Monday, December 5, 2011

Building A Civil Society: Reflections On The Moral Legacy Of The First Lady Of Las Vegas, Helen Stewart

Helen Stewart is the kind of hero we need to keep in mind today.
She is a hero for women – pioneering the place of women as leaders
in the public square.
She is a classic Western hero – making a go of ranching for decades
in this hard land.

To me, she is most of all a hero as a builder of civil society,
a former of community.
The first great work of literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumer.
In it, young Gilgamesh is something of a super hero run amok.
Although he is the king, he does not care for his people.
He lives for himself.

His reckless youth comes to an end when he discovers that people are mortal.
So he sets out on a quest for the way to overcome mortality
or to live with enough gusto that his life can be worthwhile
even if it will end.
After many adventures, he realizes his quest is futile;
so he returns home to Uruk, the capital of his kingdom.

On his arrival, Gilgamesh looks up and sees the walls of Uruk.
At that moment, he finally realizes that authentic human life
is lived in a community, a civil society, a neighborhood of people
who are intentionally neighbors to each other.
He realizes his quest for his own individual well-being is futile
because our individual well-being cannot be split away
from the common good.
So he dedicates himself to the service of his people.

The myth about the Westerner is that we came here to escape civil society.
The truth is that Westerners began constructing civil society
from the time they got here.
The myth of ranchers is that they lived in their own fiefdoms
Ignoring -- or even riding roughshod over -- townspeople and others.
Helen Stewart is proof that is far from the case.

As a widowed rancher and mother, she had her hands full.
But she was determined to build a civil society in this Valley.

Aside for providing the land for the railroad,
she was a founder of Christ Church – a church which has never
been a haven of spiritual escapism but has always been
committed to the welfare of all of Las Vegas
– a church from which many charitable and civic organizations
have been born.
She was a founder of the Mesquite Club,
Nevada’s oldest women’s charitable organization.
As Postmaster, she worked to help us to exchange messages
essential to social and business life.
As a founder of the Society of Nevada Pioneers,
she worked to preserve our history
because a culture has to know its own story.
On the school board, she worked for the education of our children.
While she sold the land that became Las Vegas,
she donated the land that became the Paiute Colony.

The list of her accomplishments goes on.
But the point is simple:
she was dedicated to our common good.

We do well to honor her with this excellent statue.
But this statue should do more than remind us of a time
when people cared enough about each other
to do their civic duty.

Helen Stewart would want us to remember
that the task of building and sustaining a civil society in Las Vegas
is as challenging today as it was then.
The challenges are different, but just as great.
Our sense of community is wounded today.
The institutions Helen Stewart helped to build -- from the Postal Service
to the education system – are in trouble.
We see a reversal of her efforts
in the neglect of our schools and public institutions,
and in the neglect of needy people which the First Lady of Las Vegas
would never have countenanced.

But there are people today working on several fronts to continue
the good work Helen Stewart began in her day.
Communities in Schools works to restore our education system
so our children have hope for a better future.
Las Vegas Valley Interfaith unites our people across lines
of race and religion to work for the good of families.
3-Square combats hunger on our streets.
Not For Sale combats the sexual exploitation of children.
We might ask: if Helen Stewart were here today,
in which of these organizations would she be a leader?
The answer is clearly most of them, and maybe others.
She would be a leader in different groups so she could network them
together for the benefit of everyone.
I believe that is what she would hope we will do.

As we dedicate this statue to the memory and honor of Helen Stewart,
we rededicate ourselves to building a community of decent folks
who care for each other – neighbor to neighbor –
to make this city a home where all our people can prosper and thrive.

New Job Opening: Herald Of Good Tidings.

Our lives are made of time so how we relate to time
determines the flavor and the tenor of our lives.
The present moment is absolutely important;
but each moment contains both memory and anticipation.
Each moment arises in the context of a past and a future.
What happened yesterday shapes today’s experience;
and what we expect tomorrow determines
whether we live today in hope, anxiety, or despair.

As for the past, it can be a blessing or a curse.
It depends on whether we draw wisdom from our past
or get stuck in it.
It is so easy to get stuck in memories.
Good memories can capture us in nostalgia,
longing for a past that can never be recovered
precisely because it is the past.
We refuse to move on into the future because we know
it could never be as good as the good old days.

Bad memories can capture us in despair.
We can identify with our old wounds.
I am the one who suffered this or suffered that.
There is a sticky tragic quality to old wounds and grievances
that traps us like flypaper.

The power of the past over the present depends
entirely on what we think of the future.
We live each moment with some kind of expectation.
The natural human condition is to be alert, to be expectant,
to scan the horizon to see what might be coming up over it.
We are all always watching for something.
But we are rarely watching neutrally.
We watch the world with preformed expectations.
We live in dread or hope, faith or fear.

Nothing is more fundamental to our way of being in the world
than our attitude toward the future.
Prophesy is God’s word spoken to us to infuse hope.
Prophesy breaks up the stony soil of pessimism
with the plow of God’s promise.
Judah had been having a long, hard time.
For 40 years they had been in exile,
writing songs of lament.
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
as we remembered Zion.”
Before they were utterly vanquished by Babylon,
they were occupied by Assyria.
Before that they had been a vassal state of Egypt.
Before that they had been besieged by Aram.
No living Jew could remember peace and prosperity.

Their plight raises a question for us:
is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?
Is it possible to anticipate something we have not experienced yet?

When churches are in transition situations,
I always ask them,
“what do you hope for in this time of change?”
We I ask about hope for the future, invariably, they answer
with a memory from the past.
Is it possible to hope for something we cannot remember?

For humans, probably not.
But with God all things are possible.
Judah could not even remember happiness,
but God spoke to his prophet, 2nd Isaiah, saying,
“Comfort, O comfort my people . . . .
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her
that she has served her term
that her penalty is paid.”

Can you hear God saying that to you?
Can you take the old habitual sorrows of your life
as a time of exile, and hear God say
“You have served your term; it’s over”?

The Exiles had lost a lot – the temple, homes, families.
We all lose what is dear to us.
Then we live in the loss; abide in the sorrow.
Isaiah acknowledges the loss, but then reminds us
there is something we have not lost and can never lose.
He writes,

“All people are grass . . . .
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”

And what is the word of our God that stands forever.
It is good news. It is gospel.
“Get up to a high mountain O Zion,
herald of good tidings.
Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,
herald of good tidings.”

“Herald of good tidings.”
Can you imagine not only hearing God’s promise;
that you will be peaceful and at ease,
that you will be happy
– can you imagine that you not only hear that
as God’s promise to you;
but that you are, this day, appointed as God’s messenger
to tell that good news to other people.
Whatever your identity has been up to now,
you have a new one – “herald of good tidings.”

What are those good tidings?
Because they are beyond the reach
of anything we have experienced,
they are beyond the capacity of human language
to express directly.
So Isaiah uses metaphors:
“Say to the cities of Judah, here is your God . . . .
He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Can you imagine living in expectation
of a serene joy that you have never felt before?
If you can, then you will experience right now
a hope you have never felt before.
Even in the midst of the trials and hardships of today,
you will carry in your heart a warm ember of consolation
already glowing.
The quality of this present moment will be transformed by hope.

I invite you each to hear this promise for you personally.
Jeremiah delivered this message from God:
“I know the plans I have for you;
plans to prosper you and not harm you,
plans to give you a hope and a future.”

I invite you to hear the promise that God will do a new thing in you,
that Christ will become more real to you,
and play a larger part in each of your days than ever before.
I invite you to hear that promise also for this congregation.
In Christian spirituality, the transformation of the individual
and the transformation of the community are intimately connected.
You cannot change without changing those around you
and if this congregation changes it will change you.
So I invite you to imagine,
that Grace in the Desert will matter to you in a larger way;
and that this congregation will do in Las Vegas
what no congregation has done before
–that this congregation will become a center of spiritual renewal
in the midst of a city awash in despair;
that you will be a “herald of good tidings”
for the lost children on our streets,
the faltering schools of our community,
a herald of good tidings for social transformation,
for art, culture, and justice in the public square.

If you live in that hope, you will invest in it.
You will prepare the way for your own transformation
though a discipline of prayer, study, and service.
You will, at the same time, prepare for the transformation of this congregation.
You will support it now with your labor, your money, and your prayers.
You church prays for you. Do you pray for your church?

In the coming year, Grace in the Desert will have the opportunity
to take a bold leap forward.
You have made great strides in recent years.
For that I am most deeply grateful.
But you are on the brink of becoming something new
– not just a gathering place for mutual support in hard times
but a “herald of good tidings” for those around us.

With this promise, comes a challenge
– to invest the labor, the money, and the prayer
to make room for miracle.

This is what the Lord said to those who were to receive his promise.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.
Make straight in the desert – this desert
--a highway for our God.

Every valley – even the Las Vegas Valley
-- shall be lifted up . . .
Then the glory of the Lord shall appear
and all the people shall see it together
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”