A sermon preached by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, First United Methodist Church, Monroeville, Alabama
Preached in the Chapel of the Unnamed Saints, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, Nov. 12, 2013
There are some things that happen to us in life which we wish would last forever. Those pinpoint moments of pure ecstasy that dot our lives are moments we wish we could freeze-frame and enjoy their radiation forever.
Unfortunately, the human experience with life if not like that. Moments of ecstasy are short-lived, and in spite of our best efforts to preserve them, they are like cotton candy in the mouth of history, sweet, but oh so brief. Unless we celebrate and enjoy them at when they happen, we may miss their impact on our lives, for so soon, sooner than we think, they are gone.
Dr. Carlyle Marney once said: "ALL OUR GRIEFS GO BACK TO THIS ONE THING, SOMETHING ENDED BEFORE WE WANTED IT TO." We thought Mother would live forever, and we would have time to tell her all the things we thought and felt, but never said, but one day we wake up and she is gone, and our heart is crowded with unspoken thoughts, which once would have been timely, but we waited too long and now it is too late.
Someone we love is here today, and suddenly they are gone forever. Almost everything we have or relate to in this life is temporary, including life itself. The going and coming of friends, for instance, will happen all your life. People you love will leave you in one of the many ways in which someone can go away. If permanence is an essential expectation for happiness, then we will be permanently unhappy.
Having a deep longing for something that last, we naturally chafe under the pervading temporariness of life. What can we count on for stability in a world where nothing stays the same?
The Psalmist reminds us of the transience of all existence: "Of old thou didst lay the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They will perish, but thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment. Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away, but thou art the same, and thy years have no end." (Psalm 102: 25-27). Nothing stays the way it is, and we are not here to stay.
You need only take a trip back to where you grew up to realize how things change. Old land marks disappear, and the people there are strangers. Generations get cut off from each by time and change. Any idea of permanence we may tend to attach to our own lives fades when we remember the dusty bodies of friends and loved ones who didn't last very long. We are not here for long. No one is. No one ever has been.
People who are here to touch our lives with grace today will not always be here. They will change. We will change. They will go away, or we will go away; or life will change in such ways as to make it impossible for them to continue to give us what they can give us now. We keep expecting something permanent to develop from what is by nature temporary. It is essential for us to learn to be takers of the temporary until we come to that other dimension of life which is characterized by the kind of permanence that belongs only to God. Nothing lasts forever, not in this world.
People move in and out of our lives and we move in and out of their lives. We need what happens in these relationships no matter how long or short they may be. Many of the people who have helped us keep our lives in manageable units are no longer in sight, but what they did for us is forever a special gift.
The coming and going of friends will happen all of your life. Look at the people around you -- the people who are your closest friends, the people you count on and who count on you. Make a list of them in your mind. These are the people you love, and who love you. You may not want to hear this, but ten years from now more than half of them will not likely be on the same such list. They will have left you, or you will have left them. The will have died, moved away or fallen out with you; or you will have moved away or fallen out with them. When you look at the list and recite their names, you will think, 'THAT COULD NEVER HAPPEN. THESE ARE MY BEST AND DEAREST FRIENDS." But it WILL happen. Enjoy them now. Love them and accept whatever they have to give to you, for they are temporary, and so are you.
Not only is it essential for us to accept inevitable change, we need to be able to accept and use what is imperfect. Sometimes we fail to reach out to other people in their need because we feel unqualified, or that we do not know enough, or that we are not good enough to help somebody else. Sometimes past failures rise up to haunt us, making us feel that since we have failed, we have nothing to offer those who are presently suffering failure. Conversely, this is seen in our rejection of help because we do not feel we are good enough. Few times in our lives are we whole, or feel we are whole. Some of the best help is given by those who are up to their ankles in trouble to those who are up to their armpits. Help that is temporary, given by the imperfect composes the meat and bread of our spiritual diet. Since temporariness and imperfection are characteristic of all human help, we must learn to live with it or perish without it.
The legend of the Wounded Healer was made famous by Father Henri Nouwen in his book by the same name. This is the legend. A Rabbi went to the cave of a great prophet and asked; " When will the Messiah come?" The great prophet said: "He is already here."
"Then where can I find him?" the Rabbi asked. "You will find him at the gate of the city sitting among the poor, the wounded and oppressed", he said. "How shall I know him from all the other people there?" the Rabbi asked. The great prophet said, "All the others there unwrap all their wounds and sores at the same time to treat them and put all the bandages back on at the same time, but this is not true with the Messiah. The Messiah will remove the bandages from one wound at the time, treat that wound and then wrap it again. He does this saying 'Perhaps someone shall need me, and I could not go if all my wounds were unwrapped one time. So I will treat them one at the time so I can go quickly to those who need me." Do you understand this? I hope so. It begs to be understood.
Perfect people have never been very helpful to me. They are hard to find, and when you find them, they are usually self-proclaimed, and they are usually a pain. You do not have to be perfect to help people. You need only care as Christ cared. When I am in trouble, do not send me some sterile soul who has never tasted his own tears. Send me someone with scars, and perhaps an open wound or two.
Temporariness is an essential part of our human incompleteness. Many relationships by their very nature are temporary. It is essential for us to be able to say "goodbye" to temporary relationships that have obviously come to an end instead of trying to stretch them out into an artificial permanence. Disappointment is often the result when we try to recreate a contact that had meaning in a particular time and place, but which has now lost that meaning. We must grieve and give up the people we have lost to distance and difference if we are to make friends with the strangers who are moving into the circle of where we are now. We will not be able to speak of a friend who was once a stranger unless we can accept and speak lovingly of the stranger who was once a friend. Friends do become stranger in our world of the temporary, just as strangers become friends.
Now I want to address another kind of experience that is almost never understood or celebrated on the occasion upon which it happens, but which in time becomes a celebrated experience. Strange what time can do for an experience.
If I were to ask you to tell me the one experience in your life from which you have learned the most, more than likely tell me about one of the most painful and tragic times in your life that you barely survived. But, in time, by some strange alchemy, it became the most saving experience in your life. I believe that faith and patience transform our pain and loss into a saving experience. I believe that in Christ there is a spiritual alchemy that changes lead into gold. I believe that because I have been there.
In 1957 Hilda and I left the comfort of academia and came back to Alabama, believing that our ministry there could make a difference. When we arrived at the seat of the Annual Conference in Montgomery, Alabama, we learned that we were being appointed to the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. We began to look for the delegate from that church. When we found him and introduced ourselves to him, the first words out of his mouth were: "We don't want you. You have been to school up North and you are an integrationist. We have heard that you are a communist sympathizer, and may actually be a communist. We don't want you at our church." Great way to be welcomed home!! I was appointed to the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church in spite of the protest of the delegate.
After three month I thought I had the situation in hand. Big mistake. In mid September three church members who identified themselves as members of the Klan called on me. They informed me that it was a tradition in that church for the local Klan Klavern to visit the church on the third Sunday night in September. I listened in stunned disbelief! They said they would march down the aisle dressed in their hoods and robes, put money on the altar, and then go out the side doors, take off their Klan regalia and come back in the church to worship. What to say?! I was only 27 years old and had been there for only three months. Finally I told them that I could not stop them because I did not have a police force, and that I was not sure I would stop them if I could, but they needed to understand that if they put money on the altar in the name of the Klan I would sweep it up and throw it out behind them. The third Sunday night came and went, and they never showed. I congratulated myself on having prevailed in that situation. Big mistake.
Two months later the black clergy in Mobile filed a petition with the city council requesting the buses be desegregated. Two or three of the pastors of prominent white churches drew up a petition in support of the black brethren. I signed the petition along with some 25 white clergy. It was a rather timid petition, but it was better than white silence. I did not anticipate any problem. Big mistake. The morning after the petition was presented it hit the headlines of the Mobile Press Register, listing our names and the churches we served. There was a scathing editorial chiding us for meddling in matter that were none of our business, and suggesting that we get back to the business of saving souls and leave social issues alone.
The first night the Klan burned a cross in front of my house, and the second night a cross in front of the Michigan Avenue Methodist Church. The third night the church held a mass meeting to "fire" me. I had to meet with them and explain to them that you cannot fire a Methodist Minister. I reminded them that they did not "call" me and I did not come of my own accord, I was sent. Many members of the congregation began to withhold their money. The total budget of the church was only $8,600. My annual salary was $3,600. We soon were unable to pay the electricity bill, much less my salary. I would get letters telling me how much money they had in their tithe account and if I would apologize for signing the petition and promise never to do such thing again that they would begin to put their tithe money in the offering plate.
One cold February afternoon I was standing at the window of my office, looking out over the church lawn and the back yard of the parsonage, trying to figure out how I could get back to Chicago, when I saw a woman walking across the lawn. She came in and asked to see the pastor. When I identified myself as the pastor she handed me an envelope and said this was a donation to my church. I asked to whose name I could credit the gift. She said: "no one. It is an anonymous gift", and she walked away as quickly as she came. When I opened the envelope I found two bills with more zeroes on them than I was accustomed to seeing. Honest to God, I had never seen a hundred dollar bill. I ran across the lawn and into the parsonage to show Hilda the money. It was a lot of money. She said; "That is wonderful. How are you going to get it into the system? The treasurer will want to know where the money came from. You cannot put hundred dollar bills in the offering plate." It was a problem.
Then we remembered that we knew a banker in Brewton, Alabama, some 60 miles north of Mobile. We drove to Brewton and got the big bills broken down into twenties. Then every Sunday Morning and every Sunday night, when I placed the plates on the altar, and as I said the offertory prayer, (with every head bowed and every eye closed) I would drop twenties in each plate. The woman came every Friday bringing two to five hundred dollar bills. I kept the road hot to Brewton, changing the big bills into smaller bills. That was my first experience "Laundering" money!! The total offering each Sunday was now surpassing the offerings for the Sundays before the crisis began. We paid all the bills and all our conference claims, and no one had any idea where the money was coming from except my wife, the stranger who delivered the money, and I. We never knew the woman's name. I called her "My Angel on Michigan Avenue". She saved my ministry. If she had not shown up I would likely have left the ministry.
In time I came to celebrate that harrowing year, which I survived by the grace of God, and God's good servant, "my angel on Michigan Avenue", and by the strength I drew from the shadow of Garrett which followed me South. Not all experiences can be celebrated on the occasion upon which they happen. Sometimes it takes years for an experience to come into proper focus and fit in with more obvious and pleasant experiences of celebration and joy.
In fact, some of the more satisfying experiences of joy and meaning are delayed, and joy comes in the morning, after the dark night, after the storm.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN