Well, one way to think about the process of salvation is to picture it as a house you have to enter. John Wesley used to compare salvation to a house. And today I want you to imagine that God lives in a house in Willow Glen, one with a very inviting porch. Picture it: It's dark and starting to get cold one night, and you find yourself standing on the sidewalk staring at this house.
I'm not too thrilled about all the books and notebooks these kids have to carry around all day. Have you ever lifted one of their backpacks? When I was a kid, we didn't need luggage. We had lockers. So I wonder how many of them go to the chiropractor's office after school. At least I know where the backpacks go the minute they come home from school: on the floor, just inside the door. That backpack lying there makes me wonder where do adults put down their burdens? And what are we carrying around on our backs that weighs so much, and do we ever let ourselves put it down?
It seems that sometimes we have to be down before we ever think to look up. We have to be in the depths before "deep calls to deep" and the reality of God washes over us like a wave. But it is in the darkest, stillest night that we can sometimes hear heaven singing. "At night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life." It is in those situations of extreme adversity that we occasionally find inspiration for great works of creativity. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, as they say. Many of the hymns in our hymnal were written when the authors themselves were lost in a dark night, so they wrote the song they needed to hear God singing.
Funny thing is, the Bible has a lot to say about being a stranger. In fact, the Bible seems to regard being a stranger as the normal human condition—maybe even the necessary condition for hearing the voice of God. Today's Scripture reminds us that we always need to keep in mind our status as strangers. "Treat the stranger right," it says, "because you've been strangers yourselves." So I'm going to talk today about one of my experiences of being a stranger. It's all about the many years that I spent—and am still spending—at Warm Springs [reservation in eastern Oregon]. That's why I'm wearing this ribbon shirt—it's one of the gifts I got while I lived there—some other gifts are on the altar today. But the greatest gift I got there was learning how to be what the Bible calls a sojourner—a stranger at home.
Now, we can look at the mechanics of this eruption in our lives and see nothing but devastation. Or we can search for the meaning and find the first fragile signs of our new creation. The first plants to come back to Mount St. Helens were the wildflowers. Nice touch. So, if you are ever lost in the ash fall, read Psalm 29 and remember this: wherever the oaks are whirling, the deer are surely calving. Wherever something is being destroyed, something else is being created. Isn't that, after all, just what the Gospels are saying? Doesn't Jesus spend a lot of time trying to tell his disciples that he must suffer death in order to bring new life? Doesn't Paul say we have to be united with Christ in a death like his in order to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his? [Romans 6:5] You see, this relatively young volcano and this New Testament witness to the very same truth: the old creation must pass away or get blown away so that the new creation can come, and we're going to come, one of these days. [2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22f; Revelation 21:1-5]
My faith story today is about a very difficult time in my life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of you will remember that this was a time of great turmoil in the country. Last week, we heard a 50th anniversary reading of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a memorable plea for peace and brotherhood. In addition to the Civil Rights Movement, there was another significant source of tension and contention in America, namely the Vietnam War. Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War weighed heavily on my generation, both when I was in high school from 1962 to 1965 and when I was in college from 1965 to 1969.
For Peace with Justice Sunday, we read excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail." This past April was the 50th anniversary of his arrest and solitary confinement in Birmingham Jail in the effort to desegregate the lunch counters there.
"According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it." Paul is talking here about how he started the church. Well, back in 1874, A.M. Bailey, the first appointed pastor, laid a foundation for a Methodist congregation in Willow Glen. Over the years, many pastors and lay people have built on that foundation. And in 2007, the campaign to renovate Woodhaven and Kohlstedt Hall began. As you know, the recession hit hard just as the campaign was getting underway, and that made it impossible for us to complete the project. Six years later, there's some new people, a new pastor, and at last, a new sense of possibility in the economy.
For a few centuries at least, the Christian Church was the counter-cultural movement in the Roman Empire. The Church completely redefined family. For perhaps the first time in history, people who were unrelated by blood were now sisters and brothers by faith. Reading these verses I got to thinking, if the church could redefine what family means in the first century, why can't we redefine it in the 21st century?
Looking back at life from the farthest limits of the sea, finally, we are able to see. And what we see is that all of those days spent complaining about the things we didn't have could've been much better spent giving thanks for the things we did have. And that's not all. We also see that the people who blessed us on our way are a lot more important than the people who hurt us along the way. We come to face the fact that everything we've ever done was made possible by gifts we were given, or to put it more theologically, by grace alone. When we get to that place at the farthest limits of the sea, whether it be in our 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, or beyond, that's where gratitude is born.