Sermon – July 31, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyLife or Death?

By Rev. Joe Connolly

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Jesus is recorded as speaking these words in the work known as Luke: “…God said to the farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you.’” — Luke 12:20.

I think most of you know I wound up in ordained ministry by a very circuitous route. Generally, authorized ministers in the United Church of Christ and in Main Line denominations, are required to have both a Bachelor’s Degree and a 90 credit Master of Divinity Degree or the equivalent.

So yes, I did earn both a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing, as it happens, and I did earn the Master of Divinity Degree. But I earned them in my forties, later in life as those things are usually measured.

Hence and therefore, I sometimes say the first school from which I graduated was the school of hard knocks. Getting into the prestigious school of hard knocks was easy. I simply dropped out of college after one semester. Needless to say, the first class session in the school of hard knocks is finding a job. I did that.

But, as happened to many of us back when I was young, got drafted and sent to Vietnam. Not long after I got back to these shores I decided to follow my heart and take a crack at writing, at being a writer, for professional theater.

I did many things when it came to theater work from being a business manager for a children’s theater to doing office work for the Actors’ Fund of America— the largest theatrical charity in the country. On the writing end of things the list longer. I wrote material for and directed club acts. I wrote a number of plays and musicals and something in the neighborhood of three hundred songs with different composers.

I contributed material to an off-Broadway Musical. That show starred Kaye Ballard, for those of you who might remember Kaye.

Two of my plays had showcases in prestigious venues. A comedy— New Face of the Year— was presented at the Manhattan Theater Club. Another, a musical version of Much Ado About Nothing— which with great good perversity I called, All’s Well That Ends Well— was showcased at The Lambs Club, the oldest theatrical social club in the United States.

I was invited to be a member of the ASCAP Musical Comedy Workshop, essentially a master’s class for composers, lyricists and librettists. It was run by Charles Strouse, who composed Annie.

Of course, and as is true of a lot of theater professionals, I also did all kinds of other jobs outside of theater to keep food on the table. These are some of the highlights from that list of endeavors. I worked as a tour guide at South Street Seaport Museum. I worked in computer operations— back when computers were the size of this room. I even worked as a store manager.

Last, certainly not least, I worked in back office operations on Wall Street. I am sure all this experience was worth at least a graduate degree from the aforementioned school of hard knocks. Now, it’s that last job I mentioned— working in back office operations on Wall Street— that I want to connect with the fact that I served in Vietnam.

To be clear, I don’t want to overstate what I saw in Southeast Asia. As these things go, I was in relatively safe places. On the other hand, no place was really safe. I got blown out of bed a couple of times by incoming.

My point is, when you daily live with the possibility of death for fourteen months, it does change your outlook on life. So, what could have happened on Wall Street that might have connected with Army life? (Slight pause.)

One job I had on the Street was to dispatch messengers who delivered stock and bond certificates to other brokerages. This was work done against a deadline. Certificates had to be delivered by certain times of the day or they would be rejected.

Once a senior vice-president came into my office with a stack of certificates and demanded they be delivered right away. But this was after any kind deadline had past. I time stamped the delivery sheet and said, “I’ll get them out as soon as I can. The deadline is past and all the messengers are out making on time deliveries.”

He shouted at the top of his lungs, “I will have your job! I will have you fired!”

I smiled and said, “Good luck with that.” His face got very red. He turned and, clearly on a mission, quickly scurried out of the office. The next voice I heard was that of the senior vice-president in charge of my area.

“O.K. What happened?” I calmly explained I had received a stack of certificates for delivery way past the deadline, time stamped the delivery sheet and would attempt delivery A.S.A.P. My guy, shaking his head, just turned around and left. (Slight pause.)

You see, when you’ve served for fourteen months in a war zone a threat which says, ‘you’re fired’ has very little meaning. You’re reaction is, “I know what a real threat is. I saw a real threat to my life every day for better than a year. So, go ahead. Tell me, ‘You’re fired!’ Big deal.” And that, my friends, is about a lesson from the school of hard knocks well learned and then put into action. (Slight pause.)

Jesus is recorded as speaking these words in the work known as Luke: “…God said to the farmer, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be required of you.’” (Slight pause.)

Some might suggest “You’re fired” has become not just a catch phrase but a way of life in the culture today, in Twenty-first Century America. Equally, there are those who, because of the culture in which we live, might take these words of Jesus as a threat that effectively says, ‘I threaten you with death. Therefore, be good, be generous.’

But is that the case? (Slight pause.) I think seeing this text as a threat is very Twenty-first Century outlook. If we see it that way, it’s our culture informing us, not the text.

In fact, I don’t think death or any kind of threat is a part of the equation. What is a part of the equation are the obvious questions: ‘What is meaningful in life?’ and ‘Do possessions give life meaning?’ (Slight pause.)

I think freedom from greed is the real focus of this reading. And greed is a difficult issue in our culture. Indeed, many would insist to be free from greed is to deny the freedom to possess things. And yes, possessions are important to us. After all, we do live in a very material world— to quote another current catch phrase.

And yes, we do live in a culture that thrives on the profit motive, a culture puts a high premium on expansion and growth. For some, in reality, materialism is a religion.

And it is not always easy to separate greed from profit. But separating greed from need has to be done. Let me reiterate that: separating greed from need has to be done. And that leads me to the reading from Colossians.

This is one of those weeks where the matching lectionary reading from the Epistle helps illuminate the Gospel. What we hear from Colossians is that God grants us not just freedom from greed. What we have is freedom to live in goodness and with equity.

(Quote:) “…put aside your old self with its practices…” And (quote:) “…in that renewal, in that image, there is no longer Greek and Hebrew, Jew or Gentile, barbarian or Scythian, no slave or citizen.” (Slight pause.)

This brings me back to how each of us thinks about life. Yes, my time in the service, my time overseas, changed me. As I said earlier, when I got back to these shores I decided to follow my heart, take a crack at being a writer for professional theater. And, obviously, I did a lot around that.

But what my time in the service really did for me was to empower the idea that I had to follow my heart. While I label it as following my heart I think I can better describe it by mentioning the questions I raised for myself when I returned. There are two: ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘Why did I survive?’ (Slight pause.)

That brings me back to the words of Jesus we heard at the end of the reading (quote:) “…this is the way it works for those who store up treasures, riches, for themselves but are not rich in God.” This is clear: God is not vengeful. God is a God of love. Life is not about how much you have, how high you live. Life is about how well you live. Life is not about how high you live. Life is about how well you live.

The choices we make can be and sometimes are about life and death. But what really brings us life and what really brings us to life is listening for a call from God and listening to our neighbors.

And when we listen to the call of God and when we help our neighbor, our own outlook on life will not be overwhelmed by threats or by materialism, possessions. Our own outlook on life will be one which embraces freedom.

So this passage is not about any kind of threat. This passage is about the freedom to live. And not just about the freedom to live but the freedom to live well, to live in the grace God offers each of us, grace which includes an invitation from God to live and to love to the fulness of our ability.

Why is that invitation there? Because God is not a vengeful God. God is a God of love. And that is not a threat. That is a promise— the promise of God. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “What I shared today was, obviously, a part of my personal story. But each of us has a unique personal story. Therefore, I think each of us needs to ask how does my own, unique, wonderful, personal story help me understand how I related to the world around me and to God?”

BENEDICTION: Let us never fear to seek the truth God reveals. Let us live as a resurrection people. Let us understand every day as a new adventure in faith as the Creator draws us into community. So, go now, go in safety— for you cannot go where God is not. Go now— go in love— for love alone endures. Go now— go with purpose and God will honor your dedication. And last, go in peace— for it is a gift from God to those whose hearts and minds are in Christ, Jesus. Amen.

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