The Endless Conspiracy
What I have to say this morning is influenced by three events, two of them involving people most of you know very well and the third involving the fact that on this first Sunday in October, in company with millions of others around the world, we are going to remember a man who in the face of a terrible death asked to be remembered. I begin on a much smaller scale, with a hospital call made several days ago to Ivan West, one of the most loyal supporters of this church since it was born almost 15 years ago. Well into his 80’s Ivan is one of the strongest and most determined men I have ever met, but on this day, lying in bed with a fractured lower back, he was glad to look for strength from outside himself. Not because of the painful fracture, which he could handle, but because he was forced to be away from his beloved Dona under the most difficult circumstances of their married life.
They had just moved into Larksfield, down the streeet, when Ivan’s accident made it necessary for Dona to move into the unit reserved for Alzheimer’s patients. All sorts of things are changing for them, and Ivan, who does not say such things easily, said: “I spent an hour last night talking with the Man Upstairs.” He was silent for a moment, this man of lifelong toughness and resiliency, and then he began to speak of his gratitude for another source of strength. Fighting to keep his feelings under control he said, “I have sermon topic for you….just one word.” I waited and watched tears come as he spoke the single word he wanted me to celebrate, the word family. He went on then to tell me how his children had rallied round in the past week and how much that had meant to him. I had not intended to honor his request quite so soon, but this became an appropriate time for another reason.
Sitting in front of me is a classic example of what Ivan meant by “family.” The children and grandchildren of another Charter Member of this church, Sue Spriggs, are gathered in Wichita for a special reunion. My ties to that family are unique because they were the first people I met in this city almost 38 years ago, and the warmth of their welcome helped Billie and me decide that this was the place. The two of us had been interviewing at universities in six or seven surrounding states and Wichita was our final stop after 10 days away from home and children. Billie is not a weeper, so I was surprised as we drove around the Art Museum on Stackman Drive that Saturday evening in April to hear a sudden sound of exhaustion and homesickness. She looked out at the Little Arkansas river so I couldn’t see her face and spoke words I remember perfectly. She said, “I don’t want to live here. I miss my kids. I want to go home.” Unaccustomed to her tears and to that tone of voice, I made a sudden rash promise. I said, “I have to speak in church here tomorrow, and do the final university interview on Monday, but we’ll be back home by late that night and I can guarantee you one thing: I don’t know where we’ll decide to go, but I’m positive it won’t be here.”
We were to spend that night with Joe and Sue Spriggs, pillars of the church where I was to speak the next morning, and some of the forces that undid my hasty promise began to work on both of us. We could not have had more gracious hosts, or met a more promising family. Older son Bill away at (home on sp. break from?) the very college in Texas where Billie and I had met each other; younger son David, still at home and about to graduate from junior high; and daughter Susan away at Cotty College in Missouri. All married now, they are met in Wichita this weekend — along with some of their own children — on the occasion of Bill’s 40th reunion at North High. Some of you will remember a morning 7 years ago last month when an old Congregational custom was observed as Bill invited all of us to remain after worship to witness his marriage to Vicki. And there’ve been other ties to the Spriggs family: David and Ruth’s daughter Sarah sang in our choir for a while, and Susan was commissioned to do the paintings in our choir room and in the hallway to the classrooms downstairs. So we share your happ, Sue, in having your children and some of the grandchildren with you today, including one great-grandchild. I wish, as you do, that husband and father Joe, one of the finest men I have known, could be sharing this moment with you.
Joe was not only one of the main reasons why I chose to come to Wichita, but several years later he was perhaps the main reason why I was able to stay here when some very conservative Christians, doing what they were sure was God’s will, decided that Wichita would be safer without my kind of theology and put extraordinary pressure on Joe and his fellow Elders to pack me off to some other place. It was costly for Joe, but he was loyal and would not be moved, and I tried years later to repay some of my great debt to him by honoring him with a small plaque on the side of this pulpit, which he never got to see. It says: JOSEPH W. SPRIGGS (1913-1985) ¬— IN MEMORY OF HIS LIFE AND HIS LONG DEVOTION TO FREE AND ENLIGHTENED PREACHING, THIS PULPIT IS LOVINGLY DEDICATED BY HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS. Once again, Papa Joe…thank you for your friendship.
And once again you have heard that word which another good friend, Ivan, wanted made into a sermon: Family. The dean of a great university reported once what any experienced teacher today can tell us, that nearly 80% of seriously troubled students come from dysfunctional families. He added, without reservation, that the best preparation for a successful college life, or any career, is a good home where parents know how to live together happily. The Jewish descendants of those who wrote the Old Testament have long been famous for strong, tenacious households in great part because they so honor and protect the family. They put into the hearts of each generation a sense of duty to the family, a concept so important to them that they spoke of God as Father and Wisdom as mother. When the young Jewish rabbi, Jesus, came along later he acted on the assumption that life in the world ought to be like life in the ideal family.
One of his death wishes was that a dear friend standing by the cross would take care of his mother. He said to this man, “Behold thy mother” — which being translated means, “Take care of Mom.” The family, he felt, could be a working model for relationships in the church and in the wider world. The kids may not always like each other but they respect each other and they try to help and understand each other because they belong to the same family, and more especially to the same parents. We learn such things by starting life in a circle where we are first loved before we are moved to love anyone else. A baby, however appealing, is innately selfish: love has to be taught by word and touch and example. Totally obsessed with our own instinctive needs at first, we change only as we see love in action: giving itself away without payment, suffering both indifference and ingratitude before it strikes through our selfishness to win entrance to our hearts. And it’s a love that works on through us from life to life in the endless interrelation of human beings.
I have called this in my sermon title “The Endless Conspiracy” because each generation so indelibly marks the next…..because we owe so much more to family than we are always willing to admit: not just our physical shapes and colors, our quirks and oddities of movement or expression, but our mental and moral selves as well. We have learned only recently how terrible the consequences are for intelligence if there is not someone to love us and stroke us tenderly and whisper sweet songs in the first two or three years of life. My children speak often of songs their mother sang to them by the hour as she rocked them. They cannot not lightly betray those memories. A friend of mine who hadn’t much experience with religion was asked once about what kept him at his best when things went against him. He said that he had back of him a family which he did not want to let down, and that he also felt there were many back of his family whom they had not wanted to let down. This is the endless conspiracy that adds such a peculiar power to life in the making of decisions.
There is another way of putting it, the way of an ancient Hebrew poet who says of his ancestors in one of the Psalms (87th): “All my springs are in you.” In his arid homeland, springs were a metaphor for life: he’s saying how grateful he is for all the fountains of his life that began at home. The old Jewish genealogies of the Bible are dull and dry to most of us, but they carried powerful messages once upon a time. David the son of Jesse, who was the son of Obed, who was the son of Boaz….. because some things really do run in families. Paul echoes it when he says to Timothy how he remembers “the sincere faith in you, that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded in you, too” — how, Paul insists, could a child from such a family not be a gift to the world? [2 Tim.1:5]. Here is question we may be willing in this moment to answer silently: From how many betrayals have thoughts of our families kept us? St. Augustine says that when his mother pleaded with a certain Christian bishop in behalf of her wayward son, that wise man said to her finally: “Go thy way and God bless thee….for it is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.” There are sons who, for the same reason, have not perished.
I turn now to a different kind of family that was modeled on the ideal human family: the church, where even in those moments when we may not like each other, we still love each other, which is to say that despite personality clashes or moments of irritation we remember that we are family — something a little easier to do this morning than usual because we are now about to eat and drink a symbolic meal together. There are rules in some churches about who is fit to come to this table, and who is not, but we think such an idea would amaze the inclusive man we know As Jesus, so if you wish to remember Him with us in these next few moments, you are welcome now to join us at the table of communion.