Monday, September 5, 2011

The Necessity Of Starlight In A Land Where Desire Careens Into The Canyon

150 years ago, people came West for a lot of reasons.
Some were running away from troubles back East.
Some were hoping to get rich.
Some were trying to get free.

I don’t know why Ozzie Whittaker came in 1863.
I sometimes joke that he might have been trying to miss
the Battle of Gettysburg.
For whatever reason, he spent two years in Gold Hill,
then went back to Connecticut, married well,
and got a cushy position in a rich, stable church.
But after just two years of the clergy version of the good life,
he struck out for Virginia City.
In a few minutes, I’ll tell you why.

But serving this rowdy Comstock church was not enough.
So he mounted his horse and rode over to Pioche,
where there was no church,
and celebrated the Eucharist in a saloon
using the bar for an altar.
Before long, they made Ozzie the Bishop of Nevada and Arizona.
He spent over a decade here at St. Paul’s
and riding horseback all over the Great Basin.
I just drive from Vegas to Welles in an air-conditioned Ford
with Sirius FM radio.
But Ozzie was the real deal.
It’s a long way from the Comstock
to Tucson, Tombstone, and Nogales.
He didn’t get rich. He wasn’t that free.
And he wasn’t running away from anything back East.
He had another thing in mind.

Some other folks had the same thing in mind.
There was Bishop Daniel Tuttle who began the Episcopal Church
in Utah the same year Ozzie arrived Virginia City.
In Helena, Montana, the Rev. Leigh Brewer founded the church
while his wife Henrietta built the hospital.

Ozzie got to know the West those first two years in Gold Hill.
He knew this to be a lovely but a lonely land
– a place where every desire of the human heart
was set loose but apt to careen into despair.
By the time Ozzie got here, Henry Comstock was busted,
gone to Montana, & would take his own life in under two years.

The missionaries came here because we needed them.
We needed a spiritual compass, a glimpse of the moral order.
We needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ
-- for without it we were like sailors on a starless night
back when they navigated by starlight.

Such was the West in the 1860s.
Such is the world again today.
Last week on the Today Show,
Matt Lauer interviewed the widow of one of the Navy Seals
who recently died in Afghanistan.
He asked her how her husband would want to be remembered,
and what she would tell their children about him.

The first words out of her mouth were “his faith in Jesus Christ.”
But when NBC ran clips from the interview later in the day,
and when they posted it on their website,
they edited out the part about Jesus.

Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer, lost her arm a shark attack.
Her book, Soul Surfer, tells how her Christian faith gave her the courage
to get back in the water and become a champion professional.
It’s now a major motion picture.
But the screenwriter said the problem was this:
The script needed to be spiritual enough to draw
“the faith based market”
but not so Christian as to offend anyone.
So the movie shows she had faith
but tries to feather brush out what she had faith in.

The tattooed pierced young cashier at a bagel shop says to me,
“I really like your cross. They won’t let me wear mine here.”
A woman tells the sales clerk at a jewelry store
that she wants to buy a cross.
The clerk says “Do you want a plain cross or one with the little man on it?”
Brothers and sisters, the stars are not out tonight.
We cannot see lights by which to steer.
So we grasp onto strange things.

Jonathan Kay, in his book Among The Truthers,
examines the growth of increasingly bizarre conspiracy theories
in the United States.
Irrational paranoia is rampant.
Asked to explain why conspiracy theory is on the rise, Kay answers
our society has lost its moral and spiritual compass.
In Christianity, we go away from the devil and toward God.
Kay says, conspiracy theories don’t give people a God,
but they at least provide a devil.

For some, that devil is the government;
for some it is 16-foot tall inter-galactic lizards
who are secretly in charge here.
Those who do not have Christ
are desperate to find a devil
– and most any old devil will do.

Without a moral compass, we cannot know what matters.
The ad for the evening news on one Nevada tv channel says:
“The most important news story is the one that affects you.”
Really? A story about road construction on I-15
is more important than the drought in Kenya.

People who are protected from hearing the name of Christ
spoken by a Navy widow,
protected from the sight of a cross worn by a young cashier,
hear that the story that matters most is the one that affects us.
We have no basis other than our own greed and self-interest
to say that something matters.

Well, maybe that’s right.
It is right if we know that the story that affects us most
is the story of salvation,
the story of God who created the world out of love,
sustains us every breath we take out of love,
and redeems us from our brokenness and spiritual failure
– all out of love.

Then the most important story is the one that affects all of us
– the story of Jesus going to the cross
because that’s where he could forgive us all
and that’s how he could show the depth of divine love.

The 1st Century A.D. was a lot like today.
The old order was coming apart
and the new order had not yet come into view.
In the 1st Century A.D.,
the world had lost its moral and spiritual compass
-- especially in the old seats of power.

So somebody back then did the same thing
in Turkey, Greece, and Rome
that Ozzie Whittaker, Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, and Leigh Brewer
did out here in the 1860’s.
I hope you know who that was.
It was your patron saint, Paul of Tarsus.

Paul travelled the known world to tell the most important story,
the one that affects everybody.
Ozzie Whitaker left his cushy life in Connecticut
to tell the most important story to Virginia City.

Who is going to tell that story today?
Who is going to speak the name of Christ
in spite of the censors who find it offensive?
Who is going to reveal the love of God
as a living rebuttal to the so-called Christians
who proclaim a God of violence and hate?
I can think of no one better for the job
than the spiritual off-spring and heirs of Ozzie Whittaker.

Do you know why you are here?
You are not here to enjoy the ambience of a historic building.
You are not here to enjoy the congenial company
of other nice people.
You are not here to listen to pious words
that helps you get through the week.

You are here to learn the most important story
so you can tell it to a world that is dying to hear it.
You are here to polish your spirits until they shine,
so you can be “the light of the world” that Jesus said you are,
so you can provide some star shine to all the people lost at sea.

That is why it is so important that you study, pray, and serve.
Study, pray, and serve every day.
Study, pray, and serve in the church and in the world.

Be the change. Light the light. Keep the faith.
Do it for the broken, bleeding world.
Do it for Paul and Ozzie.
Do it for Jesus.
Do it now. Do it tomorrow. Do it for the rest of your life.