This sermon is very personal. It is the story of my spiritual journey. It addresses the question of what made me who I am. In the course of dealing with the stuff that life has thrown at me, I have come to believe there is a life-giving energy source out there. This life force calls and engages human beings as joint venture partners in making life on this earth work. For us Christians, Jesus’ life and teachings are the narrative of what honorable living calls for.
What does the Bible say about this? Today’s short Hebrew Bible passage answers the question of what the Lord requires – do justice (make life fair for everybody), love kindness (reach out with care) and walk humbly (not proudly) with God. Then, the New Testament lessons are the Christian extension of this Hebrew insight that life is about others. In Matthew, after a lawyer asks which holy commandment is most important, Jesus tells him that commitment of ones’ whole life – heart, soul, mind - to the Holy’s call for moral existence, is the essence of faithfulness. Jesus then says, “this means that you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the Mark reading Jesus adds that ones neighbor could be poor, and a rich young man, hearing this, storms off, thus revealing mankind’s greatest behavioral temptation – me first! Now, I have just shared with you the guts of the entire Bible, which, today, still radically challenges the cultural idioms of all societies. In the end, says the Divine, life will work only when all people care most about others, not themselves. With this said, I’d like to share with you the 10 most challenging assignments I have faced in my life.
1. I got my first compelling life lesson the morning, as a nine-year old, I saw my younger brother get squished by a gasoline truck on our way to school on an icy cold winter morning. My life was thrown into chaos. I was instantly lonely. I was deeply frightened. I didn’t want to go to school. I became very insecure. I stewed in self-pity. But I soon discovered that being a responsible kid worked better. I went back to school. I got a paper route which introduced me to keep walking, one foot in front of the other, no matter how painful life is. I made my bed and took out the garbage. I ignored the critical, laughing taunts of kids who had seen me cry my first day back in school. I related to my parents in a more adult way. My spirit was rekindled. But I had been introduced to the reality that bad things happen to us even when we’ve done nothing to deserve them. One must go on. I began to discover that I could choose between better and worse. As I tried to do what seemed right, increasingly positive feelings about myself came from somewhere. The lesson of Stuart’s death: Life can hurt like crazy, but don’t stop walking. There is hope.
2. The next transformative event occurred on New Year’s Day of my twelfth year. While skiing with a couple of friends and my father out on a rural Western New York farm, Dad fell, becoming an instant paraplegic. Reaching into his pocket for his car keys, I drove for the first time our older stick-shift sedan and found a farmhouse that had a phone. Volunteer firefighters begrudgingly responded on this winter holiday. The other boys were frightened and inept. One became hysterical. I even had to direct the hung-over firefighters. I tried to stay calm in the crisis and take charge when no one else knew what to do. Because my Mom spent her days teaching high school, and her evenings at the hospital for months, I was suddenly in charge, at age 12, of my own life. The lesson: Dare to climb out of the box. Don’t hide when you don’t know how to do something. If it’s the right thing to do, you’ll find the courage and insights to do it. Life calls us to do amazing things.
3. In the summer of my sixteenth year, at our Methodist senior high church camp, I was faced with the question of what I was planning to do with my life. I was an A science and math student. My dad favored engineering. Mother thought medicine. At the camp Friday night closing worship, I heard the minister read from Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am. Send me.” I literally felt my body get up and walk to the altar. It was the most other-worldly experience I have ever had. As I floated to the altar, I instantly knew I would be spending my life as a minister. My soul responded to the call to “help people.” At the time, I had no idea that encouraging people to walk with Jesus in solving their life’s problems was anything other than helping them achieve the good life promised by the American dream – personal freedom, success, wealth, and power. Turns out that true walking with Jesus is a life-changing pilgrimage that creates a counter-cultural lifestyle. This church camp moment was the beginning of my awareness that knowing there’s a God is much more an intuitive feeling than a scientifically provable fact even though I chased this rabbit all the way through college.
4. My next life-shaping challenge began the day I became the Associate Minister of a church in Michigan. I had to find creative ways to reach out to the kids. I decided to try a Youth Work Trip as a spiritual teaching experience. Another Youth Minister and I drove 36 of our young people 1,600 miles to Silverton, CO in an old school bus for 3 weeks of refurbishing the parsonage of the UCC church. We did physical work all day, and spent evenings hearing the kids share their thoughts about what is important in life. My sense was that the experience of their doing a task in response to God’s call to serve others would be far more convincing than simply reading the Bible to them. Turns out, this was very transformative. Bottom line: This experience confirmed my hunch that being religious is not about reciting your beliefs. It’s about how you live them.
5. One of the most painful challenges I encountered as a minister came on a Monday night in a board meeting of a social change non-profit. I was fired as the Executive Director of the Metro Denver Fair Housing Center which I organized during the big Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. With a double vision of racial integration and of safe, decent housing for all, the Center became a dramatic transformative change agent for metro Denver. We helped black families move into traditionally white neighborhoods. With the Archdiocese of Denver, we built three hundred apartments for people of color in scattered site areas of the metropolis. We rehabbed hundreds of very substandard houses in black neighborhoods. We drove the creation of the Colorado Housing Finance Authority which is today’s major low- income housing player. Because of this and bussing for school integration, Denver never had the tragic race-riots that tore up cities across the nation. I was fired for terminating a male Black Power advocate who wouldn’t remove a loaded Uzi from his office wall in our non-violent advocacy organization. Following that board meeting I was seen as being so revolutionary I couldn’t get another job – in a church or in a government agency – anywhere in the west. After 8 months with no income, and totally broke, we put our stuff in storage and retreated to my home in Western New York. My learning: When you are performing a difficult task for the right reasons, do not surrender just to save your own life. I found that the harder one works for a just cause, the more one is spiritually energized by the Holy.
6. Boom. 16 months later I was fired again, this time for whistle blowing on a lawyer board member who was illegally falsifying loan security agreements. I was the Manager of a company owned by several of the rich and famous power brokers of Rochester, NY. Its mission was to form a totally new community east of Rochester where people of all backgrounds could live. When I went to the Chairman of the Board with my discovery, the good-old boy network closed ranks and I was terminated on the spot. This time the lesson I received was a negative first-hand taste of the human craving for power, money, and control over others that has driven empire builders since the beginning of time. Remember Jesus and Rome? Any effort to make the rich richer at the expense of the many is frowned upon by the Holy. So, with no income all over again, I had to figure out what to do next.
7. Because of what I had done in Rochester in negotiating a large HUD loan guarantee for the new town, I soon was recruited by the owner of a large petroleum company in Houston who hoped to build a new community, The Woodlands, on 50,000 acres of piney woods north of the city. It was all trees, no people, no roads, when I started. Without much of a job description I determined that the project needed a people person who would help folks of all ethnicities and economic statuses. In addition to managing the HUD project agreement, I created the local government structure, the hospital district, the utility districts, the recreation areas and walking trails, and made arrangements for public schools and churches. I negotiated HUD grants for the construction of lower income housing for families and seniors. Today, The Woodlands is a functional home to over 130,000 people. In this terribly messed up world, I learned there is reason to the hope that people can live together in peace and love. I do believe human existence can be saved. I believe a holy power sustaining the universe is the source of that hope.
8. The next pivotal call for loving behavior came on the Christmas morning when two-year old Aubrey was dropped off at our daughter Karen’s house in Coal Creek Canyon, totally abandoned by her parents. Many of you know the story. In our 70’s, Jan and I intervened, gaining legal custody, then adopted her. She is now a thriving Junior in a Boulder High School and has been adopted by Karen and Joel, our wonderful loving daughter and son-in-law. The human reality that I highlight here is that when God created human beings, they had the capacity to make choices that determine their behavior for good or for ill. Aubrey’s mother and father chose to fulfill their personal cravings, and abandoned Aubrey. In rescuing Aubrey, Jan and I discovered how painful it can be for others when you do what a situation requires. But the reward here is that Aubrey is becoming a capable, responsible, charming young adult.
9. Another moment of decision came after I received a phone call from a UCC church guy asking what I knew about homelessness. That was 25 years ago. With a 12th property in financing and 711 apartments later I am still a Board leader of Archway Housing and Services, a UCC non-profit that serves homeless folks, immigrants, single parents, disabled vets, and gobs of struggling kids. You do what life around you needs you to do. I am increasingly aware that I’m still alive and vital because there is something important that God needs me to do. I am still filled with life. It is a gift. I still hope for better tomorrows. When I quit the struggle for good, my soul will die and my body will quickly follow.
10. Clearly, the most life-shaping decision I have ever made began on a sidewalk at Ohio Wesleyan in Delaware Ohio, on the first weekend of my Sophomore year. I saw an incoming Freshman girl from New Hampshire walking with some other girls. I was a socially insecure, acne faced kid. But I summoned the guts to say hello to her. It took me a year to ask her for a date. Three years later, six days after her graduation in Ohio as a Phi Bate, we were married by her father in New Hampshire. The still, small voice of God pervaded our marriage. I quickly learned that every day, and in every moment, life required me to put her first, ahead of any ministerial work I sought to do. Turns out, she heard the same call. Her support through all the thick and thin of my challenging street ministries was unequivocal. She never criticized. She never complained. She never said, “I’ll love you more if you only…” As I look back, for a committed church-going Christian, she was totally inarticulate about both the Bible, and what she believed. For her, being religious was not about what she thought. It was all about what she did. And, everybody understood her message, “I care about you!” Heck of a good decision I made to say hello to her on that sidewalk!
CONCLUSION – The stories I have shared this morning are shamelessly personal. In not ducking challenges, I have been blessed with the courage to keep walking. “Yes, there is a God. I know this with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my mind.” AMEN