When I was a young boy, I loved going to my maternal grandparents’ home in Shawnee, Oklahoma. They lived in this little, shotgun style house in a neighborhood that seemed to move at a more relaxed pace. Their house had a small concrete front porch with a white, decorative iron railing holding up the extended roof over the front door. On that porch was a screen door with their initials in metal on the bottom that would slam loudly in the wind. And out in front of their house were flowering bushes. I still don’t know what kind of plants they were, but they would drop round, black seeds, that reminded me of shriveled up peas, onto the ground below. Those seeds were so fascinating to me and I remember wanting to collect as many as I could so I could plant them in my yard when I went back home to Tennessee. I wanted to plant something that reminded me of the love and care and connection I felt when I was with Grandad and Granny.
And so, I rummaged through my grandparents’ bathroom and found a container to put the seeds in. The only thing they had was on old Band-Aid tin. Maybe some of you out there remember Band-Aid tins. It was a container about the size of a normal Band-Aid box except it was made of metal and had this flip top where you could open and close the tin when getting a bandage out. I thought that a metal tin made the perfect container to carry all of the seeds I had collected from the ground underneath the bushes. I filled up the tin to the very top, closed the lid, and then put the tin in my bag to bring home to Tennessee. I never planted the seeds; I’m not sure they would’ve even grown. But the fact that my grandparents shared life and growth with me made me proud to carry on their legacy, the legacy of hospitality, adventure, and hope.
In the past two weeks, two towering figures in the life of our church and in our nation died – Pastor Emeritus of Royal Lane Ray Vickrey and Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg. They both planted the seeds of goodness and charity in the life of our country and our church so that a beautiful and vibrant future could grow. While neither of them will be able to witness the fullness of what their intentions and aspirations will someday blossom into, their work has already sprouted into actions for justice and equality.
As I have talked to Sharon, she has been able to remain steadfast in this time because she has strong and flourishing faith. This faith guides her to begin every day with intention. She has often recited to me the prayer that she speaks every single morning when waking up. In this prayer is the comfort of God’s presence and a healthy dose of praise and hope. And at the end of her morning recitation, she sings, as we know Sharon does so well, as a form of praise to God. The song she sings is Alleluia, which means, Praise God. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
For me and maybe for you, it feels tough to praise God right now. The world is heavy, we’ve lost loved ones, and the future feels grim. But both Ray and Ruth found ways to lean into their faith as a place of connection to God and with God’s people. Did you know that Ruth, who was Jewish, died on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year? I saw a flurry of media posts about the death of Justice Ginsburg and Jewish leaders made sure to point out that when a person dies on Rosh Hashana, they are Tzedek, a good and righteous person. One religious scholar wrote “When we speak of tzedakah, the word is often translated as ‘charity’ but it is more accurate to say righteousness. Tzedakah can take many forms, including monetary donation, but it’s important to note that tzedakah is not a benevolent contribution given to be kind or nice to those who need it, it is to be viewed as a balancing of the scales, an active working towards justice.”
Also, in my research, I found out that in the Jewish community when someone dies, mourners often say, “May their memory be a blessing.” The statement I’ve seen from a couple of different Twitter and Facebook users over the past several weeks has been “May her memory be a revolution.” We already know that she was a blessing, but the seeds she was dropping for all of us to pick up were seeds of revolution, changing the world for women, people of faith, and those who were oppressed.
And she fought for the oppressed because as a dedicated Jew who relied on the stories of powerful women in the Hebrew scriptures to give her strength and wisdom when fighting for the rights of women in America. She co-authored an article about the season of Passover and stated:
“On Passover, Jews are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus and to see ourselves as having lived through that story, so that we may better learn how to live our lives today. The stories we tell our children shape what they believe to be possible – which is why at Passover, we must tell the stories of the women who played a crucial role in the Exodus narrative. The Book of Exodus, much like the Book of Genesis, opens in pervasive darkness. Genesis describes the earth as ‘unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep.’ In Exodus, darkness attends the accession of a new Pharaoh who feared the Israelites and so enslaved them. God alone lights the way out of the darkness in Genesis. But in Exodus, God has many partners, first among them, five brave women.”
God has many partners. In the Exodus story God’s partners were Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Miriam. Partnership is a key part of the Biblical story. Partnership is the story of Ruth. Partnership is the story of Ray. They were both partners with God in bringing inclusive and reconciling love to our world. They both sought partners in life and in ministry who dedicated to the work of justice and steadfast faith.
And Ray knew all about having partners to work together towards accomplishing goals. Sharon was his partner in life and love and ministry. Ray knew about another kind of partnership, too. About running the race to the goal, a goal that would take a lot of effort, training, and teamwork. While attending Baylor University, Ray was the Southwest Conference Champion for two consecutive years in the long jump. And in 1956 was a member for the 440-relay team which equaled the world record in that event. Ray understood the hard work and collaboration that it took to reach for a goal.
As the pastor of Royal Lane, Ray was deeply connected to the interfaith community through Thanks-Giving Square here in Dallas. He was the Vice President for Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations for the Greater Dallas Community of Churches. He felt that we were bound as partners to one another as a human race and that our faith, whatever it may be, connected us to goodness, justice, and equality. Pastor Ray, like Justice Ginsburg, wanted a more inclusive and just world. That was the goal, and one that this track and field star would run every day in hopes to make it to the finish line.
But, as we know, we still have a long way to go in partnering with others. We live in a city and nation that is disconnected and discontent. The seeds of goodness and hope are all around us if we would but pick them up, plant them, and continue to cultivate the growth of those who have gone before us.
Friends, we are entering stewardship season here at Royal Lane. Stewardship will be very different this year. Our theme is “The Ties that Bind.” I’m sure you know the hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.” And I think this theme is appropriate for stewardship this year especially because we have been separated for so long that it feels as if the goal of being connected once again is too far off. But religion and faith, for Ruth and for Ray, are things that bind us together to do good in the world and to change the world.
Look at the word “religion.” In the middle of the word is “lig” which we see in words like ligament and ligation. Ligaments are connectors that hold muscles and bones together. Ligations are the combination of two strands of DNA. Religion is something that binds us to God and to one another. And that’s what we need right now. We need our faith to bind us together, not disintegrate us. We need people like RBG and Ray Vickrey to plant the seeds of connecting love and faithful justice in our world so that the work of the divine can flourish and grow.
I know we don’t feel very connected right now, and I know too that we would rather be in the church building holding hands in the Sanctuary, swaying and singing “Bless Be the Ties that Bind” rather than staring at yet another screen. But that time is not yet here. The goal is ahead and in sight, but we haven’t quite finished the race. And because we are unable to meet in person, we will also not have a Rally Day where we are able to celebrate what we accomplished in 2020 and what we hope will flourish and grow in 2021. I know it has been difficult to see the good work our ministers and committees continue to do this year as we’ve been quarantined and distanced from one another. But much work has indeed been done and seeds are falling all around us. Once the new year begins, it will be up to us to pick up the seeds and plant them in our own lives, in our neighborhoods, and in our city.
Would you make that commitment today? Would you determine what seed you would like to plant? Would you determine what you can pledge financially so we can carry on the legacies of inclusion and love that was modeled by Pastor Ray and many of the saints of this church? Would you take a moment and sign up to partner with our committees and leadership on their efforts to plant goodness in the world? You should have received an email with a form for you to fill out about where you want to invest your time and your talents in the furthering of Royal Lane as we strive to meet our goals. It is my hope and desire that you will find a seed of joy and excitement in one of the committees of our church and that you will bring your good energy and ideas to the group. We need you. Christ’s church needs you. God’s world needs you. This is the time to bind ourselves to the future of Royal Lane and to the reformation of this city.
I realize, at this point, that we are deeply exhausted and ready to be finished with the heaviness and the struggles of 2020. And it might feel impossible to fix our eyes on a goal, to find some relief from the divisiveness, anger, inhumanity, cruelty, loneliness, and depression we see around us and feel inside of us. I’m sure we are exhausted from this marathon year and just want to be finished, to put this horrible season in our own lives, and in the life of our country and our world, behind us.
Yet, I wonder if, like Ray and Ruth, we might find we can better reach the goal, reach the finish line, if we reach out and partner with the community of our own faith, of other faiths, and of no particular faith. What if we acknowledge the seeds of equality and justice that were dropped by Ruth and Ray and know deeply that it is our job to pick them up, maybe put them in a tin Band-Aid container, feeling that we are called to plant them, nurture them, and help create beauty for all of those around us.
And like Ruth and Ray, we might not see the flowering of the goals we’ve struggled to achieve. Remember that the Apostle Paul said in our scripture lesson for today, “Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached the goal, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”
We might not reach the goal, friends. We might have to have faith that someone else will partner with us, gather the seeds of hope and justice, and plant them in their own lives and in their own neighborhoods. And as we keep our eyes to the future, we can say goodbye to this dreadful year and reach out to the year ahead, the time when we will be stronger, wiser, and more energized. But, whatever the new year holds, without Ray and without Ruth, we are beckoned to remember that we are bound together as a church to pursue the upward call of God to love our neighbors, take care of ourselves, and reveal divine inclusion and justice in all that we do. For you see, both Ray and Ruth died near the Jewish new year and we can wholeheartedly say, “May their lives be a revolution.”
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God, I will praise God.