Loving the Unlovely: Old George

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago (with a few minor edits).  Given how fractious and judgmental our interactions with others have become, it seemed helpful to share these cherished memories of a lovely – if eccentric – friend….

– Pastor Allen

Although I may not have a lot to say about my ex-wife, one quality of hers that I admired was her ability and willingness to reach out to others from all walks of life.  Today, I’m particularly remembering the friendship she initiated with “Old George”.

Old George was a bitter, foul-mouthed old man who lived in a very cheap apartment near the center of Rochester, MN in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  (I am not denigrating the owner of that building, who had a personal mission to provide low cost housing for those who in Rochester had no other place to go, but that’s a story for another time.)

He spent most of his time in and around the downtown of our hometown at the time: Rochester, MN – or at the nearby Apache Mall.  He rode his old bike each day to and from his apartment.  He always dressed the same: a worn and heavy coat apparently made from lambskin which was held closed with an old rope tied around his waist.  Completing his outfit were rarely washed worn pants, a flannel shirt, and old shoes.

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Sermon: Betrayed

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God. Why?

The Flagellation of Christ (Rubens, 1607)

There is a whole lot of betrayal going on in this morning’s dramatic reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s count the ways…

First is Judas, The Betrayer, who sells Jesus out to the Chief Priests for 30 pieces of silver. And then there are Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, who fail to stay awake while Jesus is praying; and then all the disciples desert him and flee. Caiaphas and the Council stage a trial, using false witnesses and evidence to condemn him to death. And, Peter betrays Jesus again – three more times, before the Cock crows; just as Jesus foretold.

And then, Pilate ignores the plea of his wife, betraying her. And, the Chief Priests betray Jesus again, inciting the crowd to ask for the release of Barabbas. – Which means all the people (and our pamphlet reading makes it clear we are among those people) betrayed Jesus, too, Matthew has us saying “let his Blood be upon us and on our children…!” They knew what they were doing. Even the bandits hanging on crosses on either side of Jesus taunted him.

And finally, Jesus calls out “Eli Eli Lema sabachthani!” meaning “My God My God, why have you betrayed me!?”

In the end, everyone betrays Jesus the Son of God, even God.

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An All Saints Day Homily, “Destiny”

To Christians, the veil of Death, that dark, impenetrable horizon that marks the end of the journey of all of our lives, is not a fearful boundary between the worlds of the living and of the dead. It isn’t the end. Yes, the dead do not return – yet, but there is nothing to fear – as Christians we know that our journey will require us to travel through the valley of the Shadow of Death during our lives, and then beyond – into the realm of death itself. But, Jesus has returned, has shown us that God’s love – the undying and uncompromising love of our Creator, the creator of all that is, including Time itself, is a love that is more than sufficient to pierce the veil that separates these two worlds.

celticHalloween is a very ancient festival, known as Samhain by the Celts. It was the Festival of the Dead. Cattle were brought back from their summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires and lanterns would be lit; and the spirits had to be propitiated so that the people and their livestock would survive the winter.

Like most major feasts in ancient calendars, Samhain was a day of transition: in this case marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the season of darkness: a time of concern. In these ancient communities, which did not have the safety nets or resources we have now, a bad winter, or a bad harvest, or a delayed Spring, could be catastrophic. They knew something had to be done to calm supernatural anger. It was necessary to seek help from friendly spirits and from one’ ancestors who were already in that realm.

Many ancients, not just the Celts, believed that at this time of year the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, making it easier for us to communicate with those – the spirits of the dead and supernatural entities – who are part of that realm, but it also made it easier for them to trouble us if we didn’t treat them right! Halloween and All Saints Day both recall these beliefs, which have persisted for thousands of years, or more.

All Saints Day was originally part of a three day Medieval Christian festival that began with All Hallows Eve (which we now know as Halloween); and ended with All Souls Day on Nov 2.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) by Fra Angelico.
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) by Fra Angelico.

All Saints Day was a joint celebration for all the Saints of the Church – since there were far too many to each have their own feast day, and All Souls Day was a day to remember the faithful who died in the previous year.

Most Protestant Churches have either merged these three days into a one day celebration that recognizes all saints of the church – known and unknown (meaning us, when we pass, too); or else they ignore the Festival completely – like the old Calvanists did – disdaining the Holiday, as they did all Holidays, as being too “Popish” in nature.

The tie that links Halloween, All Souls Day and All Saints Day together is the same ancient belief the Celts had, that the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time of year. It was a day very appropriate for seeking to calm our fears and uncertainties in this world by reaching out to the next, as the three days in the Medieval Christian Festival each did in their own ways.

I want to reflect for a moment on my last sermon, given on October 4th, where I spoke on the concept of Belief. I pointed out that as Christians, we often think that “believing” is a goal – of having a firm, unshakeable commitment to the absolute truth of God. But, I argued that belief is actually a process – a journey with God, not a journey to God. Belief is not something we achieve, not a goal. Belief is something we do. We don’t know where Belief will take us in our journey through life, but we know where we’re going to end up.

The point of this morning’s reading from The Revelation of John is similar: we’re not certain what road we’ll follow to get to the end, but that we’ll get to the end is certain.

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Sermon: If Time No Longer Matters

For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern? Mortality makes time precious, but also means all things are eventually stolen or destroyed by time – except for Love.

“The Struldbrugs” (from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about eternal life and its implications, as reflected within Lent and Easter.

In Genesis 3, YHWH removes our access to Eternal Life after Adam and Eve eat of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Yet, Jesus’ death is presented as the perfect sacrifice for our salvation and reconciliation with God: a promise that we too shall be resurrected, someday. So I wonder, is Eternal Life a good or bad thing; and how does it differ from being resurrected, reconciled and saved?

One implication of Eternal Life is that time no longer matters. For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern?

Many writers have thought about Eternal Life…

Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs. They live forever, but  do not have eternal youth: their minds and bodies eventually deteriorate to the point where every breath is torment – but they cannot die. Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.

In “The Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien presents a race with eternally youthful bodies: the Elves. Yet immortality is a burden for them, too: They are a people not quite in tune with the world. A people whose bodies do not age, but who carry profound sadness because they know everything they create, everything they love, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it. They are doomed to outlive everything around them, and cannot escape from their past to live fully in the present.

Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein imagined the achievement of immortality through technology. In his novel “Time Enough For Love” is Lazarus Long, who is two and a half millennia old. (Or so, but who’s counting?) A man who is medically “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him. But Lazarus is tired of life. Like the elves, Lazarus has seen everything he creates or loves pass away.

Heinlein also points out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, we run out of room for new memories. Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age. (In one of my favorite passages, Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.) Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.

Periodically, Lazarus has his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but this raises a new question: what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with the person you once where? Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.

Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured. The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped. We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love.

In the end, we need to ask ourselves whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.

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Where All Hope Fails

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsThe last couple of weeks have been an interesting mix of highs and lows for me.

The certainty of our own mortality has intruded itself forcefully into the lives of many in this part of the country recently, with the tragic deaths of two firemen in Boston the other day (and you can be sure, fire fighters are just as much ministers of God as those of us who wear clerical robes).   Also, the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing is coming soon, during Holy Week in fact.

On a more personal note, old friends have recently made known their own brushes with mortality and how the afflictions of age are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, as has also proven to be too true for myself as well.

Finally, two friends of mine have died this week, one an old and dear friend from childhood, stricken down much too early in life following a very brief and devastating illness, much to the shock and dismay of her young students and the community where she lived.  The second was a co-worker whom I’d known as a young man: she was always with a ready laugh and smile, dying after a long battle with a serious illness.  Both great people, and both very much loved by the many whom their lives touched over the years.

Mortality does not play favorites, and (as my father has often said) “there is no get out of jail free card” – no exceptions. We will all someday confront the same dark horizon that these wonderful people (and so many others) have already passed beyond: never to return from the darkness that will eventually devour all lives, all nations and all human hope.

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An Ash Wednesday Meditation: Why Bother?

Sermon presented at First Congregational Church, UCC, of West Boylston, February 22, 2012

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In our reading from Joel, we are told “Blow the Trumpet … for the day of the Lord is coming, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!”

Sounds depressing. Scary.  … And, it is.

Ash Wednesday is a time when we remember how ephemeral life is; that all good things in our lives, including our own existence, will eventually come to an end. Matthew warns us that all of our treasures will eventually be consumed by moths and rust, stolen from us, nothing will remain.

Thick darkness.  Moths and rust.  Nothing will remain.

As if that isn’t enough, David lays it on even more heavily in Psalm 51, saying “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

So, not only will everything end, but sin and corruption are in our lives from the very beginning.  We’re in a game that was fixed from the start.  We can’t win.  We cannot escape the trap of life.

It seems so hopeless.

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A Memorial Day Prayer

Given at the regular Sunday Worship Service at First Parish, Lincoln on Sunday, May 30, 2010…

Before giving this morning’s pastoral prayer, I’d like to read you a poem that inspired my prayer and, I think, fits well with this Memorial Sunday.  It was written by Sgt. James Lenihan, a veteran who passed away in 2007.  He is known to have written only one poem in his life, describing his feelings after killing an enemy soldier in 1944.  Here it is:

A Warrior’s Poem: “Murder–So Foul”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise,
The strangest thing happened to me
I began to cry.

He was so young, so very young
And Fear was in his eyes,
He had left his home in Germany
And came to Holland to die.

And what about his Family
were they not praying for him?
Thank God they couldn’t see their son
And the man that had murdered him.

I knelt beside him
And held his hand–
I begged his forgiveness
Did he understand?

It was the War
And he was the enemy
If I hadn’t shot him
He would have shot me.

I saw he was dying
And I called him “Brother”
But he gasped out one word
And that word was “Mother.”

I shot a man yesterday
And much to my surprise
A part of me died with Him
When Death came to close
His eyes.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we remember all those who fought and died for this, our Nation, but we also remember that those who died fighting against us had mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses, sons and daughters – just like us – who are grieving their loss, as we grieve ours.  We remember that in War there is loss and pain for all involved, affecting a community that extends far beyond the battlefield in time and in space.

Holy Spirit, we come before you this morning, remembering the losses we and those we love experience as a result of War.  We remember the pain and anguish that many, soldiers and loved ones alike, have endured for years after those battlefield experiences.  In doing so, we honor the sacrifices that so many have made in the name of freedom and in defense of this country.  We ask, Holy Spirit, that you work in us, and in those we confront as enemies, to bring peace, healing and understanding, so that armed conflict and hate no longer come between us.  Instead, let Your Love and understanding embrace and fill all of us.

We also lift up those who are battling in other ways at this time: justice or job loss, illness, and other crises in their personal lives: battling the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and those who are still seeking to recover and rebuild from the effects of the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters.  We ask that your spirit, love and healing fill and strengthen them, and enable us, individually and as a community, to support them in their times of spiritual and material need.

Thank You, Holy Spirit, for Your presence, Your guidance, Your Love, and Your healing power working in and through us.



Copyright (c) 2010, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via mention of my name on your site, or a link back to this site).

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