Sunday, October 26, 2008

Somewhere, Jesus is Scratching His Head

The priest at a local Episcopalian church contacted me several weeks ago, asking me to offer a sermon to his congregation on stewardship Sunday. Let's be clear: On the day the parish's ledership emphasizes the need for money or donations of time and talent, they had me as the preacher.
I'm not sure Fr. Bill knew what he was getting into. I'm not qualified to preach the gospel and I'm certainly not effective at asking for money. So, you go with what you know. In true Daddy D fashion, I just told a series of faith stories from my own experience and strung them together with some subjects and verbs, with a few adjectives thrown in to keep it interesting.
I "preached" (addressed the people is probaby more accurate) at two services. I have no idea how it went, but nobody walked out and nobody fell asleep. Of course, the central question is: did pledges increase? I think Fr. Bill, who was close friends with my late father-in-law, just needed a Sunday away from the pulpit and didn't want to be in a position to put the hard sell on the faithful.
I realize regardless of the outcome, this was a one-shot deal for me. There was some laguage in there about sacrifice. If I reached one person, then some good was done.
Speaking of sacrifice, here's what Fr. Bill doesn't know: I had a sideline pass for the Cowboys- Buccaneers game at Texas Stadium. Giving that up stung a little. Oh well, you gotta give 'til it hurts.
(In the unlikely event you would like to read the address, I'm posting it in the comments).

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Darrell said...

St. James Episcopal Shreveport, LA
October 26, 2008
Darrell Rebouche

There is a member of this congregation who I have known for almost 20 years. Our relationship has always been professional, and usually cordial. He’s one of these guys I like to call a towel-snapper. If you’ve ever been in a locker room, you know what I mean. When another guy somewhere around the shower snaps you with his towel, you’re never really sure if it’s a sign of friendship or aggression, but “the guy code” tells you to laugh at the discomfort either way. My long-time St. James acquaintance has made good sport of my shortcomings over the years, and I like to think it’s been a good-faith attempt to keep me honest while demonstrating, in an awkward kind of way, that he thinks I’m okay. A couple of weeks ago, we bumped into one another at work. He stopped short, silently made eye contact, put his hands on his hips and asked, “Why are you preaching a sermon at MY church?” I answered, “Only God and Bill Bryant know. I guess we will find out together.”
I am here on faith and I suppose you are here through the auspices of grace, no doubt with a liberal sprinkling of curiosity. What, after all, does someone like me have to offer? If you know of me at all, it’s probably because I’ve spent most of my adult life working on local TV and radio, which of itself may in fact disqualify me from being here.
The circumstances which led me to you this morning are much more personal, however. My father-in-law was an Episcopalian priest, and Bill Bryant was one of his closest friends.
In the spirit of what we try to accomplish on an ongoing basis as Christians, I offer a confession: I am guilty of envy. Bill Bryant was one of my father-in-law’s friends, a distinction I failed to achieve. The more I thought and prayed about why, in fact, I was asked to speak to you today, the more consistently one image returned to me: the face of Ken Cooper, my wife’s father. If we are here, today and every other day, as a function of faith, I must rely on my nearest faith model. That’s Ken.

He passed away, quite unexpectedly, earlier this year. The tributes, the sorrow, the celebrations of his life in ministry are ongoing. E-mails, phone calls, cards, flowers, conversations, every form of communication modern and ancient has been used to communicate to his family what a kind, patient, wonderful, loving, trustworthy, inspiring man Ken was. I must believe that, on faith. It hurts to tell you I did not know that man. It hurts to realize that someone so widely loved and admired was quite literally an arm’s-length away and I never noticed.
He was my father-in-law. His dedication to his ministry led him away from my family. He took his show on the road: New Iberia, Lafayette, Alexandria, Austin….until the last couple of years of his life, we only saw him on holidays and special occasions. When we visited him, it was typically on weekends and for a priest, you know what that means. His family sacrificed for his ministry in ways that, from the outside, must seem incomprehensible.

And yet, here he is: presenting himself now, bringing us together this morning. Once, we were discussing preparing for church on Sunday mornings. I told him that I had been on live television thousands of times, I’ve spoken extemporaneously on the radio for hours at a time and I’ve spoken to stadiums, arenas and festival grounds filled with tens of thousands of people without breaking a sweat. But, I said, as I prepare to read the lessons or lead the prayers at church on Sunday, I always get nervous. My palms sweat, my breathing gets a little shallow and my heart rate picks up. He said, “That’s because you’re doing God’s work. If you didn’t get nervous, something would be wrong.” In that moment, he offered an affirmation of faith.
We profess our faith in many ways. We are proscribed to do so corporately by reciting a creed. I wonder how often we think about what we’re saying. I wonder how often we truly believe what we profess. When we speak collectively, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen….”

Do we speak for ourselves or on behalf of those who surround us? Are we like lawyers, practicing our faith, laying out a case for it to a jury of our peers? Do we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the son? Do we truly worship and glorify him? Has he, in fact, spoken through the prophets? Is the Holy Spirit working in our hearts, in our souls, at this moment?
Are we allowed, even encouraged to ask these kind of questions? The testimony of many witnesses tells me my wife’s father was a great, kind and loving man: faithful and devoted. My own experience offers precious little to independently verify that, but a strong preponderance of evidence tells me I was quite simply missing something. So, there he is: modeling faith.
My wife didn’t know the priest who was her father. She simply knew her father. Again, if you don’t live it, it might be hard to understand the distinction. When we had been married about five years, I asked her if she thought her father had the kind of abiding faith that one would expect an ordained minister to have.
Her response, while brief, spoke volumes. She said, “I have no idea.”
At the time, Ken was enduring some personal anguish. That, in fact, was what prompted the question. Much later, as he was debilitated by failing health and in chronic pain, I realized that he thought human suffering helped bring him closer to God. At the time we were pondering this, I could only see the emotional pain. A couple of days after I asked the question of my wife, I said to Ken “This is all so troubling. How are you making it through?” He said, “You’re right, Darrell. It hurts. But then, I think what I am feeling must be like a pin prick compared to the pain God feels when we disappoint him.”
I looked at my wife and said, “I guess that answers the question.” Abiding faith, indeed.
He was able to provide a Christ-like answer, which erased the need for us to ask any more questions about his belief structure.

That moment has stayed with me, because I’m not so sure about my own faith. Many walk among us who think that in order to be a true Christian, one must have an epiphany or an eye opening revelation. How often have you been asked by well meaning, arguably insecure Christians if you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Have you been asked if you have been born again by water and the Spirit? Have you been asked if you confess the faith of Christ crucified? Are you, like me, feeling a little tingle of Christian inadequacy in the face of this barrage of belief challenges?
Here are you answers: yes, yes and yes. I submit to you that these declarations are such a part of your life, as routine as having lunch, that you simply don’t realize you do it. Did you ever think that every single time you participate in the Eucharist you have making a loud and clear confession of faith? I’ll ask you again: does it occur to you that every time you recite the creed you are making a public, spoken declaration of a set of beliefs? Whether your heart swells or you swoon or perhaps, if you simply feel a sense of peace in the moment, then you are in fact living your faith.
When I was much younger, feeling lost as many people in their early twenties will, I asked an evangelical friend to help me find peace. She dutifully sat with me and prayed for Jesus to come into my heart and to show me the way to salvation. She prayed that I would know that my prayer had been answered. I suspect she was hoping for a full-immersion moment. She didn’t get it, but I got it.
There are those who need to be noisy Christians. They make demands as Apostles of Christ. They challenge us to look within ourselves. We challenge ourselves by quietly contemplating what we believe. It’s the journey of and to faith. After we said the prayer, having been advised to open my heart to Jesus, I waited for the electric moment. It never came. But softly, one evening the answer came to me. I had married the daughter of a priest. After some time away from the church, I was back.

Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, I don’t know…but something was alive in me again. I told my wife the story and asked her this question: “Do you suppose you are the answer to the prayer?”
God reaches us individually. Sometimes, he sends a towel snapper into your life to get your attention. At other times, he sends an angel disguised as the daughter of a priest.
As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he tests our hearts. Some people need the public declaration. Some seek praise from mortals as a mechanism to find the place where they can sense the presence of God. For others, God is like white noise. He’s always there, but sometimes you just don’t notice. You probably haven’t noticed the sound of the traffic filtering in from outside. You probably haven’t noticed the feeling of the pew on your back and legs, but they’re there. Now that they’ve been pointed out to you, you most certainly notice. So it is, sometimes, with God.

So it is with your church. This place and the people around you feed you. You may take it for granted, but you are cared for spiritually and emotionally here. Like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children, this church cares for you. It deserves in-kind consideration. In short, this place nurtures you and it needs your loving care.
My father-in-law was not a man of signs and wonders or terrifying displays of power, but he was a man of faith and generosity. He gave his time, his talent, his ministry and a considerable amount of his money to the church. He did so at the expense of a few relationships. To borrow a pop culture quote, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. If you agree with that philosophy, then many were well served. They were made glad by the measure of the days that afflicted Ken Cooper and the years in which he suffered adversity. He funneled the graciousness of the Lord into many lives. He did so by words, deeds, example…and yes, by faith.

So, why am I here? Hopefully to help you realize how this place and your faith touch you at all times, especially when you don’t realize it. Hopefully to help you realize the depth of your own faith. It’s right there. You can feel it. You can touch it. It can touch you. You just need to take notice.
I didn’t have many deep, meaningful conversations with my father-in-law, which I suppose is why I remember all of these little stories so well. There is just one more.
I asked him once, “Ken, why is it that the ten dollar bill that looks so small at the grocery store looks so big in the collection plate?”
He just laughed and said. “There’s a sermon in there somewhere.”
Maybe we finally found it.

Lois Maberry said...

Darrell, Thanks for your thoughts. I was in Baton Rouge for my son's birthday and missed church. You did Ken proud with this work. I appreciate your comment about a "noisy Christian" It helps clarify something that has tugged at me. I really liked all your thoughts. Being there, that is what I learned from Ken and try to take to the world. You stated that well. Lois

Unknown said...

You rocked! Seriously, that was a great sermon and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. Have you ever thought about seminary? We really enjoyed having you and Claire, Madeline and your mother-in-law at St. James. Thank you so much. Can't think of a better way to worship and fellowship at St. James! Gods Peace...Chris :)
See you in rotary!