Sermon for Sixth Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Michael Cooper-White
In the Bible, the number forty has great significance. It appears a total of 146 times in the Old and New Testaments. And it is always associated with being tested, being on trial. When the great flood wreaked its havoc upon the earth, according to Genesis it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses and the people of Israel wandered 40 years in the desert before finally entering into the Promised Land. On two occasions when he was exasperated with the people’s complaints, Moses went up the mountain for 40 days to await God’s Guidance. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for 40 days. After the resurrection, Jesus hung around and made appearances to his friends for 40 days prior to the Ascension. And the prescribed number of lashes for punishing one found guilty of a crime was 40. I suspect that as he looks back over the sweep of the past four decades of ministry our brother Eric can identify with each of these biblical characters and their forty-fold trials and testings.
So, dear friend Eric, you’ve arrived at this milestone in ministry that we share. Folks are wondering how we got ordained as teenagers. It’s hard to believe four decades have passed since we made those promises, when hands were laid on our heads, sending us off on a journey that we could not begin to imagine back there in that year of 1976.
In that year of 1976, Gerald Ford was in the White House, but was defeated in his bid for reelection by a peanut farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who was voted Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. The world’s population stood at 4 billion, 3 less than today. The Dow Jones hit an all-time high of 1000; a gallon of gas cost the enormous sum of 76 cents and new cars could be driven off the lot for $4000-$5000. The Steelers defeated Dallas in the Superbowl. Median family income was around $12,500 and a first class stamp cost 13 cents. Unemployment stood at 7.7%; no doubt contributing to ousting an otherwise fairly popular incumbent president. In popular culture, the big movie hits of the year were Taxi Driver and Rocky. Alex Haley published the block buster book Roots, which perhaps more than anything caused us to grapple with the pathos of our African American sisters’ and brothers’ experiences. And perhaps in the awareness that you and I were entering the clergy roster of the Lutheran Church in America, the hit song of the year was Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns!”
Any ministry of four decades is impossible to sum up in just a few words. The life thus far of any servant of God cannot be captured in a sermon, or even a book. And while we do pause this weekend to honor this milestone in ministry of our friend, colleague and pastor Eric Shafer, this sermon is not about him; at least I hope that as any sermon should it points to the one who has called us all just as he called the bystander along the road in today’s Gospel, when Jesus said simply, “Follow me.”
But because it is his milestone in ministry we pause to honor, let’s try to sum up Eric in just a few words that begin with the same letter as his name. I’ll prime the pump; you all can shout out a few others: Enthusiastic, Eager, Energetic, Erudite, one who Embraces; and I suppose since we both now carry Medicare cards in our wallets: Elder? That last not in the sense of old, but one who is recognized among the elders in the biblical sense of the word. And to this I can attest: Pr. Shafer is one whose experience and wisdom is sought and valued not only by you members of Mt. Olive, but by a host of others around the church and indeed around the world,
the oikumene—worldwide household of God. So that word Ecumenical is another marker of Eric’s ministry, wherein he embraces those of other traditions and other faiths. And then the most important E-word of all, one that’s so often misunderstood and misappropriated—Evangelical. Eric Shafer’s life has simply been caught up in the quest to live faithfully and share with others the gospel, the message of the life, death, resurrection and world-transforming power of Jesus the Christ.
And the good news is that this brief tribute is neither a funeral obituary nor and end-of-the line farewell. The beat goes on! The years of ministry stretch out into the future. And that’s really good news for the church and for us all!
As all of us continue on the journey of faith into the future, there is good guidance to be found in all three scriptures appointed for this Sunday in the Pentecost season. In all three there is a sense of urgency to be about the work to which God has called us, both individually and as a community.
When Elisha is approached by the prophet recruiter Elijah, he’s out plowing in the field with a yoke of oxen. When called to be Elijah’s successor, he quickly closes out his farming business by slaughter his oxen and throwing a huge banquet for the whole neighborhood! Obedience to the call accompanied by lavish hospitality. Any who have come to know Eric and Kris Shafer understand how they have heard and heeded this lifestyle of welcoming others to table, including many whom they will never meet. Champions for Lutheran World Hunger and Lutheran World Relief, they have not only been generous contributors but have included the world’s hungry in their wills. They will be sharing an earthly feast with hundreds and thousands even after they have joined the heavenly banquet.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” declares St. Paul in his great letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” For the past 16 years, I have lived smack dab in the center of the great Gettysburg battlefield. We don’t lead with this in our Seminary admissions materials, but we can say that more people have died on our campus than probably any other in the world. We know something about the struggle to set free those held in bondage. But as we have seen time and time again in the past few years, the struggle to break free from the yoke of slavery is not over, and perhaps will never be. The yoke of poverty here in Los Angeles has only grown bigger and more oppressive than when I lived here back in the 1970’s. The oppression of those who come from other lands has only gotten worse than when I served in L.A.’s inner city where many of those who worshipped with us at Angelica church were undocumented immigrants.
The quest to support and encourage and simply love and help liberate those upon whom the world lays the burden of slavery in all its contemporary forms has been another marker of the ministry of our friend, Eric Shafer. I have seen it in a thousand small acts of kindness and compassion; the kind of “standing firm” of which St. Paul wrote in his encouragement to the Galatian Christians. Sometimes that kind of ministry can take its toll, and tempt us to walk away. “Stand firm.” “Stand firm, Pr. Shafer and good people of Mt. Olive,” encourages St. Paul and this preacher. We know you will.
And then we come to this Gospel that marks THE most critical moment in Jesus’ life on this earth. “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He set his face to go to Jerusalem. Do you get the image here?
I am a pilot, as a few of you know, so I often tend to think in analogies from the world of aviation. An aircraft races down the runway on takeoff, and there comes a moment of decision: either pull back the power and slam on the brakes to stop on the remaining runway or ease back on the yoke and you’re committed to fly. Now, for Jesus, there’s no stopping, no turning back. It’s like he sets his internal GPS on Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him there on Mt. Calvary; and nothing, nothing will stop him from fulfilling his mission.
And in his call to others, there’s a sense of urgency, of immediacy. We’re all tempted to hold back, are we not? Sometimes hesitant to fully embrace this calling of being 24/7 Christians? Jesus seems insensitive in telling a would-be follower that he can’t even take the time to go back and bury his father. And to another he denies the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to some guests in his home. But the point is that there is urgency. Eric and I know it; we don’t have 40 more years to go! But whatever your age, whatever your life circumstances this day, the invitation and the encouragement is to seize the day, capture the moment. Don’t wait until tomorrow to set your face in a God-ward direction.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I know that to many this image of a plowman may not carry the impact it does for me. You see, I’m a farm kid from rural Minnesota. Our whole family will be back there this coming week to bury the ashes of my parents, Bennie and Alice Cooper, who died the past two years. So long before I had a driver’s license, I drove a tractor pulling a plow. When you begin to plow a field, the first pass is called “striking out.” That doesn’t have the same meaning as in baseball. It simply means that you pick a point at the other end of the field—maybe a tree on the horizon, or some other marker; put the plow in the ground and then keep your eyes focused on that distant marker and plow away. If you start looking back, or somewhere other than the focus point, you’ll end up with a curved, meandering furrow; and the whole project will get off to a very bad start. And the neighbors will chuckle and suggest you had too much to drink before striking out in that field.
Well, I think we’re in a time when there’s a lot of looking back, is there not? This past week’s vote in Britain reflected a deep measure of nostalgia, longing for the days when mighty England ruled the world. It won’t be that way again! And in our own presidential campaign, appeals are made to take us back to some golden days that never were all that golden—especially for those who did not fit the mold of middle class white male Americans. There’s a good bit of looking back and longing to turn around and head in a rearward direction.
For forty years, time and time again, our brother Eric has kept his eyes focused on the future. In times when things didn’t go as he had hoped, he never wallowed in self-pity or complained that life was unfair. He moved on; from Pennsylvania to Chicago, back to Pennsylvania, on to New York and now as far west as one can go on this continent, literally “from sea to shining sea,” there’s been a constancy and consistency in his witness: Look to Jesus; keep your eyes on the prize; feed the hungry; care for the poor and those others would cast out; fight off those forces that would enslave yourself and others; exude a spirit of lavish hospitality sprinkled with a measure of impatience that mirrors the sense of urgency Jesus demanded.
May we all join together, moving forward with such courage and constancy. Put the hand to the plow. And never, never, never look back!
The Rev. Dr. Michael Cooper-White
President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary
Forty Years for Freedom
(celebrating Eric Shafer’s 40th ordination anniversary)
Sermon for Sixth Pentecost
Written by Rev. Dr. Michael Cooper-White.
June 26, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California