Summertime, and the Living…

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I.

According to the “Old Farmer’s Almanac,” and I guess I’m getting to be an old Farmer myself–which is something I can poke fun at, but you can’t to my face, summer 2013 began in the wee hours of June 21 and will end on the late afternoon of September 22.  If you connect to nature-focused religious patterns, then the specific beginning and ending times for summer are of more significance to you than to the typical Episcopalian.  If you are a school kid, summer begins when school ends for the academic year and ends when school begins again in the fall.  If you’re a Silverside person, summer begins when the choir moves down into the regular-people-pews and, thankfully, fills in the gaps for the many members and friends who travel to see far-away family members and friends and/or who commune with the gods of brine as they watch the waves ebb and flow; we will have a big ole welcome back Gathering and reception on September 15.

I always loved summer…until I moved to New Orleans.  Even though my family generally couldn’t afford to take a vacation and even though Dad would get the lawn mower out every summer from my eighth year on and say, “Get busy,” I still liked the season.  My sister and my brother and I got to be at home with seemingly endless time to swing and ride bicycles and explore the fields and creeks near our house.  Eccentric relatives from Ohio and California and Georgia would pass through Halls Crossroads.  (I know it’s hard to believe that I could have eccentric relatives, but truth is stranger than fiction.)

Robert Louis Stevenson:

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy’s inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.

Before the effects of global warming began to be so obvious and so dangerous as today, the weather in the foothills of the 
Smokey Mountains was ideal.  Busy days, chores notwithstanding. Ice cold watermelon weekly, and at least a couple of times a month neighbors and/or church friends would gather for some of my Mom’s homemade ice cream.  My nephew and his lovely fiancee will be married in a couple of weekends, and while I was in Knoxville I bought their wedding gift.  One of the items they’d placed on their registry list was an electric ice cream maker.  In view of the countless hours the adult men watched me hand crank the ice cream freezer and gave me pointers (without offering any relief cranking) so they could chow down, I refused to select that item.
Four summers, when I was 9, 10, 11, and 12, I went to a week of summer church camp.  The two years following, I was a junior counselor, and in the summer I was 17 I finally was promoted to senior counselor.  I loved Camp Ba-Yo-Ca.  Smack dab in the Smokies, there was no place anybody could look and fail to see, smell beauty.  Dr. David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary and an ordained United Church of Christ minister, has done a fair amount of study on the high number of people who as kids regularly participated in summer church camps and who later enter the ministry.  Interesting connection.
We had our cabins, but we also slept out under the stars and shook with fear in our sleeping bags while listening to one of the counselors tell a scary tale that typically involved ghosts or bears. I perfected my practical joke skills, which entertained me until I graduated from college.
We also had our Camp Pastor who was a rotating volunteer taking a week off from his church in the Knoxville area to be our spiritual advisor and to tell us in language that little Baptist boys could understand that we were all going to hell if we didn’t acknowledge our belief in what he told us we had to believe.  (Just to be clear, I’m not being sexist.  There were no female Baptist clergypersons in Knoxville back then, and as far as I know there are none still today.)
We kids respected our Camp Pastor and listened to what he said.  Some cried because they didn’t want to go to hell.  Some snoozed, and some were sparked to do childhood theological reflection.  By the time we were 12, some of us in that group were getting pretty advanced; someone asked as we left one evening’s visit with thoughts of a devil and his hell, “How long is eternity?”
By the way, I still can’t answer the question about how long eternity is; I nearly flunked the philosophy of time segment of my college Introduction to Philosophy course, but I stopped believing in hell long ago.

 

II.

Good things can happen during summer months.  Our nation declared its independence from Britain in the summer of 1776.  The war between the United States and Japan ended in the summer of 1945.  I became the pastor of Silverside Church in the summer of Y2K.  OK, fine.  It was a good thing to me anyway.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in the summer of the year 6 BCE, BCE because the calendar most folks use today, Jews being a notable exception, is based on a six year miscalculation by a monk in the middle ages whose job was calendaring.  Anyway, Jesus wasn’t born in the cold winter months, though you can forget that if you want before we start singing Christmas carols since I’ve already messed up Christmas for many of you by letting you know that the Magi didn’t call on Jesus until Jesus was two years old.
On Wednesday past, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” became 50 years old.  In the sweltering DC summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people stood on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to hear the speech that with President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” hit the utter apex of oratory and life-changing challenge.
I have never heard anyone explain why one of the hottest times of the year was chosen for this outdoor event, but, again, some surprisingly important events slip into our lives in deceptively slow summer months.  In any case, there they were–250,000 of them, about 60,000 of them Caucasian, hearing the culmination of a day of speakers and more broadly the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were pleased that the event had been planned once they’d been assured there would be no violence, and they together watched the great speech on a television in the Oval Office.  “This guy is damn good,” the President said to his brother as King ended his sermon/speech.  FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, however, was in a stew.  He had long since decided that the Rev. Dr. King was a
Communist so he and his minions heard, “Join the Communist Party,” in every other phrase King spoke.
The state of the art public address system installed for this vital collection of speakers–nine before King spoke, ten if you count the speaker who made the “opening remarks”–was sabotaged earlier in the day, before any of the speakers had a chance to speak.  Attorney General Kennedy called on the Army Corps of Engineers to fix it, and they did. But there was a span of time during which no one knew if any of the speakers would be heard that day by more than those within a few feet of the podium.
A website, americanrhetoric.com, maintained by a hundred or so of the leading speech professors in the U.S., lists the 100 most pivotal speeches of the twentieth century.  It is not a static list, but the number one speech (sermon!) has never lost its ranking established by these public speaking professionals:  Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.”
By the way, Dr. King also currently holds slot #15, his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon/speech as well as slot #43, “A Time to Break Silence” which was his condemnation of the war in Vietnam preached to 3000 people at the Riverside Church in New York City exactly one year before his was assassinated.
The dream imagery, by which almost everyone who has ever heard the speech, remembers it had been used by King previously in lesser known sermons/speeches, and his advisors had successfully urged him not to use the dream references in his sermon/speech for that day; in fact, the title of the finished sermon/speech had nothing at all about dreams in it and carried the title, “Normalcy–No More.”  However, Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, who had sung before Dr. King preached and was seated on the platform near him, spoke out at a pause and said, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.”
He took her cue and pushed aside his prepared remarks; in their place came his inspired, essentially spontaneous use of the dream imagery.  This portion of the sermon/speech is what we most readily remember now–the part that almost wasn’t!
The sermon/speech caused a big splash initially, but King historians and speech historians tell us the speech was hardly being mentioned by the time Dr. King was assassinated a little less than five years later.  How in the world could that be?

Drew Hansen, author of The Dream wrote:

…it was largely forgotten — first, because of the crush of events, and later, as King’s earlier optimism began to seem ill-founded and he became more controversial especially for his opposition to the war, it was King’s assassination that led the nation to rediscover the speech.

That was in the spring of the year.

III.

You heard Annie read earlier the snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “Do what we can, summer will have its flies.”  Suddenly, there’s a huge fly in the world’s ointment in the summer of 2013:  Syria and threat of war against that country whose own so-called leaders have massacred Syrian citizens with chemical weapons.
Travesty.  But stop the saber rattling.  Please let the war drums and the threats of war cease instantly.
Did I say I didn’t believe in hell?  Oh, I believe in hells on earth alright.
Pope Francis along with some influential Christian leaders in the Middle East and Europe are speaking out prophetically, and this is exactly what true prophecy is, not predicting what will happen millenia ahead but daring to speak the truth of what is going to happen next week or next month if people continue on a pathway toward self-destruction.  What is the likely result of an attack on Syria spearheaded by the United States, Britain, and France? Possible global conflict.  Preach, Francis!
The Syrian Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo, said on Vatican Radio that armed intervention in Syria could unleash a “world war.”  Is there any reason we shouldn’t do everything in our power to stop such a destructive turn?
Last Sunday, the Pope called on all countries anticipating taking military action against Syria to think again.  He pled with them to do everything possible to avoid military action.

The increase in violence in a war between brothers [and sisters], with the proliferation of massacres and atrocities, that we all have been able to see in the terrible images of these days, leads me once again to raise my voice that the clatter of arms may cease. It is not confrontation that offers hope to resolve problems, but rather the ability to meet and dialogue.

I mentioned earlier Dr. King’s sermon/speech at Riverside Church in New York City, right at Columbia University.  King lost a lot of his liberal supporters in that speech because they believed we HAD to be in Vietnam to help those who couldn’t help themselves.  One of his close advisors said that the Riverside speech was his most important contribution, not the “I Have a Dream” sermon/speech as powerfully significant as it turned out to be.
A word from Dr. King that you may not have heard:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered….A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of…filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending [combatants] home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death….America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

Summertime…and the living…ain’t easy.

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