most recently terrorist's suicide bombings. We were reminded of the monument erected by the parents of the children who were killed in the suicide bombing of the discotheque in Tel Aviv this last spring. Written on it are the words "We will not stop dancing!" Faith in the shelter of the Most High is the only foundation that can enable one to endure such hardships and move forward affirming the fundamental goodness of life. We will not stop laughing; we will not stop dancing!
Meeting with the Board of Trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary this last Tuesday morning, Seminary President Thomas Gillespie proclaimed this a spiritual wake-up call to the Western world. He said, "I doubt that we will again hear the relativism of the last century which asserted, It doesn't matter so much what you believe so long as you believe it.'" It does matter what you believe. For the God you serve will shape the way you and I laugh and dance. After all, those who perpetrated this violence very much believed in God. It is not a God I would want to serve, much less love. It has never been more important for Christians to be clear about who God is and who God calls us to be. Is the God we gather to worship a tribal God who takes up arms with us against our foes to establish a territorial, even global sovereignty at the point of a sword or barrel of a gun? Christianity at one time so misunderstood the faith, but thank God, has repented of such evil. And thank God, too, that the God we worship is One who does not count iniquity, lest none of us should stand. God is good as well as great, merciful as well as mighty. God heals ten lepers simply because it is God's nature to heal, and does not visit the thankless nine with a return of the scourge because they failed to come back and acknowledge the source of their salvation. As the second letter to Timothy so amazingly points out, "...even when we are faithless, God remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."4
But the Gospel proclaims more than God's shelter in times of trouble, God's mercy in the midst of our failures, and God's ability to heal. The Gospel insists that God can and does use tragedy to bring forth new life. As Jeremiah reminds us, God suffers with us, goes into exile with us to sustain us so we are not crushed. But more, God has taken on death for us. The cross and tomb are emptyGod has answered evil's death with the power of resurrection. The cross that is so central in this sanctuary, is no longer a sign of death, but of new life. It not only reveals God's love for us, but God's power to save and transform.
What does the gospel have to say to us? First, that with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we are to affirm life, embrace it and live it to its full goodness, confident that the creator of life is sovereign over even this most recent evil and wants life for allwe will not stop laughing, we will not stop dancing! We are to be clear about who it is we love and serve and begin to articulate that, not from an attitude of superior triumphalism, but with the humble, loving confidence that what God did in Jesus Christ, God did for the redemption of the entire world, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu and Budhist, Sikh, whatever, even those who deny that God exists. In Jesus Christ, God has said to the world, "I love you, and there is not a thing you can do to change that."
Armed with such faith, we are, as Jeremiah charged the exiles in Babylon, to flourish even in the midst of hardship. In the context of Harry Truman's roses, we are to bloom where we are planted. We are to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat of their produce, have children, baptize them, given them our faith, give them over to marriages where their lives can also increase and they can share the faith with their children. We are to live, denying the terrorists the paralyzing fear they are working so had to instill in us, we are to laugh and to dance! And, in the midst of the debris and smoldering ashes we are to begin to look for the shoots of new life emerging, and nurture them, spread manure around them until they bear fresh buds, and do it not because it is natural to life, but because God turns death into resurrection. The God we have come to know, serve and love in Jesus Christ is a God who is at work to strengthen and sustain those who look to him in need. But more, God is able to take the fallout and waste of this horror and use it as a seed-bed from which new, meaningful, beautiful life will emerge. That is what the gospel has to say to us this morning.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Psalm 91
- Psalm 121
- Psalm 46
- 2 Timothy 2:13
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